Author’s Roundtable: Reb MacRath

How did your family and friends feel when they heard you were writing?

My father warned me to grow up or starve. But I left home, while in college, to protect my dream of becoming an adventurer/poet like Byron. My mother always believed in me, though the rest of our large family–with one exception–regarded me as an eccentric. They’d all married young and had families. But me? I left the country after college for the closest thing to Paris in the Twenties I could find: Toronto. With one exception, my siblings lost hope. A few of my Canadian friends continued to believe…until it seemed certain I’d never succeed at publishing a book. Not long before my father died, and just after I sold my first book, he made a confession that shocked me: he’d dreamed of becoming a writer but had chosen the Coast Guard, then marriage, instead.
How long have you been writing?

Since college. But I got serious about writing in my ten-year Canadian exile. I became a freelance journalist, had a syndicated column–and filled a whole trunk with hopeless manuscripts. But from each of those turkeys I learned to gobble less.
Has writing always been something you wanted to do?

No, I had a musical background and my own band in high school. But in college I made a name for myself with my poems and a column in the school paper. The combination of self-expression and empowerment proved irresistible to me.
What books or stories have you written? Published?

I published four novels under the name Kelley Wilde with two major houses, Tor and Bantam, from 1988-1993: The Suiting, Makoto, Mastery and Angel Kiss. Though I hadn’t set out to become a horror writer–The Suiting was a psychological thriller with a supernatural twist–I found myself locked in the genre. I took pride in the Stoker Award I received for The Suiting, but I’d wanted from the get-go to write mysteries and thrillers. So I retired from the horror genre and went off to the desert, where I trained myself to write the sort of books I like to read. I’ve published five e-books with Amazon, where I’m combining new and rewritten backlist titles. I’ve issued five so far under the name Reb MacRath: The Vanishing Magic of Snow, Southern Scotch, Nobility, The Alcatraz Correction and April Yule.
Can you tell us a little about your books? What are they about?

I’ll restrict my answer to the e-books, which are new and sold online. So far, the books fall into two groups: two Boss MacTavin thrillers and three ‘anytime” short Christmas thrillers (that really can be read any time of the year). Boss began as Pete McGregor, a Scottish ex-athlete who had the South beat into him when he showed up in the wrong place one night. Pete returned, in Southern Scotch, as Boss: a charismatic Southern Scot who’s grown in wealth and power through his business, Boss Corrections. Now he’s gunning for revenge. In The Alcatraz Correction, a more settled Boss tackles the world’s greatest cold case: what happened after the Great Escape from Alcatraz. As for the ‘anytime’ thrillers, they vary widely in their plots: from one man’s battle with a gang of pickpockets aboard a speeding train (Nobility) to a pair of callow Yuppies who engage in a fight to the finish with their country dream house (April Yule). But the three books have some things in common: they’re short thrillers combining suspense, romance and humor…they’re stylish…and they’re loaded with plot twists.
How did you get inspiration for the characters/books?

That’s a tough one! The Alcatraz Correction evolved from my long-standing interest in the prison and my need to ‘prove’ that the three cons who escaped did survive. The original hero of the book, Lew Miles (a.k.a. Frank Morris, the mastermind of the escape), had gone on to become San Francisco’s most famous detective. I loved the idea of this genius returning to conquer the city. But Lew/Frank would have been in his sixties when I first started the book in the ’90s. And his age became more of a problem as the years went by. By the time it all came together for me–setting, history, theme, tone–Lew would have been in his eighties. No go. But what if Boss MacTavin took over as the lead and Lew Miles, his old mentor, was killed at the start? With that in mind, the book grew clearer and clearer to me. And for the first time I saw writing as creative problem solving: specifically, a logical series of clues and discoveries that would set Boss on the trail that leads to Alcatraz.

Are the books based on personal experiences?

Only a couple are based directly on my life experience. When I lived in Canada, I found a beautiful suit in a subway locker. I turned it in but started to wonder: What if a fictional character found a suit, just like that, and did steal it on impulse? What if the suit fit perfectly and slowly began to take over? That experience led to The Suiting. Another real experience that damned well nearly killed me led to The Vanishing Magic of Snow.  I lost a job, could not find another, had no money coming and found myself facing eviction. Worse, I could not afford to eat. I began this book with no assurance that I’d live to finish it. I wanted to finish at least the book’s first fifty pages, in which my hero finds himself in the same situation. And then, to his horror, it keeps getting worse–as, piece by piece, everything he owns begins to disappear. I found a job almost instantly after I finished those pages! Generally, though, my books are rooted only indirectly in personal experience. I’ll tap into my days as a drinker, my years as a stateless person, my experience in martial arts, etc. But I owe my readers better than mere autobiography.
Is there any advice you have been given that you could give to a young up-and-coming writer?

Absolutely. Solid gold: No one can write the books that you were born to write but you. But you can’t write them either until you find your own voice. This will take you a while–but the time is well spent. And it’s not something you fight to discover. You relax and keep trucking until it finds you.
Final April YuleCan you talk a little about the benefits of getting your work professionally edited?

