Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Marcus Sakey's Writing Life

Sandra Parshall
Marcus Sakey was born 33 years ago in Flint, Michigan, and was raised by parents who are, he is pleased to note, still together after all these years. He now lives in Chicago with his wife. A decade in advertising gave Marcus “the perfect experience to write about thieves and killers.” His first crime novel, The Blade Itself, was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2006 to rave reviews and predictions of genre stardom for the author. His recent decision to move to Dutton after St. Martin’s publishes his second novel has been the subject of lively debate on internet mystery blogs.

The internet has been abuzz with talk about your decision to leave St. Martins for a four-book deal with Dutton. How weird is it to have your personal career decisions discussed on blog sites? Do you read any of that stuff or try to ignore it?

It’s truly surreal. Flattering in a way, but mostly odd, as that kind of attention was never a goal of mine. And I do read it, and it impacts my mood. You try not to allow that, but it’s hard.

The thing that I love, the touching part, is that for every armchair general who thinks they know what’s best for my career, the community also offers up a friend who’s just happy for me. The relationships are my favorite part of this gig.

You're following your editor, Ben Sevier, from St. Martin’s to Dutton. Do you feel that maintaining your relationship with a single editor is vital at this stage of your career? Can you tell us what you've gained from his guidance? Has he helped you become a better writer?

Well, it was a very personal decision, and a tough one. My fingernails don’t get shorter than they were during the weeks of negotiation. And I’d rather not get into the details of that situation, other than to say that both houses are absolutely first-rate, and I was flattered they were interested.

I’ve been very lucky in my relationships with editors. Basically, an editor has two jobs: first, they push you to write a better book, and second, they guide and guard that book through to publication. Both Ben Sevier and my current editor at SMP, Marc Resnick, excel at their job, and they’re terrific guys to boot.

Ben was the editor who originally signed me, and I had more time working with him, and both factors played into my decision. One of the things I really admire about him was his response to my second manuscript. He said he loved it, but that it could be better. Then he gave me fourteen single-spaced pages on how. At the time, I nearly went out the window, but it made for a vastly improved book.

The Blade Itself was hyped as few first novels are (and lived up to the hype, I might add). All the attention must have been wonderful -- a beginner’s dream -- but did it ever make you a little nervous? Were you secretly afraid you'd be one of those writers who are expected to become stars but turn out to be duds instead?

Well, first off, thanks for the kind words. Honestly, I’m still adjusting to the fact that it’s out there, that people I don’t know have read it.

As for being nervous, yeah, absolutely. That pressure mostly manifested in writing the second book. If you’ve got any balls, you’re doing something different with your second than you did with your first, which is scary enough. To make it worse, you only have the one book, the one metric. So every time someone said something nice about Blade, every time I got a blurb, every time I heard a media plan, I would look at the book I was writing and see only the differences. Worse, I had to fight not to see those differences as failures. It was a struggle.

Now that it’s done, I’m really pleased with it. I think I’ve grown as a writer, and it’s definitely a bigger book in almost every way.

A friend told me she cried while reading the ending of The Blade Itself. Were you consciously going for a strong emotional reaction from readers when you wrote it, or were you expressing your own emotions?
Tell your friend I love her.

Yeah, certainly I was. Truth be told, I’m trying for a strong emotional reaction in every scene. The way I see it, your book is 350 pages, and every one of them, every single one, needs to be compelling. They all need to evoke emotion, whether that’s fear or laughter or tears. Some hit harder than others, obviously, but it remains a good guideline.

You’re part of the original Killer Year gang. How has that benefited you?

Killer Year has been great. It’s nice to have a cheerleading squad and a community to ask for help. And one of the most exciting accomplishments was selling an anthology that was edited by Lee Child. The book is called Killer Year: A Criminal Anthology and is coming out next spring from St. Martin’s. Keep your eyes open for it—I’ve read a couple of the stories, and they’re dynamite.

What draws you to thrillers rather than straight mysteries? What can you do in the thriller form that you might not be able to do in a whodunnit?

In a word, intensity. I’m not that interested in the classic mystery form, you know, a body is found, figure out who/how/why. That’s not to say that it can’t be done with grace and passion and flair, and I’ve certainly read mysteries that blew my hair back.

But by and large, I like the crime and thriller arenas more. Since they aren’t bound to a structure like that, a puzzle, you have more room to play. They also tend to be about putting characters into a crucible and continually turning up the heat to see how they will act, which I think connects with readers on a fundamental level. One of the reasons we read is to imagine how we might act if faced with impossible choices.

