Welcome to Dames of Dialogue, Jeffrey. Tell us one strange and provocative tidbit from your life that nobody has heard before.
They say that everyone in the world has a double, an exact lookalike. I was surprised to find a few years ago that mine is a celebrity. I’m mistaken internationally for Steve Wozniak, the computer guy who cofounded Apple and then performed on “Dancing With the Stars.” When I try to explain politely that I’m not “the Woz,” as he’s nicknamed, people don’t believe me or look disappointed to learn the truth that I can’t dance or build computers. If my novel “The Shakespeare Conspiracy” succeeds, though, I’m hoping somebody somewhere asks the Woz, “Aren’t you the guy who writes those Shakespeare thrillers?”
Tell us about your latest book.
I’m very excited about my first novel. It’s a thriller based on the Bard’s racial background. The main character, Professor Christopher Klewe, teaches Shakespeare at William and Mary in Virginia. When his best friend is murdered by a secret society in Washington, he has only three days to outrun killers on two continents and reveal the biggest conspiracy in literary history. Much in the style of Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code,” my novel uses fast pacing and cliffhangers to move the story along and to allow readers a whole new way to see Shakespeare.
Can you share a little bit about what you’re working on now or what’s coming next?
My next novel in the Christopher Klewe series is a prequel to the first one and will be titled “The Shakespeare Trap.” It shows how Klewe became caught up in solving Shakespeare mysteries as he tracks a serial killer who leaves clues from the Bard’s tragedies. This second novel takes place in Williamsburg, Virginia, and it should be ready later this year.
When you’re writing, who’s in control, you or the characters?
I hate to say it, but I think novelists tend to be control freaks. We invent the world and the characters, often forcing them to do what we want. That being said, there are moments that the characters rebel against all my good intentions. In “The Shakespeare Conspiracy,” for example, one character was originally meant to die, but she was too important to let go, so she was granted a reprieve in my final rewrite. Now here’s the strange part: when the characters do take control, the writing becomes an almost out-of-body experience for me, and that’s my favorite part of being a novelist. In other words, sometimes I’m driving the bus, and sometimes I’m just along for the ride.
Who are your favorite authors, the ones you read when you should be doing something else? Why do they appeal to you?
My favorite writer is Shakespeare, of course, but I find that my preferred modern writers are mostly women, particularly in the mystery genre. I think that women tend to be more detailoriented and make scenes come to live more vividly. Among mystery writers, I read everyone from Agatha Christie (the best at plotting) to Martha Grimes (the best at characterization). Try any Grimes novel about Detective Richard Jury, but I especially recommend her Shakespeare story, “The Dirty Duck.”
Mark Twain said, “Southerners speak music…” Do you have a favorite southern saying you can share with our readers?
I tend to travel around the South a lot, and I’m always hearing lines that I want to save. My latest nonfiction book is “Ebony Swan,” which makes me think of the favorite Southern euphemism, “I swan” (meaning “I swear”). I’ve also heard “I could use a skinny nap,” as well as the greeting when two women met on the street: “If I’d known you’d be here,” announced the one with a grin, “I’d have brought my gun.” I also love Southern signs. There’s a bar in Daytona Beach, for instance, across from the town cemetery. The sign says, “Order a drink and have a seat. You’re better off here than across the street.”
Where do you find inspiration for your writing?
I started thinking about a mystery/thriller series while reading and teaching Shakespeare. My inspirations come from everywhere, though, and I have to keep paper and pen nearby at all times. In fact, even my dreams can contribute. One night I was dreaming about being chased through a library, and I soon started writing “The Shakespeare Conspiracy.” Of course, one drawback is that I can’t control when an idea strikes. I may be in conversation with you when my eyes glaze over with thoughts for a fictional murder, but I promise it’s not personal.
If you could talk for thirty minutes with any author (or person), living or dead, who would it be?
I don’t know what I’d ask Shakespeare, so I suppose I’d talk with my favorite modern writer, the novelist Shirley Jackson. She’s the only writer I know who can frighten me with one story and have me laughing uproariously at another. I wrote a graduate thesis about her work and was allowed to use her personal papers at the Library of Congress. It was a thrill to see her unpublished letters and find a four-leaf clover pressed in her childhood diary. She died in 1965, so I’ll never get to ask her about the secrets to her multifaceted writing, but she was my biggest inspiration to become a writer.
Were books an important part of your household when you were growing up?
Yes, books were always important in my house. My mother worked outside the house as a library aide, so she was always telling me about books she enjoyed. My father worked for NASA as a meteorologist, and I remember that he would sit down in the evenings to smoke a pipe and read a dictionary he kept beside the chair. I have one brother, Dan, who is older and the most prodigious reader I’ve ever met, so I had to learn to read early just to keep up with him.
Any teachers who influenced you…encouraged you or discouraged?
I had a drama teacher named Marguerite Coley when I was in high school. She was exceptionally good at encouraging students not to worry about limitations.
I even tried acting for a while as a result of her courses, but soon I turned to writing as my creative release. Years later, when I started teaching, I remembered many of her acting lessons to use in teaching Shakespeare classes across the country.
Any good suggestions for overcoming writer’s block?
The best secret I can share is not to force it. Turn your attention to other things. Daydream a little. Brush up your Shakespeare. Often I have an inspiration about another way to approach a scene. It helps also to keep more than one project going at a time. That way, when I’m blocked on one, I can usually make progress on something else. Finally, I’d heard that Ernest Hemingway would stop working midsentence at the end of his day, so he’d know where to pick up the next day. (To be fair, though, I’ve tried this system and found I had no idea where I was going with that sentence.)
Any books on writing you have found most helpful? Or classes you’ve taken?
The mystery writer Martha Grimes once taught at a Maryland community college I attended, but I regret never taking her class. Instead, I’ve read the writing lectures by Shirley Jackson and I recommend them as well as the Strunk and White classic “Elements of English.” I also wrote a book on writing called “Power Language,” in which I advised writers to inject humor whenever it’s appropriate.
The truth, though, is that writing is an organic process that uses everything you’ve ever seen or done. You must take those experiences and craft them into a finished product. That’s why I’m excited about my first novel, “The Shakespeare Conspiracy,” and I’ve found I’m enjoying myself writing fiction more and more. I’m already plotting the third novel in the series and thinking of other projects, including a stage play of my nonfiction book “Ebony Swan: The Case for Shakespeare’s Race”.