Author Interview: E. Michael Helms – Former USMC Veteran
E. Michael Helms is a USMC combat veteran. His memoir of the Vietnam War, The Proud Bastards, has been called “As powerful and compelling a battlefield memoir as any ever written . . . a modern military classic,” and has been in print for over 20 years. His work has also appeared in the books: Semper Fi: Stories of U.S. Marines from Boot Camp to Battle (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2003); Soldier’s Heart: Survivors’ Views of Combat Trauma (The Sidran Press, 1995); and Two Score and Ten: The Third Marine Division History (Turner Publishing, 1992).
Dee Waite: Michael, welcome to the blog.
Dee Waite: First, let me thank you for your service to our country. That in itself makes you an amazing individual and that you can write about it so eloquently…well, I love it. You’ve written so much already, a memoir called The Proud Bastards about your harrowing journey from boot camp at Parris Island through the hell of combat in Vietnam during the height of the war. Incredible book. And your two Civil War books – Of Blood and Brothers. I can’t wait to read these.
Okay, so let’s begin. Why don’t we start with you telling us a little about yourself?
E. Michael Helms: I grew up in Panama City, FL, along the Panhandle coast. The city’s motto is “The world’s most beautiful beaches.”
Now I understand you have written a mystery series! Let’s talk about those. Where do you get your ideas?
E. Michael Helms: The first Mac mystery, “Deadly Catch,” was born with a single sentence that kept running through my mind: ‘The first cast of the day turned my dream vacation into a nightmare.’ It stuck and became the opening line of the book. That’s a typical scenario for my ideas – a scene or sentence or character will begin speaking to me and won’t let go.
Dee Waite: Let’s step back a moment; when did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
E. Michael Helms: When I was a kid reading The Hardy Boys and anything by Mark Twain. Along came the Beatles and I wanted to be a Rock star (I’m no star, but I still play the guitar). After Vietnam I knew I had a story to tell, for others as well as myself. It took a while, but I finally got there.
Dee Waite: What motivates you to write?
E. Michael Helms: Waking up alive. Writing is, to me, a compulsion. This might sound narcissistic, but I’d like to leave behind a book (or books) that a hundred years from now someone might find and read, and when finished, say “Wow!”
Dee Waite: I don’t think that’s narcissistic, I think that’s a wonderful thing to want to leave behind. And after reading your books, I believe you’ve already met that goal. Do you have a day job as well as your writing career?
E. Michael Helms: I’m a full-time writer these days. I used to book edit (freelance), and was editor of a couple of regional tabloid papers.
Dee Waite: How about your writing schedule, can you tell us what your schedule is like?
E. Michael Helms: It varies like the weather, but . . . in the chair by 10 am until happy hour at 5 pm is a pretty normal day. I shoot for five days a week.
Dee Waite: How did you choose the genre you write in?
E. Michael Helms: That’s a long story. My first book was a memoir of my tour of combat duty in Vietnam with the Marine Corps. That experience knocked me for a loop for several years with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (before it became a household word). I suppose you could say “it chose me.” I then spent years researching and writing a two-volume Civil War/Reconstruction saga based on a true family who lived near where I grew up in the Florida Panhandle. My personal combat experience lent reality to the battle scenes and everyday life of the common soldier. I then wrote a semi-autobiographical novel about a group of Vietnam combat vets struggling with PTSD while trying to readjust to civilian life several years after the war. All those previous books dealt with war in one way or another. It was difficult dredging up painful memories and made the writing difficult and very draining. So, I decided to change course. I’d been a huge fan of The Hardy Boys growing up. I figured, “Why not?” and tried my hand at writing a mystery series based on the coast of the Florida Panhandle. Thus was born the Mac McClellan Mystery series. However, Mac is a retired Marine turned private eye. I guess I needed that connection to get inside Mac’s head.
Dee Waite: Do you work with an outline, or just write?
E. Michael Helms: Oh, how I wish I could outline! But I’m a “pantster.” For my mysteries I’ll use a calendar to keep track of the days, what happens when, where, etc. I’ll jot down scene prompts on the day they happen, major events, key points in the plot, etc. I supposed you could call that skeletal outlining, but I follow the storyline in my head and record it on the calendar as I progress. I also re-write as I go along. It probably takes longer, but by the time I reach “The End” I have a pretty clean draft. Of course I’ll go back through the manuscript and fix/correct/add/delete this and that, but it’s what works for me.
Dee Waite: Can you tell us about your challenges in getting your first book published?
E. Michael Helms: I was in group counseling for PTSD. The Vet Center Team Leader (counselor) suggested we begin a journal and jot down things we needed to dredge up and deal with. I soon noticed mine was in book form, sort of a “stream of consciousness” account that let the reader experience what I’d experienced in real time. I had written feature articles for Vietnam Combat Magazine in New York. The editor (who was also a literary agent) liked the sections I sent him and asked to see the whole manuscript when I’d finished. He sold it quickly to a New York house. It’s been in-print over twenty years, currently with Simon & Schuster/Pocket.
Dee Waite: Is there anything in your book based on real life experiences, or purely all imagination?
E. Michael Helms: Of course my Marine Corps and combat experience played a large part in several of my books. As for the mystery books, I grew up along the Panhandle coast where the series is set. I’ve fished all my life, so that pastime of Mac’s came easily. My imagination has come into play as Mac “wings” his way while learning the PI business.
Dee Waite: Tell us a little about your upcoming book.
