A group of Master Masons talk about topics of Masonic interest--each from their own unique perspective. You'll find a wide range of subjects including history, trivia, travel, book reviews, great quotes, and hopefully a little humor as well on topics of interest for Freemasons and those interested in the subject of Freemasonry.
The Beer Summit: A Conversation with Author Todd Creason
Todd Creason is the author of several books about famous Freemasons in American history. A Freemason himself, Todd’s series Famous American Freemasons has become as popular with non-Masons as it is with Masons. He considers writing a hobby, and works as a Business Manager at the University of Illinois. But his books continue to grow in popularity.
I met Todd several years ago in Chicago in a television station green room as we were waiting to be interviewed for a Newsmakers segment for CNN Headline News. It was pretty obvious to me that Todd Creason was somebody that had a very unique way of seeing the world. Within a few minutes, we were laughing so hard a studio employee asked us to keep it down and shut the door. When I saw Todd had a new novel One Last Shot he was promoting, I knew he’d be an entertaining subject to interview. I wasn’t wrong about that. He sent me a copy of the book, and a few weeks later, we met outside of Danville, Illinois in a local bar called The Little Nugget. I recognized the bar instantly as The Beer Chaser, one of the fictional settings from Todd's novel One Last Shot.
So are you ready to begin the interview?
Isn’t that what we’ve been doing? What have we been doing for the last fifteen minutes?
I was getting some background information so I’d know what kinds of questions to ask.
Oh. I thought we were doing the interview. Maybe I should get some background information from you, so I know what kind of answers to give.
What do you want to know about me?
Would you like another beer?
Yes, I would. Anything else?
No. That’s all I really wanted to know. Bartender! When you get a moment could we have two more over here?
Are you ready to begin now?
Hey, I’m not the one that needed fifteen minutes of foreplay.
Are you going to give me serious answers to my questions?
It depends on your questions.
How would you describe One Last Shot to someone that hasn’t read it?
I think you’re missing the point here, Todd. Authors use interviews like this to get potential readers interested in reading their books. One word answers probably aren’t the best way to generate that kind of interest.
This is going to take a long time at this rate. You promised me you were going to try to give me serious answers.
I did not. I said it depended on your questions. Actually, I haven’t been interviewed like this before so I'm a little wound up. This is my very first interview as a novelist. I've done a quite a few interviews for non-fiction, but fiction is handled much differently. You get interviewed for a non-fiction history book, and it’s very boring interview. Predictable questions. Often it’s done over the phone. Just the facts. The interview winds up in the paper somewhere between the obituaries and the public notices, and usually half the facts are wrong.
Take a deep breath, and tell me about One Last Shot.
Okay. One Last Shot is about a best-selling author, Levi Garvey, who’s going through a mid-life crisis. He’s reached that age where men sometimes begin to wonder if their greatest accomplishments aren’t behind them. Levi just published a really bad book after two knock-out hits, and he’s being ridiculed nationally by critics. He sees his life living in his Savannah, Georgia townhouse on Pulaski Square with his age-inappropriate girlfriend unraveling. He decides to get out of town and figure out where his life is going. That’s what Levi does. Levi runs away from his problems. He decides to go back home to the small town of Twin Rivers for the first time in twenty years, to attend his 25th class reunion, settle his grandmother’s estate that he recently inherited, and hopefully, finally resolve a mistake he made long ago and see his old love again—Tori Buchanan. She’s the problem that caused him to run away from Twin Rivers all those years before. He was in love with her, and he never told her. While he was in college, she got married. It devastated him. He couldn’t take it, so he ran away, and he never went back. But don’t get the idea Levi’s a coward, because he’s not. He just can’t deal with feelings. That’s not that uncommon in men.
In the back of his mind, he’s hoping that while he’s home, and finally dealing with these difficult feelings from the past, maybe something will spark his muse again, and give him an idea for a new book. He hasn’t completely given up on the idea of making a comeback, but he isn’t convinced he can. And of course, the trip does just that, it gives him that idea he was looking for, and as he’s researching that idea he stumbles into a decades old secret. And then everything changes for Levi in very unexpected ways.
