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TEN QUESTIONS: An interview with author Michael Aubrecht
Conducted 1/06 by Craig Hart for CraigHart.net: Where Authors and Readers Connect

Also available online at CraigHart.net

Author Bio: Michael Aubrecht
Best known for his contributions to Baseball-Almanac.com and The Pinstripe Press, this Civil War author and baseball essayist has published Civil War biographies on Confederate General Stonewall Jackson and General J.E.B. Stuart. Michael is also a longtime member of FaithWriters and a contributing writer for The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, (Town & Country) newspaper.


1. What advice would you offer to a beginning author?

That is a question I asked myself many years ago. Unfortunately, I never got the answer I was seeking. We are all familiar with the old cliché, "Never give up," but that is not what I consider to be practical advice. Therefore, my advice to beginning authors is based on my own experiences, founded on my mistakes and rooted in the lessons that I have learned as a result of them.

First, determine what your strengths and weaknesses are as a writer. Play to your strengths, but never stop working on your weaknesses. Authors and writers, by nature, are self-centered individuals. We write something down and then automatically assume that people will want to read it. Often this is not the case and one of the biggest misconceptions that beginners have is that they will always be able to select their own material. This can present them with a false sense of security early on and later it can end in disaster. An editor once told me, that to be a truly good writer, you have to be able to write about the things you don't care about, with the same passion and enthusiasm as the things you do. I took that advice to heart and decided to test myself. I wrote 1000 words on a topic that I really enjoyed and then another 1000 words on something in which I had no interest. I put them side-by-side and the difference in the quality of the pieces was startling. Clearly, I needed to work on looking at each and every piece individually and commit myself to giving it my best effort.

Another piece of advice is to check, double-check and then re-check your sources again. My "specialty" is Major League Baseball and Civil War history. Therefore, research is the backbone of everything that I write. I have a rather large reference library and I will sometimes use up to eight different sources for a single essay. History is only as accurate as the people who write it and more often than not, mistakes and errors are propagated for years and years through lazy fact checking. Surprisingly, readers are usually the best editors and often they will know more about your subject matter than you do. Always listen to your audience, they will teach you more than any book can teach you.


2. What are your writing habits, i.e. do you set daily writing goals?

My writing habits are perhaps a bit unorthodox. To use a very lame analogy, I'm like a light switch: either ON or OFF. I have regular duties over the course of each year for Baseball-Almanac. I also do some extra essays, biographies and studies throughout the season as time permits. I also review Civil War books for our newspaper and try to do at least one book every two months. I write a monthly column in my church's newsletter and I have my own projects in development at all times.

However, I also have a wife and three kids, a full-time job as an Associate Art Director, a Men's Bible Study, and a life-long addiction to Yankees baseball and Steelers football. The biggest challenge for me was learning how to balance all of that. Being a father and husband comes first, then a writer and designer second. I used to publish and edit two monthly newsletters and a fan club magazine, maintain four other websites and provide satirical sports copy for several online "fanzines." It finally came down to priorities and I had to drop many of these extra-curricular activities that cut into my family and my career. So to get back to your question, I have NO daily writing goals. On some days I write for hours while on others I write very little. Sometimes I will go for weeks without typing a single word. I try to pace myself, so as not to rush anything, and to remind myself to take a break and walk away.


3. What do you think is the most rewarding part of your work?

The rewards for me have changed over the years. The first time I ever saw my byline printed was a reward. The first check that I received for my work was a reward. The first time I ever typed my name on Amazon.com and an advertisement for my books appeared was a reward.

However, several years and few hundred thousand words later, my biggest rewards come in small packages. My daughter bragging to her history teacher that her daddy wrote a Civil War biography and then having that teacher read it is a REAL reward. Donating a box of my books for my church's charity drives and having every copy bought is a REAL reward. Having my books on the shelf in my hometown's little library is a REAL reward. Receiving thank-you letters from old-time baseball players and knowing that copies of my work are in the Library of Congress, perhaps waiting to be used as someone else's reference 100 years from now, is a REAL reward. Those are the types of things that matter to me nowadays.


