Most writers excel at one genre, but E. Michael Helms has successfully tackled memoir, historical fiction, and mystery. He is not only versatile, but prolific as well, with four books published in the last two years. Helms is a former marine who served in Vietnam. He was awarded the Purple Heart, Combat Action Ribbon, Presidential Unit Citation, Navy Unit Citation, and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry, and was honorably discharged in 1969. His harrowing memoir of that war, The Proud Bastards, has been in print for over twenty years.
THE BIG THRILL caught up with Helms and talked with him about the writing life and his newest novel, DEADLY RUSE, a riveting page-turner and the second in the Mac McClellan mystery series, due for release this month by Seventh Street Books.
Your historical fiction and mysteries seem to have been published within weeks of each other. Do you work on both at the same time and, if so, what challenges does that pose?
That was simply a fluke, or good timing. My agent had been trying to place Of Blood and Brothers a while, and finally made a sale. Originally written as one long saga, the publisher asked me to break it into two sections; hence OB&B: Books One & Two. While that process was taking place, I decided to try my hand at mystery writing, something I’d wanted to do for quite some time. I completed Deadly Catch: A Mac McClellan Mystery in a few months and my agent quickly sold it to Seventh Street Books. OB&B: Book One was published in September 2013, and Deadly Catch followed in November. So, the answer is no, I don’t work on both at the same time (except for edits and other follow-up chores).
Do you prefer one genre to the other?
My first book, The Proud Bastards, was a memoir about my tour in Vietnam as a combat Marine. That was a very trying experience dredging up all those emotions and ghosts. Of Blood and Brothers is a Civil War saga, and I relied on my own combat experiences to bring reality to the battle scenes. That wasn’t a very pleasant experience either.
My latest novel, The Private War of Corporal Henson, is a semi-autobiographical novel about a group of Vietnam veterans struggling with PTSD years after the war. I wrote the first draft of that book shortly after my memoir was published, and then put it away for years. You could call it a fictional sequel to my memoir because about eighty-five percent of the book is true. That was no walk in the park.
I finally decided to get away from the war business when I began my Mac McClellan Mystery series. I’ve fallen in love with the genre. However, Mac is a retired Marine who saw extensive combat in Iraq. I suppose I needed that connection to fully get inside Mac’s head. So, yes, mysteries have become my favorite genre.
You live in South Carolina, yet both your Civil War and Mac McClellan mystery series are set in the Florida Panhandle. Is there a reason?
Absolutely. I grew up along the coast of the Florida Panhandle (Panama City), and lived most of my life there. My Civil War novels are based on an actual family who lived a few miles north of Panama City. I used to fish, hunt, swim, camp, and canoe in the same area that the family homesteaded (several of their descendants still live there).
As for the mystery series, when recently divorced Mac McClellan retired from the Marines, he bought a small travel trailer and decided to hit the road while he figured out what he wanted to do with his post-Corps life. A buddy of his had mentioned the (fictional) coastal town of St. George in the Florida Panhandle. Mac headed there for some fishing and relaxation. When he hooked a decomposing body one morning, circumstances forced him to stay, and he soon began looking into the victim’s death and a related drug-smuggling operation. The area grew on Mac, as did the affections of thirty-something Kate Bell, an independent-minded woman working at the local marina.
Did you make any surprising or new discoveries about Mac McClellan as you wrote DEADLY RUSE, the second book of the series?
Mac was originally intended to be an amateur sleuth. In DEADLY RUSE, Kate spies an old boyfriend who supposedly died in a boating mishap more than a decade ago. For Kate’s peace of mind, Mac decides to investigate.
An old family friend of the Bell family, Frank Hightower, runs a private investigation company in Destin, Florida, Kate’s hometown. In lieu of charging Kate for his services, Frank offers to show Mac the ropes of the private eye business and train him while he applies and studies for his license. Mac is a bit of a maverick and doesn’t always do things according to the book. I enjoyed watching him hone his investigative skills while combining those with his Marine training and sometimes-unorthodox manner of getting things done.
Do you have a favorite biography of a Civil War–era figure?
That’s a tough question. I have two. An autobiographical memoir by a Confederate foot soldier, Sam R. Watkins: Company Aytch or a Side Show of the Big Show: A Memoir of the Civil War.And, Stonewall of the West: Patrick Cleburne & the Civil War. General Cleburne served, as did Sam Watkins, in the Confederate Army of Tennessee. One of the brothers in my Civil War novels also served with the Army of Tennessee, experiencing the same hardships and battles.
What would you consider the best military histories?
Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command, a 3-volume set by Douglas Southall Freeman; and Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative, also a 3-volume set.
What was the last truly great book you read?
A mystery: The Galton Case, by Ross Macdonald. It was stunning.
What books are currently on your nightstand?
Several by Ross Macdonald; some Charles B. Parker, Raymond Chandler, Jeremiah Healy, Mickey Spillane, and a bunch of reference books. You can probably tell I’m immersing myself in the genre.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
When in the Course of Human Events, by Charles Adams.
What books are you embarrassed not to have read?
There are many, but two that stand out are Margaret Mitchell’s epic Gone With the Wind, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I have copies of both, so shame on me.
If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque.
You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three authors would you invite?
Samuel Langhorne Clemens; Erich Maria Remarque; and Ross Macdonald. This would probably have to be a catered séance.
What is the key to a great suspense story?
Putting your hero in harm’s way. Also, keeping the reader guessing for as long as possible with red herrings, dead ends, and smoke and mirrors.
Is there a certain kind of book you steer clear of as a reader? As a writer?
I don’t avoid any certain genre, but what I do try to avoid—especially when I’m writing—are poorly written books. Well-written books can be inspirational and recharge the batteries when your writing begins to stall. Poorly written books can cause your writing to go flat. I try to avoid those at all costs.
Do you ever experience writer’s block, and, if so, how do you push through it?
I don’t think I’ve ever really suffered from writer’s block per say. What I do suffer from is writer’s laziness. Some days I have to just plant my butt in the chair and force myself to put down words. They won’t just magically appear out of thin air. I’m not the most disciplined of writers; far from it, in fact.
What is the best writing advice you’ve received?
If you want to be a writer, then write! No excuses—just do it!
What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Read a lot, especially in the genre(s) you want to write. Study structure, dialogue, punctuation (particularly when used in dialogue). I can’t tell you how many novels I’ve read where it seems the writer has no clue as to punctuating dialogue. If a person is well read and has any talent, that should be a given. If yours is lacking, open a well-written novel and see how the author does it. There are no excuses.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
I was still a teenager during my tour of duty in Vietnam. I saw a lot of death and destruction. I returned home flat on my back and spent six months in the hospital. Life is short and fragile. There is no promise of tomorrow. Live life to its fullest in the best way you can.
Is the third Mac McClellan mystery in the works?
Deadly Dunes is finished, and I’ve just completed the first draft of the fourth Mac McClellan mystery, Deadly Spirits. There’s another Mac mystery already jumping around in my head. I’m loving it!
You can read more at Michael’s website or connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.
E. Michael Helms is the author of Deadly Catch, the first Mac McClellan mystery. His memoir of his Vietnam combat service, The Proud Bastards, has remained in print for two decades. Originally published by Kensington/Zebra in 1990, it was republished in 2004 by Simon & Schuster/Pocket Star, and has sold nearly 50,000 copies (Pocket Star edition). The memoir is also a past hardcover selection of The Military Book Club. Helms is also the author of Of Blood and Brothers, a two-part novel about the Civil War. Helms currently resides with his wife Karen in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in South Carolina.