Welcome back to Inside The Authors Studio. Today I’m talking to another writer and sharing our conversation with you! To find out who I’ve interviewed so far and what this series is all about, check out the original post by clicking here.
Hello there! Come on in. I’ve got another great author here with me in the studio today. I’m proud to share my conversation with Dan Alatorre.
Dan was born in Ohio. Even as a child he was an avid writer. He wrote cartoons, created his elementary school newspaper, co-edited his high school newspaper, and hasn’t stopped writing since. Dan attended college in Florida. He graduated from the University of South Florida in Tampa before going on to Tampa College for his MBA.
Today he lives with his family in the Tampa Bay area. He is a bestselling fiction and humor author. His work has been translated into a dozen languages for readers around the globe. While his daughter is the inspiration behind his Savvy Stories, a thoughtful series on parenting, books aren’t the only projects he works on collaboratively. He is also the host of Writers Off Task With Friends, a YouTube series where he co-interviews writers about their different journeys through the literary world.
In my talk with Dan we go over what got him started in the world of writing. We discuss how his personal life has influenced his career as an author. We even take a peek at his work. I am so glad to share with you my conversation with Dan Alatorre.
Jamie: Hi Dan! Welcome! We’re here today to give my readers a taste of who you are and what you do. I like to have everyone introduce themselves at the start of the interview to get the ball rolling. How would you describe yourself to people who haven’t met you before?
Dan: I’m all over the spectrum. If I had to go to a party to meet them I would look forward to the party for days, and then the day of the party I wouldn’t want to go. That sounds like a writer, right?
On the other hand, I regularly work with all sorts of writers, I give speeches and do presentations in front of large groups, I attend seminars… I co-host a talk show on YouTube called Writers Off Task With Friends where I have to basically be the ringmaster of a miniature circus, and in my former life I went to President’s Circle with two different Fortune 500 companies. Those sound very outgoing-person-required, and I guess I am, but I’m just as happy spending all day in front of my computer talking to no one!
So that’s me. Not easily pigeonholed, and my books are that way, too, reaching wide audiences.
What were your first encounters with books and writing? How often did you read growing up? How often did you write? Did you consider literature a hobby, a chore, or something in between?
As a kid, I definitely considered literature a chore. There just weren’t books that were great for young readers, and the stuff that we had access to was mediocre at best. That’s changed, thanks to visionaries like JK Rowling, among others. I call myself a lazy reader but really it was bad writing.
My very first encounters with books and writing were kind of unique. I come from a large family and my oldest brother is almost 10 years older than me. He would read Dr. Seuss books to me and my little brother, especially Green Eggs And Ham, and read them as fast as he could. It was hilarious. And I never forgot how much joy my little brother and I got from words on a page. These things build in a writer, as you’ll see.
I read a lot as a kid, too, and usually stuff way older than my age group. I read Albert Camus’ The Stranger at about age ten. My dad was a voracious reader. We had stacks and stacks of books that he had read. James Michener and classics like Homer, or Mickey Spillane – a full spectrum of reading. And they were just out there for any of his kids to pick up. Mickey Spillane stories are very sexy for a young man. I guess they’re sexy for any age. So I was exposed to a lot of writing styles early on. Which means I developed an eclectic taste, which James Patterson says is essential to good writing. Since he’s more famous than me, I agree. And I bring that to my writing, so it appeals to a wide audience no matter the topic. The Navigators, for example, is a sci fi thriller but it has romance and adventure, too.
My favorite was Mark Twain, but not because we had to read Tom Sawyer in school. I heard snippets of him performed on TV, from his speeches and anecdotes. When I went to the library and read them, I realized he was a comedic genius, the way he delivered the information in his stories. At that same time, my older siblings were enjoying old Bill Cosby albums. Both men had the same style, telling a winding story in a roundabout way, and just keeping everybody on the edge of their seats. I thought, God, I’d love to do that – and now I know those great stories and speeches and comedy routines start with great writing.
How often did you write?
As far as my early writing goes, from probably the age of five I was writing cartoons and comic strips for my older brothers. And they were hilarious. To write a comic strip, you have to think of a beginning, a middle, and an end. You have to come up with a plot and you have to come up with interesting characters – the basics of good storytelling. From there, teachers throughout my life always commented on what a good writer I was. And when people compliment you that way, you tend to want to do more of it.
