Monday, June 7, 2010

J. Mark Bertrand

Author Interview: J. Mark Bertrand
Crime genre novelist J. Mark Bertrand’s main character has one foot out the door. Back on Murder, scheduled to be released next month, opens with homicide detective Roland March knowing his career is in the toilet unless he can pull off the impossible.

J. Mark Bertrand’s publishing career, however, is starting off with a bang. His first two novels will hit the book shelves this year. In July, Bethany House is set to release J. Mark Bertrand’s novel, Back On Murder, a gritty crime story unfolding on the big-city streets of Houston. Last February, Mark and coauthor Deeane Gist saw their novel, Beguiled— a romance suspense novelquickly rise on CBA and ECPA listings just weeks after its release.

It looks like this will be a great year for this new author.

YOUNG: Give us the down and dirty on Back On Murder. What is the story about?

BERTRAND: It’s about two seemingly unrelated cases—the shooting death of a La Tercera Crips gang lord and a house full of his minions; and the disappearance of a beautiful suburban teen, which is getting all the media attention. Houston homicide detective Roland March bounces from one detail to the next, convincing himself along the way that the two cases are connected.

YOUNG: Give us some insight into your main character, Roland March. The story begins with everyone knowing March’s career is almost over. Tells us a little about why he keeps fighting to stay in the game. What drives him?

BERTRAND: When we meet March, things have gotten so bad for him in homicide that his bosses are loaning him out on pointless details. He shows up at a crime scene and is pretty much superfluous. Everybody ignores him. And yet he used to be good at the job. He made some famous cases back in the day. When he gets a break in the gang killing, he sees his chance to get “back on murder.” His wife would rather see him get out of law enforcement. Even March can’t explain exactly why he’s staying. But that break galvanizes him. He gets a taste of what it used to be like and wants it all back.

YOUNG: Your protagonist bucks a traditional concept in the Christian publishing industry—main character strengthens his faith in God or resolves his spiritual conflict after facing adversity. Here, March is a non-believing skeptic with a jaundiced view of the church. An outsider. Will March ever resolve spiritual quandaries or will those issues be left for other characters to resolve.

BERTRAND: March doesn’t fit the stereotype, that’s for sure. And I’d argue as a novelist that’s a good thing. There’s something to be said for defamiliarization, for looking at the world through a fresh set of eyes.

One of the questions people ask, given the publisher, is whether Back on Murder is Christian fiction. All I can say is, it’s crime fiction, written by an author who’s a Christian, narrated by a protagonist who isn’t. Complicated enough for you? If your definition of the genre is how well it fits that “faces adversity then solves spiritual conflict” trope, then this doesn’t qualify … but neither would The Moviegoer or Wise Blood. (And no, I didn’t just compare myself to Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor. Or if I did, it was knowing full well I’m not worth to tie their shoelaces!) The French film director Claude Chabrol once pointed out to Roger Ebert that not every Communist movie has to be about the wheat harvest. The same thing goes for any artist with a strong point of view.

As far as March’s issues go, let’s just say this. Things are going to get worse for the detective before they get better.

YOUNG: Intriguing. Can’t wait to see if March will survive. This story takes place in Houston, Texas. Is this city a special place for you or are there other reasons for placing the story in this location?

BERTRAND: I lived in Houston a long time, went to grad school there, and have a love/hate relationship with the city to this day. In crime fiction now, a sense of place is very important. Surprisingly, despite being the fourth largest city in the United States, Houston is underrepresented in the genre. I chose it for that, and because in so many ways—oil, suburban sprawl, mass market religion, and so much more—it’s the perfect metaphor for the world we live in now. If you’re writing about Houston, you’re writing about America, too.

YOUNG: Mark, I read in one of your articles that crime fighting intrigued you at an early age. Anything happen to shake your enthusiasm? How did you go from the junior sleuth of earlier years to the crime novelist of today?

BERTRAND: I’m not a detective today for the same reason I’m not a general: they don’t let you start at the top! Growing up watching Magnum P. I. and Remington Steele, I was so going to be a private detective. I even did a couple of correspondence courses and talked my way into a kind of apprenticeship with a local private eye. The dream persisted until I reached college, where my love of literature kicked in. For someone so committed to the gritty, surreal reality of the job, it’s ironic to think how romanticized my view was.

YOUNG:  Tell us about J. Mark Bertrand, the writer. How did you get interested in writing, and specifically, how did you get interested in this crime genre?

