The Writing Life: Michael Jordan, Author of The Company of Demons
We sat down with Michael Jordan, whose book, The Company of Demons is gathering a wealth of 5-star reviews, and his wife Linda Gross Brown, an award-winning pastelist recently at the Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland Ohio. After a delightful lunch, we whisked Michael away from the crowded and noisy downstairs bar area (where Eliot Ness used to hang out!) and had a long talk with him about writing, his work, and his future plans. We even taped it, so we could share some with you. (Stay tuned for these videos!)
Originally from Saginaw Michigan, Michael graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University and then obtained his law degree from George Washington University (where he wrote for the Law Review). He returned to Ohio to practice law, where he was recognized as an “Ohio Super Lawyer” and named one of the “Best Lawyers In America”. For three decades, he was a trial lawyer and still serves as an arbitrator. All in all, he’s had an outstanding legal career. He’s also an avid traveler and has experienced the world from climbing Mt. Fuji to swimming in the Devil’s Pool on the cusp of Victoria Falls. Linda and he recently returned from a trip to Iceland and France. He splits his time between Rocky River Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland and Longboat Key Florida.
Despite such a busy work, travel and family schedule, Michael still finds time to write. Since he is still working as an arbitrator and often has to travel for this, he usually concentrates his writing to weekends for long stretches of time. “I try to set aside at least one weekday to write as well.”
Hampered by a speech impediment as a child, Michael learned quite young that words have power. He won spelling bees and gained confidence. He became enamored of words and vocabulary early on and this has been a vital component of his legal as well as his writing career. He’s also been an actor in amateur theatre and has used this experience to help develop his characters.
“When you have to build a character for the stage, you need to have a back story to explain his motivations and why he does what he does. You may never refer to this on the stage, but doing this gives depth and meaning to your characters.” He explained. “I use the same technique to develop my characters in my writing as well.” Since he’s always been a writer, writing poetry, short stories, articles and even legal writing, his segue into writing a novel seemed a natural next step.
“My book, The Company of Demons, came about with my fascination the Torso Murders. When I first came to Ohio, and was practicing law, I was waiting around for a deposition to begin and was looking at some old photos. An older attorney came in and mentioned that the image I was looking at was of Kingsbury Run where the Torso Murderer was known to leave some of his victims.
“I had no idea what he was talking about, since I am originally from Michigan, but this grabbed my attention and I began to look into this grim period of Cleveland’s history. I learned that Eliot Ness was the Safety Director during that time, and that these killings went unsolved. They derailed his career and his life, which went into a downward spiral. The bar downstairs is where he used to drink,” Michael added with a grin.
What does a typical day look like for you? How do you work as a writer?
“Since I am still actively working as an arbitrator, I tend to do a lot of traveling. When I am at home at my desk, I have to instill a certain amount of discipline to get my work done. I have a dedicated area, overlooking Lake Erie at my home in Rocky River Ohio, and I can see the water which inspires me.”
How did publishing your first book change your writing process?
“I learned a great deal. Unlike the ‘old days’ you have to submit a book completely ready. It needs to be a polished product. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve polished and re-polished, seeking the right word to express exactly what I wanted.”
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
“Both! It’s completely energizing when on track and exhausting when I can’t figure out where a character is taking me.”
Does a big ego help or hurt writers?
It helps and hurts. Writing is a tough business and not everyone is going to like what you do. There is a lot of rejection, so it’s good to believe in yourself, pick yourself up and resolve to do better. A big ego hurts when it’s too strong, because then you can’t take criticism and learn from your mistakes.
How do you balance making demands on the reader and taking care of the reader?
By carefully crafting the story. I want the reader to be in suspense, and create the sense of inevitability. I also want to the reader to be able to piece the story together so it’s as if we are in this with each other.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
I owe them a lot. In the Company of Demons, for instance, my protagonist is named John Coleman. The real John Coleman helped me immensely as I researched the Irish Communities in Cleveland. He grew up on the West side and gave me a full picture of this area. It seemed natural to name my lead after him. I am glad I did, as he was able to see the book in print before he passed away from a tragic accident.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have? Do you want each book to stand on its own or build a body of connected work?
