My guest today has quite a background to share with us, one that informed his debut novel. But first let’s look at author Michael J. Coffino’s bio and then talk to him about what inspired him to write his first novel.
Before becoming a full-time author, ghostwriter, and freelance editor, Michael Coffino had two parallel careers in the San Francisco Bay Area: one in the courtroom, the other in the gymnasium. He was a business litigation and trial attorney and legal writing instructor for four decades and concurrently devoted twenty-five years as a basketball coach, primarily at the high school level.
He has authored or co-authored nine books, including Truth Is in the House, his debut novel (Köehler Books, July 2021).
Michael grew up in the Mott Haven and Highbridge neighborhoods of the Bronx. He earned a BS in Education from the City University of New York, and in 1976 moved to California, where he earned a JD degree from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.
Michael plays guitar, holds a black belt in karate, is a workout junkie, hikes regularly in the hills and mountains of California and Colorado, and plays pickleball. He lives in Marin County, California, and has two adult sons, both teachers and basketball coaches.
Betty: What inspired you to write the story you’re sharing with us today?
Michael: I set out to write a work of fiction to honor and celebrate my Bronx upbringing. I thrived growing up in the Bronx and remained proud of how we kids built a subculture removed from the clutches of traditional institutions like school, church, and family. My plan was to collect anecdotes from childhood friends and build a narrative from there.
But the first interviews I did propelled me down a different path after learning about a twin-homicide that resulted from a racial confrontation in a local neighborhood bar. I was in the military when it happened, and by the time I got discharged, my family had moved to another part of the Bronx. It took fifty years for me to learn of the tragedy, which took the lives of two boys I knew. I fixated on the event and began to explore a narrative about race.
Betty: Which character arrived fully or mostly developed?
Michael: Both main characters—Jaylen Jackson and Jimmy O’Farrell—are composites of different people in my life and each undertakes a journey to try to identify their core values and who they can be. Whether either can develop fully or mostly, and live enough to do so, is a subtext of the narrative.
Betty: Which story element sparked the idea for this story: setting, situation, character, or something else?
Michael: Once I learned about the explosive tragedy at the local neighborhood bar, I dug deeper and came across a gang attack in a nearby neighborhood, also the product of racial tensions. I decided then to connect the two disparate events using two main characters—one white, the other black—as vehicles to explore the racial themes. From there, the book grew, more organically than by design.
Betty: Which character(s) were the hardest to get to know? Why do you think?
Michael: It might seem counterintuitive but as between Jimmy and Jaylen, I found myself understanding Jaylen better and connecting with him easier. Some might find that odd, a white man connecting more with the black character than the white. But during my most conscientious years growing up in the Bronx, when my neighborhood had become integrated, I hung out with many guys reflected in the Jaylen character. I also think I instinctively conjured up more empathy for Jaylen Jackson; down deep I wanted to know him better. That is not to say I didn’t know or relate to Jimmy O’Farrell. I knew lots of “Jimmy O’Farrells” growing up. But the emotional engagement I had between the two was different.
Betty: What kind of research did you need to do to write this story?
Michael: I interviewed thirty people for anecdotes, inspiration, and factual authenticity—among them, former Bronx residents, educators, journalists, attorneys, firemen, law enforcement, medical personnel, and US military war veterans. Most I didn’t know; they were either referred to me or found via an internet search.
I also read countless books and watched countless videos and documentaries to pinpoint historical details and provide additional support for story authenticity. I didn’t want readers to suspend belief. I wanted them to identify with the time, place, and the emotive power of the narrative and its historical context.
Betty: How many drafts of the story did you write before you felt the story was complete?
Michael: Well, if my computer draft file is any guide, about twenty in varying degrees, although in terms of full-length rewrites, I’d guess about five to seven.
Betty: How long did it take for you to write the story you’re sharing with us? Is that a typical length of time for you? Why or why not?
Michael: It took less than a year, probably about 8-10 months, which includes working on other projects and servicing a few law clients. I tend to finish manuscripts in that time frame, especially memoir, which I co-author and ghostwrite for clients. I typically have three full manuscript projects going on at once. I like the balance of different projects. It keeps me fresh and mentally engaged.
