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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

#5 Michael Kun

20 Questions with Mourning Goats

I found Michael Kun years ago when his second book, The Locklear Letters, was published, and I'm so happy I did! It's one of the funniest books I've ever read. All of his books have a sense of humor mixed in to them with a view on life that is purely original. Even though he's a lawyer, I will cut him some slack because of his wonderful collection of books, as well as the answers he provided us here. Enjoy!  

1. What comes to mind when you hear, “Mourning Goats?”

I think immediately of Mourning Goat and Takei, the wonderful 1960s Saturday morning cartoon series from Japan. As I recall, Takei Yunoshi was an orphan boy who ran away one evening and stumbled upon a sad billy goat (Mourning Goat) by a river. Mourning Goat was also an ophan, and, though a billy goat, he could speak several languages and knew Morse Code. The two became fast friends and traveled the countryside together, eating plants and uncooked fish and solving mysteries along the way. I believe the Harlem Globetrotters appeared in one episode. Of course, I may be mistaken about some of this. Perhaps all.

2. You were the first author at MacAdam Cage to have a three book deal, what did this mean to your career and what was it like working with the press?

The three-book deal with MacAdam Cage came on the heels of The Locklear Letters. The book was getting some attention, largely from BookSense and Amazon, and we were waiting for the book to take off and become an international bestseller so I could quit my job and travel the world, letting people kiss my hand and buy me drinks and cake, as I understand they are wont to do with renowned authors. We're still waiting. Especially for the cake.

I don't remember much about the negotiation other than that MacAdam Cage wanted to lock me up for three books (which sounded great to me since my next three books were nearly complete) and that their draft contract included a term whereby I would receive a huge bonus if one of the three books made it to #1 on the New York Times bestsellers list. I knew that wasn't going to happen, so we renegotiated the contract to provide that I would receive the same enormous bonus if I became the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, which seemed equally plausible. I am proud to say that, to my knowledge, I am the only author to negotiate such a clause with any publisher. And, as a lawyer, I can tell you that the clause is air tight. (Not incidentally, that clause gives me an excuse to eat whatever and whenever I want because I need to keep my weight up. After all, I don't get the bonus if I become the middleweight champion. Just heavyweight. The contract is very explicit on that point.) 

I enjoyed my relationship with MacAdam Cage. I know they have fallen on some rough times, as have many publishers, and I hope they pull out of it. My favorite memory of my time with MacAdam Cage was the 2003 Book Expo in Los Angeles, where I live and work. David Poindexter, the publisher, arranged for a dinner for their authors who were attending the Expo. I was there to promote The Locklear Letters, my first book in 13 years, which most of the other authors where too young to have even heard. Among the group at dinner were Audrey Niffeneggar (The Time Traveler's Wife), Craig Clevenger (The Contortionist's Handbook), Mark Dunn (Ella Minnow Pea), and Amanda Eyre Ward (Sleep Toward Heaven). It was a very impressive group, and I've read and enjoyed each of their books since (and recommend them all). The reason I mention it, though, is that there was a spirit of camaraderie among the group that you often don't see among writers. No competitiveness, no back-biting, but the opposite. It felt like a team. Audrey and I have lost touch over the years, though I have enjoyed watching her tremendous success, but Craig, Mark and Amanda became and have remained my friends.

3. You never officially studied writing in college, has it always been a passion of yours? What sparked the first words?

Actually, I did study writing in college, I just didn't major in it. I studied in the writing seminars program at the Johns Hopkins University under Stephen Dixon.

It's actually a funny story how that came about, though, and I apologize in advance in it sounds self-congratulatory. I hadn't intended to take any writing classes at Hopkins, but I wrote a column for the campus newspaper that started receiving a bit of attention. After reading them, Steve tracked me down at my part-time job to invite me to take some of his classes. (My part-time job was working in the kiosk in the student union that sold candy, cigarettes and newspapers. Although I'm not sure I should say "sold" since I don't recall ever actually charging anyone for anything.) I expressed my concern to Steve about the structure of creative writing classes -- I didn't like the idea of being told to write about my grandmother one week, then to write about my dog the next week -- and Steve said, "Listen, you can ignore whatever assignment I give the class and write whatever you want. Just don't tell anyone." Or at least that's how I remember it. So I took classes with Steve for 3 years, wrote whatever I wanted, and got some very helpful feedback from him. His comments were often longer than the stories themselves. Eventually, Steve submitted one of my stories to Daniel Menaker at The New Yorker, and while that story was not accepted, that gave me the belief that someone, somewhere, might want to publish something I'd written.

