I’d like to welcome B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree Michael Jay today to talk with me about his book, DOG WATER FREE. Michael grew up in Detroit, where he raised himself from the age of 15. A graduate of Harvard College, he earned his MBA at Northeastern University in 1983. His coming-of-age memoir, DOG WATER FREE, is dedicated to his college roommate, Tom Wales, who plays a pivotal role in his story, and who many believe to be the only Federal Prosecutor in U.S. history to have been killed in the line of duty. Michael lives in Idaho.
Hi, Michael! Thank you for chatting with me today about your book, DOG WATER FREE.
First, tell me how you discovered indieBRAG?
Hi Stephanie. I am happy to join you.
Thanks so much for this opportunity. I hope you don’t mind that I’ve added a few youtube hyperlinks to provide some multi-media context (Music ft. Bob Dylan) to this interview, since music is integral to my story. I hope that’s okay? (Ft. Artists are in parentheses behind each hyperlink so anyone can pick and choose, by the way).
Absolutely. No worries, Michael. Bring it on…great!
Thank you for that, Stephanie.
I was encouraged to submit my memoir to IndieBRAG by an internationally renowned pediatric ophthalmologist (Dr. Ed O’Malley – whose friendship has changed my life more than once).
Ed had learned about IndieBRAG from a friend in Chicago. A few months later, IndieBrag CEO Geraldine Clousten kindly let me know that my story (Music ft. Moby) had been awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion, which has significantly raised exposure for my years of work.
For that, I am incredibly grateful and proud.
How has your story been received and how goes the battle for exposure, Michael?
Of course, exposure is one of the reasons I am with you today. It’s great of you to ask, Stephanie. By the way, any readers of your post are welcome to message me at MichaelJay@DogWaterFree.com . . . Just an FYI..if you would like to schedule a Skype with me and your book group or classroom, just so you know.
Now. Back to the basics of exposure. I credit my success to date to exquisite eBook formatting by BookBaby for Kindle and iTunes and Kobo.
I also credit a seasoned professional line editor in Los Angeles, Kathleen Marusak, who gave me the confidence to self-publish my memoir, (Music ft. #1 Hamilton) in order to share some truths about an adolescent’s star-crossed journey to make sense of a confounding series of unfortunate events.
And if that sounds like a real life Lemony Snicket saga…you are spot on…because it is!
Anyway, since it was published, DOG WATER FREE has enjoyed “Top Rated Best 100” status in the category of “Family Relationships & Motherhood” on Amazon for more than 75 weeks.
I’m sure my fellow authors will attest that all news is good news when it comes to gaining exposure after years of hard work writing – especially when it’s a personal magnum opus.
Equally gratifying, a past President of the Women’s National Book Association (Lynn Henriksen, San Francisco Chapter) calls DOG WATER FREE, “A mother-son coming of age memoir of lasting consequence.”
That makes me very proud, as does this blurb from Amazon, which I share to orient your readers:
“A family saga at its core, DOG WATER FREE is an uplifting story of discovery that will appeal to fans of The Glass Castle and Angela’s Ashes as it pulls back the curtain on adolescent bewilderment while celebrating a remarkable hero in the person of an ordinary mom who is thrust into an extraordinary situation, the likes of which few could imagine.”
DOG WATER FREE (Music ft. Gil Scott Heron) also made the 2015 Top Ten Book Club Recommendation List at the Canton, Michigan Public Library along with Laura Hillenbrand’s UNBROKEN; Robin Sloan’s MR. PENUMBRA’S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE; Petra Durst-Benning’s THE GLASSBLOWER; and Ken Follett’s FALL OF GIANTS and WINTER OF THE WORLD. Being included on that top ten list was an incredible honor.
Exposure & validation like that is so critically important – as I know you know, Stephanie.
So, needless to say, the opportunity to do this interview with you today makes me very proud as well, as I seek to gain traction with high school teachers and administrators who create reading lists, as well as with college instructors who may choose to recommend my story (Music ft. Sam Roberts) to undergrads, since it explores subjects like adolescent bewilderment, (Music ft. #2 Hamilton), spiritual befuddlement, and an elusive emotional truth called Closure while fostering spirited discussion.
Tell me about the premise of your story, Michael.
