Two writers meet in a bar called The Jesuit in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The older one is struggling to finish the final book in his contract. The younger one hopes to repeat his one publishing success.
They only met the day before; but the older man, Nigel Moon, proposes a deal:
"What Moon would like the other writer to do is ghost-write this final book for him," says Craig Hart, author of the novel Becoming Moon, our first Winter Book Series selection for this season.
The fictional authors are meeting in late October -- Winter in the U.P. town of St. Francis where Moon lives. The younger writer was headed toward a cabin across the peninsula before a blizzard closed the roads.
"Moon investigates the writer's mindset, and even goes so far as to find one of his books online," Hart says. "He reads it and decides this guy could do the work that he needs him to do."
Moon offers generous pay, but the book would be his.
Identity is a central theme in Hart's novel. Even the title hints at a metamorphosis, metaphorical or otherwise. The protagonist's name also remains a mystery. For Hart, the identity of his main character -- or any writer -- is "irrelevant."
"As long as the artwork they're turning out meets all the qualifications to be such," he says, "it doesn't matter who did it."
The younger writer thanks Moon for the offer, but wants time to decide. He's working on his own book, after all. Plus, our protagonist avoids disruptions to his routine in order to preserve his mental health -- something he struggled with since childhood.
When we meet him, he's passing by Grand Rapids on his way up north. A ding reminds him that he forgot to fill the tank, which causes him to panic. In a desperate attempt to make a gas-station exit, he drives across the median and pulls into an oncoming lane:
I heard a loud honk from the rear and saw a black SUV, its headlights beaming directly into my rearview mirror. I flipped the mirror up to dull the glare. The SUV pulled so close, its grill almost disappeared from my view. I could just make out the driver: a youngish male wearing a baseball hat with the bill ironed flat. He was gesturing with his right hand and steering with his left.
The gas stations were to the left off the ramp. I hoped the SUV was going the other way. I was in the wrong and in no mood for confrontation. I signaled left and the other driver followed suit. I saw lights ahead and made the turn. If I could get inside the station, perhaps the presence of others would keep the situation from escalating.
The snow had increased and now affected visibility, but I saw the station ahead. Then I pulled nearer and saw it was not a station at all. It was a church, small with wooden siding, standing white against the darkness of the horizon and seeming to absorb the falling snow. In front of the church stood two sets of three crosses. The crosses had hoses and handles, and people were pumping gas onto the ground. The church windows were alive with light. The front door stood open and through the opening I saw pews full of people. They stood and appeared to be singing.
I drove into the lot, parked, and stepped out of the car. The black SUV pulled in behind me. The driver’s door opened and the man stepped out. He still wore the flat brimmed hat, but now I noticed horns protruding from the sides of his head. The hat balanced between them. His eyes flashed and his mouth moved, but I could not hear what he was saying ... He opened his mouth and a forked tongue rolled out and quivered at me.
Hart says his central character's mental illness is, in part, a reaction to his conservative religious upbringing. His father is a pastor at an evangelical church called Christ's Apostles. His mother is dutiful but distant. Both struggle to save their son's soul as he rebels against his family and religious community.
"You see his attempts to escape that in a lot of ways," Hart says. "He wants to be a writer and lives in a world of fantasy a lot of the time." Hart notes his protagonist also crosses a big moral line in order to achieve success. "So pretty much everything he does is aimed toward getting rid of that background," he says. "And yet we see throughout the book that he's unable to cut all of those ties."
Hart admits readers often ask him if he had a similar childhood. "I do take my experience and I broaden it a bit," Hart says. "I did struggle to escape that in order to become the writer I wanted to be," he says, "because the way I was being raised was not friendly toward that idea."
Hart says the pressure to conform as a member of the Bible Missionary Church caused him to "assume another persona" for a while. That changed as he got older and started writing:
"When your art is pulling you in a direction that is not acceptable to those you care about, you are faced with a decision that you have to make."
Hart's protagonist also rebels against common notions about morality. At one point, he commits a major offense against a fellow writer and never apologizes. Hart and I were careful to avoid spoilers during our interview, which you can hear below:
Becoming Moon won Amazon Reader's Choice "Five Star Award." Hart describes the publishing process as "something of a hybrid," where authors submit manuscripts and readers vote on it. Books that achieve a certain number of votes are considered for publication. Hart says Amazon paid for the text and owns electronic rights on their Kindle Press imprint. He paid for the paperback versions.
Unlike many books published through alternative methods, Hart's got a professional edit from the editors at the Kirkus review site. Amazon hired them for Kindle Press, an important consideration for Hart, who's been an editor for a literary magazine and a media company.
"While I did some editing on the book," he says, "it's not a good idea for a writer to edit their own work."
Hart used to work at Northern Public Radio's Rockford office. Recently, he moved to Iowa City, where he fits writing into his duties as a stay-at-home dad.
Next Monday, the Winter Book Series continues with Joe Gastiger's new collection of poems, If You So Desire. Listen during Morning Edition at 6:52 and 8:52, then come back here for more information including author readings.
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