An Interview with Paul D. Marks

motivemeansopportunityIt’s our great pleasure to have Paul D. Marks, Shamus Award-winning author on MMO today. Read about his writing process, how to write cinematically, the difference between noir and mystery. . .and much more! Check it out!

LA

MMO: White Heat won the Shamus Award back in 2013. I really dig the setting (Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots) as well as Duke Rogers (the P.I. protagonist).  Did you have the setting/context in mind first, or the character? How did that whole book “come together”?

Paul: It’s kind of like the chicken and egg question, isn’t it? And after all this time and so many words under the bridge also a little hard to remember. But setting and context are always important to me. People have said that Los Angeles (in particular) is like another character in my books and stories. I think the character of a city influences the characters and the actions they take. The L.A. atmosphere/culture drives what my characters do and say, at least to some extent. While people have a lot in common, they’re different in L.A. than Manhattan or Wichita or Macon. So, add to that the acquittal of the police officers in the Rodney King beating trial. That and the subsequent riots were events that deeply scarred and shaped Los Angeles in the 1990s, and even to today. Having lived in Los Angeles during that era, I wanted to capture that time and place and tell people about it in a way that wasn’t preachy. And what better way to do that than to put my P.I. in the middle of it?

The other spark (no pun intended) for the story was the Rebecca Schaeffer murder. She was an up and coming actress, who was murdered by a fan who had hired a P.I. to find her physical address in pre-internet days. She was expecting a script delivery that day and opened the door not knowing that a stalker would be there, gun in hand. I wondered about the P.I. who found that address for her killer and what he/she must have felt. So those are the two sides of the story, Duke, the P.I., and the King riots, coming together to make White Heat.

cinematic

MMO: Not to spoil anything, but there are some very clipped, intensely dramatic italicized sections in White Heat that serve to heighten the tension. How’d you come up with that?

Paul: I’m glad you think they were intense and dramatic. My purpose in doing those sections was to give a heightened sense of being there. They’re written, as you say, in clipped, staccato prose and also in the present tense to really (hopefully) bring the reader into the moment and feel the intensity and drama that the character is feeling at that moment. Sort of to become the character for those sections and totally be inside his head. There was an old TV show called You Are There that put the viewer into historic situations. This is my version of that – you are there with Duke, seeing the situation live.

white heat

MMO: In all your books—White Heat, Vortex, and L.A. @ Late at Night—I’ve noticed how cinematic your writing is. Talk about where (and how) that came about.

Paul: Well, my background is in screenplays, script doctoring, so naturally my writing gravitates towards that style. It can be a good thing because I think screenwriting taught me story structure and to be visual. But it can also be a handicap in that I had to work hard to fill out my descriptions more and not use an omnipotent POV like movies do. And I’m a big movie buff, especially film noir (particularly the golden age of film noir in the ’40s and early ’50s) and thrillers, so I tend to play out my storyline like a movie in my head as I’m writing. And sometimes I’ll even write out my first draft in screenplay format just to get the story down.

noir

MMO: I’m not terribly interested in genre-labeling, but I would say that White Heat is a P.I. mystery, while Vortex is a straight-up noir thriller. Explain some of the similarities and differences between these two genres. And, as a writer, do you have a preference? How about as a reader?

Paul: I’ll give you that Vortex is a straight-up noir thriller. But I’d also say that White Heat is noir as well, though it does have more “straight” mystery elements than Vortex. To me, the thing that most makes something noir is not rain, not shadows, not femme fatales, not slumming with lowlifes. It’s a character who trips over their own faults: somebody who has some kind of defect, some kind of shortcoming, greed, want or desire…temper or insecurity, that leads them down a dark path, and then his or her life spins out of control because of their own weaknesses or failings. To this end, White Heat falls into this category because Duke’s weakness for quick money sets the plot in motion. But since we don’t know who the bad guy is and Duke has to figure that out it also has that whodunit element. Whereas Vortex has a darker, more ambivalent tone, and Zach, the main character, his problems are totally brought on by his own weaknesses.  As a writer I like both and maybe that’s why WH is a little of both. And ditto as a reader: I like to read a variety of things depending on my mood. My favorite writers are Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald, who are both straight mystery writers. And James Ellroy, who is more noir. And David Goodis, who is totally noir.

fun

MMO: In addition to publishing a collection of hard-and-soft-boiled stories, you’ve had a short story nominated/short-listed for the Macavity Award. Explain to other writers out there why writing short stories is a) fun and b) worthwhile.

Paul: I’ve had over thirty short stories published now in a variety of magazines, anthologies and the like. But one of my many goals had been to break into Ellery Queen and I did with my story “Howling at the Moon.” It was nominated for both the Anthony and Macavity Awards in 2015, as well as coming in #7 in Ellery Queen’s Readers Poll Award, so all of that was very cool.

