How do you pronounce your last name?
Must – chen, like “question.”
When did you know that you wanted to write?
Not until I was thirty-five or so. My wife was doing an internship in another city and I was spending a lot of time on the road, and I decided I wanted to try and do three things besides being a lawyer: to teach, to run for political office and to write a novel. Eventually, I did all three.
Do you still practice law?
I do. I represent cities and counties and school districts and hospitals that are borrowing money. I’m a “bond lawyer”—I draw up the contracts for financings for these entities. It sounds incredibly dull (perhaps that’s why I’m a fiction writer), but actually it’s more fun and challenging than you’d think.
And you were an elected official?
I was elected to the Tallahassee City Commission in 2003, re-elected in 2004 and 2008, and decided not to run again when my term ended in 2012. I enjoyed it, particularly after representing local governments for so long. I figure I’ve probably sat through more public hearings than most other humans. The beauty of local government is that if you really want to make something happen as an elected official, you can do it. Plus, I love Tallahassee, which is one of the most beautiful places on earth.
What made you think you could write a novel?
Naivete. I’ve always read a lot, and I had this feeling that I could just sit down and write a novel, which I’ve seen later described as the equivalent of a sudden decision to begin practicing thoracic surgery. I recently wrote an essay for the Southeast Review titled “An Autodidact on Craft,” in which I describe myself as the Grandma Moses of fiction. And I’m only middle-aged.
Do you still read a lot now, and what do you like to read?
I read widely, mostly fiction; I try to read forty novels a year and usually do so. I alternate between classics and contemporary literary fiction, sci-fi, and an occasional thriller or mystery. I try to read things I should have read but haven’t—for instance, this past year I read Angle of Repose, The Leopard and I, Claudius (all of which were excellent). For a time after I became a lawyer I didn’t read much for pleasure. I would tell myself I was too tired after reading documents all day long, but one of my law partners got me back into it. Now I feel like a kid let loose in the library, with all this great literature out there that I haven’t read yet (or re-read). That’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed about being involved with the Lutheran Readers Project (formerly known as the Lutheran Writers Book Club)—I’ve been able to help introduce others to wonderful authors like Gary Fincke, Per Petterson, and Walt Wangerin.
Did you research much of the Armenian information that forms the core of The Gendarme?
Yes. As I indicate in the author’s note accompanying the book and reprinted here as the Backstory, my Armenian heritage is distant. Unlike many Armenian-Americans, my paternal ancestors have been in the United States for almost 200 years, and as such I didn’t know much about Armenia or the Armenians or what occurred at the start of World War I. One day someone asked if I’d read Peter Balakian’s The Black Dog of Fate. I hadn’t, and did, and that led me to a host of other books by descendants of those that survived the massacres, and a better understanding of what actually happened.
How do you find time to write, given all the other things you do?
I write a little bit every day. I wake up early, read the local paper, drink coffee and write for about an hour, then I’m off into the day. I find that writing like this keeps my head in what I’m doing, even subconsciously during the course of the day. The key for me is to keep at it, for if I stop writing for even a few days I lose my momentum and it becomes much more difficult to pick up where I left off. I sometimes wish I had more time to write, and maybe in the future I will have, although the thought of sitting writing at a desk for six to eight hours a day doesn’t hold much attraction. So I’ll probably keep doing what I’m doing for now.
How Was Word of South Started?
With the publication of The Gendarme, I was invited to speak at a number of literary festivals, and began to think: why couldn’t we do this in Tallahassee? I was on the City Commission at the time and needed to wait until I got off to try it, but after I was no longer a commissioner (and after a lot of thinking about “do I really want to do this?”) a group of us decided to give it a go. Rather than being just like every other book festival, though, we decided to try and be something different, and to combine books with music. The first festival was held in Tallahassee’s newly renovated Cascades Park in 2015, unfortunately partly in a downpour, but even with the rain it was a great success. We’re now in our fifth year of putting on what we believe is one of the country’s most unique festivals, where we talk about music and sing about books and do everything in between. The festival has become known for its “mu-au-shups”—combinations of writers and musicians who are left to do whatever they want to do—and we’ve paired Julia Reed and Eden Brent, Paul Beatty and Matthew Shipp, Rick Moody and Rob Roberge, Robert Olen Butler and Bruce Cockburn, to name a few. We’ve also featured a number of musicians who have written memoirs or other books: Sheila E, Rita Coolidge, George Clinton, Loudon Wainwright III and more. It’s all a great, big time, with tremendously talented artists.