Interview with writer Maureen Milliken

Today’s guest is multi-faceted writer Maureen Milliken to talk about her non-fiction book, The Afterlife Survey, as well as her fiction writing.

Maureen, welcome to Reviews and Interviews. Please tell us about your current release.
The Afterlife Survey looks at that eternal question: What comes next? But it doesn’t come up with an answer, yes there’s an afterlife, no there isn’t. Rather, it asks a cross section of people what they think. It’s based on a Pew Forum survey from 2009 that found 79 percent of Americans believe in an afterlife, which is up from years past, but many don’t believe in the traditional heaven and hell that they grew up with. In fact, only 59 percent believe in hell. So we asked everyone from the CEO to the dog sitter what they think.

I was really impressed by the variety of answers I got and the thought the responders put into them.

What inspired you to write this book?
I was asked to write it by the publisher, Adams Media. They didn’t want a book that took a specific ideological stance, rather they wanted one that examined what people think. They thought an experienced journalist would be best to get the right take, and I approached it as a journalist. I hope that anyone reading the book doesn’t come away from it thinking about the writer’s point of view, but rather thinking about their own beliefs. One thing I discovered while writing it is that many people really haven’t thought about this a lot and the survey prompted them to ask questions about their life they hadn’t considered before. I’m hoping readers will be prompted to do that, too.

Funny story about the whole process: I was asked to write the book a week after I was offered a new job in a new state. The publisher warned me the deadline was really tight. They first approached me in mid-April and the deadline was June 15.

My first instinct was to say no, because I had to sell a house, find a place to live that would also be good for my two dogs and two cats, start a new job where there was a lot of responsibility and high expectations from my new bosses, who I really felt committed to, etc. But then I said to myself, are you nuts? A publisher is going to pay you to write a book that will be published. How do you say no? You don’t. Once the contract was settled and the details ironed out, I had six or seven weeks to write it.

What exciting story are you working on next?
I am also a fiction writer. I am working on getting my mystery novel, Cold Hard News, published. It’s a traditional mystery that takes place in Maine, where I live. The editor of a weekly newspaper gets more involved than she should when a fatal double shooting involving a police officer rips her small town apart. It was inspired by an incident that happened in New Hampshire, where I lived and worked for 25 years. A lot of things about that incident and its outcome made me angry, so I thought the best way to deal with that was to write my own story with an outcome that satisfied my sense of justice a little more. It’s a character-driven book, and the characters had so much to say and do that I’m already well into a sequel. Hopefully, it will be a series.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I think I always did. I used to love going to bed at night, because I would rewrite my favorite TV shows in my head, making myself the hero, of course. But I would go over and over the dialogue, editing and reworking. The Mod Squad was a favorite. I also would do things like make a little family newspaper or write plays that I would force my siblings to act in. When I took a drama course at a local arts institute when I was 10, we had to write down what we wanted to be when we grew up, and I wrote, “author.”
But being in the newspaper business for decades kind of sidetracked me, particularly after I went from being a reporter to an editor in 1993.

My epiphany came several years ago when I was telling my mother about a column I had written that got a lot of positive reader response after years of my not writing. I said something like, “It reminded me how powerful it can be to be a writer and I really need to become one.” And she said, “Well, I’ve always considered you a writer.” That made me feel good, but also a little fraudulent. So it made me start focusing on my writing, not only with the newspaper, where I was an editor most of the time, but also it made me take writing my mystery novel seriously.

Do you write full-time? If so, what’s your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
Full time, I am the night news editor for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, two newspapers in central Maine. That takes a lot of my time. I try to write every day, though. I have just gotten back to the sequel to Cold Hard News – its working title is “No News is Bad News” – after taking time off to write The Afterlife Survey and also take care of the chaos of moving from New Hampshire to Maine, selling a house, buying a house, and getting my feet under me in my new job.

I also blog frequently because I need an outlet for all the things I have pinging around in my brain. Sometimes I have to open the spigot and let the pressure up a little.

It’s definitely hard to find the time, but I make myself get up earlier than I normally would and remind myself that it will pay off.

I have a lot of little quotes I’ve cut out of newspapers and other places tacked up in my office at home, not so much to inspire me, but keep me focused. One of my favorites is from Thomas Edison: “Opportunity is missed most by people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like hard work.” Another is from Muhammad Ali: “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’” When you have to work hard for something that you’re not getting paid for, but know it could pay off in the future, those quotes do a lot as far as getting your nose onto the grindstone.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
Well, I don’t know how interesting it is. Or even quirky. But when I’m embroiled in writing a mystery novel, I have yellow legal pads and pens all over the house. They have to be those extra-long pads with the narrow lines. And they’re everywhere, even in the bathroom. And things come to me, ideas, phrases, a word construction. And I have to write it down right away before it goes away. Sometimes it takes a while to sift through them and find what I’m looking for when I sit down to write, but lots of times it’s easier to remember where I was and when I wrote down the note than the note itself. Then I find it and reread and say to myself “you’re brilliant!” or “boy do you suck!”

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Writer writer writer. Around 12 or 13 that morphed into journalist, but deep down I always intended to write mystery novels, too. I never wanted to do anything else but be a writer and journalist. I don’t know what else I could do, come to think of it.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
Now that I’ve written one published book and another that I’m seeking a publisher for, I get a lot of people saying, “Wow, I always wanted to write a book. How do you do that?”

My answer always is, there’s only one way: sit down and start writing. Even if you don’t know where the story is going. You can figure that out along the way. But start writing. And really work at it. Don’t finish a first draft and think you have a book. I realized when I did an 18-month stint as an editor for an online editing service a year or two ago that a lot of people think they’re done when they’re only halfway through. It’s a lot of work and it’s important to recognize that to be successful.
Remember, opportunity is the fella in overalls.

Maureen, thanks for stopping by and talking about your writing. You sure have a lot of it in your life!

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