Flashback: Marcus Sakey and Sean Chercover – A conversation

Originally in Crimespree 16, HFan/Feb 2007

<fumbling noises, static>

Marcus: Is that thing working?

Sean: Yep.

Marcus: So now comes the part where we talk.

Sean: Yep.

Marcus: Any ideas what we’re supposed to say, as two debut authors?

Sean: You mean what gems of wisdom we’ve gained in our long and celebrated careers?

Marcus: Yeah.

Sean: No.

Marcus: Me either.

Sean: So let’s begin at the beginning. You started THE BLADE ITSELF in the MFA fiction program at Columbia College, right?

Marcus: Yes. Shortly before dropping out. I had this amazing professor named Patricia Pinianski, who writes romantic suspense as Patricia Rosemoor. She’s a stone-pro, something like seventy novels published, and she shared a lot of real-world advice. I started the book in her class, and spent the semester playing with the idea. Then towards the end, Joe Konrath came in to speak, and I asked if he wanted to grab a beer. We had nine. By the time we staggered out, I realized that I could either stay in school and have a degree or quit and have a manuscript.

So Columbia gets a lot of credit, but I never did get that MFA. You went there too, didn’t you?

Sean: Yeah, before you were born…

Marcus: Blow me…

Sean: …It was in the late-80s, and back then you didn’t have to declare a major. So I majored in Indecision. Took a lot of everything – I like to think of it as a classical education. Eventually I graduated with a general Liberal Arts BA. I already knew that I wanted to write crime fiction, but I didn’t think I had enough hard miles on me to write convincing crime fiction. And around that time I met a couple private detectives and got to know them, and I realized that this was something I could do. So I took the state-mandated training, earned my ‘blue card’ and became a private detective, and did that for a few years, first in Chicago and then in New Orleans.

Marcus: And in the end you wrote a P.I. novel. Did the idea for BIG CITY, BAD BLOOD come from your hard miles?

Sean: Indirectly. I knew a locations manager in the film industry who was deposed as a witness against some low-level wiseguy, and who’d gotten some threats. Basically, the wiseguy was running the long con version of the Fake Landlord Scam…

Marcus: What’s that?

Sean: The short con version is, you rent an apartment, pay first-and-last, and then advertise that same apartment for rent, posing as the owner and pricing it below market value. You pick a nice neighborhood, and have some story about why you’re renting it so cheap. Then you tell everybody who comes in, “Oh, you’re the perfect couple, I feel I can really trust you, but I’ve got a lot of interest at this price. If you can get me a money order by the end of the day, it’s yours.” You collect first-and-last from 15 or 20 people and split town.

That’s the short con version. The long con version – which is a Chicago invention – is that you find a vacant property with an absentee owner. Then you break off the locks, have new ones made, pose as the landlord. Actually rent the place out, long term, and collect from your tenants.

Marcus: I think I just discovered my new career.

Sean: No kidding. If you pick large properties, like warehouses, and you pay the utilities, nobody suspects. You can run these for years and have multiple properties on the go, and make a hell of a lot of money. Until you get caught. Anyway, the internal architecture of the Fake Landlord Scam, combined with the film industry, gave me the launching pad for my plot.

Marcus: So we’re both debut novelists. What’s something that you learned in your first year? Preferably something lurid and shocking.

Sean: I learned that musical beds is the official sport of Bouchercon…

Marcus: (spits up bourbon, laughs)

Sean …and I learned that the crime fiction community is incredibly supportive. I know that sounds trite, but it’s true, and it really amazes me, especially coming from the television business, which eats its young.

You?

Marcus: I’ve learned that luck is absolutely a factor. Thus far I’ve been very lucky, but there’s no controlling that. It’s like lightning. All you can do is fly your kite in the rain. Oh, and I’ve learned that you should not jump into water without knowing how fucking deep it is.

Sean: How deep was it?

Marcus: While I was in mid-air my concern was “Man, this is gonna be cold,” but before I could register the temperature, my ass hit rocks.

Sean: Ouch.

Marcus: Then I had to go home and explain to my wife why there were scratches on my butt.

Sean: How’d that go?

Marcus: I said, “There was a lake, so I jumped in it.” And she said, “Of course you did.”

Sean: Sounds like a good relationship. But what about when the writing’s not going well? Are you an ogre? How do you integrate your writing life with your regular life as Marcus Sakey, married guy? 

