Over and over, we see stories and real-life examples of the good-looking, wealthy, ambitious person being the hero. But I want to shake up that ideal and have us admire quiet courage instead. I want us to celebrate the people who are doing acts of kindness every day for strangers, who put their lives on the line for others, and who do it all without seeking attention or expecting anything in return.

As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dete Meserve.

Dete Meserve is the award-winning, bestselling author of Good Sam, Perfectly Good Crime, and The Space Between. Her first novel, Good Sam, will be released as a feature film on Netflix in Spring 2019. Her first non-fiction book, and true-life tie in to Good Sam, Random Acts of Kindness, will be released March 26, 2019. When she’s not writing, she is a film and television producer in Los Angeles and a partner and CEO of Wind Dancer Films. Meserve lives in Los Angeles with her husband and three children — and a very good cat that rules them all.

Can you share the “backstory” about how you grew up?

I grew up in Chicago, the fifth of seven children. I showed early interest and talent in music and that’s how I spent most of my childhood: I played piano, organ, and practically every instrument in band. And I sang in choir, touring the country with the Chicago Children’s Choir. When I wasn’t playing music, I was listening — going to concerts at Orchestra Hall; tuning into WFMT, the classical radio station; or playing recordings.

When I wasn’t involved in music, I was writing short stories — mostly mysteries and science fiction. For me, writing has always been a way to slow down time. It allows you to see, hear, and feel all the intricate layers that make up a moment, a thought, or a decision — all in slow motion. It’s where I can think and feel deeply about situations I encounter in life and even those I might never experience. When you discover the words to express those impressions, you can unfold time for readers too.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life?

I loved The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. My mother read it to me when I was 6 and then I read it again when I was 10 or 11. It was the first time I saw clearly that characters in the book could be changed not only by circumstances, but also by kindness and friendship. It made me realize the power of story to help us better understand the world and our place in it.

What was the moment or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world?

I was increasingly troubled by the fact that most stories on the news, on prime-time TV, and in bestselling books were about the search for someone doing bad things: killers, kidnappers, serial killers, robbers. And when you were trying to “solve the mystery,” you had to get inside the head of the killer.

In effect, we were magnifying the thought processes and acts of evil people in our pursuit to find them.

I wondered: why do we want to spend so much time thinking about people who are wreaking havoc in the world? Even if justice is ultimately served, why were so many pages and so much screen time devoted to the cruelest things people could do to each other?

That’s when I got the idea: what if instead of killers and rapists, we were searching for someone doing extraordinary, but anonymous, good? How would we go about finding them? What might be the reasons behind their mysterious good? Would they have ulterior motives behind their good acts? Or could they really be doing good without expecting anything in return? That became the basis of my first novel, GOOD SAM, which is now an original film for Netflix (spring 2019). The story asks the question: how might we all be changed by searching for someone doing good?

Once GOOD SAM rose up the charts, I started work on its sequel — PERFECTLY GOOD CRIME — where reporter Kate Bradley uncovers a series of high-tech, sophisticated robberies in some of the wealthiest estates in America and connects the dots to large-scale giving to the poor and disabled. Is there a “Robin Hood” involved or does someone have a bigger plan to bring help and hope to people living in poverty? Wrapped in all the elements of a mystery and romance, I wanted to explore what good might come out of big crimes like that and allow readers to make their own decisions about whether it was a “perfectly good” or “perfectly bad” way to go about making change for the most vulnerable people in our society.

What impact did you hope to make when you wrote this book?

Over and over, we see stories and real-life examples of the good-looking, wealthy, ambitious person being the hero. But I want to shake up that ideal and have us admire quiet courage instead. I want us to celebrate the people who are doing acts of kindness every day for strangers, who put their lives on the line for others, and who do it all without seeking attention or expecting anything in return.

We should be more intrigued by finding someone doing profound good than we are of yet another person adding violence and cruelty in the world. The news media primarily points their cameras at the beautiful, rich, powerful, and famous, but the realcelebrities in our culture should be the people who are bravely making the world a better place every day.

In essence, I want people to rethink kindness as something we admire more than wealth or notoriety.

Did the actual results align with your expectations?

I was surprised and overwhelmed by the response. Not only did GOOD SAM rise to the top of the bestseller charts and later become a movie for Netflix, but readers were reaching out to me through social media and email to tell me that the book inspired them to be kinder and more compassionate to others. They also wrote to say that they felt uplifted by the story — even though it was a story of fiction, it made them see that there are far more good people in the world than they realized before. And then it made them start seeing good everywhere. As each day passed, readers started sharing stories of real-life good Samaritans around the world. “This young boy is a Good Sam!,” they’d write. Or, “Have your tissues handy!” And the stories they shared with me, helped mediscover that there were thousands of people doing good for others. I too was changed by reading about real-life examples of people doing acts of kindness.

