by C.J. Darlington
Mel Oldom Interview
"I am an information ferret. I can't help trying out new things." -- Mel Odom
Mel Odom is a full-time writer with many published works to his credit. Mel has been inducted into the Oklahoma Professional Writers Hall of Fame and received the Alex Award for his fantasy novel The Rover. The first novel in the Apocalypse series, Apocalypse Dawn, continues to appear on the best-seller list. Mel resides in Oklahoma with his wife and five children.
C.J. Tell us about some of your earliest reading memories. What were some of your favorite books as a child and why were they special?
Mel: My earliest memories of reading are of my mom reading to me. I was the oldest of, at that time, four boys. We were living in Lawton, Oklahoma. Money was always tight when I was growing up. But my mom bought a set of classics that were flip-books. Swiss Family Robinson was on one side and Robinson Crusoe was on the other. Mom read to me every day.
I can remember being enthralled by all the adventures. We didn’t have television at that time and the only way she had of entertaining me enough to keep me inside the house where she could watch me while she had a baby in arms was to read to me. Otherwise I would go into the backyard, climb the fence, and be gone into the small field that lay behind the house. I wouldn’t return for hours and she would worry about me. Thankfully we didn’t have the horrors of child abduction then that we do now. I was relatively safe. But that didn’t keep my mom from being worried. She learned how to trap me with stories, and I guess I’ve succumbed to their lure for the rest of my life.
What first drew you to novel writing?
I was drawn to writing quite simply. My mom couldn’t read to me every minute of every day. Some days it rained and I couldn’t go out. Other days it was too cold to go out. Other days, believe it or not, I was grounded for not being where I was supposed to be and for not staying in the backyard. They should have built the fence taller.
Bored, yet captivated by the stories my mom read, I started out drawing pictures to illustrate the books she read to me. Unfortunately, I didn’t like the way I drew. And I didn’t like rehashing the same adventures. It was one thing to imagine them on the page and draw a picture of something I’d already imagined in my mind, but what was even more fun was imagining new adventures of those characters.
So I started writing news stories about the characters my mom had introduced me to in the novels. At the time I was in first and second grade and couldn’t write very well. What I did was look through the books for names and words I didn’t know of and picked them out to copy them onto notebook paper. As you might imagine, the process was slow, but I found that I loved it. With a lot of work on my part, I could create new adventures.
It’s funny thinking about it now and answering this question, because I hadn’t thought about the process back then much and hadn’t remembered how much I’ve had to do in order to learn to write. I loved comic books back then too, and taught myself to write new comic book adventures as well. I started out by turning those comic pages into script, with descriptions of actions rather than pictures.
And now over 140 novels later, you’re still writing! Do you ever find it challenging to head to your keyboard every day? What do you do when the words don’t seem to come?
I love writing.
There’s nothing I’d rather do, and nothing that has ever felt more natural for me to be doing. If writers are born, then I was born to be a writer. Despite the laborious process of learning to write, all I was doing was getting in touch with the guest, the passion, and the drive I’d been given.
Some days the words do come harder than other days, but it’s not from lack of wanting to be at the computer and creating scenes and characters. When the words turn reluctant, it’s because I’ve slipped into my perfectionist mode and have scared myself regarding my ability to put words on the page.
I do that a lot some days, and unintentionally freeze myself up for hours at a time. Or, worse yet, I cut something out of a manuscript, spend hours fretting over it, running different scenarios through my mind and trying some of them on the page, and eventually go back to pretty close to what I had originally.
That is really frustrating.
Strangely enough, I seem to do my most confident writing when I’m sick or exhausted. By the time I focus and am off to get the words on the page, during those times I don’t have any energy left over to nitpick myself. Of course, staying sick and exhausted isn’t exactly a good game plan.
What inspired you to write your NCIS crime scene series?
I’ve always been interested in crime and science. The crime part is a predilection I can’t really explain, but I seem to share it with a whole lot of people out there in the world.
And I’m constantly amazed at the emerging technology. The age of computers is definitely upon us. We’re going to see wondrous and terrifying things, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what our children and their children will see.
I inadvertently got to be something of a forensics expert simply by being the researcher that I am. I am an information ferret. I can’t help trying to find out new things. Of course, I still make mistakes and readers point them out about other things, but I’m pretty solid with the forensics.
