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Interview with MJ Preston

MJ Preston

Four: The Highwayman Series


He is one of the most humble, engaging, and inspiring writers of our time. He’s an adventurer, having trucked the world’s longest ice road. He’s an artist. He has produced artwork for many novel covers, not just his own, and has a large scrapbook of beautiful photography. His writing doesn’t pull punches, he isn’t afraid to go for the throat, but he delivers well thought out stories that bring terror, exhilaration, happiness, and escape to his readership. He is also a veteran, a father, a grandfather. 

Q.1 Tell us a little about yourself not many people know?

A. Two things. I don’t have an MFA or an academic degree, but even more damning, I don’t know how to type. I am a high school educated writer. Although I wanted to go to university and pursue a degree, I could not afford it. My craft is self-taught, and I have always felt somewhat insecure about that. At this point in my life, I think I’ve done okay.

Regarding the typing, by the time I was old enough to attend a real typing class, the damage was already irreversible. Another writer watching my fingers dance across the keyboard with the grace of a cross-eyed swan might become nauseous and throw up. It isn’t a pretty sight.

Q.2 When should we expect your next book? What is it about?

A. I won’t commit to a deadline on the new book, because I would feel as though I were putting myself on a deadline. I’ve done that before, and it made writing somewhat stressful. Part of the act of storytelling is being first on the scene, making the experience a pleasurable process. That is until you attach a deadline.

I would expect as the time draws near; I’ll loosen my gag. As to the subject, it will be a new Highwayman Book, the third in the series. The only difference is this one is a brand-new case for some of the characters from the first two Highwayman books.

Q.3 What made you write The Highwayman Series?

A. When I started, I didn’t know that Highwayman was going to become a series. By the time I was halfway through FOUR, I had begun to think, “I like these characters. Some of them are extremely interesting.”  

The plan is to attach a new story to recurring characters on the hunt for serial killers. I don’t know how many books I will write, but at the moment, the subject is shiny and new to me, so I’ll keep writing until I run out of interesting stories on the subject.

Q.4 Were there any obstacles you faced while writing FOUR?

A. Time restraint. When I published Highwayman in July of last year, the publisher nudged me about FOUR when it would be ready to go. I suddenly found myself on a self-imposed deadline. I gave myself two months to finish writing a book that was a little over a third written, with no clue how to end it. When I responded to my publisher that I would work feverishly to have it finished, Steve Jackson, a partner at WildBlue, emailed me and said something to the effect of, “Don’t work feverishly, just write us another great book.”

Even with those kind words, I still set out on the two-month deadline, which I didn’t make. It took me three months to deliver it to the publisher’s inbox. I think FOUR worked out great in the end, but it was a stressful experience even though the deadline was mine.

Q.5 What’s the most challenging part about writing a thriller as opposed to any other genre?

A. Well, I have written fiction in three genres, Horror, Science Fiction, and now Crime Thriller. In the first two genres, you have a lot of latitudes. You can mold the world’s in both these genres in almost any way you like. The empty canvas in horror and Sci-Fi is wide open. You have so much available to you. Vampires, Giant bone-eating aliens, World domination. The possibilities are endless.

A crime thriller is constrained by an intelligent audience that will take you to task for not doing your homework. I spent years researching the subject of serial murder, crime scene investigation, consulting with true-crime writers, and reading, listening to and watching, everything on this dark, ugly topic.

The reality is that no matter how much you think you have it covered, you are apt to miss something, but I did my best with the resources I had to be true to my vision. I wanted to tell a story that didn’t incorporate tropes from an 80’s serial killer film. I mean, I loved those stories, Se7en, and Silence of the Lambs were excellent. In the case of the Highwayman Series, I wanted these novels to get into the psyche of a sociopathic monster. I also wanted them to reflect the cases which inspired them in some way. I didn’t want the antagonist to be sympathetic.

Q.6 Why should other writers want to write a thriller?

A. I’m not one to say whether a writer should take on a specific genre. I enjoy writing in this field, but I like writing in the mud and the blood. If you like writing about this stuff, then you should come on over. If not, stay where you are.

Q.7 What is the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?

A. Well, being male, writing about the opposite sex can be challenging. I think writing about the things a male hasn’t a clue. Physical issues, such as menstruation, sexuality, desire, or lack of, are an enigma to many males. Never mind childbirth. Yes, men are still trying to figure all that out, and likely won’t. All we got is getting kicked in the seeds, an agony no woman can fathom. Other than that, I don’t have a problem writing a character of the opposite sex or even orientation. I try to bridge those differences, but if I’m stumped, I ask my wife, Stormy.

Q.8 How do you develop your plots and characters? Do you use any set formula?

A. I do not plot in the conventional sense, nor do I outline. The only formula I have is chaos and momentum. I follow the story in that first draft, which is a race to the finish line. Once I get there, I go back over and over until it’s time to submit. Having a fantastic research assistant doesn’t hurt either. Hey Patti!

Q.9 How do you select the name of your characters?

A. As I explained above. Writing unfolds for me, characters' names come from a passing glance at my bookshelf, an acquaintance, or friend, and even a family member could find themself harvested and projected for the sake of this author's voyeurism.

Q.10 How many books have you written? Which one is your favorite?

