My guest this week is the multi-faceted Elliott Mackle, author of the very popular Captain Harding series, among other fine novels.
Where do you live?
I moved to Atlanta 40-some years ago for graduate school at Emory University and never left the neighborhood.
Writers rarely like to toot their own horns; seriously! What would you say is your greatest accomplishment?
Never taking myself, my writing or my influence too seriously. Back when take-no-prisoners restaurant reviewers were the newest best thing in journalism, I became dining critic for a major daily, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. We had a circulation of something like 600,000. My editor instructed me to rate Atlanta restaurants against the best in New York, Miami, San Francisco and Rome and not against the tired traditions of the past. Guess what? I broke some windows and shut down a few grease shacks, but the restaurant scene in the ATL heated up, people took notice and the level of food, service and sophistication soared. One local magazine called me the most powerful man in town. Horse douvers, I replied. Cox Communications has the power and merely delegates it to me. As for the novels, I’ve been fortunate enough to draw many favorable reviews, win a few prizes and attract fans from Australia to the U.K., with California evidently my best market. But I’m no Tom Clancy. Which is fine by me. Clancy is R.I.P. and Mackle’s still around.
You just applied to be a critic and were hired? No way.
I started cooking at the age of eight. My family owned hotels and restaurants so I knew the culinary back stage. I served four years as a food service officer in the Air Force. After grad school, I did PR for the State of Georgia’s child nutrition program and gradually picked up food-writing assignments with small local and state journals and magazines. Eventually, I was offered a column on what was then the region’s most influential alternative newsweekly. People (though not necessarily restaurant owners) liked what I wrote. When the reviewing slot at the AJC opened up, I gave it my best shot.
Without getting too personal, can you share a little about your home life?
We’re the typical gay family on the block. I work at home, pay the bills and breed and show miniature schnauzers with a veterinarian partner who lives in North Georgia. That takes me to dog shows around the region every few weekends. My life partner is much older and frail. His role is caring for the retired dogs here at home.
I have a small group of friends, none of them writers, who get together for lunch or dim sum at least once a week. We chew through whatever’s happening or bothering one of us. It’s been noted that a lot of the action in my novels takes place over food and drink. That’s no accident; that’s how many people operate day-to-day. I didn’t plan it that way, but it’s a useful narrative device that seems to have carried over from restaurant reviews to fiction.
What inspires and challenges you most in writing?
Once I get a set of characters talking I pretty much take dictation. That leads to two problems: Cutting conversations down to the essential elements and crafting just the right transitions and scene-setting descriptions without slowing down the action.
Inspiration? The dialog I’m carrying on both with readers and other writers; the sense that my fictional entertainments give pleasure to people who are unfamiliar with, say, the dangers of being homosexual or a war-widowed party girl in small-town Florida in 1949 and the ways in which men and women of that period – or the Vietnam era – managed to escape prosecution and build lives together.
You’ve probably answered this question a hundred times, but please indulge as our readers (and fellow writers) would like to know: Do you fly by the seat of your pants when writing or plot out your storylines?
At heart I’m an essayist so I plot everything out. I start with an outline of about 50 pages that includes the first and last grafs of the book. I usually hand it to one or two of my beta readers, follow up by making the suggested changes and get to work filling in the blanks.
In 1996 you worked for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and wrote about the Olympic Games, the basis of your novel, Hot off the Presses. What was it like to work for the premier newspaper of the South during the Centennial Games and how did your experience influence your corresponding novel?
It would take a stronger man than I not to be caught up in the excitement of a world-class event such as the Games. It would take a much stronger stomach not to be sickened by the commercialism, selfishness, rudeness and stupidity displayed by the organizers and sponsors as well as some of the participants and athletes. I’d been a fan of televised Olympics and “Wide World of Sports” since college and seeing some of the events on site was unforgettable. I’m thinking of cross-country horsemanship, diving and javelin, the latter seldom featured on TV because it doesn’t photograph well.
