R.J. Keller: Tell everyone a little about your novel, The Brightest Moon of the Century.
Christopher Meeks: The novel is the story of a young man turning into a man. We meet a Minnesota boy, Edward, when he’s fourteen and his widower father forces him to go to an all-boys school where Edward is groomed and tortured by Minneapolis’s elite. All he wants is a girlfriend and to find his place in life, and an all-boys school stands in his way. We’re with Edward over the next 31 years at key points in his life still focused on love and purpose.
I laughed at some of the things I threw in his way. Authors are the gods to their characters, but characters have their own free will, and things happen that I didn’t expect.
I’m fascinated in the arc of lives. In reading biographies or obituaries, I note what’s steered people’s lives and how people have different phases. The young person who was interested in buying failing businesses, as Norton Simon was, for instance, later made him one of the richest men in the country. When he wanted some art for a new house, he bought a Renoir, then quickly grew into an impressive art collector. We all have turns in our lives.
R.J. Keller: People often ask me if my novel is autobiographical. I’ll be honest, it sometimes gets on my nerves. With that in mind, Chris, how much of The Brightest Moon of the Century is autobiographical?
Christopher Meeks: If your close friends and family, R.J., are like my friends and family, they’re often trying to connect parts of my life to parts of my stories and novels. As we both know as novelists, we’re after big truths about life, and to get there, you need small truths and details. Thus writers borrow from their lives. A novel isn’t a true story, per se, but it should feel real with truths about the human condition. It’s why a novel can feel a lot more real than an autobiography. The fact that people ask “Did that happen?” means something felt so real, perhaps it did—and shows you’re doing your job.
People seem to love movies that are “based on a true story,” and recently I’ve been seeing “inspired from a true story.” Isn’t every story inspired from a true story? George Lucas was motivated by his love of cars and growing up in Modesto, California to make American Graffiti. J.R. Tolkien was inspired by English country folk to create Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings. Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee were driven by the shock of Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee to write Inherit the Wind. Great stories are about people, and writers draw from themselves, from other people and from their own culture.
As for The Brightest Moon of the Century, many of the events happened to me, but my own reality was changed to stay true to the characters and story. For instance, I grew up in Minnesota and attended an all-boys high school, which I initially hated. However, by the time I was a senior, I enjoyed my classes, my classmates, and the teachers. I flourished there. It’s where, in fact, I did my first writing and filmmaking. Thus, Edward and I are a bit different. In 1979, I moved with a friend to Alabama and started a mini-mart in a trailer park, but the place wasn’t destroyed by a tornado. Some things happened to Edward and his friend that did not happen to me and my friend. Some things did.
Writer Tim O’Brien in his book The Things They Carried talks about the difference between happening-truth, which are the things that happened to him, and story-truth, which are the events in a story. He writes, “What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.” As he says, “I want you to know what I felt. .. Story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”
While an author’s life may shed light on the creation of a story, it isn’t the story. A complete stranger should be able to read my books and enjoy them without knowing my background.
R.J. Keller: Which phase of Edward’s life was the most fun, or the most rewarding, to write?
Christopher Meeks: The Alabama trailer park sections were particularly fun. This was my first novel, and an agent had been pushing me to write it. He said there was no money in short stories, that I needed to write a novel. I’d been so intimidated by the novel form, though, that I decided not to write the chapters in order. Once I wrote the Alabama sections, and I enjoyed the process so much, I realized I could write the whole book.
R.J. Keller: You’ve recently made two of your short story collections, The Middle Aged Man and the Sea and Months and Seasons, available on Kindle. Have you found that there’s a wider audience for short stories through the electronic book market than in print?
Christopher Meeks: While I’ve sold many more print editions of my books than I have Kindle versions, Kindle sales are strong. It’s a market to take seriously. I had kept seeing on Amazon the link, “Tell the publisher ‘I’d like to read this book on Kindle.’” I finally investigated what it’d take to get my books on Kindle, and now I wish I’d done it earlier. The advantage for writers trying to find an audience is that they can write to a sea of readers at www.kindleboards.com. Because Kindle books can be a lot less expensive than print versions, some readers are willing to buy a new book without knowing a lot about it—perhaps even on the basis of, “This author on Kindleboards seems interesting—I’ll give his book a try.”
