A Conversation With Mitchell Graham

by Claire E. White
The Internet Writing Journal, February 2003

Novelist Mitchell Graham is a true renaissance man: an award-winning author, he is also an attorney, a neuropsychologist and an expert fencer.
Photo of Mitchell Graham
Born in New York City in, 1950, he attended college at Ohio State University on a fencing scholarship and went on to earn a law degree from the University of Texas. He has represented the United States many times in international fencing competitions. To date he has either won or placed in the finals of over 83 separate fencing competitions.

After practicing law for twenty years he went back to school and received a doctorate in neuropsychology from the University of Miami. Although he never dreamed of being an author when he was a boy, he did love to read. And when his son bought him a fantasy novel to read, he saw it as a challenge. After he finished the book, he felt that he could do better -- and he did. He joined a writing group and began work on the manuscript for The Fifth Ring, his first attempt at writing a novel. The fantasy novel follows the story of a young man, a skilled fencer who comes into possession of a rose-gold ring with strange powers. Although Mathew's world seems medieval in nature, there are clear indications that a race of technologically advance race once resided there. It appears that they may have left some of the dangerous technology behind in the form of five rings. The story is a riveting mix of fantasy, science fiction, action and adventure.

The manuscript was entered into the prestigious Delmont-Ross Literary Contest and was awarded the gold medal in fantasy and the overall grand prize. Publication of The Fifth Ring by HarperCollins/Eos soon followed. The book has debuted to excellent reviews: Publisher's Weekly says, "Through sparing prose and spirited dialogue, first-time author Graham spins a brisk adventure packed with plenty of action."

When he's not writing or practicing law, you might find Mitchell fencing, playing chess online, reading or hitting the gym. He lives in Florida with his fiancée. Mitchell spoke with us about his move from successful attorney to award-winning writer and how he created his exciting new fantasy series. He also gives some great advice for those who are thinking of writing a novel as their second career.

What did you like to read when you were a little boy?

Like many children I started with comic books (Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, etc.) and graduated into fantasy and adventure novels. My favorites were the Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis and the Horatio Hornblower books by C.S. Forester. I actually began a correspondence with Jack Lewis when I was nine years old that lasted until his death. After reading my first letter he wrote back thanking me and politely suggesting that I devote a bit more time to studying the conventions of the English language where grammar was concerned. I got the message and took his advice.

Was there anyone in particular who encouraged you to write fiction?

Not really. The Fifth Ring was my first effort. I really never had the slightest idea of becoming a writer until I sat down to try it for myself.

How did you get interested in fencing?

Fencing had always seemed like an exciting and romantic sport to me. One of my favorite television programs was Zorro, which I regularly watched. When I entered high school, I was delighted to learn that they had a fencing team, so I found the coach and told him I wanted to join. After a couple months of lessons and practice I made the varsity.

What do you love about fencing?

It's mostly the combined physical and mental aspect of the sport that draws me to it. Fencing is like a physical game of chess played at lightning speed. Not only do you have to be able to put a point on your opponent's chest at 150 m.p.h., you've got to out think them first.

What did you enjoy most about practicing law? What inspired you to give up the practice of law to get your doctorate in neuropsychology?

Law is actually a little bit like fencing. Being a successful trial lawyer involves planning, strategy, and execution. I suppose the greatest attraction it holds is in helping others and having an effect on the social fabric of society every now and then.

To tell the truth, I haven't given up the law. I still maintain my legal practice, though on a reduced basis now. I became interested in neuropsychology when I handled a case involving a young girl who had suffered a brain injury. The more I studied the medical texts trying to understand how she could have lost her ability to speak and certain select memories, the more fascinated I became. Depending on the day of the week that you catch me, I engage in both professions. The biggest problem is remembering not to wear hospital scrubs to court.

Surveys often show that attorneys have some of the lowest job satisfaction ratings of any of the professions. Why do you think this is?

I really don't know. I hadn't heard that. Personally, I've always found the practice of law to be extremely rewarding. I suppose if we take the statement at face value, it may be because of the constant battles that a sole practitioner has to fight on a daily basis, and the paperwork necessary to maintain the appropriate levels of due diligence.

About fifteen years ago the practice of law changed. It used to be more of a fraternity or club. But now with lawyers suing lawyers, something that was unheard of then, it's placed a different slant on things. Fortunately, I've been lucky so far. On the whole, writing's less stressful and your characters never sue you.