I read a lot of stories because I critique other authors a lot. It’s fun and it’s also work. And when they’re not good (because I work a lot with new writers who are still learning – and we were all there once so I don’t mind) it can be a chore.
But for the most part, writing is Christmas morning to me. I like to get up every day and write, and I love it every single time I do. Whether it’s a blog post or a Facebook post or a chapter of a story or creating an outline, I love taking people on a journey and entertaining them. That’s what we do as writers. And nothing in my stories is ever what it seems, so readers are glued to the page.
If there was a novel about your childhood, who would write it?
I would hope Mark Twain, but I’m not sure he’s available. My father was a prominent doctor in a small Ohio town, and I was intelligent enough to realize not everyone had the things we had. That type of setting isn’t super interesting! It would take Twain to make it that way!
Describe for me the first moment you knew you wanted to pursue writing professionally.
I was in eighth grade. Enough teachers had told me that I was a good writer that I wanted to consider it as a profession, but that faded with the years as other interests took over—but I would write still as a hobby. Later on, when I joined Facebook, I would write interesting anecdotes about interacting with my baby daughter (they became the foundation for my first book, Savvy Stories). The posts were so entertaining, I’d get 100 comments from friends who shared it around the country and around the world, who all said I should write a book. I finally succumbed to the pressure, and I was very fortunate – it did well!
What did you study in college? How did your educational path impact your writing?
In college I started out as an engineering student, and I hated it. Hated it! Sorry engineers, but it seemed like the most boring occupation in the world. I wanted to explore my creative side, but I was only brave enough to switch to being a business major.
Everything you do in life can impact your writing, though. If you only know about Pokémon, it gives you a limited view of other things. You’ll be an expert at Pokémon but you won’t be an expert at science or love or murder. I had always felt that way, too, and hearing Jim Patterson say it (yes, I call James Patterson “Jim”) made it okay to believe it. Remember, I had eclectic tastes even as a kid, and I always watched all kinds of movies and I read biographies about presidents and larger than life real people, and I took jobs that caused me to interact with all different types of people. You pick up so many things along the way that you can use in your writing.
One example is in The Navigators. One of the main characters, Missy, recalls a moment from her childhood when she picked up a shell. Her mother said it wasn’t a shell but a bone fragment from a whale, and that every grain of sand on the beach is maybe a piece of a bone or a tooth or a broken piece of a fossil. Missy never looked at the beach the same way again, and that spurs her to study Paleontology in college, which causes her to discover a time machine. It’s because of a writer’s eclectic background that they even know to put something like that into the story – but that makes it real and true and believable to a reader, and that makes your story better.
New authors, take note: not everyone has experienced what you have, and things are a little different than what you see on YouTube. When you shoot a shotgun, it’s loud as hell and your ears will ring. It smells like fireworks, but there’s also a hell of a kick when it goes off and the gun stock slams backward into your shoulder. It might even leave a bruise. YouTube doesn’t give you all that. So all the things you pick up in life can impact your writing. Then you have an arsenal of weapons at your disposal.
On August 27 2013 you published your first book. Tell me about Savvy Stories: Funny Things I Learned From My Daughter. Where did it come from? Why did you write it?
When our daughter was born, my friends’ children were graduating high school and getting married and going to college. So when I would post about all the different things that we were going through with a baby, they were laughing out loud. And that those little moments are ones they loved reliving. Comedian Chris Rock noted that the things that are so personal to us are also universally appealing because everyone experiences them—and that’s what Savvy Stories is.
Kids are so unique and interesting, and there are a hundred amazing things they do every day that we see and enjoy, but new parents are so overwhelmed they can’t recall them a day later. I just wrote them down. Readers find Savvy Stories hilarious, like I wrote it about their family.
Talk to me about the experience of self-publishing. Who was your support staff in an endeavor like this? What successes did you celebrate along the way?
The indie publishing community is so amazingly helpful that it’s just is mind blowing. You can ask just about anybody anything and they will help you. I try to do my part by helping new authors. It’s a great community.
In 2014, with several more Savvy Stories under your belt, you came out with a cookbook entitled 35 Great Recipes You Wish Your Mother Made with freelance journalist, Ankit Pandey. What made you want to co-author a cookbook? What do you like about the genre?
