Dan McNeil was born in Toronto, but raised in Ottawa. He is an author and a video editor, spending 24 years at CHRO TV (now CTV 2) in Ottawa and the last 4 years as a freelancer at Canada Post in the video department. His first book, The Judas Apocalypse was published in 2008. It was only natural that his love of writing and music would lead him to pen his latest, Can’t Buy Me Love, a lighthearted romp about a heist during the Beatles’ first visit to the United States in 1964.
Time to chat with Dan!
What is your latest book?
It’s called Can’t Buy Me Love. It’s the story of Sonny Carter, an aging bank robber just recently released from prison in 1964 after a 25-year stretch for bank robbery. Hard-nosed and unrepentant, Sonny is determined to finish what he started back in ’39: knocking over New York City’s prestigious Hudson National Bank and Trust Company. It won’t be easy because banks are a whole lot tougher than they used to be, and the members of his old gang are just about ready for the retirement home. Adding insult to injury is the fact that the man responsible for Sonny’s jail stretch is now the president of the Hudson. This time, however, Sonny has a plan that just might prove to be foolproof, thanks to two unlikely sources: a sexy bank employee with secrets and a shady past, and the four unsuspecting mop tops from Liverpool about to make their historic American debut on the Ed Sullivan Show. It’s my second novel and published by Pulse.
What else have you written?
My first novel, The Judas Apocalypse was published in 2008 by I Publish Press. It’s about Dr. Gerhard Denninger, a German archeologist who is approached by infamous Grail seeker Otto Rahn at the outset of the Second World War. Rahn tells him a fantastic story of the Knights Templar, a church scandal and the lost treasure of the Cathars. When Rahn disappears, Denninger finds himself in possession of a long-buried manuscript that is the key to finding the famous treasure. During his hunt for the treasure, Denninger is captured by a group of American soldiers separated from their company just after the D-Day landings. Denninger, with the help of his unwelcome accomplices, continues his quest for the secret of the Cathar treasure. As you can tell, I love historical settings.
How often do your characters surprise you by doing or saying something totally unexpected?
Happens all the time. For instance, in this book, I have a character named Genevieve, who is the assistant to the executive producer of the Ed Sullivan show. I initially envisioned her as a cute and shy French Canadian. As the story moved forward, I found myself toughening her up somewhat as she becomes more frustrated with her boss. That toughened up personality begins to shine through, usually couched in rough Quebecois invective. I’m sure this happens with every writer, but I find that characters tend to take on a life of their own. Very often it seems that instead of creating situations for them, I feel like I’m following them around, chronicling what they’re doing.
Is it important for you to know the ending of a book before you write it? The title?
I think so, because you have to know where you’re going. It’s a journey, right? You can take as many detours as you want, but ultimately you need to know your destination. You need to know where your characters are going to end up so you can get them there safe and sound (not sure where these travel analogies are coming from). As far as titles go, I never know what it’ll be until I’m finished (sometimes even months later). I went through 4 or 5 titles before I settled on Can’t Buy Me Love.
Some writers edit excessively as they write; others wait until a novel is finished to do the bulk of the editing. How about you?
As I finish each chapter, I’ll read it over and see how it flows. There may be some issues with word or phrase repetition but I’ll wait until I’ve actually finished the book before I do any major editing. If anything drags, no matter how much I might like it, it’s gone. Once that’s done, I have a copy editor (fellow author and good friend Selena Robins) do the real red pencil stuff. Having a great copy editor is key. Selena did an excellent job with CBML and I believe that it’s because of her whipping the book into shape that enabled me to get my deal.
Do you allow others to read your work in progress, or do you keep it a secret until you’ve finished your first draft? Can you elaborate?
