AOTW- Michael LaRocca

Michael LaRocca

About the Author:
I left North Carolina in December 1999 and moved to Asia, where I've lived ever since. I've been married to a lovely Australian lady for over ten years, and to a lovely Calico cat for about a month longer than that. I spent five years teaching English in China, four years lecturing to the doctors at Chiang Mai University in Thailand, and a few months (and counting) in Hanoi. I have edited at home through it all, part-time for the first half and full-time for the second half. I've written 9 published novels and edited over 300 novels. And that's my life in one page or less. Your turn.


Interview with Michael LaRocca
Michael LaRocca is the author of seven distinct works, more recently, Skull Dance and Conundrum.

HP: Michael, can you tell us a little about yourself?

Michael LaRocca: I left North Carolina in December 1999 and moved to Asia, where I've lived ever since. I've been married to a lovely Australian lady for over ten years, and to a lovely Calico cat for about a month longer than that.  I spent five years teaching English in China, four years lecturing to the doctors at Chiang Mai University in Thailand, and a few months (and counting) in Hanoi. I’ve edited at home through it all, part-time for the first half and full-time for the second half. I’ve edited over 300 novels. As an author, I’ve been an EPPIE finalist three times and called myself the Susan Lucci of the EPPIEs. I intend to win it next year.

HP: You have lived in a lot of different places-- North Carolina, Florida, Hong Kong, mainland China, Thailand, Vietnam, and are planning a move to Burgaw this year. Whew! That's a lot of moving!

I have to ask: What’s your favorite place in the entire world? Also, do you think you will ever move back to the US?

Michael LaRocca: My favorite place might be Roxboro, North Carolina, but a Roxboro that no longer exists. I grew up there before there was a Research Triangle Park.

An alternate answer would be Mallard Roost, which is over 100 acres on the Northeast Cape Fear River. Daddy owns it. It’s on the edge of Burgaw, about seven miles outside the “city” limits. City in quotes because Burgaw’s a bit small and off the beaten path. We’re going to Mallard Roost in September, but we don’t know if it’s to live or just to visit.

Or perhaps Perth, in Western Australia, which I haven’t actually visited yet, because my lovely Australian bride has told me so much about it. It’s a long-term goal.

HP: The point of this interview was to focus on your books, mostly the novel Skull Dance. But first let’s talk a little about how you began writing. On your blog you mention editing writings but never really when you started writing, so, do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

Michael LaRocca: When I was nine years old, I made up comic books and told them to neighborhood kids, but I believe I was creating and telling stories even before then. I “got serious” about writing as a teenager. My first short story won second prize at the National Honor Society’s 1981 Florida State Convention and led to my inclusion in the 1982 Who’s Who in American Writing. Then I collected a few hundred rejection letters and fell off the radar for about 20 years. I’m back now.

HP: What inspires you to write and why?

Michael LaRocca: I cannot remember a time in my life when I wasn’t reading, voraciously. Every time I read a story that really grabs me and moves me, I always think, “I wish I could do that.” That’s why I write.

HP: Can you tell us about the novel, Skull Dance?

Michael LaRocca: Gerd Balke wrote it. I simply “took up the baton” after he died and ensured that his book didn’t die with him. Gerd was the first novelist to ever hire me as his editor. I’m American, he was German, and this all happened in Hong Kong.

In December 1999, I found myself living in Hong Kong on a tourist visa. This meant I couldn’t legally work there. My lovely wife-to-be supported me. That might sound wonderful to some folks, but it was hell on me. I got my first full-time job at age 15, and I’ve never taken a sick day in my life. If I was given vacations or holidays, I spent them doing second or third jobs. And now, after 21 workaholic years, I was supposed to just stop.

I mentioned the rejection letters. I had a big “slush pile” of short stories, novels, and partial novels that I’d written over the years. A lot of crap, to be honest. Good stories told very badly. From our little Hong Kong apartment, I joined all the free online creative writing workshops I could find, and I learned how to self-edit. This led to me writing four books in 2000 which were all published in the US in 2001. This is also how I met Gerd Balke.

Gerd was a founding member of the Hong Kong Writers Circle, which still thrives today. Of all the online workshops I joined, their members were the most insightful. Also, we met from time to time at various Hong Kong restaurants. What usually happened in person is that we didn’t let the writing get in the way of the drinking, but Gerd and I had many long discussions over the years, either at Hong Kong Writers Circle functions or at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. Gerd told me that he felt like he was always the mentor, but that with me he felt like he was with an equal. I’d like to think that would be true if he were still alive now, but back then his skills definitely exceeded mine despite working in his second language.

