Monday, September 08, 2014

A Conversation with Thriller Writer Michael H. Rubin

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Michael H. Rubin
with Michael H. Rubin

We are delighted to welcome novelist Michael H. Rubin to Omnimystery News today, courtesy of JKSCommunications, which is coordinating his current book tour. We encourage you to visit all of the participating host sites; you can find his schedule here.

Michael's debut legal thriller is The Cottoncrest Curse (LSU Press; September 2014 hardcover and ebook formats) and we recently had the opportunity to talk with Michael about his new book.

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Omnimystery News: Introduce us to The Cottoncrest Curse.

Michael H. Rubin
Photo provided courtesy of
Michael H. Rubin

Michael H. Rubin: The Cottoncrest Curse is designed to set the stage for my other novels. I have also written two contemporary legal thrillers and have two more novels in the works. The characters in The Cottoncrest Curse are the ancestors of those portrayed in my other books. Each book is intended to be self-contained, so that you can read any one of them without having read the others, but if you read them all, you will have a deeper understanding of the characters and their motivations.

OMN: As a novel set in the 1800s, how did you capture the proper voices of the characters, both male and female?

MHR: While The Cottoncrest Curse centers on the story of Jake Gold, an itinerant peddler with deep secrets to conceal, there are a number of other key characters, including: Raifer Jackson, a no-nonsense sheriff; Jenny, the daughter of a slave who speaks French and acts as a nurse and translator for an elderly widow; and Sally, a former slave who longs to escape the plantation life to which she is still confined. Each brings a unique perspective to the story, and each views the world differently. It is my goal to create characters that readers will find believable and "real," regardless of gender.

Because my wife and I work on the plots and storylines together, she helps make sure that the voices of the female characters resonate appropriately, for if they ring true for her, then I'm sure that they'll ring true for all my readers, both male and female. If a character is fully developed by an author, I don't think it makes a difference to the reader what gender the writer is.

OMN: Into what genre do you place your book?

MHR: It sometimes appears that, understandably, characterizing a book occurs for marketing purposes only after the book has been completed. When I sat down to write The Cottoncrest Curse, I didn't approach it as trying to appeal to a pre-conceived niche market. Rather, I wanted to explore issues of truth and identity over the course of several generations in the context of a page-turning novel. Having written it, I have found some people describe The Cottoncrest Curse as a "thriller," some describe it as an "historical mystery," and some describe it as a "legal thriller." I understand the need for labeling, especially in today's competitive book market, but the after-the-fact label is not as important to me as writing a book that readers find engrossing.

OMN: Tell us something about The Cottoncrest Curse that isn't mentioned in the publisher's synopsis.

MHR: Although it is fiction, the background of the novel was thoroughly researched and its accuracy has been vetted by historians. For example, the historical events surrounding the famous separate-but-equal case of Plessy v. Ferguson, described in the novel, are true. Attorney Louis Martinet, depicted in the novel, was a real person, a black lawyer succeeding in racist, post-Reconstruction Louisiana. It was Martinet who came up with the idea of creating a test case to vindicate the rights of former slaves under the 14th Amendment. Martinet had a great plan and solid legal theories, but unfortunately it took almost six decades before the United States Supreme Court came around to the views he had articulated in the 1890s and overruled Plessy with the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, which the novel deals with as well.

OMN: How would you summarize the book in a tweet?

MHR: An elderly Civil War colonel kills his young wife and shoots himself. But his death was not the first suicide of an owner of the plantation, and it was not to be the last.

OMN: How much of your own professional or personal experience have you included in the book?

MHR: The protagonist, itinerant peddler Jake Gold, was very loosely inspired by my great-grandfather, a Russian immigrant who left home at the age of twelve to escape the pogroms and who, when he finally made it to America, started life here as an itinerant peddler.

Jake Gold's adventures, however, are not those of my great-grandfather. Jake is a purely fictional character. On the other hand, many of scenes and conflicts depicted in the novel are firmly based on actual historical events.

OMN: Tell us a little more about your writing process.

