Today I am delighted to share an interview with Michael Stephenson. Michael is the self-publishing author of the upcoming adult psychological suspense thriller The Ones That Stare, a breathless, edge-of-your-seat mystery ride. His latest novel is a well-crafted ode to the genre, fit for any fan who loves a good whodunit, as well as enjoys exploring humanity’s damaged side.
Get in touch with Michael Stephenson!
Email: (primary) firstname.lastname@example.org; (secondary) email@example.com
Author Instagram: @filmtvbooksbball
Goodreads: The Ones That Stare
Facebook Page: The Ones That Stare by M S
Can you give a brief description of ‘The Ones That Stare’?
Darien and Sayen, a young interracial couple from Ohio, have lived a seemingly perfect life for years. Quaint house, small neighborhood, nice neighbors that became friends—all the necessities to continue their fairy-tale-like romance. Until one fateful event. Now, Darien's Sayen is GONE, and he's going crazy trying to piece together what happened. But he does know one thing: one of his “friendly” neighbors knows what happened to her. But why haven't they come forward with what they saw? Why have they left him to suffer? What hero awaits the villain's attack?
It's a psychological mystery thriller with all that voyeuristic-y goodness we loved in The Girl on the Train, The Woman in the Window and in A Dark, Dark Wood, yet engrossingly different. As you try piecing together the identity of a handful of characters, you ask not just whodunit, but who knows who done it? It's like a dark mystery version of the party game “Who am I?” but maybe with a hint of murder.
Why did you decide to write this story?
Good question. I don't tend to write in the mystery genre often, but I occasionally feel compelled to explore it. About six years ago, I realized I had reached a point in my career where I was going nowhere. So, in order to make sense of my writing journey, I devised what I tentatively titled my Legacy series. Frankly, I think all writers who seek to become professionals should do it. I simply posed the question to myself: If I were to die or just stop writing soon, what would I want future readers who happened upon my work get from it. In other words, what would be the must-reads of my catalog? I came up with a total of about 10 stories, five of which were mystery thrillers. These would be my reach at the best I could offer the genre. So, in thinking about the genre, I sought to try to challenge myself on every level and create stories that could be just as relevant years from now as they are today. All of that to say that I simply found inspiration and wanted to write the story. Interestingly enough, I can only confirm that The Man On The Roof is number five and The Maiden's Cocoon will be number three. But is The Ones That Stare number four? That is the mystery.
Can you describe your writing process?
It varies between works. For some of my work, I have outlines of scenes and pages of dialogue already written before I ever sit down to write in earnest. Others, I just go with the flow of inspiration. For The Ones That Stare in particular, I had a list of themes that I wanted to mold the story around, followed by a brief list of genre tropes that I hoped to turn on their head. From there, I went with pure inspiration of what I would want to read from the mystery genre. I wrote piece by piece, scene by scene, often writing things completely out of the intended sequence. I've found that even if I do have a strong outline for a story, if I have one incredibly strong image or visualization of a scene or chapter in my head, then I can start with that and it will/should set the tone for the rest of the book, even if it's smack in the middle of the story.
What is the hardest part about writing? What do you enjoy the most?
I've answered this question a ton of times, but never have to explore my mind for the answer. The hardest part of writing is always the grammar or mechanics of language. I know it's generally expected that writers say something less raw, more focused on story, like “I struggled with character X not wanting to do what I needed him to” or “I couldn't figure out an ending that worked.” There are so many story ideas that I come up with per year that I just don't have time to start actively working on something, then sit and hit a block on what to do next. If I can't at least have some hint of what I want the end of a story to be, then I have other stuff calling to me. And that, on its own, forms characters who tell me their foibles and what they will and won't do. But the mechanics of language I was never good at. I was far more of a visual learner which never quite jived with figuring out the structure of a sentence. So when I get to my editing process, I dread having to cut things down so that the story isn't overly long and reads fast and WELL. Because that's when I tend to break structure and ask, “What's the most I can cut out but still have readers understand what I'm saying, and still maintain a certain level of artistic integrity?” It is a terror.
On the other side, I highly enjoy building the story. That comes in different forms. Sometimes, I have just a collection of scenes. I then have to write an outline after having finished the preliminary writing process. I literally have to carve out the story. Other times, that means building tension in a scene—grip the knife!--or across a series of scenes. In my opinion, building tension within a scene, then finding a way to release it within the same time frame is creating a mini-story within the overarching story. And sometimes, when it comes to mysteries specifically, my favorite part is challenging myself to write something that is, by definition, difficult to review either out of fear of spoiling it or simply because it has a lot of moving parts. I think that I've accomplished that with The Ones That Stare. I've carefully crafted it so that it draws you in with an early WTF moment that could be considered a spoiler and highly impact the enjoyment of the rest of the book.
Are you working on anything new at the moment?
The real question is: When am I not working on something new? For this year alone, I still am trying to get out “blEND” (horror; note: that is the way it is spelled) and “blind” (horror in the same vein as the film Get Out) another season of The Writer, another season of Extraordinary, and the updated version of my novel tentatively titled Reinc (the story behind that is a soap opera as I believe my story was stolen by another indie author a long time ago and has now been made into a movie starring a big-time Hollywood actor, and I am livid. I have had stories stolen from me in the past). But on a mystery/thriller front, I am trying to clean up/edit the previously mentioned The Maiden's Cocoon for a 2021 release, Second Act for a 2022 release, and Lips Like Strawberries (a romantic suspense thriller with a hint of superpowers) for February 2021 release.
Do you have any odd writing habits?
Wow! I've never been asked this question and I honestly don't think I do. I guess maybe I will talk out some of my dialogue to myself when I'm writing it. But I feel like all writers do that to make sure things sound natural to the characters. I'll laugh when I think I wrote something funny or compliment myself when I think I've written something clever but again, what writer doesn't do that? As far as the actual process, no I don't think I have any odd habit that would make another writer's eyes pop-out in shock, let alone have a regular person say is strange. I once knew a guy who could only ever start writing a story if he sat in the driver's seat of the first car he ever bought with his own money (not the money he made from writing, just in general). The car was over 15 years old, no longer worked and sat on four flat tires at the back of his driveway, but he said he had to sit in it for no less than an hour every time he started a new story. Something about rubbing on the dashboard and smelling the dust... Now that's odd to me. But me just sitting or laying down with my laptop and a bottle of water next to me? Hardly riveting. Unlike what I imagine E.L. James does. I always thought she had a whip somewhere next to her as she wrote.
What do you like to do when you are not writing?
Outside of fantasizing about what other authors might be doing as they write, I love gardening. I try growing my own vegetables every year. My Instagram, sadly, has more pics of my garden than of anything actually in reference to my handle (I'm still trying to get the hang of social media and online life as I never grew up sharing pics and stuff). But I definitely do love film, watching TV (those two things are what cultivated my love of story first), reading (although, I actually read more articles as research than I do novels), and watching the NBA. I also enjoy long-distance walking. I routinely walk 10-14 miles a day in the warmer months. But no matter what other habits I adopt in the future, or if I continue to write or not, nothing will ever be as satisfying to me as getting lost in a great story!