When Reality and Fiction Become A Bit Blurry

I would like to welcome my special guest, DJ Swykert, author of Maggie Elizabeth Harrington.

cover1c_-_grey_titleSometimes when writing the lines between reality and fiction become a bit blurry. I began Maggie Elizabeth Harrington intending to write a historical story about a lonely woman who loses her mind after being jilted by her lover. I ended up with a novel about a young woman in a remote northern Michigan mining town trying to save a pack of wolves from a bounty hunter. It wasn’t difficult to figure out how the transition occurred. I had agreed to watch a pair of arctic hybrids for a friend and soon found myself attached to the ten week old hybrid wolf pups and fascinated by their behaviors. My reality became my fiction. Maggie would be someone who would want to protect these beautiful animals from bounty hunters. The story of Maggie Harrington and her wolves unfolded almost as if it were writing itself and the farther it progressed the further my interest in wolves increased.

This led me to do some research on wolves, including the studies by a professor at Michigan Technological University, Rolf Peterson, who has written on the wolves of Isle Royale for thirty years. Here is a brief history of Michigan wolves. There was a time when there were abundant packs. A bounty existed on them in the early 19th century and into the twentieth century, thirty-five dollars for the head of a female, and thirty for a male. The population was decimated and for most of the second half of the twentieth century were non-existent in the state. They became protected in 1974, and the population has increased steadily since. There are about 687 recorded wolves now that live only in the Upper Peninsula, there are still none in the Lower Peninsula.

I saw my first wolf in 1994, two of them roadside near Copper Harbor howling at the Fourth of July fireworks. I have seen perhaps a half dozen since. They have been removed from the endangered species list, and managed hunting is currently allowed once again. The relationship between wolves and human beings is very ancient. We shared similar survival techniques: living in organized societies for protection and hunting in packs. Rather than compete for food sources we simply joined forces. I believe this is the origin of the bond between man and wolf, and now dogs, which are simply domesticated wolves. The gray wolf, canis lupis, and a domesticated dog, canis lupis familiaris, share the same DNA profile. You cannot forensically differentiate one from the other.

Maggie Elizabeth Harrington ultimately became a book with multilayered themes concerning social and environmental issues. I see the book as crossing the genres between Romance and Adventure and landing somewhere in a gray area between YA and Literary. The narrator is thirteen but I believe her ideas are adult enough to engage literary readers.

Since writing the book I have come to three significant conclusions about wolves: They work together, mate for life, and protect their young. They have a loyalty within the pack hierarchy that is beyond ours. There is no divorce in a wolf pack. Only the alpha’s mate, but they mate for life. If one of the pair is killed, the next highest ranking wolf in the pack, a beta, takes its place. They protect their young, whether it’s the alpha parent, a beta, or the omega wolf, which, although relegated to the bottom of the order in the pack, does participate in pack duties, often playing the role of a babysitter while the rest of the pack hunts. If the human race lived as wolves, the earth would be a far different place.

I still cherish the memories of stuffing both of the 150 pound wolf hybrids into my Jeep Wrangler and doing some traveling. From the time I wrote the book until I moved to Kentucky I lived in five different places, and I hauled and lodged those wolves with me at each one. I’m not sure I’d want to do that again, but they are fond memories. And what is life but memories, sweet illusions that move in all directions and linger much longer than reality. Isn’t life but perception and memories of what we are, and were, and is there really any difference?

Links to the book:

About the Author:

Tmp00003DJ Swykert is a former 911 operator. His work has appeared in The Tampa Review, Detroit News, Monarch Review, Lunch Ticket, the NewerYork, Zodiac Review, Barbaric Yawp and Bull. His books include Children of the Enemy, Maggie Elizabeth Harrington, Alpha Wolves, The Death of Anyone and The Pool Boy’s Beatitude. You can find him at Magic Master Minds. He is a wolf expert.

Interview With DJ Swykert, Author Of The Death of Anyone

Yawatta would like to welcome her special guest: DJ Swykert, author of The Death of Anyone. Please enjoy his insightful interview.

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1.  How long does it take you to write a book?

A first draft, if I stick to it, about six weeks. However, that isn’t the “book.” I usually edit a book at least twice. I have some trunk novels that have never been finished beyond the first draft. I think most writers do. The real answer to this question is that it takes what it takes. Some stories, like this one, The Death of Anyone, took a couple of months to do the first draft. It took two edits to get it good enough to go looking for a publisher. I first found an agent for it, after a couple of months of queries. They had the book for a year and a half and didn’t find a publisher. I let the contract lapse with the agent, and found Melange Books in a couple of months. They were business like with the edit. I went through the first one in about a week, and the galleys or proofs in a day or so, and the book was released a couple of weeks later.

2.  Can you tell us about your challenge in getting your first book published?

The first book I ever finished a manuscript for was Children of the Enemy. I started that book in the late 80’s and finished it, but found no takers. It went through two pretty decent agents and then sat in the top of my closet for twenty years. In the meantime I wrote two other novels, a literary story about a young girl trying to save a pack of wolves from a bounty hunter in 1890’s northern Michigan titled simply: Maggie Elizabeth Harrington. I subsidy published this in 2007.