Because of that camaraderie in the indie world, I was able to connect with somebody with much more marketing experience than I had, and we co-authored a cookbook 35 Great Recipes You Wish Your Mother Made that became a number one bestseller. Working with him, I was able to learn a lot about marketing that helped my novels.
Now, the cookbook started as a Christmas present for my brothers and sisters. My wife is a great cook and everybody has lots of family recipes they love; seemed like cool idea to give them an eBook of our family’s favorites. Well, Christmas came and went and the book didn’t get done.
By the time I met Ankit, my cookbook was about 99% finished, but it was very unique. Because I’d written it with a very specific audience in mind – my own brothers and sisters – it had lots of family stories weaved into it and sarcasm and jokes (see my Chris Rock note above). It was funny and it was helpful, like having a friend in the kitchen with you. Ankit immediately saw that was a unique way to do a cookbook and that people would love it. He was right. Emphasizing the “friend in the kitchen” and the love our families all bring to a beloved homemade meal, the book took off like a rocket.
I love cookbooks. I have put out several and they’ve all done well, and people who buy cookbooks really love cookbooks. It’s like a strange little cult out there. But that also got them to see I was funny and an interesting writer, so they followed over to my other books.
A month after the first cookbook was released, you took a sharp turn and released a children’s book entitled, Laguna The Lonely Mermaid: A Fun, Full Color, Illustrated Story Book For Children Of All Ages. This was another collaborative project. This time you worked with an utterly adorable co-author, the one and only Savannah Alatorre. Talk to me about this project. What inspired it? How did making a children’s book differ from your previous projects?
What I learned in Savvy Stories was that children are much smarter than we give them credit for.
One day I sat down and was looking at book covers and I saw an elegant one with a beautiful mermaid on it. My young daughter happened to be in the room, so I showed it to her and asked what she thought of the cover. She immediately said that the mermaid was lonely! That surprised me – I did not see that in the picture. My daughter pointed out that the mermaid was looking across the lagoon at a ship and there were no people on the ship. She explained that the mermaid was expecting friends to come on the ship and no one came. I asked her where they were and she said a big wind came and knocked them into the water. She had this whole elaborate story in about thirty seconds! I grabbed my camera and started recording her, and when she was finished I wrote it down for her. Don Castillo did the illustrations and we published it – and it went straight to number one in her genre. A four year old with a best seller.
It seemed to me that four year old kids might like to hear a story from another four year old as opposed to what parents think is interesting or what we want them to read. I was right. Kids love Laguna The Lonely Mermaid.
Following Laguna, you released two more illustrated story books, The Adventures Of Pinchy Crab And Ramon D’Escargot as well as The Princess And The Dolphin, both of which are illustrated by Don Castillo. What was it like working with an illustrator? Did you have any input on the art? And most importantly, what does Savannah think of your picture books?
The kids’ books were designed to be for us to read to our daughter when she was younger, then as she got older she could read them to us. What’s funny is, for a long time my daughter did not understand that all books are not about her. When she was four she just assumed every book was about her and that everybody’s daddy published books about their kids.
Working with Don was great. I would sketch out ideas for him and he would bring them to life. He is very intuitive. I would tell him I need a fish or a whale and he was just amazingly creative about putting so much personality into the characters, and to draw them in a way that was unique and easily identifiable from stuff you see in other kid’s books.
After even more Savvy Stories and two additional cookbooks, you came out with your first sci-fi thriller, The Navigators, in July 2016. What inspired you to write a thriller? How did you approach this project?
I wrote The Navigators as an adventure. I created a group of very intelligent graduate students who accidentally discover a time machine, then they have to jump through all kinds of hoops to get it to work. But before they do, it’s stolen out from under them and they’re being threatened with their lives. Next thing you know, all hell is breaking loose.
It moves at a fast pace. The number one thing I hear from fans is they couldn’t put it down. That was exactly what I wanted to do, but it also challenges the reader intellectually and emotionally. It was a great way to take a lot of that eclectic knowledge and put forward new and really interesting characters, and take them on a fun thrill ride.