It’s very hard to put down, and I’d have to admit, you caught me off-guard. I thought I was reading a story about a man going home again to find himself, and I fully expected a love story when he finally finds his old flame, Tori Buchanan. It was all warm and fuzzy in the beginning, and parts of it were hysterically funny. Next thing I know, I’m on a rollercoaster, flipping pages until 2 a.m.
That is precisely what I wanted to do. Thank you. I wanted the reader to think they were reading a heartwarming story about a man battling through a midlife crisis as he tries to climb back to the top of his profession after suffering a horribly embarrassing setback. Make the reader feel like they were reading something off Oprah's "must read" list. Then just about the time the reader is getting comfortable, and waiting for the romance to start, I toss in the grenade, and blast everything all to hell. I don’t want to give too much away about the book, but as you know, it gets pretty ugly, and Levi has to come to grips with aspects of his personality that he’s long tried to forget, and never really wanted to face.
You’ve got a real knack for humor. It’s obvious in One Last Shot, and I follow your blog too, and it’s pretty funny as well. Did you ever consider writing a humorous novel?
I’ve thought about it. In fact, I had a really weird idea for a book just like that, and I even had a title. It was called Train Wreck: A Love Story. But it didn’t work for me. I filed it away finally. I like books like that, but there aren’t many authors that manage to pull it off, and it became obvious to me that I wasn't one of them. There’s no shortage of these zany, satirical novelists, but unless you’re Kurt Vonnegut, by the end of the book that humor has become pretty threadbare, and there’s little substance holding it together. Books have to be more than just quirky and witty. There has to be story there that’s built on a little more foundation than just novelty to maintain a reader’s interest--at least it takes a little more than that to maintain mine. But I think humor is important no matter what kind of book you’re writing, because it’s such an important part of who we are. We love to laugh. And people can find humor is just about any situation.
I’ve often heard that first novels are autobiographical. Is that true?
Well, there’s a lot of me in the book, but there’s not a lot of me in the character of Levi Garvey. He is my age, but that, and a few interests of his are about the only things we have in common. The only reason I made Levi and I the same age is because I’d just spent four years writing three non-fiction books on famous Freemasons back to back, and I was tired of researching. I needed a little break from the library. If I’d made Levi ten years younger than me, or ten years older, I’d have had to do a lot of research. What high school was like during that character’s time, what songs were popular, what items of news were in the papers. I figured, screw that, me and Levi are the same age. I remember the 80s well, so I didn’t have to spent much time researching that—I was there. And that’s the same reason Levi loves old movies. I do too. And 80s metal. I do too. Again, I stuck with interests I knew so I wouldn’t have to do a lot of research. So I’m basically just a lazy researcher. I had a good story, and there was some research I had to do to support the story, but I stuck really close to what I knew well when it came to the characters.
When did you start considering yourself a writer?
I haven’t yet. I’m an accountant that writes. I don’t think I could ever write full time. I’ve taken vacation time off before, thinking I’ll have a chance to work on a book or an idea, and that whole week or two will pass, and I’ll get almost nothing done. Writing for me is a form of relaxation. I get all wound up at work, and going through the daily routine, and in the evenings, when everyone in my house goes to bed, writing is how I unwind. And I love doing it—as a hobby. It’s simply recreation for me. That, and I'm one of the fortunate few that really love my job.
Do you ever hear from your readers, and what kinds of things do they say?
I get a lot of emails from readers of the Famous American Freemasons series. They fall into two categories usually. The “hey, you got this tiny little detail wrong in chapter four” pile, and the “boy, I sure loved your book” pile. And of course, there’s that fringe group that likes your book, and wants you to read over their 1,000 page manifesto and tell them what you think of it. That gets a little odd sometimes. There are a lot of crazy people out there that write. Usually in all capital letters and no punctuation. I get my share of crazy Freemasonry conspiracy theorists too. One actually showed up at my first book-signing at a Waldenbooks in 2007 and accused me of being a high-ranking member of the Illuminati, which dissolved in 1776 by the way. He was escorted from the mall by the mall police.
