December 2013 Buzz Book Chat interview:
Today I am interviewing local attorney and debut author Michael E. Petrie, whose very first novel, titled YOU’RE THE ONLY ONE I CAN TRUST, has been receiving many very nice reviews.
BBC: Please describe what the book is about.
Author: A middle-aged lawyer from Chicago, fed up with practicing law, turns his back on his practice, moves to a beach house in Venice Beach California and is enjoying his new life as a carefree aging beach bum. That is, until he is contacted about a high school reunion, meets up with a long-lost love whose husband has recently passed away under some rather mysterious circumstances, finds himself enmeshed in a murder investigation, becomes entangled in a kinky world of S&M, and begrudgingly returning to the practice of law to help his former heart-throb.
BBC: Love it. Where do you like to do your writing?
Author: Well, I was living in an old house – built in 1929 – located right on the sand of Venice Beach when I wrote this book. In the story, the central character – Benjamin Harding – lives in the very same house. Every detail about the house, the neighborhood, the people he meets, are all quite factual, based very much on the real surroundings and people I met while in the process of writing the story. I’d meet some characters on the beach and weave them right into the storyline. It was so much fun! Venice Beach is a great writing environment, it’s an artsy, inspirational place to be creative.
BBC: How long did it take to write the book?
Author: Writing the basic story did not take all that long. Pulled a lot of all-nighters. I’d sit at my desk, in front of the computer for days on end, unshaven, unwashed. My wife would quietly bring coffee and food in to me. I’d eat, write, eat, write. Probably had it all written down in six or eight weeks. Then the really hard part started. Re-writing, attending to details, researching factual components, editing, polishing it up, querying agents to represent the book, attending writers conferences to get my book noticed ... all part of the necessary business end of publishing. So, all total, from start to finished product, it actually took several years.
BBC: You are a lawyer and Benjamin, the character in the story, is also a lawyer. Any similarities? Was the story based upon an actual case?
Author: Hmm, let’s see. Okay, I confess. I am Ben and Ben is me. (Laughing) Truth is, there actually is a lot of me in Ben. And, though the story is not based on any single case, it is certainly a fictionalized composite of several cases I've handled over the course of my career. In fact, just about everything that happens in the story actually did happen in real life ... though, I took great liberties with those events and greatly embellished most of them.
BBC: Such as? Give us an example of something specific that happened in real life that appears in the story.
Author: The book practically wrote itself because nearly everything in the story actually happened in real life. All I had to do was write it down. But, specifics? Hmmm. Okay. The emails that Ben received regarding his high school reunion are practically verbatim of emails I received regarding my own high school reunion. And, I did do a probate of a guy who was found dead under very similar circumstances as the victim in the story.
BBC: So, if you were not a writer or a lawyer, what would you be doing?
Author: Who knows? In my life I’ve worn a lot of hats, so to speak. Early on, I had trouble holding any sort of so-called normal job. As a teenager I got fired from almost every fast food joint you can think of – Burger King, Carl’s Jr., you name it. Morphed into a hippie-type hobo, hitch-hiking my way all over the country, living in communes and hippie pads from San Francisco to Old Town Chicago. Then, gave it up to become a cowboy.
BBC: A cowboy?
