INTERVIEW: PAUL HOFFMAN

This month, Brave Wings had the pleasure of interviewing author, Paul J. Hoffman, whose never-ending curiosity and extensive experience as a journalist compelled him to write a fascinating thriller, “Murder in Wauwatosa: The Mysterious Death of Buddy Schumacher.” He has since gone on to write a second book with another one in progress.

Tell us about the books you’ve written. What are the titles?

Murder in Wauwatosa: The Mysterious Death of Buddy Schumacher (The History Press), 2012

Wicked Columbus, Indiana (The History Press), 2017

You can read an excerpt from Murder in Wauwatosa here.

What genres are your books?

Nonfiction, true crime

What has drawn you to these genres?

I’ve been a journalist for close to 35 years and most of my writing has been done through my day job duties. I’d dabbled a bit in poetry, screenplay writing, started writing a novel once and started a children’s book based on some events from my childhood. During the period I was working on the children’s book, I looked up some information on a murder case that a next door neighbor lady had told me about when I was quite young. She hadn’t told me much, but enough for it to stick in the back of my head for years. When I found out some of what she had told me about the Arthur (Buddy) Schumacher killing was true, I decided to keep digging for answers. The fact that the boy’s father sold my dad the house I grew up in was that much more of a reason for me to find out what happened. My research on this led to my first book. It was a story I had to write; I needed to get it out for my own sake.

The second book came out because the publisher of the first one asked me if I’d write a book similar to what I’d done with the Schumacher book. I hadn’t planned on continuing in the true crime genre, but I had the blessing from the publisher ahead of time and, working for the local newspaper, I had the tools to do the research fairly quickly.

Tell us about the book you’re writing now, the subjects it deals with, and how the idea came to you.

The working title of the book I’m writing now is “3 Months in Dublin.” It’s about a Midwestern American man in his 50s who feels as though he needs to reboot his life. He has gotten divorced, his grown children hardly speak to him, and he quit a job he couldn’t stand. He decides to go to Ireland, home of his ancestors, to get a fresh start. Things don’t go quite as planned, but with the help of an unlikely friend, he comes to realize that unless he changes the way he looks at the world, the problems he’s running away from will follow him wherever he goes.

When is “3 Months in Dublin” coming out?

Not sure. I need to finish it, then go through all the usual author channels to get it published.

Can you give us an insight into the main character of the book? What does he/she do that is so special?

J.P Sharpe doesn’t think there’s much of anything special about him as he’s in such a blah mood when the book begins. He does, however, at least have hope that things will get better. Old habits die hard, though, and when things don’t go as well as he’d hoped, he once again allows past events to cloud his vision, and he lapses back into negative thinking.

A couple of things that JP is good at are walking (he loves to walk and does much of it), listening, and recalling lyrics from his favorite songs at a time when the songs seem to hold meaning in the situation he’s going through.

Are the names of the characters in your novel important?

Some characters’ names may subconsciously suggest a trait in that character. Some characters were named using names the meant something way back when in Ireland. And those meanings have something to do with the characters.

In “3 Months in Dublin,” what was your favorite chapter (or part) to write and why?

My favorite part to write thus far is JP’s first day in Ireland. Everything is so new to him, the sights, sounds, smells, hold a lot of interest to him. Researching all those things, so I can relate them to readers, has been fun and rewarding.

What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in working on this book?

Learning the way different Irish characters would speak has been challenging. Just like here in American, language use can differ greatly based on many factors, socio-economic status, region of the country one is from and more. There are distinct accents, word choice, etc., that I’m still learning, and will need much more help on from natives of Ireland.

Tell us about the personal experience involved.

My wife and I both have Scots and Irish ancestors, and the opportunity to tour both countries came up in July 2017. The focus of the trip was on literature and landscapes, so as part of our preparation, we read plenty of Scots and Irish writers ahead of time. It was truly magical to see so many of these places we’d read about come alive when we visited. Both countries made a distinct impression upon me. I made friends in Ireland first, so I decided to base my next book there.

How much of the novel will be based on real life experiences?

