I must admit that I hadn’t heard of Michael Mehas before we discussed doing an interview, but I had heard of the legal case in which he was involved–the story of Jesse James Hollywood, the youngest person ever to make the FBI’s Most Wanted list, who now sits on death row for his crimes. The story of this young man formed the basis for Michael Mehas’s book Stolen Boy, and for the feature film Alpha Dog. It’s a story of suburban middle-class kids gone bad, descending into a world of drugs and sex and ultimately murder.
Michael made the transition from practicing attorney to full-time writer, and that kind of leap mystifies some and inspires others. So without further ado…
TH: Can you give a brief arc of your career as a writer/author?
MM: I wrote a lot as a practicing attorney for years before making the transition into screenwriting and journalism. I started off doing a few celebrity interviews for magazines like Hello and Hola and Okay. I’ve rewritten other people’s messes in Hollywood. And I also worked with writer/director Nick Cassavetes in writing the screenplay for last year’s most controversial film, Alpha Dog, starring Justin Timberlake, Bruce Willis, and Sharon Stone. And that led to my present novel, Stolen Boy, which is based on the youngest man ever on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, and has won several awards.
TH: What is The Story of Michael? Is it a novel? A short story? A poem? A limerick?
MM: I’m an incomplete novel. No, you know what? In fact, I’m actually in the process of a page one rewrite. I used to be this whole other person, completely different than I am now. I went through this crazy consciousness transformation while working on this book and film project. And then the craziness of my legal involvement regarding the kid who’s story we were doing. I had to become a different person because I needed to recreate the reality that I was experiencing. So I began anew. Which is what we need to do if we’re going to survive in this world. And the truth is I like this draft of me much better.
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
MM: I was probably about seventeen when I first started giving it any real thought or effort. But back then I had more important things to consider. Like girls and partying. I was in Hollywood High School, and that’s what you did back then. And if anything, I thought myself more like the leading man in those days. So acting definitely stood out above writing. And so did athletics. I played baseball, football, basketball, and I ran track. The writing didn’t really sink in for me until I went to college and became slightly more serious about things.
I remember having a conversation one day with my buddy Nick Cassavetes. And he always talked about how the writer had so much more control of things in the business than the actor did. And it made a lot of sense. Since I was a terrible actor anyway, and I was inflicted with white-man’s disease on the basketball court, I launched myself into the intermittent obscurity of being a writer.
TH: A lot of established writers seem to have a stack of writing somewhere that will never see the light of day, like the five novels the author had to write before he could get to the good one. Do you have anything like this?
MM: Oh, of course I do. I have stacks of boxes of it. I call in my “Inventory.” And you know what? I keep it in boxes and take it with me wherever I move. And I’ve done that for all these years, because, I think eventually I’ll get it produced. Or in the case of books, published. So hold on to those old writings. You just never know.
TH: What do you have hiding in your “Inventory” that you would most like to see published or produced? Is there an unpublished work that you’re really proud of?
MM: My favorite closet piece is a delicious screenplay I wrote several years ago, called Twice Sacrificed. It’s an intense little ride through the misty world of family jealousy and sacrifice. It’s the story of a young man who is freed from prison with the opportunity to investigate who really killed the fifteen-year-old girlfriend he was convicted of murdering eighteen years earlier. This leads him to discover the dark secrets of his family’s past; secrets that could now cost him his freedom as well as his life.
TH: I enjoy writing screenplays because their abbreviated style makes it easier to tell the story faster. Twenty-thousand words as opposed to a hundred thousand. In which medium are you more comfortable working, screenplays or novels? Why?
MM: Novels. To me, screenplay writing is the most difficult kind of writing there is. It’s a very limited medium for the writer. First of all, you only have a hundred pages to tell an entire story in vivid living detail. And that’s not easy. Not for a medium that’s designed to tell a story through images. You have to be quick in moving the story through a screenplay, yet there needs to be the right balance of character development. And therein lies the major problem. Screenplays aren’t really designed to track the character’s inner workings as deeply as the novel allows you to do.
That’s what a novel is. A story told through the character’s interior thought processes. Where the movie relies on images to tell its story from. Same thing for a play, which is a dialogue driven medium. That’s why, generally speaking, you hear people, who’ve seen the movie and then read the book adapted from that movie, always say how the book was much better than the movie. And why is that? Because they really identified with one or more of the characters involved in the story’s telling. The book had the opportunity and the pages to take the reader deeper into the emotional experience of being human. Which is what characters in novels are supposed to do. That’s why the novel, in my humble opinion, is the greatest storytelling medium of all. If it’s done right, by the end of the story’s telling, you’ve laughed and you’ve cried. And you’ve learned enough about humanity to change as a human being. Great stories can do that. So can movies that are done well. But it all starts with the writing. The writer must understand what it is like to change, and then create a character who experiences the human drama of forced change so that the reader may identify with it.
TH: Of course, most writers want to have bestsellers or make some sort of artistic or literary impact. Is there some unrealized accomplishment that you’re striving for in the near future?
MM: I have to admit that I have three intense goals that still elude me. I want to see Stolen Boy on the New York Times, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble bestseller lists. When I reach those goals, I’ll consider myself a marketable author. Oh yeah, and I’d like to sell more copies than Grisham. That’s not asking for too much, is it?
