INTERVIEW: Michael Landweber, Author of ‘Thursday 1:17 PM’
Ever met anyone with an interest in stopping time? I mean, the kind of interest that could inspire the person to spend nine years writing a novel about it? Well, that’s exactly the sort of person Michael Landweber is.
The book in question, ‘Thursday 1:17 PM’, which is out this month, follows Duck, a seventeen-year-old boy who is just about to be run over by a car when time freezes. What does he do when time freezes? Also, how does he deal with other problems in his life, such as his mother’s death? Join Duck on a quest through his own life, and to start the world back up again.
What made you become interested in writing?
I’ve had wonderful teachers throughout my life who have encouraged me to write. All along the way, they recognized my passion to tell stories and sometimes even told me I was good at it. I think I’m like a lot of writers who feel that they didn’t really have a choice but to write. For me, once an idea gets in my head, it is incredibly frustrating if I don’t write it down. I get a little bit antsy and irritable when I have something stuck in my brain and I haven’t had a chance to write it down yet. It is a bit like being nauseous—you feel so much worse before you throw up. Did I just compare my writing to vomit? Wow, this interview is off to a great start.
You seem to have spent a great deal of time studying about or living in Japan. Do you think that has affected your writing in any way?
Well, it definitely affected my life in a big way. I met my wife in Tokyo. I probably wouldn’t be doing anything I am now without her.
In terms of writing, I would say that the experience of living in Japan did change the way I look at the world. There is something very isolating about living in a different country, and Japan is a particularly complicated one for an outsider to feel comfortable in. The culture is always polite, but not welcoming to foreigners. It is a hard place to break through the pleasantries to get to something real. I met a lot of great people and at the time I was conversant enough in the language that I was able to function. But I wasn’t fluent enough to operate in Japanese without conscious effort. The result was that if I wasn’t trying, then all the Japanese around me became background noise. It was easy to feel like I was living in a different world than everyone around me, and I’m already a person who is predisposed to retreat into my own head. I do draw from that feeling, that you don’t understand what is happening around you, that the world doesn’t understand you, when I write.
A lot of my characters are experiencing some degree of alienation or loneliness. Of course, those were feelings I had had before Japan, but being so far from home in another country did heighten them at times. Not that I was feeling that way all the time. I actually had a wonderful experience in Japan.
You started your career as a copy editor and then became an editorial assistant. Do you think your editorial experience has had an impact on your writing?
The main impact that my brief career in journalism had on me was convincing me that I didn’t want a career in journalism. It also pushed me toward fiction.
The editorial assistant job was in DC at the Associated Press. I was sort of a junior reporter. It was an unbelievable opportunity. I would cover the early morning shift at the White House, which usually didn’t mean doing anything unless President Clinton decided to go jogging. If that happened, I’d hop in the press pool van and follow him through the streets of DC, just in case something happened. Occasionally, I’d file a story like President Jogs with Astronauts or President Trips Over His Own Feet.
I would also be sent out to cover other stories, but I found that I hated to interview people. I took terrible notes and often came back to the office to write the story and had no useful quotes. It made me realize that not all writing is the same, which was eye opening for my twenty-something self. Because I enjoyed writing fiction, I had assumed that any career that involved writing would suit me. But really the kind of writing I enjoyed was making up my own stories instead of trying to get someone else to tell me theirs.
My copy editor days take us back to Japan, where I worked for the Japan Times, an English language newspaper. All the reporters were Japanese and all the editors were native English speakers. Working every day with reporters who were trying to turn their Japanese thoughts into coherent English definitely made me more aware of how I construct my own sentences and stories.
You have written both novels and short stories. Do you have a preference, and if so or if not, why?
I don’t really have a preference. Both forms have been appropriate for different stories I want to tell. There are some ideas I have that only need a few pages to be complete. Then, sometimes I have characters that want to hang out with me for a few hundred pages. The last couple of years I’ve mainly written novels. But that is a function of the amount of time that it takes to work my way through such a large project. When I’m in the middle of a book, there just isn’t room in my brain for any other story. But just because it takes longer to finish a draft of a novel does not mean that it is harder than writing a short story. I think it is more difficult to write a good short story than a novel, even if it may not take as long. I am pretty jealous of writers who seem to be capable of turning out so many great short stories.
What advice would you give to other writers?
Get your butt in the chair and write. It seems obvious that a writer needs to write, but it doesn’t always work that way. Everyone has great story ideas. But having a great idea doesn’t make someone a writer. You have to put in the hard work to transfer your stories from your brain to paper. Most people aren’t willing to slog through that tough process. But my advice to beginning writers who are sitting in front of the blank screen willing to put in the work is that you have to do a little something on your project every day. Some days, you may be inspired and pound out a thousand more or less decent words. On other days, there may not be any words at all, but on those days at least make some notes on character or plot, anything to keep your momentum going.
There is other advice that I give reluctantly because I’m not sure if it is just relevant to me. Some things aren’t universal. For example, when I am in the middle of a first draft, I don’t let myself go back and edit anything. I don’t even let myself read what I’ve already written unless I need to check continuity. I just write forward to the end. Once I finish the first draft, then I go back and start editing, but if I do that before I have a completed work then I find I may never finish it at all. But, like I said, that may just be good advice for me.
If you were going to be trapped on an island and other than the basic things you needed, could only take three additional possessions with you, what would you take and why?
