Friday, May 27, 2016

Time travel sitcoms & reading as a gateway drug: a 9mm interview with Michael Grothaus

This time last week I was enjoying all there was to offer in Bristol as I attended Crimefest: a superb four-day event that without a doubt has grown into one of the premier crime fiction gatherings in the world each year.

I've been lucky enough to attend the past two Crimefests (last year I'd only just arrived back in the UK from New Zealand, so was a little jet-lagged), and each has been a great experience. I'd highly recommend it to anyone who lives in the UK, and it would also be worth a longer trip for any crime writers and others passionate about the genre from further afield.

This year there were authors from North and South America, Africa, and Australasia, as well as the UK and Europe. Hopefully I can encourage a few New Zealand authors to head along in future years: there's definitely an appetite from attendees to learn about new-to-them crime writers from all over the world. It's a great event where writers, readers, and others in the book industry can all connect over our shared love of great crime writing, and have a good time.

One of the new-to-me authors I was very glad to meet this year is Michael Grothaus, an American who now lives in London and who has already received some big raps for his edgy crime debut EPIPHANY JONES. The book was name-dropped by some Crimefest panelists as a 'must read', and it certainly sounds unique and intriguing:
Jerry has a traumatic past that leaves him subject to psychotic hallucinations and depressive episodes. When he stands accused of stealing a priceless Van Gogh painting, he goes underground, where he develops an unwilling relationship with a woman who believes that the voices she hears are from God. Involuntarily entangled in the illicit world of sex-trafficking amongst the Hollywood elite, and on a mission to find redemption for a haunting series of events from the past, Jerry is thrust into a genuinely shocking and outrageously funny quest to uncover the truth and atone for historical sins.

While we were at Crimefest, I took the opportunity to have a sit-down interview with Michael Grothaus - he was such an interesting guy that what is often a five to ten-minute 9mm interview ended up going on for almost an hour. We kept going off track, having so much fun chatting about everything from sports movies and being foreign journalists in the UK to the beauty of travel, blending humour and darkness in crime writing in books and onscreen, and the Capela dos Ossos (a 16th century chapel of bones in the tiny mountain village of Evora in Portugal).

Today, I'm very pleased to be able to welcome Michael Grothaus here to Crime Watch as the 150th crime writer to stare down the barrel of 9mm. Enjoy!

Michael Grothaus (left) and myself at
Crimefest Bristol. CREDIT: Ali Karim

Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
It’s so generic, the most generic thing in the world, but I love Sherlock Holmes. We had this television channel growing up that only showed black and white movies, and I saw Hound of the Baskervilles. It was unlike anything I’d seen before... just so interesting and atmospheric. I read the books later and they are a bit different, but I loved the character. The movies got me into the books, and into reading [in general] – it was like a gateway drug.

What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
When I was 13 I read STEPPENWOLF by Hermann Hesse, a German writer – it’s about an older man who has lost faith in society and religion, he’s very disillusioned, and goes to a dingy bar and meets a woman. It’s all about seeing a more unusual view of the world, about magical realism, what’s real and what’s false. He later won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
My first degree is in film, so I wrote a sitcom called “Time Kid”, about a kid from the 22nd century who comes back to our time on a class field trip, and gets left behind. It was optioned by Disney but never made. I’m now a journalist and write about a lot of crazy stuff. EPIPHANY JONES is my first attempt at a novel.

Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
I love to travel. I travel by myself most of the time. I like going to countries where I have no hope of speaking the language. It’s nice when I go to Tokyo and can’t read all the adverts and billboards. It grounds you somewhat. I love Portugal – I lived in Porto for six months, and sometimes I spend a month at a time in Lisbon.

What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider?
My hometown is St Louis, so I don’t really know how much there is to do... oh, there’s a great neighbourhood in the city known as “The Hill” to locals, and during the 1930s-1940s when shit was going crazy in Europe a lot of Italians moved there. It’s like a Little Italy. You can go there and people still speak Italian, there’s amazing Italian food. It’s not a tourist area, but it’s an interesting place.

If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
Probably someone like Mark Ruffalo; he’s not too much of a tough guy, and he can act like a bit of a dick.

Of your writings, which is your favourite, and why?
Besides my novel, which I am very proud of, when I was at film school I wrote to a magazine called “Screen” who report on the Chicago movie industry. I wrote a piece on a Foley Artist (the people who make sound effects for movies), and I got a voice mail from the editor saying they’d read my article, that I could really write and they were going to publish it. It was definitely not my best story, but it was the first time anyone has acknowledged I was a good writer, and that made me feel really good. I remember interviewing the Foley Artist and my voice was shaking, I’d felt like an imposter, not a real journalist. So it was great to get that feedback – I wish I’d recorded that voice mail.

What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form on a bookseller’s shelf?
The first time I learned EPIPHANY JONES was going to be published was actually a bit of agony, because I heard it was going to be published, but I didn’t have a signed contract - so I didn’t want to talk about it or jinx it. I went to Japan with two friends who asked how the novel was going, and I couldn’t tell them. Later when the contract was signed it was more relief than excitement.

What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
Well I haven’t done many events yet, but the ebook came out two months ago and I had two ex-girlfriends contact me asking, “um, is the girl based on me?” And I was like “No, and you broke my heart, goodbye” (laughing). It’s funny how if you write something people will read into it and see different things.

Thank you Michael. We appreciate you taking the time to chat to Crime Watch. 

You can read more about Michael Grothaus and his writing at his website here. You can watch a short video about Michael's inspiration for his debut thriller, EPIPHANY JONES, here

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