You've said that you want to write standalones because you want to portray your characters during the most important time of their lives and you can't do that again and again with the same protagonist. Yet a number of thriller writers have chosen to do series -- John Sandford and Lee Child, for example. Any chance you'll change your mind and start a series?

Well, the key phrase in that sentence is “I can’t do it.” There are many writers who can, and who do wonderful work with it. For me, though, after spending a year with these characters, the last thing I want to do is launch back into another story.

That said, I could see myself writing a series in the Harlan Coben/Laura Lippman model: one series book, a standalone or two, another in the series. I’m toying with a character that I think might have that kind of legs right now. So we’ll see.

How long were you writing before you published? Did you write fiction as a child? If so, what kind of stories were you dreaming up as a kid?

I’ve been writing all my life. I wrote abominable fiction as a child, wretched fiction in high school, and lousy fiction in college. Then I spent ten years writing for advertising and marketing, which believe me, is fiction. So when I made the jump, even though Blade was my first novel, I’d been training for a long time.

As a kid I mostly read science fiction and fantasy, so my stories were in that genre. Once I hit college, I started trying to write things I could sell to the New Yorker, which worked about as well as you’d imagine.

Do you still have a day job, or have you been able to leave that behind?

I’m incredibly lucky, in that this is my day job. I was actually able to do this semi-full-time from the beginning, because I worked freelance in advertising. So I would go in for two weeks, work on a campaign for jeans, make a healthy day rate, then go home and spend a month working on the novel. Advertising is a great gig, in that it’s one of a handful of places where simply writing, creating, can be quite lucrative.

Has publication changed your life in unexpected ways?

Yes and no. It’s thrilling to see my books out there, to do press tours and the like. But I live in the same place, drive the same shitbox car, sit at the same computer. It’s not like Hollywood stardom, where all of a sudden you’re whirled into the jet set.

Do you still have the same friends you had before (along with a lot of new ones)?

I have all my old friends, the real ones. It was interesting to see how many acquaintances got a sour expression on their face when I landed my first deal, but the friends, they were all supportive. And I have a ton of new ones, not because I sold a book, but because I’ve been going to conferences for years now, and have been fortunate to hang out with some of the most amazing people on earth. I really love the community.

What’s the best thing about being a published writer? What’s the worst?

The best part is that I know I get to do this thing that I love, this favorite job, for at least a couple more years. That’s a wonderful feeling. The worst is probably the nagging worry about things you can’t control. You write the finest book you can, you bust your ass to promote it, but ultimately, there’s only so much impact you can have on whether or not people buy it.

What aspects of your writing have you worked hardest to improve? Do you feel you’re becoming a better writer with each book?

I’m constantly working on my craft. To me, that’s part of the point. If you aren’t worrying about how to make each book better than the last, then go get a day job, have health insurance and regular hours.

For me, the most challenging part is plotting. I don’t try to work out every wrinkle and twist, but I need to have a sense of where the story is going, and I need to have surprises that also make sense. I hate it when writers cheat, so I work hard not to do that, which makes life harder. But I think it also pays off; I mean, look at Lee Child. There’s a guy who never cheats, whose books are relentlessly intelligent, and I think that’s one of the things his audience responds to, whether or not they know it.

When is your next book due out? Can you tell us the title and a little about the story?

My next book, entitled At the City’s Edge, will be out in early 2008. It’s the story of a discharged soldier who returns from Iraq only to find a similar war raging in his Chicago neighborhood. It’s got politics and corruption and gang violence and a love story and Roman history and a car chase, lots of fun stuff. I think people who liked The Blade Itself will like this one even better. Oh, and if you’d like a taste, I’ve got the first chapter posted on my website, at


Carol said...

Terrific interview, Sandy. You always ask insightful questions. I loved TBI -- Sakey put the capital "T" in a breakneck thriller while still peopling it with rich characters. There's no way this one won't make my best of 2007 list.

And no way that Poe's Deadly Daughters won't remain one of my favorite blogs.

Lonnie Cruse said...

I enjoyed listening to Marcus talk at Love Is Murder. Hope to see you there again!

Julia Buckley said...

Marcus, these are really interesting responses--thanks for sharing.

I have The Blade Itself, as you know, but my mom took it, so now I have to wait until she gives it back. :)