Interview with Michael McCord
Author of “End Times”
END TIMES: MORE GREAT ADVENTURES IN REAL AMERICA
Independently Published (2019)
Reviewed by Sheri Hoyte for Reader Views (7/19)
Michael McCord, the former political editor and columnist for The Portsmouth (NH) Herald, is an award-winning journalist and writer.
A U.S. Army veteran, he covered his first presidential primary campaign in 1980 and has written for dozens of publications - including the Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Globe, New Hampshire Business Review, Boston Herald, New Hampshire Magazine – and has won New England & New Hampshire press association awards for investigative reporting, political commentary, feature and historical writing, and business journalism.
Among many adventures, he profiled James Dougherty, Marilyn Monroe’s mostly unknown unknown first husband, for Boston Globe Magazine. He also co-wrote the produced theatrical play “think twice before you think” about the life and writings of e e cummings. His essay on the history of the New Hampshire presidential primary was included in the 2008 analogy The American Presidency.
His Real America saga includes The Execution Channel: A Political Fable (2013) & End Times: More Great Adventures in Real America (2019). Penelope will be the final book in the trilogy.
He lives in Exeter, NH with his artist wife Anne and their cat Vito (the Twitter star of the family).
Hello, Michael and welcome to Reader Views! Tell us a bit about your latest novel, End Times.
Imagine America has gone politically and economically bonkers, suffers a nervous breakdown, and then has an acrimonious divorce with itself. Much dark hilarity ensues.
End Times is the second book in your Real America Saga – what inspired this political satire?
My concern, my belief through my own reporting and research as a long-time political reporter and columnist, that something was going very wrong with our political system and the country was heading to possible nervous breakdown. Shorter version: since the mid-1990s, the Republican Party essentially abandoned the idea of governing and I feared what this type of nihilism would do to our democracy which is far more fragile than most folks assume. I suspected the world didn’t need another sober, non-fiction analysis about what was wrong with Kansas, Texas, or Pennsylvania. Since I was a teenager, I’ve been heavily influenced by satirical, fantastical masters like Lewis Carroll, Jonathan Swift, Kurt Vonnegut, and Joseph Heller and strong political and cultural commentary from writers such as Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, and George Orwell. I knew there was a fantastical, farcical tale within me. It was just a matter of getting it out.
Can you tell us about a few key players in End Times and what motivates them?
There are more than a few colorful, eccentric characters in the book, but I’ll focus on two.
As my protagonist and heroine Penelope the Psychic said in End Times: “Everyone in Real America is on the make, everyone is on the take.” She leads the resistance against Real America, Inc. and is motivated partly by revenge but also because fate has cast this career con artist (she’s a fake psychic but good at it) in a new role: she has a chance to become legit and help save America and the world from the plague of Real America.
Emperor Supreme for Life Bowie of Real America is the antagonist who dwarfs the sun with his narcissism, profound ignorance and very good karma. He is motivated by greed, glory, power and a desire to please a mother who now despises him: so much so that Mama Bowie defects to Old USA.
You started writing this saga well before the last election. How closely does our current political environment resemble Real America?
They are related in an Alice in Wonderland sort of way. Real America is an alternative universe though it may seem eerily familiar due to so many colliding metaphors and real headlines. The wonderfully narcissistic, corrupt, pathological lying and immoral Bowie is obviously not Trump (I created Bowie first) but the seeds of political madness are similar. Bowie has a cult that he mocks and degrades but will walk off a cliff for him. On my website I have a section connecting real world wacko news with the satirical Real America. It isn’t easy staying ahead on the satirical track when there is no shortage of real political talk – keeping women in their place, reassessing slavery, normalized racism, a feckless mainstream media which bleats “both sides are to blame” like compliant sheep, dreams of secession and fighting Civil War II, and the massive redistribution of wealth to the richest of the rich – that threatens daily to overtake my Real America lunacy. Amazingly, like my book, it’s all taking place right before our eyes.
What kind of response have you received on End Times so far and what kind of reaction to your writing do you most seek from your reading audience?
