Author Interview: Mark David Gerson

How long have you been writing and when did you start?

I haven’t been at it as long as all those authors who’ve known since they were little that they wanted to write books. Me? I hated writing…mostly because I was convinced I wasn’t creative. So I gravitated toward math and sciences and stayed as far as possible from anything involving self-expression.

My Muse, though, had other plans.

I like to joke that my Muse tricked me into becoming a writer. Looking back, it certainly seems that way. Consider these sly musely machinations…

My first typewriter, a gift from my mother during my freshman year of high school, wasn’t one of the popular brands, like a Royal, an Underwood or a Smith-Corona. It was a little-known Hermes. Hermes, of course, was the Greek god of communication…and, thus, writers.

A few years later, I was asked by one of the most popular, charismatic students in my high school to take charge of publicity for the musical he was directing. Even though it meant I would have to write and make that writing public, I said yes…mostly because I wanted to be his friend.

From high school musical press releases, I graduated into college musical press releases, gaining enough renown in local theater circles that I found myself freelancing as a theater publicist. Suddenly, I was being paid to write!

From college, I went to work at a dynamic PR startup. It was still mostly press releases, but I was writing. Unfortunately, the startup wasn’t dynamic enough. Less than a year later, I was laid off.

It was my next PR job that accelerated my transformation into a full-time writer. Not only did I prepare press releases, I wrote news and feature articles, something I had never done before. Thanks to the media contacts I gained on the job, I began freelancing on the side, thrilled to see my byline in major metropolitan dailies and national magazines. After a few years of that, I converted my side gig into a full-time one. To my astonishment, I was supporting myself as a self-taught writer and editor.

My writer’s story could have ended there, but it didn’t…nor did my Muse’s behind-the-scenes plotting.

You see, I still refused to see myself as creative. A skilled artisan with words, perhaps. But certainly not creative.

That changed one Monday morning during a simple water-cooler conversation. I was working as an in-house freelance magazine editor when one of the staffers corralled me.

“I’ve just taken this amazing creative writing workshop,” she gushed. “You’ve got to take it.”

In a moment as out-of-character as the one when I agreed to run publicity for my high school Hello, Dolly!, I said yes.

Nothing was ever the same for me after that workshop.

Thanks to the instructor — to both her workshops and her mentoring — I discovered that I was creative. I started to go deeper with my writing, to write from my heart instead of my head. And soon I was teaching my own writing workshops.

It was during one of those workshops that The MoonQuest was born.

Tell us about your newest book, The MoonQuest? [note to editor: It’s “The MoonQuest”]

What if speaking or writing the words “once upon a time” got you jailed…or killed?

That’s what it’s like in Q’ntana, the land of The MoonQuest. And in Q’ntana, you’re not allowed to imagine. You’re not allowed to dream. You’re not allowed to tell stories. So, of course, you’re not to say “once upon a time”…

All you can do is focus on facts. Official facts. And there isn’t much you can do with those facts because without imagination, there’s no wisdom, and without imagination, there’s no discernment.

This has been going on in Q’ntana for a long time. Generations, in fact. Legend has it that the moon grew so sad at the loss of stories that she cried tears that put out her light. So the moon has not been seen for many years.

That’s the “quest” in The MoonQuest: to bring stories back to the land and light back to the moon.

The young man chosen for this quest is Toshar. He’s part of a small community of bards, of storytellers, who are in hiding to escape death. And as the story starts, he’s told by an elder that it’s up to him to lead this MoonQuest.

It’s time, he’s told. And he’s the guy.

His reaction? Pretty much the same as most of us have in the face of some scary life-changing task or mission: He says “No way in hell.”

It takes some doing, but Toshar is finally talked into it, and he sets off, picking up three companions along the way.

The problem is, he’s given pretty much nothing in the way of direction. All he’s told is to follow his heart and trust stories to guide his way.

Not the stories he already knows. Not the stories he’s been taught.

No, these must be new stories, stories that come to him only as he tells them. Stories that come from his heart.

So that’s what he does, even as the king’s brutal army tries to stop him. Think of a bunch of low-tech Darth Vader clones on black horses, and you’ll get a sense of what Toshar and his companions are dealing with.

Of course, I can’t tell you everything they come up against. That would give too much away!

What I can tell you is that the king’s army isn’t the worst of it. For Toshar, the worst of it is his personal demons. The worst of it is his own fear.

And like the rest of us, Toshar must face those demons, those fears, or he won’t complete his MoonQuest and grow into all he is meant to be, and won’t live his destiny.

And like the rest of us, his stories help with that. Because isn’t that what we all do, pretty much all day long? Tell stories?

And in the Q’ntana of The MoonQuest, you can’t. There is no “once upon a time.”

Would you and your main character get along?

That’s a great question and one I’ve never been asked before. Toshar and I are very much alike, which means we’d either get along really well or hate each other on sight.

In many ways, Toshar’s story is my story…something I didn’t realize I was writing it. Fortunately!