If we’re taking the basic needs off the table (food, water, a cell phone, a boat), then I would probably have to go with a standalone generator, a large screen TV and a satellite dish. That way I wouldn’t miss any Game of Thrones.
Your new book Thursday, 1:17PM tells the tale of a single person who was moving in a world where time had frozen. What attracted you to this concept?
I love the idea of stopping time. If you had the power to do it, it would be an incredibly strong ability. Nobody would be able to stop you from doing what you want. Of course, I’m not usually in the business of writing stories about demi-gods. I’m more in the poor unfortunate souls in really weird situations business.
So the idea that took hold with me was time stopping completely out of the control of the main character. Then, it became interesting. What would you do if all the laws and norms of society ceased to exist? Without time, without anyone watching, then the only moral compass becomes your own. I wanted to explore how an individual might handle that. Could he hang on to his common decency? At first, the answer was no. It took me many drafts and many years to finally discover Duck, a character who taught me the answer could be yes.
Naturally, if time is frozen there can be no dialogue. How did you overcome the challenges of planning a novel with this restriction?
A lot of flashbacks. And telling the story in first person. Since Duck is our guide to this strange world, you need to be inside his head. He not only walks you through the frozen world, but also his life up to this point. Duck is deeply sarcastic and willing to confess his sins. That’s a good combination for a person giving a novel length monologue. Of course, he also does occasionally talk to himself and inanimate objects, so I suppose that counts for dialogue. Those flashbacks also have other characters and dialogue, so I did cheat a little on the purity of my concept.
In the story, the main character is known by the nickname Duck. If you could pick a nickname for yourself or change your name, what would it be and why?
Interesting question. I’ve never really wanted to change my name. I have an incredibly common first name. Michael has been a top ten name in the U.S. for my entire life. And I have a very rare last name. There aren’t that many Landwebers out there, and based on my father’s research I am related to all of them. I’ve also had my share of nicknames, mostly from childhood. Lando, blebs, waterweber, landrover, uh-oh-spaghetti-lands—some were definitely better than others. I guess I’ve always been named by other people, and have never been too unhappy with their choices, so giving myself a name never really crossed my mind.
Besides, I have a hard enough time naming all my characters. I get into these weird ruts where I suddenly realize that every character in the book has a name that starts with the letter J. Bottom line—you can call me whatever you want.
If you had to compare Duck your main character in Thursday 1,17 to an animal, what would he be and why?
I guess it would make the most sense to compare him to a duck, but that just isn’t right. I’m going to go with a squirrel. I know that sounds boring. Squirrels are definitely run of the mill and easily ignored. In my neighborhood, they are everywhere. But they are also tenacious and clever. They know how to survive. They’re creative. They manage to be bold and skittish at the same time. And watch out if you corner a squirrel—they can get nasty and might just kick your ass. Not to mention that those suckers can run up the sides of trees, which is pretty cool though pretty irrelevant to Duck.
Do you base your characters in any way on people you know?
People I know are often trying to figure out if I base my characters on people I know. The simple answer is that I do not. I can’t think of a single character in any of my books that you could connect directly to a real life person I know. The more complicated answer is that the most likely person that I base any character on is myself. That said, I don’t write autobiographical fiction. There are no characters who are writers named Mike. But, of course, I will draw on my own feelings and experiences when I am figuring out my characters. My parents often look at the parents in my books and think I’m writing about them. I have assured them that isn’t what is happening. I have two kids, so when I write parents I draw on my own life as a parent. But really, all the characters in my books are their own people who sprung to life from my own twisted imagination.
If the world froze and you were the only person moving, what would be the first thing you would do? Would that be different now you’ve spent nine years writing a novel about it, than when you were Duck’s age?
If time stopped now, I would freak out. I would seriously curl up in a fetal position under the nearest table and just zone out until someone found me. Eventually, I would do something else, but I think there would be a good solid few hours under that table first.
I think that my younger self would have been a lot more like Duck. More adventurous, more curious. A younger me would have probably hopped on my bike and ridden around looking for stupid pranks to pull on frozen people. Like hiding their keys or putting their glasses on the tops of their heads. Or taking their shoes off. Maybe if I found people talking to other people, I’d move their hands into weird gestures or turn them around so they weren’t looking at each other. My first instinct would have been to make as many people have as odd an experience as possible when time started again. I had a pretty strange sense of humour as a teenager.
Now you’ve published this book, what’s your next writing project going to be?
I’m currently in that butt-in-chair, write-something-every-day stage on the first draft of what hopefully will be my next novel. It is set in a near future world where teleportation is a commercial mode of transportation, but not everyone always makes it to their destination.
In your opinion, what are the main 3 reasons people should read Thursday 1:17PM?
1. It’s a great book. (There, I said it. Being an introverted writer, I am not naturally inclined to blatant self-promotion, but there it is.)
2. It is funny and poignant. You’ll laugh and you’ll cry. At least I hope you will. If you don’t, you can skip writing the Amazon review.
3. It might make you think. I suppose that might be a downside for some folks. But Duck is grappling with some big issues—death, mental illness, the tyranny of time, what it means to be a good person, is morality an absolute truth or merely a human construct, what is life anyway. OK, that’s a lot of heavy stuff to process. Go back to number two. Did I mention the book is funny?