Saturday, November 14, 2009

INTERVIEW: Boston Globe Journalist and Shamus-nominated Mystery Writer: Mark Arsenault

Welcome to “Up Close and Personal.” For every interview I will be introducing a literary personality discussing his views and insights, as well as upcoming literary events around the world.

Today’s interview is with Mark Arsenault, a mystery writer and former Providence Journal reporter. As a reporter, he covered the 2003 Rhode Island night club fire that killed 100 people. He writes frequently for the Boston Globe and is a member of the Mystery Writer of America

His novel, SPEAK ILL OF THE LIVING, which was published in 2005 by Poisoned Pen Press was inspired by two years of jailhouse interviews he did inside “Supermax,” Rhode Island’s most secure state prison.

To read Mr. Arsenault’s newspaper series from his prison interviews click the link here: PRISON INTERVIEW

His new novel Loot the Moon is the second book in the Bill Povich series that began with Gravewriter. His previous novel, Spiked, was nominated for the Shamus Award for Best First Mystery.

E.I. Would you share some early insight into who you were as a teenager? What were you like? Please tell us more about Mark Arsenault-- the man behind the journalist and bestselling mystery writer?

M. A. As a teenager, I was a skinny cross-country runner who didn’t read very much, rarely studied my school work, watched too much television, played too much Dungeons & Dragons, and worked a boring summer job as a cargo van driver. There’s not much in my history to suggest I would become a writer. What I did have was imagination. I was an excellent daydreamer. I thought of becoming an astronomer, then maybe an architect. In college, I majored in philosophy, which expands the mind but doesn’t help much getting your first real job. I became a newspaper reporter by default—it was the only job I could get. But maybe because that’s what I was supposed to be.

E.I. What is it about the art form of writing that enchants you the most?

M.A. The telepathy—I can transfer my thoughts to the reader’s head using only paper and ink. It’s like sorcery. Writing is also a cumulative exercise that’s very satisfying, like splitting logs with an ax. At the end of a long hard day, you have something honest and tangible to show for the effort. A nice 1,000-word scene makes me happy, like a half cord of freshly split sugar maple, all shiny white.

E.I. How do you imagine audience as you are writing? Do you try to do character development, chapter outlines, various novel-related brainstorming? Do you have sheets of newsprint covered in a story boards all over your walls?

M.A. I don’t imagine the audience directly when I’m writing because I’m too busy trying to keep the story on pace, though I’m aware of the audience. Make sense? No? I think it’s like working as a circus juggler, who must concentrate on the objects in the air. I’m a terrible outliner, probably because I can’t come up with big ideas. I can only create small ideas, which I pile on each other. I build a novel by evolution, not intelligent design. What little outlining I do is limited to a list of 5 or 10 things that will happen in the next scene. Most of my brainstorming is done at the keyboard, and it all gets typed into the manuscript. If an idea stays on the screen for more than 10 minutes it has a good chance of making it into the book. (Wow, I re-read what I just typed about my writing process and I sound like the least organized writer on the planet. It’s a miracle I ever finish anything, except for the fact that I never give up.)

E.I. What was your biggest challenge in developing the character, Bill Povich and Martin Smothers in your book “Loot The Moon”? Did you work them out in advance, or did they evolve as you wrote the story? How did you overcome these challenges?

M.A. Billy and Martin were born in the first book of the series, “Gravewriter.” [St. Martin’s Press, 2006]. Billy came first, loosely named for my Polish grandfather. I wanted a character who worked on the outskirts of journalism, so I made him an obituary writer. I wanted him wounded, so I killed the woman he loved. The relationship between Billy and Martin evolved organically as I wrote the novels. After two books, their partnership reminds me of my relationships with my brothers. We are allies to the death, with wide leeway to tease and mock each other without ever causing offense.

E.I. How much of their life is planned out in your head? How do you know where you will go next with any of your characters?