4. Do you believe in writer's block, and if so, how do you break through it?

Being primarily a historian and biographer, I really can't say that I have experienced the textbook version of "writer's block" per se, but there are times when it just isn't there. One of my ongoing projects is a first stab at a fictional novel entitled "Battlefield Believers." The story depicts two angels observing the horror of the Civil War. Throughout the story these two witnesses flashback to other great battles in history including the Punic, Revolutionary and Indian Wars. Each flashback presents the tragic story of a specific soldier and teaches us a lesson on the suffering experienced by those both on and off the battlefield. As the angels "return" their focus to the present time (1864), similar situations are presented, thus arguing that regardless of the time and place, war always results in the same sadness.

Christian artist Vicki Talley McCollum has partnered with me for this fictional tale, and I am so blessed to have her on-board. She has an amazing talent in a variety of different mediums and is providing absolutely breathtaking panoramic pen and ink illustrations for a wide-format book, which will be published by both of us as a joint venture. I wanted someone who would be historically accurate, but also able to draw "messy" as if sketching the scenes as they unfolded on the battlefield. Somehow she has managed to capture the message of this book (which is a tribute to all soldiers - but not the war that they wage) and push me to continue writing. In a way, we are "playing" off each other, as sometimes my words drive her direction and in turn, her artwork drives mine. So I guess my biggest cure for writer's block is having someone else do the inspirational work!


5. Who do you think are your greatest influences?

This answer might startle some of my friends and associates, as I don't think I've ever shared this story before... so stand by for an EXCLUSIVE! When I was in the third grade, I had not yet discovered my passion. I always liked to draw, but writing kind of sneaked up on me. I remember sitting in class and we were reading from the book "Superfudge" by children's author Judy Blume. I'm not sure of the exact moment, but something inspired me and I began writing my own short stories using the book's main character, nicknamed "Fudge." The school librarian took an interest in them and asked me to share them with the class. I guess it was a huge ego trip for me to have people like my work. So despite that fact that I have forged a career writing about "ultra-macho" subjects like sports and military history, my "greatest" influence would have to be Judy Blume, who inspired me to start writing in the first place!

As far as fellow baseball and Civil War historians that have influenced me... hmmmm, there are so many great authors out there. Harvey Frommer, who is an "official" Yankees historian and friend (as well as the author of thirty-plus books), is the baseball writer that I hope to someday emulate. Richard Croker, who writes historical novels including "To Make Men Free" (about the Battle of Antietam), is the novelist I'd like to be. Dr. James Robertson, author of the definitive book on my hero Stonewall Jackson, is the biographer I'd like to be. These men are the real deal and I only hope to experience half of the success that they have had.


6. At what age did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

The experience I mentioned having in third grade was obviously a stepping-stone in the process. Also my first trip to a Civil War battlefield sparked my interest in history. I wrote about that in a retrospective piece I published entitled "Birth of a Buff." In it, I recalled the summer of 1978 when my family traveled to the National Military Park at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I was six at the time and the story of the three-day battle that took place there captivated me like nothing had before, or has since. I was always a huge baseball fan, so becoming a Baseball-Almanac historian was both a "dream come true" AND my first paying gig. In 2000, when I was 28 years old, the owner of BA, Sean Holtz, hired me to research and write the entire history of the All-Star Game and World Series. I had written a lot of free material for multiple football websites and he was impressed with my work. Everything grew from there.

In 2004, I joined FaithWriters and began writing Christian material that was published in multiple religious magazines and periodicals. In late 2004, and again in early 2005, I signed with Publish America to produce my first two books; "Onward Christian Soldier" and "Christian Cavalier". I never really thought of myself as a full-time writer pursuing a career until after my first book came out. Up to that point, everything was more of a hobby that paid. My current magazine and newspaper work was a direct result of my book, so although I can't exactly pinpoint a "specific" age (it could be 6, or 28, or 33) each moment in that time frame was a brick in the foundation for my career. Now I can truly refer to myself as a professional and it really feels good.


