When and how did you guys decide to work on this book together? What inspired We Are Still Tornadoes?
Michael: Well, I’ve written a couple epistolary novels over the years – The Locklear Letters and Everybody Says Hello. In both of them, the readers only saw one side of the correspondence and had to use their own imaginations to fill in the other side, which I hope was fun for them. I had the idea of writing an epistolary novel where the reader would see both correspondents’ letters, and specifically the idea of having two friends write to each other when one goes off to high school and the other stays home. I wanted one of the friends to be a boy and one to be a girl, but I was worried about the authenticity of the girl’s letters. I’ve read a few novels by male writers where they have tried to write in a woman’s voice, and they didn’t ring true to me. So I just kept that in the back of my mind while I worked on other projects.
Susan: Mike called me a few years back and we ended up talking about writing and potential projects. Mike mentioned his idea about the high school friends exchanging letters, and he asked me to write this book with him. Given that Mike already had 8 or 9 books published, I thought he was a bit crazy to take such a big risk on me. We agreed to give it a shot and if it wasn’t going well, we’d be honest with each other and go our separate ways. Luckily, it went very well.
Michael: The book is made up entirely of the exchange of correspondence between two high school friends in the early 1980s when one goes off to college while the other stays home. So, for me, the inspiration came from my own experience writing letters to friends and family when I went to college.
Susan: The same here. I also wrote letters to friends and family when I went off to college. My inspiration came from many different friendships and relationships throughout my life, from memories of my high school and college friends to thoughts of my husband and my daughters. It was really an emotional hodgepodge for me.
Michael: What’s interesting to me is how different that world might seem to younger readers today. There were no cellphones. There were no emails. There were no text messages, Twitter or Snapchat. So if you wanted to communicate with someone, you did it through letters or through horrifyingly expensive long-distance telephone calls. I didn’t even have a telephone my first year of college. There was just the pay phone out in the hallway.
Susan: It’s funny to think that some young readers might not even know what a pay phone is.
Michael: True. If you didn’t want to stand in the hallway having a very personal conversation that anyone could hear, using a telephone receiver that had been used by God knows how many people before you, there was really only one other option.
We Are Still Tornadoes is written in letters between the two main characters, could you share what it was like writing these letters as co-authors and how did you guys go about it? Did you guys take on the role of each of the characters?
Susan: It was great writing this book together. We got along very well. We would talk through where we were going, what the major plot points were, then I would write Cath’s letters and Mike would write Scott’s. We would swap them back and forth, commenting on them, making proposed revisions. It was collaborative in that we could give each other immediate feedback on the most recent letter, but usually we liked what the other had written and we’d just say “I loved that!” and then move on to the next letter.
Michael: I would agree that it was a great experience, but an unusual one. When I write on my own, it’s not uncommon for me to write 5 or 10 pages in a sitting without even getting up from my chair. Here, the most I could do would be to write one of Scott’s letters, then wait for Susan to send me back the draft of Cath’s response. So there might be days or even weeks when I didn’t write a word because I was waiting for Susan’s contribution. And there were days or weeks when she was waiting for mine.
Susan: Yeah, I forget about that sometimes. I’d sometimes worry that if I didn’t hear back from Michael right away, that meant he must have hated something I’d written. There were times when one of us felt strongly about something the other had written. As a first time writer, I appreciated getting feedback on what I was writing, and I’ve known Michael long enough to respect his opinion and trust it. But at the same time, we did have a few conversations about things that one of us really didn’t like.
Michael: Absolutely, and we worked through them. I do recall there was one of Scott’s letters that Susan felt had painted her in a corner such that it was difficult for Cath to even respond. I reworked it to give her the room she needed. And there were a few things in some of the letters that I thought made Cath less sympathetic than we needed her to be. I suggested revisions to a couple of them as we worked through the book, and we worked on a complete edit of the book at the end.
Did you plot out the book before writing it, or did you discover the plot as you wrote it?
Susan: Both. We mapped out where we wanted the book to go at the beginning, and were open to changing things as the book progressed.
Michael: One of the nice things about setting the book during the year that the two characters were separated was that there were certain points in time when we knew it would be natural to bring the two characters back together, even if briefly, and we could use them to set the plot – Thanksgiving, Christmas, spring break.
Susan: Some subplots we developed along the way. And the ending was very different than we had originally mapped out.
Michael: That’s a bit of an understatement. It’s impossible to discuss what the original ending was supposed to be without giving away the ending of the book, so there’s nothing more we can really say on that.
Susan: Are you going to answer if someone emails you after they’ve read the book to ask you what the original ending was supposed to be?
Michael: Nope. It wouldn’t help anyone’s enjoyment of the book to know that.
