A talk about HIDDEN CITY with Marcus Sakey.

Hidden City starring crime writer Marcus Sakey is on Tuesdays at 9:00 PM eastern time on the travel channel.

Jon and Ruth asked Marcus a few questions about the show

Jon: So Marcus, how did this show come about? Did you come up with the idea and make the rounds with it?

Marcus: Actually, it went the other way. An old friend of mine who now runs a production company found out I was writing novels, and he reached out to me about the idea of a show about the way a crime novelist sees the world. At the time I was really flattered. I thought he wanted my artistic vision. In hindsight, I think he just knew I was dumb enough to let him pepper spray my ass.

We spent about two years refining and revising concepts before Travel Channel greenlit this one. And throughout that time, I couldn’t really believe it might happen. And frankly, I still have trouble believing it did. The whole experience is surreal. Amazing, exhausting, wonderful, but more than anything surreal.

Ruth: We’ve seen the first two episodes. They’re both great. But how do you pick which crimes? Is there a criteria?

Marcus: First off, thanks!

We pick the cities first. The goal was to hit a pretty good
cross-section of America, with a balance of obvious choices (Manhattan, Chicago) and unexpected ones (Anchorage, The Florida Keys). Then we dig into research,looking up the major crimes of each city.

The thing about crime is that most of it is the same everywhere. Every place has gangs and drugs. Every place has murders that happen in a flash of passion. But those don’t help us. Our goal is to choose crimes that reveal something about the city. This isn’t really about unearthing crimes you’ve never heard of; it’s about coming to understand a place better, whether it’s your hometown or somewhere you’ll never visit.

My favorite part is that I don’t do any writing in advance. We pick the crimes, research them, line up interviews and experiences, and then bring the audience along as I explore them. I look at things as a novelist, not a journalist, which frees me up to draw conclusions and make judgments.

And it’s only at the end, after I’ve gotten pretty deep into a story, after I’ve talked to the major players and tried to walk in their shoes, that I write the thing.

As a result, the themes and perspectives of the story are really shaped by the experience of investigating it. For example, I knew a fair bit about, say, the ’68 Riots in Chicago beforehand. But after talking to a member of the Chicago Seven AND a cop, after walking the park and watching the footage, after rudimentary crowd control training and getting pepper-sprayed, I understand it in a whole new way.

Jon: Ruth and I got to talking about what cities would be good to hit, and the way you are picking them makes a lot of sense. You mentioning that you approach this from the perspective of a novelist and not a reporter is interesting. Have you stumbled across things while doing the show that may now influence some of your writing?

Marcus: Oh yes. No way for it not to. I’ve met too many fascinating people and gotten to do too many amazing things. That said, I’ve never been one to try to replicate a real-life story in my novels. I like making things up,though I do steal what Neil Gaiman called “the sparkly bits”—great character traits, funny anecdotes, details.

And frankly, that’s for the best, because the real life stories often come off as unbelievable when fictionalized. Give you an example: in Austin, we looked at the murder of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a very public atheist and”the most hated woman in America.”

The story is like a Coen brothers film, little bit funny and very warped and quiet sad. For thirty years O’Hair ran a one-woman campaign against faith. She earned herself a ton of enemies in the process. No one was really surprised that eventually someone murdered her.

But it turned out not to be a political rival or a zealot. Nope, it was her office manager, who killed her and her family for money. Then he dismembered them all, buried the remains, laundered the money by buying gold coins, and went out to celebrate his victory.

He left most of the coins in a storage locker. That weekend, a crew of dirtbag thieves completely unconnected to the case just happened to bust into those storage lockers. Normally they get crappy TVs and old clothes. This time they walked with half a million in coins.

It’s a crazy, ridiculous story: a public figure murdered in the most
gruesome way, two separate teams of thieves working it, a suitcase full of gold. I love it, and would love to write it. But reality is just too over-the-top to be turned into fiction directly.

Ruth: Whoa, Madalyn!! Truth is stranger than fiction. Sounds like this venture is going to be win, win for you fiction following. Congrat’s btw on hitting the best of lists. The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes was certainly one of my top reads this year. You have twelve shows in the can. Will we be able to find you on Tuesdays every week? And when you’re renewed will we be able to talk you into coming to Milwaukee?

Marcus: Every Tuesday night, 10 PM ET, / 9 CT, on Travel Channel. It’s a fun list of destinations, too: some obvious picks like New York and Los Angeles, but also some surprises, like the Florida Keys and Anchorage.

As for Milwaukee, I would love to do it. It’s definitely in the mix as a Season Two candidate.