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Accidental Mentor

Photo by Harrison DiCocco

By Suanna Parker – Collegiate Staff

I consider anyone who is actively doing “that thing” that I dream of doing myself to be a mentor of sorts. This idea is elevated to a whole other level when that mentor is found locally. I think what makes a person a mentor is that active involvement towards reaching one’s dream. A person who doesn’t settle with merely thinking about taking advancements towards reaching their goals, but someone who actively works towards achieving them. It was by complete accident that I met someone here at Grand Rapids Community College who would add such an irreplaceable perspective, and instill in me a better work ethic just by sharing his experiences with writing.

Aric Davis, 39, was born in Ithaca, New York, and has lived in Grand Rapids since he was 5 years old. “I’m basically a native in everything but birth,” Davis said. His parents met in Maryland, moved for school to Cornell, lived in Cleveland for a while to have his sister, and then settled here in Grand Rapids.

When asked if he considers Grand Rapids his home a resounding “Yes” is his answer.

Aric, who I met in my Consulting with Writer’s class this semester, didn’t always enjoy writing. “I’ve always been an extremely avid reader,” he said. “I didn’t like writing though until I could do it on a keyboard. To me, writing with a pen is really painful. It makes my hand cramp and I just could never get past that for longer fiction.”

He officially started writing in the summer of 2006, and his work in a Tattoo shop served as a catalyst for his first bits of motivation to write. “I’d always had this idea that I might have a book in me, I had this free time and just a lot of negative energy because of what was happening with my work at the time” he said.  “So I just decided that I was going to try and see if I actually did have a book in me. It was just that kind of drive.”

It was these driving factors that finally propelled Aric to turn his ideas into tangible results, and in spite of being “horribly busy and horribly broke” at the time, he pushed through and wrote his first book.

“I decided I was gonna finally try and write a novel. And I did…and I couldn’t sell it,” Davis laughs.

For most writers simply getting over that hump of actually writing the story proves to be the most problematic, but Aric’s story showcases another big problem for aspiring writers. “Will this story ever even get published?” This is a question I have asked myself numerous times. I’m sure that many other writers have also asked this very same question, and the truth is, if a person never takes the chance and writes the story, than they will never really know. Aric chose to take the chance and now he has published works to show for it.

Sometimes the answer is as simple as taking a leap of faith.

Aric’s self-published first work was titled, “From Ashes Rise,” and it was published in February of 2008.

“I did a run of 200 copies and sold out of all of them, but that was the end of the start of my publishing dreams,” Davis said. When asked about the synopsis, “It’s about this guy walking from prison in the UP back to Grand Rapids in the middle of a near apocalyptic scenario. It’s terribly written, the editing is super bad, but it got my head going about what it would be like to write. So, I wrote five minute manuscripts after that and sent them out to all the appropriate people, tried to get them published, and couldn’t.”

The good news is that Aric did not choose to “throw in the keyboard” there.

He persisted, found his current publisher (based in Seattle), and in the process gained some success with writing.

“Finally wound up landing with the manuscript for “Nickel Plated” at my current editor and he loved it. I got this email from him and I was convinced it was BS. You hear those horror stories of like yeah, we’ll publish your book, we just need like 5,000 bucks for marketing. I thought it was one of those but it wasn’t. So we formed this awesome relationship, we put that book out, it reviewed really well, and it sold.”

“Nickel Plated” came out in March of 2011.

“It’s about this private detective that survives his younger years as a sexual abuse survivor. He sells drugs to make money. He works on cases for kids and the hook is that he’s twelve years old,” Davis said.

He received a bit of backlash about the choice of age, and was generous enough to respond with his take on it all.

“The controversy over the age I was wrong about. I should have made him a little bit older. My editor told me that I should make him fourteen or fifteen, but I told my editor that was ridiculous. That was the last time I didn’t listen to my editor,” Davis laughs. “The reason I was so stuck on the age is because I wanted it to be sort of like a Batman for kids that have gone through things like sexual abuse. So, they would have someone to look at as, I don’t know, someone like them, and maybe make it easier to have a discussion about that.”

So, what do the kids who’ve read it think?

“The kids I’ve talked to who are that age who have read it, like, they LOVE it. They like the idea of this kid who lives alone, sells dope, and does horrible sh*t to adults,” Davis said.  

