Author Interview: Michael J. Sahno
On July 21, 2019, the world was introduced to Michael J. Sahno's fourth book, Whizzers. A compelling, funny, and heart-breaking book about time travel and learning how to truly be there for others. Now, weeks after the release, I was able to sit down with Mr. Sahno to learn more about his new novel, his writing, and his love (obsession) for music.
Let's Learn More About Whizzers
Lisa Hodorovych: Whizzers is written in such a way that it honestly feels like it’s more of a memoir than a fiction story. How did you come up with this story? Is it a memoir? Was this a really weird dream that you had that you were able to turn into a story?
Michael J. Sahno: Whizzers is not a memoir, but there is a fair amount of autobiographical material in it. I haven’t time traveled, of course; the David character isn’t based on a real person; and I can’t say I planned it all meticulously, like I probably would with an autobiography or memoir.
Because I wrote the first chapters quite a few years ago, my memory probably isn’t up to snuff on how I came up with the original concept. I think that, like the beginnings of all my novels, it came in a rush of almost automatic writing. It wasn’t until later that I went back and determined the parameters of what a whizzer is, a player, and so on.
Lisa: Why did you choose “celebrities” like Phil Ochs, William Faulkner, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge to focus on in your story? If you were to do a sequel, who else would you “visit?” Like myself, I would love to be a whizzer/player for Edgar Allan Poe.
Michael S.: I mentioned in the novel that when I was a young guy, I had literary heroes: Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway. I had musical heroes, too: Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin. The one common denominator was that every one of them had a major problem with alcohol and/or drugs. Those were my people.
When I started Whizzers, I struggled with who I should feature in it, and I even name-check a few of these other celebrities in the book. It seems it all happened organically, but in retrospect, I can see a certain logic to it. Faulkner was probably what you’d call a “pure” alcoholic, who never dabbled in illegal drugs; Phil Ochs not only drank heavily but also experimented with other substances, although his other mental health issues are likely what did him in; and, of course, Coleridge was a drug addict long before anyone even knew what addiction was.
As for a sequel—I don’t think I could possibly do it. But the other historical figures I mentioned in the novel, like Dylan Thomas and Billie Holiday, would be high on the list.
Research, Research, Research
Lisa: How much researching did you do for the scenes in like 1960’s New York or the dialogue in 1790’s England?
Michael S.: The historical figures are characters, and all the usual disclaimers apply. However, I’ve actually read Phil Ochs and Faulkner biographies, and I was able to use those as sources—not so much for dialogue, but for the particulars around those scenes. Things didn’t happen that way in real life, but they weren’t too far-fetched; they could have happened. With Coleridge, I wrote a paper on him in school, and I mined that. I also read a fair amount about him and his peers, like Hazlitt, who makes an appearance.
Lisa: Do you agree with/believe that even fiction writers, who are creating their own settings or events, should do some research for their stories?
Michael S.: Yes. With a work of fiction, people will only cut you so much slack. If a knowledgeable reader sees that something is off, it pulls them out of the story. That’s never a good thing. The need to keep readers in what the writer John Gardner called the “vivid and continuous dream” state drives the need for an appropriate amount of research.
The Blog Tour
Lisa: What gave you the idea for the blog tour? How did you find the blogs to add to the tour?
Michael S.: I first read about blog tours several years ago, and did one in 2017 when I relaunched my novel Miles of Files with a new cover design. That was my first blog tour, and it was reasonably successful—in the sense that I got more sales and more exposure for the novel than I had during its initial launch.
Life of a Writer
Lisa: What is your writing process? Are you like me where you write your stories out first before typing them up (a.k.a. “old school”)? Or do you go straight for the laptop?
Michael S.: I wrote my first two novels by hand, then rewrote them when typing them up. In fact, I’m so old, I typed Brothers’ Hand on an electric typewriter! But Miles and Files and Whizzers were both almost entirely created on an iMac.
Pen Name or Real Name?
Lisa: Some people write under their actual name, while some write under a pen name. Which do you think is better?
Michael S.: I think there may some good reasons to use a pen name, but as a general rule, it’s not the greatest idea. If you’re moonlighting as a writer, for example, and you could lose your full-time job, that’s a very compelling reason. Otherwise, why hide your identity? But it’s hard for me to judge, because I want people know about my work.
Where/When Did It All Begin?
Lisa: When did you first realize your love for writing and that you wanted to pursue it as a career?
Michael S.: People in high school and college knew me as Class Poet, editor of the literary magazine, and so on. But I was also a visual artist, and spent lots of time painting and drawing. The story I always tell is of the “class superlatives” in high school. The kids nominated four people of each gender for those categories: Most Likely To Succeed, Class Flirt, etc.
I got the nomination for both Class Artist and Class Poet. In my mind, all the other nominees for Class Artist were better than me, and I was relieved when I didn’t win that one. However, I did win Class Poet, and I felt I absolutely deserved it!