But overwhelmingly, my email is positive. People like the way I write, and what I write about. I’m told my books are easy to read, and they like the way I tell history as stories. Even writing history, I didn’t want to bore readers with dull dates and details unless they are important to the man’s story. And they love the short chapters. In fact, I’ve gotten a lot of emails that have called them “great bathroom books” because the chapters are so short. I guess my chapters are the perfect length for taking care of that kind of business. I always respond the same way. “I’m planning on printing the next volume on two-ply.”
You’re a popular writer amongst Freemasons. You want to talk about that a little bit?
I think of all the experiences I’ve had in my life, joining a Masonic lodge has been the most inspirational. It’s been a real driving force in my life. It’s different for everyone, but in my five years, I’ve learned a lot about myself. I’ve made some of the best friends I’ve ever had. I’ve done things I’d thought about but never thought I’d actually do. When I started writing these books, most of the local members didn’t even know who I was since I was so new to the organization. But they got behind my book, actually, they got behind me, and they pushed this book because that’s what we do for each other. We’re all brothers. In all honesty, they didn’t care if that book was good or not. It was something I did, and they wanted to help me with it. As it turned out, it was a good book, and I wrote another one which most of my readers think was even better than the first, and I’ll write one more too. But if I live a long and active life, and I’m active in Freemasonry for the rest of my life, I’ll never be able to put back into that fraternity what I’ve gotten out of it. And if it weren’t for my brother Master Masons, I wouldn’t be here talking with you about my novel right now because I would have never gotten around to writing it.
We’ve been talking here a long time, and we met once before in Chicago, and I think that’s the very first completely serious thing you’ve ever said to me.
Well, they’ve done a lot for me. Freemasonry’s purpose is to make good men better. I don’t know that I was a particularly good man when I joined, but I can say without reservation, my experiences within this fraternity, have made me a better man. And I've still got plenty of room for improvement. What I’ve experienced over the last five years has been both humbling, and uplifting.
What do you mean by that exactly?
I wrote my books about famous Freemasons as a new Mason myself, with the singular goal of bringing attention to the remarkable fraternity of Freemasonry and its long history in America. My experiences in Freemasonry have been so life changing I wanted to tell a story about other men that experienced those same things and how their lives impacted our history. I've only scratched the surface of the stories I could tell about these famous Freemasons. My books have done that, but they've also brought a lot of attention on me, and sometimes, I'm not real comfortable with what's come with all that attention. I sometimes wish people would focus a little more on what I've written, and a little less on the guy that wrote it. Maybe it’s time for another subject.
Sure. What books do you think have influenced you the most?
Oh, brother. Are you kidding me? Is this where I list off ten or twelve of the greatest book in literature I’ve never read, or read and hated to demonstrate how deep and intelligent I am?
Yes, that’s exactly right.
Ok, we’ll give it a try. I grew up reading a lot of different books, but I loved Sherlock Holmes stories and Stephen King novels. I still read both. I think Stephen King’s Dark TowerSeries was a big influence on me. I started reading it in the fourth or fifth grade when the first novel was printed as a serial in a science fiction magazine, and it took him nearly thirty years to finish the entire story, putting a book out every five or seven years. So for decades it was always part of what I was reading, and I was always waiting for the next book. Funny thing is most of his regular readers aren’t even familiar with it. The Dark Tower Series was like the back-story of every other mainstream book he wrote. It was like the story behind the story, and those of us that are familiar with it could see brief references to Roland Deschain’s Dark Tower world in books like It, and Needful Things, and Insomnia, and many more. King’s mind never seemed far from it. I liked that idea, and believe me, there’s a story behind the story of Twin Rivers too, but unlike King, if I have the opportunity to tell that story, I’ll probably finish with it rather than start with it.
These days I read mostly garbage, but there are several writers I enjoy in particular, and I’ll pick them up when I see they have a new book out. I like Jeffrey Deaver. I like John Sanford. I like Dan Brown. I’ve read all the Harry Potter books. As far as classics, one of my favorite books is Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. And you can’t go wrong with Tolkien either. Oh, and I almost forgot Horatio Hornblower. I love the Hornblower books by C. S. Forester.