A lot of what JP sees and experiences is based in experiences that I have had or that others I know have had.

Which actor/actress would you like to see playing the lead character of “3 Months in Dublin?”

I’d envisioned Sam Rockwell playing JP. He has kind of a unique sense of humor and physical presence he could bring; and those are things JP displays during his more relaxed moments. But Sam can also bring out JP’s inner anguish, too. This is assuming, of course, that I don’t get the part.

Paul does a bit of acting now and then in local theater. In December 2018, he acted in “It’s a Wonderful Life, A Live Radio Play” at the Edinburgh Pixy Theatre in Edinburgh, Indiana. From left: Kimberly Hoffman, Alena Van Arendonk, Debi Robert, Paul.

Is there a message in this novel that you want readers to grasp?

There are a few messages I hope come across in this book. Most of them have to do with how we view the world and people in it.

One is that there are so many shades of gray out there; many issues are complex and we tend to treat so many of them as binary. You are expected to be for something and against what people say is its opposite and not fall anywhere in between the extremes. We get caught up in the lingo of one side or the other. Yet, if we allow ourselves to think about issues, go over facts, and carefully consider various circumstances of each individual case, we rarely, if ever, arrive at a position suggested by such rhetoric.

I’m also hoping that readers will come to understand why we sometimes read situations, other people, and even ourselves incorrectly, why that is harmful to ourselves and our world, and how to avoid doing it as often as we do. As a professor once told me once, “sometimes our map of the world is wrong” and it needs to be fixed so we see things as they really are, or at least as close to reality as is possible.

Also, we need to be careful how we form opinions about other people and places, and what we do with those opinions. I think it’s very important that we express only informed opinions and that we get our information on which to base our opinions from reputable sources. We need to focus on facts.

How has process of writing and researching your two published non-fiction books played a big part in the novel you’re writing?

Researching the first two books, coupled with my journalism background, has helped me figure out how to gather information and to know what kinds of information I need in order to write stories that have depth. Working in fiction now, I understand what sorts of information I need to include. Some of it is being obtained through some of the same methods and sources as my nonfiction work. My story is set in a real place, so I need to be true to that place and those people there.

What did you learn from writing your previous books? If you had to go back and do it all over, is there any aspect of your books or getting them published that you would change?

As a journalist who had never written a book before, I first learned how to piece several short pieces together and weave them into a longer narrative. I got organized with all my research, with manila folders containing different aspects to the stories. With “Murder in Wauwatosa,” I have folders for the boy’s family, what the town was like in 1925, Prohibition, the state of mental health care, as well as old maps and other items that I thought might be useful.

I referred to the folders often when I came to a part of the story that needed some background added on a particular topic.

I also learned a lot about marketing. Even though The History Press is a traditional publisher, I did set up many speaking engagements and programs on my own, came up with my own PowerPoint presentations and set up my own website and pages on various author sites.

I’m pretty satisfied with how the first two books came out.

Is there a theme or idea you’d love to work with?

When possible, I like to find the good that comes out of situations. I’ve written about some pretty terrible things. But, in the aftermath of these terrible things, sometimes good came out of the ashes. And if it did, I like to let people know that. People need to know that despite terrible events, there is a possibility that something positive can happen as a result, such as taking measures so that these types of things happen less frequently in the future.

When did you first consider yourself a writer or do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

I started dabbling in poetry, song lyrics and keeping journals when I was in my late teens. Until then, I considered myself more of a math guy than a word guy. I always loved sports and I got to do some writing about athletics while working for the sports information department in college. After graduation, I got a job in the Milwaukee Sentinel sports department and ended up being a sports writer. As I got better in that role, I really started to love telling stories.

Paul likes to stay active. One of his favorite activities has always been playing softball. Here he hits the ball during a reunion game with a team he played with 30 years earlier in Milwaukee.

How would you describe your work style? What techniques and tools do you use to keep yourself organized?   

I procrastinate too much. I have to force myself to work. Deadlines spur action, so if I don’t have a deadline imposed on me by outside sources, I sometimes set a deadline for myself. Once I do get going, though, I’m pretty focused.

