Behind The Book: Michael H Rubin

Behind the Book: Why I Write

Writing a thriller that gets positive reviews from magazines, journals, and best of all, readers, is the ultimate thrill for me. It’s a fantastic adrenaline rush, not that my life has been lacking in rushes. I’ve been a professional jazz pianist in the New Orleans French Quarter. I’ve been a TV announcer and radio host. I’m a public speaker and humorist who has given over 400 talks across the U.S., as well as in Canada and the U.K., to groups as large as 1,500. And I’m a lawyer who is often on the front line, representing my clients in major trials and appellate cases where bet-the-company issues are at stake.

Writing an effective thriller, however, is also a real challenge. I sit at my laptop, before a blank screen, trying to figure out how to tell a story in such an engaging manner that people who don’t know me, who could put down my book at any point, can’t wait to finish it because, when they get to the end of one chapter, the action compels them to say, “OK, well, I guess I’ll just read a few sentences of the next chapter to see what happens,” and then find themselves staying up all night reading the book.

In some ways, writing a thriller is like playing jazz. Both involve working creatively around a theme. In jazz, the theme is the melody and chord structure. In a novel, the theme is the plot. When I sit down at the piano to play jazz, which I try to do every day, I use the theme of the song I’m playing as the jumping off point to create my own interpretation, freely improvising within an identifiable structure. Writing a novel is like that for me. My goal is to creatively use words to develop a plot line into a meaningful story, flesh-out the characters, reveal things that readers might not previously know or have thought about (and that even I might not have thought about when I started writing the novel), and move the tale along to a satisfying conclusion that leaves readers wanting to dig into the next book I’m writing.

So, how do I actually write? I do everything on my laptop, from my initial notes to the final draft, and everything in between. And I make lots of notes before I start. “The Cottoncrest Curse” is a legal thriller that ranges from the Civil War era to the Civil Rights era and from the cotton fields to the courthouse steps. It brings readers into a historically accurate world filled with distrust, danger, deception, and death. It was important to me – as a novelist, as a lawyer, and as an amateur historian – to make sure not only that the historical context was accurate, but also that the characters used terminology appropriate to their era. Storylines in “The Cottoncrest Curse” take place in three distinct time frames: the present, in the 1960s, and in the 1890s, as a series of mysterious deaths plague the owners of Cottoncrest Plantation. For example, in a scene set in 1893, a grizzled, no-nonsense former Civil War physician complains that a sheriff’s young deputy doesn’t have the “sense God gave to a large rock, a small pebble, or even a tiny dornick.” Readers can be assured that “dornick” was in common use in the 1890s.

My home office is packed with works I admire, both fiction and non-fiction, as well as history books and other reference materials. Accurately portraying both geography and history is important to me, because doing so not only gives weight and veracity to the story, but also helps create a fully believable world for the reader. While many scenes in “The Cottoncrest Curse” occur in and around the fictional Cottoncrest Plantation in South Louisiana, a substantial portion of the story is set in the New Orleans of both the 1890s and the 1960s. The descriptions of plantation life, Civil War battles, how physicians cared for the wounded, the plight of both sharecroppers and former slaves, the details of raising sugar cane, the culture, the speech patterns, and the New Orleans locale of both eras are all historically accurate.

But “The Cottoncrest Curse” is not an historical treatise; it is a page-turning multi-generational thriller. As the review in the LSBA Journal stated, this “bloody tale is not for the faint of heart. There are sharp knives, slit throats, and blood dripping down staircases. People get shot, punched, and mistreated; rats and maggots crawl over and into dead bodies…Mixed into this gumbo, however, is a good dose of comic relief.”

So, how do I get the mix right — the guts and gore, the humor, the murders, and the historical context? Well, I don’t work from a formal plot outline or a detailed synopsis. Before starting to write I jot down notes — lots of notes — about the arc of the story. Before I write the first chapter I have figured out all the key characters and their motivations. My wife and I discuss in detail possible storylines and plot points during our daily early morning walks. Therefore, when I finally start writing the first chapter, I already know how the story will end and I have a rough sketch of the final chapter in mind.

But, putting it all down on my laptop is just the start of the process. Almost no one writes a classic in just one draft. Few do so in two. For me, it often takes four or five drafts before I feel that my manuscript is even close to final. It has been said that mastering any skill requires 10,000 hours, whether it is playing an instrument or learning to write fiction. My wife is my best friend, my best editor, and my best critic. With a red pen, she cuts out excess verbiage, stilted language, and boring paragraphs, and encourages me to revise my manuscript again and again, improving it each time. Authors need frank feedback and constructive criticism, coupled with a sincere reminder that they should rewrite and that they shouldn’t give up, because what they have to say is worthwhile.

So, why do I write? Because writing, like playing jazz, is another way for me to creatively perform. Unlike playing jazz before a live audience, however, when I write I don’t get to see the immediate reaction of my readers and I don’t have the instant gratification that I get from an audience’s applause. Though writing is a solitary experience, it is very satisfying to see my efforts come to fruition in a published novel that is well received and highly regarded. I am equally buoyed by formal reviews in newspapers, journals, and magazines, by comments readers post on social media, and by the feedback I get when I give book talks and meet readers who have enjoyed my work. Writing gives me a sense of balance and provides me with a pleasurable “escape” from the demands of my work-a-day world.

Michael H Rubin

Michael H. Rubin’s career has many facets. He is a nationally-known public speaker and raconteur whose unique combination of scholarship, humor and multi-media presentations have received rave reviews and standing ovations at the more than 375 speeches he has given to date throughout the US, Canada, and England. He is a professional jazz pianist who has performed in New Orleans’ French Quarter. He has authored a number of non-fiction books covering a variety of legal issues, has written over 30 articles for professional journals, and has also served as the editor of several legal publications. In addition, he practices law full time, is one of the managing partners of the multistate law firm of McGlinchey Stafford, PLLC, and heads his firm’s appellate practice team. He also serves an adjunct professor, teaching courses on ethics, real estate, and finance at three of the four law schools in Louisiana.

Michael’s first novel, a legal thriller entitled The Cottoncrest Curse,was published in September by LSU Press