Marcus: I’m lucky. My wife has more faith in what I’m trying to do than I do. She’s always been very supportive. But some days are harder than others. When you’re writing, it’s constantly with you. You can’t turn it off. And I don’t think people who aren’t writers really get that—they think that’s a self-aggrandizing affectation, instead of a statement of fact.

Truth is, I don’t care if I take a vacation to fucking Bali in the middle of writing my book—I’m still thinking about it all the time, and beating myself up about it. I wouldn’t want to live with a writer. How about you?

Sean: Well, I’m not going to pretend it isn’t hard, but I’ve done worse things for a living. My wife isn’t a fiction writer, but she writes and she’s a great early reader. And even if she doesn’t really relate to the ‘haunted writer’ thing, she’s supportive. She’ll come home, take one look at me and say, “Stay in your head,” and close the office door – she can see the strange headspace I’m in. And I try to finish up what I’m working on and become a human being again.

Marcus: Speaking of working, we should talk about writing a little bit. How about process? Freehand or computer?

Sean: Computer.

Marcus: Morning or evening?

Sean: I’m a nocturnal writer, by nature. Over the last few years, I’ve tried to turn myself into a morning writer, with mixed results. I’m still trying. You?

Marcus: Day-job hours, but I don’t quit until I get my word count. You go for a target word count, or ‘til you’re done?

Sean: I set a minimum word count, no maximum. Some people stop themselves when they reach a target, but I can’t imagine doing that. I’ll go and go, I’ll binge for days. If it’s flowing, I ride it, because I don’t know when it’ll flow like that again.

Marcus: Amen. Outline, or figure it out as you go?

Sean: When writing BIG CITY, BAD BLOOD, I had the luxury of not having a book deal, so I was able to take my time and stumble along in the dark. But I always knew basically where I was going, and I work with what I call “tentpole scenes.” Without these scenes, the tent collapses. Not a detailed outline, but maybe 10 or 15 scenes that take me from the beginning to the end. Everything else can be a surprise. You?

Marcus: Pretty similar. The metaphor I use is, it’s like a road trip. I need to know where I’m going, and I need to know the interstates that I’m going to use to get there. I don’t need to know every rest stop, or every diversion.

For me, though, choosing those interstates is the tricky part of writing. I know some writers love it, but I find it more frustrating than fun.

Sean: But it beats a day job.

Marcus: Hell yes. Coffee, tobacco, alcohol?

Sean: Coffee. A lot of coffee. And a lot of green tea. I’m big into the green tea. I smoke a pipe or an occasional cigar. But I have a baby now, so I don’t smoke in the house anymore, and that’s fucking with my writing in a very big way. How bout you, do you drink?

Marcus: Regularly.

Sean: When you write?

Marcus: No. I love writing but ultimately it’s my job. And when I’m drinking, I don’t want to be at work anymore.

Sean: A lot of young writers get caught up in the Hemingway myth. But they don’t realize that Hemingway never wrote drunk. He wrote hungover a lot, but not drunk.

So, something else we share, both of our books walk well-trod ground; for me, it’s the whole hard-boiled P.I. tradition, and for you, it’s the reformed crook dragged back for one more job. But, and I’m not saying this to blow smoke up your skirt, THE BLADE ITSELF reads fresh. How did you approach writing a story that had that kind of history?

Marcus: Well, first, thanks. I think it might be because this isn’t really the genre I’ve read most of my life. Now I know that a lot of other novelists have toyed with these conventions, but I wrote mine without having read them, so my head was clear. But after finishing it, the weight of history was definitely something I bumped into. Especially when I had to describe the novel, because though I hope people see more than this, at its simplest, the story could be summed up as a former thief getting pulled back into his old life.

I think a lot of us owe a debt to people like Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos and Laura Lippman, and before them, Crumley and Leonard, because they all integrated such strong literary texture into classic forms. About a year ago, I had a beer and a cigarette with Dennis Lehane – actually, my last cigarette. I bummed my last cigarette from Dennis Lehane. I still get a kick out of that. Anyway, he was saying that MYSTIC RIVER is basically an old RKO picture – two friends come out of the old neighborhood, and one becomes a cop while the other becomes a criminal. But while I agree with him in principle, he brought such subtlety and sincerity to it that you saw everybody’s point of view and felt everybody’s pain. And if you’ve got that, it seems like it doesn’t matter too much what the setup is.