Which raises the question, do we as adults underestimate what kids have been through, and then treat them condescendingly in regards to understanding content within art?

“Absolutely, we coddle children,” Davis said. “The other thing with it too is that it’s fiction. Then you’ve got all these people saying that (the character is too young), and then their reading Vampire stories, and it’s like what’s more plausible? That a 12-year-old kid could sell drugs and live on his own, or that a Vampire could battle over a girl with a werewolf.”

What was the inspiration for such a controversial story?

“I had written about probably 20 pages of that book in the middle of 2010, and then three people from my wife’s extended family were murdered by a drunk driver. And I was like so pissed. I couldn’t deal with all the emotions I was having. I mean it’s making me upset right now to talk about… which is good. It was just like this incredible emotional outburst, and what really sealed it for me was going to one of their funerals. It was this young woman who was going to get married a week after she died, and she’s at her funeral in a wedding dress in a coffin,” Davis said. “It just shattered something in me. I was so mad, and I was like…I should write. I have this big emotional thing going and I couldn’t figure out anything to write about. So, I was like wait, I will pick up that silly manuscript about the 12-year-old, and I’ll make it really mean.”

So, are all of your novels in the same genre?

“Absolutely not. A lot of them share the same world, but my second published novel “The Good and Useful Hurt” is almost like this gothic romance ghost story. Like brutal horror novel that bears almost no connection to anything else other than the style that I write, but it’s basically like a tattoo shop ghost story,” Davis said. “Well, I mean the main premise is that this tattoo artist is tattooing people with the ashes of dead loved ones, and it allows them to communicate with those people in their dreams.”

Tattoo artist Raelyn Gallina actually pioneered the trend of tattooing people with the ashes of dead loved ones. Which brought us to the topic of inspiration within the art of writing.

“Man, this is gonna sound brutal, but once you start working as a writer full time… I’m inspired by the electric bill, the gas bill, the water bill, and I’m inspired by rent,” Davis laughs. “Umm, and just this desire to be part of that world. Writers were my heroes growing up. I liked hockey players and I liked writers. I’m never going to play as a pro-hockey player, but I have had a lot of luck in professional writing. So, I wanna be a part of that. Like I wanna be dead and have people still reading my stuff. I don’t need to be Mark Twain to be happy, but if at some point when I’m dead somebody picks up my stuff and was like “oh, yeah that’s cool…”

What was the moment that made you feel the most successful?

“When my first book “The Fort” hit No. 3 on the Amazon sales chart that was insane. Cause that was my first real big hit and it hit BIG. I was on the front page or the front cover as they call it on the Amazon site. My ugly mug was up there with a story about me. Then my book “Tunnel Vision” got to No. 1 on the amazon sales chart, and in both those cases I just missed the Times list by like…a hair. I wanted to be on the Times list SO bad and I was so close, and you can’t really know the numbers because the Times calculates theirs differently, but it was down to the wire. Books that were behind me on Amazon were ahead of me on the Times list, but that’s still a goal. I’ll get there,” Davis said.

Aric has encountered more than just success in writing. He has also been reviewed by one of his many writer influences too. Gillian Flynn, author of “Gone Girl,” reviewed his novel “Nickel Plated” on Amazon.

“That was insane! I was out getting lunch with my wife the day before publication, and I was nervous as hell because nobody tells you when a book is coming out…that nothing happens. You would think that it’s like this super exciting thing, but when your book comes out nothing happens! Like no one around you knows. Your family knows but no one cares, like, you’re not walking to Meijer and people are like “HEY…it’s book day.” Like you feel like this massive thing is happening for yourself but no one cares. It’s so bizarre. I worked the day my book came out.”

What about that review by Gillian?

“We were at lunch, I was on pins and needles, and I got this e-mail from my publicist that said, “Hey, you’re not going to believe this, but Gillian reviewed your book” and I was like “Ooookay, I gotta sit down” and like this was Gillian pre “Gone Girl”. So, I don’t know, I think she was excited about it because she wasn’t who she is now. Like in terms of popularity. I don’t think I could get Gillian Flynn to review my book now, but at the time it was just this perfect colesce of stuff. I sent books to three authors. I sent books to Gillian Flynn, Joe Lansdale, and Andrew Vox. Not only was she the only one who got back to us but she did the review and like a blurb and it was just neat. It was unbelievable. It blew my mind.”  

