Here is my long awaited interview with author Mike Tapscott. I thought it important to add a disclaimer: Mike is my cousin and childhood friend. We come from good stock. This is the first time we have ever really talked about writing as a purpose… maybe even a calling.
Tell us about your book?
Homeless Hero evolved out of seemingly innocuous question - what is homelessness? Three years ago
I realized I couldn’t adequately answer this question beyond stating it was the condition of a person without a home, which to me seemed akin to saying a sick person is a person without health - not very informative.
The book is my search to understand the true meaning of homelessness. To do this I went to one of largest homeless service campuses in the world and interviewed both homeless individuals and those
who helped them. I spoke with homeless veterans, homeless mothers, social workers, police officers, a chaplain, a priest, and many others. I attempted to go beyond an intellectual understanding of homelessness by peering into the souls of those I met - going beyond the mere details of their stories, to understand how they viewed society, life, and themselves.
Because of this approach, the people being interviewed, in many ways wrote the book and created a mosaic that reveals many surprising themes and yet leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions about those themes.
Who is Bowtie Bob and how did he inspire this book?
Bowtie Bob is my Father. He’s an absolutely wonderful man who is both incredible and plain at the same time, and I couldn’t love or admire him more. When he retired he started working at a homeless shelter and the people there called him Bowtie Bob because he always wears bowties.
When I say the book was inspired by the need to answer the question, what is homelessness, that’s true, but Bowtie Bob inspired the question. I just couldn’t figure out why he would comfortably retire and work for free at a homeless shelter, especially when he told me that he didn’t think he made much of a difference there. This mystery is also addressed in the book.
Tell us your thoughts about homelessness before you started this project?
Besides not having many thoughts at all, only knowing I didn’t know; it scared me. I think it scares a lot of people. That was one of the few things I was sure of at the beginning of the book, that it would appeal to others because homelessness is scary. It’s overwhelming. How do we help that person on the corner? We know it’s wrong that they are there. If it was a 4 year-old-child we would not tolerate it. But it’s an adult, so we rationalize it away – that they choose to be there. But then we have to ask, who would really choose to be homeless? We just can’t wrap it up in a nice safe little package. Further, I think many, if not most of us struggle with feelings of loneliness that homelessness reminds us of.
Even if you are surrounded by people, life is a very lonely experience. It’s so personal that it’s downright alienating at times.
How did those thoughts evolve while you researched these stories?
My thoughts evolved in ways that are too numerous to mention. I’m not trying to promote the reading of the book, but the book is the answer to this question.
I will say, one of the things that surprised me the most was a realization that they, the homeless were helping me more than I was helping them. It caused me to question the entire premise of helping others. And this ties into the very personal nature of life. I think in some ways we are fooling ourselves if we think we are selflessly helping others. Everything is about you whether you like it or not.
But the miracle is when I took this approach, then I was able to help others. (I call this the magical paradox of Ubuntu.)
How did you earn the trust of these people so that you could learn the stories behind homelessness?
Time, enthusiasm, and non-judgment.
Relationships just take time. And many people misunderstand the type of time they need. Often they just need time spent in the same space. They don’t need these amazing moments that corporations constantly try to create with team building activities. They just need people getting used to one another.
To do this I spent a lot of time at the homeless shelter, just hanging out, making small talk, smiling, laughing, crying….
Then there’s enthusiasm. I really love people. I mean I think everyone I meet is fascinating and they know it. They can feel it. People love to talk about themselves when someone really wants to know. And homeless people feel marginalized to the point of invisibility, so they are very open to sharing if they don’t think they will be judged.
Which leads me to non-judgment. I do not judge people and they can tell – they can sense it. I have done so many stupid things in my life that I have no excuse for, that I can’t blame anyone else for the things they do. In fact, I have a great deal of compassion for our frailty both in intellect and morality.
The truth is I had an idyllic childhood with practically perfect parents and I still almost managed to derail my life, so who am I to judge someone else who didn’t have the sort of foundation I had. And the one constant with homeless individuals is family dysfunction.
How did you change as a writer while exploring these issues and people?
This is my third book, although it’s the first one I got published. The first two were great ideas but poorly executed, because they were forced. I learned a lot from the writing of this book. I learned that there has to be a sense of trust in your writing. I learned that you need to become immersed, maybe codependent with your subject. There has to be a sense of insanity to it.
I also learned that writing is a team process. This book was written by the people I interviewed. It was further enhanced by, not only one, but two editors who each had their own specialties. And finally it was written by the support of people like my parents – you are only as good as your environment.
What, if anything, is changing about homelessness and responses to homelessness?
