Mike Leach, interviewed by Maggie
Give us your "elevator speech" about your current writing project.
Only a handful of Americans ever knew how close we came. Most of them are gone now, leaving no trace of their identities.
Those who paid the ultimate price did so quietly, knowing that their story would never be revealed. Or so they thought. Lords
of Circumstance is an action-adventure novel, set in the tumultuous close of the Vietnam era. It focuses on the lives
of two young friends whose life circumstances lead them down very different paths. As adults, they are reunited to become
a deterrent force in the fledgling world of genetically-altered biowarfare.
What brought you to Watauga County?
I completed my undergraduate degree at Guilford College in 1973 and my masters at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
in 1975. I spent time in the Blue Ridge Mountains on weekends and holidays and absolutely loved it. In 1994, my wife and I
bought a modest second home in Foscoe, NC, in the small development of Sleepy Hollow. My wife’s grandmother, Hazel Holden, was born about 200 yards
from that house, though, strangely, we were completely unaware of that fact until after we’d made the purchase. Hazel attended Foscoe Grammar School,
which has long-since faded into history.
What is your approach to writing: that is, do you outline or not? Do you keep files and piles of notes?
My technical career with AT&T as a Senior Systems Manager demanded an incredible amount of advanced planning, documentation,
and discipline. For more than a quarter century, I was "trapped" in the cold logic of large, advanced computer systems. But, it paid well and created a strong future for my family.
I made a promise to myself back then that, when I retired, I would rely solely on instinct and spontaneous emotion to direct
my writings, releasing myself from the confines of formal preparation and planning. So, I "write as it comes" and hope that will be sufficient. I’m not quite to the point of James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness style writing – a sense of order and clarity still attracts
me – but, who knows?
Maybe I’ll get there eventually.
What are some of the tricks, pitfalls, etc. that you need to keep in mind when writing a novel/story?
A major pitfall for me has been wasting time worrying about what others will think of it. It makes more sense to just write
it, and then seek the opinions of others.
What is it that kick starts a project for you: a character, a situation, or…?
I like to start from actual experience, and then weave that knowledge into a fictional account. For example, the first
chapter of Lords of Circumstance is based on fact, but everything that follows is pure fiction. Trusting your imagination
to develop a story from such humble beginnings is not easy. You have to give up all self-doubt and just go for it! One of
the first things I learned from my High Country Writer colleagues is that writing something of length is really hard work.
They were right.
What started you in writing? (Was it always a dream of yours?)
In 1965, Miss Barbara L. Clark walked out of the University of Florida and into my life. Graduating "Magna Cum Laude" from a major university, she arrived at our small-town high school
as a beginning teacher of advanced freshman English. She was heavy-set, with an angelic face that always resolved into an
all-knowing Buddha smile whenever nothing remained to be said. I was thirteen and struggling -- she was twenty-three and brilliant.
Seeing that I wandered in class, Miss Clark entered and examined my world, then developed a lesson plan for my life that radically
departed from anything that I’d heard of then,
or since. For the next two years, she placed me in a cloakroom adjacent to the regular classroom. She required that I produce
at least one piece of creative writing per day, in addition to picking up the mechanics of the subject matter being drilled
into the students seated on the other side of the cloakroom door. This was not imprisonment. I was not a discipline problem, nor was I being punished
for lack of focus. Instead, I was rerouted, redirected, and turned inward for the purpose of introspection, as opposed to
drilling grammar and usage in the regular classroom with my peers. The upper half of the cloakroom door included paned sections
of glass, so I could turn and look at the other students any time I wanted. And the room was not a closet – it was a
cloakroom… a place where coats were hung and supplies were kept, about fifteen foot long and eight foot wide. It was
a quiet shelter from the world, where I generated writings daily, placing them on her desk at the end of the period.
Days became weeks, weeks became months, and writings became anthologies. On her own time, in the days before word processors
or personal computers, Miss Clark hand-typed literally everything I wrote. She purchased expensive, leather-bound binders,
and had the titles that I had selected gold-embossed on their covers. She placed each page in its own clear vinyl sleeve,
as if they were important, and eventually presented them to me as a gift. It was the first time in my life that I felt special.
A year or so into this period, I received an official-looking letter in the mail. It arrived in a business envelope, with
my name and address typed on it by someone who knew what he or she was doing. At that age, I rarely received anything
in the mail, so this letter stood out. I studied its exterior, transfixed by its air of formality, wondering how my name came
to be upon it. After several minutes, I opened it. Inside was a professionally-typed letter and three checks; two for twenty-five
dollars and one for fifty. To understand what that meant in the mid-1960s, you’d have to add another zero to each number, and imagine receiving it, with no
prior warning, when you were only fourteen, and your entire wardrobe consisted of hand-me-down clothing from distant cousins.
Apparently, unbeknownst to me, Miss Clark had submitted three of what she considered to be my best writings to a nationally-recognized
magazine. Incredibly, all three were published, and payment ensued.
I was such a butthead then –
remember acting indignant toward her the next day because she had failed to ask my permission before doing this. She returned
only that all-knowing Buddha smile that I mentioned earlier. I cashed the checks that afternoon and bought her a rose.
What keeps you writing? What inspires you?
The possibility of being completely surprised by what comes out of your own head.
What movie hero is most like the person you wish you were?
James Bond. (Oh, come on! Don’t we all wish we could be so completely capable of doing the impossible?)
The biggest enemy of creativity is ...
… believing that there are limits to your abilities.
Who and/or what are your major influences?
Literary figures = Shakespeare, Hemingway, Faulkner and Albert Camus.
Modern writers = Ken Follet, Clive Cussler and Charles Frazier.
My best ideas come to me at unexpected moments, like when I’m ...
… not quite awake, in the half-light of morning, just ahead of consciousness.
on your desk?
Besides dust? Books, a laptop computer, and family pictures.
What three accomplishments are you most proud of?
Gail, Wendy and Paige –
lovely wife and two beautiful daughters. Don’t make the mistake of asking me about them – you’ll miss lunch!
No one is better than I am when it comes to ...