May Authors Forward interview with Charles Salzberg and writers group

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May Authors Forward interview with Charles Salzberg: The Birth and Extra-Long Life of the Monday Night Zoom Boys

Allow me to begin by outing myself: I actually enjoyed parts of the pandemic lockdown. Not all of it, of course, but enough to make me a little nostalgic for those halcyon days of never leaving my apartment for days at a time. As a freelance writer most of my adult life, I’d been rehearsing for this catastrophe for most but a gift for me. 

For a while, at least, it was “welcome to my world,” for all those non-essential workers who had to stay home. But it didn’t take long for me to change my tune to “Get the hell out of my world,” because suddenly, with everyone else in New York working from home, it wasn’t so special anymore.

But for me the one long-lasting, positive effect of the pandemic lockdown was stumbling into a regular Monday Night Zoom with four other writers: Reed Farrel Coleman (Long Island), Michael Wiley (Jacksonville, Florida), Matt Goldman (Minneapolis, Minnesota and Tom Straw (Connecticut). All are very successful crime writers, but Matt and Tom have also carved out a very impressive career writing for TV, mostly sitcoms like Seinfeld, Night Court, Nurse Jackie, and The New Adventures of Old Christine.

The pandemic is pretty much over now (not that anyone’s giving it the last rites, since I’m sure we’ll be living with it in one form or another for the rest of our lives), but the Monday Night Zoom Boys is still thriving. The only difference is now instead of every Monday night, it’s every other Monday night.

The Zoom has certainly changed my life for the better, but what about the other participants? And what’s behind this staying power? 

To get the Zoom in perspective, I quizzed my fellow Monday Nighters, in an attempt to answer these and other questions. 

How about we begin with general feelings about the Zoom from Reed Farrel Coleman and Matt Goldman, and I think what they have to say pretty much sums up the experience for all of us.

Reed Farrel Coleman: Our Monday night Zoom calls during the pandemic, bring two things immediately to mind: team sports, and family. If you ever listen to retired athletes talk about what they miss most, it’s usually the camaraderie, the sense that no one will ever understand you the way your teammates did because you shared a set of goals and values. Daniel Woodrell is a favorite author of mine and one of his driving themes is the creation of family out of circumstance. Those kinds of families have little to do with blood, but a sense of shared purpose and need. Enter Covid-19. While I was happy to be with my wife and son for the duration, I was deprived of my contact with my peers. Writing is a life full of aloneness if not loneliness. And while my family understands me, they can’t understand the life the way other writers do. Suddenly, no Bouchercon, no LCC, no Thriller Fest, no Sleuthfest … There was no hope for the occasional dinner or drinks with colleagues. Our calls gave me an anchor, something to look forward to besides a weekly masked and gloved trip to Costco. Though I doubt Charles, Mike, Matt, Tom, and I gave it much thought at the time, we were creating a team and a family. It was both a refuge and a forum, a place to understand and to be understood. If and when the calls do end, I will be like one of those retired athletes who understands the experience can never be replicated.  

Matt Goldman: I’ve been a professional writer since I was 24 years old. I wrote television for over thirty years. I made some great friends in that world. Life-long friends. But there is no television writing community on a large scale. I was blown away to discover the mystery writing community. It’s friendly and supportive from top to bottom.  When I attended my first Bouchercon (at age 54) I thought, “I’ve finally found my people.” But I only got to see them once or twice a year. And then after a few conferences, I found my diamond core of friends within the community. Mike, Charles, and Reed. (And soon Tom.) This happened just before the pandemic. Zoom turned that once or twice a year into once a week, and for that I’m so grateful. I think everyone should have a group of friends that is independent of their regular day-to-day life, whether it’s through a writing group or religious organization or sport or hobby or whatever. It adds a beautiful facet to life.

How did the Zoom start and how did you get involved?

Reed: You know, I’m not quite sure how it started, but Mike is the man who facilitated and for that we owe him.

Michael Wiley: Early in the pandemic Reed, Matt and I were Zooming and you (Charles) and Tom were Zooming separately. Reed suggested experimenting with a full-group Zoom, and we never turned back. Now, I like to think of us as a blended family.

Tom Straw: This iteration came as a sort of hand-off. You, Reed, and I had started a twice-monthly Zoom shortly after the pandemic lockdown. Prior to that, we gathered around Mystery Writers of America events, which led to Reed-led French Connection tours of Brooklyn that evolved into Brooklyn pizza tours then occasional steakhouse dinners. Zooming was a way to keep in touch and not go stir crazy. Reed was also cheating on us with another regular video chat with Matt Goldman and Michael Wiley. He suggested we cross streams, and we consolidated into our current party of five.