I teach classes in writing and have for nineteen years. Many of the students come to my classes wanting to write mystery or suspense novels. I always try to encourage them to get the facts in the science behind the investigation right. There are books written on the subject. I’ve read them. I’ve talked to police officers about how they conduct their investigations, the way they’re supposed to versus how it’s really done in the field. Over the years I ended up with a lot of information and knew a lot more than a thought I did.
Some of my students were so impressed with how much I knew that they asked me to start teaching classes in forensics and crime scene investigation. I taught a lot of classes, some of them with Jim Spearman, an internal affairs investigator for the Norman Police Department. Then I spent three years teaching with Scott Singer, the PIO (Public Information Officer) for the Moore Police Department.
The first night I talked with Scott, he asked me why I needed him in the classroom because obviously I knew what I was talking about. I told him that I’ve taught from theory and that the students could benefit from his more practical experience in the field.
Also, he got extra cool points for wearing his sidearm to class.
Will the NCIS series be a trilogy?
At this point, only three books are planned. I’m going to be launching into a new project with Tyndale after that.
Do you have a military background?
I have no military background. I was sixteen years old when the draft ended and the Vietnam War was still raging. President Nixon ended Selective Service registration in 1975, and for five years young men didn’t have to register. It was reinstituted in 1980. I registered for selective service anyway when I turned eighteen. But after watching all those names roll on television news every night, watching my cousin come back all shot up after less than two days on the ground in Vietnam, after having friends whose brothers and fathers didn’t come back from that war, I knew the military didn’t have a career I wanted.
I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know how I was going to do it at the time, but nothing else in my life made sense. I just wanted to be a writer so bad that I couldn’t think of anything else. I went straight into college and ended up getting married before I got out.
Growing up in Oklahoma, though, you end up getting to know a lot of military guys and law enforcement people. My family was strictly blue collar. Although I am a professional – writing full-time and teaching currently at the University of Oklahoma as an adjunct professor and at Moore-Norman Technology Center – I still think and act blue collar. I fit into the professional world, but that’s not where I’m most comfortable.
I know a lot from talking to people with military and law enforcement backgrounds, but I supplement everything with constant research.
And yet you also write in many other genres, including young adult fantasy. Do you ever work on books in different genres at the same time?
With my schedule, I have to. I have to work on books that I’m currently writing, work on books that are still in production, research for books that I’ll be writing next, and plan out books that I want to persuade publishers to let me write in the future.
I’m ADHD. I can promise you that it’s both a blessing and a curse. Most things are. What you have to do as an individual is figure out a way to make the pluses and minuses in your life BOTH work for you as hard as they can. Everything that pushes you forward, brings its own set of problems. Everything that holds you back, offers its own strengths by simply making you work against the resistance. It’s up to you to learn how to make the best of everything you’ve got.
One of the most visible problems with any ADHD person is that he or she has an incredibly short attention span. I make my short attention span worked for me. I’m restless and constantly looking for something new, which means that I’m going to be filled with ideas all the time. However, if I’m going to work I have to learn to be totally focused during the time I can be in front of the computer before I move on to the next thing.
Thankfully, this inability to focus constantly throughout the day gives me a wonderful ability to change gears constantly throughout the day. I can put on my writer’s hat, followed by my coach’s hat, followed by my parent’s hat, followed by my husband’s hat, etc. . . . And not miss a beat.
What is your favorite genre to write in and why?
I don’t have a favorite genre. With ADHD, I have a favorite genre right now. It will be one thing in the morning, and another by the afternoon. And probably another before I go to bed. It’s my strength.
I don’t see any difference in the writing skill between the different genres. I think you take the same skill sets to any piece of writing you’re going to do. I know a lot of writers don’t feel that way. And a lot of writers tend to think that their particular field is better than every other field.
At the end of the book, if I’ve touched the reader’s emotions and given the reader something to think about, I think my work was a success. I can do that in all the fields that I’ve ever worked in.
In my classes, I teach that there are seven genres: mystery, suspense, science fiction, fantasy, romance, Western, and horror. I’ve written in all of those fields and enjoyed the process. I love having that kind of freedom. Most writers don’t as they don’t believe they can write other things or because the publisher doesn’t want them to.
