Interview with E. Michael Helms, author of DEADLY DUNES

deadly dunes book

Be sure to pick up Mike’s latest mystery (out today!) called DEADLY DUNES. It’s a fun, fast-paced read with a wonderful protagonist and an idyllic Florida beach setting. Only $4.95 on Kindle, $14.95 for trade paperback. And check out Mike’s website.

What do you write?

War and its effects on the warrior was my overwhelming theme for many years. Counseling for PTSD led to journaling, and that led to the writing of my Vietnam War memoir, The Proud Bastards. Learning to deal with the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder inspired my post-war autobiographical novel, The Private War of Corporal Henson. I’ve been a Civil War buff for as long as I can remember, and grew up fascinated by the story of an area family whose two sons fought on opposing sides during the war. That was the genesis for my two-volume Civil War/Reconstruction novel, Of Blood and Brothers.

I was burned out on the subject of war. I needed a break, and needed it badly. No way was I going to jump into another book about war. One day a “what if” leaped into my mind: what if a man was relaxing on a fishing vacation and happened to hook a dead body? Then an opening sentence came to me and wouldn’t go away. The first cast of the day turned my dream vacation into a nightmare. That was it, all I had. I didn’t know who the protagonist was, what he did for a living, nothing other than he was on vacation and fishing. Mulling it over, I decided it had to be a mystery of some sort. Mystery? I’d never written one. I hadn’t even read a mystery in years. As a kid I was fascinated with The Hardy Boys books. One-by-one I had scrimped and saved, bought and read the first forty-something of their mysteries. But could I write one?

I decided to try. I began reading stacks of mysteries, everything from cozies to Mickey Spillane. All the while I was storing ideas in the back of my mind and jotting the best ones on paper. One day I decided it was time. I sat down at the computer, wrote “Chapter 1” centered on the page, and below it I typed my opening line. I was writing again, and the subject wasn’t war! Hallelujah! That manuscript became Deadly Catch: A Mac McClellan Mystery. And so it goes.

Why do you write?

I suppose my experience as a combat Marine in Vietnam is to blame. I returned home from my tour of duty flat on my back from severe wounds, compounded by PTSD (although I wasn’t aware of it at the time). As the years dragged by war became a compulsion: recurring nightmares, intrusive thoughts, hyper-alertness, anger, the constant dread that “the hammer” could drop at anytime, anywhere. It was something I had to purge, or die. After seventeen years I sought counseling. Ultimately I learned the only way to deal with the root cause was to put it on paper. All my books prior to the Mac McClellan Mystery series dealt with war to one extent or another. They say “write what you know”—and I knew war. It left such an imprint on me that I doubt I could write a book without at least a backstory connecting the combat experience. Hence Mac McClellan’s twenty-four year career in the Marine Corps and his deployments to Iraq.

How do you write?

I wrote The Proud Bastards in longhand, filling up three spiral notebooks. Actually, I would write my day’s work in the notebook and then edit it the next day as I typed it on an old Royal portable typewriter. Then I would start the new day’s work, and repeat ad nauseam. With some of the advance money from The Proud Bastards, I bought a Brother electric typewriter and thought I was in hog heaven! I still maintained the routine of reviewing and editing the previous day’s work before tackling the blank pages ahead. Repeating the process of writing-editing-writing-editing became habitual and remains my SOP to this day.

When do you write?

I try to have my butt-in-chair around 10 a.m. five days a week, sometimes more. I take a break every hour or so to move around and get the blood circulating. I might take a lunch break or not. Sometime between 4 or 5 p.m., I’ve had it. Happy hour beckons. My wife and I will sit on the back deck overlooking the lake and talk a little about where the story is going, or discuss plot problems, where to go next, etc. On a good day I might write five or six pages, sometimes more. At other times I’ll struggle to knock out a page or two. I have to keep plugging away, not matter what. Laziness is no excuse.

Who do you write for?

I suppose the best answer is that I write for myself. It’s a sickness, or addiction, if you will. As you well know, it is very hard and demanding work. It drains me both mentally and physically. I believe Hemingway said it best: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Well stated.

I also write for my readers, although if I’m honest there is a great deal of selfishness in that statement, also. I want to write good books, books that a hundred years from now some reader might blow the dust off one, give it a try, and say: “Hey this is a great story. This guy could really write.” The legacy of having written something that will stand the test of time pushes me. I suppose it’s grasping for that little piece of immortality.

Describe the biggest obstacle you had to overcome while writing this book.

I’d say keeping all my ducks in a row, ducks, in this case, meaning characters. Deadly Dunes has several secondary characters all tied together in some manner by crime, deception, greed, lust, and blackmail. Some are minor parts with little “on stage” time, but each is important to the story as a whole. The tangled web they wove goes back, in some instances, two decades. And now they find themselves entangled in it.

What do you read?

As a kid I got caught up in the classics from Mark Twain, Defoe, Stevenson, Dumas, Verne, Poe, Wells; I could go on, but you get the point. Reading those authors was a wonderful education, although I didn’t realize that at the time. I was simply along for the ride, a free ticket to exotic locales and characters around the world, and sometimes, out of this world. I was also a huge fan of The Hardy Boys mysteries.

I then went through a period of reading military history, focusing primarily on World War II and the American Civil War. I immensely enjoyed memoirs and biographies of those who had fought in those wars.

After returning from Vietnam, I began reading more “literary” novels. Remarque, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Sloan Wilson come to mind. There were others that slip my mind at the moment.

Who do you read?

Once I decided to break away from writing about the subject of war, I decided I’d try my hand at mystery writing. I hadn’t read a mystery novel in years, so I knew I needed to bone-up on the subject. I began reading (and studying) everything from cozies (I liked the humor most contain) to the dirty gutters of Mickey Spillane, and a whole lot in-between. Along the way I introduced myself to some of the “masters” of the genre: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald, of course. Macdonald happens to be my favorite. His writing stuns me at times. Critics have said that he “wrote the same plot over and over.” That’s a stretch, but even so, it is a masterful plot that delves into the vert marrow of humanity. His prose is at times downright poetic, and no one, in my opinion, holds a candle to him in his descriptions and settings.

I also enjoy Robert B. Parker, Ace Atkins, Craig Johnson, Jeremiah Healy, and Robert J. Ray. There are others I know I’m leaving out. My apologies.

When do you read?

Whenever I can grab some time, which isn’t often these days for a mid-list writer. Promotion, publicity, this, that, and the other—you know the score all to well. Late at night, weekends maybe. Not to be uncouth, but I keep a pair of reading glasses and select books in my bathroom. Enough said.

Tell me something funny.

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”
― Groucho Marx

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