Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Q&A with Kevin Myers

Kevin Myers is the author of the new novel Hidden Falls. He has worked as a journalist, a speechwriter, and a spokesperson, and he is a former stand-up comedian. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Hidden Falls, and for your character Michael Quinn?

A: The idea for Hidden Falls came from combining elements that really interested me in hopes they would become even more interesting as they coalesced into a story.

I wanted to explore a character who defined their idea of success very narrowly, charted a thoughtful course, diligently followed it over their lifetime, and then upon arriving at their goals realize they got it all wrong.

Like someone who worked at an 8-track tape manufacturer and decides in 1969 that they’re going to work their way up the ranks to become CEO and then they achieve that goal in 1981 as the industry is collapsing.

So, I placed my protagonist at a juncture where the societal promises for a fulfilling life were all coming up short. He’s divorced. He wishes he was closer to his kid. He’s not close with his own parents or brother. He has the career of his childhood fantasies but only after it had become unrecognizable from the job he envisioned.

He has lost the sextant he used to navigate his life and is left asking, where do I go from here?  

I’ve always had a fascination with newspaper columnists. When I was 19, I went to work full-time at the newspaper syndication firm Creators Syndicate. We syndicated columnists like Hunter S. Thompson, Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, David Nyhan, and many others.

I fell in love with newspaper people—they were smart, tended to be very funny, they were often irreverent, and seemed to have a bottomless well of stories. I found that columnists were all those things I admired and then some. They were larger than life. They were impressive people who seemed to know everything and everyone.

We tend to define columnists by their writing, as I suppose we should, but there’s so much more to them. They are more than their ideas. I always thought having a columnist as a protagonist would be a great way to tell a rich textured story, because you would have to reconcile their professional persona with the private life of the character. 

That’s why I decided to make the protagonist, Michael Quinn, a columnist who dreamed of becoming like the greats, Mike Royko in Chicago, or Jimmy Breslin in New York, or Mike Barnicle from Boston.

Quinn grew up in Massachusetts and was a paperboy in the late ’70s-early ’80s delivering The Boston Globe when Barnicle was at his zenith—Quinn wanted to be a passionate commentator on societal woes and become the next great champion of blue-collar causes.

Eventually he becomes a columnist in Portland, Oregon, a mid-sized media market, where the job doesn’t hold the same stature. The paper’s readership is dwindling and as a result so is its advertising revenue and newsroom staff. Media consumers are mainly getting their commentary from the national media like The New York Times and cable news outlets. Michael feels a bit like the 8-track company CEO.

I also grew up around a lot of organized illegal activity. It was so prevalent and out in the open that I never thought twice about it. I thought it was normal. Looking back, of course, it seems crazy, but at the time I didn’t know anything else. Especially all the sports betting.

When I was in the sixth grade, my friends and I used to play the football betting cards. On Wednesday or Thursday, the cards would get distributed around our elementary school. The card was shaped like a bookmark and it had that week’s matchups with the Vegas point spread for each game.

You’d circle your picks and deliver it to the 12-year-old bagman with money your mother gave you to buy lunch. It never even occurred to me that what we were doing was illegal and there was some crime boss attached to the other end of that process.

As I got older, I got to know some of those crime bosses. I was surprised as to how normal they seemed. Unless you knew what they were doing you’d assume they were totally above board. On the surface, many of these folks lived very ordinary lives. It became a fascination to me.

So, I incorporated all those elements and just started writing. I really wanted to explore why Michael couldn’t see parts of his life unwinding. I wanted to explore why he wanted to be a commentator on society rather than someone who took direct action to change it, like a social worker, or a political operative, or working for a nonprofit or a union.

As I got deeper into Michael’s character, the relationship between fathers and sons became very important. As fathers and sons became important that took me into deep wells of material, like sibling rivalry, parental expectations, and then I got interested in the role sports can play to bond children and parents, but also how unrealistic motivations and expectations can influence a parent/child relationship.

Q: The chapter titles all relate to Boston sports figures. What role do you see Boston and its sports teams playing in the novel?

A: It’s hard for me to separate Boston from its sports teams. Boston is a sports town. New England is a sports region. Boston athletes are almost like mythological heroes to their fans.

There’s a passage in Hidden Falls where Michael describes the teams as having replaced regional industries as the bonds that keep the residents of his hometown together. “On a night like this they’d share stories of George’s Banks, Nor’easters, cod and whales, but now the thread that held us together was the local four: the Celtics, Bruins, Patriots, Red Sox. It gave us a common vernacular. It wasn’t about gleaning glory from the accomplishments of others—it was about sharing an experience. It was a place to start a conversation.”

Sports are important to Michael’s family. It was how the men in his family bonded, and it turns out that sports are related to how Michael’s father earned his living.

Michael’s dad was a bookie; he took bets on sporting events. He kept that part of his life hidden from Michael. Part of the suspense and mystery of the book is how Michael learns about his father’s ties to organized crime.

Sports are not a main feature of the story, but it’s a theme that runs through the entire book. I think non-fans could read this and come away with a better understanding of what sports mean in the lives of some people. Conversely, I think sports fans will find the references add an extra level of context and hopefully richness to the book.

Sports had an outsized influence on my childhood. For me, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience. It taught me a lot. It connected me with good role models and lifelong friends, but for sure it was out of balance with the rest of my life.

As far as my own father, I can’t remember having more than five conversations with him that were not sports related. It was the only interest we shared.

My parents got divorced when I was about 5 years old. After the divorce, I didn’t live fulltime with my father until my mother remarried and moved to California when I was in high school. I lived with him my junior and senior years. It was hard. So, I’m glad we had sports, or it would have been much harder.

My father is not the basis for the character in Hidden Falls, but it many ways, he was the quintessential Boston sports fan. I’d be upstairs in my room reading, and he’d be down in the living room screaming at the players through the TV.

Before ESPN and Sports Center gave us unlimited sports coverage, we had to rely on the three local nightly newscasts for our highlights. The sportscasts were staggered and he knew the order in which the highlights appeared on each channel. He’d flip though the stations and we’d see how each channel covered the same games.

Everything was about sports. When I got home at night, no matter what I was out doing, he wouldn’t even say hello, he’d just ask me who won.

In some ways, the names that appear in the chapter headers are like the Quinns’ extended family, in another they’re these inscrutable role models that set an unrealistic bar for success. They are real people, but they’re portrayed as having god-like abilities.

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: In the book, Hidden Falls is a rundown tourist trap in the White Mountains of New Hampshire that does not live up to the promise of the brochure.

To me, it’s complicated. Hidden Falls signifies a place of natural beauty and wonder, but in the context of the book it symbolizes a willingness to suspend our reality to believe in an overly simplified and idealized future—magical thinking.

Michael knows there are real and wonderful natural spring-fed swimming holes in secluded forested areas. They tend to be hard to get to and they’re sometimes not marked on maps, but Michael desperately wants to find such a place.

He was sold an experience that couldn’t possibly match its promise, but he suspended his logical thinking because he wanted it to be true. How hidden can the place be, if it has a brochure and an entry fee?

Early in the book, Michael recalls the childhood adventure where his father drops him off in the woods and makes him navigate on his own to Hidden Falls. For Michael, the swimming hole was the most enticing part of their trip to the White Mountains, but the prospect of plodding through the woods to find it by himself scares him out of his mind.

On his way, Michael goes off course and ends up in a beautiful, secluded part of the woods with the sound of thunderous flowing water. He’s so focused on finding the tourist trap Hidden Falls that he misses the chance to see the real thing.       

For me it’s about how sometimes we want things to be a certain way. We have a certain goal. We want people to act a certain way toward us in a relationship and if it doesn’t look like what we imagined than we react negatively toward it rather than being open to the beauty, peace, or love in the moment we are experiencing.

Q: Did you know from the beginning how the novel would end, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I had no idea how it was going to end. Prior to beginning Hidden Falls, which had a working title of Missed Connections, I thought I was writing a funny love story. I was about 30,000 words into it when it took a turn that I didn’t anticipate. As I was writing, I literally said aloud, “Oh my God, I would have never thought of this.”

I envisioned the whole novel taking place in Portland, Oregon. Michael had a different backstory; he was a former political speechwriter and played a lot of pickup basketball. The original plot turned on Michael finding a Missed Connection classified ad that was clearly for him, but that he attributed to the wrong person—and that’s where the hilarity would ensue.

It was primarily about a 50-year-old guy struggling with online dating while going through a mid-life crisis and working at a dying newspaper.

I was sharing drafts with a few people as I wrote. They were really enjoying it, but after it took the more dramatic turn, they were like, you need to toss out the first 30,000 words and rewrite the whole thing to make it sync with what happens after the turn—so I did. Elements of that first draft survived and I kept Michael as the protagonist, but I dragged him through much rougher terrain.

I don’t write with an outline, so I never really know how things are going to end. I really let the characters go where they take me. I have a general sense of the story arc, and the protagonist’s arc, but the rest comes as it comes. It’s something that I picked up from the book The Art of Dramatic Writing, by Lajos Egri, when I first started writing scripts and plays when I was in my 20s.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a novel manuscript that’s set during the late ’70s in my hometown of Peabody, Massachusetts. At one time, Peabody was the leather tanning capital of the world. The story takes place as the last of the factories are folding up and leaving town.

The protagonist is going into his freshman year of high school and desperately wants to make the varsity basketball team—but the book is really about coping with sexual abuse in an environment of toxic masculinity. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: People also think the book is funny. The language can be pretty salty; I wanted to keep the dialogue true to Michael’s upbringing, circumstances, and profession.

I guess the other thing is that it doesn’t strictly adhere to the conventions of one genre. To paraphrase the writer Peter Rock’s description, it’s many books in one that are synthesized through the voice of the narrator.

His description was such a great compliment; I was trying to write across genres in a way that felt seamless because you were so involved in every aspect of one person’s life.

I want the reader to pick it up because it’s fun to read, but not want to put it down because they want to know if Michael figures out his life and the mysteries, big and small, in which he becomes embroiled.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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