Do you have a writing ritual? Many writers do.
I listen to Vivaldi, sip herbal tea with a vanilla candle burning, and begin writing after meditating for thirty minutes.
No. I write five or six nights a week starting at 8 PM which is my little girl’s bedtime. I’m distracted at least a dozen times by my dog, Roxanne, who begins harassing me for treats the minute my wife Valerie goes to bed. I’m usually listening to talk radio as I write. And when I’m writing, not researching, I’m often enjoying a few cold beers as I’m doing it. I work until midnight or one in the morning, and then go to bed. I don’t require much sleep—about five or six hours a night is perfect for me.
Now there’s another part of that process when I’m writing that takes place much earlier in the day. Every day when I’m actively writing, I walk my entire lunch hour, and I think through what I’m going to write that night. Plan it out. I do that while I’m driving to work and going home too. By the time I sit down that evening at 8, I know exactly what I’m doing, where I’m going, and exactly how I’m going to write it. Most of writing for me isn’t the actual writing, it’s all in my head, and I’m just plopping it down on paper.
What are your current projects?
I’m researching the third volume of the Famous American Freemasons series. That book will be the last one in that series. I’m working through the storylines of two possible future Twin Rivers novels. One is set in 1920s Twin Rivers, and that would be a great story, because it’s based loosely on a real story I read about in the archives of the library. The other idea I have takes place just a few months after One Last Shot ends. It just depends on which project comes together first. Ideas have to perk for awhile with me.
Would Levi Garvey be a part of that second book you mentioned?
He’ll be around, and Tori too along with most of the characters in the first book. It’s a small town, you can’t get away from that. But I’m not sure how important Levi will be yet, still working on it, but I don’t see him as being a major character at this point. But it’s possible he could take a role in the final outcome. Or better yet, Tori might.
What is the hardest part of writing for you?
Editing. I absolutely hate it. When I’m done with the last page of a book, the idea is purged from my mind, and finished in my opinion. I’m ready for the next project, which I’ve usually got in mind even before I finish the current book. The weeks and months revisiting, revising, and editing is absolute torture. Fortunately, with One Last Shot I had a really tight story, and there wasn’t much revision, it was just correction and minor fixes. But it still sucks, but you can’t get away from the importance of it if you want a good final product. And to be perfectly honest, I really hate this kind of stuff too.
All the promotion could go, and I wouldn’t miss it. I don’t like selling books. I love writing them. But there’s no sense in writing books if nobody reads them, and to sell them, you’re always promoting them. You’re speaking. You’re doing interviews. You’re talking about it on your blog. You’re writing articles for publication. There are book-signing events. It’s endless. You see, when I wrote my first book, Famous American Freemasons I did it because I wanted to tell a story of America, and a story about the kinds of men that Freemasonry has attracted over its long history in America. The Masons loved my book, and they got behind it and pushed hard on it, and I thought that was wonderful. They opened up doors, got the book reviewed, got it written about, publicized it. And it became a great success. But in my perfect world, I’d write them, people would automatically buy them, and I’d never have to leave my man cave. Maybe one day I’ll get there on name recognition alone, but I’m sure not there yet. I guess if you’re going to be a writer, book-hooking is part of it, and I suppose if I want to keep doing it, I’ll learn to be the good little book-hooker, and quit whining about it.
Nice phrase. Book-hooker?
Yeah, my wife came up with that. You knew what I was talking about though, didn’t you? That’s when a writer sells himself to sell a book. I find it very unsavory, but I’ve learned I have to do this if I want people to read what I’ve written, and it gets easier over time.
Like being a hooker?
Are you speaking from experience?
I knew that was a mistake as soon as I said it.
I’m sorry. You opened the door.
You talked about that aspect of promotion in One Last Shot too.
