Not every author can combine history, mystery and legal issues in one book.
Michael and I discuss how he and his wife manage to share the task of writing compelling, page-turning legal thrillers, which seems to include no small number of very early morning walks.
Links and resources mentioned in this episode
- Click on any of the book covers to go to Michael’s books on Amazon
- James Lee Burke’s Louisiana-based Dave Robicheaux novels
- Excerpts and synopses of Michael’s books, including the not-yet-released, Sanction.
You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.
Transcription of Interview with Micheal H. Rubin
Alexandra: Hi, mystery readers. This is It’s a Mystery Podcast. I’m your host Alexandra Amor and I’m here today with Michael H. Rubin. Hi, Michael.
Michael: Hi. How are you doing?
Alexandra: Very well, thank you. How are you?
Alexandra: Good. Good. Well, let me give our listeners a little bit of an introduction to you.
Michael H. Rubin is a former professional Jazz pianist, and I have to say, you’re the first Jazz pianist I’ve had on the show, who has performed in several states as well as in clubs in the New Orleans French quarter. He’s also a former radio and television announcer, a nationally known speaker and a humorist who has given over 400 presentations throughout the country. He’s also a full-time practising attorney as if he didn’t have enough on his plate who helps manage a law firm with offices from the West coast to the Gulf coast to the East coast.
His debut novel, The Cottoncrest Curse, won the INDIEFAB Book of The Year Gold award as the best thriller and suspense novel published by a university or independent press.
Cashed Out is his latest novel and it will be available August 18th, 2017 and we’re gonna talk about both your novels today.
Michael, why don’t we start by talking about this collaboration with your wife?
On your website, you mentioned that the books have your name on them but the work is actually a collaboration, so tell us a bit about that.
Michael: Absolutely. Well, we walk early in the morning. When I say early, I mean early, 4;30 a.m. And we talk through the plots and the characters and we write our books together.
Now the question is always, if we write them together, how come her name is not on? When our first novel came out, our agent in New York said, “Well, look, you could publish a novel with two names but nobody understands fiction by a committee unless you’re James Patterson,” for the first book.
And you could have a fictitious name but then you’d have to create a back ground. And since both novels are legal thrillers, well, I decided we would use my name because I’m the lawyer and she is a television producer, but it’s community property. There’s no problem. It’s a joint effort.
Alexandra: Right, and so how does it work? Let’s start at the beginning I guess.
Who had the idea first to write “The Cottoncrest Curse?”
And after we had enough notes we said, “We could make a novel out of this.” So we need to start with the idea of a novel which started with the idea of the characters.
Alexandra: Oh, interesting. Okay, and so it’s set two decades I think after the American civil war, so late 19th century.
Tell us a bit about the plot and the characters.
Michael: The Conttocrest Curse, actually it runs from the civil war era to the civil rights era and on to the present. And it is a story about a plantation in South Louisiana. But like all plantations, it’s both a center of commerce and the center of mystery.
It follows the lives of several families: the aristocrats who live in the plantation, the former slaves who were there, the share croppers, what happens in post-reconstruction Louisiana and in the United States.
There are true characters, true historical characters in there. In fact, it was published by a university press, it was invented by a story. So all the history is accurate although the murders are fiction.
Alexandra: Right, exactly. I saw somewhere too, it’s a legal thriller. It’s a murder mystery. And it’s a bit of historical fiction.
How do you balance those three elements in the books do you think?
Michael: Great question. Well, I think the thing we want most is for people to read an interesting story and the history has to be accurate. Otherwise, you lose their presence. But this is not a footnote in history book or a treatise and neither is it a legal treatise.
But the law plays a role. Equal protection clause plays a role. The case of Plessy versus Ferguson, which is the horrible “separate but equal” case which actually begun in Louisiana, plays a role in the novel. But at base, it’s a page-turning historical thriller that follows the lives of several families.
Alexandra: You say you and your wife walk early and you discuss plot and character and all those kinds of things.
And then with such a busy life that you lead, how do you find time to do the actual writing?
Michael: Well, I think all writers know and everybody knows that we all find times to do those things that we enjoy the most. If you like to watch baseball, you’ll find time to go to a baseball game. And if you like football, you will go to a football game and if you like to write, you’ll find time to write. So we find time to write.
Alexandra: And when do you do that? Do you do that early in the morning after your walks or late in the evening?
Michael: Whenever we can. We travel a lot because of my business and so we do it in the airports. We do it in hotel rooms. We do it early in the morning, late at night, whenever we can grab a few minutes. And we try to turn out a book about every six to eight months.
