Today, we have the pleasure of speaking with Mike Houtz, a rising star in the thriller genre! Mike’s debut novel, Dark Spiral Down, is set to release on May 8th, 2019, and it has already received some high praise. Be sure to check it out on AMAZON!
Congratulations on the publication of your debut novel, DARK SPIRAL DOWN. Can you tell our readers a little about the book?
Great to be here! Thanks, so much. Cole Haufner is of Chinese-German heritage and a mixed-martial-arts professional fighter living in the U.S. Despite his Shaolin monk upbringing, and his disdain for fighting, his lack of ego and attention seeking only adds to his public appeal. At the peak of his success, he suffers a tragic, family loss. When his brother, a Delta Force team leader, and Cole’s only living blood relative, doesn’t show for the funeral, his worry only deepens when two mysterious men indicate something went wrong on a mission. Cole follows a clue and returns to his childhood home in southeastern China and the monastery where he lived and trained in his youth. As he searches for his brother, he unwittingly becomes embroiled in a desperate fight between North Korean agents and an American special forces team battling for possession of a miniaturized fusion device capable of producing unlimited clean energy. This suitcase-sized invention is theoretically capable of uncontrolled energy release on par with a nuclear explosion many times greater in magnitude. Cole’s mission is in direct odds with the American’s own, and we see his efforts hampering the surviving remnants of the American team. Old history of when he lived in China increases the tension and adds to the interactions of friends and foes as both sides vie for the object. The two stories—his search for his brother, and the grapple for ultimate control of a world-changing device—collide and come to head. There’re references to current events we see in the news about North Korea’s posture with the west, as it relates to negotiations, and offers potential reasons why we see a possible changing attitude with regard to nuclear ambitions in that part of the world. Hopefully the book offers entertainment and a little thought-provoking mental chew toy—but mostly entertainment.
Before turning to a career in writing, you had a great career in medicine. What led you into writing, and has your medical background helped you in your writing in any way?
Like most of us, I always had an interest in creative writing and had plinked at an old typewriter as far back as high school. I made a very weak attempt at submitting a couple of Fantasy stories to publications with zero success in my early twenties. At the time, writing didn’t seem like a career one could count on for any type of security. Maybe it was cowardice or self-preservation that kept me from pursuing things further. That itch never quite went away. Flash forward to a life that included a wife and two young kids. Both boys were getting old enough where they were involved in sports and other extra-curriculars, and my wife and I were watching other people doing most of the raising of our kids. With her and I both practicing, we were missing out on the early, critical years of our children’s lives. The guilt, every time I finally showed to pick him up at whatever location he was at that day, crushed my sole. I imagined ten years in the future and just how screwed up my boys might be if our family situation didn’t change. I knew someone could replace me at work, but no one could at home. I turned my personal mission statement toward my family and away from the public I’d served. I was scared to death, but knew, deep down, I was doing the right thing by leaving medicine. Enter the itch I’d never quite satisfied. I was old enough now to realize I had a knack for storytelling, and I had a dream that I needed to pursue.
As far as my medical background helping, my first effort was a medical thriller that is still in the drawer. I think the premise is pretty strong, but my current book just kept yelling at me from the back of my mind. It actually interrupted my initial effort with some frequency. I do think my old career helps. Describing injuries and understanding the reality of healing processes will hopefully add some credibility with the stories. As you can imagine, bad guys like to use drugs and that helps with describing the effects. Medical knowledge is definitely a plus for action-based thrillers.
Your protagonist for DARK SPIRAL DOWN, Cole, is a very interesting and captivating character. He comes across as very relatable to readers. What are some of the inspirations for Cole, and how did you go about writing him?
Obviously, I’m a huge fan of the thriller genre, and you frequently see an ex-special forces guy, CIA, etc., leading the charge of the story. I felt I needed to develop someone a bit different than the standard. The old adage “write what you know” resonated with me. I’d spent a number of years in martial arts and had a decent understanding of the subject. Years ago, I’d done a few very early mixed-martial-arts fights—mostly when it was a cross of the current sport with the old “tough-guy bar fights”. Nothing like what you see today. I wondered how things would be if I took a modern-day MMA fighter and put him in the storyline I had in my head—an international thriller situation but without the usual military training. I tossed in the fact that he grew up in a Shaolin monastery, and that he hates fighting but is forced to because of a family need. He’s a complete badass but has deep reservations of using his talent and actually prefers a quiet, simple life. I thought that complexity would add deeper layers to his human experience. I’m hoping his relatability is in that he’s very much a family man, and he shuns the limelight his fame has placed on him. In the book, the fact he’s like no one else in the sport (usually guys are brash, outspoken, volatile hot-heads) actually brings him more fame and fans, which he hates, and deepens his anxiety and internal conflict.
As far as an inspiration, I knew the story would revolve around the border between China and North Korea. I considered the twists and turns added by a protagonist familiar with that part of the world. I came up with a man that bridged both American and Chinese culture, and the other components I already mentioned. I also felt it was time to explore our own country’s changing cultural landscape with our Asian community here in the States.
I’m an extremely visual person, so the first thing I did was Google pictures of Asian-American men. I considered his fighting weight class and other physical features and created who we have today. I tossed in a Chinese mother and German-born father just to spice things up even more.
When reading your novel, it’s just like “reading” a movie. It has an authentic feel to it. What is your basic writing process, and how do you go about conducting your writing to make it feel this way?
Funny, I get that comment a lot from folks who have seen the manuscript. I was actually turned down by an agent who said to me, “that’s not my genre wheelhouse, but I’m betting I’ll see this in the theater someday.” My first thought was–So, make it your genre! Sign me! I mentioned I’m very visual which I’ve found drives my writing. For this book, I wrote down the number of chapters I was shooting for then wrote a few sentences for each: whose POV and what needed to happen to drive the story forward. This created the framework of what I should accomplish for each piece. I tried heavy outlining, but I inevitably went off script and found the constraints never really worked for me. I basically watch the scene in my head and write what I’m observing. I liken it to taking notes of what’s happening on the screen in a movie theater. Every time I tried to tweak that process, I meandered back to what worked for me. I’ve surprised myself a number of times when I went back and read the chapter and wondered how the hell I’d come up with some of the stuff. A number of my favorite parts were never a conscious effort. All of this was probably the culmination of me watching 80’s action movies on a never-ending loop—the days before the internet took over.
When DARK SPIRAL DOWN is turned into a movie, who would you choose to direct it and which actor would you choose to play Cole?
My kids would say Michael Bay. But my dream director would be Ridley Scott. I’d beg Hollywood for that same feeling I got watching Gladiator. For the lead role, I don’t think the public has met the man yet. I’d love for a new action actor with mixed heritage come into his own by portraying Cole. Is it too much to ask for a combination of Gerard Butler and Jet Li?
Thank you again for the interview, Mike! If the novel piques your interest, be sure to pre-order Dark Spiral Down on AMAZON!