Why short stories are Fun: Immediate gratification. There’s a certain immediate gratification in writing short stories. You can finish them faster (usually than novels) and get the instant “joy” of having a completed work – and often sell them and see them in print faster than a novel. They’re like little puzzles that you fit in all the pieces and feel a sense of satisfaction when you make them fit.

Why short stories are Worthwhile: Stories help you hone your craft. In some ways they’re harder than writing novels. You really need discipline to make everything work right in a confined space. They’re also a way to get your name out there. Lots of little markets (some non-paying, some token payment) are willing to take an unpublished writer. They get exposure for your writing. They’re also a good outlet for some ideas that might not have enough meat on them to make a novel. And you can explore different styles, genres and characters and sometimes realize that you want to pursue a novel length work after discovering a story and character you like in a short story. And I like the challenge and discipline of squeezing a thousand things into a tiny box. There’s really no downside to writing stories. I like doing both novels and short stories.

chandler

MMO: Name three writers that made you want to write, and why.

Paul: How about three writers who made me want to write mysteries and/or noir, ’cause I can’t remember far enough back to who might have inspired me to want to write in the first place. But my initial interest was in writing for film, so my early influences are probably screenwriters. From there I gravitated to prose. It’s not very original but Raymond Chandler would be number one with a bullet on my list. I always liked film noir and mystery-suspense-thriller movies. And, of course, I’d seen The Big Sleep with Bogart many times. So eventually I got around to reading the book it was based on. From there I dove into more Chandler. The same thing happened with another Bogart movie: I’d seen Dark Passage several times and finally decided to check out the book it was based on. That turned me onto David Goodis. My favorite of his is Down There, a.k.a. Shoot the Piano Player. I really dig that book, but for me the movie disappoints.

 

advice

MMO: Give aspiring writers some brief advice.

Paul: Don’t give up. Keep writing, you will become a better writer through experience and practice. Don’t give in to writers block, just sit down and write, regardless of what comes out. Fix it later. And don’t make excuses about why you don’t have time to write. I know a lot of people who say they’re writers or want to be…but they don’t write anything or they write very little. It’s not easy, but a writer is someone who has to write and can’t live without it.

MMO: Tell me when I can expect the next Duke Rogers book.

Paul: Oh, the long and winding road and tale of woe that is Broken Windows, the sequel to White Heat. Broken Windows was tied up with an agent for a long, long time. Unfortunately, she never did anything with it, never sent it out. I think she’d gotten sick and it sort of languished. I’ve got it back now and it’s done, so hopefully it’ll be out before the next millennium.

sell

MMO: Plug/pimp your next writing project.

Paul: Lots of stuff coming up. My story “Deserted Cites of the Heart” comes out in Akashic’s St. Louis Noir anthology on August 2nd. Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea, which I co-edited, is the second book in the Coast to Coast anthology series and should hopefully be out by the end of the year. And one of the stories in the first volume is up for a Shamus Award this year. I’ll have a short story in volume 2, as well as it being filled with great stories by a bunch of great writers. I’ll have stories out in both Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazines, though they’re not scheduled yet so I can’t give you dates. And, of course, I’m working on a couple of novels. Not Duke Rogers stories, but standalones. Some good stuff, I think, but I’m not ready to say exactly what they are just yet. My plate’s always full, but sometimes I’m just too busy to get to some of the things on it. I guess I need to go back to my answer about writers needing to write – I need to take my own advice on that.

Thanks for having me, Max. It’s been a blast.

Paul D. Marks photo

Author Bio

Paul D. Marks is the author of the Shamus Award-Winning mystery-thriller White Heat. Publishers Weekly calls White Heat a “taut crime yarn.” And Midwest Book Review says “White Heat is a riveting read of mystery, much recommended.” His story Howling at the Moon is short listed for both this year’s (2015) Anthony Award and Macavity Award for Best Short Story. It was published in the November 2014 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and came in #7 in their Reader’s Poll Award. And he just sold another story, Ghosts of Bunker Hill, to Ellery Queen (publication date to be announced later). His story Fade Out will be in an upcoming Akashic’s Mondays Are Murder in August. And his latest noir-thriller, Vortex, will be out in early summer, 2015. He is the co-editor of the anthology Coast to Coast: Murder from Sea to Shining Sea, coming in 2015 from Down and Out Books. Paul is also the author of over thirty published short stories in a variety of genres, including several award winners. Five of his stories can be found in the collection LA Late @ Night. According to Steven Bingen, author of MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot, he [Paul] has the distinction, dubious though it might be, of being the last person to have shot a film on the fabled MGM backlot before it bit the dust to make way for condos.

