Confidence. I am a big fan of Rudyard Kipling’s poem If. Most people know the opening line “If you can keep your head while all around you are losing theirs and blaming it on you,” but I take the greatest inspiration from the second, lesser-known, line “If you can trust yourself while all men doubt you, while still allowing for the doubting too.” People will read your work and hate it, they will utter every insult against you and your work, but you have to have the confidence to persevere while at the same time asking yourself if there is any truth to what they are saying. I remember a story, probably apocryphal, that Robert Louis Stevenson gave his manuscript of Doctor Jeckell and Mr. Hyde to his wife to read. She told him it was too horrifying and should never be written. He threw the manuscript into the fire and completely destroyed it, and started over. I always wonder what that first manuscript might have been like.
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 Phil La Duke. Phil is the author of over 500 articles eligible for citation and two non-fiction books (I Know My Shoes Are Untied. Mind Your Own Business and Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention). Phil is also a global business consultant. When he is not working he enjoys spending time with his wife and two obnoxious rescue dogs.
Thank you so much for joining us Phil! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
When I was a young man I wrote an article that was published in the school paper and I was hooked. Writing had always come easy to me, but I never considered it as a profession. I wrote an underground newspaper in high school, and wrote for my college newspaper, which led to a position at a very small local newspaper as a stringer. I am a frenetic writer and was soon producing more stories (and making more money) than the staff reporter, but at $6 a story it was at best a side hustle (I was working three jobs at the time) and I needed to find a grown up job. After years of working I felt my craft slipping away so I wrote a “white paper” called “What’s Wrong With Safety Training and How to Fix It?” and my boss posted it on our company website. Mike Riley, the Editor-In-Chief of Metal Working and Fabricating magazine found it and ran it under my byline. He invited me to submit more articles on safety and soon after I was a columnist for the magazine. Around that time I met the Editor of Facility Safety Management magazine Chris Sanford, and as we talked, he said, “why don’t you send me some of your stuff, if it’s crap I won’t run it.” That led to a long-term contributor and editorial support relationship. I reached out to other safety magazines and eventually to Entrepreneur magazine. I wrote over 80 articles — many so weird I can’t believe they saw print. And before I knew it I was published on all inhabited continents (if you know of a magazine published on Antarctica please let me know.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
About 10 years prior to the released my first book, I was constantly pestered by people to write a book. I wasn’t interested but they persisted. So I reached out to authors on social media for advice, one in particular answered me back and told me that I should NOT write a book, that he misinterpreted the terms of the advance that he was given and ended up owing a major publisher $50,000. What’s worse, he now had thousands of books in his house, his garage, his parents garage, it was a nightmare. He pleaded with me to review his book in one of the magazines for which I regularly contributed but I didn’t do book reviews. He was persistent, and so I told him to send me a book and if I liked it I would write about it but if it I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t say anything. He agreed and sent me a copy. I was floored. It was an incredible read on an important subject. I gave his email address and joked that if people asked and mentioned my name he might autograph it. Two months later I called him and asked how things were going. He was discouraged and said he still had a ton of books, I encouraged him to give it time. A goofy friend of mine sicced a self-publishing salesmen on me, and I shut him down cold. I told him that I wasn’t interested in self-publishing (I will just say that I have a tremendous disdain for self-published works) but suggested that maybe he could help out my friend with marketing, and gave him the details. He became indignant and said, “Dr.So-and-So does not need my help, he is a best-selling author!” I called my friend and he said that he had sold all the books he had in his possession and credited me for helping him out, although he and I disagree with that. He is wildly successful and quoted me in his second book. We’ve stayed in touch and have tried to find a project we can work on together but to no avail. After about 10 years since we met, he contacted me via social media and asked why I hadn’t written a book. I told him that I had given up on the idea of putting a book out and thought that-was-that. A week or so later, I got a call from Mariah Publishing and a publisher asked me all these questions about my work. I finally asked what’s all this about, and she told me that my friend was negotiating with her company to publish his third book, BUT had told her that he would only sign with them if she would read three of my blog posts and tell him that I didn’t deserve a book, and if she couldn’t do that she should offer to sign me. She seemed a little irked by the idea, but after reading my blog, decided I was unique and offered to publish me.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
When I first started writing I found out the hard way that no matter how innocuous the piece it will deeply upset someone. I also learned that people feel that it is completely within their rights to insult, threaten, and otherwise abuse someone in the public eye. At first it hurt my feelings, and then I caught myself second guessing my work, eventually I just gave it right back to my critics. I would call them “mouth-breathers” or “water heads” eventually I had more people subscribing to the comments on my blog than I did to the blog itself. People really seemed to enjoy me lighting up my nay-sayers and critics. Sure it’s led to a couple of death-threats, but anyone really planning on killing you has to be the dumbest person in the world to warn you in advance.
