Friday, August 6, 2010

This is Marcus Sakey

So, we started our "Marcus Party" off yesterday with a look at Marcus Sakey's short story anthology SCAR TISSUE. It's available now as an e-book on Amazon for you Kindle people and for everyone else it's available on Smashwords (Note: you don't have to have an e-reader; you can download a .pdf version).

Today, I get to share a little conversation Marcus and I had. O.k., so it's not so little. I think Marcus' exact words were, "Good Lord, woman!" But that just goes to show what a good sport he is. He tolerates this busybody. And I honestly did not think it was possible for me to admire Marcus more than I already did, but after this interview, I'm just speechless - and if you're half as amazed by him as I am, that I think I've done a pretty good job. Our conversation did go a little long, so I'm going to split it up into two parts. Part 1 today and Part 2 for the final day of our party tomorrow. And with every party there must be gifts. We have gifts for everyone, so make sure you stop back by tomorrow to pick up yours. No winning involved. No entry forms to complete. A gift for everyone!

Now let me introduce a gifted writer, a dashing gentleman, a wonderful person, and according to the Chicago Tribune the "new reigning prince of crime fiction." Marcus Sakey has written four novels: THE BLADE ITSELF, AT THE CITY'S EDGE, GOOD PEOPLE, and THE AMATEURS. And actually, he's written the fifth one, it just isn't on the bookstore shelves yet. In addition, he's written short stories and they've been collected into his new e-book anthology SCAR TISSUE.   It is my honor to have Marcus Sakey here today:

Q. Marcus, you earned two majors in college that you say you “promptly ignored.” Then you did some grad work here and there – we need to join forces: undergrads in English and Sports Med, with graduate work so I could teach high school – and ultimately you ended up in advertising and marketing. Did you always have a dream of writing fiction, novel fiction that is, or where about in the scheme of things did that aspiration come into play?

Marcus: Always. Since I was a little kid. Everybody else wanted to be an astronaut or a baseball player, I wanted to be a writer. I’ve been addicted to story all my life—I remember the moment I learned to read—and so it was something that I always hoped to do.

That said, I wouldn’t exactly say that I had a plan. The idea of writing a novel ‘someday’ simmered on the back burner of my brain for years. In the end, I decided to do it less with the thought of succeeding as a novelist and more to scratch that itch.

There’s a moment in Fight Club when Brad Pitt’s character lets the car drift into oncoming traffic and says, “What will you wish you’d done before you died?”

For me, the answer would have been write a book.

Q: All right, well, you've accomplished that goal, but there is to be no dying in the near future, o.k? Kidding aside, your goal was to write a book; why crime fiction?

Marcus: I’m of the school of storyteller who wants people to read my stuff. I’ve got nothing against the pure artist—I respect them quite a lot, in fact—but for me, it’s not just the joy of creation. I want to move people, to keep them up late and make them miss their train stop and get them thinking about things. Crime fiction is the bestselling genre, and so it’s where I started looking.

It also offers some tremendous opportunities. It’s a wonderful forum for exploring ideas and philosophies, and you get to do it with the volume turned up to eleven. The authors I navigate by are the ones that both kept me rooted to the spot and blew my mind.

Q: You make an excellent point. Robert Crais has commented that for the writing process to be complete the reader has to be involved. Speaking of those authors who kept you rooted, you mention a number of literary influences: Lehane, Vonnegut, Pelecanos, Chabon, Price, Crumley, Lippman. But going back further than that, do you recall what specifically hooked you first on reading and then on the genre?

Marcus: I honestly do remember the moment I learned to read. Kindergarten, a round table in the back corner of the room, fluorescent light. All of a sudden I had that flash-of-lightning intuitive leap, and I realized that the squiggles were a code, and that if I looked at them a certain way, I could see Spot run.

That was it, I was hooked.

Q: Fast forward to the present, what are you reading these days? Who’s really enriching the genre presently?