How about you? How did you handle the weight of P.I. history?

Sean: I just tried to tell the truth, and use language in an interesting way. I was well aware that I was writing a private eye story and a mob story, but I just focused on my characters and, instead of approaching them as Good Guys and Bad Guys, I approached them as people. Complex people, some of whom were involved in organized crime, some of whom worked as cops, or as private eyes, or as journalists. But they’re people, not ‘white hats’ and ‘black hats’.

Waiter: Excuse me. If you don’t mind me asking, what’s that thing?

Sean: It’s a digital voice recorder.

Waiter: A recorder?

Marcus: We’re very important people.

Waiter: Uh-huh.

Marcus: We need a record of everything we say.

Waiter: Okay (laughs nervously).

Sean: And we’re drinking bourbon, which makes it hard to remember.

Waiter: I see. Can I get you guys anything? Another round?

Sean: You must be reading my mind.

Marcus: What’s the first book that comes to mind when I say, “favorite book”?

Sean: Oh, no. Okay, LIGHT IN AUGUST. And that’s as good an answer as any, but ask me again and you’ll get a different answer.

Marcus: Okay, what’s your favorite book?

Sean: THE NEON WILDERNESS. No, wait… BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS. No, wait…

Marcus: We’ll come back to it. When you’re writing, do you ever feel like you’re playing a game with your audience?

Sean: Not really. When I wrote the book, I had no idea if it would sell. I really didn’t think about “my audience”. I just sat down and wrote the book that I would want to read. I figured, if it entertained me, then hopefully it would entertain others; if I found it thought-provoking, hopefully others would too. But I wasn’t really writing a puzzle mystery.

Marcus: No, yours is more of a thriller, which is one of the reasons I liked it. Personally, traditional mysteries don’t grab me.

Sean: Wait. How do you define “thriller”?

Marcus: I like David Morrell’s definition, that you define a genre by the emotional reaction it evokes. So a mystery evokes puzzlement. “What happened? How did this happen?” A thriller evokes thrills. “Oh Christ! How did this happen to me? Oh, God! It just got worse!”

I think one of the reasons we read is to find out how we would respond in situations we haven’t faced, and to me, thrillers and crime novels play to that more than mysteries.

Sean: If we agree on those definitions, I see your point. But I think those definitions are overly simplistic. That definition of mystery only works for the most shallow ‘puzzle mystery’. Look at the fine mysteries by Lawrence Block and Walter Mosley and Derek Raymond, for example. There is a case (sometimes a murder) to be solved. But they evoke a hell of a lot more than ‘puzzlement’. These writers create complex and engaging characters, and you go with the detectives on their journey, as they investigate both the case and the human condition. They learn not only “what happened” and “how did this happen” but they also learn about themselves along the way. And that, more than the puzzle, is what these books offer to me.

Marcus: More than fair. When it comes to reading, I don’t really draw hard lines; there are certainly mystery novels that have blown my hair back. But by and large, I lean away from the discovery of a body in the first chapter. Speaking of which, what’s your favorite novel?

Sean. Bastard. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. That’s my favorite book. You can ask ten times and I’ll name ten books, and they’re all my favorite book. It’s like those desert island albums. I don’t know, man, I love music and I’ve got a lot of records. And I can call them records, ‘cause I’m of that age. What’s your favorite book?

Marcus: CLOUD ATLAS, by David Mitchell. But that’s a canned answer. And it’s a contested spot, like a heavy-weight belt. Mitchell knocked out my previous favorite, INFINITE JEST, and every time I open a book, I hope it will knock CLOUD ATLAS out of the number one slot.

You said you love music. Do you listen when you write?

Sean: Most of the time.

Marcus: Is it tied to what you’re writing, or is it just what you’re listening to at the time?

Sean: I select it for the mood of what I’m writing. My default music is jazz. But there are a lot of different moods and textures and colors in jazz, so I pick something that fits the mood I’m trying to access. And sometimes it’s rock and roll, blues, reggae, classical, punk, whatever I’m feeling at the time.

You?

Marcus: I can’t write with words in the background. I have a lot of ambient and electronic stuff that I’ll put on when I’m in the mood. And not often, but every now and then I’ll blast the Conan soundtrack at high volume.

