Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest today Mark Allen Smith author of The Inquisitor and The Confessor.
Before writing his first novel, Mark Allen Smith spent ten years as a television investigative news producer and documentary producer-director, and over twenty years as a screenwriter.
Norm: Good day Mark and thanks for participating in our interview. How did you get started in writing and as a follow up, what was the first story you ever wrote, and what happened to it?
Mark: First, Norm… Let me thank you for the ask.
I fell in love with words at a very early age. Starting at age three (I think) there were daily sessions sitting in my mother’s lap while she read to me – nursery rhymes, kids’ stories, poems, even Shakespeare. Long before I understood the words, I loved the sound and rhythm and music of them. I started making lists – words that sounded pleasing, words that rhymed, words that sounded cool next to each other. It was an obsession that never waned. To this day, I’ll rewrite a sentence a dozen times until I’m satisfied with the feel and flow of it.
The first thing I ever
wrote, age seven, was a short story entitled ‘Captain Swampscott
And The Pipecleaner Machine’ – a rousing tale of swashbuckling
intrigue on the high seas.
What happened to it? Allow
me a little exposition.
When I was a kid, my dear, long-dead grandmother lived with us, and was a neat fanatic who saw cleaning as a holy crusade. Leave anything out on a desk or a table at your own risk. Apparently, after I left for college, there was no longer a nook or cranny safe from her nutsiness. Including my closet. When I came home from college after freshman year, I discovered that the nine or ten large cardboard boxes containing all my literary efforts, stored (safely!) on my closet floor, were gone. Everything I’d written, down the garbage chute. (And don’t ask about my mint collection of Topps Baseball Cards – full sets from 1957 through 1962. I still can’t bare to calculate what they might be worth today.)
Norm: Where do you see book publishing heading?
Mark: I suspect my take is similar to most of us in the business. Ultimately, self-publishing on the Internet will redefine the industry in a significant way. And I think, for the most part, that will be a positive change. A lot of writers will get their books out in the marketplace – writers who, in the past, could never even hope to have an editor read page one. They’ll experience a degree of control over their creation that will be truly satisfying, regardless of how many copies are sold. And the public will benefit from increased choices. We all know that a major element in a publisher’s decision-making process is how ‘marketable’ they feel a book is. Today, more than ever, there are very real budgetary realities and limitations publishers are saddled with, and that means novels deemed ‘non-mainstream’ or too ‘risky’ et al in terms of profit-margins are often turned down––even when an editor sees genuine artistic value in them. You don’t need a crystal ball to see how the ability to self-publish will change that.
Is it also true that the marketplace might get jam-packed with really bad novels? Absolutely. It’s a sure thing. But there’s always been a lot junk out there. Readers will just have to do their homework to find the good stuff. Hell, I’m writing a book now – an intricate literary novel that the powers-that-be may decide isn’t ‘commercial’ enough. Who knows? I might become a publisher.
Norm: Have your experiences as a television investigative news producer and a screenwriter helped you in writing The Inquisitor and The Confessor? If so, how?
Mark: Double yes, inversely (so to speak.)
As an investigative news and documentary producer, you (must) learn to keep your eye on what’s going on in front of you in the moment, while seeing the big picture of what’s happening around you, the story’s changing possibilities – or you may ‘miss’ something crucial just around the bend. (There are no do-overs in news and docs – unless you cheat.) So we’re talking flexible and loose and eyes in the back of your head – because it’s real life, and basically, you have very little control over the story you’re trying to tell.
In screenwriting the creative mindset is, in some ways, almost opposite. The template is quite formal and strict – there are rules to the craft that one has to accept and adhere to. A script must be formatted and look a specific way, period. And that goes for length, too. 90% of the time you’re asking for trouble if you hand in a first draft that’s longer than 125 pages. Arbitrary, yes – but so be it. So you (must) learn how to pare things down, focus on making the pages as tight as possible. Frustrating, yes, sometimes – but great training in discipline. So we’re talking lean and mean editing machine – because you’re making this stuff up and you have complete control over the story you’re trying to tell. (That is – ‘complete control’ until the studio exec and producer get their hands on it and the notes for the second draft come in – but that’s another story.)
So, yes – the combination of the two jobs had a profound and positive effect on me as writer. I try and keep things as tight as possible, in plot and language, while trying to not get too locked into a big-picture outline––I allow room for those moments that come out of nowhere, when all of sudden some new moment comes to me that I hadn’t thought of before. I love those surprises.