For various reasons (including deference to my former employers who gave me the ticket to ride) I didn’t want it to come off as a memoir or reportage. Rather than tell the story through the eyes of a reporter for a daily, I created a narrator, Henry Thompson, who is editor of the local LGBT weekly and who pulls strings to get a reporter’s credentials. Well before the Games he becomes involved with a closeted bisexual athlete favored for gold medals. Partly through his connection to Henry, the jock, Wade Tarpley, comes apart during the competition, losing all chance of a medal, and blames Henry and a mutual friend for the disaster. Henry’s dilemma: whether to report all aspects of the story or pull punches because of his personal involvement.
This was and is the dilemma of many sports and political reporters. To gain access and retain face time, the reporter must often soft-pedal the grittier aspects of what they witness on their beat. Nowhere in my career was this more apparent than at the Centennial Games. Henry is lucky enough to find a mentor who helps him find his way. I left the AJC the next year, though not entirely for reasons related to filing “make-nice,” dumbed-down columns.
You currently have two series going; “Dan-and-Bud” and “Captain Harding”, both gay historical mystery/suspense/thrillers. How do you sustain serialized, continuing characters?
This may sound crazy, but when I’m working on one of the narratives, I essentially live in it, inhabit the room or car or boat, listen to the dialog and smell the roses – or the camel burgers. It’s a trick I learned doing reviews. Of course I’d make notes immediately after the meal, and sometime have press kits, menus or photographs on hand as references. But when I began to compose I’d will or imagine myself back in the restaurant, with the food in front of me, a server refilling my water glass and a woman at the next table talking loudly about her ex-husband’s multiple deficiencies.
As far as I’m concerned, Joe Harding, Dan Ewing, Henry Thompson and Elizabeth Boardman are people who inhabit alternate versions of my life. Within the next few days I plan to slip away to Fort Myers, Florida, during the early months of 1950. Dan and Bud will be there waiting, along with a couple of men who drowned under mysterious circumstances.
What was your inspiration for the incredible, multifaceted Captain Harding?
Men and women who don’t follow the rules laid down by white Christian family men and their prophets have always taken sexual and emotional risks. In Joe Harding, I wanted to create a military man who takes every risk this side of shoplifting canned hams at the commissary. His sexual partners include an under-age boy, a prize fighter, a medic, a fighter pilot and a CIA thug. He beds the boy on government property. He allows himself to be picked up by the pilot in the base gym’s steam room and by the thug in the bar of a public casino. The boy’s powerful parents learn of the affair, but Joe finagles a sort of acceptance. The thug and the boxer are unlucky, but Joe eludes serious trouble until he encounters a series of events beyond his control.
After your books come out, have had you ever had to deal with homophobia, and if so, what form has it taken?
Not to my face though, it’s hard to judge. A few months after the publication of Hot off the Presses, the Atlanta Press Club asked me to participate in their annual holiday sale and signing for local writers. Hot has a fairly racy cover. Not one of my former colleagues even picked up the book, much less bought a copy. I haven’t been invited back, nor have mainstream local publications paid much attention to the success of my work.
On behalf of the Facebook Gay Mystery-Thriller-Suspense Fiction Group, thank you for giving us a little of your time today, answering questions fans of the genre really want to know.
Last two questions; can you share with us a little about your current release and/or WIP?
Although personal matters forced me to break off work a couple of months ago, I’m trying to get back to a third Dan-and-Bud tentatively titled Sunset Island. The action happens between the time covered in It Takes Two and Only Make Believe so it’s tricky going. One of the principal subsidiary characters introduced in It Takes Two comes to a bad end. Keeping track of the various guests, staffers and party girls at the Caloosa Hotel and Club requires the mental equivalent of a spreadsheet (I actually did create paper spreadsheets for Harding #2 and #3). The action centers on a wealthy and powerful family of local landowners and a series of men who drown under suspicious circumstances. The explosive last scene is written. I can’t wait to get it into print.
And where can readers buy your novels?
At local GLBT or independent bookstores, on-line vendors such as B&N and Smashwords, or by hitting the Buy the Book tabs on my website: www.elliottmacklebooks.com. The latter will direct you to a choice of booksellers and prices.