Can you share a story about the funni x est mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I wrote my first story for the local paper and I was pretty proud of my first piece. In those days I typed on a manual typewriter on newsprint and put it in my editor’s basket. After he made his edits the practice was to give the reporter back the original story with red wax pencil comments on it. I was expecting accolades but instead I got a chopped-up and taped together document covered in red wax. I was crestfallen and more than a little apprehensive that I would be fired. Then I noticed a comment at the end that confused me, “Nice work Phil!!” I screwed up my courage and went into to talk to the Editor-In-Chief. When I asked if my story was that bad and how could he tell me that I had done a great job, why were there so many edits? He smiled and said that all writers and editors have to learn each other’s style and even though he made many edits he saw incredible potential. Eventually I learned what he was looking for and we got along wonderfully. The lesson was clear — you need to understand your audience, and to some extent write for them not for yourself, but still keep your own voice and style. This would seem to be a contradiction, but while some people will read everything an author writes the audience has to be interested in that author’s genre. It’s a complicated recipe, but there are too many aspiring authors whose work is garbage but they insist that to make any change is selling out. I tell anyone who will listen “for every misunderstood genius there are a million perfectly understood idiots.” It can be hard to tell the difference between selling out and compromise but that is the difference between a successful author and an unsuccessful wannabe. I find that listening to my publisher and my PR manager who are both big fans of my books is a big help, my advice to aspiring authors is create a coterie of trusted advisors who will tell you when your baby is ugly.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I was almost finished writing my third book — ”Blood In My Pockets Is Blood On Your Hands” about the all too common practice of rewarding workersfor not getting injured. This leads to workers avoiding reporting work-related injuries and in some cases literally wrapping their bloody hands in a rag and putting it in their pockets and going to their own doctors for treatment. This means that any complications from the injury are not the responsibility of the employer. That book is with my editor right now, and I am working on Loving An Addict: Collateral Damage Of the Opioid Epidemic. My ex wife died of a heroin overdose about three years ago leaving behind two wonderful daughters who struggle with the loss. Even though there has been plenty written on the subject, too many people think that this problem is restricted to the seemier parts of town, that this is an urban poor problem; people don’t realize that this affects housewives, and high school kids…doctors, lawyers, people you would never expect.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
I would say more horrifying than interesting, but in my second book, Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook of Workplace Violence Prevention I tell the story of a close friend of mine from high school who was butchered by estranged husband. He literally broke the knife with which he was stabbing her and calmly went to the kitchen and selected another and continued his macabre act.He was arrested and given 4 years in prison. Now he’s out, probably married, or at the very least dating. I wonder if the woman in his life knows the ugly truth about his past.
I also shared some statistics: homicide is the number one cause of death for women in the workplace, and of that the largest single demographic that murders women in the workplace are a family member (husband) or domestic partner (boyfriend). Since the book has been released a study by the National Safety Council found that 77% of nonfatal assaults perpetrated in the workplace are on women. This is a MAJOR problem that people don’t want to think or talk about.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
We can prevent workplace violence, and each of us plays a role. I want the reader to be fired up and go to the head of Human Resources or to the executives at their companies and demand to know why the company isn’t doing all they can to protect employees, especially women, but men as well.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.
- Courage. A great author has to be able to allow the reader to gain insights into the author’s life and personality. A great book — whether it be fiction or nonfiction — acquaints the reader with the author in a very intimate way; that can be terrifying. To be a great author you have to overcome this fear and become ferocious in putting your quintessential self into your work.