 

 

 

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Papa Was Wrong: An Obscure Mystery Novelist Challenges Hemingway’s ‘White Bull’ Metaphor

max picOn Hemingway’s metaphor for writing: But Papa’s whole bit about the blank page being akin to a writer facing down a “white bull” is just bull—-. Worse, it’s macho bull—-.  Sure, the “white bull” is a useful metaphor, and it certainly jibes with the Tough Guy/Big Game Hunter/Hard-Drinking persona Hemingway cultivated. And yes, Hemingway did win a Nobel Prize in literature, so who am I to argue with the man?

By Max Everhart

Aside from leaving behind at least two literary masterpieces (The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea), as well as the only perfect short story in existence (“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”), Ernest Hemingway was extremely quotable, and in today’s sound bite-driven culture where attention span’s are measured in nanoseconds, and celebrities become famous for their sex tapes and being witty on twitter, and. . .

Apologies.

Forgot where I was going with that.

Right. Hemingway.  Yeah, the man made for good copy, my favorite among his quotes being this gem: “Always do drunk what you said you’d do sober.” That has heft to it. Speaks to a person’s character. I like that.

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But Papa’s whole bit about the blank page being akin to a writer facing down a “white bull” is just bull—-. Worse, it’s macho bull—-.  Sure, the “white bull” is a useful metaphor, and it certainly jibes with the Tough Guy/Big Game Hunter/Hard-Drinking persona Hemingway cultivated. And yes, Hemingway did win a Nobel Prize in literature, so who am I to argue with the man?

Well, I’ll tell you who I am: a guy who took 3rd place in the Reflections Writing Contest when he was eight; a guy whose written countless short stories, mostly for now defunct publications; a guy whose novels have sold in excess of 100 copies. That’s who I am.

So, now that we’ve established my impeccable credentials, I can explain, in eloquent, yet pity detail, exactly why Hemingway’s metaphor is bull—-.

It annoys me.

Hemingway took himself (and his work) too seriously, and we all know how that turned out. Too, and pardon me while I trample on the man’s grave, the “white bull” metaphor just adds fuel to the fire of Papa’s legend as a writer/adventurer who valued (overvalued?) “grace under pressure.” (Sidenote: the whole Camelot-JFK myth rubs me the wrong way, too, as that pretty boy was NOT a good president; he was just a guy with a silver spoon in his mouth whose father bought him a Pulitzer Prize and a presidential election).

JFK

Which leads me back to my point (if I had one to begin with): don’t over-complicate things; don’t be pretentious and insecure, man.  When it comes to writing, forget about Hemingway’s white bull nonsense.  Instead, remember Max’s Dog Rule: Sit at your computer, and stay.

Okay, maybe bang your head against the desk if things aren’t flowing the way you’d like.

 

 

I Wanna Be Bad: An Obscure Mystery Novelist Talks Bad Guys

max picOn a villain’s true worth: villains serve an important function in society: they allow us to play out our deepest, darkest fantasies without suffering the moral and/or legal and/or spiritual consequences.

By Max Everhart

I wanna be bad.

Really bad.

Come on, it’s fun to be naughty, but what’s even more fun (and safer) is reading about other people misbehaving. Ah, literary villains. How I envy you all. From contract assassins to femme fatales to serial killers who hunt serial killers (shout out to Dexter!), villains just have more fun than the rest of us so-called civilized folk. What’s more, villains serve an important function in society: they allow us to play out our deepest, darkest fantasies without suffering the moral and/or legal and/or spiritual consequences. If only I could be a walking ID for just one day. . . but, alas, I must reluctantly abide by our government’s laws and my own conscience, a nuisance though they both may be.

But the question I want to ponder today is not why do we dig villains, but how are they created? How do writers draw us deeper into the story using bad guys and gals? To answer that question, I wanted to provide an excerpt from The Short Drop by Matthew Fitzsimmons. Apart from being a suspenseful and well-paced book incorporating politics, cyber-hacking, kidnapping, murder, and incest, it has an eerie and alluring bad guy.

the short dropTinsley had made a life-time study of the way time affected people. The way it toyed with their good judgment and perspective. Made them impatient or rash. Made them take irrational risks. Time was the great leveler, and neither money nor power held sway over its relentless march. That was precisely what made Tinsley so good at his work. . .Most people were overawed by time. They allowed time to bully them, fearing that it was passing too fast or too slowly, sometimes both simultaneously. But not Tinsley. He was indifferent to the passage of time, and it flowed around him effortlessly. . .When he was a young man and still plied his trade with a rifle, Tinsley once spent twenty-six days in a sewer drain in Sarajevo. . .Tinsley lay in burbling stream of human waste, waiting for a shot. . .

