An Interview with Killer Nashville Guests of Honor, John Gilstrap, M. William Phelps, and Robert K. Tanenbaum

By Clay Stafford

I’ve had the pleasure and honor over the past several months to have numerous phone and email conversations with this year’s 2015 Killer Nashville Guests of Honor John Gilstrap, M. William Phelps, and Robert K. Tanenbaum. Not only are all three tremendous writers, but they are all three tremendous human beings. In these conversations, we’ve discussed numerous ideas relating to writing and life, philosophy and politics, meaning and themes. We’re going to address those topics in my interviews with them over the course of the upcoming Killer Nashville weekend. But here, we are talking about writing, fans, and writers’ conferences, specifically Killer Nashville. Here with me in this creative nonfiction compilation interview are all three Guests of Honor in their own words.

Clay – “Writers and readers come to Killer Nashville with many different objectives. Some are looking for information. Some are looking for publishing connections. Others are simply coming to meet writers new to them. After attendees leave and they’ve met with you and talked with you, what do you hope they take with them as they leave the conference on Sunday? John, you want to start us off?”

John – “Other than memories of a really great time, I hope mostly that they will walk away with an overarching sense of hope.”

Clay – “That’s a really good point. Which is what I hope the whole conference weekend is about, as well. You’ve got a great personal story to share on that, too. After hearing your “Dare to Dream” speech on Saturday, I doubt any will miss that point.”

John – “The publishing business is a strange and competitive business, but there really is always room for more players—very successful ones, at that.

Clay – “John, on your website, you include essays on writing and information on how you got published. I see a teacher sticking his head around a corner. Is that the kind of free-flow sharing of information and mentoring that writers at Killer Nashville should expect of you?

John – “I have very few secrets. I made a decision a long time ago to be as open and honest and forthcoming as I can be, especially when it comes to the process and business of writing. No one who has seen any success in a creative field has achieved that success without help from someone along the way. I’m honored to be that someone as often as I can.”

Clay – “Matthew, what about you? John, of course, is a screenwriter and a novelist primarily; though he does have a nonfiction work. You’re mostly nonfiction, but you’re also a true crime television personality yourself. What do you hope people will walk away with after meeting you?”

M. William – “A true understanding of publishing, television, film, and how these industries are, first and foremost, businesses; they’re industries that deal in the hobbies people have. It is serious.”

Clay – “Robert, you are not only one of our Guests of Honor, but you’re also our 2015 Killer Nashville John Seigenthaler Award Winner for championing First Amendment rights. You’re coming to Killer Nashville wearing three hats: novelist, nonfiction author, and First Amendment advocate. If you could combine your work into one statement as to what attendees will leave with after meeting you, what would that be?”

Robert – “Understanding that we, The People, require our government officials to act with integrity—to be professional, effective, truthful, and to act in concert with the principles of our country’s two promissory notes—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.”

Clay – “That’s a theme I think attendees will see in Tanenbaum work, even in your fiction.”

M. William – “Also, that passion and hard work, determination, are very important key to success, as well as knowing the genre you are trying to break through in.”

Clay – “Absolutely. So that’s what other attendees leave with. What do you hope that YOU walk away with?”

M. William – “Connecting to readers. I also hope to reach would-be writers. If I can touch them on a genuine level, school them on the real world of a professional writer/author, I’ve had a great weekend.”

Robert – “A wonderful opportunity to share my thoughts regarding our value system by focusing on our cultural, spiritual and historical morality. We are truly the ‘City on the Hill’.”

Clay – “John?”

John – “A Rolodex of new friends, and a few more fun memories. I am the classic definition of an extrovert. I love being around people, interacting with them, learning from them. Laughing with them. I draw energy from being around other people. Among my friends, I’m fairly famous as the guy who closes the bar at conferences—not because I’m getting hammered, but because there’s always one more person to meet and listen to. I can’t count the number of friends I’ve made that way.”

Clay – “I have no doubt you will have that. Matthew, you mentioned ‘would-be writers’. For you, what is the most important thing new writers should keep in mind?”

M. William – “That this is a business. Rejection isn’t personal—it’s part of yours and publishing’s success.”

John – “The most important thing for writers to keep in mind is that success in the publishing business is directly related to hard work.”