As for short story collections, Kindle readers are only discovering them in a bigger way now. I started a thread called “Short Story Collections Recommendations” because many books by famous short story writers are not available on the Kindle, but many new writers are. The Kindle is so handy for carrying around and reading a quick story as you’re waiting in a car line for picking up your kid, or at DMV or wherever. Short stories are appealing to more and more people. Fitting in short stories in our fast lives works.
R.J., you’re a vanguard for me because you’ve been on Kindle longer. I know you have used Smashwords and Scribd also. I’m curious how you find the market for printed books versus electronic versions.
R.J. Keller: In addition to your novel and short story collections, you’ve written several plays that have been produced in the Los Angeles area. When writing straight fiction, an author is the god of their world. I like that power. Do you find it difficult to give up control of your stage play’s “world” to actors and directors?
Christopher Meeks: That’s a great question because the very reason I wrote for stage and even film for a while was about having what I saw as a safety net. It’s not so much about giving up control, because it’s still my story, but if any single moment might seem false, an actor or director was likely to point it out–and audiences, too. If something’s funny, audiences laugh. If it’s not funny, they don’t—as simple as that. There’s a wonderful power seeing an audience respond positively to a play. You can feel the tension in the tense parts, the humor in the funny parts—and the seat rustling in parts that may be too long.
All the time I was writing for the stage and film, I wrote short stories, but I wasn’t brave enough to send them out for years. I wanted to learn the craft of fiction more and well as earn self-confidence. Writing fiction is writing without a net because my words go directly to the readers without others directing or acting them.
R.J. Keller: Which authors (or playwrights) have had the biggest influence on your work?
Christopher Meeks: The playwrights Lawrence and Lee were a huge influence because I interviewed them for Writer’s Digest at a time I was diving into theatre, both as a playwright and as a theatre reviewer for Daily Variety. Laurence and Lee were great role models with thirty plays that they wrote together, most of them landing on Broadway and around the globe. I became good friends with them. Who knows what seeped in from the many conversations I’d had. My short story “The Old Topanga Incident” in Months and Seasons is based on Jerry Lawrence’s house burning down when he was 78—a lifetime of photos, writing, and collectibles were gone.
I began my writing career as a freelance journalist, and I had the pleasure of interviewing many best-selling authors including Colleen McCullough, Chaim Potok, and Thomas Thompson, among others. I also interviewed many people in the arts—dancers, actors, filmmakers, painters, poets, TV writers, costumers, set designers, musicians, composers, and more. I sensed a creative imperative that I’ve tried to harness. Two of my favorite interviews with film directors were with Werner Herzog and Tim Burton—driven, creative people.
As for authors who I haven’t interviewed but whose work has influenced me, I may have learned the most from Tim O’Brien. He showed me to that one has to be brave as a writer—willing to be vulnerable, willing to borrow from one’s life and not be ashamed. Often new writers purposely make things up because they aren’t willing to reveal things from their own lives. If they create characters that never have breathed or have little to no history, it feels false. Another writer who spurred me on is Lorrie Moore, whose mixture of humor and pathos showed me I’m along the right path.
R.J. Keller: Are there any common themes that run through your work?
Christopher Meeks: That I leave for the critics. I write with whatever ideas compel me at the time. That said, the stories for The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea were drawn from pieces I wrote over a twenty-year period, and reviewers have found commonalities, such as ordinary people being confronted with big problems. Carmela Ciuraru wrote in the Los Angeles Times about The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea that “marriage and being happy, according to many of the stories in this collection, are mutually exclusive.” That wasn’t a conscious theme on my part, and I love being married. But I can also say living with anyone isn’t “happily ever after.”
