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Author Spotlight: Mark McElroy

Mark McElroy

Welcome to my weekly Author Spotlight. I’ve asked a bunch of my author friends to answer a set of interview questions, and to share their latest work.

Today:

After escaping his home town of Anniston, Alabama, in a rainbow-hued balloon, Mark McElroy was kidnapped by post-modern minimalists at the prestigious Center for Writers (University of Southern Mississippi), where he earned an MA in creative writing. During that time, he designed and taught in the nation’s first computer-aided collaborative writing classroom, earned his first writer’s paycheck with a wince-worthy comic book script, and began coming to terms with the fact that, despite having been groomed as a fundamentalist minister, he was definitely gay. 

Since then, he’s authored more than a dozen non-fiction books on subjects from Apple Computers (101 Reasons to Switch to the Mac, from Que Books) to lucid dreaming (Lucid Dreaming for Beginners, for Llewellyn Publications). He’s also designed and scripted more than a dozen Tarot decks for publishers in the US (Llewellyn) and Italy (Lo Scarabeo). His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Back in 2000, he was the first NaNoWriMo novelist to draft a novel live, online while the world watched. MadeByMark.com (online since 2000) and MarkMcElroy.com (his professional presence) remain a hub for a tech-savvy little tribe of smart, spiritual, literary, tech-savvy, LGBTQ-friendly folks.

Over the past three decades, to keep the lights on and feed his hungry babies, he worked for big organizations (SkyTel/WorldCom and the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta) writing more than 300 corporate video scripts designed to explain complex ideas (like “benefits cliffs” and “red lining”) to people who have the good sense to spend weekends in the park instead of attending conferences on quantitative easing. 

Unlike his characters, Mark lives a quiet and happy life with Clyde (his husband for thirty-one years) and their two rescue dogs, Sunny Day and Windy Day. Parallel Lines is his first novel.


Thanks so much, Mark, for joining me!

J. Scott Coatsworth: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Mark McElroy: Indoors. No, really. Here’s why:

I can’t tan, but I can get a crispy, lobster-red sunburn in about five minutes. I’m also a wasp and spider magnet, so every time I went outside, I got stung or bit or chased around the yard by every stinging critter within a one-mile radius. And since outside isn’t air-conditioned, well, that’s three strikes against the whole “Let’s go outside” idea.

But indoors: I could read. I could write. And I could do all that without worrying about radiation burns, walking through spider webs, or sweating. So, as a kid, I used to fantasize about growing up and living in a domed city like those lucky young people in Logan’s Run.

Oh – and I wanted to be a writer, too. Living in the future. Indoors.

JSC: Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?

MM: There are two kinds of authors: those who read their reviews, and those who lie about not reading them. So, yeah, I read them. But here’s why:

I’m a little obsessed with being an agile learner, so I write, share, listen, learn, pivot, and repeat. For me, listening and learning include absorbing feedback from readers, and a lot of that comes in the form of reviews.

So when people love one of my stories, I try to get past my emotional response and listen for a kernel of truth I can keep in mind when planning my strategy for future work. And when people hate one of my stories … well, I try to get past my emotional response and listen for a kernel of truth I can keep in mind when planning my strategy for future work.

JSC: How did you deal with rejection letters?

MM: My first dozen books (all non-fiction) were commercially or traditionally published. All were accepted on their first pitch, so I never got a rejection.

With Parallel Lines – my first novel – I sent out queries to a dozen or so agents as a learning exercise. Ten passed outright. One was moderately interested, but passed after requesting the first ten pages. And one other went so far as to ask for the whole book … and then said, “While I love it, I don’t love it enough to take it on at this time.”

While preparing the next round of queries, it hit me: given that the tools now exist to publish books and get them directly in the hands of my readers … why bother with appeasing the traditional publishing priesthood? I suddenly realized the only reason I was pursuing traditional publication was rooted in the need for external validation.