Clay – “I think writers, because they don’t want to bore readers, like to play down learning the rules.”

John – “I believe that writing is maybe 30% art, and at least 70% craft. Like any craft, skills are only sharpened by study and practice.”

Clay – “Bob?”

Robert – “Authenticity.”

Clay – “Important, I’d say, no matter if it is fiction or nonfiction. John, what are your favorite things about writers’ conferences?”

John – “My favorite thing about writers conferences is meeting new friends. I remember those conferences 20 years ago when I was first starting and feeling so overwhelmed by all the people I didn’t know. Now, virtually every conference brings out old friends to catch up with, and new friends to make future conferences even more fun.”

M. William – “Meeting people/fans. Giving the same professional experience to the writer I once got.”

Clay – “We will also have pure readers there—especially at our brand new reader-focused Killer Nashville Book Con—what is the strangest thing a reader ever did around you?”

M. William – “Stalk me.”

Clay – “Well, that can’t be good.”

John – “Years ago, I was signing at a mall bookstore, where they put my signing table right out front where people nearly tripped over me on their way to buy other authors’ books. As I sat there, trying to look dignified despite the absence of buyers, I noticed a young man, maybe 20 years old, watching me from a distance. I made eye contact and asked if I could help. As luck would have it, he had a manuscript and he didn’t know what to do with it, how to find an agent, and that sort of thing. I spent about a half hour answering his questions, and when we were done, he said, ‘I don’t read shit like you write,’ and he walked away.”

Clay – “Now that’s funny. I wonder if he ever got published. He sounds like he should write reviews for Kirkus. As readers yourselves, what kinds of books do you like to read?”

Robert – “Historical non-fiction biography.”

M. William – “Religious history. Scandinavian crime. Writer biographies. The three books I have open right now are: Updike by Adam Begley; Arctic Chill: An Inspector Erlendur Novel by Arnaldur Indridason; History of New Testament Research by William Baird.”

John – “I’m an omnivore when it comes to reading. It makes me uncomfortable to single out individuals because I admire so many, but with a gun to my head, Jeff (Deaver) and Tess (Gerritsen) are certainly on the list. Then there are Stephen King, Daniel Palmer, Reavis Z. Wortham, Nelson DeMille, Stephen Hunter, Erik Larson, Alan Orloff, Harlan Coben, and…and…and… I read the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal every day, but because I’m a slow reader, I can only read a couple of books a month. My most recent three were The Martianby Andy Weir, Finders Keepers by Stephen King, and The Devil in the White Cityby Erik Larsen.”

Clay – “John, around 1974, you wanted to be Woodward. I wanted to be Bernstein. (This is a reference to All the President’s Men for those who missed that little episode in American history.) You chose Woodward because you wanted to have Robert Redford’s girl followers. I chose Bernstein because I got to be in typing class for two years with nothing but girls. Interesting we had the same goal (was it the girls or kicking butt in D.C.)? And with these lofty dreams, why do you think we both ended up in fiction for the most part? Obviously somewhere we got on the wrong train at the station.

John – “I grew up in the D.C. suburbs, so Watergate was local news long before it was national news. At the same time, my cousin worked for the State Department’s United States Information Agency (I think that’s what it was called), and he and his wife would throw parties that were attended by many of what was then the Washington elite, media included. As a 13-year-old, I got to meet the likes of Elie Abel, the Kalb brothers and other well-known journalists. And then there was Watergate.”

Clay – “So did you want to be a reporter first?”

John – “In retrospect, I think I was far more in love with the mystique of journalism than with the profession itself. It didn’t work for me. As much as I like interacting with people, I’m not comfortable with the level of confrontation that is necessary.”

Clay – “All three of you have had major influences on other people’s lives. I know that because I talk to a lot of writers—of both fiction and nonfiction. I also know that because of the things you do when you are not writing. Who are the people who have influenced you?”

M. William – “That’s humbling to hear, but I’m nobody. My influences as a writer were V.S. Naipaul (writer only; not as a human being), Raymond Carver, and Joe McGinniss. Joe’s book Blind Faith changed my entire perspective of true crime.”