So, for the people keeping track at home, that’s narrative short stories, cookbooks, children’s books, and novels you’ve written. How has your experience writing different genres shaped your craft as an author? What insight has it given you about the process of writing and managing your career as a writer? What is your favorite genre to write?
Here’s the mistake everybody makes: we “pigeonhole” things. Stephen King only writes horror stories, right? Well, the movie Stand By Me was from his story The Body – not a horror story at all.
I write so many different types of books, it might seem hard to label me and say “Dan writes this” or “That’s a Dan Alatorre story.” But if you step back, you can see that all of them are page turners. Great stories told in a unique way. Whether it’s a sci-fi adventure or a cookbook, you’re getting a lot of personality in there.
I want to try my hand at different genres because I believe I’m talented enough to do so and because every great story contains elements of more than one genre. That’s another lesson for new writers. I use the example of Star Wars. It’s an adventure story, but it’s kind of a western – and there’s a romance in it. And there’s a lot of suspense and action adventure and sci-fi. So it’s everything! My stores are like that.
If I had to pick a favorite genre, I would pick romantic comedy. I wrote the rom-com Poggibonsi in Italy and it’s hilarious. I love me making people laugh, and we are all familiar with falling in love. Being able to take that and turn it on its head and really create unique, memorable characters – and make people falling down laughing at the same time, that is just a thrill. Equally though, I love scaring people, and I’ve been able to do that as well in other books, like my upcoming books The Water Castle, a fantasy romance, and An Angel On Her Shoulder, a paranormal thriller.
How has your subject matter, especially Savvy Stories, impacted your personal life? How do you balance being a father and an author? Do you keep the two separate or do they bleed into each other?
That’s a really hard question to answer. The reason I stopped writing the Savvy Stories series was because there comes a point where your child is no longer an anonymous baby but a young person who’s going to school and has friends, so she deserves privacy.
On the other hand, in those books, her life is mine and mine is hers because that’s what those stories are. But they are more than just me and her. They are everyone. Every parent went through this, every kid went through this, and we can all look at what I write about with my daughter and we can all laugh because everybody’s gone through it. Meanwhile, one character in my novels strongly resembles a precocious little girl, and readers will be happy to see my daughter depicted fictitiously in those stories.
The biggest impact nonfiction writing had on my personal life was in chapter 2 of the very first book I ever published, which was Savvy Stories. Our daughter almost died as a newborn. There, in chapter 2, there’s a very heart-wrenching explanation of what we went through as new parents who waited so long and struggled so hard to have a baby, and now we might lose her. And it was very hard to write such an emotionally painful subject, but I knew – again, having your eclectic ears open as you’re going through life – I had heard all kinds of talk radio hosts explain that people can sense the truth and they can sniff out a phony. So I knew I had to lay my soul bare and go where the pain lived, for better or for worse. And what happens is, I tell two stories in that chapter. By the end of it, everyone is crying. And once we had that moment, when my reader and I shed tears together, we are bonded. They will absolutely follow wherever the story goes, and from that emotional low, we go on a fun ride where we are laughing the whole time. It’s just an amazing experience.
That allowed me to realize you really have to be brave in your books. Readers want a heart wrenching love story that makes them cry and they want to laugh out loud and they want to be scared out of their seats. And you do that by thinking about a time when you were laughing or scared, and then build the blocks so that there’s only one inevitable conclusion. You’re playing the reader like a piano – and they go right along with you as a willing accomplice. It’s an amazing journey and that’s what all writers have to find out how to do. Savvy Stories does it differently than The Navigators, but both do it really, really well.
One of the things I find most interesting about your work is that your passion for writing extends beyond the page. You also host Writers Off Task With Friends, a talk show style interview series where you bring on guests to chat about their experiences in the writing industry. This is a collaborative effort. You run the series with your cohosts, authors Allison Maruska and J A Allen who also provide interesting, thought provoking questions. What gave you the idea to start your own writer talk show in the first place? How has it grown since your initial episodes? How has being involved in these dialogues impacted your writing and the way you approach writing?
I met Allison and Jenny in a critique group. I saw them both as brilliant writers, and as we became friends through Facebook I realized they were both very funny individuals as well. The three of us would get on Facebook and just write back-and-forth private messages to each other and make each other laugh for hours on end, so when the idea of doing an internet show came up, there was nobody else I wanted to do it with.