BERTRAND: Noir-influenced literary stuff said, “Why don’t you write a detective story?” Obvious as it seems now, I’d never really considered it. That’s how Back on Murder was born.

YOUNG: You seem to have a great deal of knowledge about firearms. How did you acquire this knowledge?

BERTRAND: I grew up reading gun magazines, got my first pistol (a Beretta Model 84) when I was sixteen, and have been enamored with firearms ever since. For awhile, I was even shooting in a Houston IDPA club, where on a good night I might break into the top half of the roster. I’m an irritating person to watch action movies with, always pointing out to my wife when the bad guy’s single action Government Model isn’t cocked and it’s safe to rush him.

This is great knowledge to have writing the March books, because Houston has a thriving gun culture. It’s not specialized knowledge there. If I arm one of my villains with a .45 Magnum, I don’t have to worry about law enforcement readers spotting the error. The grandmas will.

YOUNG: Who are some of your favorite fictional detectives?

BERTRAND: Dashiell Hammet’s Continental Op ranks right up there, and like everyone else I’m a huge fan of Ian Rankin’s Rebus and James Lee Burke’s Robicheaux. Since I grew up in Louisiana and now live in the plains, there’s a special place in my heart for Burke. And I really love what George Pelecanos does with Derek Strange. Everything is right in those books.

I re-read James Lee Burke, and there are two other series books I keep going back to: Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther books (he’s been adding to the Berlin Noir trilogy the past couple of years) and Robert Wilson’s quartet of Bruce Medway novels set in West Africa.

YOUNG: What helped you most to prepare to write in this crime mystery genre?

BERTRAND: Living in Houston, I spent many hours scouring the shelves at Murder by the Book, one of the greatest independent genre bookstores ever. I discovered some of my favorite authors there. I was the shy, bashful type—didn’t go to readings, didn’t chat with the staff or camp out in the chairs—but that place was like an extension of my personal library. It gave me my crime genre education. Whenever I go back to Houston, I always drop in, and MBTB crops up here and there in Back on Murder and later March books.

YOUNG: Since this novel’s cover lists Back On Murder as “A Roland March Mystery,” can we expect to see Roland March surface at new crime scenes in the future? Will he be Back On Murder, working missing persons, or stuck on another cars-for-criminals detail?

BERTRAND: March is my contribution to the great tradition of series detectives. The second book picks up about a year after Back on Murder closes, with March taking his spot on the homicide rotation. Unfortunately, the case that made his early reputation picks this time to unravel, while March has his hands full with a spiraling murder investigation.

YOUNG: This must be a wonderful time for you after finally breaking through into the publishing world as a novelist. You have one non-fiction book published, but this year marks your first year as a published novelist. How is everything coming together? What are you short-term plans?

BERTRAND: I’ve just finished the second March book, so there are revisions to do and a third novel to start planning. And of course all the usual promotional stuff. What I care about most is the quality of the writing, and my hope is, if the books are good enough, people will talk about them and they’ll catch on. The success of Beguiled, the novel I co-authored with Deeanne Gist, will hopefully open a few doors, too.

YOUNG: What does your ‘average’ writing day look like? How do you divide your time between writing, marketing, and promotion, while still giving time to other important parts of your life?

BERTRAND: I think of myself as a seasonal worker. Certain parts of the year are devoted to writing, others to marketing, and so on. I’m just learning the promotional side of things and probably haven’t gotten the balance right. I’m old fashioned in the sense that, for all the talk these days about building a brand and authors as their own marketing departments, for me the most important thing is still the writing. Some of my favorite novelists are obscure, and if that’s my fate, so be it. So long as the books themselves are worthy of a cult following!

YOUNG: How do you approach a new novel? Do you plot out your stories or do you take other approaches to finally arrive at the story?

BERTRAND: The catalyst for me is typically the combination of two things: a theme and a situation. With Back on Murder, I knew I wanted to say something about the way media hype distorts high profile investigations, and about the difficulty of reconstructing the truth. I chose to write from March’s point of view exclusively for that reason. The usual third person narrative, jumping from one viewpoint to another, lets you fill in a lot of the blanks that no single person ever could. Unfortunately, that’s not how a detective experiences the case. March only gets what he can work out for himself. No bird’s eye view of the crime in progress, no glimpse into the twisted mind of the killer. When he gets a confession, it’s a self-serving story that makes the perp look like a victim himself. March has to sift through all that, and so does the reader.

