On Writing: David Eric Tomlinson's The Midnight Man

David Eric Tomlinson's debut novel, The Midnight Man, centers around the brutal murder of a basketball player in Oklahoma and those involved in both the victim's life and the murderer's life. The story contains a diverse and vibrant cast; a Choctaw Indian who is a public defender, an African-American nurse, a white real estate developer, his wife, and his paralyzed brother.  David weaved in real life events from the mid-90's to capture the time period as the characters face their own "disappointments, hopes, and fears." 

I first interviewed David in 2011, shortly after he started pursuing writing full time. That interview can be found here. I was thrilled to see David's novel debut and wanted to follow up to learn what's transpired in the past five years and the process that led to publication. 

Jim: Congratulations on the novel David! So what was your first inspiration for The Midnight Man? Were you working on this when we last chatted in 2011? 

David: I was working on the book then. I spent about five years drafting the many versions of THE MIDNIGHT MAN, and 2011 was right in the middle of that time.

My first inspiration for the story came when I was running on the treadmill, at home. I was looking out the window, daydreaming about this book I wanted to write, my first, and suddenly an image came to mind: someone running along the railroad tracks bisecting downtown Oklahoma City.

I'd been wanting to tackle something ambitious - a big novel about the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building - but didn't know where to start. This character running along the railroad tracks wound up being my main protagonist, the Choctaw Indian public defenderDean Goodnight. I had pages of notes already, but no entry into the story itself. Everything grew from that image of Dean running. What was he running from, and why? Answering those questions got the ball rolling.

Jim: When we last talked, you were experimenting with "old school" writing, using a typewriter. You had also dropped Facebook and it looks like you may have now dropped Twitter. How much did you use the typewriter in the end, was it more of an inspiration than a long-term tool? What was your process and how do you practice your daily discipline? 

David: My process is basically to wake up, take my kids to school, and then spend several hours writing. If things are going well, I'm working on my laptop or computer. If not, I'll switch to the typewriter, or write longhand in a notebook, just to jolt my brain into a different state. More often than not, this causes something to fall out onto the page. After that, I'll read for awhile, then walk to the gym. It's during this walk that some magical eureka moment will often solve the intractable problem I've been wrestling with all morning. In the afternoons, I do some editing or, if I have it, consulting work (for actual money), before setting out into Dallas traffic to chauffer the kids all over the metroplex: basketball or ballet or volleyball or summer camp, whatever the season requires.

For me at least, social media is destructive to the kind of contemplative state of mind that writing requires. At the same time I quit Facebook, I gave up my iPhone, so I've been using an old-school flip-phone for six or seven years. This is a source of endless amusement to my daughters, friends, and family members. I'm that guy in Starbucks who is sitting there, drinking coffee, perhaps reading, and not looking at his phone, like a psychopath.

For a long time I was using Twitter, but after the election I gave that up, too. I watched a fascist tangerine with attention deficit disorder use Twitter as a vehicle to the presidency, which permanently ruined the allure.

Jim: There's no doubt social media has become more distracting than ever in the past few months. You're living in Texas now, but I see you did grow up in Oklahoma. Were you living in Oklahoma when the bombing occurred? 


David: I had taken a year off from college and was living there in 1993 and 1994. But by 1995 I was back in California. My dad, though, was working in Oklahoma City at the time. The day of the bombing, he was parking his car, nine blocks away, when the explosion occurred. Fortunately, he was three levels underground, and thought the bomb was an earthquake. Others weren't so lucky.

Jim: I enjoyed your opening scene of the Globetrotters basketball game with Curt Gowdy announcing. Had Gowdy announced such a game? 

David: Gowdy was in Oklahoma, announcing sports, for a time. It's sort of where he got his start. But I don't think he ever announced a goodwill game between Oklahoma A&M and the Harlem Globetrotters - at least not that I found in my research. That scene was entirely fictional, and there to set up the major themes running throughout the novel, race being one of the most important. But also the relationship between Ben and his big brother Cecil, and the way sports often transcends, if only momentarily, even the most stubborn political divides.

Jim: Do you have any insights on the process to publication? Once your novel was accepted, did you have many revisions and how hands on was your editor? 

David: I feel incredibly lucky to have found an agent and a traditional book deal, coming from outside the MFA system. The process was incredibly difficult and, at times, disheartening. That being said, I believed 100% in the manuscript I was querying, which made it easier to persevere through the rejections most of us receive on the road to publication.

The first thing I'd say is to have a perfect, polished manuscript. To do that, you need to read every day, write every day ... and identify a mentor. I found an experienced editor, Alan Rinzler, who read my work and offered the necessary critical input it required. Before querying, I'd rewritten THE MIDNIGHT MAN four times, over a period of five years, so the manuscript was pretty tight. But after signing with my agent, Eleanor Jackson, she had me rewrite it once more. Every time I revised, the book got better. So, based upon the advice of the publishing professionals you encounter along the way, be willing to revise, revise, revise. 

We had several near misses at the big publishing houses - editors who liked this story but then had to defend it in the all-important editorial meeting. Two editors wanted to make an offer on THE MIDNIGHT MAN, but were overruled in editorial, both times because of my lack of platform. So the second piece of advice I would give is to network with other authors - at writing conferences, at local readings, at your MFA program, etc. And not the cheesy, paper-thin social media networking that so many of us do. Instead, cultivate real, lasting friendships with authors who will be willing to read and blurb your work. It can tip the scales in your favor when a publisher is deciding whether to make an offer.

Finally, don't be afraid to promote yourself. I put together an aggressive marketing plan, cold-called authors to get cover blurbs, and eventually my agent found an editor who believes in THE MIDNIGHT MAN as much as I do - Ben LeRoy, at Tyrus Books, which was just acquired by Simon & Schuster. By the time the book deal was signed, the manuscript required very little editorial - a thorough copy edit and we were ready to go.

Jim: Great advice for all those writing and looking to publish. One last question, how has is felt in the months since publication? Have you jumped right back into writing? What are you working on? 

David: Things have been going well! This is my first novel, so I'm new to all of this.

This first month has been exciting. We had a great review in The Dallas Morning News. It came out on the eve of the book launch party, and the reading here was packed. The bookstore, The Wild Detectives, sold through all of the books. 

I've also been to San Diego, where I read at Jim Ruland's irreverent reading series "Vermin on the Mount", and to Minneapolis, where I read to a total of three people. I took them out for burgers and beer to discuss the book, as it seemed more appropriate than addressing rows of empty chairs. I'm focusing the rest of my tour in Texas and Oklahoma, a few appearances and book festivals throughout the year, all within driving distance from Dallas.

If I go a few days without writing, I begin to get cranky and tense, which I guess is a good sign, because it keeps me working. I'm about two hundred pages into a new novel, which I've been working on for over a year. It's about a veteran who runs an experimental suicide hotline for other veterans.

Jim: Thanks David! 

David: Thank you so much Jim for taking the time to interview me! It has been a pleasure.

David Eric Tomlinson's The Midnight Man can be found on Amazon or at your local bookshop. Learn more about David at DavidEricTomlinson.com