Monday, April 11, 2011


Marcus Sakey and his wife are in the midst of moving, but he generously agreed to chat with me about THE TWO DEATHS OF DANIEL HAYES. I think you'll find that when you read it, you'll want to talk to someone about it, too.  This book will make a fantastic book club selection.

I promised Marcus I would keep the questions to a minimum. You know how I can get with interviews. (You can see the more in depth interview I did with Marcus here: Part 1 and Part 2.) But I'm really excited to share this with you since I am just over the moon in love with this book. Hope you enjoy!

Q. THE TWO DEATHS OF DANIEL HAYES has some major changes for you. One of which is your setting. You've moved from the urban sprawl of Chicago out to Los Angeles. As readers will discover, the setting is rather vital to the plot so did the plot idea come first and you said, I have to put this in LA, it won't work in Chicago? Or did you think, "hey, I want to break away from Chicago for my setting" and then develop the plot from that point?
Marcus: The former. To be honest, I've written about Chicago mostly because I live here. It makes it easier to get details right, and of course if I want to do a ridealong or something, I can arrange it.

It was great fun to write about Los Angeles. She's such a tricky town, a chameleon city with a thousand faces, and I enjoyed dancing with her.

Also, I enjoyed spending a couple of weeks out there for research. Beats a Chicago winter.

Yeah, most of us here in the Midwest can understand that winter issue!

Q. Your books to date have all been stand alones, and I've heard you say that when you finish a book you've had enough of it and you are ready to bid your characters farewell. THE TWO DEATHS OF DANIEL HAYES, however, brings a character back from a previous book. Why the return in this book?
Marcus: You know, he's a slippery sucker. I've actually written him dead a couple of times, and he's come back both times.

To clarify, I should say that I'm annoyed by writers who talk about their characters as if they're possessed of free will. That's a cute conceit, but that's all it is.

It's more accurate to say that sometimes a character brings so much life and energy to the page that you find yourself wondering why you wouldn't reuse them. That was the case here.

Q. Your books are thrillers and are consistently very fast paced. But I find I end up with whiplash reading them because you are also meticulous about the detail. I'm reading along swiftly and then get to a passage like, "Sophie in fragments, slivers of a life framed and hung like butterflies on a board." And not only do I (often out loud) say, "damn, that was an amazing passage" but I have to stop, go back and read it again, maybe a couple times, because in that sentence, there is so much said with so little. So my question here is do you experience that same effect writing that I do reading? Are you moving along at a thriller pace typing and then you stop to ponder, "how am I going to describe this scene?" Or does detail and description like that flow the same way the rest of the writing does? And when you finish a line like that, do YOU think, "damn, that was good?"
Marcus: First off, thank you.

It's hard to explain, because while a lot of it is practiced and honed, some of it is instinctive, and the intersection between the two is murky.

Take details. For me, the least effective way to describe a place is to literally describe it: "There were tables scattered across the floor. The walls were covered with framed artwork. A long oak bar ran along one wall. There were stools in front. Behind it were rows of glass bottles lit by neon."

I mean, it's a bar. We get it. We've been there.

So what I try to do is pick the single detail that tells you more, and then to render it as intuitively as I can. So: "A lazy fan stirred weather patterns in the Parliament smoke."

I also like mixing words in ways that aren't grammar school perfect, but which make emotional sense. "He woke in a beam of sweaty sunlight."

None of which, I'm realizing, really answers your question, but there you go.

It's outstanding, though. You've summed up what bothers me when a scene goes into a bunch of mundane description. It isn't furthering the plot and I'm starting to get distracted.

Q. One of your conventions is inclusion of philosophical questions or situations as themes. THE TWO DEATHS OF DANIEL HAYES is no exception on that front. In fact, some rather weighty philosophical questions are themes here: identity and facades, the importance - or unimportance - of history, and even the idea of soul mates. How is weighty content like that to write? Do you detach personally from it? I would be surprised if you said, "yes" because so much passion comes through. I can't imagine that you could create that passion if you detached from the content. As a reader I feel like I've been changed by the time I get to the last page. How is it for you as the writer? At the end of a writing day or at the end of the book?
Marcus: To me, that's the juice. That's the reason to write the book and, hopefully, the reason to read it. Without that, what are thrillers? Run, run, chase, chase, shoot, shoot. Meh.

I don't detach from it, but I also don't claim to have the answers. The questions are the point. I like thinking about them, and I like forcing my characters into situations where they have to question their own convictions.

I think my favorite moments, though, are the ones when themes come to me unbidden. It's kind of like excavating a skeleton, or carving a statue from a block of marble; you have an idea of the shape, but not every detail of it, and the most enchanting ones are those that surprise you.

In THE AMATEURS, for example, it was the idea of game theory. I hadn't planned to integrate that. In fact, I was about 250 pages in before I realized that it belonged there, that it could tie the whole thing together.

Love those days.

And I sure am glad you have them. It amazes me.

Q. You write about a man who loses his memory. First, did you have any hesitation about the use of amnesia - some, especially television writers, have made a mockery of the plot concept. Next, what did you do to research this? I was so incredibly fascinated by what this character would remember, what he wouldn't remember, what he would think to himself...did he like this smell, would he have done such and such...his frustrations and discoveries. Not that I'm an amnesia expert, but it felt authentic to me. What did you do to ensure that?
Marcus: My hesitation was mostly about not wanting to feel too familiar. As you point out, it's been done numerous times, and I didn't want this to unconsciously echo anything. So I made a point of watching and reading amnesia stories so I would avoid that. I actually gave many of them shoutouts within the novel; there's a Memento poster, and someone reading a Ludlum book, etc.

As for researching, it's such a great era for that. I posted on my Facebook profile that I wanted to talk to medical professionals who might know about amnesia; the next morning I had two or three messages from people who knew someone. One call led to another, and all of a sudden I found myself talking to some of the foremost experts in the field.

They were all very gracious and helpful, and I used many of the things they told me verbatim. But one thing they also told me was that there really aren't defined parameters for this; it's a rare and poorly understood phenomenon.

Which, as a writer, is the dream answer. It meant I got to put myself in his position and try to imagine what he would feel, what would be automatic versus learned, hell, even whether he knew how he liked his burger. It was a blast.

Q. You've written all your novels from the third person point of view and you've said you're not opposed to writing in first person, but it hasn't been the right choice for any of the books to date. THE TWO DEATHS OF DANIEL HAYES is also third person limited. What made it the right choice for this novel? As the reader, I know why I feel it was the best choice, but I'm interested to know why the creator thought so as well.
Marcus: Close third rocks. It combines many of the strengths of first person without the limitations. Plus close third allows for multiple characters without confusing a reader, which is tricky with firsts or first-third.

I felt it was particularly appropriate in this novel because it's also the way that Daniel is seeing the world. He's living in close third person. So by mirroring that in the language, I hoped to make a reader feel what he was feeling.

And of course, all of the other characters in the novel are facing identity issues of their own, which was part of the fun. I wanted to write a book where everyone's "self" was a bit slippery. In some cases, that's just minor characters in a state of change; in others...well, I don't want to give anything away....

This book makes me excited every time I write about it, talk about, think about it. It really is something extraordinary. Many thanks to Marcus for taking time to indulge me. And I'm also excited to announce that Kaye Publicity is donating a copy of Marcus' book THE AMATEURS to a lucky blog reader. All you have to do is complete the form below by April 17th. The contest is open to U.S. residents. And don't forget to send your TWO DEATHS OF DANIEL HAYES preorder verifications in to be entered in the iPod drawing.  


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