Monday, November 19, 2012

Author Mark Pryor on serial mystery: the choice and the craft

Mark Pryor, author
When I first spoke with Mark Pryor, I was impressed.
In one phone call, I could tell he knew his stuff -- the law, the streets, human nature. He even had a sense of humor. Throw in the fact that he is an English guy living in Texas, and he had all the ingredients for a great mystery writer ... if he could write.
No doubt, he proved that with his debut mystery, The Bookseller: the First Hugo Martson Novel, already climbing the best-seller lists and recommended by Oprah
Hugo is an intriguing character, an ex-FBI profiler working as head of security for the U.S. Embassy in Paris. He's bored, debating what to do with his vacation time, when his friend Max, an elderly bookseller is abducted. Hugo watches, forced to stand helplessly by.
The Bookseller on Amazon
With no help from the Paris police, Hugo enlists his semiretired CIA buddy, Tom, to help him find Max as  bookseller bodies begin surfacing in the Seine. Soon, Hugo becomes the target of unknown assassins himself, unsure whether former Nazis, who were hunted by Max, or drug lords fighting  violently for control of Paris' streets are behind the guns.
The novel is fast-paced and suspenseful with rich characters and the perfect setting.
I even learned something of Parisian history.
But Mark didn't even pause to take a breath after its October release. 
The second book in the Hugo Martson series, titled The Crypt Thief, will be released in May of 2013, and the third in October.  Mark's first non-fiction book, As She Lay Sleeping, will be published this coming January and is the true story of a 'cold' murder case he prosecuted last year.
With his freshness to the publishing scene, his early success and the experience he already is building in writing serial mystery, Mark seemed like the right guy to ask about the genre of serial mystery, the craft it demands and the choice to pursue it.
Thankfully, he agreed to answered a few questions.
First, just a little more about the author: 
Mark is a former newspaper reporter from England, and now an assistant district attorney with the Travis County District Attorney's Office, in Austin, Texas. He is the creator of the nationally recognized, true-crime blog D.A. Confidential. He has appeared on CBS News' 48 Hours and Discovery Channel's Discovery ID: Cold Blood.

Now, here we go!

You write book-length fiction and nonfiction. Which was your first passion?

Mark: Fiction.  My imagination has always pushed me to take a real life situation and say, "Yeah, but what if this happened next?  And then this…?"  I remember once in primary school in England, when I was six or seven.  We had two notebooks to write in, one was for  actual stuff we did  and one for made up stories.  My teacher once asked us to write in the "news" notebook about what we did over the weekend.  So I wrote about the haystack I'd played on with my best friend, and how it had suddenly floated out to sea as we were being attacked by crocodiles.  Now, I'm pretty sure that didn't actually happen but what stuck with me the most was the fact that my teacher never said a word about it that I recall--perhaps she liked the story?!

Did you set out to write serial fiction?

Mark: Yes, I think I did.  Or at least, create an enduring set of major characters.

If yes, why?

Mark: I've always wanted to have a character I could run with.  Someone interesting who I could develop and plonk into different situations among different good guys and bad guys.  I think back to my favorite books they were always the ones I could get to know and appreciate over time, starting with the Hardy Boys and moving on to Sherlock Holmes, to my modern-day favorites like Harry Bosch and Harry Hole.  When you pick up a book with a familiar character it's like sitting down for a chat with an old friend, and so that's something I'd really like to be able to create.

When you sat down to write the second Hugo novel, which has yet to be released, how did that differ from writing the first one? Did any particular issues surprise you?

Mark: It differed in that I tried to plan it more carefully, to outline it.  I created a notebook with ideas and characters, sketching out scenes and events.  I did a lot before I sat down to write and guess what?  I think it's fair to say that zero percent of those people or events made it into the book!  Turns out that as long as I know who does what to whom, and why, I can pretty much push the start button and get writing.  Now, I did think more consciously about pacing, about making sure the reader bites and then (hopefully!) keeps enjoying.  I suppose it might be fair to say it's closer to a thriller than a mystery, although those distinctions have always eluded me to a large degree.  Anyway, one thing I'm sure of, I won't be outlining again!

In serial mystery, authors must consider the main character’s potential for growth and development. What kind of future do you see for Hugo? Which type of reader would be most intrigued by Hugo’s development?

Mark: I agree, that's important.  I always thought of Hugo as a little detached from those around him.  He's led an interesting life but a fairly testing one.  He has built walls to protect himself and his own personality make him, as I say in The Bookseller, a watcher not a player. But like in a real friendship, I hope that over time these walls come down, that the reader gets glimpses into what makes him tick.  I never wanted to create someone you felt you knew after the first few chapters, or even the first book.  After all, if you want someone like that you can enjoy Tom Green who isn't shy about laying it all out there from the get-go.
As for who will enjoy him?  I think there's a little something for everyone.  He's a man's man to some degree, in the sense that he's very practical and pragmatic about solving problems.  He's not particularly emotional or sentimental. . .  and yet he has that softer side.  He's playful with Claudia, and has an old-fashioned charm that is sincere and makes him appealing to women.  At least, I hope so!

