Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest Mark Reutlinger, Professor of Law Emeritus at Seattle University and author of the Mrs. Kaplan cozy mystery series (Random House), including Mrs. Kaplan and the Matzoh Ball of Death and A Pain in the Tuchis, and the political thriller Made in China (Abbott Press). His latest novel is Sister-in-Law: Violation, Seduction, and the President of the United States, a romantic suspense story published by Black Opal Press and written under the pen name M. R. Morgan. A third Mrs. Kaplan novel is coming soon.
Norm: Good day Mark and thanks for participating in our interview.
How long have you been writing? And how long did it take you to get your first major book contract? What keeps you going?
Mark: I've been writing virtually all my life. As an attorney and law professor, writing has been an integral part of my professional life. When I took early retirement from teaching, I wanted to continue writing, so I began writing novels.
My first, Made in China, I self-published through Abbott Press after failing to find an agent who was interested. But I soon learned the many disadvantages of self-publishing, and when I had finished my second novel,
Mrs. Kaplan and the Matzoh Ball of Death, I was determined to find a traditional publisher for it. I must have sent the manuscript to a hundred agents and editors before it was accepted by the Random House imprint Alibi, whose editor loved Mrs. Kaplan. That was almost four years after I first sent Mrs. K out.
As for what keeps me going, I love to write, but I had to have the incentive that my writing would make its way into the world. I decided I could only call myself an author when I had been accepted by the gatekeepers of the profession, the agents and editors.
Once I had a contract with Random House, and especially after I had sold thousands of books, I never looked back. I now have no hesitation investing my time and effort in writing, because I’m confident they will get "out there" and be read. It's all the incentive I need.
Norm: What has been the best part about being published and did you read any special books on how to write?
Mark: It certainly isn’t the monetary reward, because few authors actually make a living with their writing.
As I mentioned, for me the best part of being published is knowing that my stories meet the criteria--whatever they might be--of the publishing gatekeepers, and most of all knowing that readers around the world will read my stories.
Writing is a solitary exercise, but when you know you're sharing your work with thousands of people, it doesn't seem solitary at all.
Fortunately, I already knew “how to write,” having written and edited many articles and treatises over the years. But writing fiction is different. I did read several articles and a few books on the subject. Most of them discussed mechanics, which I already knew, or familiar themes, such as "show, don't tell."
More useful for me were books and articles in the special areas of writing that I was doing, explaining the more arcane, at least to me, aspects of a subject—for example, toxic substances for a murder mystery; period dress for a historical novel.
Norm: How many times in your writing career have you experienced rejection? How did they shape you?
Mark: I experienced rejection literally hundreds of times, if you count all the agents and editors who rejected any of my manuscripts.
It was a sobering experience, and at first it made me wonder whether this writing exercise was worth all the effort. I had to get used to the reality that, whether my writing was good or poor, reading and evaluating it was necessarily a subjective exercise, and the fact that one agent or editor, or a dozen, didn't appreciate it only meant I had to keep trying until I found one who did. I remember reading a little book called Rotten Rejections, which consisted of rejection letters received by the most famous writers, and realizing that was all part of the process.
How did it shape me? For one thing, I took seriously—if I did not invariably follow—the advice of those few agents or editors who, in the process of rejecting my manuscript, took the trouble to tell me where they thought it had fallen short and how it could be improved. And it certainly taught me humility as an author.
Going from a successful published writer in law to a struggling newcomer writer in fiction is a humbling experience.
Norm: What advice can you give aspiring writers that you wished you had received, or that you wished you would have listened to?
Mark: I wish I had been better prepared for the rejections I mentioned earlier, for the hard fact that no matter how good your story is and how much work you put into it, getting it published, and once published getting people to read it, is not only difficult and time-consuming, it may ultimately prove to be impossible.
The fact that literally millions of books are written each year means that you are a straw in a haystack competing with all the other straws to find that one buried needle. But apart from the competition, the sheer volume of manuscripts being sent to agents and editors means you will likely be not only rejected, but sometimes rejected with an impersonal form letter (or postcard), or by silence, your submission not even deemed worthy of a form letter’s postage.