So: I set aside query letters and published the work myself. (And why not, since publishers these days expect you to do all the marketing and promotion yourself, anyway?) And as someone who has published both commercially and independently, I can say with confidence that getting $6.99 for each independently published $9.99 paperback sold beats the heck out of getting less than a buck for each book sold by a traditional publisher!

JSC: Are there underrepresented groups or ideas featured in your book? If so, discuss them.

MM: In a post-Sex Education world (you know, the Netflix series that gleefully popped characters of every possible predilection on screen?), it’s getting harder and harder to say any group is under-represented.

Even so, readers have contacted me to thank me for Les, the truly bi-sexual character in Parallel Lines. They complain that most bisexuals in fiction and film end up being either “gay lite” or “straight once they meet the right person.”

Les, by contrast, isn’t an “either/or” bisexual. He’s an “and” bisexual. In order to be fully himself and completely happy, he needs both men and women in his life. The novel celebrates this duality, and people tell me they’d like to see more characters like that.

JSC: Are you a plotter or a pantser?

MM: “Plotter” sounds like the name of a farm mule, and “pantser” makes me think of those bullies that yank down people’s gym shorts in the school yard.

I tend to avoid extremes in both my life and my writing … so I’m neither a plotter nor a pantser. I plot just enough to foresee where I’m going. And, as I go, I expect and embrace emergent ideas.

For me, plotting is a compass, pointing the way to the places I intend to go … while pantsing is a way of living in the moment and making the most of the unforeseen opportunities the act of creation provides.

JSC: What is the most heartfelt thing a reader has said to you?

MM: In our small hometown, a local woman – almost ninety years old! – said she wanted to talk with me after reading Parallel Lines. I was a little nervous about this, as most people of her age would probably consider the book racy.

Instead, she delighted me by saying, “I think you believe Parallel Lines is a gay book: for gay people, about gay people. I want you to know I think it’s a book for everybody. We’ve all wondered what would have happened if we had made different decisions in life. Parallel Lines shows the pleasures and the dangers of that kind of thinking in a way that has universal – and not just gay – appeal.”

I almost cried – and I’ve thought about the book differently ever since.

JSC: How do you approach covers for your indie stories?

MM: With great fear and trembling.

No, really: these days, you gotta get the cover right. Fortunately, my background includes a lot of graphic design work other people are willing to pay for, so I felt confident when setting out to design covers of my own.

A cover needs to convey genre, tone, and the essence of the book … so, for Parallel Lines – a gay sci-fi romcom – the cover had a lot of work to do. On it, you’ll see Thomas, the handsome main character … the silver sphere he uses to jump between parallel versions of his own life … and the lakehouse that’s central to the story.

In retrospect, the color palette and art convey the sci-fi angle pretty well … but I don’t think the cover does a good job of communicating how warm and funny the story is. I’ll probably make changes for the second edition.

JSC: What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?

MM: For Parallel Lines, I just wanted to create a story I loved … and that maybe one or two other people would love. For me: that’s success.

It’s been overwhelming to see the book debut at #1 in LGBTQ+ science fiction … to see very positive reviews and ratings on Amazon … to see the book earning hundreds of dollars a month on Amazon.com during its first four months on the market … and to be getting email from readers who tell me how much they loved the story.

I am loving the opportunity to connect the book with readers, one by one … and to hear directly from those readers as they finish and fall in love with the book.

JSC: Do you believe in love at first sight?

MM: Anyone who’s seen my response when a new, fresh, hot pizza arrives at the table will tell you, “Yes, Mark is capable of love at first sight.”

No, but really: I do believe in a kind of love at first sight. When I first saw my husband of 32 years at a church event, I was drawn to him immediately. I wanted to get to know this sweet, shy, quiet, hard-working man better. From the very first time I laid eyes on him, I felt something in my heart click.

