Saturday, August 7, 2010

And Now, The Rest of the Story

Yesterday we started delving into the secrets behind Marcus Sakey and his thriller novels and short stories. We learned a little about his life before writing, some of the prevalent themes in his books, his point of view choices and more. Since I got so carried away talking to him - hey, cut me a little slack, he's a fascinating character - I split the interview in two. Today we have the "rest of the story." So, without further ado, let's return to Marcus:

Q. You blogged once about gender politics and the fact that men and woman are not the same. How does that come in to play for you when you’re writing male and female points of view? Or even dialogue? How do you have to, if at all, adjust your mindset to navigate back and forth between them?
Marcus: And vive la difference! I love that we’re not the same.

I do, however, believe we are equal in ability and brains and rights. And for me, it’s critical to write strong, capable, realistic female characters. I get so annoyed by a lot of the useless caricatures of women in books. I don’t know women like that, and I don’t believe the authors do either, and I wonder why their mothers and wives and sisters don’t slap them silly.

I don’t really have any exercises I do as I switch back and forth, but I do always try and imagine the women I know saying the things I’m writing. Same with the men, actually. If I don’t believe it, that’s usually because it’s crap.
Q. Yeah, I've read a few of those books, too. Let's switch gears a bit and talk about your settings. Up to this point, your books have been set in Chicago, but I know as a reader, I often lose track of that fact, not because you neglect setting but more because I feel like the stories could take place in most any urban city. Is that purposely done, paralleling the “everyman,” thus “any city”? Or am I just a lousy reader?
Marcus: I don’t think anyone can call you a lousy reader. You’re pretty much the reader we’re all hoping for.

To be honest, it depends on the book. The first two were more rooted in Chicago than the last couple, and that was intentional. As you point out, the last two novels were more “everyman”-oriented, so I toned down the specifics.

I also didn’t need them as much. In THE BLADE ITSELF, the neighborhood where my main characters grew up really shaped them, and so the city was far more a character. But in THE AMATEURS, part of the point is that the four of them are, like so many real people, somewhat disconnected from their roots.
Q. O.k., research. Research is always a topic that fascinates me. You always hear people talking about "writing what you know." But in reality, not many people at all experience the kinds of things that happen in crime novels. So, there's really a lot of research that has to go into an authentic crime novel and you’ve done some pretty exciting things in the name of research for your books. To date, what would you say has been the most interesting experience or maybe the one that surprised you the most – wasn’t at all what you expected it would be?
Marcus: I love the research. It’s not sitting around in libraries, it’s putting on a bulletproof vest and riding with homicide detectives. One recent adventure that was just ridiculously fun was visiting a training facility for the LAPD. I spent the whole day saying, “Hell yes!”

“Do you want to fire a Bennelli automatic tactical shotgun?”
“Hell yes!”

“Do you want to take a spin around the slick course and throw a car into a 720?”
“Hell yes!”

“Do you want to learn how to use your car to spin out another in a high-speed chase?”
“Oh, hell yes.”
Q. Did you ever swap Sprite for the holy water at church?
Marcus: I’ve gotten in my fair share of trouble. If there’s a big red button with a warning symbol on it, I really, really want to push it.
Q. Has there ever been something that interested you and you wanted to research it, so you decided to build a story around it? Or is it always a case of the story idea comes first and then the research opportunities evolve from the story idea?

Marcus: The two evolve around one another. I had a concept for my novel AT THE CITY’S EDGE which prompted me to spend some time shadowing the Chicago Police Gang Intelligence Unit, which in turn informed the idea, which led to research on soldiers returning from Iraq. And so forth.
Q. Speaking of AT THE CITY'S EDGE, your short story "The Desert Here and the Desert Far Away" actually came about because of the research you'd done for that novel. Ever have any thoughts about working the other way? Taking a character from one of the shorts and building a novel with him/her?
Marcus: I have thought about it. Haven’t done it yet. But there’s something to Sammy and Dex, the killers from “As Breathing,” that I think could be a lot of fun. On one of the back burners of my brain, I’ve been toying with the idea of turning them into a screenplay.
Q. Screenplays roles right into my next question then. Three of your books have been optioned for film. That, of course, is very exciting. And we all know that once the money changes hands, the author essentially has no more say. But if you could have ONE say in each movie, whether it be something in the story that absolutely can’t be changed, a mandatory filming location, a casting call, what one thing would you want to ensure for each film?
Marcus: Wow, cool question. Hmm.

For THE BLADE ITSELF, there are so many things that I think have a built-in protection—Danny and Evan really have to be from a blue-collar neighborhood, etc.—that I’ll use my wish to protect the ladies. I hope that the women remain strong, capable characters. The nature of film means that you have to trim subplots and combine characters and such, and that’s fine, but I hope that doesn’t result in the women being cliché weaklings.

