I’ve been publishing books for a long time, into the grisly old age of my late seventies, My last four novels, crossing the threshold of challenging storytelling, I could never have imagined while writing books in my thirties or forties.
I care for, sometimes love, book jackets. I am drawn to their imaginative art work—a dynamic mirror of some kind of collective storytelling consciousness. But what about all those large-font sentences flying over the front and back covers, insisting that I might really like this book? Over the decades, I honestly lose track of what is written, and which famous people wrote them. They often seem interchangeable, and sometimes a string of cliches. Even the most accurate accolades merge into sensory overload.
I’ve gone blurbless for my new novel, Ghost With Two Hearts. It’s about a troubled, young American coder seeking out ancient Japanese spirits for guidance, with too much at stake even for him to understand at first.
How do I convey all this on a book jacket? I’m not sure, but I’m willing to experiment. For Ghost, I chose two images, created by two different artists, one for the front cover and one for the back cover. I added a 100 word excerpt from the novel at the bottom of the back cover which tells a reader a lot more, I hope, than would the most well-intended blurbs, especially if they carry on into a book’s interior.
Save your reading time for the story you just spent your money on, I would like to tell people. Whether you like the story or not, you can always write a review.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, when I began working on this novel, I read that a private zoo in Brussels had closed to the public indefinitely. It quickly became a ghost town of animals and zoo keepers. The orangutans, accustomed to throngs of admiring humans, lapsed into depression. As an experiment, concerned staff made an opening in the fence of the adjoining enclosure, inspiring a dozen river otters to swim into the primates’ living area. After threatening the small intruders with sticks and aggressive charges, the orangutans settled down and became happy show-offs again. The otters were a fascinated audience that returned every day.
This unusual pairing of species inspired lots of YouTube videos. I was riveted by them. I couldn’t have written Ghost With Two Hearts without the orangutans and otters empowering my imagination.
On the rare occasion someone asks me how I get my ideas for a novel, I politely say, “It’s hard to explain. Everyone’s different. It’s complicated.”
When I was a teenager I wrote about my emotions.
In college I pretended I was William Faulkner.
Drafted In the army in the Vietnam era, I read books like Catch-22 and The Naked and the Dead. I didn’t write anything of my own, but I met people I never imagined existed. I never forgot them. Eventually them became characters in my stories.
In my late twenties, returning with my wife and children from a Club Med trip, I published my first novel. It was called Club Caribe.
In my thirties, living in Manhattan, shopping at Bloomingdales a lot, I renamed the store Abingdon’s and it became my second novel and a best seller. It was pure genre.
In my forties, working an intense day-job, I had years of writer’s block but managed to publish some page-turners, echoing my interests in sports, politics, horse racing, and my time in the army. I also wrote five or six novels that never found a publisher.
In my fifties, more young adult fiction, adaptations, biographies, and self-help books got published. My writer’s voice, unfortunately, was inconsistent.
In my sixties, leaving my day-job, I stumbled on a new voice. It was complicated, messy, and sometimes unbearable. My story telling became more confident, and dug deeper into character and theme. My writing style focused on brevity to make complex shifts in plot and character, which were increasingly three-dimensional. I no longer wrote genre fiction because my life—everyone's life—is not formulaic.
Today, I don’t care so much about sales. I do like when intelligent readers comment on my work. Being compared to other writers is, well, ridiculous. I respect everyone’s journey, because each one is its own novel.
My wife and I recently returned from a pandemic-delayed trip to Komodo Island National Marine Park, and other distant Indonesian islands. Besides pristine serenity, we longed to find places that were untouched by plastic debris. A couple of beaches gave us that joy; their unscarred beauty was magic. Yet many beaches were impacted by empty bags of chips, water bottles, styrofoam, baby diapers, tangled fishing lines… These islands were often uninhabited and rarely visited: no villages, no park rangers, no big cruise ships.
We had come here on a relatively small ship with 12 other Western snorkelers and divers. Our guide told us the trash had been washed ashore from who knows where. It didn’t matter to us where things came from—that made the environment a political issue. We just wanted to make our own gesture of doing the right thing. And to put us in a new mindset wherever we traveled next. On one beach, in only twenty minutes, we combed the soft coral sands and picked up as much trash as we could, depositing it in our boat’s trash bin. There was plenty we had to leave behind.
We had made a small dent that we guessed would soon be carpeted over with more plastic. Though we were in plain sight, no one in our group joined us. One couple did say, “thank you.” I grew up in a time when teenagers left a Dairy Queen and giddily tossed their wrappers out of the car, onto the street. It took years before a new consciousness emerged.
We began to speculate. What if more travelers took it upon themselves to do a quick clean up of a portion of a beach, or for that matter a street, or a vacant lot that had become a random dumping ground? Specific to travel, what if more hotels, travel agencies, and advocacy groups, beyond calling themselves “environmentalists” or “eco-friendly,” encouraged clients to spend twenty minutes to make their own dent in the war on plastics? It could become the next cool thing. Small gestures can have a cumulative effec
I didn't wig out when I learned there was someone else living in my rental house. She was Japanese and let me know she had lived here before. We were both shy about exchanging our stories."
