By Ian Walkley
DEATH SENTENCES (from Crime Wave Press) had me at page one, and not many other novels would I say that about. Michael Zimecki writes fiction, nonfiction and plays while continuing to work as an attorney. From inner-city Detroit, hehas been a steelworker, advertising copywriter, medical editor, and teacher before taking up law. He has written for Harper’s Magazine, The National Law Journal, College English, and The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, among other publications.
A novella, The History of My Final Illness (Eclectica Magazine, Jan/Feb 2011), about the last five days in the life of Joseph Stalin, appeared in Eclectica Magazine. A play, Negative Velocity, about the father of the atom-bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, is a past winner of the New Playwright’s Contest of the Fremont Center Theatre.
In DEATH SENTENCES, we have the story of Peter “Pop” Popovich—an unemployed glazier, anti-Semite, and white supremacist who is pushed over the edge by his problem-plagued mother, an unresponsive lover, an uncaring stepfather, and the right-wing media hate machine that tells him liberals want to take away his guns and his liberty. While he waits to be executed for his crimes, “Pop” pens a novel about life on Death Row in which he reprises the crimes that landed him there.
Michael, you clearly have some views about American society and politics that you convey through your fiction (very cleverly, I might add). How did you come to choose “Pop” as the way to do this in your debut novel?
I wanted to get inside a mind that believes the lies broadcast by the American right-wing noise machine and see what it is like to inhabit it for a while. It’s a scary place. I can tell you that. It’s also very real. If it wasn’t, kids like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown wouldn’t be shot to death in places like Sanford, Florida and Ferguson, Missouri.
Tell us more about Pop and some of the other characters in the story.
Pop hates Jews, blacks, and gays. He’s a male chauvinist. He’s candid about his views, but his candor is anything but refreshing. Pop isn’t just politically incorrect; he’s wrong all or nearly all of the time. If he has one socially redeeming characteristic, it’s a (stunted) capacity for self-insight. He learns, over time, to look at himself in the mirror and see himself for what he is, and he has the moral sensibility to know he doesn’t like what he sees. That’s more than can be said for the dittohead darlings that influence him.
Can you tell us more about the incident in Pittsburgh in 2009 that the story is broadly based around, without any spoilers?
The story is based on a shootout that took place on Saturday, April 4, 2009, the day before “Passion Sunday.” The shootout occurred after a young man in his early twenties, like Pop, got into an argument with his mother, who placed a 911 call asking police to remove her son from her home. He had nowhere else to go. He also feared the cops would take away his guns—and he had an arsenal. So he decided to make a stand.
What do you hope the readers get a sense of in these characters and the story?
As the late Richard Weaver said, ideas have consequences, and bad ideas can lead to very bad results. Australia, a nation that got Britain’s convicts, has found its way to reasonable gun control, but in puritan America it’s an affront to suggest that guns won’t make you safer or keep you free. As a result, we’ve gone from accepting collateral damage in a war zone to encouraging it on our nation’s streets.
How much of the novel is some reflection on your own personal experiences in Detroit, and growing up?
My father worked as an automaker in Detroit and, later, as a steelworker in Pittsburgh. He had an eighth-grade education and, as with Shakespeare’s mechanicals, some of the stuff that came out of his mouth didn’t make much sense; a lot of it was pretty vulgar. There’s a little bit of him in Pop’s grandfather, Sugar, who, as the novel reveals, is anything but sweet. Pop’s mother, Evelyn, is an absolutely wicked creation who bears no resemblance whatsoever to anyone I knew growing up, especially my own mother, who was a saint. I grew up blue collar, followed my father into the mill, and am well acquainted with working class prejudices. But, frankly, I’ve seen more intolerance, prejudice, and bigotry in the boardroom than in the neighborhoods where I grew up.
In this era of Breaking Bad, Fargo, and Hannibal, are we more fascinated now with the “badness” of humankind, or perhaps more responsive to the flawed hero? Can you give us a social perspective on this?
I wish I could. I have a novel in the drawer about genuinely good people reacting with dignity to adverse circumstances, and I can’t get anyone interested it in. (It does have one or two really bad characters, so perhaps it has a chance.) Before Breaking Bad and Fargo, there was John D. MacDonald’s The End of the Night, a novel about three men and a woman on a cross-country crime spree. It’s the precursor, in a way, of Natural Born Killers and Terrence Malik’s Badlands, but the characters who stay with you, after the night has ended, are the characters who don’t kill anyone—people, like the novel’s Dallas Kemp, who mourn and remember the victims before going on with their extraordinarily ordinary lives. We need to find a way to tell that kind of story again.