7. Do you use any particular writing strategies, i.e. outlines, etc.?

Actually the process for me is much simpler than you might think. I gather a big pile of books, a bigger pile of newspapers, and an even bigger pile of printouts and archived material that I have researched online and I read through as many as I can, taking notes and highlighting information of interest. Then I go back and look for both inconsistencies and consistencies. This is part of the fact checking process. Then I develop a very rough outline or flow, which is usually "chicken scratch" and only discernable by me. I compose a draft (sometimes in segments) and after one or two iterations, I finally have something that looks readable. Then I send the draft to a copy editor for grammatical and editorial changes.

Sometimes I send it to my father first, as he is an outstanding proofreader. He did both of my books and is my "second set of eyes" on most of my projects. He has a gift for detail and is ultimately responsible for much of my work being very clean when it arrives on an editor's desk. It really helps to have a reliable go-to person that can take the time to make sure all of the "I's" are dotted and "T's" are crossed. Nothing and I mean nothing - ever gets printed without going through the editing process. I still make mistakes though. Most historians, myself included, welcome corrections and critiques and I always strive to implement them. I am by no means an expert in anything, and I appreciate the insights of those who are. One of the worst things for a writer to do is think he has all of the answers. I try to remain humble and soak up as much knowledge as I can from people much smarter than I.


8. How did you get your first book published?

Despite having eight or so years under my belt as an essayist, I had always wanted to write a REAL book. By 2004, I had published enough separate studies to fill an encyclopedia, but I wanted to create something that was far removed from anything else that I had ever done. I kept the idea in the back of my mind and debated writing historical material with regard to my faith. Although I had extensive experience writing about baseball, when writing as a Christian, I struggled to find subjects that I deemed worthy of God's Word.

Then I watched "Gods and Generals," which featured a breathtaking performance of General Jackson (played by Stephen Lang). After viewing the film, the life and death of Stonewall stayed with me. His devotion to both God and country literally touched my heart and I felt a strong calling to write about it. There have been so many brilliant and long-winded studies on Jackson over the years. All of them however, spotlight his military service and strategic genius. My book recalls these events, but is ultimately focused on his religious awakening and its effect on both his life and the lives of his men.

After several months of research, I drafted a manuscript for "Onward Christian Soldier: The Spiritual Journey of Stonewall", but I didn't feel that I had anything worth submitting to a publisher. On a whim, I sent what I had and what do you know? People actually liked it. I spent the next month editing the manuscript and decided to take Publish America's offer to produce and distribute it. My second book, "Christian Cavalier: The Spiritual Legacy of J.E.B. Stuart" was a logical companion to the first book. Luckily, Publish America was interested in that one too, so I was able to publish two books that were matched in design and content.


9. Do you have any future plans you'd like to share?

The "Battlefield Believers" novel I mentioned is ongoing. I have also completed a 400+ page book entitled "Luckiest Fans On The Face Of This Earth" featuring complete recaps and statistics for every Yankees' World Series game ever played. This book is currently in the publishers reviewing stage. I also am in the process of acquiring reference material for a special side-project entitled "The Southern Cross: A collection of inspirational prayers and letters by Confederate chaplains." The vision I have is to provide a devotional-like tribute testifying to the "shepherds in gray" who accompanied their "flock" into battle.

Also I'd like to mention a FREE Children's Civil War Coloring Book that I recently wrote, designed and published. It is available online as a downloadable PDF on my website at: http://www.angelfire.com/ny5/pinstripepress. As a parent of three children living in the heart of Civil War country, I understand how difficult it can be to explain the concept of a "civil war" to kids. This book was written with elementary-school-level sentence structure using simple terms and contains wonderful illustrations that will make learning fun.


10. What do you hope to accomplish through your writing?

I think I've already accomplished my goals. Not that I am content, but my life away from the keyboard is really where my goals lie. To be a better husband, a better father, a better friend - those are the things that I REALLY hope to accomplish. Writing allows me to pursue a dream and helps pay the bills, but it's not my entire life. I'm not a "fame and fortune" kind of guy. All I want now is to continue to have the opportunity to write and to get better at it.

A very smart friend of mine once shared a brilliant definition of "work." He stated that the eight hours spent each day at work is ONLY to support what we do during the other sixteen hours. In other words, it's the time we spend away from our career that ultimately matters. I pray that I never lose sight of that.

 

 

 


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