Everybody kept telling me that video is the way to go as far as promoting yourself as an author. I always figure, if something has to be done, I might as well get behind the wheel and drive. That way I can learn as much as possible while maintaining control. (As long as we don’t wreck.) Of course I immediately recruited the two of them to do the show.
Oh my god, our first shows were so bad. They were fun, don’t get me wrong – but we had no idea what we were doing. We would spend an hour just making each other laugh, which was a lot of fun but wasn’t necessarily a show. After about three or four episodes, we finally figured out a format that allowed us to have fun and make each other laugh while still imparting quality information to others. After a few more episodes, we started inviting guests, usually authors and bloggers, with the idea of showcasing the side of them you don’t get in their books or in written interviews.
Most authors are a lot more fun than you’d think, and we bring up stuff you’re not going to see anywhere else. That’s what makes it interesting and unique.
It’s fair to say you’ve had your share of experience in the world of digital publishing. What are your views on eBooks, the digital market, and self-publishing? How have these platforms impacted you and your writing? Where do you think they will go in the next few years?
E-books are amazing. With a Kindle, you can have the Library of Congress in the palm of your hand. It doesn’t get any better than that. People in the self-publishing community don’t view each other as competitors; they want to support and help each other. The eBook market is going to continue to grow and improve, and it will dominate things more than it already does. Major Indie publishers are going to break out very soon, the way independent movies did in the 1930’s and again in the 1970’s. Too many big names are already hybrids, being Trad published on one book and then putting the next book out themselves, so that’s not going to stop. Look at Hollywood grabbing up The Martian and making it a blockbuster movie with Matt Damon. That was an indie book.
Indies are more able to react to the market. They aren’t entrenched in big bureaucracies or waiting for a budget approval because the prior author didn’t earn back his advance. They don’t have to get an agent interested to get a publisher interested to get a book store interested to get a customer interested. A mistake anywhere in that chain and your book is delayed or derailed. Indies can go right to the customer. That’s power, and that’s a genie that’s not going back in the bottle.
But it’s not an either/or proposition. Both methods can peacefully coexist, and can work in harmony. Look for lots of hybrid houses to spring up, where authors buy services in an a la carte manner. Crowdfunding for books and crowdsourcing for editing, and on and on.
Upcoming works of yours include a romantic comedy, two paranormal thrillers, a fantasy romance, more Savvy Stories and illustrated children’s books, and an eBook marketing series. Is there any genre you wouldn’t try?
I want to write a story in each genre until I find one I’m good at. Seriously, though, great stories contain elements of many genres anyway, and the best way to get better at something is to do it.
As far as what I might not do? Maybe not erotica. There is a lot of sex in some of my stories and it’s very steamy but it’s not graphic. So I probably wouldn’t do erotica, only because it’s not me. But the fact is, I was part of a critique group for a very popular New York Times bestselling author who writes erotica, and I enjoyed her book immensely. It was very well written, with a lot of suspense, and it had mystery and it had drama – so it was the whole package, not just a string of cheap sex scenes. That’s why she is a New York Times bestselling author!
What have you struggled the most with in your writing?
Editing. I hate editing.
As soon as I’m done with the first draft of a story, I think it’s ready for the public. It’s very hard for me to let it sit for a month and then look at it with fresh eyes, but when I do I see that there’s some fixing up that needs to happen. And I enjoy doing that! I just hate the thought of having to edit. Once I start, I enjoy it because I’m a good writer. I end up reading the story and forgetting to edit it! So I have to be very disciplined and force myself to view my writing like someone else’s. But that’s part of what makes it so good, I guess. Even I can’t stop reading it.
What have you done to overcome these struggles?
I have a very good author friend who will occasionally give me a nudge or a kick in the butt and remind me that I need to edit my latest book.
What would you say to other writers dealing with similar challenges?
Every writer has their own challenges. Some need everything organized before they can start. Some can’t find time to write. What I tell everybody is: develop a habit. Whatever it is, set goals, work hard to hit the goals, and reward yourself when you do.
