Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Interview with author E. Michael Helms

Q ~ Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
A ~ I was born in Georgia somewhere around the middle of the 20th Century. Raised in Panama City, FL, where the panhandle beaches were a paradise to grow up. Joined the USMC after graduating high school, fought and was wounded. Wrote freelance magazine articles and later edited a couple of area tabloid newspapers. Counselling for PTSD resulted in the writing of my first published book, The Proud Bastards, a Vietnam War memoir. I later wrote an autobiographical novel, The Private War of Corporal Henson, about the group counselling experience with other combat vets. I’m now a full-time writer living in the beautiful Upstate region of South Carolina. I’m happily married for 20-plus years (2nd marriage), have two grown daughters, and two rambunctious grandsons.

Q ~ If you could have lunch with one person, dead, alive, or imaginary, who would it be and why?
A ~ Samuel Langhorne Clemens aka Mark Twain. He was a great writer, humorist, and lived a full and diverse life. His Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn books had a profound effect on me as a kid. It would be a very long lunch. Since he’s deceased I doubt he’d be in any hurry.

Q ~ What is your favourite electronic gadget?
A ~ My laptop computer. I’m not into cell phones at all (I despise them, and can’t read anything that small anyway, and I’ve NEVER texted!). I do have a Kindle reader and a Kindle Fire tablet. The tablet is handy for books, browsing, and checking e-mail if I’m away from home. However, I usually have my laptop with me anyway, so I could get along without those. They are handy for reading, I’ll admit.

Q ~ How do you think people perceive authors?
A ~ I used to think almost all authors, especially novelists, were extraordinary people, and probably well-off financially. (Insert big laugh here!) To write a book and see it in print and stacked on the shelves of a bookstore had to be a phenomenal experience, something to dream about, but something I could never possibly attain. I was awed by authors during my youth. When I actually accomplished that dream, somehow the reality didn’t live up to the expectation. I suppose it was because I became an author only after a lot of hard-learned life experiences. It was still exciting, but not the thrill I once imagined.

Q ~ What is your favorite quote, by whom, and why?
A ~ “Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.” Ernest Hemingway. There is a world of wisdom in those few words.

Q ~ Ebooks, paperbacks, or hardcovers?
A ~ For reading, paperbacks. As a writer I’d prefer to be published in hardcover. Only one of my books has achieved that. E-books are great in their own way. You can store tons of books on a reader, taking an entire library of good reading with you.

Q ~ What is your favourite genre to read? To write?
A ~ Mysteries. Before I began writing the Mac McClellan Mystery series, all my previous books were focused on the subject of war, or its effects. Because of my personal experiences in the subject, it was very draining. When I finished my two-book Civil War saga, Of Blood and Brothers, I needed a change. For some time I’d thought about writing a mystery, so I decided to give it a try. Luckily my first shot at the genre (“Deadly Catch: A Mac McClellan Mystery”) was successful. However, my protagonist, Mac McClellan, is a retired Marine with extensive combat experience in Iraq. I believe I needed that Marine/combat connection to understand what makes Mac tick. Some things you simply can’t get away from.

Q ~ Are there any new Authors that have grasped your interest recently and why?
A ~ Robert J. Ray isn’t “new” per say, but I recently discovered his work so I suppose that counts. His Matt Murdock Mysteries are intriguing. He began writing the series in the 1980s. An up and coming author to watch is Max Everhart, who writes the Eli Sharpe Mysteries. He’s a talented young man with a world of potential.

Q ~ How did you begin writing? Was there a single catalyst or a series of events?
A ~ In first grade my teacher said to take this big, fat pencil and . . . just a little humor there! I always loved to read, and dreamed of being a writer/major league baseball player. My injuries in Vietnam took care of ever making “the big show,” but indirectly launched my writing career. I mentioned freelancing earlier. Some of the articles I wrote were about the war in Vietnam. I had the cover story for a national Vietnam War magazine in New York. I became good friends with the editor (via long distance). While undergoing therapy for PTSD, one of our assignments was to begin a journal of our thoughts and feelings about our experiences in the war. My “journal” soon took the form of a book. About halfway through, I sent a few chapters I felt could be standalone articles for my editor friend’s magazine. He was impressed enough to ask me to send him the entire manuscript when completed. Unknown to me at the time, he was also a part-time literary agent. He quickly sold The Proud Bastards to a New York publisher, Kensington/Zebra. And the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Q ~ Do you have any writing rituals that you follow? What is your go-to snack while writing?
A ~ Not really. I try to begin around 10 a.m. by reading and editing what I’ve written the day before. I’m not one of those who write an entire first draft and then go back and edit. I edit as I go. It’s a slow process, but when that first draft is finished it’s in pretty decent shape. Usually I knock off around 5 p.m. That’s Happy Hour, my time to relax and unwind with my wife on the back deck. She’s a good editor and critic in her own right, and we’ll often discuss what I’ve written and where I’m going next with the storyline. As for snacks, I rarely eat or drink anything (except water) during writing sessions.