Marcus: My reading tastes are pretty broad. Someone once said that there are really only two kinds of writing, good and bad, and I tend to agree. If it’s good, I don’t care about the genre. If I had to quantify it, I guess I’d say that I mostly read literary fiction, with a heavy dose of crime, and a sprinkling of sci-fi and fantasy.

Rather than name-check all the usual legends—Price, Leonard, Lehane—I’ll throw out a couple of names that I think belong on that list.

Don Winslow is one—he’s a terrific writer, lean and smart and compelling. He writes like Ellroy would if Ellroy liked people.

I’m also a big fan of Colin Harrison, who does tremendous character work, very intense stuff, and tosses off one-liners that are worth more than chapters of a lot of other books.

Then there’s a guy named Kent Anderson who has got to write more fucking books. He did two, SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL and NIGHT DOGS. The first is one of the finest Vietnam novels I’ve read, and the second one of the finest crime novels I’ve ever read. Then he vanished, and it’s killing me.

If anyone knows the whereabouts of Kent Anderson, let's get that information to Marcus!

Q. Yesterday I mentioned that you worked in advertising and marketing before writing full time; how would you say that’s shaped you as a novelist? Were there habits that helped you? Habits you definitely had to break to be successful?

Marcus: Working in advertising is the perfect training to write about criminals and thieves.

Jokes aside, it actually is a terrific arena to learn to write. The thing with advertising is that it’s a product that by definition no one wants. So you have to find a way to get people anyway, to hook them despite themselves. You learn to fit the maximum emotional wallop into the minimum space.

You also learn that your work is just your work, that it can be improved. Too many beginners think their work is their heart ripped bleeding and perfect from their chest. If you believe that, there’s no room to make it better.

Q: Now that you're writing full time, what does your writing process look like? Do you do a lot of prep work before you start? Rewrite a lot at the end? Do you write start to finish? Any superstitions in regards to your writing?

Marcus: It’s changed quite a lot book to book. The more I’ve learned about storytelling, the more I’ve discovered that I’ll sleep better—and write better—if I have some form of an outline. It doesn’t need to be terribly detailed, but it does need to fit the major beats of three-act structure. As long as I have those, the pages go pretty fast.

I always start at the beginning and write to the end, and I would recommend the same to any aspiring writers. Things change as you move, so if you just write the fun stuff, you’re going to have to rewrite a lot of it. Plus, the sex scenes and car crashes are your rewards for the in-between bits, not all of which come easy.

No real superstitions, but I do move around a lot. I’ll write for a week in my den, then two days on my laptop on the porch, then an afternoon standing up at the kitchen counter. The change in venue seems to loosen things up.

Q: Do you find you need to move around a lot with the short stories or is it too quick a process?

Marcus: Oh, definitely. Maybe more, actually, because I’m entering a brand new world, and I really need to get into it.

Q: Let's shift gears and talk about the guts of your work. Your books center on the common man, the “Everyman.” That isn’t especially prevalent in the “thriller” genre. So, what made you opt for this approach as opposed to the international spy or the high-profile detective or the military special operative?

Marcus: This question always throws me a little. True, my characters aren’t ex-Delta Force guys, but they’re retired thieves and coke-addled closeted stock traders and discharged soldiers and sociopathic conmen and disgraced detectives and retired hitmen and….

But I know what you mean, and I think the answer is just that I want people to see themselves in these situations. For me, it’s never the plot that gets me excited, it’s the ideas I’ll get to explore. In THE AMATEURS, what got me jazzed was the question, “What happens if your best friends become your worst enemies?” Then, about halfway through, the book shifts to another question, “Which is worth more—the lives of a handful of people you love or a lot of people you don’t know?” This kind of ethical issue has always turned my crank, and I think that the further you go from real people, the harder it is to take an idea like that seriously.

I mean, really. Would you ever want to see James Bond weighing his body count and all his murdered lovers against the evil of S.P.E.C.T.R.E.? I love Bond, but it’s not the place for that kind of dilemma.