Did you take part in any other Zoom meet-ups?

Reed: I did for exactly two weeks, but I gave up after that. One of the participants was someone I didn’t much care for, and that person tended to dominate the conversation. It was also highly politicized and focused on the pandemic. The last two things I wanted to hear more about during those early days were politics and the pandemic. It’s testimony to our Zoom Boy meetings that we touched on those things, but never perseverated on them. What was great was that we never seemed to have an agenda.

Mike: Through much of the pandemic, I lived on Zoom. I Zoomed with family and friends. I did book events on Zoom. I taught Zoom workshops and classes. Zoom kept my world turning. But our Zoom group was the best of Zooms.  

Matt: The only other Zoom I participated in was for virtual book events.

Tom: I did Zooms for TV project development with my old colleague Craig Ferguson. Those were between my place in New England and his home in Scotland, so la-dee-dah, an international aspect. Even though the stated purpose of those was work, with Craig, there’s no shortage of laughter and horsing around. Let’s call those productive and fun. I also started semi-regular Zoom across another border with Canadian mystery author Linwood Barclay who was locked down at his home in Toronto. We’re no longer in isolation (at least not by decree) yet continue the rite roughly every two or three weeks because we enjoy our Zooms. As with Michael Wiley and Matt Goldman, Linwood and I have never met in person, so it’s a unique thing to spend regular time together—virtually— feeling as if we have actually met. 

Charles: I’ve been Zooming my writing classes pretty much from the start of the pandemic through the present. I also Zoomed the occasional meeting usually having to do with PrisonWrites, the New York Writers Workshop and MWA-NY (I’m on the board of the first two, and was on the local MWA board. I’ve also done a weekly lunch with my good friend Ross Klavan. For about a month or two there, in the beginning of the pandemic, we Zoomed our lunches. But as soon as the weather allowed for outside dining, we brought back in-person lunches.

Why do you think this particular Zoom worked out so well?

Mike: We freed each other from the nasty uncertainties and ugly politics of the early pandemic, and I like to think we still give each other a place away from the rest of our worlds. We don’t so much avoid the hard stuff – we’ve spent plenty of time on it – but we mostly tell stories, laugh, and talk about what we do more hours out of the day than anything else: writing. In The Decameron, a group flees from the plague to a deserted villa where they tell each other tales. Our Monday night Zooms have sort of been that villa.  

Tom: The beauty of what I’ve nicknamed the Magical Mystery Zoom with You, Reed, Matt, and Mike is how it’s like a gathering of old friends around the dinner table where nobody has to pick up the check. They’re relaxed, unpressured, and freewheeling. Which is remarkable since I never met Mike and Matt. Wait. I’m a big fat liar. On our first Zoom I learned that Matt and I both worked at Castle Rock, back in 1988-1990, as comedy writers under contract to develop TV pilots. However, we don’t remember meeting then. Frankly, I think Matt is bullshitting to keep me in my place, so I won’t consider myself “memorable.” Whatev. 

Matt: I think it works because we all value the same components of the conversation. What are we reading? What are we watching? How is our work going? And for me, who is the least experienced novelist in the group, I’m able to ask career guidance questions. But most of all I think we like each other. We do in real life and that carries over to Zoom. One Zoom topic is when will we see each other in the real world again.

Reed: For one, as I stated above, none of us seemed to come to the meetings with an agenda. We just went with it and were genuinely happy to see one another. In the beginning, it was also an escape from the reality of being trapped in our houses with our families or by ourselves. It satisfied the need for social interaction with friends. And since we all share a profession, it gave us a platform to discuss our works and to share stories only other writers could fully appreciate. And having been on many panels, we all understood when to talk and when to listen. There’s a lot to be said for that.

How did the pandemic affect your writing or reading?

Reed: I made a concerted effort not to include anything about the pandemic in my work. What it did, though, was supply me with additional writing time. I wrote three books in a period when I would have normally done two at most.  One of the great things about our Zoom is our occasional discussions of the process. I’ve picked up some tips from all of you gentlemen and getting a chance to be an early reader on occasion has been a real perk. 