Yeah, I don’t think Levi Garvey liked that part of it very much either. That is something Levi and I have in common. He wanted to sit at his roll-top desk, in the library of the Garvey house on the edge of town, and just write great books. That’s it. And that part of Levi Garvey is very much me shining through the fiction. I was a little naïve when I started this. It never occurred to me I’d sell more than fifty copies of my first book, and I figured my mom would buy thirty of those, and they’d sell the other twenty copies off the counter at the local gas station. When it took off, it never crossed my mind people would want me to talk about it, or that I’d have to actually promote it. And every time, it makes me a nervous wreck whether I’m speaking or just signing copies. Of course you know that, we met when I was a nervous wreck before one of those gigs on national television.
Yes, we did. Do you still do that?
What? TV interviews? Certainly not. I kept thinking I’d get better at it. I didn’t. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion. If you ever see me on television again, it will be on David Letterman.
Promoting one of your best-selling novels?
Unlikely. I’d probably be one of his Stupid Human Tricks segments. I can belch the Star Spangled Banner. It’s impressive. Wanna hear?
No, I think I’ll pass on that one. Do you ever get writer’s block?
No. I don’t really believe that exists. I think it’s an excuse writers use. There are times I don’t want to write. There are times I’m not in the right mood. There are times when I get stuck, and have to back up and figure something out. But blocked? Never. Of course, what I do isn’t literature or high art, and I don’t view it as a gift. I see it as a skill. A learned skill not imparted upon me from the heavens above. I tell stories, and I get better at it through practice. I keep it simple, and I tell it straight forward. But in all fields there are temperamental personalities that see what they do as a talent always dangling on the whims of their muse. A gift from God that could be snuffed out by the slightest change in the writer’s Karma. I think that’s complete bullshit. Some of them are famous, and others are aspiring. I’m still on the aspiring side of the equation, so maybe I’m not the right one to express my opinion on that. Maybe I’m the one full of bullshit. But I’m not going to delude myself. People always want to convince you that what they’re doing, no matter what that is, is much harder than it actually is. I think writing is time consuming. I think figuring out how to tell a story can be challenging. It’s hard work, just like any other job. But it’s a skill that is learned, it’s not a gift. If it were a gift, writers wouldn’t get better over time, and most do. If it were a gift, wouldn’t an author’s first book be as good as his last?
That’s a good point. In closing, do you have any advice for writers?
Just do it. Write. Figure out what you want to write about, and write about it. Set some time aside every day, and work on it. If you’re rusty in rhetoric, take a class and brush up. If you don’t know how to use a colon or a semi-colon properly, then either learn, or do as I do, and avoid using them all together. If you’re too lazy to learn, then find a good editor. Personally, I’m not a big fan of creative writing classes. I took one years ago, and it took me years to shake off the experience. If you want to learn how to write like other writers do, or tell stories like other writer’s do, or how other writers construct plots, and use symbolism, then by all means, take one of those classes, or join a writer’s group. If you want to develop your own voice, then brush up on your skills, and do it your own way.
And when will One Last Shot be out?
It's looking like January or February of 2011. Keep on eye on my website toddcreason.org for the announcement, and of course, I have a running commentary about it and many other subjects on my Toddz Spot blog toddecreason.blogspot.com
Thanks, Todd. That was a great interview, and you didn’t torture me nearly as badly as I expected.
We could start over. I have prepared a few questions you might ask me.
Oh no, I’d never be that dumb. What was that you said in your email? If you’re going to battle with skunks don’t let them pick the weapons?
Actually, that was a famous American Freemason that said that, and a native of Danville, Illinois. His Masonic lodge, Olive Branch, is still in existence in Danville today. Uncle Joe Cannon offered that bit of wisdom. Uncle Joe became one of the longest serving and most powerful Speakers of the House of Representative in our history. They called him “The Iron Duke of American Politics.” Oh, and they also called him “foul-mouth Joe.” You think I’ve given you a few headaches tonight, Uncle Joe Cannon gave Teddy Roosevelt nightmares.
I have a tough time remembering that you’re a historian too.
I’m not. I’m an accountant that studies history, and writes books.