Author: Yes. I went through a pretty serious cowboy phase in my late teens/early twenties. I was attending college in Colorado, met some local cowboys and became enamored with the whole cowboy scene. Worked on a ranch for awhile. Did some roping and bronc riding. Then started riding bulls. Rode in professional rodeos all over the country, as far east as Kankakee, Illinois – which, I think, may be the biggest rodeo in the entire Midwest – and all over Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and California. It was a pretty exciting time actually. I mean, what kid doesn’t want to be a cowboy? At some point, though, I realized a fella could get hurt riding rodeos, so I gave it up. I've always loved music and sang in lots of high school and college productions, so tried my hand as a singer/musician for a few years. Played in several L.A. area rock bands. Became close friends with a record company exec who helped me get studio gigs and into the union, AFTRA. Spent a lot of time working with so many really talented musicians at studios all over L.A., including the iconic round record-shaped Capitol Records building in Hollywood. Sounds kind of glamorous, I suppose, but, money-wise, I was barely scraping by. So, I decided to learn a trade – something more pragmatic, down to earth, more reliable in the overall scheme of things. Became a carpenter, joined that union, too. Began earning a steady income for the first time in my life. Then I discovered sailboats ... and the idea of sailing off to tropical islands totally took over. Soon I was sailing off over the horizon. Adventures in paradise. Supported myself by doing carpenter work by day, and evenings singing/playing guitar in bars & pizza joints at exotic places like Lahaina, Hawaii, Pago Pago, Samoa, and Tonga. Those were some of the most fun times ever ... a young, single guy, living on a sailboat in paradise. What’s not to like about that scenario?
BBC: I can imagine. You were a bit like Peter Pan, weren’t you? Or perhaps Hemingway, all those adventures.
Author: Well, yes, I guess you might say that. But, unlike Peter, I reached a point where I knew I had to change course and grow up. So, I returned to the mainland – to California – sold the boat and used the money to start my own business. Got my contractors license, my real estate license, and began a construction/development company – just as California was entering the greatest real estate boom of a lifetime. My timing could not have been more perfect. The business was an overnight success, as they say.
BBC: But you are now a lawyer. How did you get from construction contractor to lawyer?
Author: A customer who owed me a considerable amount of money refused to pay. They were a big corporation with a team of lawyers. I felt hopelessly outgunned. In the end, they totally stiffed me. I decided not to let that happen again. So, I enrolled in law school in order to learn things that might help me in business. I had no real intention of actually becoming a lawyer, but by the time I graduated the construction biz was in a slump. So I began practicing law. I found myself representing lots of contractors, developers, and small businesses. That’s still the mainstay of my law practice. I think clients like the idea of a lawyer who was once on the other side of the equation and actually understands, first hand, the business of real estate and construction.
BBC: That’s a pretty amazing life story. It really is.
Author: (Laughing). It’s been quite a whirlwind, for sure. I’ve had fun, worked hard, and have been blessed with so many really lucky breaks.
BBC: So, how then did you become a novelist?
Author: I began keeping a journal at age fifteen. Don’t laugh, it’s true. It was a very therapeutic outlet for a mixed-up teenager. But I kept writing entries throughout my 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond. Turns out, I’d lived through, and wound up chronicling, some rather heady times in modern American history. Fast forward to a dinner party I attended in the mid-nineties at a friend’s home in Malibu. Seated next to me was a woman who introduced herself as a literary agent. I jokingly mentioned my journal to her and was stunned when she enthusiastically told me she would love to read it. “It’s hundreds of hand-written loose pages,” I told her. She laughed and told me to type it out, proof read it, and send it to her whenever it was ready. I spent the better part of a year working on getting that journal into shape to send off to her. When it was all done, I found myself missing that daily writing routine. So, I began penning articles gleaned from some of those journal passages and sending them off to magazine editors. Soon my articles were getting published and checks were arriving in the mail. Not huge amounts, mind you. But still – real money. Suddenly I was feeling like a professional writer. So, that’s when I decided to try my hand at something a bit longer: a novel.
BBC: And, you say you were writing all those adventures and experiences down in a journal? So, whatever happened to the journal you sent to the agent?
Author: She kept the manuscript for a very long time – reading it, editing it and, I would imagine, trying to sell it. In the end, nothing happened with it. I still have it. If there’s a literary agent out there interested, please contact me.
BBC: And there you have it. Thank you Michael E. Petrie. I read your book, YOU’RE THE ONLY ONE I CAN TRUST, and enjoyed it a great deal. It’s funny, witty, suspenseful, and you write with a friendly, easy-going style. I hope to read much more from you in the near future.