Three decades later … I love him even more, and I realize that, with time, there’s a depth and quality to love that transcends the pleasant warmth of that first spark of attraction. I can honestly say I’ve loved Clyde from the minute I saw him … but I can also say that, with each passing minute, I’ve grown to love him more completely, and in more ways, that I could that first afternoon.

JSC: What are you working on now, and what’s coming out next? Tell us about it!

MM: I’m currently writing Infinite Aisles, a quirky sci-fi tale about String, a young man whose village exists inside an infinitely large discount store (a bit like a Wal-Mart or Ikea that goes on and on forever).

Just as String works up the courage to reveal his romantic feelings for Bod, his athletic best friend, a crooked religious leader falsely accuses Bod of secret sin, prompting the young man’s exile from the camp. String goes after Bod … but in doing so, discovers a terrifying secret that could mean the destruction of their village … and perhaps even the Infinite Aisles themselves.

Waiting in the writing queue: a sequel to Parallel Lines, a sci-fi epic about a band of uneasy allies aboard an out-of-control spaceship, and a very strange tale about a small town where, one day, the recently-deceased meanest woman in town comes back to life.

I can’t wait to share these stories. Meantime: I’m grateful to you for your interest … for your tireless efforts to promote indie authors and their work … and for this chance to share some ideas about what I’m learning along the way.

I hope you and your readers will keep in touch with me by visiting markmcelroy.com or dropping me a line at mark@markmcelroy.com!


Parallel Lines - Mark McElroy

And now for Mark’s new book: Parallel Lines:

When Thomas’s constant indiscretions wreck his decade-long marriage to handsome Carter Lamm, he wonders how different choices might have made him happier.

In a misguided attempt to help, Ed Williams, Thomas’s Big Gay Role Model, shares a technology that plunges users into alternative worlds: versions of the present day, shaped by different choices. Would Thomas be happier stepping on Legos while juggling a wife and kid … partnered to America’s favorite secretly gay action star … or married to “The One Who Got Away”?

With each jump from life to life, Thomas gets just 24 hours to choose to stay (and likely screw things up with his signature blend of self-absorption and over-thinking) or move on to the next of four “roads not taken.” 

But with each jump poking holes in the fabric of reality — and with the creator of the jump tech rushing to shut this unauthorized adventure down — can Thomas break his self-sabotage habit, escape collapsing realities, and find the critical path to happiness before his blundering around destroys the universe?

Amazon


Excerpt

Thomas and Carter argued again on the way to the party. 

Focused on each other, they drove through a stop sign, almost broadsiding a Providence Bakery delivery van. Thomas, driving, swerved right and drove the car over a curb. Carter, in the passenger seat, braced his palms against the dashboard and prepared for an impact that never came. A bottle of wine, their gift for Warren and Ed, bolted forward from the rear floorboard, shot under the passenger seat, and wedged itself between Carter’s size twelve Oliver Cabell sneakers.

The oblivious delivery driver continued down the road. Thomas and Carter sat frozen, breathing hard. A moment passed, then two. Thomas pounded his fists on the steering wheel, put the car in self-driving mode, and crossed his arms over his chest, sulking. Carter bent down and fished for the wine bottle. 

For the rest of the drive: not one word.

* * *

At Warren and Ed’s party: lights strung from pine to pine, balloons bobbing from bushes, and a not-bad local band playing covers of eighties tunes on the pier. 

A hundred people laughed, hugged, air-kissed. Identical waiters—black hair, blue eyes, athletic builds—proffered flutes of Prosecco and trays of bite-size barbecue sandwiches. 

The car pulled off the dirt road and onto a thick carpet of pine needles. Thomas glanced at Carter. We’re late.

Carter snatched the bottle of wine. Not my fault.

They followed the sloping path toward the lake house’s sprawling jumble of gables and decks. As they walked under the banner (“Celebrating Warren and Ed—30 Years of Love”), several couples spotted them, bounded toward them, shouted their names.

