We're talking today to Michael Reilly, author of the literary fiction novel, Fresh Heir. Michael is also the founder and chief executive officer of FitDivs Inc., a company that promotes and rewards healthy living. We interviewed him to find out more about his exciting new book!
Q: It's wonderful to have you here, Michael. Why don't you start by telling us a little about your background and how you started writing?
Michael: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it. I am 44 years old and live in Charlottesville, Virginia, with my wife, Lara, and four children. As a history nut, I love living in Charlottesville. Perhaps no place is so packed with historical significance spanning the centuries of our country’s lifetime. Plus, it’s just beautiful.
I’m originally from New York. My career has mostly been spent as a corporate executive, first with a family-run media business, and now running my own start-up company. Launching a company is very similar to writing...very challenging, but incredibly exciting.
I essentially began writing as a little kid. I was the youngest of three children by far, so I was more like an only child. I often had to entertain myself, which involved creating my own characters in my head to “hang out with.” As I grew, I experimented quite a bit with short stories and poetry, and I was always a devout keeper of journals. After graduating from Yale University, I went on to earn a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, so most of my writing veered in that direction for many years. After my job advanced into more of a corporate career (i.e., boring) I decided to pursue my long-time dream of writing novels.
Q: I want to congratulate you on your new novel, Fresh Heir! How did you come up with such an unusual name?
Michael: The title is open to various interpretations. It is strictly derived in a Faulkner-esque way from Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be..” soliloquy, which the main character, Jamie, is forced into reciting by his overzealous dad. In a deep, symbolic way, I intended for the term “fresh heir” to convey a hope that Jamie might provide a new direction for his family, just not in the way his father intended. When I speak about Fresh Heir to others, I talk a lot about my belief that our children often have as much to teach us as we have to teach them.
And then finally, on a very informal level, “fresh heir” is a play on words in jest of the much-dreaded long family car ride, which plays significantly into the story. Those of us who’ve done it, either as kids with our parents, and/or as parents ourselves, can relate to the torment of long stretches on the road, punctuated by everyone piling out at pit stops to empty their bladders and suck in some fresh air.
Q: Fresh Heir is a novel that blends satire with serious commentary on the obsessiveness of parents striving to help their children succeed in a modern, competitive world. Let's begin by asking you how you came up with the idea to write this?
Michael: It’s a topic I encounter every day as a parent. I think all parents today have witnessed obsessive parenting in one way or another. Helicopter parents, as we now call them. Perhaps some of us are doing it and don’t even know it. Even parents who are making conscious efforts not to get caught in the trap, it is very difficult, and indeed stressful.
There’s such a yin and yang at play. I don’t know how many times I’ve been running around crazed, bending over backwards to get my kids to this sports practice, or that camp, or piano lessons or art lessons, or whatever...and at the same time, I’m beating myself up that I’m not doing enough. It’s very difficult to ignore what’s going on around us because we do all want what is best for our kids. You have to remind yourself that perhaps the best is just letting go of this concept of the uber-parent.
Q: It's one thing that's for sure - parents today are not the parents of yesterday. When we wanted something we either had to work for it or wait for our birthday or Christmas. Tell us what happens in your book that relates to this.
Michael: Wow, great question. This is a topic that’s woven in throughout the entire story and really strikes at the heart of why I wrote the book. There is such a temptation for parents today to fast-forward through lessons about earning something, or waiting patiently for it. We’re stoked by a fast-paced world where you can download a big discount on a bikini wax from Groupon faster than you can say “iPhone.”
I think we all worry that everyone else’s kids are going to pass ours by in this crush of time. So we have this tendency to give, give, give. It’s a little distressing, really. There’s so much value to a child going out after school to rake leaves around the neighborhood and make a few bucks. But there’s no time for that, because he/she has to get to practice for that elite soccer team that practices four hours every day, three towns over... forty minutes there and back through traffic... you get the point. Perhaps some parents would argue this soccer escapade is an “earning” experience too. But I have to think the immense pressure it puts on a kid short-circuits that experience, and is far less salubrious than raking leaves for $20.
In my book, Doug Shoop is caught up in this whole trap. He doesn’t have much money, but he’s willing to mortgage his life to give his son Jamie every chance at success possible. Doug’s good intentions bleed into obsession and it never really seems much fun for Jamie, although he is quite good-natured about it.
Q: What can you tell us about Jaime, the 12-year-old in your book?
Michael: Well, picking up from the end of my last answer, Jamie’s really just a good kid at heart. I could have taken the theme of this book in so many directions. The story could have been quite different if I’d made Jamie into a demented genius who flies off the handle under the pressure from his dad and starts blowing up schools. I say this not in a mocking way, because it is sad how much this sort of thing does happen in reality.
I chose instead to give Jamie a more affable personality, because I really wanted the story to be fun - an easy read, without the shock-value that seems so overused in books today - while also provoking deep thought. Jamie is a genius, or at least he benefits from a photographic memory that makes him seem smarter than average. I intentionally try to leave it up to the reader to wonder just how smart Jamie really is compared to his father’s portrayal of him. He accepts his father’s antics, albeit with a bit of cynicism, and it’s quite clear that deep down he wishes for some sort of change in life for his family.