I edited six of his novels. Four are probably still trapped on his hard drive or perhaps lost forever. One, Paradise Fermenting, was published by Trafford because Gerd paid them before he died. I helped the process along a little bit.

When Gerd died, Skull Dance was sitting on my hard drive. I edited it, I found a paying publisher, I set up everything so Gerd’s widow would receive the royalties, and I played the role of author throughout the rest of the editing and publication process. That’s Gerd’s voice in Skull Dance, not mine. It’s a voice I love, so I did all I could to make it come through clearly.

HP: Can you tell us about the main character(s) in the novel?

Michael LaRocca: You will read the novel and you will think that protagonist Christian Ramsdorf is speaking in the voice of Gerd Balke. I made that mistake too. I’ve read six of his novels, all with very difference main characters, and every time I thought that was Gerd. I finally told him that he is a chameleon. He laughed.

Anyway, Christian Ramsdorf is an East German haunted by the collective guilt of a people who grew up in the aftermath of Nazism. He grew up cold and hard, a Volksarmee officer who later joins MI5 as an expert in Eastern bloc weapons. He stumbles into a plot to sell Russian plutonium after the fall of the USSR. This novel was also quite prescient politically. He looks at escalating border tensions between India and Pakistan, nuclear terrorism, and much that actually happened after he died. The character development in Christian Ramsdorf, to bring this discussion back to your actual question, is accurate and insightful and remarkable. You will live in this novel when you read it. I do, every time.

I’ll tell you what I know of this character’s creation. Gerd sat down with Lawrence Gray, co-founder of the Hong Kong Writers Circle, and said words to the effect that he’d written many great books and was ready to write something that would make him rich. They plotted Skull Dance together, and the creation of main character Christian Ramsdorf had to be a major part of that. Then when Gerd actually wrote the book, the deep thinker and literary genius in him insisted on being heard as well. How could it not? That’s not something an author can just turn off, nor should he. The world has more than enough shallow writing. Skull Dance has everything that I think of as the hallmarks of Gerd’s writing, plus a ripping good plot.

A bit of trivia for you. When I first edited this book, Chapter Eight introduced the character of Lawrence Wilchford, and I knew where the name “Lawrence” came from. After Gerd died, and I read the most recent revision of Skull Dance, that character’s name had been changed to Lawrence Michael Wilchford.

HP: Who designed the cover?

Michael LaRocca: The fine folks at Libertary Editions. I don’t have a name. I had a cover from the original publisher which emphasized the political thriller aspects of Skull Dance quite nicely, but we thought it best to do something a little different with the new cover, which I love. After all, Skull Dance is a political thriller, but it’s also much more. The cover portrays an integral scene that occurs roughly halfway through the book, the “skull dance.”

HP: How do you promote this book?

Michael LaRocca: Thank you, Holly, for this interview. :)

Publicizing my own work feels like a full-time job sometimes. It certainly can become one if you let it. To complicate matters, I live in Hanoi, so I can only promote my writing by Internet. In the case of Skull Dance, it’s even harder because the author is dead.

However, I have thousands of fans and followers through my blog, other blogs, and various social media sites. I’m constantly trying to build “Michael LaRocca” as a “brand,” which should help Skull Dance. The book reviewers have all been very positive about Skull Dance. Finally, Libertary Editions is taking a much more active role in promotion than I’ve come to expect of a publisher. I certainly appreciate that.
Beyond that, I’m still learning. Ten years as a published author isn’t long enough to learn all I need about promoting my titles. Is that why I called one of my white papers “Writing Your Novel Is The Easy Part”?

HP: Where can we purchase Skull Dance?

Michael LaRocca: Booktrope’s official page is at . You can also find it at Amazon, or probably any other online or bricks-and-mortar bookstore you prefer. I’m a big fan of Better World Books because they ship free to anywhere in the world.

HP: Your newest novel Conundrum, which came out March 16th this year, is set in the year 2123. Can you tell us a little about this book and what inspired you to write a novel set in that time?

Michael LaRocca: That’s the novel I’m going to win my EPPIE with. Well, I hope I am. It is my best published work.

As a teenager, I wrote many novels and partial novels that I threw in the trash, either before or after the rejection letters piled up. By trashing them, I did the world a great favor. But there was one, a science fiction novel that I wrote immediately after writing my short story anthology, back in 1985 or thereabouts. It had potential. Maybe. Twenty-five years later, I could remember bits of it. The good bits, which equaled a 2000-word outline.

My little brother was a cop who killed himself when he was 20. My first published novel, Vigilante Justice, began with “what would he be like if he were alive today?” That was published in 2001. Then I quit writing novels for almost ten years.