- Confidence. I am a big fan of Rudyard Kipling’s poem If. Most people know the opening line “If you can keep your head while all around you are losing theirs and blaming it on you,” but I take the greatest inspiration from the second, lesser-known, line “If you can trust yourself while all men doubt you, while still allowing for the doubting too.” People will read your work and hate it, they will utter every insult against you and your work, but you have to have the confidence to persevere while at the same time asking yourself if there is any truth to what they are saying. I remember a story, probably apocryphal, that Robert Louis Stevenson gave his manuscript of Doctor Jeckell and Mr. Hyde to his wife to read. She told him it was too horrifying and should never be written. He threw the manuscript into the fire and completely destroyed it, and started over. I always wonder what that first manuscript might have been like.
- Honesty. A good author must always find his or her own truth and stick to it. Honesty isn’t just getting the facts right, it’s also about getting the emotions write. There are too many hackneyed manuscripts out there because the author is too interested in what the audience wants to hear instead of the truth. Life is complex and so to should a good book. I learned early on as a writer that pandering to your audience makes for work of which you are ashamed. You have to be true to yourself even if you think the world will hate it. People can smell BS and nobody wants to read something that author doesn’t believe. The only real sell out is the author who writes something he or she doesn’t believe simply to please someone.
- A Thick Skin. Not everyone will love your work, and by extension, a lot of people will despise you personally. It’s absurd that complete strangers think that it’s appropriate to heap abuse on someone simply because they are in the public eye. When people bad-mouth one of my books I simply ask them what they have written. Since most people haven’t published anything that generally shuts them up, but beyond that if you write a book that everyone loves it probably isn’t all that great a book.
- Knowledge of Your Subject and Setting. One of the first rules of writing is “write what you know”. Nothing turns a reader off more than a story set in a place that the reader knows but the author gets all the details wrong. I know a woman who wrote a murder mystery set in New Orleans, sounds great rught? What if I told you that the woman knows nothing about murder (not that you have to have ACTUAL experience) and has never been to New Orleans. It should come as no surprise that the book is self-published. My daughter wanted to be a writer when she was a child, but she bemoaned that she had nothing to write about. I told her to write about her life, and she scoffed saying, “who would want to read that?”I told her about Laura Ingells Wilder and Anne Frank, and that her story may not seem to be compelling to her it might well be to someone else.
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 read an interview with the late Hunter S. Thompson where he revealed that before he began writing a piece he would type a chapter of Hemingway or Steinbeck. He explained that in so doing one can learn invaluable skills around dialog, cadence, sentence structure, and more. Since I enjoy Thompson’s work I decided to try it. I think it is the single greatest lesson — and habit — I’ve ever learned. Most of Hemingway’s work bores me to tears, but I love Steinbeck so I will type a chapter of Steinbeck, Dashell Hamett or Hunter Thompson before writing; it is surprisingly helpful.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
A lot of people assume that Hunter S. Thompson was a big influence on me, and I am flattered when people compare my style to him, but I became a fan of his late in life, and the more people compared me to him the more interested I became but his work was never an inspiration to me. The biggest influence on me personally is John Steinbeck. I’ve read everything he’s done and many of my favorites numerous times. He and I write about the ugly, ignored truth in the world. Steinbeck wrote about the plight of the Oakies in The Grapes Of Wrath, and he wrote about how friendship and hope were the only things keeping poor people going. My favorite, The Moon Is Down is a thinly disguised story of a town occupied by (although never specifically mentioned) the Nazi’s. It’s a story of how the ideals of freedom and democracy are impervious to oppression and tyranny or politics. In all his work, Steinbeck reveals an ugly truth and I feel a strong kinship with that.
You are a person of enormous 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. 🙂
A Single Act of Kindness. I would like everyone everywhere to commit a single act of kindness once a day with no hope of gain or profit. I try to do this everyday and it has made me happier, but what’s more it has made others around me happier. Don’t get me wrong, I’m far from being a saint, but I am less acerbic than I used to be.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!
It was my pleasure, thank you so much for interviewing me.