I have a World War 2 thriller that is half completed and will stand on its own. Linda, my wife wants a sequel to The Company of Demons soon I’ll be connecting that book to the first.
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
No. You can have the best plot, but if readers don’t care about the characters, the book will go nowhere. You have to feel and inhabit each of your characterizations. That’s where my work in theater, where you create backstories comes into play. By creating and feeling your way through a character, you bring emotion and depth into your writing.
What kind of research do you do and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Quite a lot. For the Company of Demons, I spent hours at the Cleveland Public Library pouring over the newspaper archives, went to the Cleveland Police Museum and actually saw much of the evidence collected. All to achieve a sense of accuracy. For the WW2 book, I’ve traveled to Los Alamos, New Mexico, to ensure I create a sense of atmosphere.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
Attending conferences and workshops. By surrounding myself with the craft and business of writing I learn a lot and it’s money well spent.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Start earlier and take it seriously. I had another book completed, got an agent, had some interest in it and put it aside. Didn’t pick it up again for 27 years, when I completed Company of Demons.
Does your family support your career as a writer?
Completely. My wife Linda is an award winning artist, so she completely understands the creative process and is very supportive. In fact, we are mutually supportive of each other’s creative efforts.
Once we finished our formal interview with Mike, we handed him a copy of the famous Proust Questionnaire that often reveals some very interesting insights into a person’s mind and personality.
Here are Mike’s answers:
WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST FEAR?
Sheer drop-offs from great heights
WHAT IS YOUR CURRENT STATE OF MIND?
Life is good
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE OCCUPATION? (WAY OF SPENDING TIME)
I would rather be traveling than anything else
WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE FICTIONAL HERO?
Tarzan of the Apes
WHAT IS YOUR MOST TREASURED POSSESSION?
An antique maul used by my great-grandfather to split logs
WHEN AND WHERE WERE YOU HAPPIEST?
Right now, in Rocky River, Ohio, and Longboat Key, Florida
WHAT IS YOUR MOST OBVIOUS CHARACTERISTIC?
Sense of humor
WHAT IS THE TRAIT YOU MOST DEPLORE (HATE) IN YOURSELF?
I am too willing to try and see the good in people — sometimes, it is just not there
WHAT IS THE TRAIT YOU MOST DEPLORE IN OTHERS?
WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST EXTRAVAGANCE?
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE JOURNEY?
Backpacking through Europe for weeks when I was younger
WHAT DO YOU MOST DISLIKE ABOUT YOUR APPEARANCE?
Signs of age
WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER THE MOST OVER-RATED VIRTUE?
I’m not sure that a virtue can be overrated, but perhaps kindness. Everyone should be kind, always. It is not that difficult.
ON WHAT OCCASION DO YOU LIE?
I will tell a white lie to protect someone’s feelings
IF YOU COULD CHANGE ONE THING ABOUT YOURSELF, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
I would be more selfish with my time
WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER YOUR GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT?
I have been able to enjoy amazing life experiences
WHERE WOULD YOU LIKE TO LIVE?
There are many, many places that I would like to live, at least for a while.
WHAT IS THE QUALITY YOU MOST ADMIRE IN A MAN?
WHAT IS THE QUALITY YOU MOST ADMIRE IN A WOMAN?
WHAT IS IT YOU MOST DISLIKE?
WHAT DO YOU VALUE MOST IN YOUR FRIENDS?
HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO DIE?
In full control of my physical and mental states
WHAT IS YOUR MOTTO (WORDS YOU LIVE BY OR THAT MEAN A LOT TO YOU)?
WHO HAS BEEN THE GREATEST INFLUENCE ON YOU?
My maternal grandfather