I learned these things mostly by experience, and to the extent I had been forewarned, I didn’t believe it could be as difficult as that, or I thought I would just ignore the rejections and carry on. In fact, when my first efforts received those form rejections or nothing at all, I began to doubt whether I was indeed an “author.” And as I’ve said, it wasn’t until my first acceptance by a traditional publisher that I fully believed in my writing. So my advice to aspiring authors is to take those warnings to heart, be as prepared as you can be for rejection before acceptance (unless you are one of the very few), but don’t give up. It will eventually be worth the effort.
Norm: Do you write more by logic or intuition, or some combination of the two? Please, summarize your writing process. As a follow up, are you a plot or character writer?
Mark: I would say I write more by intuition, in that my stories tend to write themselves. I begin with a general idea of the story line, and where I want to start and finish, and then I let the story unfold as I write. It may even end up in a different place than I had planned. That‘s because I don't make a detailed outline, and to the extent I do outline I don't always follow it once I've begun. I guess that makes me a "pantser" in the vernacular, writing by the seat of my pants. My characters drive me as much as I drive them, sometimes to my surprise.
I'm not sure I can categorize myself as either a "plot” or “character” writer, because it varies by story, and as in the case of Sister-in-Law, within a story. In my cozy mysteries, the plot is probably the driving force, although the personalities of the characters are a vital part of the story. In Sister-in-Law, for about half the story a reader experiences a character's journey from abused child to outwardly successful but vulnerable young woman. For the other half the story becomes more plot-driven, as execution of the conspiracy against the president unfolds.
Norm: What helps you focus when you write and do you find it easy reading back your own work?
Mark: I can't just "sit down and write," like some people can. I can focus on my writing only when I am inspired to write, which means when I have an idea in my mind that I want to express. When I do, I find it fairly easy to focus, to the exclusion of any other thoughts. (My wife can tell you how hard it is to get me away from the computer for dinner when I'm following a train of thought.)
Also, having a fast-approaching deadline is a great aid to focusing. I hate leaving anything to the last minute, but when time is short and I’m facing a deadline, my writing has my full attention.
Although it can sometimes be a bit painful to read back one's work if it's still in a pretty raw stage, I actually enjoy the editing process, refining a manuscript to make it as good as it can be. I am not, however, my own best critic (or editor), and I don’t think anyone can be totally objective about their own work. I usually end up thinking a draft is garbage and should be totally rewritten, or wonderful and should not be touched. And I’m usually wrong in both respects.
Norm: How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?
Mark: I come from a liberal, Jewish, middle-class background, and I'm sure that has affected the way I write. Made in China and Sister-in-Law are both politically oriented to some extent, and they probably reveal something of my political biases. But where my background most directly affects my writing is in the Mrs. Kaplan series.
Those stories take place in a Jewish retirement home, and Rose Kaplan, a woman in her seventies, is the series' amateur detective. The books are populated with characters and personalities based on people I have known personally, either in my own family or among friends.
The setting is one I have experienced extensively, when my and my wife's parents lived for years in retirement facilities. My (or more precisely the narrator, Ida Berkowitz's) sprinkling in of Yiddish expressions, and even the occasional Yiddish curse, are those I remember hearing since I was a child. So the stories are, in addition to just being fun to write and read, a way of bringing some of those memories back to life.
Norm: Could you tell our readers a little about your most recent novel, Sister-in-Law: Violation, Seduction, and the President of the United States?
Mark: Sister-in-Law, which
is classified by my publisher as both Women's Fiction and Romantic
Suspense (with a touch of Political Thriller), is the story of a
unique and somewhat bizarre plot to undermine the president, and also
the story of a young girl’s struggle to overcome the psychological
effects of childhood sexual abuse. The plan is to find a woman
capable of seducing, and ultimately marrying, the president's naive
and socially inept younger brother. She will then become the
president's sister-in-law and part of the First Family, in a perfect
position to seduce the president himself, a known womanizer.
When he is caught in an extra-marital relationship with his own brother's wife, he will be politically ruined. The woman who is chosen to carry out the scheme is Suzanne Dahlstrom. Raped by her father and sexually abused by other men as a child, as she matures Suzanne comes to understand that a man's sex drive is at the same time both his most dangerous attribute and his greatest weakness, and she determines to exploit that weakness. She develops into a strikingly beautiful young woman who, as a call girl with an exclusive escort service, sells her favors to wealthy and powerful men, making them pay dearly for what men took from her by force as a child. When a client offers her a princely sum to carry out the sister-in-law scheme, she accepts. And it all seems to be going according to plan, until suddenly it goes terribly wrong, putting both Suzanne and the country in imminent peril.