M.A. Very little of Billy’s life is planned out ahead. I know he’ll never die, but anything else is possible if the story demands it. My books contain a lot of humor, but they are noir stories and it’s the way Billy fights off tragedy and pain that gives him his personality. So he will suffer, but he’ll always persevere. I never know where any of the characters are going before I write the first scene and begin to make the decisions about the characters. I don’t want to say that characters “run away with the story,” because they don’t. It’s still me at the keyboard who has to type it. But I’m very promiscuous with ideas—I’ll go round and round with every single idea I get, looking for one that’s a keeper.

E.I. If you were asked to read a page from “Loot The Moon” is there one that you would personally select to share with your fans?

M.A. One page that means a lot to me—which might not make much sense out of context—comes early in the book: the last page of Chapter 7. Billy’s father (the Old Man) talks Billy into writing the Old Man’s obituary, complete with all his faults. He tells Billy, “When I go I want to be carried out on the truth. The lies, the affairs, everything—put it all in there. Okay?” Billy agrees. The old man seems to get older before his eyes, “Not exactly like he was aging; more like he was beginning to decompose.”

It’s a very tough scene, but revealing of the relationship between father and son. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the book.

E.I. How do you weave so much information into your stories and yet you keep them so fast-paced?

M.A. I hate backstory. I hate when writers introduce a character and then force me to read two pages about that person. Large passages of history take the reader out of the narrative. I call it time travel, because the reader is forced back in time to read about what has already happened. What’s important is what’s happening now. I try to avoid breaking time to explain history. If I must, I’ll do it as a separate backflash scene so I can write it “live” and make it feel immediate. When I have critical information to deliver to the reader, I try to break it up and sneak it in here and there; much better to do that than serve up two pages of historical spinach for the reader to choke down all at once.

E.I. Many writers describe themselves as "character" or "plot" writers. Which are you? And what do you find to be the hardest part of writing?

M.A. I’m a character writer. This may be a side effect of rarely working the plot out ahead of time. Character comes first. The characters must feel like real people or I won’t be able to wind them up into a mystery. Mysteries are about resolution: the main character resolves the mystery and at the same time resolves something about himself or herself. The hardest part is developing a story arc that brings all the threads together at the end.

E.I. Mr. Arsenault, you are well known in the writing community as a journalist who covered the 2003 Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed 100 people. You are also known for the jailhouse interview you did inside Supermax Rhode Island state prison. Your writing has been published in notable publications such as: Boston Globe, Providence Journal... and now an author? Do you ever feel pressure or insecure, or are you able to separate all that from your own creative process?

M.A. Every writer feels the pressure of deadline, which is normally a good thing. Deadline sharpens my mind and squeezes out distractions so I can write. If I have six hours to write a news story, it will take six hours. If I have 30 minutes, then that’s how long it will take. In producing both fiction and non-fiction, every writer is also mindful of the gap between the scene we’d like to write and what actually ends up on the page. Sometimes the gap is huge and that’s disappointing. But I don’t feel insecure, because I know that writers have been battling creative pressures since we first painted our stories on the walls of our caves.

E.I. What would you tell those authors considering applying to an M.F.A. program? In your opinion how important is it for a writer to have a writing degree?

M.A. Not important. I don’t have a writing degree. I’ve been a journalist for 20 years, too, and I’ve never taken a journalism class in my life.
Now that I’ve said it, let me qualify it.

Good coaching early in your writing career can flatten the learning curve. I think about all the mistakes I’ve made, and how much time I could have saved with good instruction and editing.

E.I. Mr. Arsenault, Thank you for contributing to my blog. It has been a pleasure for me to get to know your work a little better. Would you like to end your interview with a writing tip or advice for young aspiring writers?

M.A. Don’t quit. The publishing industry is set up to dispense huge doses of disappointment to aspiring writers. Those who don’t quit are eventually published.

Photo of Mr. Mark Arsenault by John Freidah

To learn more about Mark Arsenault please visit his website at markarsenault.net

To purchase his books please visit www.amazon.com

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