Grady Harp, a Top Ten reviewer on Amazon whom I’ve never met, has reviewed all my work, and he says of The Brightest Moon of the Century, “His characters are all flawed and not afraid to share those flaws. And that is one reason this story of a young lad’s journey from Minnesota through the South and to California spanning the years of his life from age 14 to age 45 reaches out to the reader in a way that offers an honest invitation to relive our own growing years.”
Consciously, I’m always fascinated by relationships, perhaps because they’re always a challenge to me.
R.J. Keller: If you could pick one of your short stories to hold up and say, “This is classic Christopher Meeks,” which would it be, and why?
Christopher Meeks: The answer to your question depends on which day you ask me. I’m proud of every one of my stories. An upcoming literary anthology will be using “The Farms at 93rd and Broadway” from Months and Seasons, and I’d consider it one of my classics for a few reasons. It’s about an older couple who lives in New York City and whose children have graduated college and are doing well. They’ve had a challenging life together, yet they’re at a pleasant truce and decide to see a play together. When they’re late for their musical, they argue and instead go see a hypnotist’s show next door, which changes their lives. I love the story because it surprised me when I wrote it, having a couple of twists I didn’t expect. It’s a funny yet dramatic story with an ending that’s magical.
R.J. Keller: An Amazon reviewer said about your short story, “Breaking Water” from Months and Seasons, “This story was substantial enough that it could have been expanded to a novella.” Have you ever considered expanding any of your short stories into novellas, or even novels? What about adapting any of your stories for the stage?
Christopher Meeks: The Brightest Moon of the Century began as a couple of short stories. As I mentioned, an agent urged me to write a novel, and all I really knew was short stories—so I started with some unpublished short stories and decided, essentially, that if I wrote about the same person at different times of his life, it might work as well as Melissa Bank’s A Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, which I much admired. Bank brought together short stories as a novel. In the end, my book’s chapters tie together much more than individual short stories, so I see it as a full novel.
I doubt I’ll write another play, as much as I love theatre. I’m enjoying fiction too much.
R.J. Keller: Tell us about your apparent obsession with pastrami.
Christopher Meeks: Ha! You saw that from my website. Over the years, I’d noticed that many restaurants in Los Angeles would say, “The World’s Best Pastrami.” I hated pastrami, but I decided if there’s a true “best,” perhaps there was something better than I’d ever had. I could be open-minded. So over the course of a week, I went to three places that proclaimed they had the best pastrami. They first two places I didn’t particularly like, even though the restaurants were crowded. Then I went to Langer’s Deli near downtown Los Angeles by MacArthur Park. Wow. Even thinking about it makes me want to go back. It was like great steak with a coleslaw topping. It’s the best!
R.J. Keller: Because it’s bad luck to break tradition, what is your favorite sentence from Brightest Moon?
“You’re no failure, son,” said the officer, and Edward turned to him. “This is God,” said the man, “or the disorder of life, if you like. This is what we all have to live with.”
R.J. Keller: All of your books have such striking covers. I’m jealous. Do you design them yourself?
A brilliant designer named Daniel Will-Harris (www.will-harris.com) did them. He’s great because he reads my books in their entirety, then creates about a dozen possible covers and asks me to choose my four favorites. After I do, he tells me which one of the twelve was his favorite and why. His favorite has always been in my top four.
I sometimes have him make tweaks to a few of the four. Then I do as Donald Trump stresses to do: market research. I show the four covers to as many people as I can over a few days and ask them for their favorite. The fish jumping out of the fish bowl for The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea was a favorite—one I’d admired but didn’t have the instinct to choose. It has the effect of grabbing someone walking by. That’s what you want in a bookstore with 30,000 titles on the shelves.
R.J. Keller: What’s next for Christopher Meeks?
Christopher Meeks: I’m rewriting a comic novel about a young physicist who has finally received tenure at a university, and he decides he can now look for a wife. He’s using the Scientific Method to do so, and everything is just going wrong.
Also, I’ve just finished my first mystery, Ten Days to a Bad Habit, and it’s going to my agent next week, after I tweak it a little more.
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