MHR: I don't work from a formal plot or a detailed synopsis; however, before starting to write I jot down notes about the arc of the story and 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. When I sit down to write the first chapter, I already know what the end will be and have a rough sketch of the final chapter in mind.

Concerning expanding or contracting the cast of characters in the novel, I sometimes find that a character whom I thought would have a minor role grows more important to the story, but because I feel I really know the main characters before I start writing, my primary task — along with making sure that the plot remains intriguingly brisk, with unexpected twists and turns — is to keep the voice of each character distinct.

OMN: Where do you usually write?

MHR: My home office is packed with works I admire, both fiction and non-fiction, as well as historical books and other reference materials. I do everything on my laptop — from my initial notes to an outline of the arc of the story to lists of potential names of characters to bits of dialogue, all the way through to the actual writing itself, the editing and reediting (and reediting again), and the proofreading. I make sure to back up everything I've written each time before shutting down my computer.

OMN: How did you go about researching the plot points of the story?

MHR: I have always been a history buff, and I collect non-fiction history books, especially about the 19th Century. When I sat down to write The Cottoncrest Curse, I had a firm idea of the actual historical events I wanted to depict in this fictional novel, and I used my personal library as a reference as well as relying on my knowledge of the law and my legal training.

Having The Cottoncrest Curse published by the award-winning LSU Press was a great advantage. Being a university press, the LSU Press had the novel thoroughly vetted by historians before accepting it for publication. Readers, therefore, can be confident that the story is firmly grounded in historical events.

One of the most interesting parts of the research involved making sure that the language the characters use is historically accurate. For example, in a scene set in 1893, a grizzled, no-nonsense former Civil War physician complains that a young deputy doesn't have "sense God gave to a large rock, a small pebble, or even a tiny dornick." A reader can rest assured that "dornick" was in common use in 1893.

OMN: How true are you to the setting of the book?

MHR: Being accurate about both geography and history is very important to me, because this not only gives weight and veracity to the story, but it also helps create a fully believable world for the reader. While many scenes of The Cottoncrest Curse take place 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 description 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 are all historically accurate.

OMN: If you could travel anywhere in the world, all expenses paid, to research the setting for a book, where would it be?

MHR: My wife and I have spent a good deal of time in both New York City and London, England. Both have not only architectural wonders and fascinating buildings, parks, and neighborhoods, but also unparalleled libraries containing massive collections of historical books, maps, magazines, newspapers, and other documents. I'd love to utilize these resources to work on a novel with a storyline that moves between these two locales.

OMN: What are some of your outside interests? Have any of these found their way into your stories?

MHR: I used to play jazz piano professionally, including in the New Orleans French Quarter. I still play piano every day. Playing jazz is like writing a novel. Both involve working creatively around a theme. In jazz, the theme is melody and chord structure. In a novel, the theme is the plot. In jazz, I use the theme 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 of (and that even I might not have thought of when I started writing the novel), and move the tale along to a satisfying conclusion.

OMN: What is the best advice you've received as an author?

MHR: The best advice I've ever received is the one all fledging writers get but find hard to put into practice — show, don't tell. A novel isn't a textbook. A novel isn't a history lesson. A novel isn't a rushed outline. A novel shouldn't be dry and pedantic. A novel should be so compelling that readers feel as if they are completely "in" the story, not outside of it.

As you might imagine from this, the harshest criticism I received when I was starting out, was that I was telling, not showing. It took many, many rewrites to learn how to show and not tell.

In addition to the great advice I received about showing and not telling, the other invaluable advice was "don't give up." Almost no one writes a classic on the first draft. Few do so in their second draft. It is often 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 cut out excess verbiage, stilted language, and boring paragraphs, encouraging me to revise my manuscript again and again, improving it each time. Every author needs frank comments and constructive criticism coupled with a sincere reminder that you should rewrite, and that you shouldn't give up because what you have to say is worthwhile.

OMN: Complete this sentence for us: "I am a thriller writer and thus I am also …".