Robert – “My parents, legendary D.A. Frank Hogan, Assistant D.A. Mel Glass, Assistant D.A. (now Federal District Court Judge) John F. Keenan, my high school basketball coach, Paul Ryan, and my college coach at Cal, Rene Herrerias.”

John – “Most of my most important influences came from outside the writing world, from my firehouse comrades who showed great courage (and side-splitting humor) to my bosses in various jobs who unknowingly taught me the value of hard work, dedication, and the importance of never walking away from a dream just because other people thought I would fail.”

Clay – “Ouch. Hard to read your work and think there are those who thought you would fail. There’s a lot hidden in that statement. What do you dislike most about the life of a writer?”

M. William – “Getting something wrong.”

Clay – (Laughing.)

Robert – “At times, some editorial comment!”

Clay – (Laughing) “True. Double-edged sword.”

Robert – “However, having had the responsibility to prosecute the most vicious murderers in New York County and having been Bureau Chief in charge of the New York County Criminal Courts, I relish the solitude and peace that attends my writing experience.”

Clay – “John?”

John – “I get paid to make stuff up and play with my imaginary friends, so it’s hard to find a lot that’s hard in there to complain about. The isolation of a writer’s job could get crushing if you let, it, but I don’t. I make it a point to interact with my family and friends, and to squeeze the most I can out of every day.”

Clay – “So true. So looking at the glass half-full…what are your happiest moments?”

M. William – “When a victims’ family member says my book honored the victim. And when readers connect with a book. I get lots of email and actual letters (yes, people still write them!) from readers saying they picked up one of my books, the first book they’ve read in many, many years, and it inspired them to start reading again.”

Clay – “John?”

John – “There will never be another day like that first phone call when I found out that my first book, Nathan’s Run, had been picked up for a huge amount of money. We were in a precarious place financially when that happened—my company was losing money, we’d canceled the newspapers and were eating a lot of leftovers—and then, in a single day, I made more money than I had made cumulatively in my life until that point. I’ll talk about this quite a bit in my speech on Saturday.”

Clay – “That is a great feeling. John, you’ve been writing well-before 1996 when your first novel Nathan’s Run was published. Maybe even back before 1975 when you were a—da-da-dummmm—closet writer. As you’ve progressed through your writing, do you find it getting easier? Or do you find it harder to top yourself (because you have set some pretty high standards, my friend)?”

John – “In my various careers, I’ve been a firefighter, a hazmat technician, safety manager for explosives processing facilities, president of my own consulting firm and an association executive—all in addition to being a writer. I don’t think experience makes any given day in any given job any easier than the day before. I guess with experience, you second-guess yourself less, but that’s not always a good thing. (I was well into my 15-year fire service career when my “experience” convinced me to do a stupid thing that resulted in me falling through a floor and damn near getting killed.) If you bring a professional attitude to whatever you do, the task is never ‘easy’. That said, in a creative field like writing, I think it’s a fool’s errand to think of previous success as something to be overcome or surpassed. If I thought that way, I’d get intellectually constipated (hey, I just gave you the title for this article!).”

Clay – (Laughing) “Not sure I’ll bite, but I follow you.”

John – “Each new book has to stand on its own as the best representation of the story I’m trying to tell at the time. That’s why when people ask me which of my books is my favorite, I always answer—truthfully—that it’s the book I’m writing now. If it were otherwise, I couldn’t write it.”

Clay – John and Robert, both of you write both fiction and nonfiction. Would either of you like to comment? Does it require a different mindset—the whole left brain versus right brain thing, creative versus fact-confined? Do you find nonfiction limiting in terms of what you can do? Or maybe do you view it as just another engaging story and proceed as though it were fiction?

(There is a pause. I look to John, who truly is the one who comes across as being the man drip-lining caffeine.)

