Author Michael Lewis serves up an entertaining lesson for young readers on some of the strongest women in history. "Fight Like A Girl" - his fifth book - has Lewis pounding the pavement again as head of his own 'marketing department.'
By COSMO MACERO JR.
The energy and excitement that Michael G. Lewis brings to just about every human encounter is really something to behold. Whether it's creating a personal financial plan for a client, participating in a business networking group, or delighting a room full of youngsters with a fully-costumed reading from his "Cap'n McNasty" series of picture books, the author and financial advisor knows how to turn up the good-humor wattage.
Lewis lives in Weymouth, MA with his wife and four sons. He's a long-time financial advisor with Northwestern Mutual, and has also been a playwright and actor. He served for a period as playwright in residence at the Los Feliz Playhouse in Los Angeles - earning the respect of critics from the LA Times, LA Weekly, Boston Globe and elsewhere.
But it was inspiration drawn partly from the many hours of reading he and his wife did with their boys that put Lewis - who attended the University of Massachusetts - Amherst and Bishop's University in Quebec - on course for his most prolific and beloved creative endeavor.
In what he simply calls: "The Pirate Series," Lewis has created the character of Cap'n McNasty - weaving fun and sometimes instructive narratives in four picture books for young readers, and around which he has built an engaging in-person experience by portraying the pirate protagonist as he reads aloud and entertains: a performance Lewis has given more than 150 times.
The author generously committed quite a bit of time to share his thoughts on writing and discuss his fifth book: another pirate-inspired but different kind of project called "Fight Like a Girl - Women Warriors Throughout History."
AHN: This is a shift from your first series of books. And it also looks like the product of some pretty interesting and maybe fun research. Can you explain how the idea came about?
ML: Fight Like A Girl falls into what’s defined as a Middle Grade category – an entirely different genre than my Cap’n McNasty Picture Book series. That being said, it was a direct result of my Picture Books that the concept for Fight Like A Girl was born. When conducting author visits to schools, libraries, bookstores, and other venues for my Picture Books, I enjoy engaging with the kids and asking questions, one being “Can you name some famous pirates?”
The answers I receive inevitably result in a potpourri of the more well-known male pirates ubiquitous throughout history, literature, and the media: Blackbeard, Capt. Hook, Capt. Jack Sparrow, Calico Jack, etc. Which allows me to segue into a teaching moment, if you will; I inform them that not only are there female pirates in the Cap’n McNasty books, but that isn’t so unusual because there were quite a number of female pirates throughout history. And many of those women were just as tough and just as brave - if not more so - than their male counterparts. I then introduce them to Ann Bonny and Mary Read, two 18th century women pirates who, in a jaw-dropping coincidence, both served on the same ship, both had to dress as men to disguise their true gender, and both became fast friends as well as notoriously brave, tough, and amazingly successful at their chosen careers as outlaws on the high seas. It was while taking a closer look at their lives via Google that other woman pirates, outlaws, soldiers, and warriors started popping up in my search bar. And from there, it was off to the races. The more I read about these women, the more amazed I became that they weren’t better known.
Whether it was your intent or not, the book stands to be inspiring and empowering to adolescent and teenage girls. But was that your intent?
It was, actually. But there was more to it than that. These women had many differences, certainly, but their similarities are striking – beyond their gender, all were smart, stubborn, almost supernaturally brave, and extraordinary. These women warriors – this “Band of Sisters” – had far-reaching effects on the entire world and some of their exploits literally changed the course of history. What they accomplished, despite overwhelming odds and insurmountable circumstances, is inspirational and empowering to everyone, regardless of age, gender, or nationality, and their stories deserve to be told.
Also: what is the reaction from young male readers?
Hugely popular. These true-to-life tales are replete with adventure, battlefield heroics, bloodlust, revenge, betrayal, and even humor – just like Boston sports or family dinners at my house. What’s not to like?
An interesting thing about children's s authors is you have a real opportunity for a 2-for-1 fan relationship. The young readers themselves AND their parents. That seems like it must be rewarding: complete strangers come to a reading and saying: 'Thank you for the positive influence and impact you have had on my child.'
I have four kids myself and my wife and I read copious children’s books over the years. Some I dreaded and some I enjoyed reading over and over again. The Cap’n McNasty children’s books are filled with inside jokes, double-entendres, innuendos, puns, and visual gags hidden within Stan Jaskiel’s wonderful illustrations which appeal to both children and grown-ups alike.