In any event, not only did I study with Steve, but I'm proud to say I was his favorite student until Rosemary Mahoney came along, but I can't complain about that. She's a better writer than I, and has published a few exceptional books, including Whoredom in Kimmage.

By the way, if your readers aren't familiar with Stephen Dixon, I'd suggest they start with his short story collection, 16 Stories. As you may know, he came thisclose to winning the National Book Award for his novels Frog and Interstate some time ago, but I'm not sure I'd recommend those at first to readers who aren't familiar with Steve or his work.

And if Stephen Dixon should happen to stumble upon this interview, I say, "Hey, Steve. Hope you're enjoying your retirement. Thanks again for your help. And for helping me pad my GPA. And for the nice jacket blurb for The Locklear Letters. In that order."

4. Working full-time and writing a novel is hard, how do you make it happen when your full-time job is being an attorney?

I know you don't want to hear this, but my job, my law firm (Epstein Becker & Green), my clients and my cases come before my writing. I have people counting on me. I have a wife and a daughter, both of whom seem to like me, and we couldn't live for very long on what I make writing. And I have partners and clients who need me to devote my attention and creativity to the matters I'm handling because, in the practice of law, any slip-up or oversight can be costly, particularly in litigation. If I have spare time at night or on the weekends, and if I have the inspiration, I write. If I don't, I don't. Fortunately, to date, that's worked out fine.

5. What is your favorite style to write in? Novels, short stories or non-fiction, and why?

Non-fiction is the easiest for me, particularly the type of non-fiction that I write, which is usually about sports. Writing about pro football for www.washingtonpost.com/theleague is a pleasure because it comes very naturally.

But "easiest" isn't necessarily "favorite," is it? My favorite would be short stories because of the challenge to do something, to affect a reader, in a relatively short space. Not incidentally, there's more room for experimentation and less of a sense of failure if the experiment blows up in your face. If you read my short story collection, Corrections to My Memoirs, you can hear a few of those explosions.

6. I love the piece you wrote on Why Lawyers Write Novels, do you think anything like that could ever happen in the field?

Thanks, Goat. I'm glad you enjoyed the piece. Perhaps you'll include a link so readers will know what you're referring to. The idea that the legal profession needs an overhaul isn't a new or profound one, but I'm sad to say it's unlikely to happen in my lifetime. Simply put, the profession has no incentive to police itself more closely that it already does. Incompetent, dishonest or unethical lawyers only create more work and more profit for the other lawyers. If the good lawyers drove out the bad ones, the good ones would have less work to do, which of course translates to less money. To the extent the legal system is set up to benefit lawyers, it's working perfectly.

7. You proposed to your wife with the dedication page from You Poor Monster, that’s pretty epic, is she your first reader? If not, who is?

I did propose to Amy with the dedication page of You Poor Monster. I gave her a draft of the novel on her birthday and asked her to turn to that page, where it read, "To my wife." She's pretty funny, and I only learned later that she nearly responded, "I didn't know you were married." Now that I think of it, I'm not sure she actually said, "Yes."

My wife is one of my first readers these days, but not the only one. It's not that I don't trust her opinion, but we all know she's so damned lucky to be married to me that she'd never tell me if something stunk. (Please imagine I just winked as I said that.) She's one of the people I asked to take a look at my new book, Everybody Says Hello. The others are my old friends Bert Johnson and Gary Campbell.

Like many writers, I've been very fortunate to have had a number of people who were willing to read my work over the years, and to give me feedback, and I always worry that I've never thanked them enough.