Every writer’s life is like one of those balancing scales. On one side of the scale is the Kardashians or email or family time. On the other side is your writing. Choose writing over the Kardashians but not your family, and then find the time to write. That might be getting up at four in the morning like I used to and making sure that I wrote for a few hours before anyone else was awake, but so be it. I’m going on my daughter’s field trip and then working late that night after she goes to bed. I can check email on my phone at lunch during the aquarium field trip and I don’t need the Kardashians.
What are you most proud of about your writing?
I’m most proud of the fact that I could put words down on the page and make people laugh or cry. That I can make readers recall moments from their childhood that they loved, or people they lost. I have been able to give them unique experiences they only got by reading my stories. They trust me to take them on an interesting ride.
It’s like aiming an arrow at a target in hitting the bull’s-eye. My words can make my reader laugh or cry or fall in love or have a broken heart or get all hot and bothered. And then they tell you that you hit the bull’s-eye for them. And that is an amazingly gratifying experience. My wish is that every author gets to experience it. Setting out to achieve a certain goal and having the readers say you 100% nailed it. There’s nothing better.
Would you like to give my readers any background on the sample they’re about to read? Do we need any context before we jump in?
Melissa (“Missy”) always has her act together. She has the time machine but has to peel herself away for an interview about her dad’s mayoral campaign. She takes her friend “Peeky” with her for support.
This is good example of getting your readers to swing through a wide range of emotions in a relatively short span.
Here is an excerpt from Dan’s work:
“Missy, I’m happy to tag along, but why me? What kind of interview is this?”
She stopped at her car. “It’s been a long day, Peeky. I don’t want to say anything stupid to this reporter.” She leaned onto the car roof, resting her head on her arm. “Will you just watch me? Nudge me under the table if I start to say something out of line?”
I straightened myself. “Of course.”
A thin smile crept across her lips. “Thanks.”
Melissa needed no advice on politics, though. She was sharp as a tack and had been a great asset in her dad’s mayoral campaign. We got into her car and I slipped my seat belt into the buckle. “Who’s the interview with?”
She started the car and pulled away from the curb. “Janice Peterson, a reporter from the Tampa Tribute. I’ve met her a few times at some of Dad’s business functions and at campaign stuff. She seems okay. But you never know with reporters.”
Melissa leaned over suddenly and blew into my face. “How’s my breath?”
“I don’t know! Is that important?”
“I don’t know. I’m nervous!”
“Well calm down. Good grief, what’s with you?” Then I chuckled. “Do I nudge you now? That was pretty stupid.”
After a short drive, Melissa made a call on her cell phone. I felt around in my pockets for mine. I didn’t have it. In my haste, I had left it at Barry’s apartment. Crap.
We were to meet the reporter for coffee at the university commons, a large open area in the center of campus. Melissa parked at the bookstore and we covered the short distance to the coffee shop.
It was easy to see which one was the reporter. A strikingly beautiful middle aged lady in a well-tailored business suit, surrounded by a sea of twenty-year-olds in tank tops and shorts.
“Ms. Peterson.” Melissa strolled in, flashing her million dollar smile.
The lady stood and extended her hand. Another million dollar smile. “Please, call me Janice.”
“Janice, this is my friend Tomàs. I’m his ride home. Is it okay if he joins us?”
“Of course. Tomàs, very nice to meet you.”
“And you, ma’am.”
She gestured for us to sit. “Can I get you two something?”
I held up my hands. “Please, allow me. You two need to chat. I shall serve as Melissa’s manservant this evening. What may I get you?”
“A mocha latte, please, Peeky.” Melissa reached into her purse. “With Splenda.”
“Let me get this.” The reporter handed me a $20 bill. “I’ll have the same, a latte. And please get yourself something – ‘Peeky’ is it? What an interesting name.”
“I’ll let Melissa explain it to you. Be right back.”
The cash register was right behind Janice, about three feet from our table. She pulled out a small notepad. “He’s charming. Boyfriend?”
“No, no. Peeky—Tomàs—is in my paleontology study group. He’s just a friend.”
“I see. I like the accent.”
“He’s from India. Tomàs Pequant. Peeky, for short.” Melissa winked at me.
“‘Pequant’ doesn’t sound Indian.”
“It’s French. His great-grandfather, I think.”
“How fascinating.” Janice smiled and leaned back, crossing her legs. “You have a lot of interesting people in your life, don’t you?”
Melissa smiled back. “I can think of a few.”