I have several systems of taking notes. I try not to rely on my brain too much to remember things I want to include in my work. But there are certain things I need to mull over in my brain first before I put them in print.

I have physical folders that I can hold that contain printed notes and maps and writing hints from other writers. I have folders on servers, files on flash drives and things I email myself. I pretty much know where everything is. Usually.

If you had to choose one, would you consider yourself a big-picture person or a detail-oriented person?  

I’m most definitely both. It’s the in-between stuff I struggle with sometimes. I’m a big picture person who knows a bunch of the details necessary to create the big picture. But I sometimes have problems putting the details together properly to make the puzzle. I have learned, though, how to kind of mesh the little detail pieces together to form bigger pieces. I’m getting better.

What is the easiest thing about writing?

I don’t know if this is the easiest thing for me, but maybe it’s more the part I do best. I think I’m good at explaining things… how this happened, why it happened, what sort of an effect it had, how different people felt about it, etc.

I’m a thinker. I think all the time about all sorts of things. I’m at my best as a writer when I capture those thoughts before they fly away.

Do you write an outline before every book you write? 

The first book I started by gathering a bunch of information. When I sorted through everything, I noticed things that belonged together and started outlining some of the topics I needed to address as the story progressed. The second book was slightly easier as it’s nine short stories, so there wasn’t as much of an outline.

Somewhere in the past five years or so, I got interested in screenplay writing, read a book on that and have spent some time writing one. That knowledge has come in handy with “Dublin” as I have learned more about outlining, plot points, resolution, etc. The outline for “Dublin” is flexible, but there are certain places I know it will go. I just have to figure out the best way to get to those places.

How long on average does it take you to write a book?

“Murder in Wauwatosa” took close to four years from the time I started researching and writing until it published. I spent some time during that process giving up and rebooting my efforts, partially because I wasn’t sure it would ever really get published.

“Wicked Columbus, Indiana” took about nine months because that’s how long I told the publisher it would take. Considering I had a fulltime job, and needed to research, that was fairly ambitious. But it worked out well.

What is the single most powerful challenge when it comes to writing novels set in the past?

I don’t have any novels set in the past. “Dublin” is set in present day. But in researching past events for nonfiction, the difficult part is that you’re usually limited to whatever has been recorded about the events in official documents or newspapers. Depending on how long ago a story took place and the nature of the story, it can be difficult to get eye witness accounts of the events. In researching “Murder in Wauwatosa,” in fact, I found some newspaper accounts that actually contradicted one another. What’s the truth? You have to kind of read between the lines, understand people’s motivation in saying what they said, give the reader as many facts as you can, and voice any unanswered questions that the facts may not address.

Are there any occupational hazards to being a novelist?

In my case, with a fulltime job, I spend too much time feeling guilty for not doing whatever it is I’m not doing at the time, whether that’s writing, doing home repairs, doing the day job, planning a weekend away with my wife, etc. I’ve still got to work on this.

What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?

I got a review online for one of my books that said I didn’t know how to tell a story, which I found odd because I’ve been telling stories for many years with very few complaints. I paid little attention to that criticism. And really, I haven’t gotten many criticisms. Maybe that’s because I started this author thing later in life, after I’d had decades of writing and editing experience already under my belt. Maybe I don’t suck much!

Pleasing my dad wasn’t always easy when I was young. It got easier the more I matured. But when “Murder in Wauwatosa” came out and Dad said he was proud of me and I’d done a good job, that meant a lot.

Was there a person in your career who has impacted you the most or who has really made a difference? 

So many. My dad was a teacher, so I was naturally aware of what my teachers were trying to do to help me along. One in particular when it came to writing was Olive Crawford, a high school English teacher. I learned so much about proper grammar and usage from her in a way that was enjoyable and attained her goal for us in not having to take “bonehead English” in college.

Bill Windler, my first supervisor when I got into the newspaper business, was great at getting me to discover for myself the best way to report stories or edit copy by asking me questions about what I thought. I sometimes had the wrong answers, but he didn’t always correct me. But it made me think later without feeling crummy that I’d gotten the wrong answer. I figured it out later, and I still use many of the managerial and writing/editing techniques I learned from him.