How well do you know Hugo and the other characters who will likely return (I hope!), such as Tom? How well do you feel writers should know their characters in serial mystery before they get started? Should they map it all out, or discover as they go?

Mark: I think for the writer as well as the reader it's a journey of discovery.  Some things happen in the second book that I didn't plan out but that developed because they seemed consistent with the actions and personalities of the characters.  Sorry to be so vague, but I can't very well spoil my own novel, can I?! 
The bottom line is that all people grow and change over time, all relationships and friendships do.  I can't pretend to know what Hugo will be like two or three books from now because I don't know what wonders and evils he will encounter.  I like it that way, because if it's a little unpredictable, if it's a fun journey of discovery for me, then hopefully it is for the reader, too.

Hugo has quite an interesting resume – former FBI agent turned head of security for the U.S. Embassy in Paris. What inspired you to choose this career path for Hugo and what are its benefits for you as a writer?

Mark: I actually went to law school with the idea of becoming an FBI agent myself! True story.  And I have known a couple of FBI agents and even profilers, through my personal life and my job as a prosecutor.  And those guys have stories to tell, I can assure you, fascinating people.  In some ways it's a fairly obvious choice for a main character but on the other hand there aren't really many repeat novel characters who have that job, are there?  And yet it's something, behavioral analysis, that just about everyone on the planet has some interest in.  It also fits Hugo's character as a 'watcher,' as I talked about before -- it just wouldn't be right to have him as a former Navy SEAL or retired ninja!
As for the US Embassy job, well, I needed him to be in an English-speaking environment, where he gets to carry a gun (I checked on that point), and can move around the city, the country, even Europe pretty easily.  His job fills those criteria very nicely, and lets me put him in contact with visiting Americans (see book two) and dignitaries (see book three!) alike.

Why Paris? How important is setting in serial mystery?

Mark: Great question, in fact I just wrote a guest post on this topic for my local indie bookstore's blog.  And I hope it's obvious from reading The Bookseller that setting is very important to me.  Paris has so much to offer, as a writer, a reader, and even an imaginary character.  It's such a walkable city that Hugo (or I) can stroll around and find adventure anywhere.  It's a beautiful city, no one would argue with that, and it is subject to the whim of the four seasons, which are always helpful in creating mood.   (Maybe I'm not good enough to write a book set in Texas, where nine months of the year it's nothing but hot!) 
I also see history as a part of 'setting,' and that's going to be a huge part of the Hugo Marston series.  Obviously, the unique bouquinistes and France's World War Two history feature in The Bookseller, but history and place continue in the next two books: the cemeteries in the next, and Napoleon and the Revolution in the third. 
As much as I love Paris, and always will, I must confess to looking forward to having Hugo explore other places, though.  Because, as mentioned, that means I get to as well!

Early in the novel, we learn of Hugo’s traumatic romantic history. He eventually begins a relationship in through which a more personal side of him is revealed. How important is the romantic plot to serial mystery? Should all serial mystery contain some element of romance or lust?

Mark: I wouldn't dare to pronounce a rule for all mysteries!  But it's an interesting question because if one is to have a successful series there's no question that the main characters must be fully rounded, or at least must be working towards being fully realized people.  And if that's true, then it seems to follow that the parts of their lives that matter will reflect the parts of our lives that matter.  Romance, health, work, money, spiritual fulfillment, I suppose all these have to play a role in some way in a series.
Now, how those appear must be left to the author, of course.  Some will focus on health as an area of conflict (drug and drink-addled detectives) and some may focus on work or money.  But romance is an intriguing area because it lets a writer play with his hero's softer side.  Hugo's a red-blooded Texan in that he's not afraid of an adventure and he willingly chases bad guys down blind alleys, but he's also a big softie in some ways.  He's old-fashioned and a little out of his depth with the savvy, confident modern woman.  I don't intend (I don't think!) to linger on his romantic adventures or to make his pursuit of love any kind of significant sub plot.  But as an attractive, single man with needs and desires, it does let me find conflict for him, and it allows me to show the reader another side of him, which is important to make him a fuller character.  Plus, when they make it into a move and let me play Hugo, I might get to kiss Angelina Jolie. . .

What do you suppose has made your debut novel such a big success so soon? What elements does it offer readers that some of the less success serial mystery does not? Any sage advice for budding writers bade on your experience?