Fine, okay, maybe this Tinsley character didn’t have so much fun while sitting for a month in human feces waiting to kill a guy, but it’s pretty cool to read about it. As are the philosophical bits about time.

And that’s how you hook a reader: reveal unique aspects about a character. That’s what I did in my latest work Ed, Not Eddie, which has a suspect that, aside from being named after a piece of famous American junk food, sells pot out of the back of a 1957 Chevy. (Buy the book for more).

The best villains enthrall us in a variety of ways. Some use humor, others terror. Some, like Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, entice us with their words, and others, like Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old men, are more taciturn. Whatever the method, villains have the capacity to be hilarious and revolting in equal measure. . .and that’s why we love to hate them.

My Desert Island Top 5 Literary Villains. Leave a comment, and tell me yours.

 Kathy Bates - 1 - Miserynurse ratchet

 

It’s the Characters, Stupid: Creating Memorable Heroes and Villains

maltese falcon“You’ll never understand me, but I’ll try once and then give it up.”

By Max Everhart

It’s the economy, stupid.

That’s an old joke about the most important aspect of politics, and it’s a joke that I, as a committed, but albeit unsuccessful capitalist, happen to agree with wholeheartedly. (Alas, mystery writers, even damn good ones like me, don’t earn a ton of bread. C’est la vie).

Really, I couldn’t give a toss about politics. Don’t have time to care. Plus, liberals and conservatives alike make my scalp itch, which is just as well as I have a toddler to potty-train and English classes to teach and long walks to go on and Earl Grey to drink. In short, I’m busy. I mean, windows don’t just stare out of themselves, do they? And who if not me is going to organize my Netflix queue? Water my garden? Nuke more Pop Tarts? (Seriously, somebody get on that; I’m hungry.)

Enough foreplay.

To my thesis (drumroll, please): when it comes to mystery novels, it’s the characters, stupid. Characters, particularly the protagonist and the antagonist, trump all. I, like a lot of readers, enjoy an ingenious plot (The ABC Murders and The Maltese Falcon spring to mind), and a strong sense of place (think James Ellroy’s depiction of 1950s L.A. in The Big Nowhere). But what’s more important is the presence of strong characters, especially the hero who should be formidable, and flawed, and resourceful, and dynamic, and. . .you get the idea. Tall order, eh?

Maybe. But here are some quick and easy tips for creating memorable characters, along with some examples to check out.

 

TIP #1: always make sure that characters are driving the plot, not the other way around.

As readers, we are going to gravitate toward interesting, complex, flawed, likable characters, and if those are present in a book, the pages will turn themselves. Too, if the writer has created an interesting character, said character will naturally get involved in interesting situations, and there’s your plot. So, writers, if you’re writing scene after scene with a character, it’s just not working, chances are it is the character’s fault.

EXAMPLE: C.W. Sugrue, a hard-as-nails private eye in The Last Good Kiss. Talk about interesting characters. Hired to track down an alcoholic poet, Sugrue ends up bouncing from bar to bar, state to state, and never mind. Just read the opening of this book, and you’ll see what I mean:

last good kissWhen I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

TIP #2: reveal something good about your villain and something bad about your hero. 

Why? People are flawed and complex, and your characters should be, too. If ever you’re stuck, ask yourself the ultimate characterization question: what (or who) does my character want, and what (or who) is standing in the way?

Example: Chili Palmer, a shylock in Get ShortyNotice how Elmore Leonard reveals not only the origin of Palmer’s nickname, but he also adds a new layer of characterization to the protagonist.

get shortyErnesto Palmer got the name Chili originally because he was hot-tempered as a kid…Now he was Chili, Tommy Carlo said, because he had chilled down and didn’t need the hot temper. All he had to do was turn his eyes dead when he looked at a slow pay, not say more than three words, and the guy would sell his wife’s car to make the payment.

TIP #3: begin and end chapters with your characters doing (or saying) something interesting. 

This could be a provocative image or a bit of snappy dialogue. Readers want to be pulled into the story, particularly at the start and end of a new chapter, so make sure to keep them turning pages.  The best mystery and crime writers are adept at this, especially Daniel Woodrell, one of my favorites.

Example: Sammy Barlach, an ex-con in Tomato Red. Here is one of the the best openings of a crime novel ever.

tomato redYOU’RE NO ANGEL, you know how this stuff comes to happen: Friday is payday and it’s been a gray day sogged by a slow ugly rain and you seek company in your gloom, and since you’re fresh to West Table, Mo., and a new hand at the dog-food factory, your choices for company are narrow but you find some finally in a trailer court on East Main, and the coed circle of bums gathered there spot you a beer, then a jug of tequila starts to rotate and the rain keeps comin’ down with a miserable bluesy beat. . .

If you’ve got more tips for creating memorable characters, or you have a favorite character you want to mention, leave us a comment.