Sunday, September 28, 2014

Feature: Michael Peck author of The Commons


"Paul Reid died in the snow at seventeen. The day of his death, he told a lie—and for the rest of his life, he wondered if that was what killed him."

And so begins the battle for the afterlife, known as The Commons. It's been taken over by a corporate raider who uses the energy of its souls to maintain his brutal control. The result is an imaginary landscape of a broken America—stuck in time and overrun by the heroes, monsters, dreams, and nightmares of the imprisoned dead.

Three people board a bus to nowhere: a New York street kid, an Iraq War veteran, and her five-year-old special-needs son. After a horrific accident, they are the last, best hope for The Commons to free itself. Along for the ride are a shotgun-toting goth girl, a six-foot-six mummy, a mute Shaolin monk with anger-management issues, and the only guide left to lead them.
Three Journeys: separate but joined. One mission: to save forever.

But first they have to save themselves.


"How fast are you going?" June Medill asked the bus driver, leaning sideways to check the speedometer.
"Fast enough to get there, slow enough to get there alive," he said.
June Medill had asked the driver about his speed many times in the hours since the bus commenced braving the storm. Paul figured the driver would ignore her at some point—or tell her to shut up. But June Medill was tough to tune out, and she didn't seem the type to listen to others anyway.
Paul, Annie, Zach, and everyone else knew June Medill's name because when she'd boarded, she told the man sitting behind the driver that he was in the seat reserved for Medill, June. She'd told him loudly, and she'd upped the volume when the driver said that the bus line didn't issue assigned seats. She'd been just as audible when pulling out her cell phone and threatening to call Port Authority and New Jersey Transit to complain.
The driver had pointed out that they were not on a New Jersey Transit bus, but the man in the seat got up and moved in order to keep the peace. That freed June Medill to hector the driver as he guided the motor coach through curtains of snow at a safe crawl, though not a crawl safe enough for June Medill.
Near the middle of the bus, Paul watched the storm stream across his window. Passing headlights illuminated veins of ice on the glass, lighting up a tag someone had scratched into it: "IMUURS."
Another tagger had claimed the back of the seat in front of Annie, across the aisle, in silver-paint marker. Paul tried to read it, but couldn't make out the words as the headlights washed across them. Maybe it was the bad angle. Maybe it was June Medill.
Annie had given up trying to read to Zach over June Medill's interrogation about a half-hour in. Instead, she leaned close and murmured to him while he stared at the graffiti on the seat back as if he were able to read it.
"Normally, I wouldn't make such a big deal," June Medill said. Paul was certain that wasn't so. "But it's coming down so hard. Don't you think it's hard?"

"Everything's hard with you yammering," the driver said, angling forward to peer through the powdered arcs cleared by his wipers. 


What inspired you to write this book?
The short, somber answer would be that I’m angry at the fact that everyone has to die and all good things must go away, so I decided to make up my own version of what might happen afterwards—where they might not. But beyond that, I’m fascinated with creativity and storytelling and how those things intersect with what we see as reality.

People are often more moved and affected by art, music, and the imaginary than they are by events and people encountered in their “real” lives. (When I was a kid, I cried over the death of Pigmon the friendly monster on an episode of Ultraman. As an adult, I cried at the end of A Tale of Two Cities. But I can’t tell you my great grandparents’ names. Why is that?) Combine that with memory, the good and the not-so-good that we do while living, and how we’re thought of after we’re gone, and you have a rich landscape for examining stories, characters, and what adds meaning to our lives.

And of course, it doesn’t hurt to throw a philosophical mummy, an angry monk, and hippies with nuclear weapons into the mix.

Can you give us an interesting fact about your book that isn't in the blurb?
Several of the menacing settings in The Commons are based on real places from when I was growing up in suburban Philadelphia. Whitemarsh Hall (the abandoned mansion), The Bazaar, and Willow Grove Park (both the amusement park and the mall based on that park) were places I wandered through as a kid and teen. And while the real ruins of Whitemark Hall weren’t quite as deadly as those in the book, the real ones were rather frightening, too. As a dumb teenager, I nearly went over a ledge and impaled myself on an old fountain below while running around the grounds there.

How did you choose your title?
The Commons is the name of the place (and thus the series) because it’s a phenomenon and resource that’s used by all and applies to all. “Journeyman” is a word I shamelessly mutated for my own purposes. It’s someone who’s still in the process of learning something, which applies to the story. But then I took it more literally and applied it to someone taking an actual journey. It’s my own law of poetic license: it’s perfectly fine to use a word incorrectly as long as I freely admit it.

