Monday, December 22, 2008
Meet Mark La Flamme
Mark LaFlamme is a crime reporter and columnist at the Sun Journal in Lewiston, Maine. In his weekly column Street Talk he often vents his frustration with and disdain for editors, comparing them to bats, spiders, extraterrestrial slugs, and other beings too diabolical to describe. The column has been named both Best in Maine and Best in New England. Mark is also the author of several novels, all of them just fantastic. The latest is Dirt: An American Campaign
A grieving man disappears with the body of his dead bride and a mad race is on to find him before he can destroy his father's campaign for the White House. An exploration of the dark side of politics, "Dirt: An American Campaign" delivers a plot teetering on the cliff-edge of madness as one candidate tries to bury his own scandals while exposing the dirt of others.
1. Why did you become a writer? Was it a dream of yours since you were younger or did the desire to write happen later in your life?
It doesn't seem like I was given a choice in the matter. When I was a kid, I used to write weird, gloomy stories about ghosts in the woods around my house or rocking chairs that rocked all by themselves. I don't remember not being a writer. I wrote long before I realized that a person could do this as a career.
In 1994, I became a newspaper reporter and columnist and started making money for my efforts. But I still wrote short stories and eventually novels. Some people gamble, others build birdhouses.
I think if you're a writer, it will never occur to you to ask yourself whether you are or are not.
2. What do you love about being an author? Is there anything you dislike?
No matter what's going on in my life, I know that when I get home, I'll be flying off into that make believe world and doing anything I want to do. I like that quite a lot. An alcoholic will remind himself, during a particularly rough stretch, that if he can just tough it out for a while longer, he can get home and get that fizzy fix. It is the same for a writer. At the end of the day is the sweet relief (and occasional indigestion) of words.
There is nothing I dislike about being an author. There is the grind of query letters and long nights with The Writer's Market, but the act of authoring itself is apart from that.
3. How do you balance your personal and writing time?
I work in the newsroom until late in the evenings, covering live crime or other forms of chaos. Sometimes, that chaos brings me back out in the wee hours of morning. But no matter what, I'm coming home at some point to pound out a minimum of 2,000 words of fiction because to not do so makes me itchy.
If you're a writer, you tend to crave it. You will delay heading to that bash downtown until you get the night's writing out. Or you will lock yourself in your room when the bash is over and sensible people have gone to sleep. If you're a writer, you have an inate need to write and will find the time for it without much of a fight.
4. How do you write? Do your characters come to you first or the plot or the world of the story?
Typically, I have one little dot of an idea that might make an interesting novel, just one simple scene or scenario. When I pursue that thought further, a character naturally develops to fit into the role. I begin to explore him, wondering about his background, his motivations, his strengths and weaknesses. I'll give him a history and hopefully, a name. With this personality born, the original story idea begins to broaden. I see strange things happening, other people being introduced. At that point, I'll start jotting down some notes or throw caution to the wind and just start writing.
5. What genre(s) do you write? Why do you write the stories that you write?
I write a lot of horror and a lot of thrillers. I make conscious efforts to steer away from these genres and find myself back there, anyway. I'll be five thousand words into what is meant to be a simple drama and suddenly, a dead girl is creeping from a closet or a plant is attacking a man as he drinks a martini.
A girlfriend once challenged me to write a love story and I took on that challenge with confidence. I started out alright, but within two or three pages, four people were dead and many others were on their way there.
I don't know why my writing tends toward the grim. Writing is often a supreme exercise in self-psychoanalysis and for now, I find it best to ignore what that might imply.
6. What is the biggest misconception about being an author?
I hear this all the time: "I hear you have a few books out there. Man, it must be nice to have money."
You want to give these people noogies until they fall down. With my first couple of books, I spent more money than I made. Easily. Advertising, buying your own copies to flog to the brick and mortar stores, promotional efforts that don't work, more advertising...
Smart writers will tell you that writing a book is the easy part. Promoting and selling is like a real job. Absolutely true. Ultimately, you want to discover the winning formula or get that big break (I'm still waiting for your call, Oprah) and that job becomes easier. When that dude makes the comment about all the big money that comes with book writing, you won't be there to hear it because you'll be in Biminy.
7. Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?
I might pilfer a particular quirk or characteristic from a real person, but generally, characters in my book are complete works of fiction. The exception, sometimes, is their names. In desperation, trying to name a character on the fly, I am sometimes forced to recall an old school teacher or boyhood friend to come up with a fast moniker. I love you, Miss Mayberry.
