How John Nichols, Frank Cannon and A Dishwasher Made Me an Author

By Michael W. Sherer

Though reasonably bright, I was never a very good student. I managed Cs, Bs and the occasional A not through hard work or an exceptionally clear understanding of the subject matter, but mostly through natural absorption and luck. I had, as one prep school teacher put it, “the attention span of a minnow,” and spent more time in class daydreaming than listening. Lack of focus made homework distasteful at best, abhorrent at worst depending on the subject matter (the result, I learned much later in life, from having ADD).

Math courses like algebra, geometry, trigonometry, etc., were foreign languages, like learning Japanese, or Greek. I could do it, to a degree, but when would I ever have the opportunity to speak Japanese or Greek? Sciences, though fascinating in theory, involved numbers in practice, which made them as difficult to learn as math. History involved the memorization of numbers—what date this happened, what date that happened—and seemed as dry and uninteresting as the Bonneville Salt Flats. I took French, for five years, and loved the sound of it rolling off my tongue, but never could get the hang of all the tenses, and never dreamed in French either.

In college that left one subject I felt reasonably confident of passing—my native language, English. Pass I did, with Cs, Bs and the occasional A.

We had a 4-1-4 semester system—two semesters of four courses/credits each, in between which fell the month of January, otherwise known as “Winter Study,” when all sorts of eclectic courses were in the catalog, and grading was pass/fail. A creative writing course was offered my junior year. Since it was in English, I figured I could pass.

The course was taught by an alum who had graduated ten years earlier. In the first few classes he told us about his own creative writing experience. He’d gone to live with his grandmother in Spain the year after graduation and had written a novel about college life. Upon his return he sent it around to the major NYC publishers where it eventually found a home after about 17 rejections. The book became an instant bestseller, and was made into a major motion picture starring Liza Minnelli. His second book, bought by the publisher before it was written and finished under deadline pressure, bombed. Critics hated it and few people bought it. He married, moved to Taos, N.M., and wrote for a muckraking newspaper and had been working on his third novel for six years.

I decided then and there that I wanted to be a novelist. What a great life! Write a bestseller, sell the movie rights and sit around a pool in Taos living off the royalties!

Michael Sherer 001Our teacher was John Nichols. His first book was The Sterile Cuckoo, and the book he was writing the year I met him (published a year later) was The Milagro Beanfield War.

I graduated with a degree in English, no surprise, which is about as helpful in starting a career as a roll of toilet paper. One’s options are limited to teaching, if you go back to school and get a teaching degree, and washing dishes in a restaurant. I chose the latter. It was a hot, dirty job, and after I eventually worked my up to kitchen assistant, I never wanted to see that dishwasher again. I wanted to be a rich and famous author more than ever.

I worked in the restaurant about 80 hours a week to make enough for rent and utilities. In what little downtime I had, I watched television, the only thing I had enough energy for. A couple of popular shows at the time were “The Rockford Files” and “Cannon.” I’d written my first novel in college and as the itch to write another grew unbearable, I learned my first lesson from TV—suspend the reader’s disbelief.

Jim Rockford was a cool guy, and jaded enough that whenever he found a dead body, he’d calmly call Lt. Becker (or not, depending). Many of us, I realized, would run screaming from the room in the same situation. But I could go with it. Frank Cannon was another story. I saw one episode in which Cannon (short, portly) was ambushed by two guys pretending to be cops. They were both built like NFL tight ends, but somehow Frank turned the tables on both of them and handcuffed them to their car! Sorry, it didn’t work for me.

I thought, “What if I take a guy like me and throw him into the same situations?” I might throw up at the sight of dead people with their brains splattered on the floor, and I’d certainly get the crap beat out of me by two guys intending to beat the crap out of me, though I might get in some licks of my own. That led to the creation of Emerson Ward.

Thanks to John Nichols, a dishwasher and Frank Cannon, my first series was born.

 

Michael W. Sherer :

After stints as a manual laborer, dishwasher, bartender, restaurant manager, commercial photographer, magazine editor and public relations executive, Mike decided life should imitate art. He’s now an author and freelance writer. Mike has published six novels in the award-winning Emerson Ward mystery series and a stand-alone suspense novel, Island Life, which was a USA Book News “Best Books” award-winner in 2008. Night Blind is the first of Mike’s new thriller series set in Seattle featuring Blake Sanders, and he’s working on the fourth in the series now. He’s also completed the first book in a YA thriller series. A member and past regional vice president of Mystery Writers of America, Mike has served as an Edgar Awards judge. He’s also a member of the International Thriller Writers and the Authors Guild. Mike grew up on a farm in northern Illinois, went to prep school and college “back east,” and lived in Chicago for 20 years. He and his family now reside in the Seattle area. Please visit his web sites at www.michaelwsherer.com and www.islandlife-thenovel.com.