Friday, July 04, 2008

Author Interview: Al Past

It’s a glorious Fourth of July—Independence Day—in the United States of America, and today’s guest is a fire-cracker of a novelist and a trumpeter and composer, to boot, Al Past. Al’s continuing saga about the remarkable Ana Darcy Méndez and her family is chronicled in the third novel of his Distant Cousin series: Distant Cousin: Reincarnation.

I will draw the name of a commenter on this Author Interview out of a hat on July 11. Al is going to make one of his books available to that fortunate commenter. The rules of the drawing are:

1) You must comment on this interview before July 11.

2) Your comment must be more than, “Me me me!”

3) You must be prepared to provide your address to me when your name is announced. Specify which of the three books in the series you want and how you want it inscribed. US and Canadian addresses only. Al will sign and mail the book to you.

Welcome, Al. How long have you been writing? What made you start?

My first memory of writing is from, let me think, 48 years ago. I was a junior high student bored during the summer and my dad assigned me to write a story. Once I did, he went over it with me and showed me how to make it better. It was a revelation. In fact...

...years later, when my oldest daughter was about three, we got a piano. She thought she could just mash some keys and get a song out of it. In both cases the lesson was the same: for best results, practice! Polish!

Many years later, I ended up being an English prof and teaching thousands of students how to write better. I spent years critiquing their writing as well as the essays and literature we read for class. I was, in effect, a professional critic. The thought of such a critic writing his own novel filled me with terror: could I create something that I myself would enjoy reading? It wasn't until I retired from teaching that I finally overcame that reluctance, and with encouragement from a good friend wrote the first chapter. Now, years later, after having read two of my novels to a 93-year-old friend of the family who's eager for the next one, I'm a little more confident that I have not been wasting my time.

When did you publish your first book?

My first book, Distant Cousin, was published in 2005, although I had been mulling the story over for twenty years. I had gone through a phase when I read all I could find about ancient archaeological oddities like the figures in the Nazca desert in Chile, for example. The ancient Indians there had piled rocks into lines that make pictures that can only be seen from the air. (They're still there. You can Google them.) Why did they go to all that trouble to create something they couldn't see? Why do some of the figures resemble creatures wearing space helmets?

I was never so credulous to think Earth had really been visited by critters from outer space, but even so my imagination took off. What if we had been visited? Suppose the visitors had been intrigued by early humans. Might they have transplanted some to a similar planet and helped them along, just to see what they were capable of? If so, those people would surely remember they had come from somewhere else, even if they had not been literate at the time. Might they not some day search for their place of origin? What if one of them actually returned to Earth?

What would she think of us? Her own society, having grown from one culture, would almost certainly be homogeneous and conservative, so how would she react to the freewheeling chaos of Earth's nations? Would anyone believe she was who she said she was? What would happen to her? That's the point at which Distant Cousin opens.

What type of writer are you? Do you plan ahead/plot or do you simply fly by the seat of your pants?

I'm the slow, methodical type of writer. When I'm really going I might write two pages a day and edit the previous day's two pages. For the first book, after thinking it through for two decades, I didn't need to plot the major points, but I did I flesh out the details as I went along.

When that book proved popular and readers surprised me by wanting a sequel, then more plotting was necessary. The story changed from the chase in volume 1 to the story of a family, a remarkable family to be sure. (The main character marries and has twins.) As a grandfather who had raised a fairly remarkable family himself I felt I was up to that. There's still a good bit of excitement, but there's also a lot of familial interaction, tempered by the main character's outsider's view of our society and culture. I'm an anthropological linguist too, so this was meat and potatoes for me: how would we look to a total outsider? She is a human outsider, to be sure, a modest person who desires a happy, secure home life, love, and a feeling of worth, and who has doubts about herself, just like anyone else. How would she feel about our educational system, our government, and so forth?

How do you choose your characters' names?

Choosing names was recreation for me. The main character's name, Anneyn Darshiell, and the names of several of her countrymen, were chosen for etymological considerations which I won't explain here for fear of spilling the beans. Suffice it to say that she comes from a group of people of Indo-European descent, and her language, and their names, are related to modern Czech and other Slavic languages as well as early Germanic languages.