The premise, Stephanie, can be explained with two questions:
How does a widow who has a year to live – and who is blessed with a spiritual passion for life, the arts, and culture – prepare her young son for life on his own without her?
And how does her dumbstruck soon-to-be orphan middle-son, (ft. Damien Rice) Mikee, respond to her timely wisdom and insights, knowing all the while that each next morning might be her last?
Most engaging, readers have kindly told me, is the pace with which events unfold.
I’m also so honored that so many of my reviewers have read DOG WATER FREE more than once – and that they let me know they did! I dare say that is one of the best compliments an author can receive.
What is the setting?
The story is set in Detroit (Music ft. God Choir with Eminem) and subsequently Boston and on the Island of Nantucket, where readers are rewarded with a most satisfying dénouement that ties it all together, a few years after Mikee finished his high school academic and athletic (music ft. Shakira) career playing hockey, baseball and running track & cross country back in his hometown.
Who is your primary audience, Michael and what is the premise?
My primary audiences are moms (of all ages) who know what it means to parent. I am also reaching out to mature adolescents/young adults (Music ft. Jill Scott) who understand all too well what it means to be bewildered.
I think I may have cornered the market on that front.
Thematically, the mosaic of my story’s puzzle includes issues of Fate; Life & Death; Happiness & Sadness; Hopes & Dreams; Shame & Despair; and finally, Survival & Redemption.
As I say this, it sounds way too serious…mine is really a happy, uplifting story, believe it or not, evidenced by the fact that I’ve gotten feedback that some readers could not stop laughing through their tears, which makes me know that we have a connection.
Regarding my premise, the very beginning of DOG WATER FREE is the foundation that allows me to offer an homage (Music ft. She & Him) to my mom, Marge. The first sentence consists of six words:
“Legends are born to every generation.”
The story builds from there as readers eventually come to know, through Mikee’s first-hand experiences, a host of powerful & famous icons of culture who have shaped the mindsets of nations, which is just how Marge would have wanted.
Set the stage for us. How does it all begin for Mikee?
Mikee (Music ft. Robben Ford) is eleven when his world turns upside down.
His mom is sharing news with Mikee from her doctor.
She has a year to prepare her family for her death.
Her passing will leave the man she loves and the four children she cherishes alone to fend for themselves.
“At least you’ll always have your dad,” she comforts them.
Still on her mission fifteen months later, her focus heightens when her husband drops dead.
With that, Mikee’s improbable coming-of-age journey (Music ft. #Hamilton) begins.
DOG WATER FREE puts the reader in the room when Mikee learns of his mom’s terminal illness; learns of his dad’s sudden death; and subsequently learns about his mom’s hopes and dreams for him as she shares her wisdom (Music ft. Faith Hill) and insights, knowing that each next morning might be her last.
In Forrest Gump fashion, Mikee would come to land front and center before England’s Queen, Elizabeth II; (Music ft. #3 Hamilton/King George) America’s Maestro, Westside Story composer Leonard Bernstein (Music ft. the Maestro); the first non-Italian Pontiff in more than 400 years, Pope John Paul II (Photo); and a young college coed who would become the first woman in history to be elected to lead an Islamic nation, Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (Photo). In the moment, all of it seemed so natural and not so much a big deal. Looking back, it’s funny how that works in real life, Stephanie.
Oh yea, readers are treated to front row seats for each and every encounter, by the way.
What a powerful story. When did you decide your story needed to be told and what were your experiences writing this story?
Each night at bed time at our home near Lake Tahoe, my two beautiful daughters would ask me to tell them a true story from my childhood, (Music ft. The National) which helped keep my memories alive.
My girls, Claire and Rachel, are now both UC Berkeley Grads with graduate degree honors from Columbia and UCLA. I am so proud of them both.
I also was the beneficiary of a lifelong friendship with Assistant US Attorney Thomas C. Wales, who was one of my roommates in college https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VMGh3Ts5-WQ (Music ft. Damien Rice) and to whom my book is dedicated. Over the years, he became close with my girls, as well.
Relentless, Tom knew my history and he kept encouraging me to publish my stories, God love him.
For that I am eternally grateful.
“Just keep me posted and be sure to let me know when you publish your memoir,” my friend Tommy kept telling me.
A proponent of trigger-locks on handguns in order to protect at-risk families all over America, Tom Wales is believed to be the only Federal Prosecutor in US history to have been killed in the line of duty. He was murdered by an assassin with a handgun.