For my four Kelley Wilde books, I worked with world-class editors. And I also enjoyed the benefit of editing from agents. On top of that, I’d worked as a freelance journalist in Canada and there I also worked with some brilliant pros. So, though I now edit my own work, I’ve learned from the very best. I’m not sure any writer can go it alone at the start. We need cool professionals to spot and point out where the story flags or the logic is damned shaky or the pacing simply goes to hell. Editors also catch the stylistic falls from grace that send away readers in droves: e.g. Not, not, not, not “Between him and I.”

What are some of the hardest things you’ve had to overcome as a writer, in order to be published?

I had persistence and drive in abundance. And, from the very beginning, agents praised my style. But it took me years to get a grip on narrative, structure and pacing. Longer still to learn to make flawed characters sympathetic.
How did you find time to write your books?

I live alone, which really helps. And, while I don’t write as many words daily as some other writers, I’m relentless and consistent. Five hundred to seven hundred words a day add up. We all need to be tougher about making time instead of hoping to find it.
Do you think writing has any benefits, and if so what would they be?

There’s simply nothing like it when we know we’re in the groove and the power rockets from our brains down through our fingers. These rare moments are good for our souls and they sustain us through the other times–shall we say 90 percent?–when we’re creative klutzes faced with forevers of rewrites. Maybe the key benefits are the patience and humility required to proceed.
Several of my guests have often said writing is therapeutic and relaxes them. Can you talk a little about how writing relaxes you? Any specific examples you can share?

You’ve just asked me the first question I can’t begin to answer. Relaxing? The physical aspect of writing is something not often discussed. Oh, there’s no end of talk about the spiritual journey and the emotional toll. But writing even a short novel is a bit like a marathon run. Most writers start off like gangbusters–for the first fifty pages. Then we begin to see them sweat from the strain of the critical things they must do: develop theme and character, maintain just-perfect pacing, spread the clues out masterfully, etc. At the end, as Stephen King remarked, too often we sense even very fine writers wheezing and straining for breath. And this is only natural. When a project takes us months or years, we take a physical smackdown. Even sleep becomes a challenge. For our poor brains are working when we hit the sack. So we need to pace our energy, just like a marathon runner, and forget about winning a fifty-yard dash. We need to monitor our mindsets, our diets, our rest. And finally, in the home stretch, we need to take the greatest care to not conclude like beaten souls…but with the cool flair of true marathon champs. I don’t complain despite the toll. But does it relax me? Not ever.
Can you also talk a little about how writing your book was therapeutic? What do you mean?
I don’t believe that therapy should be a goal in writing. It may happen, but shouldn’t concern us. Our job is to translate the vision we have into words that float our readers’ boats. That said, The Vanishing Magic of Snow proved somewhat therapeutic in allowing me to revisit the golden Canadian years. Also, in writing of manifestation, I succeeded in freeing myself from self-doubt: Snow was the first all-new work I’d completed since I left the desert.

Has writing made you a better person?
I wish I could give an unqualified “Yes.” But it’s not for me to say. While I feel more fulfilled and contented, I know that some regard me as a self-centered bastard, obsessed with my work. I ditched two wives who threatened it, so clearly I’m no angel.

Do you like to read? If so, what are your favorite genres and why?

I love to read, everything from the Classics (especially the Romans) to my favorite Russians (Pushkin, Gogol) to mystery/thriller masters (Lawrence Sanders, David Morrell, Lee Child, Phillip Margolin, Claude Bouchard, Russell Blake). The Romans show brilliant precision with words and mastery of structure. My mystery/thriller favorites ground me in the present and fine-tune the narrative tacks that I take.
Can you talk about how important reviews are to writers?

Well, all of our egos need stroking. And there’s nothing like a good review by a critic completely in tune with our work. Our thousands of hours of work are well-paid. But, for e-book writers especially, reviews have extra importance: prospective readers consider the number of reviews and the ratio of five stars to anything less. It’s a tough grind out there for books with less than a half-dozen reviews.
Have you ever received a bad review? If so how did it make you feel?

So far, not for the e-books. Knock on wood. But I took my lumps for books 2 through 4 of the Kelley Wilde horror books. Naturally, the bad reviews hurt. But I came to realize that the three books after The Suiting had been compromised by deadline pressures and personal problems (I’d just gone through a bad divorce). Also, I try to remember what Hemingway said–that if we believe the good reviews, we can’t disregard the bad.

Was there ever a point in your life where you felt like giving up because nobody understood you? How did you overcome this time in your life?

I’ve come close to despair a few times–but never really close to quitting. It’s a long road, for most, to acceptance. And the sooner we heat up our jets and refuse to take “No” for an answer, the better off we’ll be. We need to be humble–but fiercely proud too. We need to be patient–but driven as well. When the going gets tough, the tough get glowing–a bit harder these days since I no longer drink…but I was born to write. And write I’ll continue to do.

What are your goals as a writer?