A. I’ve published four novels, ranging in length from 400 to almost 800 pages. Writing novels is that by the time the book goes to press, you’re already cheating on a new project. In all honesty, when my books were published, I became like a disengaged spouse.

It takes an awful lot of work to write a book. Draft after draft until you are satisfied it’s ready for the publisher. If it’s accepted, then there are three more stages of edits, with editors who fine-tune your stories in ways you can’t begin to believe. It’s a long process with a lot of hard work. If the readers dig it, you’ve done your job. Now on to the next job.

Q.11 Outside of your family members, name one entity that supported your commitment to become a published author?

A. I have always been a writer. I know this in my bones. When I left the military in 1998, I befriended a historical writer named R. James Steel. He is probably one of the most knowledgeable writers out there when it comes to the first world war. We became friends and as a result, I ended up reading several of his books. Jim also was a regular reader of a veteran advocacy blog I administered and wrote for on issues of PTSD and other hardships endured by vets.

From that time to when he agreed to beta read my first and second books, he has been in my corner. Encouraging, advising, cheerleading. He is my mentor, my confidante, and a very dear friend.

Q.12 Do you believe in writer’s block? If yes, how do you deal with it?

A. I believe that if you’re not in the right mental state, writing can be challenging or even impossible. Writer's block for me is more of a looming depression, one which I must put in perspective and navigate.

Most writers I know openly acknowledge their insecurities. I have mine, but I try not to let those get in the way of the pleasure I derive from writing. Or when someone drops me a line and says, “He MJ, I really dug that.” How cool is that? That’s why I do this.

Q.13 What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing your books?

A. I used to hate editing. For me, there are two stages of writing a book.

Stage one: The actual writing of the first draft is a beautiful and exciting exercise. In that first draft, everything is shiny and new. For me, as a writer, the first draft tells the story to the writer.

Stage two: The editing begins. I used to hate editing, found it mentally exhausting, and, after completing a large project, was glad to be shut of it.

I don’t feel that way as much now. I thought I would always hate the mechanical part of writing, but now that I’ve abandoned all hope, the process gets more comfortable.

Q.14 Do you have any unique and quirky writing habits?

A. I like to start each novel with the nocturnal sacrifice of a virgin child. I am just kidding. I don’t have any weird or quirky habits. I get in front of the keyboard and wait for the messages to come from the other side.

Q.15 Imagine a future where you no longer write. What would you do?

A. I don’t know that I could imagine that, but in the unlikeliness, I would still pursue art. I am an avid amateur photographer, and I’d probably take up painting. And of course, I could always go fishing.

Q.16 What three things readers should expect from your books?

A. They can expect a well-crafted tale with characters you either love or hate. If you stick your nose into one of my books, you are getting a piece of me, the person, not the writer. There is a little bit of me in every book I write. It is my signature, the reader probably cares little about that, but that is how I write.

Q.17 What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

A. Here’s my best advice. Writing is a job that includes hundreds of hours crafting and polishing work that may or may not make you a couple of bucks. Get ready to put it out there, and don’t be surprised if your heart gets heart ripped out and stomped on. But, if you have skin as thick as pig leather, the intestinal fortitude of a Johnny Rambo, then you will fit right in.

Writing is not only a tough gig, and it’s a long shot. There are plenty of talented writers out there. Every one of them is fighting for the same piece of readership. Luck or being in the right place at the right time is a percentage of all that talent and determination.

Suppose you’re in it to score. Walk away now. If you think you’re going to clone Harry Potter, Twilight, or Fifty Shades of Gray, don’t walk. Run. There are enough people out here fighting to get original work published and read. Bring you’re A-Game, and be willing to pour your heart and soul into it. If you can do that, pull up a chair and sign here, in blood.

Q.18 Which famous person, living or dead, would you like to meet and why?

A. I’d like to meet Jim Morrison, but fear that he might be a dick. I’d have to say, Quentin Tarantino, just because his enthusiasm for the arts would be intoxicating and fun.


Q.19 What is your favorite book and why?

A. Let me open by saying that this isn’t a fair question. I have so many, but a random pick would probably Boys Life by Robert R. McCammon. He weaves the tale of a young boy and his imagination growing up in the south, where anything is possible. He and his friends can fly like birds, he battles river monsters and is subjected to the biggest monster of them all, racism in America. I love everything about McCammon’s books, but Boy’s Life is a piece of American literature that should be on every TBR pile for writers. It’s a beautiful story that will inspire and teach. Readers will love it even more.

Q.20 Share the experience of your journey so far?

A. My writer’s journey has been challenging, inspiring, heartbreaking, breathtaking, and for some crazy reason, I keep going forward. Seriously though, looking back, everything I’ve experienced plays into that journey, and the product is storytelling. So far, so good.

A few words for your readers and Books Charming -

I write books not to gain fame and fortune, but because something in my genetic makeup says that this is what I was put here to do. To the readers who have tagged along on some of my adventures, thank you. You are the wheels under my carriage, along for the ride, as I rocket toward the abyss.

To those readers pondering getting on board, I welcome you with open arms. All of you are the reason I get up at 4:00 am and write for a couple of hours before going to the day job that feeds my family. You are the reason why when I was a trucker, that instead of crawling into the bunk and falling asleep, my laptop ended up on the steering wheel, and I worked for 1000’s of hours to craft my tales.

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