What moment let you know that your book had started a movement?

It didn’t happen overnight. Instead, it built steadily over weeks then grew over months and years. As more and more people started reading GOOD SAM and its sequel PERFECTLY GOOD CRIME, growing numbers of people shared stories of realrandom acts of kindness across social media, and I had the opportunity to talk about the subject with civic groups and various other organizations.

So many readers began sharing stories with me that I realized there was another book I wanted to write. A non-fiction book where we could collect and share true stories about ordinary people of all ages who have found unique ways to show compassion and make a difference. I reached out to award-winning journalist Rachel Greco and asked her to write RANDOM ACTS OF KINDNESS (March 26, 2019, Melrose Hill Publishing) with me with an eye toward looking at how both the giver and the receiver are forever transformed by an act of kindness. Early response has been so beautiful, that we’re already thinking about writing another one, this time focusing on acts of kindness by kids around the world.

To me, the real sign of a movement is when people have an emotional reaction to the message that’s powerful enough to propel them to do something. Many readers share stories about how they were inspired to help others and that’s extremely gratifying. If books and movies can spread more kindness in the world then that’s more meaningful than just about anything else we can do.

What kinds of things did you hear right away from readers? What are the most frequent things you hear from readers about your book now? Are they the same? Different?

When GOOD SAM first came out, people began discovering and sharing stories of real-life Good Samaritans. And they seemed surprised by it — almost in awe of these stories, as if they were extremely rare. But as more and more people began sharing them, people began to see that these events weren’t rare at all and that a wide range of people were doing acts of kindness: young and old, rich and poor, city dwellers and country folk, fraternity boys and bikers. As this kindness movement has grown, people are seeing that they can do more than celebrate other people who are doing good. They can actually have a hand in making the world a better place through their own actions, big and small.

What is the most moving or fulfilling experience you’ve had as a result of writing this book?

I’ve been privileged to meet so many good Samaritans and let me tell you, I am in awe of them. When I first met the Layaway Angel, a woman from Boston named Cathy O’Grady who was paying off layaway balances at Toys“R”Us, I felt like I was meeting a rock star or a movie star. I admired her that much. And when it was time for her to leave, I actually cried because I’d felt grateful to meet such a good person. Cathy is funny — hilarious at times — and her spirit of kindness is so strong you feel it immediately. I’ve spent so much time thinking about and writing about goodness that when I meet someone who’s doing powerful good, they stand out like a bright star.

I felt the same way when I met Larry Collins, the captain of the Urban Search and Rescue Team at the Los Angeles County Fire Department. I was interviewing him for research for the character of firefighter Eric Hayes in GOOD SAM and PERFECTLY GOOD CRIME and he’d tell me of these times he and his crew put their lives on the line to save a stranger in swift water, an overturned car, or a collapsed mine. I was struck by the fact that he talked about these courageous acts with such humbleness, as though they were ordinary.

Have you experienced anything negative? Do you feel there are drawbacks to writing a book that starts such colossal conversation and change?

Sometimes people will tell me my worldview about kindness is “naïve” or “optimistic.” They’ll tell me a story that demonstrates that the world is a dangerous place. They’ll argue that people are inherently selfish and greedy. But even behind their arguments, I sense they are desperately seeking hope that they’re wrong. And I often provide that. I tell them about the UC Berkeley research that shows we’re wired for good, that we get a positive physical and chemical reaction in our brains when we help others and that when we witness someone helping someone else, we’re more likely to help others ourselves.

Anytime you talk about something that’s considered “soft” like kindness or compassion, you’ll always have a few people who might shrug and devalue it. But that’s because they don’t see that kindness and compassion are at the root of nearly all of the things they care about. A CEO friend of mine thought the kindness idea was “nice, but didn’t have staying power.” But you can’t have innovation, creativity and productivity in business without trust. And what are the seeds of trust? Kindness. Compassion. Understanding.

Can you articulate why you think books in particular have the power to create movements, revolutions, and true change?

There’s an intimacy between author and reader that’s there from start to finish. Unlike a film or TV series, there’s usually a singular voice and vision to a book which translates into an unrivaled and unique experience. But it’s not just the physical aspect of a book that creates movements and change — it’s story. Our ancestors used stories to pass down critical information and values from one generation to another, so our brains are wired for story. When we can get inside the head of characters who are discovering, deliberating, and deciding what to do in difficult situations, we are, in essence, programming our own brains to think differently and see the world from other people’s perspectives. And that can bring about real, lasting change.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a bestselling writer?