As an author, I’ve had several people who helped me out who have become friends. Heather Hummel Gallagher and Michael John Sullivan are two of the biggest influences as both people in the business and as friends.

Which writers inspire you or are your favorites, and what really strikes you about their work?

I’m going to put in a plug for my wife here. Kimberly S. Hoffman writes amazing children’s books. But above and beyond the stories the kids enjoy are the uplifting, encouraging themes she incorporates in them, which she also teaches to kids when she does programs at schools and libraries, etc. She inspires me as a person.

Paul’s wife, Kimberly, seems to indicate that Paul “is the man.”

As a writer, there are several authors I love to read. Since my first novel is set in Ireland, I’ve been reading many modern Irish novels. Writers such as Louise O’Neill, Roddy Doyle and Kevin Barry have influenced me greatly as a writer. I’ve also met other writers whose work may not be my particular pot of tea, but whose camaraderie and encouragement has been inspirational.

What are the most important attributes to remaining sane as a writer?

To perform my best, I need a good healthy balance of exercise, diet, writing, family, etc. It’s never a perfect balance, and that’s OK. But as long as it pretty much balances out over the course of a month or two, I’m usually in a good place.

Do you have a day job as well?

Group Special Publications Editor for AIM Indiana Media, based in Columbus, Indiana. I supervise the publication of various magazines, special sections, annual reports for nonprofit agencies, and newspapers.

Do you ever wish that you had an entirely uncreative job, like data entry or working in a factory?

Sure. When I do physical labor, I can think. Some of my best ideas come up while cutting the grass or taking a walk. My day job is creative to a point, although more administrative in the past few years, and that sort of thing wears me down more than being creative. Being creative, whether it’s writing, designing magazine pages, writing lyrics or making up something to entertain others, energizes me.

Paul plays the part of an Old West sheriff who is keeping watch on his prisoner (played by his wife, Kimberly) during a sponsorship party at the Historic Artcraft Theatre in Franklin, Indiana.

Do you admire your own work?

I don’t really think about that. I used to, when I was younger. I’d admire my own work and be proud of myself. Now, it’s just what I do. I try to do it to the best of my ability and I try to get better. If other people enjoy it, that’s great. Maybe it’s a maturation process, or that I know I have an ability, but I don’t get caught up in praising myself, even inwardly. I leave that up to other people, if they feel so inclined That being said, it’s still a neat feeling to hold your book in your hands that’s just been published.

Have you ever hated something you wrote? 

Eighty-five percent of the song lyrics I ever wrote, seventy-eight percent of the poetry and a handful of newspaper stories and columns from when I was younger.

Can you tell us about your challenges in getting your first book published?

I got pretty lucky getting “Murder in Wauwatosa” published. I made connections with former co-workers who had written books or had friends who had been published. So I got a lot of help along the way, including help negotiating my first contract. I got a rejection letter from the first publisher I queried, but the letter said this was a good story and someone would publish it. So instead of getting down, I was encouraged. A friend told me that The History Press published exactly the kind of book I’d written, so I sent a query. The rest, they say, is history.

How do you market your work? What avenues have you found to work best for your genre?

I think the biggest successes have centered around the programs I’ve done on issues related to my books. I’ve done them at theaters, for continuing education classes at universities, as a guest speaker at meetings of service organizations and as part of writers’ workshops and seminars. I tend to sell a lot more books at events like that than at book signings. My topics have ranged from how to keep your child safe to how to research nonfiction to just doing select readings from the books. It depends on the audience.

Paul, right, speaks with Brad Hicks on WITI Fox-6 TV in Milwaukee on Sept. 23, 2012. Paul was interviewed on his first book, “Murder in Wauwatosa: The Mysterious Death of Buddy Schumacher,” which was published earlier that year.

Do you have any advice for other authors on how to market their books?

