Interview with Donald Levin, author of The Baker's Men

An award-winning fiction writer and poet, Donald Levin is the author of The Baker’s Men, the second book in the Martin Preuss mystery seriesCrimes of Love, the first Martin Preuss mystery; The House of Grins, a mainstream novel; and two books of poetry, In Praise of Old Photographs and New Year’s Tangerine. Widely published as a poet and with twenty-five years’ experience as a professional writer, he is dean of the faculty and professor of English at Marygrove College in Detroit. He lives in Ferndale, Michigan, the setting for his Martin Preuss mysteries. 

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About The Book

Easter, 2009. The nation is still reeling from the previous year’s financial crisis. Ferndale Police detective Martin Preuss is spending a quiet evening with his son when he’s called out to investigate a savage after-hours shooting at a bakery in his suburban Detroit community. Was it a random burglary gone bad? A cold-blooded execution linked to Detroit’s drug trade? Most frightening of all, is there a terrorist connection with the Iraqi War vets who work at the store? Struggling with these questions, frustrated by the dizzying uncertainties of the case and hindered by the treachery of his own colleagues who scheme against him, Preuss is drawn into a whirlwind of greed, violence, and revenge that spans generations across metropolitan Detroit.

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Q: Welcome to The Writer's Life! Now that your book has been published, we'd love to find out more about the process. Can we begin by having you take us at the beginning? Where did you come up with the idea to write your book?

The book came together from a couple of different sources. The first was an article in one of the local alternative newspapers about a crime at a small family-owned bakery in Detroit. The article was actually about the devastation the bakery owners suffered, but the details of the crime caught my imagination. I'm always on the lookout for ideas for my books and poems, so I cut the article out of the paper and filed it away for a few years until I started writing this book, and then it became the inciting incident. I changed all the details about the crime (its location, the owners and their situation, the motive, and the victims) and repopulated it to suit my purposes. In my Acknowledgements I thanked the author of the article.

The other source for the plot came from a tale that my parents had told me years ago about something that happened to one of their friends. I can't say much more about it because I'll give away too much of the mystery of the book . . . but like the article in the newspaper, I carried this story in my head for years because I knew it would wind up in a novel someday. And it finally did.

Q: How hard was it to write a book like this and do you have any tips that you could pass on which would make the journey easier for other writers?

The actual writing of the book was a total pleasure. I love to spin out a fictional world where the characters, the events, and the setting all come together to invite the reader in for an experience that engages them and leaves them changed by the end of the book. So that part of the writing was not only easy, but a delight. The hardest thing for me, as for many writers, was time. When I started the book I was a college professor (I've since moved into administration) and I was extremely fortunate to get a sabbatical for a semester that I used to write the first draft of the book. After that it was a matter of stealing time to push it through all the revisions that my books go through. I wrote before work, after work, during lunch hours, during vacations, and on days off. It's a lot easier to have a large chunk of time to work in, of course, but if you can't then you just have to make do with what you have.

Because this is the second volume in a series, I had already made a lot of the hard decisions a writer makes . . . who the main characters were, how they looked, how they talked, how they worked together, what the locale and background looked like, and so on . . . those were all important and took a while to work through in the first book but they didn’t slow me down for this one. I’m not sure there’s a way to short-circuit those decisions.

The other difficult part of the writing was working within the conventions of the genre while trying to go beyond them. One of the great things readers have been saying about The Baker’s Men is that it has a lot more character development than the typical book of its genre (the police procedural), which is music to my ears. This isn’t to say that every writer should do that, but I wanted to. So it’s very important to understand what you’re trying to accomplish when you set out to write a book like this one.

Q: Who is your publisher and how did you find them or did you self-publish?

I self-published both The Baker's Men and the first book in the series, Crimes of Love. I had signed a contract with a publisher to bring out Crimes of Love, but it turned out to be a very unpleasant experience. To make a long story short, when she didn’t publish it by the time the contract period ended, I pulled the book from her (a clause in the contract said the book returned to me if it didn't come out within the contract time frame). I was very disappointed because it had taken me years to find someone to bring the book out; no agents or other publishers were interested in it. Rather than stay mad I decided to take action and put it out myself. During my time as a writer I had done a lot of editing and working with artists to produce publications, so I rolled up my sleeves and brought out Crimes of Love on my own.

When I finished The Baker's Men, it never occurred to me to go back into the world of publishers hoping for a break. The world of publishing is pretty topsy-turvy right now, so I was glad to be able to take back the means of production and put the book out myself.

Q: Is there anything that surprised you about getting your first book published?

Two things: The first is, with all the POD technology and services around today, there are a variety of self-publishing options to choose from. The second thing is how deep the prejudice against self-published authors still is. Despite the fact that I've gotten good reader reviews on both books, it's been almost impossible to get any bookstores to carry them or get book reviews in publications. Despite all the drawbacks to getting books published by commercial publishers, and all the advantages of putting out a book on your own, the way is still easier if a book carries the imprimatur of a known publisher. It's just a fact of life. If you know and understand that, and can accommodate it, then self-publishing is a good road to consider.

Q: What other books (if any) are you working on and when will they be published?

I've started the third Martin Preuss novel, and I'm about 7,000 words in. Considering that time issue, I can't really say when it will come out. But I’m loving getting back into the world and the characters, like making contact with old friends again.

Q: What's your favorite place to hang out online?

Hanging out online is major time-suckage! But like everyone else I do it . . . I'm usually on Facebook or any of the online journals I follow.

Q: Finally, what message (if any) are you trying to get across with your book?

The Baker’s Men, like Crimes of Love, is about the failure of love, and what happens when a family is devoid of love or relies on false values to replace nurturing familial love. The main character in both books (Martin Preuss) has a son who is multiply handicapped, and Preuss loves him fiercely. The love these two share with each other is sort of the antidote to all the toxic relationships the books portray.

Q: Thank you again for this interview! Do you have any final words?

Many thanks for the opportunity to speak with your readers! It's been a pleasure to be here.

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