A Walk in the Park with author, Gerard McLean
I interview gerardmclean whose book Monkey with a loaded typewriter: Mostly true essays was recently released. These essays were culled from a blog he kept for nearly a decade, DogWalkBlog, for which he drew a strong following thanks to his offbeat point of view. When it came time to lasso the posts into a print and ebook, Gerard called me to help him structure them through my blog-to-book strategy. It was an extremely rewarding process I wanted to have him share so that others who might be struggling to publish a collection of works might be inspired to take the leap.
SH: What was the impetus for starting DogWalkBlog?
GM: I had a dog named Rufus and we got into the habit for walking three times a day because I had come down with a case of sciatica — this was in 2005 — and I had this puppy who needed to be accommodated. When the sciatica cleared, he had gleaned the habit of walking three times a day whether I needed it or not. Floating around in my head during these walks was a sundry of ideas about what a dog might say. Over time, this segued to what the human walking the dog might think and say, and the blog turned into a place where I could deposit thoughts. Rufus began as a dog writing a blog but it didn’t end that way.
SH: When you began doing social media to publicize the blog, did you think it would turn out to be a marketing model you’d become known for?
GM: No. I didn’t envision anything greater than using it as a depository for thoughts, like writing random thoughts on post-it notes, which is what most of my tweets felt like. But suddenly I had 900 posts, and then Let’s Blog Off came along and the writing became more structured and more sophisticated. This was a collaborative of bloggers who posted around a common theme every two weeks. It lasted a while and for a period of time, we became a writing community — initially there were five of us and by the end there were about 37 writers total.
Paul Anater and I would come up with the subject matter from a process of batting ideas around. They were universal topics like “what is faith”; “what is love.” Anyone could do a standard straight-up piece or it could be positioned any way someone’s point of view dictated — you could look at literature, for instance, and find the crack in life that no one else saw. For example, one week we wrote about what was everyone’s favorite corner of the world. Mine was at the corner of where a cornfield and a park met.
SH: When did think this could possibly be a book?
GM: When I hit about 900 essays after nine years of posting, I started going back and looking at some of them. When I read over a number of them, I realized about 65 of them were really deeply fleshed out and I thought, “These really say something!” The essays as they appear in the book aren’t chronological as they appeared on the blog but they are grouped into themes to make sense in terms of book structure, something you helped me identify and organize, which I appreciate very much.
SH: Were you surprised there was that much material there?
GM: Absolutely; when you keep a daily blog, you don’t realize how much material you produce and how relevant it can be as a book.
SH: Did you write five days a week?
GM: I consistently wrote but didn’t consistently publish; 900 posts were published but I probably wrote three times that much. Of the 900 published posts, 65 essays made the cut, which means there were well over 2000 essays that were written and that’s a lot of material left on the cutting room floor, so to speak. You might think how could you look at 900 essays and choose only 65 but the most relevant did show themselves and I didn’t feel it was necessary to have a book that was more than about 200 pages. When I think about how much wasn’t worth the print, or even a blog post, I have to say it’s a little humbling.
SH: Do you think it’s beneficial to work with someone as you did with me or do you now feel you could do this on your own after completing the process once?
GM: Publishing essays on a blog that was never intended to be a book meant I needed someone to look at it and come up with the narrative arc. With fictive works, you start with structure. If I were to start another collection of essays, I don’t think I could write one built on structure so it would be stream of consciousness, and I guess I would still need someone come in and say things like, “You need to cull them and structure them in this way.”
What I’ve found from maintaining a blog is that some days you are affected by your past and some days by your future but blogs don’t often present life in that way — they tend not to be linear. I didn’t want the book to just feel like a random collection of unrelated work, and I feel like the structure provides a way of presenting the material that says, “Here’s a record of who I am if I were to die tomorrow.” Sometimes I know something was written later on the blog and I have a hard time finding it in the book because it appears earlier but once the arc of the book took shape, I know that’s where it needed be — let’s just say I trusted my editor!
When you’re blogging, you are not looking at the material as a book so you have to trust that your editor is grouping everything together for good reason. I will admit it was a bit disorienting initially until I grew comfortable with it. There were 70 or so essays that I might have included but it became clear they didn’t work within the structure that emerged. I think I must have read the manuscript from cover-to-cover without edits about three times until I was able to say, “Ah, this really does make sense.” Then it started to come together even stronger as the editing process continued and when I read the pieces in this new order, I thought, “Wow; this does read well!” When it’s reordered and is identified into sections, it feels like a work of art. It feels like the outside looking in at yourself and you have to remind yourself, “Oh yeah, this is my work!”
SH: Would you do it the same way today?
GM: I wouldn’t do it at all! Lifestyle changes or diets you start…one more essay is just a random effort within other random efforts. At the end of ten years suddenly you have enough for a book but it wasn’t a conscious decision. Some of these hit close to the bone; with others, they are just rants.
SH: Tell me about your next book project.
GM: A novel written in three narratives that begins on Feb 11, 1961, when an engaged couple married in Skowhegan, Maine, got into a car in the dead of night and drove to St. Paul Minnesota on America’s back roads. I want to understand the experience from the standpoint of an adult son 50 years later, from 50 years before in the voice of the man, and then from the point of view of the new wife. It took them a week to drive it — they ran into car trouble and had a number of interruptions. I’m fleshing out the characters now. Names and dates are changed but it’s loosely based on a couple I know.
SH: Is there anything about life that feels different now that you’re a published author?
GM: It’s really cool! In fact, it’s really wicked cool! I could probably say I’ve wanted to be a published author since I was 15 years old. It was always an “after” — you know, after I had kids, after I retired, after I (fill in the blank). Before you know it, it becomes an insurmountable task to think about sitting down at a keyboard or a typewriter at the end of the long days and accomplishing it. And it’s not just about the time — part of the frustrations about writing essays is having feelings that don’t necessarily translate into words. Only a small percentage of any population will ever publish a book so I feel a bit of humility and awe at the same time that I’ve managed it.
Now I look at it and say, “Is that all there is for 50 years of living?” Then two weeks after I received my first copy in the mail, the pressure is on to push myself toward what’s next! I guess this is just the writing life, isn’t it? If I’m lucky enough to live 30 more years, I’ll probably see it as a sophomoric book but right now it feels like a serious accomplishment that I wish I could have published sooner. I stopped writing the blog three years ago and I could kick myself that I waited but it is a process that matures in its own way and its own time.
I’d like for people to pick up the book and think, “Ah, the cure for the human condition!” But that’s not going to happen because everyone has to go through a unique journey. Everyone has to “write a book” that is his or her own and make the leap of faith in his or her own way. When I look back at the early blog posts, I see that they weren’t great but I kept building upon a trajectory and that’s what everyone can do in this process.
SH: Any advice to anyone who does want to start down this road?
GM: Write everyday. I haven’t been to college in a long time. It always strikes me as ironic that when my son and daughter were going through college, they could bang out a 20-page paper in a day in a half. I try to get 300 words a day out and it’s sometimes difficult. You have to write every day to get good at it and to be able to do it quickly. If you don’t do it everyday, it’s hard to get the momentum back.
gerardmclean’s book, Monkey with a loaded typewriter, mostly true essays can be found on Amazon, in print and kindle. (He prefers you buy the print version because you should have an experience that is different from every other book that just feels like the same glass surface.)