In college, it was Kathryn Rhett, who's gone on to have a career as a poet, memoirist and editor. I believe she's teaching creative writing in Pennsylvania these days. (If she should stumble upon this, I say, "Thanks, Kath.")

When I was in law school and for several years afterward, I relied upon my friend and law school classmate Susan Stevens, without whom I can honestly say that I never would have had a word published. I know if she ever reads this she will accuse me of being dramatic, but it's true. I could pass a polygraph on that. ("Thanks, Sue.")

After that, I relied upon my good friends Andy Bienstock and Gary Campbell to read and comment on my writing. ("Thanks, guys.")

There were also a couple of ex-girlfriends who gave me their thoughts, too, but if you break up with me, you don't get your name mentioned in "Mourning Goats." Sorry, but those are the rules.

8. Do you have time to read for pleasure? What are some recommendations for the readers?

I do have some time to read for pleasure, mostly late at night or when I'm traveling. Unfortunately, I've been suffering from "reader's block" for a while. I buy books with the full intention of reading them, then put them aside if I can't get into them after 10 or 12 pages. It's not the books or the authors. It's me.

That said, I there are two books I've read recently that I recommend.

First is Maile Meloy's short story collection Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It. She's a remarkable writer. Her writing seems so effortless, and she has the rare ability to make you care about a character within a few sentences.

The second is Stephen Elliott's The Adderall Diaries. The book isn't up my alley in any way. I normally steer clear of memoirs, and memoirs about drug use and violence wouldn't usually intrigue me. But Stephen and I used to share an editor, and we've met a few times over the years, so I picked it up just to support another writer. Within a page I was hooked. It's a unique, compelling book, and Stephen's lack of faith in his own memories and willingness to share adventures that most of us would hide forever is admirable.

I also love Mo Willems' Leonardo the Terrible Monster. It's a kids' book that I've read to my daughter Paige far too many times, but never tire of.

9. Have any/all of your books been optioned for movies? Which would you like to see done most? Least?

The Locklear Letters has been optioned for a movie several times. I honestly don't know who has the option these days. There was a brief period of time when Pat O'Brien, Heather Locklear and I were talking about producing the movie together, but that never panned out. I'd still love to see The Locklear Letters turned into a movie, but the one I'd really like to see made into a movie is You Poor Monster. Granted, Charlie Kauffman might need to write the script to keep the two competing narratives going, but I can picture it in my mind. For some reason I always seen Tom Hanks as Shoogey.

I have no interest in seeing The Baseball Uncyclopedia: The Movie. Nor should anyone else.

10. On your website it says you’re currently working on a new book (my favorite title in the list is Everybody Says Hello), what can you tell us about it?

I just finished the final draft of Everybody Says Hello a couple weeks ago. It's a stand-alone Sid Straw epistolary novel. Sid was the main character in The Locklear Letters. In Everybody Says Hello, he relocates to California for a new job after his girlfriend leaves him. I'd like to think that it's every bit as entertaining as The Locklear Letters, but perhaps a bit more poignant. And, candidly, I hope the book finds a nice audience because I'd like to revisit the character every 5 years or so. I could see Sid Straw becoming my Rabbit Angstrom.

11. You have your website, facebook, and email address very accessible to your fans, have you had a lot of interaction since your second book? What do you see has changed since A Thousand Benjamins?

The way authors interact with their readers has changed completely since A Thousand Benjamins came out 20 years ago. Then, if readers wanted to share some thoughts with an author, they'd have to mail a letter to the publisher and hope it got forwarded. Now, they can reach many writers instantaneously through websites or email. I don't know about other writers, but it makes my day to get a kind email from a reader. And I'm more than happy to call in to talk with a book club.

12. We recently interviewed Pat Walsh here at Mourning Goats, and was wondering if he’s still your editor at MacAdam Cage and what your thoughts are about him (be gentle). :-) 

Pat hasn't been my editor for a few years. As you may know, he left MacAdam Cage for a while, and I had different editors there for my last two books. Pat's a good guy and was always very supportive of my writing. I just saw him and David Poindexter, the publisher, when I was in San Francisco a few weeks back, and we all had a nice time catching up. Although, now that I think of it, my wallet was missing afterward.