It’s still early but the response has been generally good. I created a focus group of readers who read late drafts to get feedback on story and character development and, well, if it worked as dark satire. The feedback was helpful.
Have you received any criticism or negative feedback, and if so, how do you typically handle it?
Not yet for End Times but I have learned not to take it too personally if it isn’t constructive. This comes from (1) personally having a firm grasp on the absurd and (2) years of being a columnist and getting plenty of harsh criticism and occasional hate mail from readers. One reader of the first book wrote an Amazon review that said: “No. Just No!” and I highlighted it, gave it top billing on my web site. There was genius in that brevity. My type of political satire, perspective, and commentary is guaranteed to displease, if not outrage, many so I roll with the punches. There may also be those who are sympathetic to the wicked humor and political fight in the book but find it too frightening or too fantastical.
Let’s talk about your writing journey. When did you start writing and what was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
By the age of 12, I had devoured Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Schlesinger (A Thousand Days), William L. Shirer (The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich) and Lewis Carroll. I was marked for life: enthralled by history and great fictional imagination.
What does your writing routine look like?
Haphazard and it certainly should not be followed by anyone else. I also write for a living (free-lance business journalism and corporate public relations) so a day does not go by when I don’t write. End Times was a five-year journey because I would complete a draft and then sit on it for months on end and come back to it with fresh eyes. To be sure, there was also a bit of laziness and fear (“This is a mess! What am I doing!”) at play.
How did your background as a journalist prepare you for writing your novels?
I am accustomed to interesting and banal types and political (and corporate) spin. I’ve witnessed many a politician lying but the most important points are: why are they lying and what are they lying about and what are they hiding? Bowie and Trump are unique in that they don’t care that they lie and they don’t care that you know they are lying. More importantly, their cults don’t care that they are lying.
Also: I was blessed in my career to cover multiple beats, from arts to business and education to local, local, and national politics, so I am fairly well-rounded and interested in history (my focus as undergraduate and graduate student) and the arts.
Which writers have inspired your own work as an author?
In addition to those in answers 2 & 7, there’s a cast of hundreds but just off the top I would add Margaret Atwood, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Milan Kundera, Barbara Kingslover, Philip Kerr, David Halberstam, Doris Kerns Goodwin, John Le Carre, Richard Ben Cramer, and so on. As you probably noticed, during my writing sabbaticals, I read a lot.
Being an author is a full-time business these days. How do you balance your writing/marketing/promotion time?
Now I spend almost all of my free time on marketing, setting up interviews & speeches to groups, social media, badgering friends and scheming to get the word out. I don’t know how good I’m at it but I’m enthusiastic. I am laying down the outline and plot lines for the third and final Real America saga book.
What do you enjoy most about the whole process?
The work after a draft is laid down. I probably went through more than 20 drafts for End Times and each time I started cleaning up and revising a draft, it was a relief. And then work begins to craft the next draft from the debris of the old draft, rinse and repeat. My goal is that the first draft looks nothing like the final one in content, plot lines and twists, organization and even characters (adding new ones, jettisoning old ones, sharpening their motivations, actions, etc.) I sent the 18th draft (at least I think it was) to a professional editor because at the point I knew the end was near.
And which part do you resist with all your being?
Not sure I can answer that because after the book is done, I enjoy sharing my thoughts about the book and hearing what others think.
Tell us about some of your passions outside of writing.
Golf, hiking, movies, music, travel, art museums & lots of reading. I am also honored to be a board member of Farmsteads of New England, an amazing New Hampshire non-profit that provides farm-based residential and vocational services for adults with autism and developmental disabilities.
What’s next for your series?
Penelope is the tentative title of the final chapter in the Real America saga. It will be the final showdown between Penelope and Bowie.
What are your predictions for the upcoming elections? Any potential material for your next novel?
My only predication is that will be nastiest campaign in American history if we are lucky. Trump, like Bowie, is desperate and will do most anything to stay in power. By comparison, the elections of 2016, 1876, 1860, 1824 or 1800 will seems like quaint family suppers.
Michael, it’s been a pleasure, thank you for visiting Reader Views today and sharing a bit about your latest book, End Times.