As for the people she meets, since the story is set in west Texas and southern New Mexico, I used a jumble of Hispanic and Anglo names, with the occasional Indian, Arabic, or Japanese name thrown in. I borrowed these from friends, from former professors, from a family doctor, whoever. It was fun.

What is your daily schedule like?

I'm a retired guy! My schedule is my own. I like to pause my writing for days sometimes and let thoughts come to me unexpectedly. It's surprising how often this happens. Maybe my subconscious is a better plotter than I am. Once I envision a scene I'll sit down and write it. I do most of my writing at night, before bedtime, and most of my editing in the afternoon.

How do you handle life interruptions?

Interruptions don't bother me. I'm seldom short of time, and I only write when I can see the characters all the way through a scene, so I can stop and come back to it whenever I want. Besides, I don't have a lot of interruptions. We live eight miles from a small town in rural Texas, in the last house on our road. Beyond us is nothing but other ranches and a few cows, and there's no traffic and no noise beyond the wind and the birds. People come visit us to relax!

Do you write with music playing? If so, is the music likely to be songs with lyrics or only instrumentals?

Silence works for me, but so does music if it isn't loud or intrusive, which rules out classical music from the romantic and later eras with their extravagant fortes and pianissimos. I can handle quiet pop music and salsa, but no lyrics in English, please. Baroque music is best. Somehow it seems brainy and rational to me—it's like oil for the creative machine. Vivaldi, Albinoni, Handel, Corelli, and Bach's non-stupendous works are nice.

What food or snack keeps the words flowing?

Pretzel sticks!

What one thing do you like most about writing? Least?

I like it when I get a scene plotted just right and everything clicks. I also like it when tiny adjustments on the the fourth or fifth editing pass snap everything into sharp focus. The typical reader probably couldn't pinpoint the difference, but it's what makes a decent story into a fun read, something you might reread some day just for the fun of it.

Least? Two things: that a smaller percentage of us nowadays are fluent, frequent readers, and that the cost of publishing a quality book is so daunting.

Tell us about your latest book, Distant Cousin: Reincarnation.

Distant Cousin: Reincarnation is the third in the tale of Ana Darcy Méndez and her growing family, after Distant Cousin: Repatriation. After the big splash of her arrival in Distant Cousin, she has married and begun a family, keeping the lowest of profiles in southern New Mexico. She feels a responsibility toward her people, however, and when things get out of hand she is forced to emerge from hiding to try to set things aright. The blurb says it:

“Who is trying to kill an ordinary New Mexican housewife? It’s true that Ana Darcy Méndez has secrets even her husband and adorable twins don’t know. One is that her countrymen have accidentally given terrorists a deadly new weapon which they are about to use. As she risks her life to prevent a massacre, the Russian Mafia, the American Mafia, the U.S. Special Forces, the F.B.I., and the C.I.A. learn one more of her secrets: she is no ordinary housewife!”

What is your next project?

Would you believe: a third Distant Cousin sequel? Readers have asked for it, and I cannot get Ana, Matt, Julio, and Clio out of my mind. They seem real people to me. In this book the twins are eleven and threatening to take over the story. They are exceptional children, quite bright partly due to their unusual and early education, and Clio, in particular, seems to have inherited some of her mother's finely tuned genes. The working title is Distant Cousin: Regeneration. Attentive readers might detect a theme in that, and possibly a little alliteration!

What is your advice for other writers?

Stop writing! Get away from that desk or computer! Forget about it! There's too much being written today! You're no good and no one cares what you have to say! (Shhh! Now, for those who are going to write anyway, you are the tough ones. Serve your reader! Be double sure you have something to say worth saying and that you say it very, very well. Edit, and edit again! Then go back and edit some more!)

What other work of yours has been published?

Baroque Duets, arranged by me from the original sources (Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Mouret, etc.) came out in 1994, published by Charles Colin, NYC. It's designed for trumpet players but if you play a treble clef instrument and you know someone else who does too, you might have fun with it. I originally titled it Killer Duets from Baroque Originals, but the publisher changed it out of fear of liability, in case someone keeled over while playing one. It hasn't happened yet, and it's still in print and still selling!

Thank you for the Interview.

Thank you! I enjoyed it!