Sean: Conan?

Marcus: Let it go. What got you into jazz?

Sean: I was 16 years old and working for the summer at a television station. And there was a guy who lived in the basement, the music librarian. He turned me onto jazz, and I never looked back.

Marcus: Sixteen?

Sean: Yeah, well I also learned that the girls thought you were sophisticated when you listened to jazz, so that was an added benefit.

Marcus: But now that you’re married, you can drop all that.

Sean: I’ll get rid of my jazz records and go back to my KISS albums.

Marcus: Don’t be knocking KISS.

Sean: I love KISS. I was a member of the KISS Army. I had the Destroyer poster on my wall, before you were born.

Marcus: Blow me. What’s the most embarrassing album that you still own?

Sean: Ouch. Okay. The most embarrassing musical album that I own…and listen to occasionally, not often…and in my own defense I must say that when I listen to it, it is because I want to revisit a certain place and time, not because I actually like this record…

Marcus: Yeah, yeah…

Sean: Sade.

Marcus: Sade?

Sean: Conan?

Marcus: Right. Let’s change the subject.

Sean: A lot of writers say they can’t read when they write. Do you?

Marcus: I’ve never understood that. First of all, when aren’t you writing? Takes me all damn year to write a book. And I don’t think I’ve gone two days without reading in my life.

I actually try to use it to strengthen my own work by seeing how better writers do things. If I’ve got an action scene coming up, I’ll grab a Lee Child, because I love the way he handles violence; you feel the punches and sweat the adrenaline. If I’m writing dialogue, Elmore Leonard can loosen me up. If it’s cops, I’ll break out David Simon’s HOMICIDE.

Sean: So you’re a plagiarist.

Marcus: Basically. I just spread the sources out so I don’t get busted. You?

Sean: I stay away from anything that I think might corrupt the voice I’m trying for. So if I’m writing first person, I read third person, and I go for something with a different tone. But after I’m through the first draft, all bets are off.

Marcus: Do you finish every book you start?

Sean: Hell no. If it’s a bad book, it’s going down.

Marcus: Me too. It’s gotta hook me fast. If I don’t love it immediately, I need to at least believe that there’s the possibility that I’m going to love it.

Sean: Sure. It doesn’t have to catch me with a high concept premise (and usually won’t). It can catch me with voice, with characterization, interesting use of language… any number of things can catch me, but it has to catch me.

Marcus: Absolutely. There’s all this talk among writers about the first five pages, and of course, they are crucial. But I think that a lot of people assume that has to mean a gunshot or a torture scene in the opening paragraph. Sometimes that works, but not often, and it’s not the only way to hook somebody.

Sean: Funny, I was talking with a bunch of writers at Bouchercon in Chicago, and they were all reciting their first lines, and everyone had these, “And then I died!” “And then his head exploded!” “And then the bullet slammed into my chest!” kinds of opening sentences. They asked mine, and I couldn’t do it. I don’t know my first sentence by heart. I know it’s a run-on and it’s not about gunfire. But it establishes the voice of the book, and nobody suggested I change it, so I guess it works.

Marcus: What’s your favorite book?

Sean: THE GUARDS.

Marcus: That’s a great fucking book.

Sean: It is. What else?

Marcus: *shrug*

Sean: Any piercings or tattoos?

Marcus: I used to have my nipple pierced…

Sean: Yuck.

Marcus: …but it never healed right. After about six months of waking up bloody, I took it out with wire cutters. The ring, not the nipple. And I’ve got a tattoo on my shoulder.

Sean: Me too. Yours?

Marcus: It’s sort of a tribal looking sun thing. It’s my college diploma. I got it my senior year; I was coming up on graduation and I felt symbolic. You?

Sean: Umm. It’s hard to describe. Here. (pulls up sleeve)

Marcus: It’s…three pissed-off fish against a swirl, with a couple of blurry axe blades threatening a French Quarter lamppost.

Sean: It’s the result of a very bad night, when I was living in New Orleans. And looks it. And I should say, for the record, that I think tattoos are in very poor taste. All you kids out there reading Crimespree, don’t get a tattoo.

Marcus: Right. Don’t get a tattoo, don’t smoke…

Sean: …and don’t drink…

Marcus: …while writing.