Q. A common theme in GOOD PEOPLE and THE AMATEURS that directly connects with the “Everyman” character is a focus on money or not appreciating what you have. And going one step further, there’s an element of desperation driving that focus on money. Why that theme?

Marcus: Yeah, the money is always a MacGuffin for me. Money is only the means to an end. Far more interesting is the end.

So in GOOD PEOPLE, when my protagonists find a large sum of cash and decide to keep it, they don’t want the money for a jet-set lifestyle, speedboats and cocaine; they want so they can have and raise a child. A child they will love intensely, in a world where so many people who don’t even really want kids have them. And yet this loving couple can’t do what is supposed to be the easiest thing in the world.

I love that kind of desperation. First of all, it makes for a good story. But it also starts to obscure your vision. Like any obsession, desire, even if originally noble, ends up blinding you. It’s easy to forget how good your life is if you’re focused on what you don’t have.

David Morrell is a mentor of mine, and he has this theory that the core of a novelist’s career is always rooted in their greatest fears. Thus his rough childhood is recast, over and over, into books about sons looking for parents. And the loss of his son is recast, over and over, into books about fathers looking for sons.

While I think my books all cover different territory, one thread that does connect them is the fear of not appreciating what you have—and of the force of nature that comes to take it all away.

Guess what I’m afraid of.

Q. A reviewer pointed out that you present your characters with a “moral dilemma fit for an advanced ethics class.” Of course THE BLADE ITSELF has a man deciding whether he should stay on the straight and narrow for himself or return to crime in an effort to save an innocent, young boy. The four friends in THE AMATEURS have to decide whether to do what’s best for themselves or for the good of the whole. I’ve worded these so that they sound like there’s a good choice and a bad choice, but in reality there’s a loser no matter what. That someone will pay a price and the people making the decisions had no control over how their situation came to be, but they have to play the hand they’ve been dealt. (Did I mix in enough metaphors there?) So what helps you to determine these moral dilemmas? When do you say, “THAT’S the one for my next book”?

Marcus: That dilemma is what separates an idea I’m kicking around from a book I want to spend a year working on. So I review plots and concepts and characters and I rub them up against each other, and I hope that eventually one will spark a question that moves me.

But I don’t mean to suggest that this is clear up front. It takes me a year to write a book, and a good part of that time, if you’ll forgive me a metaphor of my own, is spent chipping away the stone to find the form underneath.

For me that process is partly about the actual writing—as you make decisions, your characters and situations take on more concrete form—but largely it’s about letting it simmer in my brain for a while. I think about it all the time and I dream about it and I talk to my wife and my friends about it and I brainstorm with other authors and I read books that in some way relate, and slowly, ever so goddamn slowly, the thing takes shape.

For example, the notion of game theory that’s so thematically central to THE AMATEURS was something I didn’t realize until…I don’t know, page 250 or 300. By then the characters had heft, and I realized that playing games was really what they had been doing, not only when they got together, but throughout their lives.

Q: Speaking of characters, have you ever had a character surprise you? Turn the plot in a direction you hadn't planned?

Marcus: Yes and no. One of my pet peeves is writers talking about how their characters are real, how they talk back and refuse to do what they’re told. It’s precious and it’s crap, and worse, it’s misleading to aspiring writers.

However, there is definitely a moment when the characters get some heft. For me, this happens after I’ve written them for a while, maybe a hundred pages. At that point I’ve started to make decisions about who they are and how they view the world. And what often happens is that the initial outline stops fitting the characters as they have turned out to be.

That’s the only kind of writer’s block I believe in: the one where your subconscious is rebelling against something your conscious wants to do. You can force your characters through the maneuvers, but it’s hollow. You know it’s not right, no matter how convenient it might be, and that can paralyze you for a bit. But if you return to character, you can get through it.

Q. With your novels, you have written, up to this point, in an alternating third person limited point of view. First, why this point of view? And second, how do you ensure the authenticity of all the different views: male/female, antagonist/protagonist, white collar/blue collar, etc.