13. Can you tell us a little bit about your uncyclopedias? Did you come up with the idea?

I had wanted to write a baseball book for some time, but none of my ideas were even getting a nibble from publishers. The quirky-obscure-writer-writes-quirky-stuff-about-baseball pitch was going nowhere. Then one night I had the idea of writing a book that would ostensibly debunk some commonly held notions about the game and calling it an "uncyclopedia." Seemed like a fun word that I thought I was making up. And The Baseball Uncyclopedia was born. Then The Football Uncyclopedia. I'm working on The Movie Uncyclopedia with my friends Lou Harry (The High-Impact Infidelity Diet), Theresa Hoiles (Love, Luck and Lore) and Eric Feinstein. Then I'm giving up on this uncyclopedia stuff.

14. I read a review on amazon from a “past girlfriend” that said “Mike wrote two great books -- A Thousand Benjamins and Our Poor Sweet Napoleon -- then stopped writing. He won't talk about it, but he had his heart broken by a girl he went to law school with and just lost the desire to write.” Is there any truth to this? Also, is there anywhere to read Our Poor Sweet Napoleon?

Some of it is true, some of it isn't. And some of it she's just confused about. (And, yes, I can figure out who wrote that review. Terrific woman. Saw her at a book signing in Baltimore a few years back. Glad she's doing well.)

Did I write two great books, A Thousand Benjamins and Our Poor Sweet Napoleon? Yes and no. I wrote them, but they're not great books. I still appreciate all of the kind and generous reviews for A Thousand Benjamins, and I'm truly sorry if I haven't lived up to the predictions of those reviewers, but today it seems very clearly a book written by a young man trying to sound wiser than he really was. As for Our Poor Sweet Napoleon, it was serialized over 36 weeks in The City Paper in Baltimore back in the early 1990s. I reworked it over the course of 10 years or so, and it eventually became You Poor Monster. I'm sure someone somewhere still has the original, serialized version, though God knows why anyone would want to read it now. I certainly don't. It was unwieldy and vain. It was written by a young writer who had let his reviews go to his head.

Did I stop writing for a while after those books? Yes.

Was it because I had my heart broken by a girl I went to law school with and lost the desire to write? No. I did have my heart broken around that time, but not by anyone I went to law school with, and I didn't lose the desire to write. I kept revising Our Poor Sweet Napoleon, but just didn't have much time to write because of my work.

15. You co-authored two books, what was the process like in both of them? How hard was it to agree on topics and/or ideas to put in the book?

You're referring to The Baseball Uncyclopedia and The Football Uncyclopedia. They were both a pleasure to work on, and I rarely butted heads with my co-authors on either. In both cases, we would email each other various sections, then share feedback, until we had a final working draft. From there, we sat down together and did a final edit.

16. You have some very loyal fans, if you read the reviews on Amazon.com, they actually bash the people that have given bad reviews of your books, have you perused the reviews? What are your thoughts?

Over the years I suspect I have seen most, if not all, of those Amazon reviews. Friends email the links to me all the time. There are some very kind ones, which I appreciate. And there are some that are not so kind. There's one reader who posts a venomous, one-star review of each of my books. I honestly don't know why he or she would keep reading anything of mine if he or she dislikes my writing so much. If I don't like a book, I'm not likely to pick up that writer's next book, let alone his next five. I suspect that he or she hasn't read any of them, but that it's someone I've crossed paths with personally or professionally who's using the anonymity of Amazon.com to get even with me. To the extent other readers have been watching my back, I'm touched. And it they want to step up and identify themselves, I'll buy them a drink.

17. I got a lot of your books on my kindle (already had them in hardcover, but the prices were so good I couldn’t pass them up, just read The Locklear Letters, again!) What do you think about the way publishing is going?

It's a very strange time for publishing, isn't it, and it's hard to tell how much of what's happening is a result of the recession, declining interest or technology.