Jason Palmer, the hero of AT THE CITY’S EDGE, is recently discharged from the Army. He’s not a Rambo-esque figure or a Marine sniper; he was an infantryman, the heroic backbone of the US Army. It’s really important to me that he not be turned into some sort of killing machine.

GOOD PEOPLE is about two people who actually are good people but have been losing track of one another. I hope that in a final film, we’ll see that through all the machinations and betrayals and pain, they really do love each other.

However, I’ve read scripts for both THE BLADE ITSELF and GOOD PEOPLE, and they’re terrific. So I’m really not worried.
Q. We've only touched slightly on your short stories up to this point, so let's focus on them a little more now. You’ve commented that writing the short stories are tough for you. How so? And what motivates you to write a short story?
Marcus: Short stories are writing as a watchmaker’s art. They require tremendous precision and a clear vision of what you’re trying to do. No successful watchmaker ever threw in an extra gear because he liked the look of it. While in a novel ideas can evolve in the writing, in a short story, every line, every word, has to propel your concept.

I’ve gotten better at them, but I still find them tricky. I don’t really write them unless someone has asked me to, usually for anthologies.
Q. As I read these stories, I definitely recognized your style, and yet each story is uniquely its own piece, each character an independent soul. At the end of each story, I felt as though I had to catch my breath. I was literally saying "Wow!" every time I finished one. Even when I was laughing at monkeys. It was almost like the power that you infuse into your 300 page books was there in each story to the same degree and it had to be compacted into a smaller space. There was no time to process and deal with the events until the end. - O.k., do I sound like a complete lunatic? The question is when you're writing these short works, do you ever feel that overwhelming power...or force...or whatever we want to term it because you're working with all of these emotions and themes and complex characters and ethical situations in such a small space? Do you ever finish one and just think, "damn, this completely drained me"?
Marcus: Well first, thanks.

I don’t really feel that while I’m writing them. But when I come back to them, the ones I like, I really enjoy reading them. More than I enjoy reading my novels, actually. It has something to do with the freshness of the worlds, and the fact that I’ll spend a year on a novel, whereas a story might take a week or two.
Q. Any other requests for short stories in the works? Projects on the burner? Would you want to edit an anthology yourself? And if so, what would be your dream theme or what would the focus of the anthology be?
Marcus: A couple of requests, nothing I’ve committed to just yet. I recently finished my fifth novel, and right now, my focus needs to be on figuring out the sixth.

I’m really excited to be releasing my short stories as e-books. The thing with short story anthologies is that they tend to come out, make a splash or not, and then vanish, taking your story with them. Of the dozens of short stories I’ve written, there’s a handful that I really like, and I’m thrilled they’ll get more life.

They’re priced cheap--$0.99 per story, the lowest Amazon will allow—because this really isn’t about making money for me. I just like these stories, and I think others will too, and I want them out there. Plus, for people who haven’t read me but are thinking about it, it’s a good way to try my stuff, see if it’s for you.

I’d love to edit the right anthology. But it would need to be something I was really excited about, which has more to do with the people involved than the theme. The dream would be to do one to raise money for a cause, and to get some real stars in there, the writers I deeply admire. In which case I wouldn’t be so much editing as being the first to read it.
Q. You’ve had opportunities to do a fair about of traveling to promote your books: different bookstore events and conventions and whatnot. What’s been a most memorable moment? And what’s been a most terrifying moment?
Marcus: I was invited to a film noir festival in Italy, all-expenses paid for both my wife and I. That was pretty spectacular. We just watched movies and ate and drank wine and watched more movies. Plus I got to meet Richard Price.

On the flip side, it’s not exactly terror, but there’s a lot of agonizing around the release of a book—will the reviewers like it, will it sell, will the store I drove fifty miles to have copies, will people eviscerate it on Amazon. All of which really comes down to, will I get to do this again? Because I really want to.
Q. You mentioned your agent sending your manuscript to "auction." I've heard this term used before. Can you explain what that means?
Marcus: That’s a very happy day.

What it means is that more than one editor wanted my novel. This is a happy situation, and one it takes some skill to create; my agent made sure to send it to a large list of editors whose taste he knew, and when we got the first bite, he went back and worked them against each other. The result was that several of them were bidding in competition, which drives the price up.