I’m a mom of three kids, I run a company, and I’m a film and TV producer, so the one asset I have very little of is time. But time is the one thing you need to write a novel. Not just the actual time to write 85,000+ words and edit the manuscript, but time to think, play, dream, and research that concept and story that will eventually become a novel. I try to be very protective of the creative process. For me, that means a few things. First, I don’t discuss the ideas in the book in the early stages. I want the ideas to be allowed to breathe, develop and grow without others layering their thoughts, assessments, or values on them. This is the part of novel writing I love most: discovery. Second, I’m also not so hard on myself for “output.” Sometimes I might write for six hours and generate 350 words. Other times it can be 3,000. Sometimes I’ll handwrite more notes about what’s supposed to happen in a scene than there are words in the scene. While we all must work on deadlines, I try to allow the creative process to unfold within that timeframe rather than forcing rigid requirements upon it.

What challenge or failure did you learn the most from in your writing career?

Sometimes what you write will take you in the wrong direction and down the wrong path. And you may not see it until you’re deep into your manuscript. In Perfectly Good Crime, I removed about 20,000 words — over 20% of the manuscript — in one of its revisions. That feels like failure. You kick yourself for wasting hours on ideas that didn’t work. But once you get over the sting of it and look at it from a distance, you can see that the “mistakes” you made actually led you to discoveries that you couldn’t have seen otherwise. And the mistakes make you a stronger, more efficient writer the next go-round.

Many aspiring authors would love to make an impact similar to what you have done. What are the 5 things writers needs to know if they want to spark a movement with a book?

First, I think you have to start with an idea that you’re truly passionate about. Something that you must say. When I was writing GOOD SAM, I’d literally run to my laptop when I’d get the opportunity to write. If it’s authentic, people will respond to it, but they have keen radar for ideas that feel manufactured or branded. Sometimes I hear people say things like “my brand is…” too early in the process — they’re thinking about the packaging before they’ve firmly settled on what’s inside.

Second, you have to be okay with the possibility that you might fail. It’s normal to be afraid of failing. But do it anyway. You can’t play it safe. You have to do things that take you out of your comfort zone. You have to be okay with that what you do may not work. And you have to embark on the journey knowing that you don’t have all the answers, but have faith that you’ll find them along the way.

Third, be patient. So many people buy into the false premise that if an idea is truly good, it becomes an overnight sensation. The media feeds us endless stories of talented people being “discovered” by someone and becoming an instant viral hit. But those are stories, not reality. Building a movement takes vigilant attention and care over longer stretches of time. It develops and evolves over time, informed by your experiences and influenced in real time by what’s happening in the world.

Fourth, don’t expect other people to do it for you. Your publisher isn’t going to ignite a movement for you around your books. They’re not going to engage readers on social media for you. This is something you have to bring to life and build on your own long before others can join you. And when you find people who share your vision, invite them into your world, treat them like royalty, and listen to what they have to say. They will be a tremendous source of information and inspiration and will help you get the message out in ways you cannot yet imagine.

Fifth, breathe. It can be tempting to say yes to every opportunity, to work round the clock fueled by passion for your ideas. But a fire needs oxygen to burn and so do you. No matter how you feel, you are not an unlimited resource. Take time to step back, take care of your body, spend time with the people you love, rest and repair. You’ll find that these simple actions can inspire even greater creativity and productivity and bring even more meaning to the work you’re doing. These are things I have to remind myself every day.

The world, of course, needs progress in many areas. What movement do you hope someone (or you!) starts next?

There are so many important ones and so many smart, accomplished people starting them! I hope that someone starts a movement to create better safety nets for the 13 million kids living in poverty in the U.S. There are not only serious chronic health implications to growing up in poverty, but also behavioral and emotional problems which can carry into adulthood. While we’re seeing steady improvement, the number of people living in food insecure households is still staggering — 40 million people. I have no doubt that we have the ability to fix this crisis. All it will take is a movement to make it a priority.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

On Facebook, my Author page is: www.Facebook.com/GoodSamBookand my Random Acts of Kindness group, where members can share stories about acts of kindness is: www.Facebook.com/groups/RandomActsofKindnessGroup. I’m also on Twitter at @DeteMeserve.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!


  • Sara Connell

    Bestselling Author & Writing Coach

    Sara Connell is an author and writing coach with a private practice in Chicago. She has appeared in Oprah, Good Morning America, NPR, The View and Katie Couric. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Tri-Quarterly, Good Housekeeping, Parenting, IO Literary Journal, and Psychobabble. Her first book Bringing In Finn was nominated for ELLE magazine Book of the Year. www.saraconnell.com