"My first week in Kyoto, walking into a Shinto shrine, I realized my cellphone was missing from my back pocket. I found it half an hour later, sitting on an empty table in a busy cafe."
"My mind traveled to Emiko's riddle, just after we were throwing stones into the canal. What could be worse, she asked me, than a terrible cold that could never be cured. When I finally figured it out, Emiko was nowhere to be found."
Sound bites in today’s world are as inevitable as they are the nemesis of clear thinking. Politics thrives on sound bites. Why use a hundred words to explain something when you can have more impact with two or three? Slogans and phrases are intended to arouse emotions, which they do, but in social media they can harden into opinions and battle cries, or conspiracy theories, which somehow replace research and critical thinking. "Who has time for debate and research when you already know what’s true.” a friend commented facetioudly to me. But at the same time, he was deadly earnest.
President Franklin Roosevelt was an early expert on arousing urgency without scaring everyone to death. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” made us think we were practically guaranteed to win the war that was about to envelop the world. No one wanted to dwell on the tfate of Pearl Harbor and the loss of half of our Navy. Roosevelt showed leadership by inspiring confidence, while Churchill often added sarcasm or wit. “When you’re going through hell, keep going,” he said. This was an era of using phrases positively, to invoke patriotism and the common cause.
Then something changed in politics toward the end of the twentieth century. The whole idea became to scare people to death. Images and sound bites—the ones you couldn’t get out of your head, and would influence your vote—had the power of an addiction: ”Make love, not war," “Blood and soil,” “cancel culture,” “Black Lives Matter,” “White Power,” “Willie Horton is coming for you,” “We are Q.” The word “disinformation" is getting replaced by “freedom of speech” and “opinion.” This is an example of what one historian called “totalist language…where a slogan protects itself from scrutiny or analysis as it builds social and political power."
I wish the next George Orwell would grab the mic soon. A novel like 1984 needs to be updated to include AI, hacking academies, and spy drones. The only constant will be the autocrat who runs it all.
But Indiana holds its own political ambitions, contestants, and challenges. Fast forward to high school political candidates Matthew and his novice opponent Britain as they run for office. While their campaign would seem to affect little outside of the school, one history teacher believes that the winner is destined to change America.
As Brit and Matthew struggle both with each other and the future of their high school and nation, the town of Hawthorn becomes a microcosm representing political approaches, ambitions, and threats.
Michael R. French is adept at capturing the nuances of this process as the candidates cultivate different approaches to the ultimate goal of winning: "Someone can call himself a winner, but does that make him a winner? How much do you really know about my chief competitor? Read his Wiki page carefully. Demand transparency from Team Matthew, because that’s what I’m giving you—the whole truth and nothing but. I’ve just been called a sorcerer. I can prove otherwise. If I were really a sorcerer, I would have made my opponent disappear. Instead, I’ll give him another chance to come clean and reveal who he really is."
Brit faces intimidation, scare tactics, hackers, and the lure of breaking rules herself, and thus the race to win becomes a mirror image of America's failing moral and ethical systems as the goal becomes more important than the methods used to achieve it.
Brit's evolutionary process is nicely detailed in a story that follows her influences, decisions, and growth. French is especially astute at depicting the give-and-take of a no-holds-barred competition: "What were the odds of a ceasefire holding? The spoils of winning seemed too grand for anyone to gamble on peace for very long."
As Team Matthew's mentors, followers, and campaign ramp up, Brit assesses the price tag of buying loyalty and the deep rifts created in the community by a run for student body president that becomes replete with corruption and moral and ethical challenges.
Manipulation and covert operations permeate the election and influence Brit's growth as she searches for a way to reign in the greed and ruthlessness that threaten future endeavors and the underlying meaning of PTE (Prosperity Through Education, a nonprofit corporation registered for political fundraising which appears to hold powers beyond its stated intentions).
Realistic, engrossing, and politically intriguing, Cliffhanger is about the kinds of social, political, and interpersonal abysses faced not just by individuals, but institutions and society as a whole.
Cliffhanger will delight political thriller readers who will find its social and political commentary shrewdly thought-provoking.
PODCAST WITH Ethan Freckleton
Michael R. French is a bestselling multi-genre author. His latest novel is Cliffhanger, a suspense thriller. His first published work, which he describes as a “throwaway,” was released in 1977. His second novel was a bestseller.
Despite his early success, he resisted the pressure to stay in one lane. Over the course of a five decade career, he’s written fiction, young adult fiction, adaptations, biographies, art criticisms, and several screenplays.
We discuss Michael’s lengthy love affair with writing, why characterization is more important than plot, and his thoughts on self-publishing.
To learn more, be sure to listen to today’s episode of The Fearless Storyteller podcast.
Learn more about Michael R. French at his website.
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Michael R. French
Michael French is a graduate of Stanford University and Northwestern University. He is a businessman and author who divides his time between Santa Barbara, California, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.