Come up with a presentation that would interest people based on topics or themes addressed in your book. Find organizations, events and classes that hire guest speakers, or bring in guests. Ask to be paid for the gig and be allowed to offer your books for sale. Depending on the organization, you may or may not get paid, and I tend not to charge when I do them for the nonprofit organizations. Come up with something visual, a PowerPoint presentation maybe, or at least a screen to project your book cover and other art that may be in the book or related to it. Get some audio, whether that’s volunteers you bring with you to help read small sections or something prerecorded. Be professional, act like you know what you’re doing even if you’re nervous, and be gracious. Let people know you do this. Hand out glossy business cards with a way to get in touch with you or your website address. Get a banner with your book(s) and or your face on them.

There’s a lot of other marketing advice people give. This just happens to be an area I’ve had some success with.

What are your thoughts on good/bad reviews?

Most reviews are going to be at least halfway decent. I don’t worry about them too much. If anyone absolutely hates your work, they’ll probably stop reading early on and not leave a review. If they do, they do. I try not to get too caught up in over-the-top reviews either. They’re probably relatives.

What’s your views on social media for marketing?

Unless you’re Stephen King, you have to do it. That being said, I’d do a bit of research to find out the most effective methods. You don’t want to spend all your time trying to market on social media that’s not helpful. But you do need a presence, a website, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, whichever you find most comfortable.

Which social network worked best for you?

So far, Facebook. Mostly because I’ve done that the longest and the most often.

Any tips on what to do and what not to do?

Find what place or places you feel most comfortable with, where potential readers are, and develop a sense of community. Start a dialog, talk about things that might interest the people you connect with. One of the reasons people buy books from a particular author is because they feel they have a personal connection with that author. Don’t just push your book(s) all the time. That comes across as pushy. Suggest other people’s books sometimes or ask followers/friends to suggest books they’ve read to the group. You want people talking about you and your work in a positive way, if at all possible, so that others will take notice.

Do you think that giving books away free works and why?

It depends on your situation. I think having book giveaways can be a great marketing tool. I don’t think you want your books being given away on a routine basis, though. You want people to see that your work has value, and hope people see that value and are willing to spend some money for the entertainment you provide. Free tends to lessen the perception of value.

Besides writing, what are your interests or how do you relax?

I do a lot of walking and have started taking the occasional yoga class and may get my bike out again soon. I like travel, sports (especially my teams from Wisconsin), going to movies, reading and music, especially going to see live bands.

Paul and Kimberly at a Violent Femmes concert at Summerfest in Milwaukee in 2013. Paul is a big music fan and has been a fan of the Violent Femmes for a very long time. The band is originally from his hometown of Milwaukee.

Who are your heroes?

First and foremost, my dad, Raymond Hoffman. None of us are perfect, and he’ll tell you he’s far from it. But I have been fortunate enough to see him take on the attitude that he wanted to be a better man today that he was yesterday. Not sure if that how he approached it, but that’s what happened. He’s one of the very few people I can talk to about anything and know that I’ll get a level-headed, fairly non-biased chat where nobody ends up calling each other names and questioning each other’s intelligence for having a different opinion. I chose him to be the best man at my wedding.

There are a lot of other people I look up to for various reasons.

Paul with his dad and brothers on one of their annual Father’s Day weekend fishing trips to Lac View Desert, which straddles the Northern Michigan/Wisconsin border. From left: Doug, Mark, Ray, Paul and Andy Hoffman.

What is your greatest fear?

I try not to fear. I think fear is at the root of everything in this world that prevents us from being the best possible versions of ourselves that we can be. That being said, yes, there are things I hope do not happen. One of them these days is hoping the trend of believing things that are not true reverses itself.

Your proudest achievement?

I don’t take pride in things I do. But I think I can answer that this way: One of the things I did that a lot of people compliment me on the most is that I somehow survived nine years as a single parent of three little girls.

Paul with his daughters, stepdaughters and wife. From left: Sarah Akemon, Emily Hoffman, Rachel Akemon, Kimberly Hoffman, Paul, Jaclyn Hoffman and Kirsten Hoffman.

