Q&A with Author Mike Beil
Today RAoR welcomes Mike Beil, author of The Red Blazer Girls books and the about-to-be-published Summer at Forsaken Lake, our Rep Pick for Summer 2012 and a perfect summer vacation read. Mike answers our questions about writing, reading, teaching, his pets, British TV, what books inspire him and he even gives us a sneak peek at what his next book will be about.
What book made the strongest impression on you as a child?
There were a few books that I returned to again and again, but two stand out: Norton Juster’s brilliant The Phantom Tollbooth (I still have the worn paperback that I bought in the fifth grade), and We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, by Arthur Ransome, part of the Swallows & Amazons series. The heroes of both books are ordinary kids who do something quite extraordinary – I suppose that idea really appealed to me.
And I can’t just leave out Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which I read at least a dozen times before I turned fifteen. I blame Atticus Finch for my ill-conceived decision to go to law school.
What is one thing about you that would surprise your readers?
When I asked my wife this question, she didn’t hesitate. “No one has any idea of how competitive you are.” According to her, I have all the drive and competitiveness of a classic Type-A person, but somehow manage to hide it beneath a veneer of a calm, easy-going, mild-mannered English teacher-y type. I’m not sure about all that, but I will admit to being incredibly stubborn.
As an author, how do you feel about the role social media plays in your writing life?
I have to admit that I struggle a bit with social media. I use Facebook for announcements about my books and to post pictures from events, but I’m really not comfortable posting stuff like awards or great reviews – it sounds like bragging to me, and that just goes against the way I was raised.
Both Summer at Forsaken Lake and The Red Blazer Girls are mysteries – do you have favorite mystery writers whose work you enjoy reading?
Boy, do I. Where to begin? I started with Encyclopedia Brown, then moved on to Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle as a teen, and haven’t stopped reading mysteries since. A couple of my favorites are P.D. James, who is now over ninety and still writing great books, and Henning Mankell, the Swedish writer of the Wallander books, but there are so many great mystery writers out there right now that it’s hard to choose. I would definitely recommend Alan Bradley’s terrific Flavia de Luce books, starting with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, to teens as well as adults.
When you were a kid, did you have an Uncle Nick or any other great relatives to spend the summer with?
The Uncle Nick character in Summer at Forsaken Lake is based on James Yargo, my uncle. He lost an arm working in a factory when he was a teenager, but went on to play semi-professional football in the 1920’s. When I was growing up, he was in his 60’s and 70’s, but he still played football and baseball with my brothers and me, along with teaching us to fish. Plus, he was one of the kindest, gentlest people I’ve ever known. All in all, a truly inspiring human being.
Do you play baseball or sail?
Large chunks of my childhood were spent at both activities. I played Little League in Andover, Ohio, pitching and playing second base, and there were epic, day-long softball games in the neighborhood every summer weekend. My sailing career began when I was three – my parents bought a sixteen-foot sailboat (a Wayfarer) and we all learned to sail together. In college, I started sailing and racing bigger boats on Lake Erie, and for the next fifteen years or so, spent almost every weekend from April to November on the water. At the moment, I’m having the old family Wayfarer rebuilt, and hope to have her in the water this summer.
What has your favorite event experience been so far?
A few months ago, I got a wonderful letter from a sixth-grader in New Jersey. I sent her a letter in return, but also contacted her teacher to set up a visit at her school. Her teacher and her parents managed to keep the whole thing secret, and it was a complete surprise when she walked into the auditorium. A great moment.
What was your favorite genre to read when you were a kid? And what’s your favorite genre to read now?
I was, and still am, a bit obsessive-compulsive about reading – which has more to do with how I read than simply how much I read. As a kid, I went through a biography phase in which I read everything I could find at the public library: Lincoln, Washington, Franklin, John Paul Jones, Madison, Jefferson – all the big names. Then there were books about sailing. Then mysteries. I read all the Sherlock Holmes stories. All the Hercule Poirot stories. And so on. Today, ninety-nine percent of what I read is fiction, but my bookshelves have a little bit (a lot, actually) of everything. At the moment, I’m halfway through C.S. Forester’s twelve-book Horatio Hornblower series, which is tremendous fun. And yes, I will read all twelve books. In order.
