That Buzz: Marc Sheinbaum on his debut novel, "Memories Live Here" (and much, much more)
There are two kinds of authors I really like, and yes, I sort of like most authors, but first, there is the debut author who is new to seeing their work out in the world, and still finding their voice and bearings. Second, there are the authors who have complete other work lives, or previous careers, who just could not, would not, will not, not write a book. It’s especially nice, though, when I meet such an author (or in this case meet such an author and help them bring their books out into the world) and they write a book I find myself emotionally attached to and invested in. Marc Sheinbaum is just such an author, his debut novel Memories Live Here is just such a book, and I’m happy to share a recent conversation we had on these topics and many others.
I look forward to digging into Memories Live Here with you, but first, I want to know what prompted you to launch this second career as a writer after your long time career in finance.
I think like many things in my life, the idea of writing as a second act, evolved. Even while I was still working in finance, I’d known for quite some time that I wanted to pursue something very different from what I had been doing in corporate America. But it really came out of an exploration of several areas. I volunteered my time with a few not for profits that helped underserved high school students. I became an advisor to start ups and joined some boards. But I also enrolled in a local writers’ workshop, wanting to see if I could recapture some of that feeling I remember from my high school years—back when I really thought I was going to become a writer. The workshop gave us a simple prompt—not even a complete sentence, and said, “Okay, for the next twenty minutes, write from that prompt—take it wherever you want.” And I was off to the races. Minutes later I sat there with two full pages in front of me, trying to bring myself out of this trance. It wasn’t just a mental trance, I also felt a physical transformation. What a rush! It’s hard to explain but it was like an energy was running through me. But it’s interesting, Ben. Memories Live Here came from one of those early prompt classes—a riff from that one sentence that kept going. It’s an unbelievable feeling that I’m already carrying into my second novel. So, I guess it’s less of a feeling that I’m "launching a second career" than just doing what I love to do, and I’m thrilled that my readers seem to “get" what I’ve been trying to convey in my work.
This idea of not only being in a trance, but experiencing a physical transformation the first time you sat down to write after years of thinking about it...I know that feeling. It's like a switch has been flipped. It's not always available to me when I want to write, however. Is that the case for you? Though either way, I'm wondering what your writing process is now that you're in it.
I wish it was as easy as flipping a switch. Sometimes it takes a while to get into that flow. I’m envious of people who tell me they can sit down and get right into it and a few hours later they have a thousand words, or even five thousand words. For me, the first draft of a chapter or scene is the hardest. I’m working out the basics of what I want to see happen. It’s very rough, almost like a sketch of the scene and the characters. Maybe with some dialogue. But I’m working out the intention of the scene. Rarely does it just flow out of me during that first draft. Then, I’ll walk away from it and go do something else. I just need to step away and let it percolate. And then, ideas start coming to me—ideas to enhance the scene. Change or expand the dialogue. It’s like coloring in the outline. So by the time I get back in front of the keyboard, I have a much better sense of how to add the depth and texture that I’m looking for. It’s during the revision process—when it feels right, it’s not only exciting for me, but that’s generally the time I feel that “buzz", that physical impact of what I’ve just done.
Given your long, successful finance career, I'm curious what your writing life and that life have in common, how your skills in the one space transfer to the other, though also how they differ and whether you were able to achieve the same kind of "buzz" during those years making deals and managing teams?
It’s a great question. I’m not sure skills in finance translate, but I absolutely believe that my skills as a leader and my skills as a communicator translate to a great extent. From the very early days of my management career, I realized the value of being a good communicator. When you’re leading teams and then large organizations, you’re always painting a picture of where you’re trying to take the organization. What’s your vision for the business? The kinds of products you want to bring to market and why. Making everyone on the team feel “part of that story” so they know where they fit in and how what they do every day matters to the overall vision and mission. So every time I’d stand up in front of a team, I had to think about how I was conveying that story—being clear, being consistent and credible. And being passionate and energizing. I thought I was pretty good at doing all of those things. If I step back and think about it, those are the same skills I tried to bring to writing Memories Live Here. I wanted the story to have energy, passion and excitement, but just like my presentations, the story had to be clear, consistent and credible. There are a lot of moving parts in the book and it was hard to keep them all straight—there were times I sat at my desk with timelines and sticky notes organizing my thoughts the same way I used to organize my thoughts before a major presentation. As far as achieving the same kind of buzz—of course your successes in business are very energizing, but honestly, not on the same day to day level you can achieve with writing, especially when you nail a chapter or scene.
You say that "the story had to be clear, consistent and credible," and it is. What would you like us to know about the story itself?
