Eric Lotke is a writer, an attorney and an activist. His writing and advocacy have impacted the American criminal justice system even leading to new laws.
Bonnie Ferrante: Your first book, 2044: The Problem isn’t Big Brother, It’s Big Brother Inc. discusses the problem we seem to read about at least once a month where amazing inventions and progressive practices are shut down so that powerful industry can continue accumulating wealth. Does your book offer any solutions?
Eric Lotke: My novel 2044 starts where George Orwell’s 1984 left off. In 1984 the problem is the leviathan government, personified as Big Brother. In 2044 the leviathan is the private sector, which has taken over everything, including the government. The story in 2044 follows an engineer who discovers a cheap, easy way to take the salt out of seawater. The new discovery is good for everyone — except the giant corporations who control the water supply.
I snarkily call one corporation Big Brother, Incorporated, and even give it the sunny Orwellian slogan, “Big Brother is Looking Out for You.” But both stories were intended as wake-up calls not as predictions or policy briefs.
Ferrante: Your book, The Real War on Crime: Report of the National Criminal Justice Commission, must have ruffled some feathers. How was it received?
Lotke: The Real War was groundbreaking. Published in 1996, it outlined the issues that define criminal justice to this day – mass incarceration, hyperactive policing and radical racial disparity. It offered solutions that remain relevant today – treatment not jail, and true community policing. We described minority communities as “overpoliced and underprotected.” They still are.
The Real War definitely ruffled feathers. It was an early step around a corner that’s (finally) starting to be turned.
Ferrante: Making Manna is your latest fiction novel. Why did you change from nonfiction?
Lotke: I still write non-fiction in my day job. Fiction is just more fun. 2044 ends in despair but I’m not a pessimist. So I wrote Making Manna to give myself a happy ending. Making Manna is a Horatio Alger story. It explores real-life issues but it gives the reader (and writer) a very different experience.
Ferrante: Why did you choose to write about 14-year-old girl who flees an abusive home with her baby instead of a using man as your major protagonist?
Lotke: I didn’t choose the characters. I chose the story … and the characters are simply the people who would populate a story like that. Making Manna explores the justice system from the victim’s point of view. Who needs justice more than the victim of a childhood sex crime? I started with the worst crime I could imagine. Then I wondered: What does she need? What does the system offer her? What happens next? That’s Making Manna. BTW the 14-year-old girl shares the stage with her newborn baby, a boy. As the story matures, so does the baby. One smart reader called it a “coming of age” story of both mother and son at the same time.
Both characters are finding their way in the world. The son wants to learn the truth of his parentage; the mother needs to heal her own wounds and make peace with her past. The story feels real because it solves real problems the way real people would.
But don’t worry. The bad stuff happens off-screen. You know it happens but you don’t have to watch. Yuck! I want you to have a good time. My challenge was to turn dire circumstances into an uplifting tale of healing and hope.
Ferrante: What does the title mean?
Lotke: Thanks for asking. The title operates on many levels. At a fundamental level, Making Manna is about food. Food appears throughout the book, as a matter of both physical subsistence and personal independence. As the story develops, so does the characters’ relationship with food. First they eat from the McDonald’s Dollar Menu. Later they learn to boil spaghetti, and still later to bake their own bread. That’s literally “making manna,” I think.
Obviously it’s a biblical reference, too. But in the Bible, manna comes from heaven. In the real world, people need to make their own. Whether manna is food or money, we have to take care of it ourselves. Manna doesn’t fall from the sky.
This isn’t rugged individualism, though. Sure, they have to make their own manna. But they aren’t truly alone. People survive in partnership. Everybody is always giving and receiving help from others.
Ferrante: What was the most challenging thing about writing fiction? What have you learned from this experience that you could share with other writers?
Lotke: I didn’t find it all that different from non-fiction. Even when I work with data (I usually do) I think of it as helping the numbers to tell a story. These are the figures: what do they mean? How can people relate? I feel like I’m doing the same thing both times.
What have I learned that I can share? Give it a try. See if you like what you wrote – but honestly make changes or quit entirely if you don’t.
Ferrante: You must’ve done a huge amount of research for your nonfiction works. Did you draw on this for Making Manna or did you have to do new research? How much do you research before you actually start writing?
Lotke: Making Manna comes from my non-fiction life. I worked in and around the justice system for more than a decade, and before law school I earned my living as a chef. All of that goes into the mix that became Making Manna. With that factual baseline I could research specific questions as needed. For example, I knew enough about criminal trial work but nothing about appeals: I needed to research that. But just enough to support the story. Making Manna is not a legal thriller.
I wanted to be accurate even at the most trivial level. When they first learn to bake bread, one character shouts instructions across the kitchen to another. She’s shouting a real recipe. You can bake from it if you want. Angel’s favorite recipes on page 208 are my favorites, too.
Making Manna is also about parenting. Anybody who has loved a sick child or struggled to find (or pay for!) day care will know what I’m talking about. It would have been a very different book if I weren’t a dad. But that isn’t research. That’s life.
Ferrante: All of these books must’ve been emotionally draining to create. What do you do to stay positive in your personal life?
Lotke: It was strange. I found that when I wrote a sad scene I was gloomier at bedtime. When I wrote a happy scene I was in a better mood afterwards. To put myself in the mental state of my characters I needed to go there myself.
How do I stay positive? Just like everyone else with a stinky job or sickness in the family. I think positive, eat well and get plenty of exercise. I’m lucky because I have a crush on my wife and two fabulous children. They’re even nice, even if somehow they got to be teenagers.
Ferrante: What are you working on now? Do you plan on continuing in the fiction genre?
Lotke: I’m conceiving a new story that’s fundamentally about labor unions. I’d like to continue working in fiction but it’s so hard to market except in a fixed genre with a target audience – young adult fantasy, adult romance, horror, police detectives, whatever.
When I get a good weekend, I’ll take my own advice. I’ll bang out chapter one and see if I like it. Stay tuned … but no deadline, please.
Some readers of Making Manna have asked for a sequel. That’s tempting, too.
Ferrante: If you could be the editor in chief of any magazine in circulation, having significant input as to the style and content of the publication, which magazine would you choose?
Lotke: That’s easy. I want to be in hard news. I’d want to edit Time or Newsweek. I think they can be less stupid and still sell copies.
Ferrante: Which punctuation mark would best describe your personality?
Lotke: Heavens! I’m a semicolon. Semicolons are infrequently used and subtle in their purpose. Semicolons connect parts that are different yet related, and that can be considered together or apart. They are often misused, but perfect when used correctly.
Ferrante: Considering all the big screen movies that you have ever seen, which one do you believe had the greatest emotional impact on you?
Lotke: Hmmm. I can’t think of any knock-outs. But I do enjoy Shakespeare in Love, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and the original Terminator. And I never want to go more than a few years without seeing The Princess Bride again. I was jealous when my wife and daughter watched Thelma and Louise without me, but I understand why they did.
Ferrante: Thank you, Eric, for participating in my interview series. I am in awe of your courageous and important writing. Congratulations on writing Making Manna.
Note: the three random questions are from “Chat Pack – Fun Questions to Spark Conversations”.