Alexandra: I noticed on your website it mentioned that your focus is on the legal parts of the plot and dramatic situations and your wife focuses on characters and bringing the scenes to life and that kind of thing.
Do you have specific delineation about what each of you are doing or is it more fluid?
Michael: It’s very fluid. I mean, what happens is when we begin writing the novel, we know the key characters. We know who they are and their motivations. We know the beginning. We know the middle and we know the end.
But we don’t know any of the connecting parts. We don’t plot it out in great detail so we know generally what it is.
I think of this kinda like Jazz. When you play a Jazz song, everybody knows you have a melody and you have a chord structure. But you make it your own by putting the connecting parts and then improvise.
So what we do is we write our interesting part, is to figure out how to connect the parts during the beginning, middle and end. So it’s just interesting for us as it is for the readers.
Alexandra: Well, that’s such a great analogy. I love that so much. Thank you for saying that, the Jazz music analogy. That’s brilliant.
We mentioned when I read your bio that you’ve been a Jazz pianist yourself so you must have quite a creative part of your soul that needs to be expressed I would imagine.
Michael: Well, you know, I think everybody has a way to have creativity in some fashion or another, whether it’s wood working. Some people have creativity in making friends and some people have creativity in how they can be happy. We find a way to make creative work in our novels.
Alexandra: Right, and so you said that there were several families involved in The Cottoncrest Curse and then I understand from the description on your website that some of those, the descendants of those people, show up in the next book which is coming out in August 2017, Cashed Out.
Tell us a little bit about that and how they flow through.
Michael: Cashed Out is a contemporary legal thriller and unlike…it stars a lawyer but unlike every other legal novel where the lawyer defends somebody who he knows is innocent or a relative or a friend, in this case, his ex-wife asked him to defend her for a murder and he says no.
And every time he says no, something worse happens to him. So they key characters are related to those in “The Cottoncrest Curse.” You don’t have to have read either book to understand the other but they are descendants and they are relations.
Our third book…we have a third book out but it’s at the publisher’s right now and is also deals with some of those same descendants.
Alexandra: I think you called it “The Bayou Trilogy,” is that right?
Michael: “Bayou Thrillers” yeah, because they’re all set in Louisiana. They don’t have a single character who’s the same but they all have a common thread which is South Louisiana, whether it’s 1800s or the present which people find mysterious and unusual and it is.
Alexandra: Yes, right, exactly. And so you must be…well, and it’s obvious that place plays a big role in these books because they’re set in Louisiana and both historically and in the present day.
I imagine you feel a tremendous fondness for that part of the world.
Michael: I do but I don’t want people to think that this is a book where you have to understand Louisiana or that it doesn’t have relevance to the rest of the country.
All of our books, although they have a place setting, are actually universal in themes. For example, the theme of The Cottoncrest Curse is can we really know the truth of everything? And the theme of Cashed Out is, when are you happy with your moral decisions and when do your moral decisions cause problems?
Alexandra: Oh, fascinating.
Did you and your wife find that you came up with the theme first or did it evolve as you wrote the book?
Michael: Well, I have been teaching and lecturing about ethics for many years. My wife’s a television producer. She’s produced lots of television shows and public broadcasts here in Louisiana. They deal with ethical and moral issues so that’s a concern of ours.
We don’t want to beat people over the head with the theme of the book but that was the underlying kernels give us the impetus to write.
Alexandra: Okay, and so it sounds like maybe the theme came first and then you started working with an idea. Would you say that’s true?
Michael: Actually, it was a little different. The characters came first.
Michael: And then theme arose later.
Alexandra: Tell us a little bit about this character and you’ll have to tell us his name because I wasn’t sure I could pronounce it.
Michael: Sure. In Cashed Out, the lead character, the protagonist, is a guy named Schexnaydre. And Schexnaydre is a good Louisiana name, both German and French, and there were lots of German settlers and French settlers in South Louisiana, intermingled with Caucasian background.
He’s a failed lawyer. Let me give you his voice because this is a first person novel. And I’ll give you kinda what I call the elevator speech.
“Failed lawyer? Damn right I’m a failed lawyer. I got a failed marriage. I got three maxed out credit cards. I got a mortgage that’s under water. I got no clients and I got no money. Well, no clients except for G.G. Guidry and he’s just been murdered and no money except for the $4,375,223.17 in cash he left me for safe keeping.”