And even though the skill sets in writing are the same, I know that the nuances are different. Everything I’ve written has helped me learn about everything else I’ve written. This process is an organic one and will continually teach those who are willing and wishful of learning.
Tell us about your Rover books.
The Rover books are a lighthearted fantasy series in the vein of J.R. R. Tolkein’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy. They are focused on characters who are the Librarians of the Vault of all Known Knowledge.
The first book, The Rover, won the American Library Association’s Alex Award in 2002.
I think these are good books that parents and kids alike can share. Mainly because I’ve had parents and kids come and tell me they enjoyed them.
So far there are four books in the series and they’ve been printed internationally.
Having taught so many writing classes, what’s your number one piece of advice for aspiring writers?
Write about the things you want to write about, not what you think will sell.
Most people are not going to get lucky enough to sell a book right off the bat. That means there’s gonna be a considerable amount of time invested in learning the craft. As a new writer, you can get frustrated trying to do what someone else does if it doesn’t come naturally. Don’t fight your natural inclinations in writing just to make it fit into what someone else is having success with. That person’s success is their own. You need to find yours. The only way to do that is to explore what appeals to you and spend time getting to know it well.
The time spent at the computer, legal pad, or whatever it is you write on, is a lonely time. No one else can share that with you. I know some writers jointly write projects, but each one of them writes his or her own piece alone. Make sure you don’t begrudge the time you spend learning your craft. The only way to do that is to write something you believe in and love.
And then, like you mentioned, there are the forensic classes . . . What’s an odd fact or statistic that’s surprised you in your experience with this subject?
I’ve learned so much about the human body and crime scenes that it’s impossible to give any specific examples. The coolest thing I’ve read about lately is gel fingerprinting. They’re just coming out with that technology. From the tests they’ve done so far, not only can fingerprints be recovered from a crime scene, but the sex and DNA can be recovered from them as well. Really awesome technology, and it’s gotta be scary if you’re a bad guy. Of course, most of them won’t know until it’s too late.
Would you call yourself a Christian fiction writer or a fiction writer who happens to be a Christian? Why?
I see those two things as existing independently. I’m a Christian. I believe. I’ve been believing, or struggling with believing, since I was a kid. For me belief has always been a struggle. In my defense, anything that I’ve had to work at that hasn’t come to me naturally (parenting, writing, being married, etc. – all things that I love and care about) have come through struggle and wanting to understand more than simply accepting. I know a lot of people tell me they just accept God into their lives and everything changes.
For me, I’ve always wanted to understand what God wanted me to do then questioned why or how I was expected to do it. Discovering the answers to those questions has helped me become a stronger Christian, a stronger writer, a stronger parent, a stronger coach, a stronger husband, and so on. I’m not finished with my life, so I know there will be more questions down the road.
My wife’s view Christianity is more of the acceptance kind. She’s sometimes gotten frustrated with me for struggling over issues, but that’s how I am. And I believe that’s how God wants me to be. I don’t just give lip service to witnessing about things that God has done in my life. I haven’t had the same experiences as everyone else, but struggling the way I have with divorce and other things, I can speak more truthfully, factually, openly, and – hopefully – eloquently by the grace of the gifts I’ve been given.
I am what I am, and I believe it’s what God has made me to be.
What was the lowest point in your writing career, and how did you get out of it?
I have had several low points. Those generally come when I’m struggling with my belief in my own ability to get a project done, or question how I’m doing it. The only way I can get through those is to work. I have to learn to stop looking at the whole book and remember that it is broken down into a series of pieces – scenes – that I can write one at a time.
Thankfully, God gives us lives to work on things that can be broken down into years, months, weeks, days, hours, and minutes. I just have to keep that in sight when I work on a book and remember that I can break down that task into pieces too so that it isn’t as insurmountable as I fear.
What would you love to write someday but haven’t yet?
At some point I want to write about growing up in southern Oklahoma, coaching little league ball, being a parent, and the other important experiences I’ve had in my life. I know others have had the same experiences and need to know they are shared---they’re not alone.
What authors or books have had the most influence on you as a writer?