8. Out of all the characters that you've written, who is your favorite and why?
Presently, it's a tie between the drunken author Billy Baylor, and the wisecracking mercenary Thomas Cashman, both from "Dirt: An American Campaign." Individually, they are marvelous characters, each very dynamic. Together, they become some SUPER character, somehow elevating one another to new levels of richness. Plus they bicker a lot, like a married couple, and that is just entertaining as hell.
I was also very fond of Jonathan Cain from "The Pink Room." I identified with his personality quite a lot, though he was much, much braver than I about things like haunted closets.
9. If you were writing a script for the big screen, who would you want to act in your movie?
When a producer from Paramount approached me about the rights to "The Pink Room," a group of my bloggers actually created an entire cast for the potential movie. A slightly known actor named Peter Hermann (husband of actress Mariska Hargitay) won the lead role of Jonathan Cain. Angie Harmon (from Law & Order) was cast as his deceased wife.
For "Dirt," the only role we've nailed down is that of Thomas Cashman, the mercenary. That one was given to Patrick Warburton, most known as Elaine's boyfriend on "Seinfeld" as well as the voice of Joe in "The Family Guy."
10. What would you want readers to take away from your books?
I want the readers to remember and carry with them whatever it is about the book that strikes them. I've heard from hundreds of people who have read "Dirt" and they do not all report the same thing. Some rave about the story itself, all the gorgeous twists and turns. Others have fallen in love with the characters. A few insist that the story has changed the way they view politics in general. Almost everybody who has read the novel have been struck by something and they continue thinking about it long after the last page has been read. That's good enough for me.
11. Do you have any advice for beginning writers in regards to writing a book?
Just sit yourself down and get going. Make a few notes if you want to and give your initial characters some names. I know so many people with great ideas they want to write out but they never do. They get stalled because they fear that first chapter won't be great. Or they can't get going because they don't know how their story is supposed to end. Pure procrastination. Start writing and let the weird, writer's voodoo take over.
In "The Pink Room," I was two-thirds finished before the ending came to me like a poke to the eye. I don't know where it came from exactly, but I loved it and I began writing 4,000 words a day after that just to get to that beautiful conclusion.
In "Dirt," I was probably halfway through when I had an "Aha!" moment that led me to the ending. A powerful relief it was, too, because before that point, I was wary of how I would wrap things up.
I think writers who become overwhelmed in the thick of their stories should put a little faith in the writing mind's ability to sort things out. The next great twist or mind-blowing idea for an ending might come in a firecracker flash while you're sitting at the keyboard, or it might come when you're not working on it at all. A good bulk of unexpected inspirations have come to me while shaving, showering, driving or – in one inconvenient incident – trying to enjoy an intimate moment.
Doctors tell insomniacs all the time that no matter how long they stay awake, the body will eventually insist on going to sleep. I think my rambling point here is, if you start writing, things will work themselves out naturally.
12. Who are your favorite authors?
Edgar Allan Poe is my man, of course. I started reading him when I was too young to really understand the intricacies of his stories but the music of his work always played nice in my ear. I head down to Baltimore every other Halloween to ghoul around his grave.
I'm a huge fan of the recently deceased Ira Levin. Read "Rosemary's Baby" or "The Stepford Wives" and I challenge you to find one wasted word. He was a master of conciseness and I try to emulate that style in my own work.
Robert Bloch and Richard Matheson are other influences. From Jack Ketchum I learned to never take the easy way out and I consider John Sanford, of the Prey series, to be the master of dialogue.
Of course when it comes to sheer story telling brilliance, Stephen King can't be beat. I grew up on his work and blame him for both warping my mind and teaching me the fundementals of the craft. His book "On Writing" is very good for aspiring authors.
13. What are you reading right now?
I'm taking a break from novels and reading real accounts about the Donner Party, the unfortunate group who became stranded at the Sierra Nevadas during the westward expansion and were forced to eat each other. There are a lot of books on the subject and they won't cost you an arm and a leg. You can really sink your teeth into this stuff.
I could go on and on.
14. Do you have a belief in certain spiritual things? (For instance, souls, nirvana, God, invisible pink unicorns, flying spaghetti monsters, or heaven.)
On all of that, I consider myself supremely openminded. I have no firm beliefs, but I'm also not arrogant enough to dismiss anything outright. In recent years, I've become enamored of things like string theory, m-theory, parallel dimensions and the associated weird concepts. I think everything we've believed in for millions of years is rooted in science. We just haven't made all the big discoveries yet.