What is the greatest wisdom that someone has imparted on you as a writer?

“In Stephen King’s book “On Writing” he said to write every single day and work towards a specific word count every day, and if I didn’t do that I wouldn’t be published.”

There you have it. It’s as simple as to write every single day, and set goals for yourself to achieve in the form of a word count. This wisdom could save many a writer from their doomed fate of lack of success.

Why the turn to community college following all of your success in publishing novels?

“I was just in a lull in my writing career and I was really stressed out. Basically every time you have a book come out it’s awesome for like a day, and then it’s terrifying because you don’t know what’s going to be next,” Davis said. “I was just at this point where I was like I need to be doing something else. I had been writing full time since December 2012 and I still am, but I don’t wanna have that be my backup plan. I don’t want my life to start falling apart when I’m 65. I wanna be able to do something else with it, and the other part of it is, that I wanted to do something I could share with other people. Which would be teaching creative writing from this like almost ghetto standpoint that I came from.”

So, what does GRCC have to offer someone who has already tasted the success of having a novel published? Could any of the faculty or the student body contribute perspective or learning experiences to a seasoned writer?

“I learned the most about writing at GRCC in a class that had very little writing. It was Great American Writers 1&2 with Professor Megan Coakley. I’m not the guy to read classical literature, like that’s just not my thing at all, and I read a ton of it there. I learned so much about writing through reading that stuff that I had no plans to read. It was insane. I learned just a ton in those classes. I didn’t think I’d learn anything about writing. I thought I’d learn a lot about interpreting someone else’s work, but I took so much from those classes it was nuts. It was totally unplanned,” Davis said.

One particular bit of knowledge sheds a lot of light on inspiration within the writing world as a whole?

“Learning that Huck Finn is basically the basis for all American Literature was kinda mind blowing. Realizing that like even though I hadn’t read it at that point that it had still influenced my own work indirectly through other works. It was sorta meta, and weird, and a little creepy,” Davis said. “I had read Tom Sawyer and didn’t really care for it. I just like the idea of Twain. Sort of like before I had ever read Ernest Hemingway I liked the idea of Hemingway.”

Is there anything in particular that we can expect from you in the near future?

“I’m working on a couple things right now. The book that my editor has right now that I’m waiting to see if we’re going to do anything with is…it’s a novel written in the style of something like a World War Z. Where it’s like a series of interviews with the survivors of this cruise ship disaster that sees like 5,000 people killed out of 15,000, and it’s just basically interviews with the people that survived that,” Davis said. “So, that’s in like the editorial stage right now, and what I’m working on currently is this really quirky little time travel book. I’m just about halfway done with it and I’m not sure what’s gonna happen with it but I’m enjoying it so far. Whether it actually gets submitted or finished who knows. I usually finish my stuff, so, I’ll probably finish it, but right now it’s just fun.”

Quick! Pick one book that you have to read over and over for the rest of your life?

“The Shining,” Davis said with enthusiasm. “I think it’s the perfect combination of the American literature experience and horror. Both of which are things that I absolutely love. I would say “To Kill A MockingBird” as like a second place, but “The Shining” for as perfectly written as “To Kill a MockingBird” is, I think that “The Shining” has more nuances to be discovered. Like I think that I could read that book a hundred times and still not take everything out of it that’s there.”

“The Shining” and “Salem’s Lot” are Aric’s top Stephen King choices.

Do you have a mentor within the writing world?

“I really don’t. I’m close with my parents. My first editor was this man, Terry Goodman, but he was like the guy who discovered me. I’ve worked with editors since then, but Terry had this idea that he was gonna be like the editor among editors, and he was until he retired. I mean that guy was incredible like he knew stuff about books and about publishing that you don’t learn without a ton of experience.” Davis said.

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  1. Hi—this is Gillian Flynn. Please tell Aric Davis I’d have loved and raved about NICKEL PLATED pre-GONE GIRL, post-GONE GIRL, during GONE GIRL and so on because I think it’s brilliant, dark, and utterly unique (and anything else I said at the time). He can hit me up for a review anytime, because voices like his are hard to find.


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