Gifts from Asia – an interview with Michael LaRocca (5th of June 2006)

Introduction

When I visited Michael’s website, I was excited to see that he had visited Penang. Furthermore, after adding some of his articles to the database here and also reading other material he has on offer, I decided to contact him to request an interview. I laughed at his replies and really I know that when you read this interview, you’ll agree that this is a man who has many, many great stories to tell. It is with great pleasure, I introduce to you, Michael LaRocca …


Aneeta: Michael, thank you for agreeing to this interview.

Michael: Thank you for the opportunity. It’s been too long since I did an interview.

Aneeta: I see from your website, http://www.chinarice.org/michaellarocca.html, that you have been quite the traveller. To start with, please tell me a little about your background, your childhood, your family and what you’d like to share with my readers.

Michael: I spent most of my childhood living in rural North Carolina (USA) with my mother and my little brother. 1963 through 1976, in a number of different places along the east coast, possibly running from bill collectors. In 1977, we moved to Tampa, Florida, which was my first exposure to such things as big cities and multiculturalism of any kind. My little brother, Barry, died in 1985, and Mom died in 1989. Very soon after, I returned to North Carolina and bought some land from my father. Then we built a house. In 1999, I got a shiny new divorce, sold the house, and visited Hong Kong for a month. Or so I thought.

I met Jan, an Australian who was teaching there, and decided to stay.

In September 2000, we adopted a cat from the SPCA, and in October 2000 we got married. I only listed our lovely cat first for chronological reasons, of course. Before the wedding, I wasn’t legally allowed to work in Hong Kong, so I used the Internet to work elsewhere as an author and editor. In February 2002, we decided to move to mainland China. Jan is a career teacher. She taught English to adult migrants in Australia, some of them Chinese. Then in Hong Kong, she taught English to Chinese students. So why not finish the journey? That’s also when I became a teacher, and I love it. However, now we’re getting a bit bored with the routine, so we’re starting over in Chiang Mai, Thailand, next month. Picasso, the aforementioned calico cat, is still with us.

Aneeta: Now, I see you’ve visited Penang! My hometown’s not far away from Penang and I was so excited to read this. Tell me something that you liked about Penang.

Michael: Food. I’ve always loved Chinese food, and that’s easy to get in China, of course. But I’ve also always loved Italian food, Mexican food, Indian food, German food… Where we stayed in Penang, the world’s cuisines were all located within walking distance of each other. I quit smoking while I was in Penang, so I gained a bit of weight, but what the heck. We visited Penang in June, when it was about 30 degrees, same as Shaoxing. But it felt so much cooler in Penang because it doesn’t have that polluted haze that parts of China have. I’ve since learned that Penang isn’t considered clean by many Malaysians, but compared to where I was coming from it certainly is. Quiet, too.

Aneeta: O.K., let’s start on your work. The thing is, you’ve told a story about your journey to publication and I’d love to know a little more about this journey before I ask you to list down the works proper.

Michael: I started writing in high school. 1978, I think. I won some awards for my short stories and was in the 1982 Who’s Who In American Writing. I followed that up with at least 100 rejection letters. I had some good stories in me, but I told them badly and I refused to take advice. Finally, I gave up and chased money. In my Hong Kong period, I dusted off the old dream. I still had all my short stories on disk, along with a couple of novels. I joined some free online workshops and actually listened this time. I also started reading voraciously, an old hobby I’d given up. You can learn a lot about writing by just reading. As I’ve plastered all over my website, if you don’t enjoy reading, you can’t write what others enjoy reading. I believe that. In 2000, I wrote 4 books. All were published in the USA in 2001. Both publishers closed in 2002, I think it was, and I found new homes for my 4 books with some different North American publishers two weeks later. I also started working as an editor in 2000, thanks again to the Internet, and I still do that. I’m addicted to reading, so why not get paid to do it? I’ve edited almost 200 books, and I may be prouder of that than what I’ve written. Maybe.

Aneeta: Now, let’s start on the books themselves. Please give a brief description about each one of them.

Michael:

The Chronicles of a Madman was originally a short story anthology that I wrote as a teenager. A bit of horror, a bit of humor, a bit of what I dubbed American Existentialism, a bit of immaturity, a bit of rubbish. This is where it all began. At the start of my Hong Kong period, I revised all these stories with a lot of help from Internet friends. Then I wrote new stories. Finally, I realized one of my “novels” was badly padded, cut about half the words, and slipped it in here as a novella. It’s my favorite.