Mike: The pandemic mostly reinforced habits I already had. Before the pandemic, I spent most of my days alone at the computer. During the pandemic, I spent most of my days alone at the computer. But I wrote more and read more. I did re-read plague books early on – The Decameron, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, etc. But we were spending our waking and sleeping hours living out that theme, and it got old, so I went back to the reading whatever books interested me – often ones someone mentioned in our Zoom meetings. Not Zoom itself, but definitely the conversations we’ve had about writing on Zoom.

Tom: My joke when we started Zooming was how the pandemic is making us all sit alone in a room, reading and writing. Exactly like before the pandemic.

Matt: The pandemic didn’t affect my writing much. It provided more writing time. It also could be discouraging—a book launch pushed a year, events were canceled, the publishing business was affected. But my day to day didn’t change too much. 

Charles: I wish I could say the pandemic and being home all the time resulted in writing more, or at least spending more time in front of the computer. But that would be a lie. I don’t measure these things, but if I had to guess I’d say I spent exactly the same amount of time writing (or maybe even less). I’ve always been a streaky writer, in the sense that I don’t have a particular schedule and somehow all that “extra” at home time was mostly filled up with things like reading, listening to true crime podcasts, and streaming all kinds of things. And this is where the Zoom Boys came in handy in the sense of all kinds of recommendations for movies, books, and streaming TV.

What made this Zoom important for you?

Tom: Camaraderie, of course. Remember, these started in lockdown, so at first, they were kinda like prison visits, seeing friends through glass (one or two of us may have even re-enacted a memorable scene from Midnight Express). But the way we roll, there’s always great conversation to go with the good company. We talk about our weeks, we talk about the news, we talk about what we’re watching and reading, there are plenty of anecdotes about life experiences both hilarious and shocking, and just enough about our writing. That’s a key thing for me. It’s not only that I like the dudes in the other four squares, I have deep respect for their writing and sensibilities. Therefore, I learn a lot. Either about craft or the bullshit-and-victories mix we all go through. We’re not a support group, not at all. But that happens on its own, I guess.

Mike: Before we started, I was already close friends with Reed and, increasingly, Matt. I knew you from conventions, and, though I knew of Tom, I hadn’t met him. I count our whole group now as great friends – a huge and unexpected gift from the pandemic. Our Zoom talks have kept me “in touch” with much of what matters to me.  

Matt: I get friendship and colleagues. When we go to a mystery writing convention, there seem to be thousands of mystery writers. And there probably are. But I live in Minneapolis, and although some wonderful authors are here, I don’t see them regularly. And because we’ve become such good friends, I feel like I can discuss anything in our group, whether it’s a book deal, a story problem, or a personal relationship.

Why do you think this particular Zoom works so well?

Tom: A likable, affable lot, these gents. Everyone brings varied experiences and perspectives, but shared values and interests. There’s always something to talk about. And most importantly, mutual respect (unless they’re hiding something from me!). 

Reed: For one, as I stated above, none of us seemed to come to the meetings with an agenda. We just went with it and were genuinely happy to see one another. In the beginning, it was also an escape from the reality of being trapped in our houses with our families or by ourselves. It satisfied the need for social interaction with friends. And since we all share a profession, it gave us a platform to discuss our works and to share stories only other writers could fully appreciate. And having been on many panels, we all understood when to talk and when to listen. There’s a lot to be said for that.

Why are we continuing the Zoom, even though the pandemic is supposedly over?

Mike: We’ve cut back, meeting every couple of weeks instead of every week. But the short answer, for me, is that I really enjoy spending time with you guys. Before we Zoomed, most of us might see each other once or twice a year – far too seldom. Now I get to hang out regularly with people I love to spend time with.

Reed: While there are a hundred reasons, the main ones are that we all really like and respect each other.

Matt: Silver linings came out of the pandemic. One is the normalization of video conferencing. Even the three who live in the New York area live far apart from one another.  Because Zoom now feels normal, it’s as if we’re in the same neighborhood and it’s easy to get together on a regular basis. The pandemic, through zoom, has damned geography. Which is wonderful. It applies to book events, too. When appearing at a bookstore, we can now reach hundreds or even thousands of people instead of tens.

Charles: The Zoom adds a little much needed structure to my life. I’ve been a freelance writer most of my adult life and the upside of that for me was always the flexibility of my schedule. But it also meant that most of my days are spent alone, in my apartment. Teaching always offered an opportunity to actually be among people, interesting people. But that changed with the onset of the pandemic. Not only was there the battle against isolation, but every day was the same day, in the sense that I’d have to remind myself every morning when I woke up, what day it was. That weekly Zoom indicated it was a Monday, and there was no better way to start off the week.