That’s an exciting question! A lot is changing. For the first time since the inception of our country we are starting to think that we can eliminate homelessness. And it’s really the mentality that it’s a tolerable condition that has prevented us from doing so thus far.
Now, two things are starting to happen. One, people are starting to say it’s intolerable that someone sleeps on the streets in one of the riches countries in the world. It’s becoming unacceptable. We are realizing that it’s just plain wrong.
(Rant coming here.) We spend more on our military than ALL of Asia and Europe does on theirs. Think about that. There are children, a lot of children in our country without health insurance and adequate food, not to mention everything else and we spend more on our ability to kill than to help. We, spend 50% more on corporate welfare (assistance) than on food stamps and housing assistance. By the way we spend about 600 billion more on “defense” spending. And I say we because we vote for these sorts of policies. We nickel and dime small programs that help be poor because they might be free loading and keep buying into the fear that we need more military spending. In conclusion, I think people are starting to wake up to that.
Secondly, places like Columbus, Ohio are doing it. They are showing the nation that it can be done. They are eliminating homelessness through radical programs like Housing First where we just put homeless people into houses and then wrap support services around them. Happily and sadly, this approach is actually cheaper than doing nothing. It actually costs more to ignore people on the streets because they end up in our emergency rooms and jails more often, than it is to just house them. Yes, it’s cheaper to house “free loaders” than ignore them. Sorry, I’m not a good person, but I have no tolerance for spending more of my money to do the inhuman thing.
What comes next for you?
I’m working on two different projects right now. They have nothing to do with homelessness. I get bored with projects and like to change it up a bit. Writing is my passion, but it is also very boring at times.
I’d frankly rather do a poor job on a very different type of project than fine tune the same thing over and over again. I’m not a details person and I am prone to laziness. I have to keep it fresh. I can’t say much about the two projects because things change a lot during the entire process, but one will be an historical fiction in partnership with my father and the other is a raw, fresh look at human sexuality. Like I said, I like to change it up.
What is your writing process like?
Oh god. I’m too new at this to know. I am very metaphysical about the whole thing. I think the process is aided when I let go of control, and instead trust, play, and display a lot of patience.
I have found that I can’t write more than about two hours a day. I get antsy and the creative juices run out.
I need lots of time thinking, drifting, and day-dreaming to refill those juices.
I’ve also found I don’t need to spend more than two-hours a day writing to get the job done. It will get done when it gets done. I often only get to write on weekends, so I may only write two-hours a week and it still gets done.
I don’t edit as I go. I keep the flow going, write too much, and cut later. I cut (well my first editor did) 50,000 words from Homeless Hero. That’s almost another book.
And finally you have to write for the love of writing, seeing your finished manuscript, and not if anyone else thinks it’s good. Pleasing the public is about timing and luck. Write a lot of books and one is bound to be a hit.
You and I are alike in that we don’t have degrees in writing. We write because we have to. How did (or do) you develop your skills for writing and getting a book to a publisher and promote your work?
I do not have any formal training in writing. In fact I flunked out of college, twice. I get better at writing by reading and writing. Read a lot. Write a lot. And to be honest I’m not that good a writer. I trust my subject to carry the book. I do think I have good ideas. So, like a great chief lets the food shine through, I try to do the same with my subject. I try to get out of the way. Now many great writers don’t need to do this because they are so good at their craft. I read many books that I almost read for the pure pleasure of how well the writer writes. That, alas, is not me.
As for my editor…. That’s where the magical approach comes in. I couldn’t afford an editor for Homeless Hero, so I just trusted that, like the rest of the book, it would take care of itself. Then one day I was giving a tour of the homeless shelter where the book is set at and the woman on the tour said, “This place is great. Someone should write a book about it.” And I said, “Well I have, but I need an editor.”
She turned to me, told me she was an editor, and then told me she would take a look at my work. She called me a couple of weeks later and told me she liked the book so much and thought the subject was so important that she would edit it for free.
Now the publishing part is tricky. We self-published. I still think it’s worth the search for an agent and mainstream publisher if you think they might pick up your project. And that is just a matter of sending out lots of inquiries (200 for the books I didn’t publish) to see if anyone will pick it up (no one did). The nice thing about self-publishing is that if your book does well, it still might be picked up by a mainstream publisher and you retain all rights. I’ll let you know when Penguin calls.
What else do you want other writers to know about the writing process, your work or changing the world?
Take risks. No one wants to read something that’s been done before anyway.
Don’t learn the rules too well. They were written by the people who have already done the thing you are not supposed to be repeating.
Change yourself. You are the world.
And have fun. Please have fun!