Current favorite authors, non-mystery division: Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, John Irving, Michael Chabon, Suzanne Collins, and David Levithan.
What are you working on for your next book – more Red Blazer Girls, or another stand alone novel or maybe something completely different?
I’m going in a bit of a new direction for my next book. It’s still middle grade, and there is definitely a mystery at its core, but the hero is a cat named Lantern Sam, who lives aboard a railroad caboose with the train’s conductor. The story is set during the Depression and the mystery involves a pair of competing amusement parks and the famous Blue Streak rollercoaster.
What is one piece of advice you would like to give aspiring authors?
Number one, I think you have to be yourself; you have to figure out who you are as a writer. I spent too much time trying to imitate other writers before I discovered my own voice. Not that imitating is a bad thing, but at some point you have to take a chance on being you.
Do you ever experience writer’s block?
Not really, at least in the sense of sitting at my desk and blanking out completely. Once I have my basic outline in place, I know where things are going (in general, anyway). Sure, there are times where I get stuck for a while, but my way of working through it is to think ahead to where I want/need the characters to be in, say, five or ten pages, and then figure out how to get them there. Since I’m always editing myself as I go along, sometimes I will just plow on ahead even when I know that the next morning I’ll probably delete most of it.
You write books with strong boy and girl characters – is one more difficult than the other?
Oddly enough, I probably struggle more with boy characters, because my own experiences as a boy are so far removed from the world most boys inhabit today; I grew up in a video game-free environment. Plus, I teach at a girls’ school, so I am surrounded by their behaviors and conversations as well as being constantly bombarded by up-to-the-minute cultural references.
Which character speaks the loudest to you? Do any of them clamor to be heard over the others?
When I start a new Red Blazer Girls book, I know where the plot is going, but I don’t know how Sophie’s going to react until she shouts it in my ear. Joining the swim team, the crazy scooter ride across the park, starting The Blazers – those were all her idea. She’s a very strong-willed young lady. Leigh Ann struggles at times to be heard. She’s smart and beautiful and talented, but as the newest member of the Red Blazer Girls, she doesn’t have the confidence the others have . . . but she’s getting there!
What was your favorite chapter (or part) of your books to write, and why?
I loved writing all of the Seaweed Strangler parts of Summer at Forsaken Lake. In fact, the idea for the book came from the 8-millimeter movie (also called The Seaweed Strangler) that I made with my brother when I was thirteen. Writing about it was like going back in time.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
Oh, boy. I still teach 9th grade English and run the theater program at a school in Manhattan, which keeps me pretty busy. I’ve been taking cello lessons for a few years, but I’m still very much an “intermediate” cellist. I’m not musically gifted, so it is a real challenge! My wife (currently a student at the French Culinary Institute) and I love to cook and entertain. We have two cats (Cyril and Emma) and two dogs (Isabel and Maggie). And I’m also addicted to British television shows: Downton Abbey, MI-5, Inspector Lewis, Sherlock – I love them all. Netflix streaming is a very dangerous thing, especially with a deadline looming.
Is there anything that you would like to say to your readers and fans?
One word: Thanks! This has been a longtime dream come true for me, and I still have to pinch myself occasionally so I know I’m not just dreaming. I met a girl at the Authors Unlimited event in Suffolk County a few weeks ago who knew exactly how many days remained until the fourth Red Blazer Girls book, The Secret Cellar, would be published. It’s hard for me to put into words what that means to me.
Many Thanks to Mike Beil for joining us today at RAoR, you’ve given us a lot of ideas for our own summer reading and we’re all looking forward to Summer at Forsaken Lake and the next Red Blazer Girls.
Don’t forget to check out an earlier review of Summer at Forsaken Lake from Teresa here. And please share your thoughts with us in our comments section.