Jamie is a reliable friend, both for a kid named Zach, who is a star hockey player dragged all across the country to tournaments by his wacko father, and for a girl named Jessica, whose mother is dying of cancer. Jamie is also a protective big brother toward his little sister, Frizzy. And the relationship Jamie develops with his grandfather, Dale, is instrumental in buffeting Jamie from the obsessions of his father.
One thing that is perfectly clear about Jamie from the outset: He hates the academic consultant, Ashley, that his father has hired to come along with them on their cross- country trip. This relationship creates tremendous tension throughout the story, and is critical to the final episode at the Grand Tetons in Wyoming.
Q: I love books about road trips. Are there humorous parts? Can you give us an example?
Michael: Well, I do hope my readers find lots of humorous parts throughout Fresh Heir. There are several recurring “road-trip” themes I try to incorporate for laughs. These include things like: who gets to sit in what seat; when are we going to get there?; I’m hungry; and, I have to go pee.
As for that last one, some readers might think it’s overdone in the book, but for those who’ve been on a cross-country trip in a car with several kids packed in tight, let’s face it, peeing is a very, very big issue.
I also try to poke quite a bit of fun at Doug’s driving habits, some of them fairly common among the male species in general. In one incident, he’s irate at a woman in front of him at a stop light. She’s talking on a cell phone and putting on make-up, oblivious to the fact that the light has turned green. Doug gives it a few moments and then his patience explodes and he guns it around her yelling out the window at her to pay attention, that the light’s turned green. Only problem is it’s turned red again in the process of his pitching a tantrum, and he gets pulled over for a traffic violation.
I expect my readers will be able to relate to many of the road trip themes, whether it’s being stuck in traffic, or encountering odd situations. In one scene they come across an accident where a man has been killed by a Mack truck while going to the bathroom in a roadside port-a-john. It’s meant to be humorous, although the sad thing is, I really know someone (a friend of a friend) who incurred that horrible fate.
Q: Can you tell us about the father? As parents, we always want what's best for our kids, but what is it about this particular father that makes him want to be super father?
Michael: Helicopter parenting...over-parenting...obsessive parenting...there are so many terms out there but I think they are all fundamentally rooted in one thing: insecurity. It’s this fear we have as parents that if our children are not successful it will reflect badly back on us. I’m quite certain this has always been a characteristic of parenting from the dawn of time. Let’s face it, there’s no job more demanding and nothing greater at stake. I think the big difference in today’s world that is feeding the frenzy is the immediacy of the world we live in. Everything is instant, everything happens so fast. We are instant witnesses to the success around us and it’s dizzying. We ignore the fact that most Americans are just struggling to get by, but latch on to stories about the kid who sold his Internet company at 16-years old for $200 million. Or the one in 2nd grade being recruited to play basketball by elite colleges.
In Fresh Heir, Doug is driven to obsession by this same type of insecurity. He’s endured a failed marriage, a career to nowhere and a stagnant life where he only sees those around him who appear to have it all...the perfect life. He wants this so badly for his son. Too badly.
Q: What was your writing schedule like when writing Fresh Heir? How long did it take you to complete it?
Michael: I’m a morning person. So when I’m working on a project I commit myself to write every morning, often before dawn, for 3-4 hours. But since I am busy, with four kids and other career interests, I actually do much of my writing on the go. I will jot down notes or take dictation wherever I happen to be... grocery store, lacrosse practice, meetings. For me, sitting at the computer and typing is just the culmination of the creative process that has already taken place somewhere else.
It’s so hard to really say how long it took to complete Fresh Heir. I am sure most writers would attest to the fact that the scope of a writing project can be somewhat amorphous. With that said, my ideas for the story really crystallized after I took a trip with two of my kids in the summer of 2009. I knew I wanted to write a story about the struggles of parenting, and the journey framework grew out of that trip. I wrote the first draft in about three months, but that was what it was... a first draft. I spent the next 12-15 months writing and re-writing.
Q: Do you have any writing tips you'd like to pass along to aspiring writers/authors?
Michael: Write what’s in your heart, not someone else’s. When you’ve never published anything, I know there’s a strong temptation to try to follow the pack...to write what’s popular. But I really think we have enough vampire books. I struggled with this problem, then just decided I wanted to write about the thoughts, ideas and stories I had inside of me, not worrying too much about whether it was blockbuster material or not.
Q: What's next for you, Michael?
Michael: I am cultivating a couple of follow up ideas to Fresh Heir. These ideas have similar themes...focusing on parenting, family relationships etc. I can’t say I have a time frame for my next book because I am pretty knee deep in another project, as previously mentioned - launching a technology company whose mission is to promote and reward good health. It might seem like writing novels and starting a company are two pretty divergent paths, but they are so similar it’s scary. They both require creativity, perseverance, resilience and a desire to never quit. Oh, and in each case you go a very long time without getting paid for your efforts, at least until you produce something someone else wants.
Q:Is there anything else you'd like to share with my readers?
Michael: I just want anyone who takes the time to read my book to know how much I genuinely appreciate it.