“Well, the one I’m interested in is running for mayor. Shall we talk about him?”
“Absolutely.” Melissa straightened in her chair.
“Do you help with his campaign much?”
Melissa had most of her political answers well-rehearsed. I’d seen her do this before: a big grin, a short, upbeat answer, and end with a statement about her dad being the best thing for Tampa. Tonight she seemed a little off. Slow to answer. Hesitant.
Her eyes returned to the reporter. “You’ve seen me at a campaign event here and there, but I’m pretty busy with school, you know?
“Paleontology.” Janice acknowledged, opening her notepad to a fresh page.
“That’s right. It keeps my schedule full.”
“I can imagine.”
“But I help out when I can. Weekends, mostly, doing miscellaneous things for the campaign.” I could see Melissa’s hand in her lap, folding and unfolding a napkin. Why was she so nervous?
Janice lifted her eyes to Melissa. “Like doing interviews for the family aspect of a campaign.”
“Well, I appreciate it.” Janice set her pen down. “Your dad and I have been friends for a long time.” There was a warmth in her voice, as if she was trying to put Melissa at ease.
“Yes, I’ve seen you at some office Christmas parties, I think.”
Janice nodded at Melissa and changed to a more inquisitive tone. “How did you decide to come to USF to study paleontology?”
I set the lattes in front of them and sat down, handing the reporter her change. Melissa absently toyed with the green plastic cover on the tall cardboard cup, slowly turning it as she spoke.
“When I was a little girl, we were on vacation at the beach making a sand castle—my mom, dad, and me. I wanted to decorate the towers by putting little seashells on top of them. My mom pointed out that one of them wasn’t a shell. It was a piece of coral.” Melissa glanced up at Janice, who was listening intently. So was I.
“She was a tax attorney, you know? At Dad’s firm. But she had a lot of interests.” A faint smile appeared on her lips as she stared at the latte. “Dad always said Mom had a million interests, and she was good at every one of them.
“Anyway, she looked around and plucked a little rock from the sand and said, ‘See, Missy? This is a fossilized camel’s tooth.’ I couldn’t believe it. A camel in Florida. I’d never heard of that before.”
Melissa’s eyes never left the coffee. “She and I spent the rest of the vacation combing through the sand. We found tiny whale bone fossils, shark’s teeth…. I was amazed. It was like the whole beach was a giant crazy jigsaw puzzle. My mom said that any little rock or grain of sand might have a million-year-old story to tell. That was it for me. I never looked at the ground the same way after that.”
Melissa paused for a moment. The smile faded from her lips.
“She died two weeks later.” Her voice fell to a whisper. “She was killed by a drunk driver while she was out jogging. Rocks and things… just kind of became a way for me to stay connected with her.”
Janice and I were silent. I had no idea what to say.
Finally, Janice broke the silence. “That’s a powerful story.” She spoke softly, leaning in and resting her folded arms on the table. “But, I meant how did you decide to come to USF? Your dad is pretty well off. Surely with his connections, you could have gone anywhere.”
“Oh.” Melissa studied her latte, her cheeks reddening. “I guess so. I had the grades, but Tampa’s home. I couldn’t bear to think of leaving…”
Melissa raised her eyes. “That’s right.”
Janice nodded. “How old were you in that story? The one about the beach.”
“I was twelve.”
“That must have been tough for you.”
“It was. For both of us.” Melissa placed her hands back in her lap. “I lost my mom, and Dad lost the love of his life.”
“That’s when he threw himself into philanthropy.”
“That’s right.” Melissa stared down at her hands. “Ms. Peterson, please – don’t print any of that.”
It was a request, but the look on her face said she was pleading.
“Of course, dear.”
Melissa continued her downward gaze. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I told you all that just now.” She shifted in her seat and glanced out the window. “It’s probably very boring.”
I had never witnessed a political candidate’s family being interviewed like this before. These didn’t seem to be typical questions. Or answers.
Janice’s eyes never left Melissa’s face. “Not boring at all. I completely understand. I lost my mother at an early age too. Much younger than you were.”
Melissa blinked, her jaw dropping.
“My father tried to hide his pain by drinking a lot,” Janice continued. “So when I got older, I tried to drown my problems in alcohol. It cost me my marriage.”