It also drives you to pacing for hours and hours.
Q. I’ve often heard authors talk about music having an influence on the books they write. Would you say music influences you at all? Or if not, is there something else that maybe influences you the way music influences other writers?
Marcus: I frequently write to music. It can’t have lyrics though, or else it has to be something I know so well I don’t even hear the words anymore. Lately I’ve been writing to soundtracks quite a lot. There are two composers, Cliff Martinez and Clint Mansell, whose work blows me away. I must have listened to the soundtrack to The Fountain two hundred times while writing my last novel. Two hundred easy. Same with Solaris.
Q. All right. I'm getting close to the end now, so I guess we should ask what's next for Marcus Sakey?
Marcus: I recently finished my fifth novel, which I’m really excited about. It’s a little different than anything I’ve done before, and definitely my most ambitious novel to date. We’re still settling on titles and such, but it should be out next June.
**a little update, in the interim between our conversation and posting it, Marcus reported that the "title blues" are now over. No report on what exactly the title is, but that wrinkle has now been ironed out. At least as of right now. Next June is still a ways away and there's no telling what could happen before then.

Q. And finally (as Marcus exhales a sigh of relief) Brian Lindenmuth threw out a question on Twitter recently that I’ve been mulling over for several days now, so I’ll throw it to you. He asked, “if you could give someone 5 books that you feel exemplify everything that is great about crime fiction, what would they be?”
Marcus: Oh, that’s easy:

1. THE BLADE ITSELF, by Marcus Sakey
2. AT THE CTY’S EDGE, by Marcus Sakey
3. GOOD PEOPLE, by Marcus Sakey
4. THE AMATEURS, by Marcus Sakey

I’m kidding. Really. Stop flaming me.

My actual list would change day-to-day. It’s tough to pick five to represent a genre as varied and complicated as ours. For now:

1. CLOCKERS, by Richard Price
2. NIGHT DOGS, by Kent Anderson
3. A DRINK BEFORE THE WAR, by Dennis Lehane
4. FIRST BLOOD, by David Morrell
5. GLITZ, by Elmore Leonard

Damn, I’ve been staring at that list for ten minutes, and I keep wanting to cram more in. MANHATTAN NOCTURNE, by Colin Harrison. WHAT THE DEAD KNOW, by Laura Lippman. PERSUADER, by Lee Child. STONE CITY, by Mitchell Smith. THE POWER OF THE DOG, by Don Winslow. THE BLACK DAHLIA, by James Ellroy…

I completely understand. I had the same problem myself.

O.k., I promised presents for all the party-goers this weekend, and I shall now deliver. Marcus was kind enough to offer all of my readers 50% off the price of the SCAR TISSUE: SEVEN STORIES OF LOVE AND WOUNDS anthology. So, that will mean you can purchase it for the discounted price of $1.50. Yes! Seven outstanding short stories for $1.50. Just follow this link, and use the code GP55Q. They have every possible e-book format and a PDF, so if you don't have a reader you can read it on your computer or print it out and read it on paper. If you missed my review of the anthology on Thursday and aren't sure why you HAVE to have this collection, you can catch it here. As Marcus mentioned in the interview, if you haven't read his work before, this is a GREAT way to get an introduction.

You already know that I can't say enough about his work. Marcus is one of my most recommended authors. I never hesitate to say, "you need to read Marcus Sakey." So, having the chance to do this interview with him has been fun and exciting for me. I know that I smiled through it the first time and as I recounted it here for you all, I smiled all over again. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

And so many thanks to Marcus for all the time he contributed and for tolerating me! He's guaranteed his special place in Heaven! Now go get your SCAR TISSUE and very happy reading!

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Steve Weddle August 9, 2010 at 9:07 AM  

Cool stuff. Gotta read some Sakey now.

Thoughts of Joy August 23, 2010 at 11:51 AM  

Woo! I read on a bookstore newsletter about Marcus Sakey's short story collection and got one for free. Then I remembered all your posts about him and came back to read them (after I read the short story) and discovered the "Sale" on the book. I quickly went and purchased it! Thanks so much Jen and, of course, you too Marcus! :) I'm looking forward to more.

I'm now off to read more of your posts about him and his work.

Thoughts of Joy August 23, 2010 at 1:05 PM  

Okay. I just finished the interview. I read it with intent and found it to be fabulous!

Jen - Your questions brought out the authentic Marcus. They were deep and personal, yet not intrusive (from my perspective). They were well thought out and created a story in and of themselves. Very well done! I appreciate all your hard work (yeah, I know - interviewing a beloved author isn't really hard work, but you know what I mean) and applaud you in how you shared your love of reading and your love of Marcus's work. :)

Marcus - Thank you for taking the time to answer all of Jen's questions. I am truly excited to know the man behind the words and look forward to reading your work. I said on some post somewhere that I have 3 of your books, but haven't gotten to them yet. However, I just read the first story in Scar Tissue and thought it was very good. I'm surprised that you don't have children (well, maybe you do, but it wasn't mentioned in the interview), because the emotions of a parent were right on! Again, thank you for sharing yourself with Jen's readers and the gift of the sale. I'm moving The Blade Itself closer to the top of my TBR Pile. I'm really looking forward to it. My best to you in your all your endeavors.

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