Do you wonder how someone with twelve distinct published books can go ten years between novels? Those four books published in 2001 were a short story anthology, Vigilante Justice, mom’s biography, and a collection of travel humor. I try to be versatile because I have a short attention span.

I’ve noted more than once that I can’t remember the US well enough to set a novel there, and I don’t understand China or Thailand well enough to set a novel here. So, I went into space and invented a world. Problem solved. I managed to lay my hands on a 25-year-old printout of my science fiction thing, paid someone to type it for me, threw out 90% of it, and totally reinvented the whole thing. I plugged in that “little brother guy” from Vigilante Justice. It took me three years to turn all those threads into Conundrum.

HP: Now, that is two novels that are wholly different in genre and setting. Can you tell us, will you be writing more books from both genre or will you be fixating on one?

Michael LaRocca: I’ve noted that I never write in the same genre twice, although I have to admit that Conundrum does have a sequel now. Every time I write a book, I know it’s my last and I’m empty and that I’m done with writing. Then I write another. Right now I have a two-page text file that might turn into a book unlike any of my others.

I do know that I’m not capable of writing anything like Skull Dance. Gerd lived in all of its settings, knew them intimately, and recreated them flawlessly. He loved living in the moment, feeling and thinking, engaging all his senses, using his powerful intellect. As a teenager, I enjoyed reading the great European authors from afar. Gerd was older, wiser, and he grew up right there, in Germany, in the heart of that great European literary tradition. He enjoyed writing well, the beauty of language, and long literary passages of the sort that we love to read but often bemoan modern society for discouraging. I’m very comfortable on Twitter, but I can’t imagine Gerd restraining himself to 140 characters or less.

HP: Did you do any research for Skull Dance and Conundrum for that matter?

Michael LaRocca: Gerd left me a completed manuscript for Skull Dance. I was able to just read, learn, and enjoy. He wrote it over 10 years ago, and much of what he predicted politically has happened. It can’t go out of date. That tells me he did a lot of research. His life was a constant work of research.

For Conundrum, I spent at least a year on the research. I absolutely wanted the science to drive the plot, not vice versa. I want people to read this book and applaud its scientific realism as being on par with Arthur C. Clarke. Back in “the good old days,” I loved haunting every single library in Tampa, Florida, which has an excellent library system. But for Conundrum, I have to admit that the Internet is quite convenient.

HP: Can we expect any more books from you in the future? Do you have any works in progress right now?

Michael LaRocca: Last month I signed the contract to publish that aforementioned sequel to Conundrum. It’s called Enigma. When I wrote Conundrum, just to remind you, I knew I was done with writing forever. I’d actually deleted all my research notes and celebrated their death. Fortunately, I was able to get them all back a few months later. And as I say, I’ve got a two-page text file that may or may not turn into something. Its working title is Displacement. It may be about reverse culture shock, the meaning of life, and American football, or I might just throw it out. It’s too soon to say.

HP: Are you reading any interesting books at the moment?

Michael LaRocca: There was a time, years ago, in China, when I discovered the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett. I read over 30 of the novels in a row – all that he’d written. Last month, in a second-hand bookstore in Hanoi, I found two that he wrote after that. By the time this interview is published, I will have read them both and moved on to something else. Probably Bill Bryson’s book about my favorite author, William Shakespeare.

HP: Do you have anything you would like to say to your readers?

Michael LaRocca: I’m Author of the Week and you’re not? Nah, I can’t stay that. So I’ll say, read my blog at . It’s where I help authors and editors improve, except when I’m creating lame jokes or spouting my opinion in small easily digested doses.

HP: Looking back on your life now, is there anything you would change?

Michael LaRocca: I was about halfway through writing Enigma when I realized that all four of my novels, my short story anthology, and probably most of my biographical work touch on a common theme, regrets and second chances. You’ve read in this interview that my little brother killed himself, and people who read my biography of my mother ask me “How did you ever survive?” There is much I wish I could change about the past, but I’ll have to settle for doing more good than bad, adding worth, and leaving the place better than I found it.

HP: Thank you, Michael, for taking the time to sit down and do this interview with me. I wish you great success with your novels.

Michael LaRocca: Thank you, Holly.


Books by Michael LaRocca
Skull Dance by Gerd Balke and Michael LaRocca
How Red Is My Neck? – FREE, but not for long
The Chronicles of a Lost Soul
Rising From The Ashes
Vigilante Justice

Awards and Recognitions
*How Red Is My Neck? -- 2005 EPPIE finalists
*The Chronicles of a Lost Soul -- 2004 EPPIE finalists
*Vigilante Justice -- 2002 EPPIE finalists

Also find Michael at:
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