Mark: Now you're being too sweet -- I don't know whether it counts as a success, though one can hope.  But I'm always happy to give advice.  I think the first thing is to make sure you know the nuts and bolts of writing, to make sure you learn the craft of it.  Things like showing v. telling, using strong verbs instead of adverbs, going easy on the dialog tags.  Learn those, and practice them until they are second nature.
The second piece of advice is to remember what you're doing.  I've been asked my opinion on sample chapters, or entire novels, and it seems to me that the writer is too aware they are writing a novel, they are trying very hard to be a writer.  Sometimes it helps to step back and remember you're not writing a novel, you're telling a story.  That may seem like a strange distinction but it does exist, I've seen it with my own eyes.
The final piece of advice kicks in when you have the craft of writing under your belt (as much as anyone can) and you have a story down on paper.  Don't give up!  Sadly, writing the book is sometimes the easy part.  Finding an agent, and then a publisher, can be frustrating, dispiriting, exhausting.  You'll get more rejections that a spotty teenager who smells like Gruyere, but that's the nature of the business.  I'd tell you how many I received, from agents and publishers, but I lost count long ago.  Be patient, persevere, because if you have a good story and it's well told I really believe it will find a home.

Who is your favorite serial mystery author if you have one? Why?

Mark: Conan Doyle.  Sherlock Holmes is such an icon, such a brilliant character, and the stories are so intricate and fun, that I doubt they will ever be replaced for me as the greatest series. I love the interplay between Holmes and Watson, too, and I'm sure that had a strong influence on my creation of Tom as Hugo's friend.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

In memory of Carmen Basilio

I am not a big fan of boxing, but I am a huge fan of Carmen Basilio.
The former world welterweight and middleweight champion died Wednesday at age 85 in a Rochester, N.Y., hospital near his home, a home he welcomed me into 20 years ago to share stories of his life.
Together with photographer and friend Frank OrdoƱez, I experienced his kindness, his humor and his frighteningly close fake jabs. At the time, a film production company had planned to make a movie of his life story. It never happened and that's a shame.
I am sadden by his death and my heart goes out to his wife, Josie, and the rest of their family. But I am honored that I had chance to know him.
Rest in peace, Carmen Basilio.

Here is the article, which appeared in the (Syracuse, N.Y.) Herald Journal on May 18, 1992:


