Michael Grothaus Q&A: ‘Don’t worry about the first draft. It’s always going to be shit’
The author of Epiphany Jones, a novel about Hollywood sex trafficking, on his life as a reader and writer and the many books that inspired him
Michael Grothaus: It kills me how many times I see writers wasting time on Twitter talking about being a writer instead of actually writing
What was the first book to make an impression on you?
The very first book to make an impression on me was the novel Shibumi by Trevanian. It’s a philosophical exploration about democracy, consumerism, Eastern thought and elitism disguised as a spy thriller. I was 16 at the time and was made to read it as part of a Best Novels class in high school. That novel is the first time I realised that commercial fiction could be literary. The novel is so gripping – it’s such a page turner-that there were times I literally was willing to risk my life to keep reading it: like when the school fire alarm went off and I couldn’t be bothered being interrupted from my reading to leave the library.
What was your favourite book as a child?
I really didn’t read a lot up to that Best Novel course in my teenage years. That’s because in America reading American and European classics is often part of the dictated curriculum and as a kid being forced to do anything makes you not want to do it. I always regret how little I read before my late teens. I missed out on so much valuable reading time. However, as a child I did have one favourite series of books. In America they were known as Choose Your Own Adventure and they were known as that because every few pages the book would ask you to make a decision for the character: “Go to page 23 if you want him to open the door where the scary noise is coming from or go to page 79 if you want him to run back outside of the house.” They were great reads and made you feel like you were writing part of the story.
And what is your favourite book or books now?
There are so many: A Movable Feast and The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway; The Master and the Margarita by Bulgakov; any Hermann Hesse (Demian, The Glass Bead Game); early Tolstoy; A Brave New World by Huxley; We by Zamyatin; Shibumi by Trevanian, of course; The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald; The Beach by Alex Garland; The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.
What is your favourite quotation?
“If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.” – Hermann Hesse, one of my favourite writers.
Who is your favourite fictional character?
That’s a hard one. Forced to pick I would say Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald channels brilliant observations through him.
Who is the most under-rated Irish author?
Martina Devlin. About Sisterland will be a future classic among dystopian fiction.
Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?
Print, without question. I can’t stand reading ebooks.
What is the most beautiful book you own?
On a recent trip to Japan I bought an original hand-stitched book about the history of the country. It’s from the Edo period (about 1780) and printed on rice paper. It’s so delicate and beautiful.
Where and how do you write?
A few weeks before I begin a big project, like a novel, I stop watching TV, I stop reading. I clear my head and tell everyone to leave me alone. I lock myself in my flat, or I go to another country and rent a flat and lock myself in there. Then I’ll usually begin writing around midnight and write until about 3am. And starting off, it’s always painful, the writing. I hate that first half hour. But then the shit drifts away and I write furiously in the moment and quit in the midst of things when I’m quite satisfied with my words. The next night this starts all over again.
What book changed the way you think about fiction?
It wasn’t a novel, but a collection of poems by Charles Bukowski called The Last Night of The Earth Poems. Some read as short stories and they all had a beautiful rhythm. I thought, why doesn’t the prose in most novels have such rhythm?
What is the most research you have done for a book?
I did a massive amount of research on sex trafficking for Epiphany Jones. Years’ worth of research into sex trafficking and Hollywood and porn addiction. This involved everything from going to different countries to meet people in the trade to reading World Health Organisation trafficking reports and research.
What book influenced you the most?
What The Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula. I read it first in my mid-20s and, though I no longer believe in any gods or spiritual higher power, I still read that book once every few years. It’s such a great belief system and it would be a wonderful way to live.
What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?
Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton. Everyone can benefit from reading that book. It’s one of the most important books written in the last 25 years.
What book do you wish you had read when you were young?
Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He’s a Hungarian psychologist who has created groundbreaking theories on creativity and happiness. Another book everyone should read.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Don’t worry about the first draft. It’s always going to be shit. The real writing comes in rewriting. Never talk to others about what you are currently writing or you’ll start writing for them instead of for yourself, in which case you’ll probably never write anything good.
What weight do you give reviews?
None. Both writing and reading are such subjective experiences. Why should one person’s praise or criticism matter? Don’t get me wrong, I’m honoured whenever someone tells me they love my writing, but I don’t write for them or anyone else. I write because other people aren’t writing the book I want to read.
Where do you see the publishing industry going?
I think the rise of ebooks will continue to level off. Print isn’t going anywhere and in the next few years will probably continue to reclaim a majority market share. I also expect some of the best books – and future classics – to be published by independent and smaller publishers as they seem to increasingly be taking more risks than the bigger publishers on new voices – and rightly so.
What writing trends have struck you lately?
There are some annoying writing trends popping up on Twitter, such as the #writingprompt hashtag where a writer starts writing a sentence and want to see how other people will finish it. I don’t get things like this. Writing is a solitary endeavour. You don’t write anything good by committee. It kills me how many times I see writers wasting time on Twitter talking about being a writer instead of actually writing.
What lessons have you learned about life from reading?
That no matter how isolated I feel because of my thoughts or outlook on life – I’m actually not alone. The greatest joy in reading comes from when you stumble upon a thought or observation by a writer that you yourself have had. When this happens, reading makes you feel understood.
What has being a writer taught you?
Three lessons. First, to believe in myself when no one else will. Second, to believe that my thoughts and words have value to others no matter what a rejection letter says. Third, to be patient, and eventually you will find the agent, then the publisher, then the reader who tells you how much your words affected them – vindicating the first two lessons.
Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Leo Tolstoy to learn how he did it, F Scott Fitzgerald to drink with, Alex Garland because I have so many questions for him – same for Hermann Hesse, George Orwell to tell him he was right, Mark Twain to laugh with, Hiromi Kawakami because she is brilliant, and Ernest Hemingway to arm wrestle.
What is the funniest scene you’ve read?
Any scene in Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre where Vernon makes observations about his family or his mom’s friends.
What is your favourite word?
Fuck. It’s so versatile.
If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?
Siddhartha Gautama, the man on whose teachings Buddhism was founded.
What sentence or passage or book are you proudest of?
Chapter 24 in my novel Epiphany Jones. The whole chapter is only a thousand words. It’s when Jerry goes off on a riff about God and Catholicism. I wrote that at 4am on one of the darkest nights of my life. It was during the time when I stopped believing in God. I honestly didn’t think I was going to keep it in the book, but it fit the story and where the character was at, and when everyone read it they loved it and told me I couldn’t take it out. So there it is.
What is the most moving book or passage you have read?
The opening fake Translator’s Preface to Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. If that doesn’t stir your soul nothing will. Few people know this, but Twain said that book was the best he’d written.
Novelist and journalist Michael Grothaus was born in Saint Louis, Missouri in 1977. He spent his twenties in Chicago where he earned his degree in filmmaking from Columbia and got his start in journalism writing for Screen. After working for institutions including The Art Institute of Chicago, Twentieth Century Fox, and Apple he moved to the United Kingdom where he earned his postgraduate degree and began writing for the Guardian, Fast Company, VICE and others. His debut novel is Epiphany Jones, a story about sex trafficking among the Hollywood elite, based on his experiences at the Cannes Film Festival. Michael is represented worldwide by the Hanbury Agency in London, where he lives when not travelling. His writing is read by millions of people each month