A $1 million reward from the Office of the Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice has gone unclaimed since his assassination in Seattle, thirty days after 9-11.
James Fallows, former Chief White House Speechwriter and National Correspondent for The Atlantic, remembers Tom Wales with a kind mention of DOG WATER FREE in The Atlantic (Article).
The morning of September 11, 2001 was the last day we spoke, my friend Tommy and me.
What was the hardest part of this book to write?
The hardest part of writing my story was overcoming the urge to editorialize, Stephanie. Ultimately, that’s why I chose to write in first-person/present tense. Even with that, I had to remind myself every day that I needed to trust my readers and simply stay true to each moment. I’m so glad I approached it that way.
By my reckoning, when a story is worthy, events speak for themselves – so there is no need to spell things out by editorializing.
The bottom line is that readers are smart – and they like putting pieces of a puzzle together.
So if I were asked about lessons learned from the experience, I would have to say, “Trust your readers. (Ft. Nina Simone & some Cool Cats”)
Tell us about Mikee.
Here’s a story that sums up young Mikee in a nutshell, Stephanie.
As a boy, Mikee learned to compartmentalize his feelings. Some would call that a defense mechanism.
At the age of ten, he became angry after asking his dad if his family could “pretty please get a puppy.”
His dad all but said beat it. “What do ya think, Dogs come cheap, Mikee? Don’t you know that nothing in life is free? Anyway, I’m allergic to dogs. End of story.” He lied.
It broke Mikee’s heart to hear his dad say that.
All the while, his mom took care to comfort her children in the wake of her terminal diagnosis.
“At least you will always have your dad, long after I’m gone.” She promised.
Obsessing, Mikee couldn’t help but wonder.
What good is it to have a dad if he won’t even let you have a dog?
Then it hit him.
Maybe God would make his dad change his mind, now that his mom was dying?
Maybe that’s God’s plan. He believed.
“His will be done.” Mikee prayed.
Despite his dad’s stubborn indifference to Mikee’s request that their family get a dog, Mikee dropped to his knees every night to try to strike a solemn bargain, praying harder than he had ever prayed in his life.
Night in and night out, he told God that he would endure anything – if only he could have a dog. Amen. Woof-woof. Bow-wow.
Meanwhile, his mom stayed true.
Knowing each morning could be her last, she took one day at a time to prepare them all for life on their own without her.
Months later, still battling her illness, her focus heightened when Mikee’s dad dropped dead.
And the following Christmas brought another surprise. (Music ft. The National)
Marge could not contain her excitement.
“Look, you guys. Look what Santa brought us!”
At long last, Mikee had his puppy!
Uh-oh. Dear Lord in Heaven. Were those my prayers God answered?
Mikee shivers as if some lame little imp is dancing a jig atop a grave that is somewhere in his own future.
What in the world have I done?
On that miraculous Christmas morning, it made him ache to wonder.
Intellectually curious, God loving and Devil fearing, young Mikee (Music ft. Robben Ford) is growing up on a street called Faust (Music by Bruce Springsteen ft. Jennifer Nettles and Ben Harper) in the heart of Detroit’s Westside, where he discovered that the name of his street referred to a mysterious German legend, none of which he was quite old enough to fathom nor quite young enough to ignore.
According to a centuries-old fable, the story of Faust had something to do with a scholar who makes a deal with the Devil to exchange his soul for limitless knowledge and pleasure. As a cradle Catholic who fancies himself as somewhat of a scholar, it is one more bit of evidence for Mikee that the Devil is real and that actions can have irreversible consequences, which is a dominant theme of the story.
Never let the Devil (Music ft. REM) in the door. At least that much young Mikee knows first-hand.
Just prior to the death of his dad, Mikee is appointed to be President of a contingent of Altar Boys in his neighborhood parish as a tribute from the elementary school nuns to his dying mom.
With that, he continues to serve daily mass.
He schedules himself to serve weddings on Saturdays in order to earn a couple of bucks.
He also arranges to serve as many funerals as possible for the chance to miss a few hours of school while traveling to far away cemeteries in cushy Cadillac’s with the Monsignor, while enjoying fine second-hand cigar smoke.
Through it all, he dutifully recites the Liturgy in Latin – phonetically – from rote memorization. Such was the custom for most Altar Boys during the era of MadMen.