Q ~ When you write, do you try to reach a specific word count or simply write until you are done?
A ~ I wish! I’m probably among the world’s laziest and disorganized writers. On a really good day I might write a thousand words. Usually, if I get a page or two down I consider it a decent day’s work. It’s those darn characters’ fault—they are the ones telling the story! (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)

Q ~ Do you prefer to write in a small town or big city setting? Why?
A ~ Small town. I’ve always lived in a small town environment and can’t imagine having to put up with hordes of people and bumper-to-bumper traffic and all the noise and hustle-bustle that go with it.

Q ~ Can you tell us a bit about The Private War of Corporal Henson and what it means to you?
A ~ Okay, you asked for it. It’s an important story. When I returned from Vietnam I had been clobbered both physically and emotionally. For the next decade and a half I existed in a fog of sorts. It’s difficult to explain. I lived life, but not to the fullest. I was unable to find the joy and happiness I should have in everyday living. I had pent-up anger that would explode at inopportune times. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, all the nightmares, the hyper-alertness, and the intrusive thoughts. Not a single day passed that I didn’t think about Vietnam to one extent or another. I had difficulty sleeping. I’d get up several times during the night, checking windows and doors, and making sure my children were breathing. I wasn’t alone, but didn’t know it at the time. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder wasn’t the household word it’s become today, mostly due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those inflicted with PTSD and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) are finally receiving the recognition and treatment needed. Those who came home from previous wars were unfortunately left out in the cold to basically fend for themselves. An example is the late Audie Murphy, the most decorated American soldier of World War Two, who later became a Hollywood star. Murphy was eaten up with PTSD, although at the time nobody, including himself, knew.

In the mid 1980s the VA began the Vet Center Program, an outreach program to help those veterans who were suffering with PTSD. The mental health industry was finally beginning to recognize that something was wrong. Individual and group counselling were established in order to reach out to veterans in need of help. I was encouraged by a friend to give it a try. My experience over several years of counselling for combat veterans was the genesis for my novel, i. Although “fiction,” it is based on real people and actual events. Probably 85% of the action in Private War is factual.

Q ~ What is your favourite part or scene in the novel?
A ~ Probably Chapter Two. It is a short chapter that encapsulates the entirety of what the protagonist, Nathan Henson, has been experiencing for the past seventeen years.

Q ~ What is your process for choosing character names?
A ~ It varies. Of Blood and Brothers is loosely based on a real family and events that lived near where I grew up in the Florida panhandle. I used as many actual last names as I could from the Econfina settlement where my brother protagonists lived out their lives. Mac McClellan gets his first name from a friend of mine who was killed in Vietnam. His last name comes from my great-great grandfather who fought for the Confederacy in General Lee’s army and was wounded three times. It’s my humble way of honoring those people. For other names I use friends, simply make up, or find in newspapers, books, etc.

Q ~ You’ve written other works as well. For you, do they compare to one another? Do you have a favourite or do they all stand out in their own way?
A ~ The Proud Bastards and The Private War of Corporal Henson are very personal and both were excruciatingly difficult at times to write, for obvious reasons. I spent the better part of a decade researching and writing the two-volume Of Blood and Brothers. I wanted to get the battlefield movements as accurate as possible, and that took tons of research, including scores of books and actually walking over the exact areas of the battlefields where the units fighting took place. My Mac McClellan Mystery series is fun to write. Fun, not easy. I don’t outline, so I’m forever writing Mac into a corner where he has to find a way out. Having no personal experience in being a private investigator or solving mysteries, it stretches my imagination. Some things work, others don’t. But I’m enjoying the ride! I just signed with a new publisher for the next four Mac mysteries. That will bring the number of books in the series to six. From there, we’ll see.