She tapped her pen on the blank pad. “The way you and your dad dealt with it was much healthier.” Then she smiled. “And don’t worry. Part of my job is to help make stories interesting, but a political story doesn’t need so much deeply personal information.”
Melissa took a deep breath and sat back. “Thank you.”
Then she glanced at me. “You know, you could have kicked me under the table or something. That’s why you’re here.”
“Sorry. It’s my first time doing an interview. Shall I kick you now?”
“Let’s change subjects.” Janice picked up her coffee. “Tell me about your dad’s campaign. How do you think he’s doing?”
Melissa brightened. This was her area, the well rehearsed, pitch-perfect answer. “Well, Uncle Troy – that’s Troy Morgan, the campaign manager – says Dad’s doing great, he’s ten points up in the polls and everybody loves him. Unless there’s an October surprise, Dad should be our next mayor.”
“Do you call all of your dad’s partners ‘uncle’?”
“Not the women partners.” Melissa laughed.
“Aunts?” Janice smiled over the latte.
“One big happy family.”
“Just about.” Melissa sipped her coffee. “I probably ate a thousand carryout Chinese dinners at my dad’s desk with those people. More than I ate at our house, that’s for sure. Dad and I never ate at home. I’m not sure he’s ever turned on our stove.”
Janice shook her head and smiled. “How funny. Could there be an October surprise? Something that happens before the election to derail everything?”
Melissa tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “I don’t see how. Dad’s pretty thorough. His team has all the bases covered.”
“They’re a smart bunch. I’ve met a lot of them at various galas over the last few years.”
“Galas.” Melissa rolled her eyes. “I used to get dragged to a ton of those.”
“With your father?”
Melissa nodded. “Oh, yeah. He would never ask anybody like a date, and he hated going alone. In high school, I spent more Friday nights with him at charity functions than on real dates with boys.”
“Maybe that was his plan all along.” Janice raised her eyebrows and cocked her head.
“Maybe, but the events stopped when I went to college. There wasn’t time. Can’t say I miss it.” Melissa took another sip of her coffee. “When’s your article coming out?”
I shifted on my seat. It sounded to me like she wanted to end the interview.
“Probably Tuesday.” Janice closed her notepad. “After I add some background.”
“I’m sorry I wasn’t much help. I’m kind of tired.”
Melissa glanced at me. “We’re, uh, working on a special project at school.” Then she turned back to Janice. “I just don’t think I gave you much you could use for your story.”
“You were more than helpful.” Janice slipped the notepad into her bag. “I can write all about Michael Mills’ beautiful and charming daughter and how she holds down the fort while studying paleontology at our favorite up-and-coming university. How’s that?”
Melissa returned the smile. “That sounds great. You’re pretty charming yourself. I don’t usually let my guard down like that.”
That was true. Melissa usually played things very close to the vest. Some genuine affection seemed to have developed between these two.
“Well,” Janice stirred her coffee. “You were tired. Don’t worry. There are a lot of snakes that masquerade as reporters. I’m not one of them. You can ask around about me.”
“I did. Uncle Troy said you were okay.” Melissa’s tone was different. Friendly, but direct.
Janice laughed, seeming a little caught off guard. “He did, did he? Well, I’ve known your uncle Troy a long time. He’s a good guy.”
“He said you and Dad had gone out a few times.”
There it was. Now the strange interview made a lot more sense. I looked at Melissa in shock. Was I supposed to kick her now?
I swung my foot and hit the table leg.
Janice’s mouth hung open as she desperately appeared to search for words.
Flash forward. Where do you see yourself as an author in five years? What would you like to accomplish?
You’ll have to email me on my yacht in the Caribbean, but I’ll still reply.
Do you have any final thoughts to share with my readers?
There is a great story in each and every one of them, and that store is worth telling. If they work hard and do it in an interesting manner, people will read it. The story you write could become somebody’s favorite book. Don’t deprive them of that.
Thank you so much to Dan for stopping by the studio today and sharing some of his work with us. Did you like our conversation? If you did, you can find out more about Dan by using the links below.
Where you can find Dan Alatorre:
Facebook: Dan Alatorre Facebook Author Page
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If you’re looking for more awesome writers, check out some of my past interviews by going here. Thanks for stopping by. Have a great day everyone!