Interview with Michael Peck, Author of The Margins | NewInBooks
What’s the story behind the story? What inspired you to write The Commons?
I’d long wanted to create an entire world where all kinds of fantastic stories could take place and all varieties of characters could interact with one another. The initial idea was for it to take place on a computer network whose inhabitants didn’t know they were living on a network. I started developing it as fiction in the late ‘90s, when I was living in New York and taking classes at the Gotham Writers Workshop. I then moved to L.A. in 2000 to try to break into TV and screenwriting, and I began putting together an outline for a feature screenplay.
You can probably guess what happened next. The Matrix came out. So the computer-network idea was dead, and I had to come up with something else. I moved it to the afterlife, and wrote a spec-screenplay version of The Journeyman. My agent loved it, and that got me a manager. They both sent it around town, and though I had a bunch of meetings with producers who liked the idea, nothing came of it. It was eventually optioned to a friend of mine and his partner, but they weren’t able to get anything going, either.
After a couple more moves, my wife and I were having dinner and wine in our Chicago apartment when she challenged me to turn The Journeyman into a book. So I began expanding the story. Annie and Zach, who only appeared at the beginning and end of the original script, became major characters. I named the world The Commons. And I signed up for classes at StoryStudio to see if I had any business doing this fiction thing.
One week in class, I was handing out copies of my latest chapter so that everyone else could read it and give me feedback. When I placed it on the table in front of a classmate, she said, “All right! More Journeyman!” I knew I had something. After that, I figured I just needed to find more of her, and I’d have myself an audience.
If The Margins is turned into a movie, who would you pick to play Ray-Anne Blair?
I’d love to see what currently little-known or unknown actresses out there could carry off the right combo of vulnerability and toughness to play Rain (Ray-Anne is her birth name, but she only goes by it in the Living World, when she doesn’t remember who she is.) If I had to choose a known face and name and could reach back in time, though, I think a Hackers– or Girl Interrupted-era Angelina Jolie channeling her Lara Croft toughness could nail it. Others have suggested a Firefly-era Summer Glau.
What books are on your TBR pile right now?
I’ve been in a pattern of shifting between mysteries and classic lit lately, the former covered by another entry in Craig Johnson’s Longmire books and the first of the Nero Wolfe mysteries. I’m also planning on digging into Charles Dickens’s Hard Times at some point. That last one’s got a history behind it. When I was a senior in high school, my English teacher assigned it, and I informed her that she could just make her life easier and give me a zero on everything related to it because I hated Dickens, was tired of being assigned Dickens books, and was letting her know upfront that I had no plans to read it so we would both know where we stood. Luckily, I loved the next assignment, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and knocked it out of the park on all of the essays and tests. So I balanced out to a C between the two, though my mother insisted that teacher should have failed me for my defiance and all-around terrible attitude.
The best part is that years later, I started reading Dickens and other classic authors I wouldn’t have looked at when I was a teen, and I love most of that fare. But I don’t think I would’ve been able to get near it when I was too young to appreciate it.
What book should be required reading for all humans?
In keeping with the answer to the last question, I’ll say Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. I think just about everyone can benefit from the heart-rending story of how evening the score can bring about as much injustice as the system that was deservedly brought down. Once you unleash righteous anger, that anger can stick around long after the righteousness is no longer in evidence.
And of course, I’m going to violate the rules and throw in two other favorites: Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. You can learn a lot about wonderful writing from the great westerns and works of magical realism.
What’s your favorite thing about writing? What’s your least favorite thing about it?
My favorite is releasing something I’ve worked on for a long, long time out into the world and seeing it resonate with a readership. I’ll never, ever tire of that. My least favorite thing is all of the hours devoted to projects that mean stealing time from the people and events you love, when there’s a summer breeze and voices wandering in through the window to remind you of what you’re missing outside.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I’ll combine two pieces of advice into one, and neither of them were directed at me personally: Anne Lamott counsels all writers not to be afraid of writing “shitty first drafts,” and Eddie and Alex Van Halen’s father used to tell them to just keep pedaling no matter what setbacks they faced. I think that if you can internalize both those things, nothing can hold you back as a writer.