In 2009 I found a startup publisher who published Maggie Elizabeth Harrington under a new title: The Place Between. This company also signed me to a book contract for Children of the Enemy and Alpha Wolves, a sequel to The Place Between. They did publish Children of the Enemy at the beginning of 2010, then filed bankruptcy that summer and I got the rights back again. I found a second publisher in early 2012, an Australian, who published it online, it had good sales, was on Omni-List bestseller for a month, then he sold his company and I took a reversion of rights on the book. It’s now with Cambridge Books, who published it in the fall of 2012. Oh, I skipped Alpha Wolves, who Noble Publishing took in May of 2012, and is still under contract to them. It was on Noble’s bestselling list for about the first six weeks. In 2008 I signed a contract with the Carolyn Jenks Agency in Boston for a novel called Sweat Street, that has some of the same characters as Children of the Enemy, but is not a true sequel, it does introduce Bonnie Benham the Detroit Homicide Detective in The Death of Anyone. Carolyn was a good agent, at one time used to represent Arthur Miller and Tom Stoppard. But she found no takers for Sweat Street. I missed an agent, I was with Frank Weimann of The Literary Group in NYC with Maggie Eizabeth Harrington and Alpha Wolves, Frank used to represent Homer Hickum and Britney Spears, Terry Bradshaw and Bill Russell and some other celebrities. But he never made me a celebrity, and after a year, and being read by most of the major publishers in NYC, I ended up with the rights to Maggie Elizabeth Harrington back again, and it sat until I published it in 2009. I then signed a contract with LifeTime Media in NYC for The Death of Anyone, but she couldn’t sell it. After our contract ended I found Melange Books in Minneapolis who I signed a royalty contract with, and who just released the book a couple of weeks ago. All this, for you newbies in the writing business, should give you a pretty good idea of the state of bookselling today. It’s going through a lot of changes, and fewer people are reading much beyond the screens on their Smart Phones. But, I don’t think books are going to go away, it’ll just continue for a while until the dust settles to be like physicists say about the universe: in a constant state of flux.

3.  What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Same stuff everybody does. I hold hands with my girlfriend. I ride my mountain bike through the mountains of downtown Cincinnati. That’s just a joke. Uh…not about riding the mountain bike, about the mountains. I like to cook and do most of it. I like to go grocery shopping, find good things to make.

4.  What does your family think of your writing?

They’ve all read Children of the Enemy and told me it is a really good book. The reader for Frank Weimann told me they’d be teaching college classes one day for Maggie Elizabeth Harrington. Of course first he should have found a publisher and a gang of readers.

5.  How do you market your work? What avenues have you found to work best in your genre?

Like you’d feed pigeons. I throw out the crumbs and hope it attracts a few birds. Actually, I do book blogs like this and keep my fingers crossed. There is so much content out there, and with beta readers and creative writing classes churning out writers by the semester, it isn’t going to get any easier. There’s no real telling what will catch on, publishing now is like buying a lottery ticket. You never know what number is going to get drawn.

6.  What do you think makes a good story?

On this I have specific ideas, and it’s never been any different. A story consists of characters, conflict, and resolution. Not as many writers have figured this out as you might think. But that’s what a book is, and what makes for a good one. You develop a few interesting characters, you put them in a conflict, and direct them to a resolution of the conflict, which is the end of your book. That’s what I like to read in a book anyway. Or see in a film.

7.  Can you tell us about this book?

In The Death of Anyone, Detroit Homicide Detective Bonnie Benham has been transferred from narcotics for using more than arresting and is working the case of the killer of adolescent girls. CSI collects DNA evidence from the scene of the latest victim, which has not been detected on the other victims. But no suspect turns up in the FBI database. Due to the notoriety of the crime a task force is put together with Bonnie as the lead detective, and she implores the D.A. to authorize an as yet unapproved type of a DNA search in an effort to identify the killer. Homicide Detective Neil Jensen, with his own history of drug and alcohol problems, understands Bonnie’s frailty and the two detectives become inseparable as they track this killer of children. The book crosses several genres: mystery, suspense, romance and even some real science.

8.  What’s your next project?

I’ve been dawdling off and on all winter with a story about a retired soldier/cop who retreats to a family cabin on top of Brockway Mountain to live after his wife dies. He meets a younger, suicidal woman up there one morning and they begin a rather offbeat relationship. It has a working title of: Counting Wolves. This story began as a flash story which was published about a year ago, for which I was paid in garbanzo beans. True.

9.  Is there anything you’d like to say to your readers and fans?

Read books, support your local bookstores.

10.  Social media you’d like to share?

I keep a page on a website run by a friend of mine: Magic Masterminds. And you can find me on Facebook. I don’t post much, but I do link interviews and posts about writing.