The MoonQuest opens with him as an old man, reluctant to set the quest journey of his youth down on paper…to write his story. I spent decades trying to avoid writing my stories. So The MoonQuest is not only about freeing Toshar’s and Q’ntana’s stories, it’s about freeing mine.

What do you think makes this book/series special?

From the time the first edition of The MoonQuest was published in 2007 until now with this newest edition, readers have consistently commented on how current and relevant they find the book to be. And not only American readers.

Perhaps it’s true. But I didn’t write the book with any political agenda, nor did I have any country or time period in mind. In fact, I began writing The MoonQuest in 1994, and I wrote all drafts but the final one in a different country: my native Canada.

In each of my writing workshops and books on writing, I insist that my books are smarter than I am. That The MoonQuest has turned out to be a story not only for our time but for all time proves that!

How long did it take you to write?

It took me about six months over the course of a year to write the first draft and another five-ish months to write the second. Subsequent drafts were spread out over the next ten years.

How many books have you written and do you have a favorite?

I stopped counting at 20!

It’s as hard for an author to name a favorite creation as it is for a parent to name a favorite child. I love all my books! Having said that, I’d have to confess that my favorite is The MoonQuest. It was my first book, it was the book that shattered my decades-long creative block and it’s the book that (in metaphorical terms, of course!) is probably closest to my own story.

How do you celebrate when you finish a book?

I don’t have any particular ritual. Looking back, I’ve probably marked each book’s completion differently. Sometimes, I celebrated with friends. Other times, I’ve preferred to sit with it quietly.

With The MoonQuest and The Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write, my first book for writers, I burst into tears. That didn’t happen when I typed the final period on the final draft. It was when I opened the FedEx envelope containing an advance copy of the printed book. At that moment, I was so overwhelmed and overcome with emotion, so amazed to hold in my hands the physical manifestation of what had for so many years been such a private expression of my deepest soul that I couldn’t help myself.

Can you tell us how the idea for “The MoonQuest” came about?

It happened in that writing workshop I mentioned earlier…

It’s March 28. I’m teaching a writing workshop this evening and I need to come up with some ideas. I settle into my favorite armchair and shut my eyes in meditation, but when I open them a while later, I still have no compelling program. Then my eyes light on The Celtic Tarot. It has been sitting across the room for several days, ever since I brought the deck of cards home from a bookstore, where it so seduced me that I couldn’t not buy it, even as I failed to understand the impulse. 

Now I do. I will have each student draw, closed-eyed, one of the deck’s cards. Then, with their eyes open to the chosen card, I’ll lead them through a guided visualization into writing. 

That evening, once my students are writing, an inner imperative (the voice of my Muse?) insists I draw a card of my own. I reach into the deck, pull the Chariot and, without full awareness of what I’m doing, begin to write. What emerges is a tale of an odd-looking man in an even odder-looking coach who is pulled by two odd-colored horses.

I have no conception of this as part of a novel. Yet the following morning, I pick up where I left off and continue writing. I do this every morning through the next months and, a year later on the anniversary of that workshop, I complete the first draft of my first book — a novel I never planned to write, a novel I knew nothing about except as I wrote it word-by-word, a novel that, about a third of the way through its first draft, titled itself The MoonQuest.

In one of her memoirs, Madeleine L’Engle wrote this of A Wrinkle in Time: “I cannot possibly tell you how I came to write it. It was simply a book I had to write. I had no choice.”

That’s how I feel about The MoonQuest. It was a story I had to write, even as I had no idea what I was doing or what the story was about as I was doing it!

What kind of readers do you think will like this book and why?

Again, as with Madeleine L’Engle and A Wrinkle in Time, I had no intended audience in mind while I was writing The MoonQuest. L’Engle didn’t consciously write Wrinkle for young adults, and I wasn’t thinking about who might read The MoonQuest as I wrote it. I just wrote it…because I couldn’t not write it.

Having said that, while young adults love The MoonQuest (young adults are voracious fantasy readers), it’s the response from adults that I find particularly satisfying. They’re the ones who tend to be more attuned to current events and who find the book so timely. And while many of them are already fantasy readers, a good number are only discovering fantasy through this book, something I find hugely gratifying.

There’s another group of readers who love The MoonQuest, and they’re also not necessarily your typical consumer of fantasy fiction. Rather, they’re attracted by what Library Journal has described at the book’s “allegorical message of inner truth.” Like all my books, The MoonQuest has a solid spiritual foundation.

However, you don’t have to look for inspirational content, be up on current events, be a teenager, or even be a fantasy reader to love The MoonQuest. You just have to love a good, page-turner of a story!

Do you have any other upcoming projects you would like to talk about?

I’m a writer who likes to juggle multiple projects at once. Currently, I’m working on the fifth story set in the Q’ntana universe, even though the second one (The StarQuest) is due to be released in paperback, ebook, and audiobook in the spring. I’m also working on a new memoir and an expanded edition of one of my books on writing. And I have a couple of other manuscripts that I’ve started — both nonfiction and non-fantasy fiction — that I’m eager to get back to.