Marcus: It’s a tactical decision. Imagine a movie being shot: you’ve got actors, a set, special effects. You want to capture it all as effectively as possible. Do you do that by slinging a camera over the shoulder of one person? Or by placing it wherever the most important, exciting action is taking place?

I’ve got nothing against first person, and I’m sure I’ll write a novel in it someday. But thus far, I’ve preferred the freedom to zoom in on whatever I think makes the best scene.

As for authenticity, that’s hard to answer. I try to think about the character and how they view the world and what they wear and where they had their first kiss and what they listen to in the car. But honestly, it’s a lot more intuitive than that. There’s not really a trick I can share.

Q: The short stories, with one exception, are written in first person. Why this approach with the short work? How, if at all, does this affect you writing?

Marcus: First person is a very handy approach. It comes with built-in emotional connection. That’s useful in a short story, where you need to establish a rapport more quickly.

I’ve avoided it for novels because it’s always felt like the cost outweighs the benefits. First person is much more demanding on a logistical level, and also limits your ability to show the larger story.

Q. The one exception is "The Desert Here and the Desert Far Away" which you actually wrote in second person. I know the effect that created for me as the reader, but what I want to know is what you were aiming for with this approach because it's unusual.

Marcus: I wanted that one to feel as personal as possible. Not just a connection with a character, but, hopefully, a moment that’s almost transference, where you really see things as poor Nick for a little while. I actually started it in first person, but it just didn’t work. It was the scene at the Golden Gloves where I initially played with second person, and I felt the energy immediately, so I rewrote the story that way.

(As a side note: if you read my review from yesterday, you may remember that I commented on feeling like I had been pulled into Nick's character in this story. I did not know how Marcus would respond to this question, and he didn't know how I characterized my feelings about that story. I think he accomplished his mission on that one!)

Q. I'll wrap up today's part of the interview with a question that kind of goes back to what you were saying about maintaining the authenticity of your characters. You mentioned some little things that you try to think about with them. In the course of our daily lives these seem to be little things, ordinary things, but you actually take those "little things" and bring them to the forefront: some action that is totally ordinary but really stands out as pivotal because of its placement, because of its ordinariness. It’s something that just makes the reader pause, step back and go, “oh yeah, this could totally be me.” In GOOD PEOPLE that event was Tom screwing the heat register cover back on the wall. Even that action for him seemed to be a desperate grasp for the ordinary, the mundane. Do you consciously place those actions/events or would you say it’s more my personal reaction as the reader?

Marcus: Oh, no, I definitely place those moments intentionally. I love them—they have a squirmy, visceral feel to them. Vacuuming the living room as the roof collapses around you, it’s potent stuff.

That wraps part one of this interview. I hope you are taking at least one little tidbit about Marcus Sakey away that you didn't know before. And I hope you'll stop back tomorrow for the second half of our conversation. Don't forget! I have presents!

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5 comments:

Jenn's Bookshelves August 6, 2010 at 8:35 AM  

Fantastic interview! Jen, I have to thank you for introducing me to Marcus' work. My life has been forever changed. I'll be reading SCAR TISSUE this weekend; I can't wait to share my thoughts with you!

Jen Forbus August 6, 2010 at 8:42 AM  

Yay! You made me smile, Jenn! So glad you've found Marcus' great writing.

le0pard13 August 6, 2010 at 10:06 AM  

One very fine interview, Jen! Yep, I got to get into this author. Thanks for this.

Christine August 6, 2010 at 2:50 PM  

Lovin' this interview, Jen and Marcus! Jen gets big props for introducing me to Marcus' books last year! THE BLADE ITSELF was killer! (Pun totally intended - the KILLER YEAR anthology was great! ;-p)

Thoughts of Joy August 23, 2010 at 12:32 PM  

LOVED this interview!!! I kept getting interrupted as I was reading it, and I just wanted everybody to leave me alone! :) I have a feeling his books may do the same for me. Eek! I better prepare the world around me. I don't think they appreciate me giving them only one ear. They will be forewarned. *grin*

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