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.
iOn 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.
Michael's thoughts on writing, politics and everything in between.
Michael R. French graduated from Stanford University where he was an English major, focusing on creative writing, and studied under Wallace Stegner. He received a Master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University. He later served in the United States Army before marrying Patricia Goodkind, an educator and entrepreneur, and starting a family.