The story has three protagonists, and they are brothers. Josh, is the brilliant artificial intelligence engineer, and he’s leading a Silicon Valley team to bring back the greatest leaders of the past, to aid in modern day decision making. Louie is a high-flying investment banker—and he’s all about appearance and trappings. And then there is Donny, who was destined to become a star athlete in high school, but life doesn’t always go according to plan—instead he’s a twice divorced programmer obsessed with his father’s mysterious death. A mysterious cyber hack attacks both Josh’s project and Louie’s deal, and all paths seem to point back to their troubled brother, Donny. It creates this “crisis” that propels the story forward, and reveals how truly flawed these guys are. I try to dig up the roots of these flaws, which of course, were planted during their upbringing. So, there are look backs, but all the action takes place in one week that starts with the death of their mother, moves through the discovery of her secret diaries, and culminates in a final confrontation with the truth about their own past. The setting is the “near future,” so it introduces a rather advanced vision of artificial intelligence. For some, it gives it that “techno-thriller” feel. But trust me, I’ve kept the tech stuff very simple. It’s a mystery-thriller about a dysfunctional family, more than anything. My goal was not to scare people about the dark side of technology. I’m just trying to tell a story about real people. But in that story, project what might be possible in the not too distant future.
Building on this, you also mentioned the need for the story "to have energy, passion and excitement," and I'm wondering how you consciously addressed this in the writing and revising of the book.
This is hard to put my finger on. For me, something needs to be happening in a chapter to bring that energy. Background information and backstory is obviously very important, but it has to help drive the story forward. Sometimes you read a book and the author goes on with background stuff and you just want to pull your hair out. Information has to be there for a reason. I’m always conscious of propelling the characters forward. Not just in the current chapter, but giving them something to drive them to the next chapter. I love leaving the scene with a surprising piece of information. Something that connects previous chapters to what’s about to happen—the reader has no choice but to turn the page to find out “what’s next?” I’m actually very proud that many of the reviewers so far have used the term “fast-paced” to describe the book. That’s the kind of book I like to read, too.
I sometimes feel like "fast-paced" is the highest compliment one can give a book. It speaks to craft and creating something people want to read. Which at times is all I care about. Having said that, I'd like you to comment on what you care about, and what you hope this book will do for you now that it's out in the world. That may be financial or emotional, it may involve building a readership, or doors it may open. I'm interested in any or all of it.
Another interesting question. I’m so honored when people read the book, and I'm getting such a charge out of people’s reaction. It’s almost like a Rorschach test—no two people see the same thing. I find that fascinating, but at the same time, it’s why it’s been difficult to pin down things like the specific genre. Is it a techno-thriller, a mystery, science fiction? In terms of what I care about, obviously, I’d be thrilled for it to have wide readership. I think any author who tells you they don’t is not being honest. But there was one reviewer who ended her comments saying “it will leave you reflective and wanting to know more." I loved that. It’s very motivating for me to get back to my laptop and continue creating interesting stories that people want to read; stories that make people think but are also entertaining. At the end of the day, when someone says “Wow” after they’ve read your book, man, what could be better than that?
What can be better than that? Not much. You mention the difficulty of pinning down which genre this book fits into, and I'm interested in how conscious you were about genre as you wrote Memories Live Here, the idea of being labeled a genre writer and more particularly the argument that writers need to stick to a lane.
Honestly, I probably broke all the rules by not really worrying or being conscious of the genre. I wrote the story that came out of me. But after I was done and I pitched my first agent, she said, “Oh, I don’t do science fiction.” And I said, “My book is not science fiction.” She made me repeat the premise and of course, I had to say that I understood why she thought it was science fiction, but the story is so much more than that. It’s part family mystery and part techno-thriller. And yes, it does have a sci fi element as well. So, I guess I wasn’t too worried about being labeled a "genre writer” given that the story crosses so many lanes. I might try to be a little more conscious of genre the next time. But I also like the idea of being unpredictable and different.
Given your comments about genres and talking to agents, all of this really, please share what it's like being a debut author, what's surprised you about the experience, what you've learned and how you plan to approach things in the future in terms of writing, publishing and promotion, both similarly and differently.
Great question. I guess I’m only one week "post launch" and in the middle of a lot of activities, so I haven’t really had the chance to reflect. But in terms of surprises, you put so much work into writing and editing the book, but there’s a tremendous amount of work that goes into publishing and marketing—and it’s a very different kind of work than the creative process. No way near as fun as writing, but obviously necessary if you want a professional product that has legs. I’ll probably have a more comprehensive marketing plan and a mailing list next time (hint hint—hopefully your readers will go to my website and provide their email address for future updates). The nice surprise is that there are so many resources available to help you—and people who are willing to help too. In terms of future work, my confidence in myself as a writer and a novelist is a lot higher today than it was when I started Memories Live Here. And that confidence is carrying over into my next project. It’s nice that people are already asking when my next book is coming out. I know the process I followed the first time worked, so I’ve been following a similar routine, where I really try to get a chapter in good shape before I move on to draft the next chapter, almost as if I’m writing mini-stories that connect to one another. I’ve also been trying to work from a broad outline this time. I think not having one slowed me down the last time, forcing a lot of revisions to characters and story arc. So I’m still learning. But it’s so much fun.
Finally, what haven't we covered that you want to share about you, the book and this whole experience?
Sure, here’s the good news for anyone willing to give my book a shot. You’ll know in the first ten pages—max—if this book is for you. Maybe even the first two pages. In fact, you can go on my website and click on the “Book Excerpt” page and read those first two pages on my website for free, or on Amazon just click on the “Look Inside.” You’ll see—I don’t waste any time getting right into it.
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