Michael McAuliffe: “No one in America should go hungry”

Know from the beginning that the path is not a straight or easy one to negotiate. Resilience is critical to realizing your objectives as a writer — that is true whether sharing your stories with ten friends or ten thousand readers. As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a […]

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Know from the beginning that the path is not a straight or easy one to negotiate. Resilience is critical to realizing your objectives as a writer — that is true whether sharing your stories with ten friends or ten thousand readers.

As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael McAuliffe, author of the new novel No Truth Left To Tell. Michael has been a federal prosecutor, an elected state attorney in Florida, a law professor, and a corporate general counsel, among other roles, during his distinguished thirty-year legal career. He also is an alpine mountaineer having reached the summits of Denali, Aconcagua, Island Peak in the Himalayas, Kilimanjaro (with his daughter), and many other mountains. Michael, his wife Robin, who is a federal judge, and children live in West Palm Beach, Florida, and Chilmark, Massachusetts.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

Like the protagonist in my novel, I did investigate and prosecute the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan and chase other violent extremists around the country. I always believed that the experiences I had as a federal civil rights prosecutor while at the Justice Department could provide the raw material for dramatic, interesting stories. For many years, I intended to write a novel loosely based on those criminal civil rights cases. However, given life’s unpredictable and interesting trails, it took almost thirty years to arrive at the destination. Now, happily, I focus my professional life on teaching and writing.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

As a fellow with the Civic Education Project (CEP) in 1993–94, I helped launch a reform law school in the Czech Republic after the fall of Communism. As a visiting professor of law, I taught Czech law students the history of the American Constitution. While I was administering the first exam (which for many students was the first written exam they had ever taken), I was shocked to see several students cheating. I repeatedly admonished them not to talk with one another while they were taking the test. When I returned the graded exams two weeks later, I expressed my disappointment and frustration about the cheating. One student — who seemed to speak for the class — explained in a calm and confident voice that they all had grown up under Communism. She said that the communist system had no integrity, no legitimacy to them; as a result, they spent years trying to beat the system they disdained. They didn’t think that was morally or ethically suspect to help one another get ahead by violating rules, especially when it was the government making the rules. In fact, the student told me that it was a sign of creative resistance to undermine the government. I was humbled and took note of the moment the teacher and student roles reversed. Late in the semester, I left the students with the observation that the Czech Republic was reemerging from decades of oppression, and they would soon be writing the laws and running their new democracy. They had to think about shedding the mindset of resistance in order to accept the burdens of leadership in a free society.

My teaching experience in the Czech Republic has stayed with me all these decades, and to this day, it helps define my approach to teaching.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Funny is too strong a word here. I originally wrote the novel in the first person. However, the “I’s” caught up with me, and the manuscript became a middling memoir that few folks would want to read. I kept trying to make the story mirror my own actual experiences as a prosecutor. By switching to the third person, I freed myself as a writer to imagine and navigate a fictional world as large as the ocean instead of sticking close to the shoreline.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I am working on a project to incorporate the novel into a short course to be taught at several law schools around the country. I want the students to engage each other about story’s big, challenging topics including, among others, race, the criminal justice system, and police brutality. I also want the law students to learn about how lawyers will face challenging ethical dilemmas that can determine other people’s liberties and lives. In essence, I’m trying to develop a creative way for aspiring lawyers to learn about the law using fiction as the common meeting place.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

I’m a writer-in-progress. I recommend writers write regardless of the weather outside or inside. Also, writers need to be voracious readers. The writer in the role of a reader must take, consume and use without guilt. I believe that’s the great literary communion.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

The Afterword in the novel is a passage from A Man for All Seasons, a play by Robert Bolt about Sir Thomas More. I have kept the particular passage with me since first reading the play as a student. The quote about why one should give the devil the benefit of the law’s protections is well-known, but it’s worth rereading again and again because it so effectively conveys the primacy of the law over men’s wishes and desires. The passage is my reminder of what makes a free society and how that freedom is sustained. My novel uses the same theme as Bolt’s passage, but I take approximately 319 pages to do what he accomplishes in one!

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

That people struggle to find their places in the world. And it is through that struggle that we experience joy, disappointment, judgment, hurt, forgiveness — really, the full spectrum of emotions. Some will successfully reconcile the complications of life and identify their place in it with grace and generosity, while others with grow embittered at their lot in life and lash out at others. The difference is the crux of the novel’s story.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming a bestselling author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

My biggest challenge was, and is, to remain committed to the cause of creating and communicating as a worthy endeavor regardless of external measures like great reviews or robust sales — which are desirable but not essential. In my view, a writer who believes the window is as, or more, important than the mirror is going to do well.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

Like my varied legal career, I have quirky tastes in literature. A non-exhaustive start of a list — I enjoy Cormac McCarthy’s work (especially All the Pretty Horses and The Road) because his stories are intense, and his writing is unadorned. I get lost in the stories of Gabriel García Márquez and Hermann Hesse. I simply surrender and accept that I’m in different worlds reading their novels. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was central to my young aspirations to become a lawyer. Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard has informed and sustained my wanderlust.

How do you think your writing makes an impact in the world?

I write to create a ripple in the world. I don’t expect my stories will result in immediate, recognizable change, but I do believe that the communal act of sharing them will touch someone, somewhere. The subtle, at times invisible, effect that stories have on both author and reader is why I write. My goal is to make the connection a positive one, and that bond, by definition, strengthens.

What advice would you give to someone considering becoming an author like you?

Know from the beginning that the path is not a straight or easy one to negotiate. Resilience is critical to realizing your objectives as a writer — that is true whether sharing your stories with ten friends or ten thousand readers.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Find a very comfortable place to write and use it. My favorite writing spot is at our home in Chilmark, MA. I wrote most the novel at the table overlooking a calming pond.
  2. Buy a laptop or other computer you like to look at and care for it as one would a close friend. I bought a new MacBook Air and it’s impressive.
  3. Back-up your drafts onto an external drive or the cloud after every writing session. Lost words can never be found in their original shape.
  4. Expect numerous false starts. There should be no fealty to the wrong ones.
  5. Contrarian view: Write about something you yearn to understand better, not what you already know well.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

No one in America should go hungry. It’s a simple proposition and we have the absolute ability to make it a reality.

Where can our readers find you online?

https://notruthlefttotell.com/ and https://www.mcauliffelawfirm.com/

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!

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