If I had to choose a favorite among my books, I believe Of Blood and Brothers is the work I’m most proud of. From a young kid I was intrigued by the story of the Mashburn family whose two sons fought on opposing sides during the War Between the States, or the Civil War, if you must. Taking literary liberties and changing the family name to Malburn, I wrote a family saga that spans seven years from the War to the Reconstruction era. I’m quite pleased with the finished work.

Q ~ Do you have anything in the works at the moment? Care to give us a hint about it?
A ~ Ah, so glad you asked! The next two Mac mysteries, Deadly Dunes and Deadly Spirits, are in the publishing pipeline and due to be released by Camel Press in March and June of 20016. In Dunes, Mac investigates the death of a young university archaeologist whose recent discovery threatens to shut down a planned multi-million dollar beach community development. In Spirits, a doubting Mac must come to grips with whether or not an entity from the “other side” is helpful in solving a decades-old murder. I’m currently hard at work on Deadly Verse, while Deadly Rights is still in the planning stage.

Q ~ If you could give aspiring authors one piece of advice, what would it be?
A ~ Simple but vital: Read, read, read, especially in the genre(s) you want to write. Take a book by a favorite author and break it down. Pay attention to the structure, the setting, the characterization, how the plot advances. Pay close attention to dialogue, including how it is punctuated. Do not cut corners! There is simply no excuse for authors putting out shabbily edited work full of typos, punctuation errors, and inane dialogue that does nothing to propel the plot or reveal characterization. In a word, READ!

Thank you for having me, Jonel. It’s been a pleasure!

About E. Michael Helms:

E. Michael Helms is a USMC combat veteran. His memoir of the Vietnam War, The Proud Bastards, has been called "As powerful and compelling a battlefield memoir as any ever written . . . a modern military classic," and has been in print for over 20 years.

Helms is also the author of: The Private War of Corporal Henson, a fictional autobiographical sequel to The Proud Bastards; Of Blood and Brothers, a two-volume saga of the Civil War/Reconstruction era, based on a true story; and Deadly Catch and Deadly Ruse, the first two books in his Mac McClellan Mystery series. Deadly Dunes and Deadly Spirits are scheduled for release in March and June of 2016.

Helms lives with his wife, Karen, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Upstate region of South Carolina. They enjoy canoeing, hiking and bird watching. The author continues to work hard on getting Mac McClellan in and out of trouble as he solves his next case.

About The Private War of Corporal Henson:

Vietnam didn’t stay in Southeast Asia. It followed former U.S. Marine Corporal Nathan Henson back to the World—his hometown in the Florida panhandle. Seventeen years later, specters from ’Nam still haunt the corners of Nathan’s life and the recurring nightmarish scenes of carnage won’t die. Desperate, he seeks help and joins a support group for Vietnam combat veterans.

Now a new war begins—against Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In a series of gut-wrenching sessions, Nathan faces the ghosts of his past and shares the struggles of others as they confront and relive horrors and dark secrets kept locked inside.

There’s Vic Guerino, a former Army helicopter pilot trying to adjust to the boredom of a grounded life, Dan “Doc” Matthews, wrestling with addiction brought home from the battlefields of Vietnam, and Rene Boudreaux, the loner who withdraws from society with paranoia ruling his every waking moment.

Nathan must conquer the demons of PTSD to win peace in his life, but it’s a harrowing rollercoaster ride through the valley of healing. The path is strewn with heartbreak and humor, hope and despair and love lost and regained.

This is the comeback story of a heroic young man who saw it all, lived through it, and ultimately emerged from the shadows of war.

Book Links
my review

And now, enter to win in this fantastic giveaway with E. Michael Helms and The Private War of Corporal Henson.  

Prizes include:
1 x $25 Amazon Gift Card
5 x ecopies of The Private War of Corporal Henson by E. Michael Helms

Contest is open internationally, where applicable by law. 
Entries close at 11:59pm October 9/15. 
Winners will be drawn October 10/15. 
Winners will be notified via email to the email provided to the giveaway and will have 72h to claim their prize or another winner will be drawn.

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