Norm: What has been the best part about being published?
Mark: Knowing that people all over the world are reading something I truly busted my ass to create. Blood, sweat and tears, the whole thing. I work really hard – for better or worse – at writing my books, and the knowledge that a reader may be moved in some way by what I tried to explore is powerful stuff.
Norm: What's the biggest mistake you've made as a writer?
Mark: I’m not sure that I feel I’ve made ‘mistakes’ as a writer – but as an author…
That would be reading the (very few, thankfully!) one- and two-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. I used to think – ‘Well let’s see what he/she has to say. Might be constructive. I might learn something worthwhile…’ Nope. Just plain masochism. There’s no other word to describe it. (And – an argument could be made that it’s just as dumb to read the good reviews.)
Mark: Advising aspiring, unpublished writers to pay very close attention to genre ‘templates’ and ‘classic structures’ and ‘classic character ingredients’ and on and on and on (so they can write a ‘best seller.’) Approaching writing in that mindset sucks the air, joy and (hopefully) freshness right out of the experience.
Norm: In fiction as well as in non-fiction, writers very often take liberties with their material to tell a good story or make a point. But how much is too much?
Mark: First of all, in true non-fiction – ‘taking liberties’ with material turns it into fiction, doesn’t it? I don’t really feel a writer doing non-fiction should go down that alley.
With fiction, I’m not sure there’s a precise answer to the question – because it depends on the tone of what you’re writing, and the point (if any) you’re trying to make. ‘Taking liberties with material’ may be just the ticket if you’re working on something with absurd or satirical or fantasy aspects – but, if you’re writing something historical…or a realistic thriller or mystery where a reader’s emotional investment and ‘suspension of disbelief’ is crucial, then taking liberties with material could send the train right off the wheels when the reader scowls and sighs ‘Gimmee a break.’ Again, I think it’s all about context and the nature of the work’s scenario. The litmus test is simple. Ask the question: In the world I have created – could this happen? Would this character be able to do such a thing?
Norm: Are you a plot or character writer and what helps you focus when you write? As a follow up, do you find it easy reading back your own work?
Mark: The ‘Geiger’ novels – The Inquisitor , and this sequel, The Confessor – are usually considered ‘literary thrillers.' However, while I love creating a suspenseful story, I get the most satisfaction from exploring characters, from writing about what goes on in a character’s heart and head – the why of the story. While I am pleased with my plots, I try to keep my focus on the characters. I want to let their passion and determine their journey and fate.
And – as I said, I am constantly rewriting and editing. I’ll often start the day re-reading the last ten pages I’ve written to slide me into a work mode. But there are also numerous times during the long haul where I will go all the way back to Page One and start editing and rewriting. And I actually enjoy it most of the time – the polishing, the being reminded of a sentence or section that works well, the realization of something that could be added into the mix.
Norm: Do you work from an outline?
Mark: I keep a very basic
outline in my head, I don’t write it down – and right from the
start, as I’m working, I’m writing notes in a file about plot
beats/moments as they occur to me – and I’ll go back to that file
constantly. It gets pretty large. As I mentioned – I keep the
official ‘outline’ flexible and loose, because that mode of
thinking allows for sudden plot moments to hit me from
out-of-the-blue. I can be a year into a book, used to seeing the plot
in certain terms – and wham! – I’ll discover a moment that will
have a significant, changing effect on everything – and it’s a
great feeling. I suspect if I were a writer who locked into an
etched-in-stone, detailed outline, I might lose those surprises.
Norm: Could you tell our readers a little about The Inquisitor and The Confessor? What served as the primary inspiration for the books?
Mark: In the first book, The Inquisitor, Geiger (aka ‘The Inquisitor’) is the best there is in ‘Information Retrieval’ (I.R.) – interrogation for information. His clients are global – the private and corporate sectors, organized crime, intelligence agencies. He’s made ‘I.R.’ an art and science, never drawing blood, with a mix of technology and psychological and physical torture. Inscrutable, unemotive, expert at reading others’ feelings but seemingly without any of his own. Like an orchestra conductor who senses one flat note in a sea of sound, Geiger knows a lie when he hears it. He has remarkable knowledge of pain’s power and effects, and an extraordinary ability to deal with his own pain. What he doesn’t know––is anything about himself before he arrived in New York City on a bus 15 years ago: his real name…his age…his origins…how he got the dozens of elegant scars on his hamstrings and calves…why he walks with a faint limp.