Cover of The Fifth Ring by Mitchell Graham
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I'd like to talk about your first novel, The Fifth Ring. What led up to the publication of the book?

A little over a year ago my son bought me a fantasy book for my birthday. He said it was his favorite novel and he really wanted me to read it. After I did, I thought "what?" "I can do that."

It was a pretty conceited thing to say because I'd never written anything before other than checks and prescriptions, so I sat down and started writing. Seven months later I finished the manuscript, did a quick re-read, made the corrections, and started sending the book out. Unbeknownst to me, a manager of one of the Borders bookstores who had been attending my writing group, showed a few of the chapters to one of the judges of the Delmont-Ross Contest. He told her that she should submit the rest. When she asked me if it would be all right, I said "sure" and promptly forgot about it. Two months later a check for $10,000 dollars arrived with a congratulatory letter telling me that I won the fantasy division. It actually took me a while to finally put the two together, but I'm glad I did. They're wonderful people. Shortly after they announced the results, several different agents and publishers started calling me about the book.

What was your inspiration for this series?

The thought that I could do as well as the other guy. Honest. It's not much more complicated than that. However, once I sat down and began writing, the story just seemed to develop on its own. I mean I thought about it a great deal, but I didn't use an outline or work out the plot ahead of time. It's a little spooky.

Although it is set in a fantasy world, there are strong science fiction elements in The Fifth Ring, such as the fact that the current medieval world was clearly built on the ruins of a very advanced civilization which had some very sophisticated technological devices. Most fantasy books rely on magic, rather than technology. What went into your decision to set up the world in this way?

One of my favorite movies has always been The Forbidden Planet, an old 1950's black and white with Leslie Nielsen. The premise was that the Krell, an ancient race, developed a machine that could turn thought into matter. It occurred to me that following an apocalyptic war, technology would appear to be magical to a medieval society. Essentially, this was a way of talking about magic without mentioning it.

The hero of the story is Mathew Lewin -- a young man whose fencing skills land him in quite a bit of trouble. How did you create the character of Mathew?

Mathew is a blend of a number of people I've met. I didn't want a square jawed, broad shouldered type for my hero, but someone who is human and makes human mistakes. The fact that he is awkward, tone deaf, and has a sensitive stomach, are offset by his mind and the ability to force himself into action when the situation dictates it. Despite doing some heroic things, Mathew never thinks of himself as heroic. Often times it's his own self-consciousness and the fear of being thought badly of, or embarrassed, that impels him to act.

I must admit that one of my favorite characters is Father Siward Thomas. There is certainly more to him than meets the eye. How did you approach writing him?

Thanks. Father Thomas was a surprise to me, and I mean that. When I began the story I didn't know who he was, what he looked like, or anything about him. Talk about a book writing itself. Siward Thomas's character more or less developed on its own. I've said this before to a number of people and they always think I'm pulling their leg(s), but it's true. On a more prosaic level, when I created the character, I did so because it's more of less de rigueur for a young boy to have a mentor in fantasy novels. Usually this is an older, wiser man. Siward fit the bill.

Mathew's love interest is Lara -- a young woman who is almost as handy with a sword as Mathew is. How did you approach writing Lara -- were there any characteristics you particularly were trying to avoid with her?

"One of my favorite movies has always been The Forbidden Planet, an old 1950's black and white with Leslie Nielsen. The premise was that the Krell, an ancient race, developed a machine that could turn thought into matter. It occurred to me that following an apocalyptic war, technology would appear to be magical to a medieval society. Essentially, this was a way of talking about magic without mentioning it."
In the novel I mentioned before (sorry, but I can't mention the name) which impelled me to give writing a try, it seemed that all of the women were bad-tempered and sharp-tongued. I kept hoping that they would get better as the story went on, but it never did. They only got more irritating (to me, at least). I definitely didn't want to do the same thing in my book. I wanted a young girl who could hold her own physically, as well as intellectually with the men.

I read the book before I knew you were an attorney. There is a scene where the sheriff questions most of the townspeople about a murder of which the hero is accused, and I thought, "well that's something you don't often see in fantasy or sf -- a well-written interrogation/courtroom-type scene." Were you a trial lawyer, by chance? Do you have any interest in writing in another genre, maybe writing a legal thriller or mystery novel?

Interesting that you should ask that. The short answer is "yes" I am a trial lawyer, hence the scene you mentioned. I've also just finished the first draft of Murder on the Majestic. It's a mystery novel about a lady lawyer who gets involved in a murder on a cruise ship. By the way, when you're through with that crystal ball let me know. I'd like to borrow it for a while.

