***How did you get started writing?
I started writing term papers at the University of Rochester, where I graduated with a BA in History. I liked the feeling of being at a typewriter (yes, we used them in those days) and facing a blank page and trying to figure out how to fill it up. When I was studying English literature at the University of Birmingham during my Junior Year Abroad in England, my tutor read my thesis on author Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) and he said I should get the essay published. I thought then that maybe I could someday get my writing published. During my senior year at the University of Rochester, I took a Southern literature course from visiting professor and author Jesse Hill Ford, who wrote the novel The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones, which was made into a motion picture. Jesse inspired me to become a writer as well, as he read out loud from his own work and from William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and other Southern writers with his Southern drawl, right there sitting at his desk. It was pure heaven for a budding writer like me to be in his presence, and I recently wrote a short story about a fictional Jesse and taking his class. After I graduated from the University of Rochester in 1975, I went out into the world and wrote articles for various newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Timesand Family Weekly. I eventually got a contract to write my first book The Butterfly Garden, which was published in 1985, and after that I just kept writing books. Along the way, I got some short stories published in literary magazines, but my published books were always nonfiction until my novel The Martin Luther King Mitzvahgot published in 2018. Now, I just want to continue writing and publishing novels and short stories, although writing a nonfiction book again is not out of the question.
***Who influenced you?
My mother, Patience Fish Tekulsky, was an English literature major at Barnard College, and when I was growing up in Larchmont, New York, the reading room in our house had a floor to ceiling bookcase filled with great literature. That inspired me to someday be a writer and to be in people’s bookcases like the masters that were in my bookcase when I was a kid. My writing has been influenced, at various times, by Ernest Hemingway, W. Somerset Maugham, John Steinbeck, and Joseph Conrad, writers like that, and then the great beat writer Jack Kerouac. The best novel ever written is no doubt Don Quixote, and I could never get enough of reading Cervantes. I have a couple of “Hemingway” short stories and a “Conrad” short story that I wrote, call them homages. Eventually, you have to find your own writing voice and go with it. I have recently been reading James Fenimore Cooper, who lived in my hometown of Larchmont around the time of the Revolutionary War, and he wrote about my hometown in a very entertaining fashion in novels that are not well known, called The Spy (thought by some to be the first “American” novel) and Satanstoe. I am now dipping my toe into the great Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore, and then there’s Rudyard Kipling as well.
***Do you have a favorite book/subject/character/setting?
My favorite book right now is the most recent novel that I wrote, which is having a hard time finding a publisher for some reason, even after The Martin Luther King Mitzvah has been published. (The publishing business can be shortsighted sometimes.) The original title of the novel was Bernie and the Hermit, but I gave it a new title recently: The Summer I Was Jean-Paul Belmondo. When I was thirteen years old and at Camp Pok-O-Moonshine in 1967 in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, my friend Joe Stern called me “Jean-Paul” all summer long, because he said I looked like the French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo. A few years later, when I became a counselor at Camp Pok-O-Moonshine, I learned that Joe had died of leukemia shortly after our summer together. I eventually wrote a short story about my summer with Joe, called “Bernie,” which was published in Adirondacmagazine in 1989. Then in 2016, I decided to write about Joe and that summer again, this time in novel form and at the fictional Camp Mohawk, on the shores of Lake Placid in the Adirondack Mountains. The result is, well, let’s let a major publishing editor’s words in July 2019 describe it: “Thank you so much checking in and for your patience in waiting for a response! Bernie and the Hermit is a beautiful read, especially when told through the eyes of Jean-Paul. His mission to have Bernie see the Hermit and Cold River is extremely touching. I also really enjoyed the humor and sarcasm between Jean-Paul and Bernie – it was very refreshing!” And yet, this editor chose not to publish the book. For you young writers out there, the lesson is never give up and keep writing. But I digress. You see, Bernie is in remission from leukemia and he wants Jean-Paul to take him down to the Cold River before Bernie dies. Is this Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, traveling up or down a river to discover the mystery of life? I don’t know where the inspiration comes from, but every writer is standing on the shoulders of his predecessors.
***What advice do you have for someone who wants to be an author?
As previously stated, just keep writing. That advice was given to me at an American Booksellers Association convention in the 1980s by the then editor-in-chief of Charles Scribner’s Sons, Hemingway’s publisher. His name was Jacek Galazka. I was too nervous to push my manuscript on him, but I complained that I couldn’t get published. He didn’t offer to read my work, but he said, “Just keep writing.” The more you write, the better you get.
***Where is your favorite place to write?
I usually write on my computer in my study in my house, which is in the Brentwood Hills section of Los Angeles. The house has a nice view of the Santa Monica Mountains. I have a lovely garden filled with colorful flowers and many of the plants are designed to attract birds (especially hummingbirds) and butterflies, as I have written my books Backyard Bird Photography; The Art of Hummingbird Gardening;andThe Art of Butterfly Gardeningright here at my house and using my garden as a laboratory for observing and photographing these marvelous creatures. With both my nonfiction and my fiction, I sometimes write longhand at my favorite coffee shops or even at a table in front of an upscale grocery store in my neighborhood. You can see photographs of me at these places on my website: mathewtekulsky.com. Moving about and watching people at a public place can get me inspired to write new scenes and create activity in a work of fiction. You sit there at the table, pondering, pondering. Finally, you say to yourself, write something, anything, just get going. Being around other people and having the flow of life all around you can get your juices going. Being out in public is also good for proofreading. I type out what I have written at home, then bring the printed pages down to the coffee shop, and read them there. Then when I get to where I have to continue, I am fresh and keep going. This is better sometimes than just sitting at my computer at home and re-reading everything, then expecting to have the energy to continue on. Breaking up the locations keeps me fresh.
***What else would you like to tell us?
I grew up in the 1960s, with the idealism of Woodstock and the anti Vietnam War movement all around me. We thought we would change the world, and in some ways, we did. But today, I am discouraged by the materialism of our society and how literature and the arts are devalued while militarism and the gathering of profits is glorified. Most great civilizations have been judged in the end by their cultures, and I am afraid that the United States is losing a lot of its culture as storytelling has become mean-spirited and focused on violence and revenge instead of redemption and healing. I hope to show the latter ideas through my writing, but it is difficult to get my positive (fairytale?) messages through the publishing system as it exists today, which is geared more toward generating larger profits for big corporations rather than the “moral imperative to publish” which influenced the founders of our industry such as the early independent publishers like the Charles Scribner and Alfred A. Knopf.