He lives ‘off the grid’ – no Social Security number, bank account, credit cards – in a boarded-up house on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with a cat named Cat and a vast music collection. Geiger is a synesthete – he tastes and smells colors, sees musical notes. Every aspect of his life is regimented – a diet of raw fruit and vegetables, obsessive workouts, nightly jogs, four hours of sleep...and I.R. Everything is about the work. Then a client brings in a 12-yeard old boy for interrogation about his father’s whereabouts – and something snaps in Geiger. He grabs the boy, Ezra, takes him back to his home, and their growing bond and the machinations of powerful outside forces beyond Geiger’s control slowly set loose the brutal, buried secrets of his past. In saving the boy, Geiger is forced to venture into his darkest realm and, like some pied piper, brings everyone with him. Those who survive will never be the same.
The Confessor begins nine months later, when Geiger is ‘missing and presumed dead (drowned),’ but living a quiet, secret life making furniture. When his ex-partner Harry and Ezra’s father, David, disappear together, Geiger comes back out into the world to find them – and discovers there are people who have been patiently waiting for his return, for vengeance and payback. His quest takes him from Brooklyn to Paris to Provence and back home – and he is forced to make some terrible sacrifices and revisit the dark craft he had renounced in order to try and save lives.
In 1980 I was working as
an investigative news producer for ABC’s 20/20. I was involved in a
story about a brutal political torture/murder by the secret police of
Paraguay’s right-wing dictatorship. The victim, 17-year-old Joel
Filartiga, was the son of a brave doctor and political dissident, Dr.
Jose Filartiga. Dr. Filartiga and his daughter, Dolly, came to the
United States and shared their haunting story and showed chilling
photographs of the son’s tortured body. It stayed with me and
Seven years later, the murder of 6-year old Lisa Steinberg became a national outrage. She was murdered in New York City after years of torture by her adoptive father. This prompted more stories about parental abuse to emerge. I was a father by that point, and I tried to put myself inside the head of a man who tortures his own child. It made me wonder: If a child survives years of torture, who do they grow up to be? How do they anchor themselves in the world? That’s when Geiger, the professional torturer, was ‘born.’
Norm: What purpose do you believe your stories serve and what matters to you about the story?
Mark: I wanted to address torture – political and familial. My goal was to draw a line between political ‘interrogation’ and familial and child abuse. I wanted to explore one of the darkest realities of the human condition - to make the point that torture is not some rare aberration that journalism’s spotlight finds during war, but an all-too frequent occurrence in ‘everyday’ life.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your books?
Mark: Go nuts on Google. I’ve been very fortunate to receive a large number of excellent reviews for The Inquisitor, and now they are starting to come in positively for The Confessor. And/or – anyone can find me on FACEBOOK and ask me whatever they like – and I absolutely, positively will get back to them…with an honest answer.
Norm: What is next for Mark Allen Smith?
Mark: There is the growing
possibility of a cable TV series based on the books. More on that
later. In the meantime I’m taking time off from dealing with
Geiger. It’s an exhausting experience. During our break, I am
writing a long literary novel – a picaresque tragicomedy about a
revered novelist who discovers he has an incurable disease and
decides he must write one final book in the six months he has left,
but fate and chaos and global forces – pharmaceuticals, god (?),
terrorism, sex – have other plans for him.
I’m really enjoying the work – when it isn’t making me miserable.
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
Mark: ‘Who are your favorite authors?’
I chose this question because it gives me a chance to tell readers about a few brilliant novelists who they may not be familiar with. These writers gave me great joy and inspiration, so if I end up introducing even a few readers to them, it would be a very cool thing. It’s the zealot in me.
JOHN BARTH (‘The End Of The Road,’ ‘The Sot Weed Factor,’ ‘Chimera’) – for pushing the envelope in every respect – plot, style and language;
HARRY CREWS (‘Car,’ ‘The Hawk Is Dying,’ ‘A Feast Of Snakes’) – one of the most fearless writers, eager to embrace and explore the strange, the grotesque, the bizarre, and find the beauty and humanity in it all;
J.P. DONLEAVY (‘The Ginger Man,’ ‘Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B,’ ‘A Fairy Tale Of New York’) – one of the great jazz musicians of prose, and lover of all that is melancholy;
ROBERT COOVER (‘The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Proprietor,’ ‘The Origin Of The Brunists’) – two visionary novels.
And so, Norm – let me thank you again, very sincerely, for letting me share some thoughts and space on your site. I appreciate the opportunity – and I hope there is something of interest in my answers.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors