Authors / Debut Authors / Interviews

Living Proof: Q & A with Michael Bourne

by Martha Anne Toll

Set in Northern California, Michael Bourne’s debut novel, Blithedale Canyon, takes an inside look at mid-life love and the slow crawl out of addiction. With spot-on pacing, Blithedale Canyon is at times humorous, at times serious, and always a compelling read. I was impressed by Bourne’s ability to make Trent Wolfer—down and out and extremely self-focused—believable and loveable. Not only did I enjoy meeting the peripheral characters, I found myself enthusiastically rooting for Trent and his love interest, Suze Strasser.

Bourne is a contributing editor at Poets & Writers Magazine and a staff writer for The Millions, and he and I are both proud Regal House Publishing authors. I caught up with him by email.

Martha Anne Toll: How did you come to the idea for your book?

Michael Bourne: I have no idea where the idea for Blithedale Canyon came from! I was working on a different book when one day the idea for a scene popped into my head and I wrote the opening scene in which a guy who has returned to his hometown under a cloud meets a woman he knew from school at a fast-food joint where he’s working.

That was 20 years ago. The book I tried to attach to that scene was totally different. It also made no sense. So, I shelved it for eight or nine years. When I looked at that opening scene again, I thought: Hey, that’s actually good. I wrote about half the book, then stopped again, unsure how to end it. That sat on my hard drive for another however-many-years until I finally had the craft and experience to finish.

MAT: Was any of this based on your own upbringing?

MB: Yes and no. Mill Valley, California, where the book is set, is my hometown so I drew from a deep well of experiences and observation there. And I’m a recovering addict, so I know the territory Trent is traversing all too well. But the autobiography stops there. I wasn’t telling my story so much as trying to tell the stories of the thousands of other addicts I’ve met and listened to over the years. Not that I literally took stories I heard in church basements and put them in the book, but I did borrow a particular self-destructive way of thinking—addict logic, I call it in the book—to guide my characterization of Trent. Of course, I share some of that self-defeating addict logic myself.

MAT: Trent eventually works in a grocery store. Do you actually have an interest in groceries?

MB: Ha! No, I harbor no deep, abiding interest in the grocery business. I am interested in how small towns work, though, and for me the grocery store in the book is a microcosm of Mill Valley.

Some context: I very much wanted to make Mill Valley a character in the book, with its own personality and story arc: The evolution from a haven for hippies escaping the aftermath of the Summer of Love into a moneyed enclave for lawyers and tech gurus. As this happens, all the old small-town businesses, including the shoe store that Trent’s grandparents owned, are being driven out. Tam Grocery, where Trent gets a job, is one of the last holdouts.

So again, my interest is not so much grocery stores but how small towns stave off gentrification. I had to learn a little about the grocery business, and hope I got the details right, but really my focus was always on the people running the business, who they were and what they were thinking.

MAT: Did you have a sense of the characters before you started, or did they evolve as you wrote, or a bit of each?

MB: Well, since this book took 20 years to write, the characters definitely evolved. I think the real reason I had to set the book aside so many times is that I hadn’t found what made Trent’s story worth a reader’s time. He was just this self-destructive guy who uses drugs and lies a lot, which isn’t compelling. You’ve met that guy and you don’t want to spend one minute more with him than you absolutely have to.

To make Trent worthy of a 300-page book I had to find his fundamental decency. I had to separate the addict from the addiction and write about him and not just about what he does. What was fun about writing the book was finding that he really did have that decency in him. He’s a good man doing bad things and trying to stop. That, I found, was a powerful engine for a novel.

MAT: Why did you set it against September 11?

MB: Part of it was necessity: I set the book in 2001 and then had no choice but to deal with 9/11. But I also wanted to capture how that event brought us all together. One of the things about being an addict is it exiles you from everyone who isn’t an addict. For years, Trent has walled himself off—from friends, family, his country, everything. A year before the attacks, he was in jail, friendless and alone, literally cut off. When the attacks happen, he realizes he has a “found” family he doesn’t want to lose.

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We’ve lost that sense today, but it was so powerful then. We were at war and the country did some unforgiveable things to good and decent Muslim immigrants and citizens, but we also banded together as a people in a way that seems almost unimaginable today. I wanted to recapture a little of that feeling in the book.

MAT: Tell us about your writing trajectory, how you learned to write, and how you arrived at this novel.

MB: My writing trajectory has been, ahem, slow. Blithedale Canyon is either my third or fourth book, depending on how you do the accounting, and I’ve made every mistake it’s possible to make. I think of Blithedale Canyon as the book that taught me how to write a book. When I started it all those years ago, I really had no idea how to sustain a story for 300 pages, and by the time I finished I was writing with much more confidence and clarity of purpose.

It’s popular to say that writing never gets any easier. To a degree I suppose that’s true. It still blows me away how unbelievably bad my early drafts are—burn-after-reading bad. But the longer you write, the better you get at reading and revising your own work. Writing really is 90% revision. I used to fall apart when I read those terrible first drafts because I had no idea how to fix them. Now I just get to work, sorting through the crap to find the throughline.