My goals have changed dramatically since my books as Kelley Wilde. Then I wanted to frighten and shock–and that wasn’t a bad goal, considering the waters that I had to swim in: I’d been locked into horror and had to compete with young Turks who’d do anything to scare or to gross out their readers. But I changed in the desert and when I came back my goals as Reb MacRath were clear: to thrill, delight, astonish, move and inspire.

Any new challenges you’ve had to face?

Wonderful question! There were no computers when I started out, so I still have nightmares of manuscripts I mailed: they were as caked with Whiteout as old hookers’ faces with makeup. I feel like Reb MacWinkle now. Though I have a decent laptop, I’m using ten percent at most of its real potential. Day by day, my grip improves. But the supreme challenge has been locking into the digital mindset. Constantly, I need to remind myself that almost anything I need to learn can be found with some taps of the keys of my Dell. And I need to shake any last seeds of dinosaur thought that remain. With persistence and savvy and time, I’ll make this hot new world my own.

Reb, if you don’t mind my asking: how old are you, anyway?

Oh, that’s on a need-to-know basis. But thanks for a great list of questions.

rebAbout Reb MacRath

Born in Buffalo, Reb graduated from the State University College at Buffalo, New York, then went on to live in Toronto, Canada, for the next ten years. In that time, he built a successful practice as a freelance writer and had a syndicated column that appeared in all major Canadian papers. Upon returning to the States, Reb set out to learn to write fiction. His first novel, The Suiting, was a horror novel partly inspired by his years in exile as a Man without a Country. The Suiting was published in hardback by Tor Books, under the name Kelley Wilde, and went on to win a Stoker Award for Best First Novel. And:

  • The novel was optioned for film and profiled in Success Magazine.
  • Reb was profiled in the Toronto Sun, the Toronto Star, the Atlanta Journal and the New York Times.
  • Reb wrote and sold the screenplay.

Reb published one more hardcover with Tor, then two paperback originals for Dell’s prestigious new horror line, Abyss. Then, suddenly, the market died…

Like many other Midlist Monsters, Reb found himself without a home. He took off to the desert to learn how to write the sort of books he loved most to read: riveting tales of suspense and romance, high on heart and wit and style. He wrote ten books in twenty years, then dusted the sand from his sandals and came to e-booklandia to begin again. Reb published four Amazon e-books in 2012 and has just published a fifth: April Yule

Check out Reb’s blog and his books on Amazon.


13 thoughts on “Author’s Roundtable: Reb MacRath

  1. Thank you, Jason, for giving me the chance to open like this. You were a joy to work with…and I’m grateful that you kept questioning me till I let loose and simply told it like it is and was.

  2. Hi, Jason and Reb! Really good interview–great questions with intense, spot-on answers. This part is so true:

    “Most writers start off like gangbusters–for the first fifty pages. Then we begin to see them sweat from the strain of the critical things they must do: develop theme and character, maintain just-perfect pacing, spread the clues out masterfully, etc.”

    I could’ve sworn you took that from my mind. LOL! It can sometimes feel like you’re in a marathon and running out of steam just when you *think* you see the wee finish line on the horizon. You know, like that hallway that keeps getting longer and longer in scary movies? 😀

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Reb. Loved reading where each book got its inspiration. The suit is a cool “what-if” tool, too. I appreciate the invite, Jason, and so good to connect with you both!

    P.S. Awesome tagline, “A white-hot little thriller,” on April Yule. :o)

    • Hi, Titania. I was pleased to see you share my thoughts about writing as a marathon event. I think it was Rita Mae Brown who got me thinking about this: in a essay, she remarked about the importance of diet, nutrition and rest. Not just now and then, but for the length of the book. Bill Kirton inspired me to add a tagline to the title to make a virtue of the fact that April Yule is short. The words are mine but the impetus was pure Bill Kirton.

  3. Thank you, Reb. So much of this I could have written myself. Take out the experience that makes it uniquely you and that extraordinary thing – the author’s shining and complex personality – leaps out. I’ve never been without a home – am lucky to have had a good man behind me for the whole of my writing life. But thrilling, delighting, astonishing, moving, inspiring – oh, what goals. And what dreams we have of the writers we could be. There is, indeed, ‘nothing like it when we know we’re in the groove and the power rockets from our brains down through our fingers’. Good for our souls, indeed. Was in Toronto last autumn, visiting relatives. Had never been there before, or in fact to Canada at all. Loved it. Loved camping in the backcountry in Algonquin. Am off to buy April Yule now – at the press of a key. Amazing.

    • Hi, Pauline. I’m glad that you agree with me about the importance of clear writing goals. When I found mine, my heart opened–and so did my life. Hope you enjoy April Yule.

  4. Good interview, wide-ranging, touching all the relevant bases and throwing up plenty of interesting points about the writing process and that subtle relationship between the writer and the works.

  5. Great interview, folks! To answer the question regarding Reb’s age, he stated early on that he had gone to Toronto in the Twenties following college. That would make Reb somewhere around 113-115 years old. BTW, thanks for the mention, old man. 🙂

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