E. Michael Helms: Absolutely. “Deadly Dunes” will be the third in my Mac McClellan Mystery series, the second being Deadly Ruse. Mac is hired to investigate the murder of a young college professor who supposedly discovered evidence of a 16th Century winter encampment by Hernando de Soto’s men on nearby Five-Mile Island. Murder, mayhem, and a tangled web of deceit follow Mac as he struggles to unravel the mystery.
Dee Waite: Sounds great! What was your favorite part to write, and why? Oh, and how’d you come up with the title?
E. Michael Helms: I love plotting the mysteries, writing Mac and his girlfriend Kate Bell into corners where they have to figure their way out. I don’t really outline, so the characters control most of the story, with a little help from me. As for the titles, “Deadly” seemed to fit the opening scene where he snags a badly decomposed body with his first cast of the day.
Dee Waite: Can you tell us about any current projects you’re working on?
E. Michael Helms: I’ve just begun the fifth book in the Mac McClellan series, “Deadly Verse.” A former Marine under Mac’s command is now a pastor in St. George, FL, where Mac lives. His wife finds herself in some hot water because of her past and calls on Mac for help.
Dee Waite: Awesome. Deadly Verse sounds great, and a small fact that I live in Florida and am familiar with St. George will definitely play well with my reading it. So, do you have any new books coming out soon?
E. Michael Helms: I’m hoping Mac #3, “Deadly Dunes,” will be out in about a year. Publishing can sometimes drag.
Dee Waite: Let’s talk a bit about writing. What are the most important elements of good writing, in your opinion? And what tools do you think are must-haves for writers?
E. Michael Helms: Pacing; setting up a scene; dialogue (no excessive or “thesaurus-rendered” taglines); no information dumping; no extra weight just to “pad” the word count; and a good story. Must haves? Imagination, some talent, desire and determination.
Dee Waite: Love your answer. Short but to the point. Yes, I agree with the must-have tools: imagination mixed with talent, LOTS of desire, and LOTS of determination. Perfect answer. Okay, so tell me, how do you handle writer’s block?
E. Michael Helms: I don’t suffer from writers’ block. In my case it’s called “writer’s laziness.” I have to force my butt to sit in front of the computer and make the words come. They won’t appear by magic.
Dee Waite: <laughs> So true! I don’t really experience writer’s block either; mostly lazy periods. Well said. How about marketing – any thoughts on how you market your work?
E. Michael Helms: I’ve been fortunate to have had some help from most of the bigger publishers I’ve worked with. I’ve been forced to do-it-yourself more with a couple of smaller publishers, but I appreciate everything they’ve done for me. But with any and all books, the writer has to take the reins (except a select few MAJOR authors) and put his/her nose to the grindstone. I’m active on several social media sites, and a good deal of my time is spent there. It cuts down on writing time, especially when a book launches. It’s a never-ending struggle, but I suppose it’s a nice problem to have.
Dee Waite: What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? And while you’re at it, how about the best compliment?
E. Michael Helms: One reviewer panned “Deadly Catch” by saying, “John D. MacDonald, he’s not.” Hmm, I never claimed to be anyone other than E. Michael Helms. Library Journal, on the other hand, gave “Deadly Catch” a starred review and named it their “Debut Mystery of the Month.” Different strokes for different folks, I guess.
Dee Waite: Exactly. Okay, so do you have any advice to give to aspiring writers?
E. Michael Helms: Read a LOT in the genre(s) you want to write. Study structure, setting, and especially dialogue. It must build character, reveal needed info, or move the plot.
Dee Waite: Is there anything you would like to say to your readers and fans?
E. Michael Helms: YES! (With a smile!) “Love an author—leave a review!” Reviews are SO important.
Dee Waite: Absolutely. We can’t say that enough. WE NEED REVIEWS! How about publishing – how do books get published?
E. Michael Helms: If done right, by hard work, determination, and luck. Now please don’t take this wrong, but almost anybody can become a “published author” these days by self-publishing. There are some amazingly talented writers and wonderful books out there that are self-pubbed; however, there is also an enormous amount of amateurish garbage clogging the online venues. Do your homework and bleed for a while until you and your work are ready. If not, you are hurting yourself, and ultimately, others.
Dee Waite: I agree with you completely. I self-published my first book, but let me tell you, it was no short feat. I went through the gamut, copy editors, proofreaders, beta readers. Notice I put s’s at the end of all those. I used three different copy editors, two proofreaders, and six beta readers, and believe it or not, when I went back and re-read the book after it was published I still found an error! So can you imagine the sort of junk that is being put out where people haven’t even taken the time to have it polished? I believe self-publishing can be a viable course for many writers, but they have to do it right. They must, no shortcuts here.
Okay, so in wrapping up this wonderful interview, I have to ask, white wine or red, vanilla ice cream or chocolate, and coffee or tea? <smiles> I like to be a bit nosey about my favorite authors. You know, get some of the behind-the-scenes into who they are.
E. Michael Helms: Red; Chocolate; Coffee (strong and black). Bonus: Single-malt Scotch; fine bourbon; strong, well-hopped ale.
Dee Waite: <laughs> Thanks for the bonus answer.
So for my final question, do you have a favorite quote?
E. Michael Helms: From Ernest Hemingway: “Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.”
Dee Waite: Perfect! Well, this has been great, Michael. Thanks again for coming aboard and sharing so much with us.
To our audience, I hope you enjoyed meeting Mr. Helms as much as I did. Don’t forget to comment and let him know your thoughts.