MAT: I love the name of Trent Wolfer. How did you come up with that name? Also, Blithedale Canyon is such a great place in which to set this story that I wondered if it was made up too!

MB: Blithedale Canyon is a real place, a lush, well-shaded box canyon just to the north of downtown Mill Valley. In the novel, Trent’s mother lives with her fabulously wealthy second husband on the western rim of Blithedale Canyon, which is my excuse, but really I chose the title because it feels so evocative of that part of Northern California: the eucalyptus and Scotch broom, and all the old hippie houses built on stilts on the sides of cliffs.

The name Trent Wolfer just felt right for him. He’s a bit of a wolf, right?

MAT: Tell us more about Suze, Trent’s romantic interest. She serves as “the voice of experience” and yet she clearly copes with her own struggles.

MB: From the start, Suze was a single mom with two kids, but the kids were little more than props to me, serving to signify how stuck she is. But over the 20 years I was writing the book, my wife and I adopted our son, and I became his mom in all respects but name. So that brought me much closer to Suze, and I came to respect her, the courage it took for her to bail on her hound dog of a husband and build a life of her own.

For me, the book is a stealth parenting book, not in the sense of how-to, which it totally isn’t, but as a book about the importance of good parenting. Trent and Suze are in the rough places they’re in because they had to raise themselves, and what’s killing Suze throughout the book is that she’s repeating the pattern, making all the mistakes her own mother did. So for me, the book is about how you break that pattern

MAT: Did you conduct research for this novel? If so, what?

MB: If you want to call the years before I got sober research, then yes, definitely. But as I’ve said, this book is rooted less in my own experience and more in the experience of other addicts I met along the way. My first jobs out of college were reporting at local newspapers. At my core I remain a reporter, which is another way of saying I’m a professional noticer. I did a few formal interviews to get the details on the grocery business and on Trent’s incarceration right, but mostly it was just me sitting in church basements with my ears open to the way addicts think and talk.

MAT: Bloom features writers who publish their first work when they’re over 40. What has it felt like for you?

MB: I can’t say what my life would have been like if I’d started publishing in my twenties or thirties, but I suspect it wouldn’t have been pretty. I’m so much less needy now. I have a life I like—I’m a dad, husband, teacher, and freelance writer. I love that I’ve published a book and that people are reading and liking it, but I don’t need it. I sometimes think I finally wrote a publishable book because I stopped needing to write a publishable book to be happy. That may be too pat, but it’s certainly true that being a grown-ass man has made this whole process much less fraught and much more fun.

MAT: That’s great wisdom! We’d love to hear more about the book’s publication process.

MB: I’m living proof: You can publish a novel without an agent. I shopped Blithedale Canyon around and came achingly close with three or four different agents, but they just couldn’t figure out how to market it, so I went with an indie press, Regal House. It’s been a very positive experience. I didn’t get paid as much as I would have if I’d sold it to a Big Four press, and I’ve had to do most of my own publicity and marketing, but Regal House does a terrific job of fostering a community among its authors, which has been great. The book also looks really good, which matters to me.

MAT: What advice do you have for debut novelists?

MB: Two small words: Social media. I cover the publishing industry as a reporter for Poets & Writers magazine, so I had some sense of the rapid shift in how books are marketed and publicized, but my own experience showed me how radical those shifts are.

Time was that every newspaper or general interest magazine of any size had a book page and if you were an author with a respectable press you could count on at least a few reviews. Now those book pages are mostly gone, except at papers like the New York Times and Washington Post, and authors have to generate their own publicity.

In my case, I combined an email newsletter with a lot of Facebook posts, and the results were nothing short of explosive. Friends and near-strangers posted pics of the book and of themselves reading the book and my Facebook page was one long Blithedale Canyon party for weeks.

This was cool from a marketing standpoint, but what I hadn’t counted on was how social media turns that most private act, a reader reading a book, into a social experience. People essentially live-blogged reading my book, texting me pics of passages they especially liked and registering their frustration with Trent and his choices. I loved that. I wrote plays when I was much younger, and it reminded me of the immediacy of theater.

MAT: What writing/publishing projects are you working on now?

MB: I recently finished another cracked love story, this one set in Seattle and Vancouver, and I’ve started a third book, about the newspaper business. It will be interesting to see how all this goes. I’ve just come off a very successful two-week book tour on the West Coast, and I feel a little like a five-year-old on a sugar high: Wheee! Look at me! In a day or two, after I get some businessy things out of the way, I’ll get back to those unbelievably bad early drafts. It could be an ugly month or two.

Martha Anne Toll won the 2020 Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction. Her debut novel, Three Muses, is forthcoming from Regal House Press September 2022. She is a frequent contributor to NPR Books, the Millions, the Washington Post, and other outlets. For her fiction and nonfiction, please visit her website, and tweet to her at @marthaannetoll.

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