Author Next Door: Charlie Cutter

By Jodee Taylor

Charlie Cutter grew up an only child with an English teacher for a mother. So he read. And he read really good books.

“My mother had me read all these classics like Dickens, Homer and Shakespeare and that provided a great foundation for Western literature for me,” said Cutter, 68.

That foundation served him well when he started his new career as an author — at age 60. He’s just published his third book, The Gray Drake, a mystery thriller set on the Au Sable River.

After his undergrad at Michigan State (finance) and law school at the University of Michigan — and after an short career as an attorney and a much longer one in the media business — Cutter started writing screenplays, then short stories. His mom, always the teacher, encouraged him to write a book. Even though he’d taken lots of English courses and read voraciously, “the writing part is mostly self-taught.”

And hard-fought.

“The old saw about how long it takes to write a book, is that it takes an entire life,” said Cutter. “In my case, the actual writing of the first draft takes about two years. I put 15 yellow pads on the coffee table in my office. When they’re all full, the first draft is done. I write them in longhand so I can write anywhere and rip up anything I don’t like.”

He’s a big believer in just getting the words on paper, then worrying about it later. “I have to give myself permission to write a shitty first draft. When I get stuck, it’s probably because I’m being too perfectionistic about something.”

In The Gray Drake, Quinn Shepherd was the best guide on the Au Sable river, until he’s found at the bottom of the river with the anchor chain of his boat wrapped around his ankle. Lizzie, his wife, is devastated and is left to raise Josh, their 6-year-old son, by herself.

An inquest determines that his drowning was accidental, but a year later new evidence is found and Lizzie is arrested for murdering her husband. Burr Lafayette, recently divorced and the deposed head of a major Detroit law firm, is recruited to defend Lizzie. A man at loose ends, he is a brilliant litigator but prefers sailboats and dogs over courtrooms and clients.

And yeah, that sounds a lot like Charlie Cutter. “My mother and father always had sailboats and I love sailing, but I’ve fished my whole life, too.” He has a “leaky sailboat” that he keeps in Harbor Springs as well as a “leakier duck boat” on Saginaw Bay. He lives in East Lansing.

He also brings his love of fly fishing to his books. “There is art in fly fishing, the connection between the fisherman and the fish through the fly rod, the fly line and the fly.  It is very difficult to do well, but there is great beauty in it.” He fishes the Au Sable, but also the Manistee, the Muskegon and the Maple rivers. “Robert Traver said something like, trout only live in beautiful, unspoiled places, and I love places like that.”

He just finished the first draft of the next book in the series, Sleeping Bear, set in Leelanau County at the time the National Park Service was condemning land for the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

He’s also written a novel, hopefully soon-to-be published about another of his passions: duck hunting. Bayou Meto chronicles the rise and fall of a family that owns a rice plantation and the most famous flooded timber in Stuttgart, Ark.

His previous life as an attorney came in handy as well. The litigation scenes in The Gray Drake are realistic and well-informed. Cutter calls himself “a recovering attorney.” He is the part owner of a digital billboard company.