I also intentionally – and very subtly - sneak references into my picture books about the importance of reading, math, and working hard to achieve your goals, a technique I refer to as “Laugh and Learn”. I wanted to create picture books that adults could enjoy just as much as the children they were reading them to, and based on the feedback I’ve received, I believe I’ve accomplished that.
One of my favorite engagements was a chance encounter I had on a train when I was returning to Boston from an author event in New York. The woman I spoke with not only ordered my book, but was kind enough to take the time to leave this review on Amazon:
“I was recently riding an Amtrak train from New York to Providence , and happened to end up in a conversation with the gentleman in front of me, who just so happened to be the author of this adorable book. He told me all about it, even went right into character as Cap'n McNasty, pirate voice and all! I have a 3 and an 8 year old, so I went onto Amazon on my phone right there and ordered it. A few days later it arrived, and I have now had to read it to my kids almost every night since we got it! They absolutely love it! The author, Michael, was incredibly passionate about this book, and I will definitely be keeping an eye out for the second one!” - Amtrak passenger and Mike Lewis fan.
It’s a pretty great feeling to secure that kind of feedback from a stranger.
You had a goal or a vision or a dream: to be a children's and young adult author. You not only have achieved it, but you have worked harder than just about anyone marketing and promoting your books. Has it gotten any easier?
I don’t know if it’s gotten easier, per se, but the longer you slug away at this, the more you learn. I personally love marketing my books, though the primary obstacle – and the most frustrating aspect of the marketing piece – is the lack of time that I’m able to allocate toward it. It’s a wonderful time to be an author; having the internet and social media at our disposal presents a myriad of opportunities, avenues, and resources to market and promote our work. The fact I’m engaging with you right now is a wonderful example.
Does Regal Publishing give you more support than before? A budget?
Regal House Publishing is a small, independent shop which is one of the main reasons I was excited to work with them. I had three publishing houses interested in Fight Like A Girl - two of whom were bigger and more established than Regal House. But I felt a real connection with Jaynie Royal, the President and Founder of Regal House, and knew she and her team were just as passionate about the project as I was. What they lack in marketing resources, they more than make up for in enthusiasm, hard work, grit, and commitment to their authors. They’ve been wonderful, as has the team at Arcadia-Pelican Publishing who brought my four Picture Books to life; The Great Pirate Christmas Battle, Battle For The Knotty List, The Great Thanksgiving Food Fight and Cap’n McNasty’s Pirate Guide.
The upside to working with a publishing house outside of what’s called the “Big Five” - Penguin Random House, Hachette Livre, HarperCollins, Simon, and Schuster, and Macmillan Publishers – is you have easier access to the decision makers and a more intimate relationship with the team behind your book. The downside is, the smaller shops have limited resources. For all intents and purposes, I am the marketing department. I’ve conducted over 150 author events at schools, libraries, bookstores, author panels, and private parties and functions, all or most of them arranged and coordinated by me. I’ve secured solid reviews and a fair amount of ink from the Boston Globe, Midwest Book Reviews, the Patriot Ledger, Children’s Literature, and Publisher’s Weekly, and I don’t even have a literary agent.
I’ve spoken with authors who aren’t even published yet who have agents working hard on their behalf, and here I am with five traditionally published books, a fairly impressive calendar of events to my credit and, though ’m certainly interested, I don’t have professional representation yet. Go figure.
Can you explain your writing process a bit?
My writing process consists of being lazy until my conscience can no longer take it. There – I said it.
And also: talk about your writing space. Is it one spot in a home office or study? Or do you go mobile for a change of scenery or inspiration?
I write everywhere – and I do mean everywhere; at home, at work, at the beach, in parking lots and office lobbies between appointments. It’s not uncommon for me to go out for a bite to eat or a beer with my notebook and pen in hand (and yes, I do quite a bit of writing longhand). I went on a boy’s weekend a couple years back, and stayed in my room working on Fight Like A Girl while everyone else hit the town. I didn’t join them until I got enough work done to justify going out.
What other writing projects are you working on that you can tell us about?
I’m focused on two things right now: developing The Great Pirate Christmas Battle into a holiday stage musical, and a magazine piece about the sinking of the Marine Electric, a coal freighter that sank in February of 1983 off the coast of Virginia while on its way to Somerset, MA. Thirty-one of the 34 crewmen onboard perished in those icy waters, and I knew two of them from my days working for the Steamship Authority during college. That story’s haunted me for almost 40 years.
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