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Interview: Michael Flocker, Author

(alternate text) Social observer extraordinaire Michael Flocker has written three well-received books on style, leisure, and our celebrity-obsessed culture. He brings a keen eye, a sharp wit, and an appreciated amount of sincerity to his work. While most other social commentators only want to poke fun, criticize and complain, Flocker intends for his work to benefit readers’ lives. The author was kind enough to talk to us about wardrobe choices for meeting an editor, the importance of finishing your book, and choosing a subject that interests you without worrying about trends.

Slushpile:  Your bio states that after some acting and screenwriting in L.A. you returned to New York City and penned the best-selling The Metrosexual Guide to Style. Did you have any journalism credits before working on that project?

Flocker:  The only real credits I had were some theater and nightlife reviews I had written in LA for AOL, and a couple of student state almanacs I wrote when I first came back to NY. They were geared to seventh-graders, so they weren’t terribly interesting.

Slushpile:  What was the genesis of your idea for your first book? What was the single moment where you thought this topic was worthy of a book and that you were the best person to write that book?

Flocker:  I had thought for a long time that a simple style handbook for men would be a good idea. It just seemed like something that should be out there, so I started writing it in my free time with no specific plan in mind for getting it published. I just wanted to follow through and complete my idea.

Slushpile:  Did you secure a literary agent first? Or did you work with Da Capo on the book deal yourself?

Flocker:  I got an agent first, and I found him by researching literary agencies on the internet. He was just starting out, so I thought he’d be more likely to make an effort on behalf of my book. The funny thing is that the title of my book at the time was The Least You Should Know, and my agent suggested I come up with a better title. I suggested the metrosexual thing and he liked it, so I tweaked the proposal and thee manuscript, and the day after he sent out the proposal we had a deal.

Slushpile:  Who is your agent?

Flocker:  Adam Chromy at Artists & Artisans

Slushpile:  Many aspiring authors struggle with the proposal process and getting either an agent or editor. They often find themselves unable to break out of the slushpile. How did you go about breaking in with your first book?

Flocker:  Well, I approached my agent with a completed manuscript, not just an idea or a proposal. And I think that really appealed to him because he could see my work and get right down to selling it. But he still made me put a proposal together for the publishers – he didn’t want to circulate the manuscript itself. My advice to new writers would be, don’t wait around to get an agent to give you permission to write a book. Just write it.

Slushpile:  What’s your own favorite hair product, moisturizer, or brand of shoes?

Flocker:  I’m always trying out new things, but I usually go with Aveda control paste for the hair and I like Neutrogena’s men’s products. The truth is that high price tags do not always mean better products. As for shoes, I’m extremely picky about small details, so I don’t have one brand I stick to. If I like them, I buy them whether they’re cheap or wildly expensive.

Slushpile:  Which writers (alive or dead) have the best sense of personal style?

Flocker:  I have always loved Gore Vidal because of the combination of intelligence and wry humor in his writing. I also love the Czech author Milan Kundera because he doesn’t waste a single word on anything that doesn’t contribute to his theme or idea.

Slushpile:  What should a writer wear when meeting his agent or editor for the first time? Business casual? More formal clothing such as a suit? Jeans and a T-shirt?

Flocker:  I think that really depends on the type of book you are presenting. If the book is about the intricacies of international finance, a suit will probably give you a little more credibility. On the other hand, if your book is a crazy, eccentric memoir, you should probably play up that role a bit. The bottom line is that an agent wants to see who you really are, so don’t dress up like you’re applying for a job at some big corporation. Just present yourself at your best, and keep it real.

Slushpile:  With your second book, The Hedonism Handbook, you turned your attention towards describing the good life. What novel most perfectly captures the attitude of enjoying life that you espouse in The Hedonism Handbook?

Flocker:  That’s a tough one. I suppose The Great Gatsby is the obvious answer, or maybe Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. There are surely countless novels out there that deal with those themes in some form or another. Of course, a lot of them end with suicide, death or destroyed lives, but that’s showbiz.

Slushpile:  The Hedonism Handbook dispenses advice on enjoying leisure and pleasure. What authors do you read when you’re ready to totally indulge yourself?