Several of your reviewers comment on the first person and third person viewpoints in the novel. What drove you to this storytelling method?
I used first-person when Pop is talking about himself in the present, switching to third-person when he is talking about himself in the past, but the two viewpoints eventually merge. When Pop refers to himself in the third-person it is as if he is trying on the role of a character in a story; it gives him the distance he needs to talk about the horrendous things he’s done, but it’s the first-person Pop who has to own up to what’s happened and take responsibility for it, which he does when the “I” and “he” become one at the end of the book.
Was writing a novel in a sense the “culmination” of the other writing you’ve done before?
Before I wrote DEATH SENTENCES, I had published The History of My Final Illness and completed a full-length play. I had also written two unpublished novels, including one that took me more than twenty years to finish. In the past, I’ve worked as a writer-for-hire, churning out advertising copy, producing product catalogues and editing a medical publication. I’ve also sold nonfiction articles as a free-lance writer to publications like Harper’s. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer and I’ve been fortunate to have been able to actually earn a living from my craft.
How long was DEATH SENTENCES in the cooker?
Not long. It was a very fast write. I wish it had taken longer because I felt very mischievous while I was writing it and it was fun to write.
What process did you go through in getting published? Any tips for aspiring debut writers?
I saw a call for submissions from Crime Wave Press, and its titles and vision appealed to me. I thought conventional publishers would be too risk-adverse to give DEATH SENTENCES a chance. Crime Wave Press, on the other hand, seemed receptive to edgier material with a political subtext, so I sent my book to them, and I am glad I did. I am very fortunate that they chose to publish it.
Did you have any input into cover design?
Crime Wave Press commissioned Gerhard Joren, a veteran photographer, to do the cover illustration, and Hans Kemp, my publisher, designed the cover. I’ve very pleased with what they did.
What types of promotional activities have you done or arranged?
I did an interview with Brit Grit’s Paul D. Brazill, who lives in Poland, and a podcast with Stuart Beaton, who teaches English for Tianjin University in China. Both are classy guys who have helped me to understand that the geography of ideas, like mountains and rivers, pays no attention to boundaries. I’ve also done some local interviews, and a piece about my book is due out soon in the Pittsburgh City Paper.
I believe you enjoy wearing a fedora?
I have so many hats I could open a store.
So with such excellent reviews for DEATH SENTENCES you must have lots of readers asking for more. What’s next in the fiction pipeline?
I’m working on a novel with the working title of the Color of Perfect Darkness. No spoilers, but it pays homage to Ross Macdonald. (“Gone Girl,” by the way, is the title of a 1957 Macdonald short story. I don’t know if Gillian Flynn was tipping a hat to him when she gave her novel the same title.) Some scholars praise Oedipus Rex as the first detective story, and Macdonald certainly exploited the Oedipus theme in novels like Three Roads and The Goodbye Look. My tale involves a search for a murderer that leads the detective inward, and his story is as much an exploration of self as it is an attempt to solve a crime.
Where and when do you normally do your most productive writing?
I have a study, but I don’t use it. Instead, I have my laptop set up on the far end of my dining room table, and I spend some time writing there every day.
What is one piece of advice you’d give other aspiring novelists?
I liked the movie Inside Llewyn Davis, whose title character has been described as a repugnant failure. To the contrary, I think every aspiring artist has to have a little Llewyn Davis in him, some cockiness or arrogance, some tone deafness to other people’s opinions and advice, to succeed at his or her craft. Not every word can be workshopped. You have to believe in yourself. You have to write yourself into creation. No one else can do it for you.
Michael Zimecki writes fiction, nonfiction and plays while continuing to work as an attorney. Born in inner-city Detroit, he did turns as a steelworker, advertising copywriter, medical editor and teacher before practicing law. Michael has written for Harper’s Magazine, The National Law Journal, College English, and The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, among other publications. A novella, THE HISTORY OF MY FINAL ILLNESS, about the last five days in the life of Joseph Stalin, appeared in Eclectica Magazine. A play, Negative Velocity, about atom-bomb father J. Robert Oppenheimer, is a past winner of the New Playwright’s Contest of the Fremont Center Theatre.