BY: Angie Haddock
A funny and touching novel about media, memory, compassion, confusion, religion, regret, politics, and purpose.
I found “The Real Truth” through Goodreads, and was excited that the author was open to doing an interview. The book itself was an easy and enjoyable read – it comes in under 300 pages and has a recognizable format.
The main character, Derek Severs, is a conservative radio show host who thrives on getting into arguments on-air. He starts being visited by ghosts – not of people he knows personally, but of well-known figures from history. Unlike this premise’s Dickensian predecessor, these ghosts visit in groups of 3-4, usually, and take Derek to various places he hasn’t been before (including Woodstock), in addition to some places he has been. Eventually, as Derek becomes more accepting that the ghosts are going to continue coming back, they take him to the point in his college days that he currently needs to come to grips with.
Without giving away the resolution, I would say that the book ties things up nicely, but not too unrealistically.
The author, Gregg Maxwell Parker, published this book a few years ago. He has since put out two more novels, the most recent being a middle grade novel. Here’s my unedited interview with Gregg.
Angie: Where are you living/writing from these days?
Gregg: After living in the US most of my adult life, I’ve relocated to Japan. My wife is from here, so that makes things easy. I am very happy to live in an era where I can stream NFL and NBA games from another continent. Otherwise, I might miss LA a lot more.
Angie: Did you always want to be a writer? Or, what inspired you to want to write books?
Gregg: I remember stating that I wanted to be a screenwriter as early as middle school. I loved movies and wanted to write them, though I had no idea how someone actually went about that since I lived in Nebraska and knew no one who had ever worked in movies before. I’d always loved to read, but never considered what went into actually writing a novel; books just sort of existed. Junior year of high school, my AP Lit class (shout-out to Mr. Holechek) read “As I Lay Dying” by William Faulkner and “A Place Where the Sea Remembers” by Sandra Benitez, and I discovered George Carlin’s books. That was when it first dawned on me that authors weren’t impossible geniuses, and that anyone could sit down and write a story about whatever they wanted. I studied Creative Writing at USC, and that was where I really fell in love with it and decided this was what I wanted to do.
Angie: Considering the topic of this one – have you ever worked in media before?
Gregg: I’ve had a strange and meandering career path, with stints in many different industries – online media, film & TV, education, health insurance, industrial/agriculture, nonprofits, and plenty of office jobs. I think “The Real Truth” is a little informed by my own experiences, but what I found in writing it is that the book really took shape the more I moved it AWAY from the concrete reality I thought I knew and allowed it to be its own thing, let the character be his own person. Instead of making him as much like the talk show hosts I’d listened to as possible, I focused on how he was different from them, why he wouldn’t like them, and that’s when I was able to see him as a full human being and understand where he was coming from. Now, when I’m preparing to write something, I might do a little research, but as soon as I start developing a list of facts or details that I’m determined to include in a novel or story, I know it’s time to stop researching and start making things up.
Angie: The ghosts who show up seem pretty random – both as individuals, and in how they are grouped together – was that intentional? How did you pick who you wanted to write into the book as ghosts?
Gregg: I remember those sections were some of the first things I outlined when working out the idea. It may not seem obvious, but the choices of who those characters were and how they behaved were extremely calculated. This is a book that is largely about expectations – not just the main character’s, but the reader’s as well. These are, for the most part, people Derek has specific ideas about, just as he has specific ideas about morality and life and death and all sorts of things, and what he finds isn’t what he was hoping for. When he sees Abraham Lincoln, he’s expecting a specific thing, but it turns out this version of Abe isn’t the same as the one from life, and isn’t providing him with what he wanted. Derek is perpetually disappointed in both himself and the world around him, and now he’s finding out that this fantastical afterlife may be just as disappointing.
The same is true for the reader. I have to swim against a current in this story because it fits into a narrative that you’ve heard a thousand times. I know, based on the concept, that you have specific expectations about what will happen to this guy and how the story will end, and I have to subvert those expectations in order to open you up to the possibility of something different. The ghosts do a good job of making sure the reader understands what they’re in for. When Bob Marley shows up, I know how you’re expecting him to speak and act, and it becomes clear quickly that you won’t be getting it. In the same way, I know you’ve seen a hundred TV episodes based on “A Christmas Carol,” and you’re comfortable with that structure, but making you comfortable isn’t my job. It would be easy to write a story where a middle-aged white man is visited by people from his past, or people he admires who order him to change, but that doesn’t reflect the world as I see it. Everything you watch or read is “Man is selfish, writer/deity teaches him a lesson, he changes.” So the question becomes: “How do I do the OPPOSITE of that? What person is the OPPOSITE of who would be useful to Derek in the traditional version of this story?” The only way for me to give you something you’ve never seen before is to take something you’ve seen a million times and blow holes in it until it’s unrecognizable.
Angie: I felt like religion/Christianity was handled pretty fairly here. By that I mean – yes, there are some hypocrites in the bunch, but most of the churchgoers were kind and inviting (well, at least, to someone they thought of as one of their own). Should I assume you grew up going to church? Did you want to include religion in this story for any specific aim, or was it more just a part of the character’s atmosphere?
Gregg: I grew up in a religious environment, and I suppose some of those experiences informed the sections of the book that involve Derek’s church. I was thinking on this today, and I honestly don’t remember when or why those aspects of the novel entered the picture; I think it was just always a part of it, since the story deals so heavily with the afterlife, and with a person who has a definite idea of what that afterlife is and should be, so much so that he doesn’t want to look into it for fear that it’s not going to be what he expects. There is something tragic about people who are afraid to admit they don’t know something, and that’s the part of it that stays with me, looking back. I rarely read my own work once it’s finished, so it’s been a couple years since I opened this book, but I don’t think of the religious characters as being hypocritical or whatever words one might use, since that’s not how they see themselves. They’re convinced they know what is true and what is not, and they’ve made up their minds about this man. He’s thought of himself as part of a large collective of like-minded people, but as the story progresses, his mind is less made up than it once was.
Angie: Tell us a little about what you’re working on now or next.
Gregg: After finishing a book each of the last three years, I decided I didn’t want to put anything out in 2020, and instead concentrated on learning how to advertise and promote my latest book, “Troublemakers,” which has been my most widely-read title and I think is my favorite thing I’ve worked on (though again, I don’t go back and read my old stuff, so that’s probably recency bias). I wanted to wait to let the next idea present itself to me, and after a few months, I settled on something that will be a real challenge. I’m still in the outlining stage, but this is looking to be the longest and most serious book I’ve ever written, so I honestly don’t know if it’ll come out in 2021 or later than that, but I’m excited to try something different.
Find Gregg’s books at his website or on Amazon.