It’s not long before Mikee begins to suspect that he might be suffering from something called impostor syndrome for having spent way too much time in church without actually praying, since he has no clue as to the meaning of his perfect Latin utterances.
Please tell me a little about his mom.
Mikee’s mom is Margaret Mary, (Music ft. Kim Carnes) aka Marge, who is a graduate of Detroit Cooley High. She is a statuesque auburn-haired beauty who hails from the tribe of actress Maureen O’Hara, with whom she bears a striking resemblance.
An unflappable muse, motherhood becomes her. She tackles matters mundane with the passion of a virtuoso (Music ft. Bonnie Raitt & Norah Jones) preparing for Carnegie Hall.
She loves her neighborhood and she loves her budding brood (Music ft. The National) of four, three sons (Nino, Mikee, Patrick) and her first-born daughter (Kathleen).
But for the size of her heart, the Irish (Music ft. The Gloaming) in her bones, and the grace of God, she might never have evolved with such consummate charm.
It complements her all too disconcerting intuition, which allows her to know exactly what Mikee is about to do before he can even think it.
She is the daughter of Robert Denny, an Orangeman (strict Protestant) whose family hails from Belfast. Her mother Claire is from County Cork.
Marge (Music ft. Mose Allison) would marry an alcoholic, and become an alcoholic herself until the day she joined AA, on the occasion of the birth of her baby Patrick.
What is the mood or tone your characters portray and how does this affect the story?
Mikee’s dad Tony is a high-school drop-out who becomes the chef for the executive dining room of a silk stockings ad agency in downtown Detroit. With a client list that includes Heinz 57, Pittsburgh Plate Glass, and Chevrolet, business is booming.
Work hours are over by 3pm. In the late afternoons he bowls in winter; he plays golf in spring and summer in Northern Michigan at an executive retreat where he cooks for the Ad Executives and their clients. He also moonlights as a bookie, (Music ft. Pomplamosse) in a town with no patience for slackers slow to play – or for bookies slow to collect. As Tony later tells his sidekick (young Patrick), he works on the side “for an influential family business.”
Who designed your book cover?
I love my book cover, Stephanie. Thanks for asking. The cover is by Tovey Call, a design professional in Eagle, Idaho. Tovey is a fabulous collaborator.
Where can readers buy your book?
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a children’s book (Music by Nena) at the moment, Stephanie…and as I do, I am always available to skype with book clubs or classrooms for discussion, by the way.
What are the challenges of writing non-fiction, especially memoir?
Great question. I subscribe to the adage “show, don’t tell, and be truthful, always”.
Also, writing memoir should never involve settling scores or grudges with mere mortals. Settling one’s differences with the Almighty, however, is noble and fair and worthy of effort, in my humble opinion.
What are your personal motivations in story-telling?
Given the circumstances of the journey I’ve been on, I seek to earn my reader’s trust by sharing relatable, true stories that provide insights for young adults who know all too well what it means to feel bewildered. I am also seeking to reach moms and dads who know what it means to parent.
What do you find most rewarding about writing?
Most rewarding is when my writing spawns conversations between friends; between kids and their parents; between students and teachers. That’s when you know your writing has struck a chord. And feedback via reviews is the absolute best = especially when reviewers share that they have read your story more than once!
I am so proud of that, too.
I hoped to touch one life with my true story and based on reviews so far I have been blessed to have touched many.
What would/could a reader or reviewer say about this book that shows they “get” you as an author?
Great question, Stephanie. Without giving away any spoilers, ‘getting me’ as an author would involve simple acknowledgment that my story touched their heart – and that coming to terms with an issue like closure can be an emotional truth unto itself.
As one publishing industry pro recently put it in a private note to me:
“Bravo, Michael Jay. Your readers may not remember your precise turns of phrase or exact words, but if they are anything like me, they will never forget how your story made them feel.”
Responses like that make me forever grateful that I stuck with it.
Thank you, Michael! It was a pleasure chatting with you and thank you for sharing such a wonderful story with our readers.
A message from indieBRAG:
We are delighted that Stephanie has chosen to interview Michael Jay who is the author of, DOG WATER FREE, our medallion honoree at indieBRAG. To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion ®, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as, DOG WATER FREE, merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.