MHR: I am a thriller writer and thus I'm also someone who loves to tell a tale so lurid and interesting that when a reader gets to the end of a chapter, he or she will say, "OK, I'll just read a few more paragraphs of the next chapter to find out what happened," and ends up spending all night finishing the book.

OMN: Tell us how the book came to be titled. And were you involved in the cover design?

MHR: My wife came up with the title. We were looking for a name that simultaneously evoked plantation life in the deep south, indicated that an aristocratic family was involved (because families have crests), echoed the location of the plantation at the crest of the river, and telegraphed that this book was a thriller where horrible deaths had occurred over the years and the mystery behind them had to be solved. One of our early morning walks she asked, "Why not call it 'The Cottoncrest Curse'?" When she said it, we both knew instantly it was the perfect title.

The book design was a joint effort involving my wife, me, and the great staff of my publisher, the LSU Press. We wanted a cover that told the reader this was a thriller in which a murder by a knife was key to the plot. The cover, with its plantation home, knife-like "T" in The Cottoncrest Curse, and dripping blood over the title says it all.

OMN: What kind of feedback have you received from readers?

MHR: There is nothing more enjoyable then fielding questions from readers who know a lot about the Civil War era or the Civil Rights era and who ask how I got all the historical details right while they're reading a thriller that they couldn't put down.

Likewise, I love getting questions from readers who thought they didn't care about history but who said that The Cottoncrest Curse not only gave them goose-bumps as they raced from page to page, following the dangerous adventures of the key characters, but also taught them something that they didn't know.

OMN: Suppose The Cottoncrest Curse were to be adapted for television or film. Who do you see playing the key roles?

MHR: One of the key characters is a grizzled physician who, decades earlier, was a Confederate medical officer in the Civil War. Although he's in his sixties and a bit rotund when the murders occur in the last decade of the 19th Century, he's brave, fearless, and compassionate, with a plain-spoken wry sense of a humor. The doctor helps figure out who the killer is. I can easily imagine John Goodman in the role.

OMN: What kinds of books did you read when you were young?

MHR: As a kid I loved mysteries of all kinds. After I had worked my way through The Hardy Boys novels as well as the Tom Swift series, my parents gave me "The Complete Sherlock Holmes" and I was hooked!

But, I also loved science fiction, so I read lots of Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein, as well as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, because I found that they also were great writers whose works were as much mysteries and thrillers as they were science fiction.

OMN: Have any specific authors influenced how and what you write today?

MHR: Ray Bradury was a master of many genres, and his effortless prose has inspired me. My copies of his books are dog-eared from years of being read and re-read. My wife and I were lucky enough to spend an entire afternoon with Bradbury at his home in California a year or so before he died. During that memorable time, he not only talked about the technical aspects of constructing a novel, but he also regaled us with many stories about how he came to write Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, and the screen play for the movie Moby Dick, which was directed by John Huston and starred Gregory Peck. It was an afternoon neither my wife nor I will ever forget.

Charles Dickens and Mark Twain are also writers I greatly admire. I love Dickens because his characters leap off the page and into your imagination, as real as if they had knocked on your door and paid you a long visit during which you got to know them well. And Twain because of his great ability to mingle humor and incisive insights into human nature with pristine writing that sparkles.

OMN: What kinds of books do you read now for pleasure?

MHR: For pleasure right now, I'm reading non-fiction, mostly histories. Among the books I've read or reread recently are Howard Blum's "Dark Invasion, 1915, Germany's Secret War and The Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America," which tells the story of a New York police inspector charged with finding and stopping terrorists armed with bombs and biological weapons in the time leading up to WWI. Meticulously researched and all true, yet as riveting as novels by John LeCarré, David Baldacci, and James Patterson.

Another book I've recently reread is Barbara Tuchman's "A Distant Mirror," focusing on an elegant and ruthless French nobleman born in 1340. It deals with medieval daily life, politics and wars, and the impacts of both the Church and the Great Plague. Like any great novel, this work of non-fiction is both a page-turner and a meticulously researched history.

OMN: What types of films do you enjoy watching?