Vigilante Justice is hard-hitting police action. My brother was a policeman who killed himself when he was 20 years old. What would he be like if he were still alive? This is my attempt at an answer. It’s a dark tale that ponders some hard questions, and the pace is relentless. It’s hard to believe I spent 10 years on this little novel.

Rising from the Ashes is the story of how Mom raised two sons alone in the 1960s and 1970s. I’m incredibly proud of her, and since she’s not alive to tell her story, I had to do it myself. A psychologist who moved to China to teach at the same school where I taught decided the school needed a women’s reading group. All women members, all women authors. However, the first book they ever read was this one. This is one of my greatest moments as an author, even though I never attended a meeting. My wife did. This is my finest work.

An American Redneck in Hong Kong is the humorous sequel to the serious literature known as Rising from the Ashes. Rising ended when I was 26 years old. I had a lot of funny stuff happen to me between then and leaving the USA 10 years later. It’s in here. Dog stories, cat stories, horse stories, Hong Kong misfit Michael stories, and an inside look at what can happen on a hog farm.

Who Moved My Rice? is my “China book.” People move to China, they don’t know what they’re doing, they write about it. More humor, with my own ignorance as the butt of every joke. Since I hear Who Moved My Cheese? is about adapting to change, and since moving to Hangzhou and becoming a teacher was a big whopping change, I concocted my title as a little joke.

Aneeta: I see your books have been EPPIE finalists. What is this EPPIE award?

Michael: It’s the oldest award for e-books, sponsored by EPIC, which is the Electronically Published Internet Connection. I’ve entered three books, and I’ve been a finalist three times. Maybe my next book can finally win the thing!

Aneeta: I also note that you are an editor. What kind of work do you edit and how can people contact you if they wish to commission you as an editor?

Michael: I’ll edit anything I would enjoy reading, which covers quite a large scope. I started by working for my first publisher, then bounced around to other publishers along with my novels. I currently work for Books Unbound, which I happen to love because they only accept quality books. I also decided, after enough years, to put together a little freelance editing page on my website and see what happened. I got swamped! It feels great. I should just send people to that page instead of repeating it. http://www.chinarice.org/editingservice.html I’ve worked with authors from all over the world, some native English speakers and others writing in a second language. You have no idea how much I admire any author who can do that. I’ve also worked on a textbook for Zhejiang University, and in fact back in the USA I edited tech manuals, “translating” them from “engineer” to standard English.

Aneeta: As you may know, my website caters for storytellers. What advice would you give those who are interested in storytelling?

Michael: I think I became a writer because I didn’t like talking. But when I was 9 years old, I made up my own comic books and told them to neighborhood kids. North Carolina has a long storytelling tradition, and there are quite a few gifted storytellers in my own family. Advice? Same thing I tell anybody who asks me how to write better, or how to improve his/her spoken English. Practice. Part of becoming a teacher was learning just how good I am at illustrating a point through one of my stories. Be honest, talk from your heart, entertain yourself first. All else will fall into place. If you enjoy your story, your listeners will. I might hit upon a good story and use it in class a dozen or more times. But then, if I get bored with it, I’ll quit using it instead of being slavishly loyal to it because it worked so well so many times before. A bored storyteller is a boring storyteller.

Aneeta: I think that is all I have to ask. Is there anything you’d like to add?

Michael: I’ve learned so much about my homeland by leaving it. This is one of my classroom stories, okay? When I graduated from high school, I went to a university which only had three white students. My classmates were black and the school was in the ghetto, but it was all I could afford. I learned that I wasn’t as free of racism as I’d been led to believe, and that means more to me than the electronics I studied. Years later, I found myself managing a hog farm where all my employees were from Mexico and Honduras. They taught me Spanish, I taught them English, and they will always be my amigos. Then, China. Students would ask if it was true that Americans did _____ or _____, I’d say yes, they’d ask why, and I’d realize I have no clue. I think that’s the perspective my writing needed. Also, telling stories to non-native English speakers has done wonders for simplifying my vocabulary, and I’ve learned how to check for understanding. This has been Asia’s greatest gift to me.

Aneeta: Once again, Michael, thank you.

Michael: Once again, thank you. It’s been a pleasure.


This piece may NOT be freely reprinted. Please contact editor @ howtotellagreatstory.com for reprint rights.

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