In many ways it's both the best of times and the worst of times to be a writer. If you're looking to get published in the traditional sense -- hardcover books sold in brick-and-mortar stores -- it's the worst of times. It's harder than ever to get a contract, let alone an advance you could live on. But if you just want to write something and share it with the world, it couldn't be easier or cheaper to do it. All you need is computer and a website.

As for e-books and e-readers and the impact they will have, I know no more than anyone else, and my feelings are very mixed. As a reader myself, I haven't purchased an e-reader yet, although I have to admit that I'm more intrigued than ever by iPads, Nooks and Kindles and may eventually give in and buy one, mostly for travel. The reason I haven't done so to date is that I enjoy bookstores too much. The experience of being in a bookstore is often more enjoyable to me than actually reading a book, and I would miss that. Similarly, I would miss the feel of holding a book in my hands. That said, as a writer, I know that e-books will be an important part of my future.

How e-books and e-readers will affect bookstores is another issue. Independent bookstores have been very kind to me over the years, and I've spent more than my fair share of time and money in them. (Two of my favorites off the top of my head -- BookWorks in Albuquerque, New Mexico and Read Between The Lynes in Woodstock, Illinois.) I want to see them continue to flourish, but e-books are a serious threat to them.

I know it's fashionable to trash the big chain bookstores, but I love Barnes & Noble and Borders, too. Not just because they have been very kind to me both nationally and locally, but because I enjoy the experience offered by their stores. No, not the coffee, but the selection and the roominess.

There's room for both the independents and the chains. And for Amazon, too. I know it's fashionable to trash Amazon for its impact on publishing, but I won't do that either. If the idea behind being a writer is to get your words in as many hands as possible, in many ways Amazon is the best thing to happen to writers in decades.

But e-books and e-readers change all of this. If they increase readers and sales, great. If they lead to the end of physical books and brick-and-mortar stores, terrible. If I had to predict the future, I don't see bookstores vanishing. There are too many of us who enjoy the experience of bookstores and of holding a book. But as e-readers inevitably become more popular, I suspect that the business models will change, and bookstores will have a different relationship with e-books.

18. I loved the letters on your website to co-workers, any plans for more? Have any of your co-workers ever realized that they were about them? 

Thanks. Maybe you'll provide a link so your readers will see what you're referring to. I was just fooling around, and I enlisted some help in faxing the fake letters to my co-workers remotely so they hopefully wouldn't figure out that they came from me. I don't know if I should be proud or offended that they figured it out immediately. I'm afraid I'm done with the fake letters to co-workers, at least for now. I'm trying to act more like an adult these days.

19. What is the best advice you can give to writers out there? 

Write something. Anything. But just write. I can't tell you how many people I've met over the years who have introduced themselves as writers but who haven't written anything. I don't mean that they haven't published anything, but that they haven't written anything. They'll talk your ear off about an idea they have, and two years later they're still talking about the same idea, not having written a word. Don't be that person. Write. If you like it, keep it. If you don't like it, still keep it. You never know if your opinion of it will change.

20. What’s next for Michael Kun? Do you see yourself retiring from law anytime soon to write full-time?

I hope that Everybody Says Hello will be out sometime in 2011 or early 2012. The same for The Movie Uncyclopedia.

I've started work on a new novel called This Means War, but I'm not very far along and will likely have to change the title as I've seen there's a movie coming out soon with that title. I'm leaning toward calling it Ten (More) Commandments. I will probably talk myself out of that by the time you post this interview.

I hope to keep writing about the National Football League for www.thewashingtonpost.com/theleague, if they still want me and if Brett Favre doesn't have me bumped off. I haven't had too many kind things to say about him.

As for retirement, that's not going to happen for a long, long time. Our daughter is 4 years old. If I'm doing my math right, we've got 17 more years of food, clothing and tuition for that kid. But that's fine. She's a great kid, even if she has some odd plans for the future. She's already decided she want to be a writer when she grows up. A writer and an "ice ballerina," whatever that is.

Thank you, Michael!

And finally, don't forget to "like" Mourning Goats on Facebook and pick up Chewing the Page: The Mourning Goats Interviews on Amazon! 


  1. Great interview with one of my favorite authors! And I'm psyched for the return of Sid Straw...