Norm: How did you become involved with the subject or theme of the novel and what were your goals and intentions when writing it? How well do you feel you achieved them?
Mark: Sister-in-Law began life as a somewhat different kind of story. It was about the time when Fifty Shades of Gray had become an overnight phenomenon, selling millions of books, mostly to women. I was at a writer's conference where, at a panel of editors and agents, the speakers all said the same thing: "We didn't see it coming, but now that's what we're looking for."
I was complaining to a friend that erotica was not my writing (or reading) style, but he challenged me to write such a story anyway "if you want to get published."
I took the challenge, but I wanted to write a novel where sex was incidental to a good story, rather than the reason for it (as with Fifty Shades).
A thriller that featured a call girl as the protagonist seemed the perfect solution, and so I wrote Sister-in-Law as a XXX erotic novel.
I suppose I achieved my goal—and met my friend’s challenge—because the manuscript was immediately accepted by a well-known publisher of erotica. But at that point my wife intervened, saying I “could not put my name on that story,” nor could I tell our friends I had written it.
I protested that she had no objection to my writing murder mysteries, but ultimately I lost the argument and withdrew the book. I toned in down to about an "R" rating (same story, less explicit sex), it was accepted by two other publishers, I chose one, and here we are. (I did use a pen name, M. R. Morgan, to avoid one of the fans of my Mrs. Kaplan books picking up Sister-in-Law thinking it was another cozy mystery. Cozy it is not.)
So I think I still achieved my goal, even if not exactly as I had intended.
Norm: What was the most difficult part of writing this book and what did you enjoy most about writing this book?
Mark: I would say the most difficult parts were, first, making sure I was treating properly and sympathetically the delicate subjects of rape, child abuse, and their aftermath in the life of the victim, and second, making sure of my facts regarding two other subjects about which I had little knowledge: the "escort service" industry and the inner workings of the White House.
Both required a great deal of research (secondary research, of course) before I was comfortable writing about them.
Once I had done the research, however, I really enjoyed employing it in creating my story. I think what I enjoyed most was coming to the next scene and asking myself, "What would Suzanne [or another character] do now? How would she react to the challenge she faces? What choices does she have?"
The wonderful thing about writing fiction, which is totally different from writing law treatises, is that I can create my own facts in my own world. Suzanne will do whatever I decide she will do, and I can also decide whether that turns out to be a good decision or a bad one. And if that decision leaves me painted into a corner (as has happened more than once), I can just go back and "change history" and start over. It's playing God, if on a very limited scale.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your books?
Unfortunately, my Mrs. Kaplan books are currently "off the grid," so to speak, as I arrange for a new publisher. (Random House and I parted ways, at my initiative, for reasons that are a whole different story.)
Made in China and Sister-in-Law are both available from the usual booksellers, and of course from their publishers. Mrs. K can still be found in many library ebook collections.
Norm: What is next for Mark Reutlinger?
Mark: A third Mrs. Kaplan mystery, Oy vey, Maria, is finished and out to publishers, and I'll soon be starting a fourth.
I'm also working on a humorous murder mystery featuring two of the minor characters from the Mrs. Kaplan series. But my immediate task is to see that Sister-in-Law gets properly promoted and marketed, a part of the novel-writing process I would do without if I could. Writing is fun. Marketing is work.
Norm: As this interview comes to an end, what question do you wish that someone would ask about your book, but nobody has?
Mark: It would go something like this: “You’ve written a novel about a scandal involving sexual misconduct at the highest levels; the NRA apoplectic over gun control legislation; and a Republican president whom party regulars did not expect to win the election. Yet you say you finished the story sometime in 2015. How did you know all these things would be headline news when your book was finally published?”
All these things are true, and they are all either coincidental, or I have a power to foretell the future of which I was unaware. In fact, when our current president was nominated and almost everyone assumed he had no chance of winning, a circumstance that you can find in the first chapter of Sister-in-Law, I thought life was imitating art and that somehow I had stumbled on a story line that had come true. Then, of course, that candidate won the election, whereas in the story he goes on to lose, and I decided I wasn’t so prescient after all. But then all the sexual abuse scandals hit the front pages, and the NRA is fighting off a wave of gun control legislation. So maybe life is imitating art after all.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your endeavors