15. Which of the following motivates you more to accomplish something?
I consider my motivation blind faith. I have a nagging feeling that's always with me and it tells me that things will work out – that they are meant to work out and I just need to put in the work. It's not fatalism, exactly, or any sort of religious notion. Just a hunch, I guess, and I believe in hunches.
16. Which of the following best describes you? And give us an example of how emotions or logic show up in your work.
Seems like I might be missing something here. The "of the following" part does not appear to be listed.
17. Tell me about a decision in your book that you made which was a bad one for your character. Did you keep the scene in the book or did you delete it?
In the original first half of "Dirt: An American Campaign," it occurred to me that Calvin Cotton, who made off with the body of his dead wife, was appearing far too much in the story line. I began to believe that he was better off on the periphery, imagined but not directly seen by the reader. How is the poor yutz going out to eat, checking into motels, stopping to take a leak, when he has a cadaver riding along with him? I wanted the reader to ponder those ideas on their own. So I hacked out some of those scenes and only alluded to them. The impact is obvious. It makes for a more titillating read and only adds to the squirming uneasiness of the plot.
18. What strengths and weaknesses do you bring to writing?
My strengths are my characters. To the reader, they are real people. This is not my own assessment, it is something repeated over and over as I talk about my books with those who have enjoyed them. I also write with tautness and avoid veering off into dreamy digression. I want the reader to get hooked and stay hooked.
My weakness is impatience. If I have a great idea for a new twist or development, I can't wait to get there. I might hurry through a scene with childlike ancitipation and the result is sloppiness. I have to scold myself and then go back to clean it all up.
19. Describe a time when you had to sacrifice quality for a deadline, or visa versa. Would you try to extend a deadline to stay true to the quality of writing you aspire to?
Sacrificing quality for a deadline is something that happens in journalism quite often. Many of the stories I get break just minutes before the paper is due to go to press. I have to crank out a piece on a downtown shooting in ten minutes or less, so there is no room for flowery writing. You rely on the inverted pyramid style, reporting the most important elements at the top. The beauty of this is that deadline writing in journalism utterly prepares you for writing outside of the newsroom. You write more concisely and waste few words. You have greater discipline because you know that to not finish on time is to invite chaos. I have never blown a deadline in 15 years of reporting and don't plan to in the writing of novels. Agents and publishers take note.
20. Tell me about a project you have been working on and how you organize the your paperwork, chapters, writing goals, etc.
These days, when I have an idea for a story, I start poking around various websites to research the areas on which I need educating. Right now, I have an idea for a book about what happens in the mind during the final seconds of life. I've pulled up some good websites on the workings of the human brain and created a folder into which to bookmark them. I've also taken notes on some of the characters I have in mind and created folders for them, too. The idea is to have the basic research either done or materials at the ready. When you get hot and start writing like a fiend, you don't want to have to pause to run for an encyclopedia. You will have to make such pauses here and there, but the fewer the better. Interruptions to the writing spree are enemies to an author.
21. Describe for me two improvements you have made in your writing in the past six months. Greater word count. More emotions. Better able to describe a character. Etc. What have you improved?
I think every new day of writing comes with improvements. You look over last night's work and find something sloppy. You think: "Man, that's horrible. I won't make that mistake again."
Since writing "Dirt," I've reminded myself that the first draft is for writing. You can go back and weave in all that clever symbolism and foreshadowing the second time around. I don't get as hung up on these things when I'm on a roll.
22. What aspect of your past books did you enjoy the most?
It's always the "Wow!" moments, when a knot in your plot suddenly becomes loosened. One moment you don't know where your story is going and then, bam! Out of nowhere, a gift of inspiraton from the literary gods. It happens several times with every new book. I love those moments. They lift you out of periods of pessimism (of which there will always be many) and back up into the grand idea that, hey! This story is going to work after all.
23. Now that we know you better, how can we buy your book "Dirt: An American Campaign?"
The book can be ordered through Amazon, Barnes & Noble or any of the other major booksellers or directly from Splinter Press. Links to all of that can be found at my website, found at www.marklaflamme.com. There is a ton of information about my work as a journalist and novelist in there as well as a lot of less serious stuff, like my blog "The Screaming Room." Readers should feel to contact me through the website if they have thoughts or questions. I get lonely, you know.