TH: What are some of the things that inspire you?
MM: Rainy days at the cement factory. A mad bull right behind me. A beautiful, naked woman and a set of handcuffs. A politician who doesn’t lie. And a lot of beauty. Stories of beauty and the magic of kindness always inspire me. That’s what life really should be about. What can we do to inspire kindness from everyone at all times? Can you imagine what life would be like under those circumstances? Me either.
TH: What are the most successful ways you have used to promote yourself and your work? Are there any promising marketing avenues that you might yet explore?
MM: It is all a battle. The marketing aspect of the game was somewhat of a surprise to me once I got the book written. I knew there’d be plenty of buzz out there due to the movie and the nature of the true crime and my involvement with it. But I really had no idea of all the intense work I was going to have to put into it. But the key to me at this point is the Internet. Web coverage and news coverage on the Web pose permanent coverage of you and your work. And it expands. And the use of a Web site and Weblog can be critical to this exposure. I’ve gone on a Virtual Book Tour and a Video Book Trailer Tour and I’ve been blessed with my share of hard news coverage. So for my set of circumstances, the Web has more permanency than TV and radio as a general rule. Unless you wrote The Secret. Then you can be on Oprah and any TV show you want.
TH: Have you reached the point at which you realized that you had â€œmade itâ€ as a writer and author? If so, can you describe the milestone or circumstances? Do you recall how that felt?
MM: I’m not sure I’ll ever feel as though I “made it” because I’m always intensely striving for something new. But, there was a point to where I felt my book was going to be a success in the marketplace. Sales combined with media coverage and potential future media coverage went along with little stories of people who either knew my name or had heard of Stolen Boy. Someone on an airplane with a copy of my book. Or other people who’ve seen my story in the paper and others who heard me speak on the radio. I even recently received a letter from this sweet little sixth grader who had read my book and needed to contact the author as a school assignment. That was probably the coolest thing of all. Of the millions of books out there, she chose my book for her school project.
TH: I critique a lot of short fiction in a couple of online venues, and in your very last comment, you’ve hit upon something that a lot of beginning writers in any genre just haven’t gotten yet. Writing stories is all about the characters how and why they change, or don’t change as the case may be, not about the ‘cool idea.’ Was there a point where you had an epiphany, where suddenly some major cornerstone of publishable writing fell into place? Or has it been more of an ephemeral/incremental evolution?
MM: Writing is like life itself. People who don’t change will die. It’s that simple. Living is about changing according to our surroundings. We interact with the world around us. If we don’t, our surroundings will destroy us. And it’s the same with our characters. And this all became abundantly clear to me during the process of putting this life-changing story together.
I had to work on three different stories to begin with. The 239-page factual chronology I put together of the true crime itself based on my research, that both Alpha Dog and Stolen Boy were based upon. Then the story I helped Nick Cassavetes develop, and he told through his screenplay and his direction of the movie. And then the story I put together for my book. Three very different tellings based on the same set of facts. It was during this process that I finally discovered the true rhythmic essence of storytelling. Which gets us back to what we were talking about before: the give and take we experience in life. I like to call it the Yin and Yang of story. It’s like cause and effect in real life. It’s the character reacting to the stimuli around her. And in the novel, it’s the character falling back into deep reflection after being stunned by some major event in her story. That emotional and intellectual response she experiences while trying to decide what to do next toward accomplishing her story’s quest. Then, when she figures it out, she’s off again to another scene. And she’s changed as a person. And she goes after her new goal with a different kind of energy because, if drawn well, she’s a different person than she was before the last catastrophe struck her. And this will change again when she’s forced to respond to even more strenuous conflict, which she again will emotionally and analytically respond to. And she’ll be forced to make a decision. And she’ll come up with a new goal. And then something else will force her to act. And she’ll cause the forces around her to react to her actions. And it’s this back-and-forth rhythm that has to first be developed and then meticulously refined through the rewriting process. That’s what writing’s about. The character battles through conflict which forces her to experience change. Change in the state of the character’s affairs. And, with her internal reactions, hopefully, change in the character’s state of mind.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach?
MM: I try not to. To me, writing is a very intimate experience between the writer and those she wants to read her book. The reader doesn’t see a branded commodity on the jacket cover of your book. She sees you. Your name is on it. You have to build a certain trust and relationship with your reader before they’ll even buy your book. So I take more of a humanistic approach to what I do. I’m all about relationships that are mutually beneficial.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
MM: I’m about to embark on a wild children’s spiritual adventure. Sort of a Harry Potter meets Raiders of the Lost Arc meets Celestine Prophecies. It’s a blockbuster. Unless, of course, somebody decides to pay me a lot of money to write a sequel to Stolen Boy maybe with a kind of a package deal for a television mini-series. I’d certainly have to listen to that.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
MM: It was probably seeing my book in print for the first time. There was my name. And my picture. I was a published author. Now all I had to do was figure out how to sell a million copies.
TH: Is there anything else you would like to talk about that I haven’t mentioned?
MM: Nah. Maybe just the fact that we all could use to put more energy into spreading the joys from the heart to everyone around us. If we do that, we can change the world. We can change ourselves. We can change the reality that surrounds us. And we as writers sort of owe this to ourselves and to those who follow us. Besides, change is what makes characters so fascinating in story. We have to live it to be able to write about it.