John – “My foray into nonfiction was a book titled Six Minutes to Freedom, and to be perfectly honest, there were exactly two reasons why I decided to take the project on. One: my fiction career had hit the skids (more on that when I give my speech at Killer Nashville) and Two: it was a perfectly structured thriller that happened to be true. SixMin tells the story of Kurt Muse (co-author of the book), whose efforts to topple dictator Manuel Noriega are the stuff of legend among the Special Forces community, yet was largely unknown. It took me four years to write that book, in part because I needed access to Delta Force operators who engineered Kurt’s rescue, and no one would speak to me. Over the course of time, and with lots of perseverance, I finally got access to President George H.W. Bush, who had authorized Kurt’s rescue, and after that meeting somebody said something to someone, and I was granted unprecedented access to the Special Operations community. The resulting book is hands-down the one I’m most proud of. (That’s different from being my favorite, so I’m not contradicting myself from above.) I found nonfiction to be much harder to write than fiction. The pressure to be accurate—as opposed to merely entertaining—is crushing. I have no immediate plans to enter those waters again.”

Clay – “And that’s why we have authors like M. William Phelps who drink and write it day and night. John, you’ve done a little collaboration with other authors that is a bit unique. For The Chopin Manuscript (Serial Thriller) and The Copper Bracelet, you worked with other tremendous writers, each of you taking a chapter from characters and a plot-kickoff by my XO music project partner Jeffery Deaver. Were there any outlines given? Or was it free flow for all? What did you find most fun about that collective experience? Were there any times you wished that a previous chapter writer would have written things a little differently to make it easier, or direct the story more in a certain direction for you?”

John – “Those two projects were a blast to write. No, there were no outlines, not even an indication of where the story might go. Each writer received the chapters up to his (or hers), and then moved the story forward another ten or fifteen pages. Everybody took it seriously, meaning no one introduced a character from Planet Xanthar in the 12th chapter, but I’m sure that every one of us was surprised by the way the stories ultimately went. I personally never changed anything from the previous chapters, except to plant a bit of foreshadowing (I think it was in Joe Finder’s chapter) that would allow me to pull off my chapter’s twist. Jeff Deaver is the one who had the hardest job, because in addition to the first chapter, he also had to pull it all together with the last chapter.”

Clay – “As writers, how would you describe your average day?”

M. William – “Busy. Very disciplined. Hard work. 5:00 am to whenever I feel I have done what I need to do for the day, which is generally about 7:00 pm.”

John – “I am not a morning person. In fact one of my favorite quotes comes from Dorothy Parker, who said something like, ‘Oh, my God, you mean there are two nine o’clocks?’ So, I roll out of bed sometime around 9:00 and walk (on nice days) to get my coffee at the Starbucks about three-quarters of a mile away. By 10:30 or so, I’m at my desk, dealing mostly with emails and reading the newspapers. My first real meal is lunch around noon, and then I settle in for three or four hours of writing. Because my wife, Joy, spends most days visiting her clients, I’m the nominal family chef. Then, yada, yada, yada, by 9 pm or so, we gather ’round the tube to catch up on the various shows we’ve recorded. In bed by 1:00 a.m. or so, then stir and repeat.”

Clay – “And that is why we put all of John’s sessions in the afternoon and evening, and we will start with M. William Phelps first thing Friday morning with Robert K. Tanenbaum taking up the noontime slack. Is there anything about any of you that will surprise attendees when they meet you at Killer Nashville later this month?”

John – “They’ll be surprised to learn that I have the body of a lifelong athlete. I just choose to hide it with extra layers of flesh.”

And that said, I’m looking forward to sharing all of their stories at Killer Nashville this Halloween weekend and all have made themselves available for the full four days to both readers and writers alike. Their personalities are as diverse as their books. None of these guys are to be missed. I guarantee it: You’ll walk away inspired.

CClay Staffordlay Stafford is an author / filmmaker (www.ClayStafford.com), founder of Killer Nashville (www.killernashville.com) and publisher of Killer Nashville Magazine (www.killernashvillemagazine.com). In addition to selling over 1.5 million copies of his own books, Stafford’s latest projects are the documentary “One of the Miracles” (www.oneofthemiracles.com) and writing the music CD “XO” with Kathryn Dance / Lincoln Rhymes author Jeffery Deaver (www.jefferdeaverxomusic.com). He is currently writing a film script based on Peter Straub’s “Pork Pie Hat” for American Blackguard Entertainment (www.americanblackguard.com).

Read all of the guest of honor biographies at KillerNashville.com

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