Alexandra: Oh, that’s fantastic.
When you and your wife are doing your early morning walks, do you find yourself talking in Schex’s voice or working things out about the plot from his perspective?
Michael: Yes, we work the plot out. We don’t worry about the voice so much when we sit down to write but we know who he is, what he wants, and what’s gonna happen. As I said, the beginning, the middle and the end. We don’t know the connecting parts.
In fact, when we start writing, we don’t know all the characters. We know the key ones but sometimes these other characters evolve as we write and sometime they take on a life of their own.
Alexandra: Has anything surprised you about Schex?
Michael: His sense of humour. He is a failed lawyer with a great sense of humour and so this book is both a thriller but it’s got a humour.
Alexandra: Nice. Oh, that’s fantastic.
And with your love for Louisiana, speaking of surprises, was there anything in the historical research you’ve been doing for the books that surprised you or intrigued you?
Michael: Well, what intrigues me about Louisiana is three things. Some people call it a gumbo. It’s a mixing pot of lots of cultures. I mean, we have been ahead that had an immigrant culture here for many years going back to before Napoleon, back to the French when they first came here with the Spanish before that.
In fact, the New Orleans French Quarter, the current configuration of it, the architecture’s primarily Spanish, not French. And when if you walk through the French Quarter, you’ll see Spanish names on the street as well as French names.
The second is the issue of race which occurs throughout the United States but particularly in Louisiana which has just the horrible background of slavery and what happened during reconstruction and then post-reconstruction when the northern troops were withdrawn.
And the third issue is our interrelationships with other people regardless of their race, gender or other types of identity.
Alexandra: It sounds like you really, in the books and the plots, dived deep into a lot of the issues that must affect Louisiana in those ways.
Michael: We try not to make it a deep dive into a philosophical background but it does play a role and it informs how we write. They often say, and lots of writers say, you need to know more than you put in your book to make the book real.
It has to have an underpinning that you don’t have to put in the book but it underpins what you write. So what we tried that to do is to make sure that the writing moves, queue along, so that you want to turn the page and say, “What happens next?” rather than, “Oh, I’m getting a history lesson here.” We try not to do that.
Alexandra: No, of course. Sprinkle it throughout to make it continue to be interesting. One of my favourite authors is James Lee Burke and he has a series of books set in Louisiana and the main character is an ex-police officer named Dave Robicheaux. And I just wondered if you were influenced or inspired at all by Mr Burke.
Michael: I was influenced in the sense that he shows that you can write just like lots of other writers, and that you can write books about a certain area of the south, for Tennessee Williams or Faulkner, to have universal appeal. That you take the local and you make it universal.
Alexandra: Yes, well said. Oh, I love that. And so you and your wife have a couple more books that are coming out in the future and I’m trying to find what they’re called.
Michael: Our third book which is at the publisher’s right now is called Sanction. And it’s set in New Orleans and it’s at Mardi Gras. And the fourth book which we just sent to our agent is called Inflamed and it’s about radical roots.
Alexandra: Radical roots. What does that mean?
Michael: Radical roots who decide that now is the time and New Orleans is the place to make a big statement.
Alexandra: About society and the way things are working?
Michael: That’s right. That’s right. I don’t want to give way more than that until we get further along with our agent and the publisher. But it’s a contemporary thriller and it has lots of resonance to what’s going on right now around the country and the world.
In fact, if you want to find out more about all the books, we have excerpts and synopses of the books on our website including of Sanction. So people can go to my website. I ‘m sure we’ll give the URL in just a minute. And they can see more about the books, how we write and information about them.
Alexandra: Yes, exactly. We’ll give that address out and I’ll make sure to put a link in the show notes as well. Well, this has been fantastic, Michael, and I really enjoyed chatting with you.
I’m sure that fans of legal thrillers everywhere and mysteries will appreciate knowing more about your books.
Why don’t you let the listeners know where they can find out more?
Michael: Absolutely. Well, they can go to my website which is www.mrubin, M-R-U-B-I-N, books.com. They can follow me on twitter, @michaelhrubin, or on Facebook, @ Michael: H. Rubin, or on Goodreads. I’m on all of those platforms. You can get my books at any independent book seller or in a major book sellers. It’s…”The Cottocrest Curse” is on Amazon and Kindle and it’s on Barnes & Noble and NOOK. And a German edition came out last year so it’s available in Europe or if you wanna buy a German edition, you can buy online.
Alexandra: Thanks so much, Michael. Take care. Bye-bye.