I have a very good friend of mine (Ziyada Callender) who read every chapter as I wrote them. She really enjoyed my first book so when I mentioned I was thinking of writing a second one, she was exceptionally enthusiastic. At that time I wasn’t sure I wanted to even write another book, especially so soon after the first one but it was that enthusiasm that spurred me on to finish it. Her passion and affection for the story and in particular the characters told me that I was on the right track. I also had other friends of mine (who tend to be brutally honest and not afraid to say how terrible things are) read the manuscript as well. Their positive reaction was terrific reinforcement.
Do you write anything besides novels? Care to share?
I like to write music. My cousin, Steve Casey and I used to write pop songs together. We wrote and recorded two CDs of original songs – no hits unfortunately, but we did manage to win a number of songwriting contests here in Canada and in the US. We were once picked by Canadian Musician magazine as one of Canada’s best unsigned acts and we also won the Nashville Songwriters Association’s 2002 songwriting competition. That was pretty cool.
Were you “born to write” or did you discover your passion for writing later in life?
I certainly never thought that I was born to write. I’ve always had ideas for books, but writing seemed to be something other people did. It wasn’t until about ten years ago that I decided I’d give it a try. When I had finished my first book, I printed it out and put it on my shelf. There, I did it – I wrote a book. I had no intention of trying to get it published. I just wanted to see if I could do it, to satisfy myself really. It wasn’t until a friend of mine insisted that I try to get it published. In retrospect, it was a good thing he did. If I hadn’t had that first one published I probably wouldn’t have written this one.
Are you an early bird writer or night owl? And do you have any must haves like coffee, chocolates, wine, music or something else?
Definitely an early bird. I find that I work better first thing in the morning. I got into the habit of getting up an hour earlier than my usual time when I started writing because it was quiet and easier to get things done. The only “must haves” I need are an absence of phone calls and a cup of coffee.
How would you define your style of writing?
I’m not sure how I’d define it. I’d say it’s pretty straightforward and uncluttered, I guess. I always try to follow Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, especially number 10 – “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” I never want to be boring – and I hope I’m not.
Trains, planes, automobiles, or boats?
I’m not a traveler at all. Don’t like airports and I really abhor long drives. If I have to travel, I’d pick a train. There’s something about the sound of the wheels that I find relaxing – it always makes “Rhapsody in Blue” pop into my head.
What’s your favorite comfort food? Least favorite food?
Favorite food – hickory smoked ribs with a tangy BBQ sauce. I could eat ‘em every night. My least favorite food is the turnip. It is the most loathsome and repulsive thing I’ve ever had. If I think about them for anything longer than 20 seconds, I’ll throw up (just writing about them is enough to make me queasy).
What makes you angry?
Terrible drivers – It seems like no one knows how to merge or use their turn signals in this city. It’s inexcusable, really. The crap factor is right off the scale. I think if I ever struck it rich I wouldn’t buy an expensive car. I’d just take cabs everywhere or hire a limo so I wouldn’t have to put up with the truly appalling driving here.
What music soothes your soul?
Obviously I’m a Beatles fan. I’m also a huge Neil Finn/Crowded House fan too, probably because Crowded House is a very Beatlesque band. I also believe Neil Finn is the best pop songwriter living today. I’m a prog rock nut as well – Genesis, Yes, Pink Floyd, Supertramp – when I was younger I learned to play keyboards by putting on their records and playing along with them. I like to say Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies from Supertramp taught me how to play piano. My vinyl version of “Crime of the Century” is virtually unplayable now. I think I wore out the grooves.
What’s your favorite film of all times? Favorite book?
My all time favorite film is American Graffiti. I remember going to see it back in ’73 with my family because the movie I wanted to see, The Sting, was sold out. I was pretty ticked off because of that so when my dad decided to take us to American Graffiti instead, I was determined to hate it. As it turned out, it was brilliant. I wound up seeing it about five or six times on that initial run. I’ve watched it dozens of times since then. It’s still great. The Godfather, Casablanca, and Stalag 17 are close behind it. Favorite book? Catcher in the Rye. Cliché? Probably, but I don’t care – I love it.
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