MHR: Well-done thrillers are always a treat for me to watch, particularly those where you come to understand that the line between good and evil is not always clear, where what constitutes the "truth" may not be obvious, and where the director and writer make the viewer care about what happens. Films as varied as North By Northwest, The Third Man, The Parallax View, The French Connection, and Blade Runner all do this for me.

But, I also love the classic comedies of the Marx Brothers and the great musicals of the 1930s-1950s.

OMN: What are your all-time favorite movies?

MHR: Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz, Danny Kaye's The Court Jester, Singing in the Rain, and The French Connection.

OMN: Have any of these films inspired the plots of your books?

MHR: While none directly inspired The Cottoncrest Curse, in an indirect way my novel owes something to each of them. Like Citizen Kane, my novel is a work of fiction grounded in an historical past. Like The Wizard of Oz and The Court Jester, my novel mixes humor with danger. Like Singing in the Rain, my novel involves music; part of The Cottoncrest Curse takes place in the New Orleans French Quarter, at the end of the 1800s, when jazz is just evolving. And, like The French Connection, the gritty realism of the locale plays a key role in The Cottoncrest Curse.

OMN: You mentioned your top five films. Create another top five list for us on any subject.

MHR: My top 5 favorite authors are: Charles Dickens, because his characters are so real and his writing seems to effortless; Mark Twain, because he cloaked astute comments with wry humor; John LeCarre, because of his intricate plotting and ability to portray our infinite ability to deceive others and be deceived; Ray Bradbury, because he wrote so well in so many different genres; and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who created in his Sherlock Holmes stories a character so indelible that more than 125 years later, Sherlock is still with us and thrilling us with his adventures in movies and books both old and new.

OMN: What's next for you?

MHR: I've almost finished polishing up Privilege, a contemporary thriller written in the film noir tradition. Privilege is about a laconic loner whom everyone is after as dead bodies keep piling up. It will be in final form shortly, ready for publishers to see.

Privilege is about … well, here's an excerpt from the prologue to give you a taste of what's in store:

"Have I become a failure as a lawyer? You bet. While others were climbing up the ladder, I fell off of it.

"I've got a broken-down office, a failed marriage, and a past-due mortgage note.

"Until three weeks ago, I had no clients.

"Well, no clients to speak of, except G.G. Guidry.

"But now G.G. Guidry has been murdered.

"And until three weeks ago, I had no money.

"Except for the $4,452,737 in cash G.G. left with me for safekeeping."

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Michael H. Rubin Book Tour

Michael H. Rubin 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.

For more information about the author, please visit his website at or find his on Facebook and Twitter.

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The Cottoncrest Curse by Michael H. Rubin

The Cottoncrest Curse
Michael H. Rubin
A Legal Thriller

The bodies of an elderly colonel and his comely young wife are discovered on the staircase of their stately plantation home, their blood still dripping down the wooden balustrades. Within the sheltered walls of Cottoncrest, Augustine and Rebecca Chastaine have met their deaths under the same shroud of mystery that befell the former owner, who had committed suicide at the end of the Civil War. Locals whisper about the curse of Cottoncrest Plantation, an otherworldly force that has now taken three lives. But Sheriff Raifer Jackson knows that even a specter needs a mortal accomplice, and after investigating the crime scene, he concludes that the apparent murder/suicide is a double homicide, with local peddler Jake Gold as the prime suspect.

Assisted by his overzealous deputy, a grizzled Civil War physician, and the racist Knights of the White Camellia, the Sheriff directs a manhunt for Jake through a village of former slaves, the swamps of Cajun country, and the bordellos of New Orleans. But Jake's chameleon-like abilities enable him to elude his pursuers. As a peddler who has built relationships by trading fabric, needles, dry goods, and especially razor-sharp knives in exchange for fur, Jake knows the back roads of the small towns that dot the Mississippi River Delta. Additionally, his uncanny talent for languages allows him to pose as just another local, hiding his true identity as an immigrant Jew who fled Czarist-Russia. Print/Kindle Format(s) Print/Nook Format(s)


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