Flocker:  As with my shoes, I don’t have a single favorite that I always return to. I like any book that takes me to a foreign culture or another period in time. I don’t want to read about lives like my own, I want to be whisked off somewhere and read about people who live fearless lives.

Slushpile:  How do you differentiate your voice from other, older writers who have commented on matters of fashion and lifestyle? For example, Alan Flusser wrote about men’s fine clothing and L. Rust Hills described how a gentleman can do things properly. Aside from updating the name brands for today’s audience, how do you think your work differs from these older texts?

Flocker:  I hope that my books are different because I try to add a little tongue-in-cheek humor that makes the advice in the book more fun. So many books that are written on self-improvement of any kind are hopelessly earnest and serious, and I find that very tedious. I always try to make my books a funny read, even if you don’t care about the advice I’m offering.

Slushpile:  With both The Metrosexual Guide to Style and The Hedonism Handbook, you commented on trends of living. What is your advice for recognizing a trend that is established enough to support an entire book but not yet oversaturated? For example, if three of my friends decide to shave their heads and wear paint buckets, that’s probably too obscure and isolated of a trend for me to pitch to an agent. On the other extreme, the online dating craze is probably already overly documented and no agent is going to be receptive to yet another text on that subject. How do I find a topic that will justify a book, but is still emerging to such a degree that I get in early?

Flocker:  It’s very tricky to try and capture a trend. I think you have to write a book that can stand on its own merit first. If you have a solid subject, and a larger theme that truly interests you, you can attach it to a trend afterwards. I wrote a funny little book about men’s style because I thought it was a good idea. The title was an afterthought, but I was then able to tweak my manuscript very quickly to suit that idea and it became a best-seller. The book never would have worked if I tried to write 200 pages about the metrosexual trend itself.

Slushpile:  Your newest book, The Fame Game, examines how a normal everyday joe can improve his life by utilizing the fame secrets of the stars. What advice would you give to aspiring authors about improving their reputation and standing?

Flocker:  There’s no denying that in our society, packaging and image matters more than ever, so it actually is a good idea to think about how you want to present yourself. If an agent or publisher thinks you’d be good on TV, that’s a huge advantage for them because they can book you for a lot of publicity that way and dramatically increase book sales. My agent is always reminding me that we’re building a brand, so whether you’re a blogger, a poet or a published novelist, think about consistent voice, your unique persona and the style that sets you apart.

Slushpile:  One of your pieces of advice in the book is to always finish a project. “The world is littered with unfinished screenplays, half-baked business plans, and abandoned dreams. A finished work, no matter how crappy, is always better than an unfinished one, and the mere act of following through builds confidence.” So many aspiring authors struggle with finishing their book. What advice do you have for writers who are bogged down and just can’t seem to break through the obstacles?

Flocker:  I always have to walk away from my own work in order to forget what I’ve written and return with an objective eye. Sometimes a week is enough. Rereading it from the beginning always helps me see the trajectory of the book more clearly and sometimes the ending just becomes obvious. Also, I think many writers get stuck as they near the end because they put all this pressure on themselves to come up with a perfect ending right then and there. I would suggest that it’s better to write a crappy ending than no ending. Just end it, and then you can move on to the next stage of cleaning it up and rewriting. And as you reread and rewrite the earlier sections, the perfect ending may reveal itself.

Slushpile:  In The Fame Game, you mention the importance of recognizing which archetype people perceive you to be and how you might want to reinvent yourself. You talk about how Julia Roberts is the girl next door, Nicole Kidman is the ice princess, Tom Hanks is the regular guy, and how other celebrities match Hollywood archetypes. What are the writer archetypes?

Flocker:  There are many, and of course, you can always come up with your own. But I’d suggest The Bonvivant, The Satirical Humorist, The Romantic, The Rebel Poet, The Iconoclast, The Historical Egghead, The Tormented Artist, The Naked Exhibitionist, The Brooding Vampire…

Slushpile:  Which writer archetype do you embody?

Flocker:  Let’s see. I’ll modestly declare myself The International Bonvivant and Humorist.

Slushpile:  In The Fame Game, you examine the careers and publicity choices of a number of celebrities from old Hollywood to our current era. What is something you learned during your research that you’ve implemented in your own life in an effort to improve your writing career?