I'd like to talk about the creative process for you. Would you take us through a typical writing day for you?

I found that my writing became far more productive when I put myself on a schedule and began to treat it like a real job.

Generally I wake up early at 7:00 am, fix myself a latte and start writing. My goal is to produce about 1500 words a day which I record in a daily journal. Usually, I get pretty close to that which takes me through lunch. After, I take a break and usually head for the gym or do a three mile walk. I try to write seven days, though I may take a day off every now and then.

The book was written on a computer using Microsoft Word. My working environment consists of a large (used) desk and credenza which sits in the corner of the family room. I need a quiet atmosphere to get things going. Occasionally, if I'm on the road, I take my laptop with me and try to hold to the same routine. I've attempted to write at our second home in Florida from time to time. The surroundings are beautiful and the condo overlooks the ocean. Unfortunately, I found that it's a rotten place to work because I keep getting up to see who was doing what at the pool.

The action scenes in the book are both vivid and exciting. How do you approach action scenes? Do you act out the fencing scenes to get the moves right?

That's nice of you to say. Most of the action sequences are crafted intuitively. Since I have a background as a fencer that generally is pretty easy for me. One of the things I have to be careful about is making a scene too technical. Bob Aspirin, who is also a fencer, once told me that when he writes a fencing sequence he gives it to a friend or his wife to read. If they can't understand it, he knows he'll have to revise. I feel the same way. There's a big difference between writing about fencing and writing about sword fighting. I've always felt that an action sequence should have its highs and lows and needs to build to a crescendo.

The book also has some very funny scenes. How important do you think it is to have a good sense of humor?

Personally, I think it's imperative. The humor acts as a relief from the tension the author is trying to build and makes the characters come alive. I also think people look to find something humorous even in the bleakest situations. A story should have many facets and not simply proceed in a linear fashion from start to finish.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

Gosh, there are so many to choose from. Basically, Ernest Hemmingway, Mark Twain, C.S. Forrester, and J.R.R. Tolkien come to mind immediately. I also think Guy Gavriel Kaye is a class act and I enjoy J.K. Rowling, Stephen Donaldson, and Orson Scott Card work as well.

What is the greatest challenge you have faced as a writer?

For me it was making the commitment to sit down and start the book. It's easy to get pulled off task and easier still to find something else. One of the most important things I had to learn was to get rid of all the adverbs and adjectives. They're fine in minimal doses, but like Hemmingway said, "I don't trust them."

The middle of the book is the scariest place. Often times you know how the story begins and have a pretty good idea how it will end. The problem is getting from point A to point B. Once you're through it's downhill from there.

What are your pet peeves in life?

"In my opinion, commitment is the main thing....it's easy to get pulled off task. You can read all the "how to" books you want, but unless you actually sit down and start writing you're just spinning your wheels."
I'm a pretty easy going fellow, but I suppose if anything gets under my skin it tends to be rudeness (e.g., Drivers who pretend they don't see you so they won't have to let you into line) and condescending people (people who are sometimes right, but are usually wrong about most things).

Can you give us a sneak peek into the next book in this series?

The next book is called The Emerald Cavern. In it, Mathew finds himself in Sennia at Gawl's palace and becomes involved in a series of murders. In attempting to solve them he learns that someone else is out with one of the rings. All of the main characters are back, including Teanna d'Elso, Ceta Woodall, Eric Duren and Jeram Quinn, who is still after Mathew.

When you're not working, what do you like to do for fun?

I still enjoy fencing, though I no longer compete. I play chess online, read, play pool, and work out about four days a week.

What is your advice to those who are thinking of taking up writing as a second career?

In my opinion, commitment is the main thing. As I said earlier, it's easy to get pulled off task. You can read all the "how to" books you want, but unless you actually sit down and start writing you're just spinning your wheels. I think one of the most important things a writer can do is to study other writers. I don't mean that terms of plot, but in the way they turn a phrase or craft a line. Constantly ask yourself what makes a character interesting and three dimensional? From my standpoint it's never the ray gun, but the person holding it that makes a story work. If a reader doesn't care about the characters even the most interesting plot in the world won't hold them.

The "how to" books that I would recommend largely center on self-editing and revision. Always remember that the rewrite is your best friend. Another thing that will be a definite help is to learn how to write a good query letter and correctly format the manuscript prior to submitting. Find the name of a specific editor who handles your genre and send the book directly to their attention. Good luck!
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