Betty: What rituals or habits do you have while writing?
Michael: I do have a ritual. I rise typically between 5 and 6 am (and sometimes earlier), make coffee, massage my hands with Melt therapy balls, and read for thirty minutes or so to awaken my mind. After reading, I start writing, typically until about 8:30 when I turn to my exercise of the day, whether a hike, playing pickleball, weights, or doing core work on a mat. After exercise, I return to the keyboard and write until late afternoon, in the range of 5 pm. Throughout the writing sessions, I take breaks whenever I feel the onset of diminished concentration.
Betty: Every author has a tendency to overuse certain words or phrases in drafts, such as just, once, smile, nod, etc. What are yours?
Michael: I plead guilty. Some of my knee-jerk usages include: “indeed,” “embrace,” “what’s more,” “to be sure,” and “albeit,” mostly stubborn hangovers from law practice.
Betty: Do you have any role models? If so, why do you look up to them?
Michael: My children, two adult young men. They are wise beyond their years and have an unabashed tendency to pepper me with reality checks. Beyond them, I have always had deep admiration for George Carlin and Muhammed Ali, Carlin for his unapologetic irreverence and incisive wit, and Ali for his courage and understated brilliance.
Betty: Do you have a special place to write? Revise? Read?
Michael: I primarily write on a PC at a desk in a home office. When traveling, or needing a change of pace at a café, I write on my laptop. When not revising on the screen, with pen on paper, I relocate to my dining room table. I reserve my reading for two large comfortable chairs in my home, one in the living room and the other in the bedroom.
Betty: Many authors have a day job. Do you? If so, what is it and do you enjoy it?
Michael: Writing and editing constitute my day job, although I still practice law here and there. I enjoy the legal work—it is intellectually challenging and helps pay the bills. But it doesn’t compare to the thrill of writing professionally.
Betty: As an author, what do you feel is your greatest achievement?
Michael: I didn’t become a fulltime writer until five years ago. Since then, I have written nine books, some co-authored or ghostwritten. While I am immensely proud of Truth Is in the House, my early collective body of work—spread across several genres—is my greatest achievement (so far).
Betty: What other author would you like to sit down over dinner and talk to? Why?
Michael: Of the writers I admire, Oscar Wilde is at the top of the leader board. But, alas, he is long gone. To have sat with him, and engaged his intellect and sardonic edge, would have been a thrill. Today, it would have to be Richard Russo. Of all the fiction writers I’ve read, Russo has the most developed ability to capture the nuances of human imperfection and frailty in storytelling. I would cherish discussing character development, dialogue, and scene creation with him.
Betty: Success looks different to different people. It could be wealth, or fame, or an inner joy at reaching a certain level. How do you define success in terms of your writing career?
Michael: As it is for many authors, monetizing a writing career is no small feat. Long-term traditional success from a financial standpoint would of course be nice. But more than that, success to me as a writer means turning out stories on a consistent basis that provoke and entertain a wide berth of audience. Storytelling is a delightful activity, and to do it in a way that pleases others, that makes them cry, laugh, or otherwise emotionally engages them, would be the pinnacle of writing success.
As a young boy in the late 1950s, Jimmy O’Farrell emigrates with his family from Ireland to Manhattan to bask in the dawn of a new life. Thousands of miles away, the family of Jaylen Jackson seeks to build a life amid Jim Crow culture in Mississippi. Struggling to come of age in a racially divisive world, both boys as teenagers suffer separate horrific tragedies that shape their characters and life missions. Jimmy seeks to define what it means to stand for someone when the chips are down, while Jaylen embarks on a journey to gain respect beyond the color of his skin.
Fleeing the past, both families land in neighboring Bronx communities in the 1960s, where Jimmy and Jaylen’s lives first intersect on the basketball court and then in the Vietnam jungle. Repeatedly tested as men of different races, their friendship later faces its toughest challenge outside a Bronx bar—with fatal consequences.
Truth Is in the House is an epic and provocative tale that plumbs historical and modern racial themes and explores redemption, forgiveness, and the power of connection through the human spirit.
Sounds like a very powerful story, Michael. Thanks so much for bringing the story and its themes to our attention today.
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