I read constantly, so the list is ever changing. But in the beginning there was Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert A. Heinlein, Andre Norton, Robert E. Howard, Lin Carter, L. Sprague de Camp, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Louis L’Amour, Robert B. Parker, Elmore Leonard, Linda Barnes, Sue Grafton, Tamora Pierce, and many more. As you can tell, when it comes to reading I’m omnivorous.
Of all your books, which was the hardest to write and why?
The hardest book for me to write is always the one I’m working on. Until I start working on it, it appears to be my most brilliant work ever. Then the day to day grind of failing to have my prose live up to my vision wears on me and I began struggling with the same old doubts and fears again and again.
Of course, I have the best advice possible. I tell myself, and others who have problems in life and seek consultations with me, that we fear these things because we care about them so much. If I didn’t care about the books, I’d be able to sit back and knock them out one after another. Instead, I work on making each one individual and the best that it can be. It’s tough work living up to a vision of perfection.
Then I remember that God – and readers – forgive. So I remember that I have to forgive me and get out of the way of myself so I can work.
What most inspires your imagination?
My imagination finds jumping off points in everything I read, fiction and nonfiction. I make it a habit to read the news every day on MSN.com. My eighteen year old, Shiloh, has developed the same habit. It gives us a lot to talk about every day, to agree on and disagree on.
I watch episodic television and have favorite series. I absolutely love Kyra Sedgwick’s character, Deputy Chief Brenda Lee Johnson, on The Closer. The situations she gets herself into, the way she’s sworn about what she should do and how she should handle people, and the clever dialogue just reminds me of the girls and the women I grew up around in southern Oklahoma. I love people, but my first love will always be small towns and southern ways. I have a lot of friends in northern states and along the West Coast I truly enjoy, so I’m open to those friendships, but I understand the others far better.
What are two things people might be surprised to know about you?
I think readers would be surprised to find out that I’m as blue collar as I am. Many of them imagine me in some big house, but my wife and I live with the kids in a small home and I still get stuck with taking out the trash most days. I consider it a fair tradeoff, though, because my wife does the remodeling. I just supply the money and the brute force and grunt labor she needs to get heavy objects into place.
People who know me a personal level are always surprised that I am intelligent enough to write.
When you’re not writing, what do you enjoy doing?
Reading, television, movies, travel, adopting new hobbies, gardening.
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Frosted Mini-Wheats. It’s for the kid in me!
Three things always found in your refrigerator:
Milk, butter, eggs. You can’t bake without them.
You’re next in line at Starbucks. What are you ordering?
I don’t drink coffee. I don’t drink alcohol. I don’t smoke. Never liked the taste of most things, have asthma, and know with ADHD and a tendency toward OC D that I have an addictive nature. So I’m wary of the things they can trip me up.
But I love Diet Dr Pepper and chocolate. Both have caffeine, which is probably my biggest vice.
What’s left unchecked in your “goals for life” list?
Amazingly, less and less. I’d planned twenty years ago when I first started writing to try to teach at the University of Oklahoma or some other college. I was hired as an adjunct this spring, so that kind of worked itself out.
Of course, I still want to write the book that will make enough money to allow me to buy my wife and kids a bigger house and refurbish a barn where I can work. I really do want to work in a barn. It’s the only place I know of that will allow me to put all my books on shelves. And separate my work area from my book area. I’d locate my writing office up in the loft, put a big glass window in behind me, and tear out all the walls so the whole space would be open except for support beams.
That’s my dream. Don’t know if I’ll ever get there. It would be cool, but I’m happy where I’m at.
What’s currently in your CD player/iPod?
An audio book by Carl Hiaasen called, Flush. I listen to audiobooks to get extra time in with reading and to catch up on my to-be-read list.
When I’m listening to music I’m listening to Bonnie Raitt, Delbert McClinton, John Lee Hooker, Bob Seger, .38 Special, Lynyrd Skynyrd, other blues and rock artists. And I listen to a lot of modern stuff as well. Saliva, Cold Play, Matchbox 20, etc.
When was the last time you cried?
At a movie. Those things sneak up on me. I hate being in public when it does.
Anything else you’d like to share with TitleTrakk.com readers?
I just really want to take this moment to express my thanks to all the readers out there who have been following the books. I appreciate all the comments, the e-mail, and support I’ve received. It’s that support that makes me remember that when I’m in my room working away that I’m truly doing it for a purpose and I’m not alone.
C.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.