What is your favorite 80s movie? (If you want to cheat and list a few, I won’t hold it against you xD)
Susan: The Breakfast Club and Bull Durham. Perhaps I just revealed my own coming-of-age story right there.
Michael: I wish I’d answered first because it’s going to look like I’m copying you, but it’s Bull Durham by a country mile. I will never get tired of it.
Did you both know that you wanted to be authors? How long have you been writing?
Susan: I enjoy writing but I previously lacked the confidence to undertake a project of this magnitude. I owe Mike quite a debt of gratitude for asking me to write this book with him, and for creating a format which only required me to write one letter at a time. It worked extremely well for a first time writer, and for a working mom, as well.
Michael: I can’t say I even thought about being a writer until college, when I started studying writing with Stephen Dixon. He’s a great writer and a better person. I had been writing a humor column for our college newspaper, and he tracked me down and invited me to take some of his classes. I owe him quite a debt. Actually, though, I stopped writing when I went to law school. I’d tried to get some of my stories published after college and had failed, so I decided to give up. Fortunately, I made a friend in law school who read my short stories, liked them, and persuaded me to start writing again. Shortly after that, I got on a hot streak and sold a few short stories, then was offered a contract to write my first novel.
Susan: I’m curious, who was that friend?
Michael: You know it was you, Susan.
Susan: Yeah, I just wanted to make you say it.
Michael: I tell everyone how much I owe my writing career to you and to Stephen Dixon. Thanks.
Susan: You’re welcome. And thank you for asking me to work on this with you.
Michael: You’re welcome.
Susan: Do you think that came across as cheesy?
Michael: Probably. Do you care?
What authors would you say have influenced each of your writing styles the most?
Susan: Honestly, I didn’t have any particular author’s style in mind while I was writing. I tried to make Cath an authentic character, and for me it was more about trying to create Cath’s voice.
Michael: I’m not sure you would necessarily see it in this book, but I suspect I’ve been influenced most by Kurt Vonnegut and Truman Capote. How’s that for a mismatched pair of authors?
What’s next for both of you?
Susan: I’m headed off to my very first book signing! My youngest daughter goes to Bucknell University, and this weekend is Homecoming Weekend. I’m doing a signing at the campus bookstore in Lewisburg, PA. Then I have a few signings coming up in Northern Virginia, Atlanta, and Chicago, and I’m doing a signing with Michael in Baltimore, his hometown.
Michael: Have a great time at Bucknell. I hope I’m not mixing them up, but that’s the daughter who recommended that we remove something very small from one of the most important letters in the book, isn’t it?
Susan: Yes, it is.
Michael: Well, please tell her that she was absolutely right, and thank her for me.
Susan: Will do. You are so sweet to remember that. You haven’t said what you’re working on.
Michael: I’m pretty far along in a new novel called The Allergic Boy Versus The Left-Handed Girl. I know that sounds like a book about superheroes with questionable powers, but it’s the story of a man who is trying to prove to the world that another writer stole a book he’d written and published it to great acclaim. And the only way he can prove it is to track down a girl he’d known when he was younger, who seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth, and may never have existed in the first place.
About the Book
Growing up across the street from each other, Scott and Cath have been best friends their entire lives. Cath would help Scott with his English homework, he would make her mix tapes (it’s the 80’s after all), and any fight they had would be forgotten over TV and cookies. But now they’ve graduated high school and Cath is off to college while Scott is at home pursuing his musical dreams.
During their first year apart, Scott and Cath’s letters help them understand heartache, annoying roommates, family drama and the pressure to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives. And through it all, they realize that the only person they want to turn to is each other. But does that mean they should be more than friends? The only thing that’s clear is that change is an inescapable part of growing up. And the friends who help us navigate it share an unshakable bond.
About the Authors
MICHAEL KUN lives in Los Angeles, California, with his wife Amy and their daughter Paige. He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University and the University Of Virginia School Of Law. He is a partner in Epstein Becker & Green, P.C., specializing in labor and employment law. He is the author of The Locklear Letters and You Poor Monster, among other works of fiction and non-fiction.
We Are Still Tornadoes is SUSAN MULLEN’S first novel and first collaboration with Michael. She is a graduate of Duke University, where she studied English literature, and the University Of Virginia School Of Law. She practices law and lives in Northern Virginia. Sue has been married to her law school classmate Kevin Mullen for 25 years, and they have two daughters.
Review of We Are Still Tornadoes
Review (4.5 Stars): This book was an absolute delight filled with humor and emotion, a perfect coming of age story. I loved the way the authors told this story via letters between the two main characters which made me connect with these characters from the very beginning. Such a poignant story that brought back many memories for me as a child of the 80’s and how each of us struggle to find our place in the world. From beginning to end, this story will make you laugh and cry and as always, each of us are always tornadoes.