Another factor with Back on Murder was the never-ending saga of the Houston crime lab, which has been in crisis for years now. I wanted to undercut the scientific certitudes of popular CSI-style dramas, and the fact that the DNA section actually had to be shut down in real life helped illustrate my point.

So the setting gave me some clues, and so did my themes. I knew I’d be in March’s head, and that he’d have a lot of misgivings and frustrations about what was going on in the world around him. I wanted him in homicide, but on a missing persons task force, too. So I worked on that aspect of the story. As you can see, the plot and character start to build up in layers. I wrote several “false starts,” different attempts at the story, until I finally found the right way in. After that, everything clicked. That’s how it tends to go for me.

YOUNG: Do you edit as you go or break it down by drafts to edit? How many drafts before you feel comfortable handing it to an editor?

BERTRAND: I write very clean drafts. It’s something I’ve learned over time. There’s a school of thought that says the most important thing is to get something on paper. Then you can edit it into a good story. For me, it’s important to get something good on paper right from the beginning. So I write fast and clean, trying to work with restraint, doing more with less right up front. You can do this if you’ve taken the time up front to work through your story and characters, to know the ideas you’re wanting to explore.

When I’m writing the first draft of a new book, everything else takes a back seat. I work all day until I hit my goal—typically a chapter break—and then think through the next day’s writing. My inbox fills up, calls go unanswered, and people start to wonder if I’ve left town or something. Once the draft is finished, I go back through at a more leisurely pace doing rewrites and revisions. I read the whole thing out loud to myself over the course of a couple of days, making sure the voice sounds right. When I’m satisfied, I turn it in. Until that happens, nothing else enters the picture. The quality of the book is the one factor I have complete control over, and I make the most of that.

There’s not a set number of drafts I’ll go through before feeling finished. Back on Murder went through quite a few, and the second book did too, but I would have turned them in after the first round if I’d been able to do what I wanted in one go. In other words, it’s not a set process so much as it is a gut check. When I’m writing, I believe in the book. When I finish, I lose faith in it. I turn it in once I believe in it again. Does that make sense?

YOUNG: Yes it does. Thanks Mark. Do you ever have those blank-page days where nothing seems to come together? How do you get around these moments?

BERTRAND: Only at the beginning, when I’m first getting into the flow of the story. After that I’m usually good to go. I know where I want to be at the book’s midpoint and I have a general idea how I’m going to end it. Once that happens, I’m eager to find out how each piece is going to work, which keeps me moving. Writer’s block has as much to do with expectations as anything else. When you’re trying to write the Greatest Novel Ever, the words get stuck. If all you’re attempting is to write a particular story in an interesting way, the stakes are lowered and you can perform. Whether it’s great or not is out of your hands.

YOUNG: Can you give struggling novelists a nugget of truth you’ve learning about the writing game at this point in your career? Something you wished you’d learned back then when you were first starting?

BERTRAND: There’s a moment in the television series Band of Brothers (my wife’s favorite show, by the way) where Lt. Speirs explains the secret of doing your duty in wartime. The trick is to admit you’re dead already and get on with it. So long as you’re expecting to survive, fear will cripple you. In a similar vein, I offer this.

Decide up front that you’re going to fail as a writer and that you’re never going to make a dime at it. Then dedicate yourself to writing the kind of books that’ll make you proud. Maybe they’ll surprise you and do well. You’ll be all the more grateful for not having expected it.

And if they don’t, you can at least content yourself that you brought something good into the world, whether it was appreciated or not. Chasing the market will make you cynical and bitter.

This isn’t a truth I’ve learned so much as one I’m trying to.

June 14 and 28: Greg Snider, recently retired FBI agent, just returned from war-torn Iraq where he was embedded with military units for the past year and half. His job--to assist military commanders in their investigations into the manufacture and detonation of Improvised Explosive Devices (IODs). We will continue with the second of a three-part interview next Monday, as Greg shares his experiences about how he and others searched to identify and arrest terrorists responsible for these acts.

June 21: Debut novelist Richard L. Mabry, M.D. has launched his medical thriller, Code Blue, based upon his experiences as a physician and medical school professor. Richard is the author of one nonfiction book prior to his Code Blue novel. Follow Richard’s main character, Dr. Cathy Sewell, as she returns to her hometown to set up a new practice among an array of obstacles—old attractions, past rivalries, and even someone who might want her dead.  She must learn who can be trusted.

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