Tell us about the cover and how it came to be.
I wanted to come up with a visual brand for the Commons books that transcended the usual look of contemporary fantasy. I feel—and many readers agree—that the story has a place in other genres, and I didn’t want to pigeonhole it with its look. (Reviewers have called it magical realism, metaphysical fiction, and slipstream.) I also wanted something iconic, heavy in simple shapes that could be used elsewhere. So my designer, Dan Fernandez, created a set of imagery and icons to represent various characters and story elements, which I plan to reveal over time on my site ( But for the cover itself, we went with a feeling of worn-out roadmaps and photos, with the main symbol being a roundabout that has several arrows protruding from it. It’s an icon for a trip that go many different ways. Someone remarked how much the roundabout looked like a question mark, and we loved that—so we made it one.

Did you self-publish or publish traditionally and why?
I self-published this book. When I was living in Los Angeles and trying to break into TV writing and screenwriting, I had an agent and a manager. They were good people, but if they didn’t think they could sell an idea, it died with them and was never seen outside my hard drive. When I first started writing The Journeyman, I had a long list of agents I planned to submit it to, but by the time I finished, I’d learned about self-publishing and realized I had a much better option there.

I never even wrote a query letter.

What do you consider the most important part of a good story?
The desire to find out what happens next. If the reader doesn’t look forward to reading the next chapter, the story’s in trouble. Many elements go into creating that desire: showing the reader a truth from his or her own life, characters that resonate, and so forth. But if the person holding the book or e-reader doesn’t care about what comes next, they’ll never experience the rest of what the author’s created.

If someone tells me my story was on their mind in between bouts of reading or that it stuck with them after they’d finished? Even better.

How long have you been writing?
For more than 30 years, which is a frightening number to contemplate. I’ve been a trade journalist writing about real estate and home video, and I’ve written about TV and travel. I also used to review restaurants for a time. Amazingly, writing has always figured into how I’ve supported myself.

How did you get started writing?
One of my earliest works was a third-grade short story called “Superman vs. The Spider.” The spider in question was a near-total ripoff of a French-Canadian animated mouse character named Savoir-Faire, who was the nemesis of Klondike Kat. And I say “near-total” only because he was a spider, not a mouse, and because I didn’t know how to spell his name properly. (In my story, he was “Sabwob Fair.”) The entire thing was rife with copyright infringement, but I was very proud of it.

Are you a plotter or a pantser?
A plotter. If I don’t have an outline, I’m damn-near paralyzed.

What kind of music do you like to listen to while you write?
I listen almost exclusively to ambient and drone. As I like to say, The Commons runs on Kyle Bobby Dunn, Stars of the Lid, Eluvium, Tim Hecker, Brian Eno, Hammock, Loscil, and William Basinski, among others.

Who is your favorite author?
There’s no way I could choose just one, but Larry McMurtry, Gabriel García Márquez, Joyce Carol Oates, Ken Kesey, Charles Dickens, Oscar Hijuelos, E.L. Doctorow, Kurt Vonnegut, William Gibson, and Ray Bradbury are on the list.

Who is your favorite character from a book?
Again, very tough to go with only one, but I’ll say Augustus McRae from Lonesome Dove.

What is your favorite book?
At the risk of being tedious, there’s no single answer here. A short (but by no means complete) list would include One Hundred Years of Solitude, A Tale of Two Cities, Lonesome Dove, Slaughterhouse-Five, Fahrenheit 451, and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic series, which is as good or better than a lot of fiction I’ve read.

What's your next project?
The next book in the Commons series, which will be called The Margins.

About The Author

I tell tales big and small. Life's magical, but it isn't always enough for a good story. So I make up the rest.

To me, it's not real until I've put it into story form, which means I repeat myself a lot. In fact, the phrase that passes my lips most often is, "I may have told you this before, but ..."

I've made my living writing about TV, its celebrities, and its past. (I used to pen a column called "Ask the Televisionary" for TV I've also put food on the table reviewing restaurants, writing about travel, and doing SEO and content strategy.

Only the writing counts in the end.

I have a godawful memory, so I focus on the written word. I like to think that over time, I've gotten better at it--the writing, not the remembering. I forget important dates. I'm pretty good with movie lines. But after several years, I tend to tweak them. I prefer my versions over the real ones.

Funny goes a long way with me. Probably further than it should.

I grew up outside Philadelphia and have lived in New York, L.A., and San Francisco. My current home base is Chicago.

At holiday time, the missus and I terrorize the world via The Little Drummer Boy Challenge. Please join us.

        My author site:

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