 Promoter Herb Stark sat at a picnic table in his client's family room, rifling through papers strewn before him. Which actor should portray his client in a television movie? 
"Tony Danza or Robert De Niro," Stark said.
This provoked a nod from his 65-year-old client, Carmen Basilio. Out came a recent photograph of Danza with his arm around Basilio's shoulders. Danza, an ex-fighter, sought out Basilio when word spread that he was eating in the same Las Vegas diner.
It's that kind of reaction that makes the former world welterweight and middleweight champion movie material nearly 31 years after his last fight.
"People haven't forgotten me so I guess I'm one of the lucky ones," Basilio said, squinting through his swollen eyes. "There's so many things that happened in my life. We didn't have much money. Times were tough. It'd make a good movie, exciting."
Basilio and Stark, an agent for former athletic champions, have talked for years about making a film or documentary on the retired boxer's life. Lou Buttino who, like Basilio, grew up in the Madison County village of Canastota, is working with them.
"I think it would break new ground, to show how Carmen Basilio has been able to adjust after the glory days are over," said Buttino, a journalism professor at St. John Fisher College in Rochester. "He has a real appreciation for life."
Their chance came last summer when Michael Derrick, president of Film Producers International at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., attended a charity banquet in Rochester. Derrick was impressed.
He sees Basilio's rise from the mucklands to world welterweight and middleweight champion as a made-for-television movie or film for the international video market.
"Enough with the naked women and the drugs and blood and that stuff," Derrick said during a telephone interview from his Orlando home. "He's the kind of guy that can give us the ... story people want."
No contracts have been signed, the film has no title and no actors have been cast, but production should begin this summer, he said.
"It's very conceptual now," Derrick said. But "it'll happen one way or another. These things just take time."
They haven't talked money yet either, but Basilio said he isn't concerned.
"Ah, I got what I need," he said.
Parts of the $7 million to $8 million movie probably will be filmed in Canastota, Derrick said. Buttino hopes Derrick will let him write the screenplay. He will be contributing editor and creative consultant for the movie.
"There aren't many people who have the opportunity to write about their heroes," Buttino said. "Usually when boys meet their heroes they become disappointed. I was never disappointed with Carmen Basilio."
Buttino already has started piecing the film together in his mind. He imagines a black and white opening, set in the 1930s and staged in the onion fields, where Basilio worked with his eight brothers and sisters.
Ordered to bed each night by 8:30, Basilio remembers Fridays when his father would wake him up at 10 p.m. to listen to the fights on the radio. He remembers his first pair of boxing gloves, ones his father bought for the family.
Because Basilio fell between his two brothers in age and weight, he boxed one after the other. But the brothers were featherweights compared to the sisters.
"If you want to be a fighter, all you have to do is have five sisters older than you. I learned how to defend myself,” he said, exhaling a gruff chuckle. "We didn't box. We fought."
The film is Basilio's chance to boast of his determination. Ask him who deserves credit for his boxing success. The pessimists, he'll say. Many doubted the power of his 5-foot, 6-inch frame. Each punch he packed was fueled by stubbornness.
"Just tell me I can't do something," he said.
Everybody told him he was too small to box. At 13, he had his first and only high school bout when another school finally dug up another 80-pound boxer to fight him. He won.
"I used to dream about these things, being a world champion," he said. "The teacher, she'd ask a question. I wouldn't hear a thing. I was busy dreaming."
After his high school match, World War II forced Canastota to cut the sport from its budget. Soon after, Basilio dropped out of high school. He boxed for fun around the neighborhood.
His next refereed bout was in the Marine Corps in 1947, where he was paid $10 a fight. Basilio turned pro in 1948 after he left the military and won the Golden Gloves amateur tournament sponsored by the Herald-Journal. He supported himself, his then-wife, Kay, and two adopted children by assembling generators at a Syracuse Autolite plant.
"I worked my way up to $150 a fight," he said.
The dream was threatened in 1950 when Basilio was stricken with mononucleosis. He told no one but his doctor and his wife. During the six months he spent recovering, the pessimists returned. They told Basilio his glory days were over.
Enter trainer and friend John DeJohn, the man whose coaching landed Basilio in the ring with reigning welterweight champion Tony DeMarco at the Onondaga County War Memorial on June 10, 1955. The two fighters gave the audience its money's worth. Basilio was badly hurt, but he pounded on, knocking DeMarco out in the 12th round.
Here the picture fades to Canastota, where Buttino, his two brothers and his father gathered around the radio in the family's living room. The fight was over. The announcer's words triggered the village fire alarm.
"From Canastota, New York. The welterweight champion of the world, Carmen Basilio."
The high school band began its march down Peterboro Street. Tavern owners gave out free beer and soda in honor of the Italian onion farmer's son. Proud villagers shouted, "We did it! We're the champion of the world."
"People were coming out of their houses," Buttino said. "Everybody was really celebrating. That night had a tremendous impact on my life."
Flash through two years of matches and rematches - victories and defeats - most of them against DeMarco and Johnny Saxton. Basilio was gaining weight. Though he tried to sweat it off, he was finding it more and more difficult to remain a welterweight.
Weak from dehydration, Basilio left the ring and headed for Alexandria Bay. There he trained for the most important fight of his career - a match against reigning middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson.
Fade to Sept. 23, 1957. Basilio stands in the center of a packed Yankee Stadium. The match between Basilio and Robinson would be the first non-heavyweight match to gross more than $1 million.
Robinson danced and Basilio stalked. Every chance he got, Basilio took an inside jab. Basilio won.
Flash to 1958. The onion farmer's son takes the $10,000 Hickock belt, the Pulitzer prize of athletics. The Boxing Writers Association names him "fighter of the year." His picture appears regularly on the cover of "Ring" magazine.
His second wife, Josephine, keeps the covers with the photographs, the plaques and the gold ring Basilio received in 1989 when he was inducted in the International Hall of Fame, located in his hometown.
"She likes all that stuff," he said.
Basilio ended his boxing career in 1961 after tendinitis set in, preventing him from fully extending his right arm. He was 34 years old and Le Moyne College was building a new field house. The administrators would be honored to have the former world champion on their staff, they said.
At Le Moyne, Basilio quickly earned a new title, "the toughest physical education teacher on campus." The boxer was as hard on his students as he was on his opponents in the ring, said Athletic Director Richard Rockwell, who was hired as the college's physical education director in 1967.
"It became almost a status symbol if he slapped you around," Rockwell said. "If you tried things like that now you wouldn't have any kids here. The 60s and 70s were different times. The things we did then, we'd get fired for now."
Rockwell wasn't surprised to hear about Basilio's fondness for his Le Moyne days. The students respected him, he said. Basilio frequented their dorms with reels of his championship fights tucked beneath his arm. The films drew standing-room only crowds, he said.
“The best times of my life were when I was teaching phys. ed.,” Basilio said. His elbows rested on the picnic table. “Yeah, those were the days.”
Basilio retired from the school in 1981 to become a district sales representative for the Genesee Brewing Co. in Rochester, where he has worked part-time promoting the company’s products since 1981. He moved to Rochester in the mid-1980s when he divorced and remarried. That’s when Buttino ran into the boxer for the first time since Buttino was a teen.