If your friends or family members were asked to pick three character traits that describe you, what would they say?

I guessed at what they might say. But then I thought I should be more scientific. So I took a poll of friends and family members. These are some of the qualities that were mentioned most often: Loyal/faithful, thoughtful/caring, compassionate/kind/giving. I’d have thought handsome and intelligent would have come up more often. Imagine my surprise!

Of course, my friends and family are weird, so I’m not sure how much stock you can put into this poll, scientific or not. 

My wife says loyalty, kindness, compassion. So maybe that’s the official source.

What are three positive character traits you don’t have?  

I’d say boldness, being more thick-skinned, and choosing my thoughts more carefully. But some people might disagree with that assessment.

What is your biggest regret and why?   

I try not to think about regrets. There are things I wish I wouldn’t have experienced. But it is because of some of those experiences that I’m able to empathize with others who have endured those same, or similar, things.

If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be? 

Ireland, as long as the woman I love can be there, too.

What is your favorite book and why or what books have influenced you most in your life?

A lot of books have influenced me. Here are some that have influenced me the most: “Nothing Never Happens” by Kenneth Johnson, a professor of mine at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  “Conversations with God” by Neale Donald Walsch.  They are books that discuss what affects how we view the people world around us and just how much more there is out there that we don’t know.  

What book/s are you reading at present?

“How to be an Anti-Racist” by Ibram X. Kendi. It’s an advance readers copy; it doesn’t actually come out until August.

What is your favorite film and why?

“A Christmas Story.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this. I love the way the narrator is played by an adult, but in looking back on the incidents described in the movie, he describes the little boy he used to be without looking down on him for doing childlike things. All of these things were very serious to Little Ralphie, and even though, we as adults, can see the humor and folly in the way he thought and acted at times, we all remember being right there when we were kids, thinking all the serious kinds of thoughts about all the goofy, weird stuff going on that affected us.

What would you do if you won the lottery?

I’d like to think I’d give up the day job, write full time,  give some to charity and travel some more. But until, or if, that ever happens, I don’t know for sure. I rarely play, so I’m not holding my breath.

What is your favorite memory from childhood? 

Got to go to my first Green Bay Packer game when I was 7 in 1970. This is the team I grew up idolizing, and my dad drove from Milwaukee to Green Bay for the game. After the game, we were walking out of the stadium and came upon a ramp that led down to the field. The players used to come out of locker room adjacent to the ramps to access the field for games. My dad suggests I run down the ramp like one of the Packer greats used to. So, I did. But I didn’t stop at the end of the ramp. I kept running, onto the field, right through the middle of the field, all the way to the opposite goal posts, and then back again. I remember the few fans left in the stands cheering for me as I ran. I hadn’t considered the fact I wasn’t supposed to be on the field nor considered the possibility of security personnel not being a fan of this run. Luckily for me, I wasn’t apprehended and didn’t get into trouble. The stadium has been reconfigured since then, so there is no public access through the players’ tunnel anymore.

Paul is an avid Green bay Packer fan. here he is with some friends, and an unidentified lady who decided to photobomb the selfie. From left: Bruce Hill, Paul, John Pitt and Rob Shilts. The photo was taken in from of Lambeau Field in Green Bay, where the Packers play.

What were you like at school?

Well behaved, got good grades

Who would play you in a film of your life?

John Cusack. I relate to a lot of the characters he’s played. Plus, we’re both handsome Midwesterners with groovy senses of humor and an interest in doing something positive for humanity.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

You’re good enough. You can do it.

Do you laugh at your own jokes?

Only when they’re bad. The good ones, I stay silent.

What makes you cry?

Realizing how bad people hurt when they lose someone they love.

What makes you laugh?

A lot.

What’s the loveliest thing you have ever seen?

My wife, dancing

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Read. Write. Believe in yourself. Ask for help. Always be willing to learn and accept constructive criticism. Don’t listen to people whose criticism isn’t done with the intent to encourage you.

Thank you very much for taking part in this interview!

Paul’s books can be purchased on Amazon.com

Paul’s website

Connect with Paul on social media:

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