Lisa: Who inspired you, was your “mentor,” when it comes to writing?
Michael S.: This is one of those stories I think I’ve told, but I really haven’t. As an undergraduate English major, I discovered a novelist who had been famous in the 1970s, the abovementioned John Gardner. He wrote Grendel, which tells the Beowulf story from the monster’s point-of-view. Gardner died tragically in a motorcycle accident while still in his forties, before I found his work.
In the last years of his life, he taught at what’s now called Binghamton University, formerly SUNY-Binghamton. Their Harpur College of Arts and Sciences was known for its excellent writing program. In my mind, Gardner loomed large in Binghamton, although he’d been gone at least five years by the time I went to grad school there in 1987.
My academic advisor turned out to be a wonderful poet named Liz Rosenberg, who had been married to Gardner. I don’t think I ever had the nerve to say much to her about him. But she was a great source of encouragement to me when I was still at that vulnerable age, twenty-three, twenty-four. The scene where “Mike” is drinking and driving on the highway in Whizzers comes directly from that time.
In fact, I reconnected with Liz about 35 years later. She’s become a well-respected novelist over the years, and was kind enough to provide the blurb for my first novel, Brothers’ Hand: “Mike Sahno writes with blood and guts, with humor, heart, heart, compassion, and a radiant energy all his own.” I can’t thank her enough for the encouragement she gave me, both way back when and a few years ago.
Lisa: What advice would you give to an aspiring writer, like me?
Michael S.: First I’d say you’re not an aspiring writer; you’re a writer. An aspiring writer is someone who wants to write. You’re doing the work.
I’m not big on doling out advice, because there are many writers out there with different goals and different approaches. But there are two things I find myself going back to again and again as an older adult.
The first is something a teacher said to me in high school, when I told her I wanted to be a writer: “Better learn to dig ditches.” Of course, I took it the wrong way at the time, but now I understand: her meaning wasn’t as much “keep your day job” as have something else you can do, make sure you develop a strong work ethic. She was right.
The second one is more like a motto, and it supposedly comes from World War II: “Bash on regardless.” I love that. It’s so British! But it’s a great way of saying never stop moving forward—no matter what. Persist in the face of all obstacles.
Lisa: I notice that you have your own publishing company. Congratulations! What made you start your own publishing company? Do you have other authors under you that you publish? If so, who?
Michael S.: I didn’t want to be completely under Amazon’s control, so I decided to “go wide” when I published my own novels. Plenty of people do fine buying an ISBN from Amazon and using it for self-publishing, but that wasn’t for me.
I started Sahno Publishing in order to be the publisher who pays the author, myself, the royalties on my books. Running my company means I have to choose and pay my own cover designers, interior designers, and editors. But I love having that much say over the final products, and I’m proud of them. Those books can sit on a shelf alongside anything.
At the moment, Sahno Publishing is closed to unsolicited submissions; however, I may publish other authors in the future.
Lisa: If you were asked to do a Masterclass for writing or to teach a class (whether high school or college) or a workshop on writing, would you do it?
Michael S.: I taught composition at the college level back in the late 1990s. Not my cup of tea, exactly, but it’s a required course. Clearly, not everyone wants to be there! An elective creative writing course might be enjoyable to teach, but to the best of my knowledge, those positions are typically offered to traditionally published authors.
Let's Learn More About Michael J. Sahno
Your True Inspiration
Lisa: Who or what inspired you in life?
Michael S.: So many people have inspired me, most of them not known to the public. One of the greatest was a woman named Marie, who had about 35 years sober when I met her. I distinctly remember her saying, “Serenity isn’t the absence of conflict; it’s the ability to deal with it.” That stuck with me, and I’ve passed it on many times.
Mr. Sahno's Obsession with Music
Lisa: May I have at least one interesting factoid about yourself that no one knows? (For example: You’re a comic book enthusiast; you believe you were a witch in a past life; you have a plethora of tattoos you are hiding; you know, something that would make people say, “What? He’s into that?” or “He does that?” Haha!)
Michael S.: I suppose a few people already know this, but I obsessively collect music—to the point where my answers about it tend to be almost sheepish. Right now there are about 50,000 songs in my iTunes library, not to mention quite a few more on an external hard drive. It sounds nutty, but I do listen to music whenever I write. I don’t know how interesting that is, but it sure demonstrates I’ve got the obsessive-compulsive personality to be a novelist!
Thank you again, Mr. Sahno for taking the time to talk with me and answer my questions! It was an absolute honor and it is truly appreciated!
If you would like to learn more about Mr. Sahno, his books, and where you can purchase them, please check out his website, https://msahno.com/.
Remember, I did not get paid to write the review on Whizzers nor am I getting paid to interview Mr. Sahno. I'm just a fellow writer and fan showcasing the work of a great author. If you have any questions or would like to be featured on my blog, please don't hesitate to contact me.
The photos featured in this post were given to me by Michael J. Sahno for that very purpose.
**This post was originally published on August 8, 2019**