Visit Al's website at for ordering details.


  1. Velda Brotherton11:33 AM

    Seems I'm first to leave a comment. I want to say how much I enjoyed reading about Al's combination of musician and writer And his remark about his daughter who expected to just mash on the piano keys. As a former piano teacher, I had to laugh at how close to home that hit.
    Al's books sound so intriguing. I write about New Mexico a lot and so enjoy books that take place there.
    Thanks for a great interview.

  2. Good interview! I "identify" with Al. I too play Trumpet occasionally although my wife insists on the mute :-).

    His advice for other writers is spot on! I have written two books and have one in print. Edit until you fear you'll go cross eyed and then start all over again.

    Also, I detected his writing probably is like mine. It has to come from the Heart, like you would tell a story while sitting in a rocker on the front porch, speaking to a dear friend.

    Steve Knutson
    Author of: It Takes One To Catch One - Confessions of an Alaskan Wildlife Trooper

  3. Great interview. Al sounds like a neat guy and his books sound very interesting. I'll have to look for those:o)

  4. A great interview! I can attest to the quality and literary expertise of Distant Cousin 1, and I look forward to learning more about Ana Darcy's people in the sequel(s)!

  5. another Anna1:13 PM

    I have read both of Al's first two Ana books and passed them on to my daughter in NY. Al's writing is very enjoyable and when I retire, if I can get my derriere in gear, and with Al's shining example, may just try my hand at something. And Al, just for you, I have edited this comment at least twice and will probably want to do it at least once more after I hit enter.

  6. Wow, what an intriguing plot line. It's also very telling that people are asking for more of your books. This sounds like one I'll have to read, whether I win the contest or not!
    And I'd love to visit your house some day and unwind.

  7. Great comments! Is it OK if I reply?
    Velda: I grew up in El Paso, and I really loved southern New Mexico. There's more of it in each book, esp. the current one. There are pictures at, and next time I go back I'll get better ones. (There are recipes there too, excellent ones if I do say so.) I'm going to check your NM books!
    Steve: love that handle, Fish Assasin! You'll need some decent or better chops to play the duets, but your wife might enjoy them. I'm going to check out your book too. I hear it's really funny.
    Shirley: I've never been able to tell whether Distant Cousin was more popular with women or with men. I don't guess I care, as long as folks like it. But I do think women do more reading. As a male writer I'm careful when dealing with my heroine's psyche but no one's ever said it rang false. One bluestocking lady in town told me "Normally, I don't cotton to little blondes. But I did to Darcy." That set me at rest a bit. You're welcome to come visit our house. My wife and I built it ourselves. It turned out to be in the style of an Italian palazzo, south Texas style. Seriously, now that our daughters are grown, we have three vacant bedrooms and we love company. You can email from the website and we can arrange a south Texas bed and breakfast experience for you! But don't get your hopes up: we have no mountains, I'm sorry to say.
    Thank you all for your kind thoughts, and thank Marsha for the gracious opportunity!

  8. Sounds like another author to add to my TBR list!! I like Al's advice "Edit, and edit again! Then go back and edit some more!" I'm finding that to be so true. Hemingway said, "There are no great writers, just great re-writers."
    Thanks Marsha.

    Heidi Thomas

  9. Al, Your books sound fascinating. I love stories set in the southwest. Also appreciated your comments about edit, edit, and edit some more. How true! I also live some miles from a small town, at the end of a gravel road. However, being a woman, I'm not retired from daily chores.
    "Distant Cousin" is going onto my TBR list.

    Ann Shorey

  10. Marsha/Al

    Great interview. I'm ashamed to say I hadn't heard of Distant Cousin, but after reading the interview I'll be getting it to read for sure. What an intriguing idea!

    Thanks for sharing.


  11. Al Past fans, unite! You can find a lot more about Al at PODBRAM (POD Book Reviews & More). Just put PODBRAM in Google to find it. Dr. Past has been a reviewer, reviewee, and interviewee at PODBRAM. Check it out!

  12. Great to see my old English & Composition professor get the kudos he deserves. I've read the first of the series and really enjoyed it. Have some international travel coming up. Great opportunity to dive into the next ones!


I welcome your comments.

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