Hugs for Carter, Thomas thought. He was right. Rick and Stephen, the couple who were always on vacation, squeezed Carter hard and long, despite having seen him last weekend. Alan and Quinn, the May-December pair with twenty years between them, did the same.

The men greeted Thomas, too, but with tight smiles and terse waves, except for Quinn, the gray-haired elder of the group, who gave Thomas a stiff handshake without making eye contact. 

“Good to see you two … together,” Rick chirped, saluting them with his drink.

Thomas glared at him.

“Oh my God,” Stephen said. “We’re just back. From Chiang Mai.” He closed his eyes and shook his head. “You must go.” 

Carter, head and shoulders taller than everyone else, beamed down at them. “Gimme the one best moment.”

“Riding the elephants. Through the jungle. Eating sticky rice.” Stephen put his hand over his heart. “You must go.”

Carter grinned. “Sounds amazing.”

Thomas fidgeted. “I need a drink.” 

“Get whatever you want,” Quinn said, arching a gray eyebrow. “As you always seem to do.”

Without a word, Thomas set out for the bar. 

* * *

On the way, Thomas ran a gauntlet of friends and acquaintances. Most, spotting him, scanned the sky for passing clouds or studied the plates of food in their hands. A few nodded or spoke. Lawrence—the needy, perpetual dieter—looked right at Thomas and mouthed the words, “Are you okay, sweetie?”

Thomas dodged them all, not stopping until he reached the lakeside bar. The twenty-something kid behind the counter—a bear of a guy, as tall as Carter but carrying a lot more weight—gave Thomas a wink. “Lemme guess: an IPA guy.”

Thomas shook his head. “Gin and tonic.”

“Hmmm,” the kid said. “Tops usually drink IPAs.”

“What?”

“Only bottoms drink gin.” The kid waited a beat, then burst out laughing. “I’m just fucking with ya.” He offered Thomas a huge paw of a hand. “I’m Tevin. Like Kevin, but with a T.”

A firm handshake. “Thomas. Like … Thomas, I guess.”

Tevin tossed ice in a glass, doused it with gin. “Okay, Thomas like Thomas.” He looked Thomas square in the eyes. “I kind of like Thomas, too.”

Thomas narrowed his eyes. “You must work for tips.”

Tevin laughed again—a big, genuine laugh that lit up his face and shook his belly. “Dude, I’m no bartender. I was just helping myself to the beer when this hot, curly-haired, older bottom walked up and started bossing me around.” He garnished the drink with a lime and presented it with a flourish. “Fortunately for us, I’m kinda into that.”

Thomas returned the laugh and took the drink. “I’m probably five years older than you. Ten at most.”

Tevin cracked open an IPA and waggled his eyebrows as he poured it into a frosted mug. “I’m right about the rest, though.”

Thomas ran his free hand through his hair. “I gotta get back.”

The younger man came around the bar: sunlight in his beard, grinning that intoxicating grin. He clinked their glasses together. “Urgent craving for cheese and crackers?”

Thomas sipped his drink. Heavy on the gin, like he liked it. “Got a husband.” He held up his left hand, pointed to his ring. “Nine years.”

Tevin drew close, his size making Thomas look less like a man and more like a skinny kid. The younger man rested a huge, gentle hand on the shorter man’s shoulder. “Thomas like Thomas, you know the secret to living your best life?”

Thomas waited.

Tevin leaned in, his lips nuzzling the most sensitive part of Thomas’s ear. “Doing whatever the hell you want.” He pulled away, letting his lips graze Thomas’s cheek, then lingered with his lips much too close to Thomas own. “I want you to go off in the woods with me and boss me around some more.”

The moment hung between the two men: a magnetism, a vibration, a heat shimmer in the humid air. Thomas felt a familiar surge of raw desire: the simple, animal need to feel another man’s skin against his own. 

“Let’s do this,” Thomas said.

And then, right behind Thomas, two men screamed.

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