Flocker:  I have done a huge amount of publicity in the last three years, and I learned that TV, radio and print interviews are essential to sell books. I quickly realized that it’s not enough to just show up and answer questions, you have to play the part of best-selling author. Three months after Metrosexual came out I found myself at The Golden Globe Awards in LA providing red-carpet commentary on men’s fashion. Now, I’m not really qualified for that, but they wanted me to be an expert, so I played the part of an expert. I declared that the bow tie and standard tux were dead and a tailored black suit with a straight tie was new and modern. They ate it up. If you believe it, they’ll believe it.

Slushpile:  There are elements of snarky humor directed at some of our more dubious celebrities like Paris Hilton and Tara Reid in The Fame Game. But there are also moments of sincere self-improvement advice. How did you try to balance the need for snark, venom, and satire with legitimate advice for how people can improve their lives?

Flocker:  With all of my books, I think the combination of those elements is essential. People love a good laugh, but they also want to get something out of a book, to learn something. So in each case, I designed the outline of the chapters by subject matter to reflect the genuine advice I wanted to impart. I then populate each chapter with the meat and potatoes, so to speak, and then I go back through and essentially riff on what I’ve written and dress it up with humor and gags and a sort of freeform, conversational rant.

Slushpile:  The design, layout, and illustrations are all very important elements to your books. How involved are you in these details? Do you make suggestions for design elements or do you just write a manuscript and let Da Capo present it in whatever fashion they think is best?

Flocker:  My editor at Da Capo always lets me see the early design mocks that the art department comes up with. We discuss which ones we like and which ones don’t grab us. My agent usually has an opinion too. Once the general look of the cover has been agreed upon, I remove myself from the process. And I think that’s a good idea for all writers. Don’t try to control everything. You wrote the words, let them handle the packaging.

Slushpile:  What are your writing habits? Do you write any on spec or do you wait until you have a deal in place? Once you have a deal, how long does it take for you to write one of these books?

Flocker:  Aside from the first book, I’ve had a deal in place each time before I started writing. I’m now working on my fourth book in four years. I usually will spend a month or two just thinking about the concept and gathering materials, and generally it takes me about three to four months of concentrated writing to finish the book.

Slushpile:  You have a track record of successful books that examine different aspects of our society. But what advice would you give to an aspiring author who wants to write a book like The Fame Game but doesn’t have your credentials? How can that person make a publisher believe in his ability to produce the book?

Flocker:  A clear, concise and well-written proposal is the first step. But even in a proposal, you have to submit at least one sample chapter. And that is probably what they will base their decision on if they like the concept, so it had better be really good. Again, don’t wait for permission to start writing. Write several chapters, so you can include the best one in your proposal.

Slushpile:  What do you think is the most important factor of selling a book like the ones you have written? For example, if I approach a publisher with a book about tattoo culture, should I focus on my voice and writing style first? Should I become the foremost expert on tattooing and try to leverage my knowledge? Should I play up my research or interview skills?

Flocker:  You have to sell them on the concept. Your extensive background, endless research and clever writing won’t mean a thing to them if they think the idea is boring. You need to be able to answer their most basic questions. Who will buy this book? Who is your target audience? Hasn’t this already been done? How is this book different from others on the same subject? Will this still be timely by the time the book actually hits the stores?

Slushpile:  What are you working on now?

Flocker:  My new book is called Who Moved My Shovel: A Modern Office Survival Guide. It will be out in the fall.

Slushpile:  Your favorite writers are Gore Vidal and Milan Kundera. Do you have any plans to write fiction in the future?

Flocker:  I would love to. I think it’s inevitable. I hope so.

Slushpile:  What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip you would offer to aspiring authors?

Flocker:  Barf it all out and clean it up later. You will never, ever finish your book if you try to make page one perfect before you move on to page two. Writing is rewriting.

Slushpile:  What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip you would offer to aspiring authors struggling to break into print?

Flocker:  Put yourself in their shoes. Would you publish your book? Why? Is it really solid, funny, interesting, moving, important, surprising, useful or fascinating? You’re asking them to invest a lot of time and money in this idea, so you had better believe in it yourself.

For more information on Michael Flocker and his work, be sure to check out his website.