Monday, July 05, 2010
J. Mark Bertrand is the author of Back on Murder, the first in a series of crime novels featuring Houston homicide detective Roland March, about which detective/author Mark Mynheir says: “Bertrand has captured the surreal world of homicide detectives with a realism and power rarely seen in fiction.” He co-authored the bestselling romantic suspense novel Beguiled with Deeanne Gist, and is the author of the nonfiction title Rethinking Worldview. Mark has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston and lives with his wife Laurie in South Dakota.
Welcome, Mark. Tell us how much of yourself you write into your characters.
When Flaubert said he was Madame Bovary, he was speaking for me, too. Whatever else they draw on, my characters share my DNA. Even the walk-on parts, even the villains (perhaps especially the villains). In other words, I put a lot of myself into the characters. None of them are stand-ins or mouthpieces, though. They’re not me. At most, they’re what I could have been under different circumstances in different times.
Good answer. What is the quirkiest thing you have ever done?
I once traveled the London underground with an antique cavalry saber under my arm. Though wrapped in brown paper, there couldn’t have been much doubt what it was. No one said anything. They’re probably used to that sort of thing.
When did you first discover that you were a writer?
My fifth grade teacher assigned book reports due every Friday based on novels we chose from the Weekly Reader. I made all of mine up, inventing imaginary books and using the names of Weekly Reader authors so the teacher would assume they were legit. My reports were profusely illustrated, and while the teacher must have wondered at the sudden uptick of horrific violence in the Weekly Reader (one illustration featured a space man riddled with throwing stars, with dozens of other dead space men floating in the background) she gave me an A+ each time. I figured if I could make stuff up for a grade, I could probably do it for money, too.
Tell us the range of the kinds of books you enjoy reading.
When I’m immersed in a nonfiction phase, I mainly gravitate toward history and theology. In the past few years, I’ve developed an interest in historical true crime tales, the kind of book that uses a villain’s exploits to gain insight into the social order of the times, for example: The London Monster: A Sanguinary Tale, The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder; and The Unspeakable Crimes of Dr. Petiot, about famous crimes in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries respectively. As a novelist, I read all sorts of fiction as well. Thanks to my literary influences and the fact that I’m writing crime fiction, I’m especially drawn to mystery/suspense titles with an elevated writing style.
What other books have you written, whether published or not?
The first book I published was Rethinking Worldview: Learning to Think, Live, and Speak in This World (Crossway, 2007). David Naugle called the book “a rich gift to serious citizens of the kingdom of God.” Earlier this year, a romantic suspense novel I co-authored with Deeanne Gist was released: Beguiled (Bethany House, 2010). Back on Murder, the first of my crime novels featuring Houston homicide detective Roland March, came out in July 2010. The next book in the series is written and will be released in the summer of 2011.
How do you keep your sanity in our run, run, run world?
When I’m not carrying swords on the subway, inventing violent children’s books, or reading about slashers from the 1700s, I write a blog called BibleDesignBlog.com, dedicated to “the physical form of the Good Book.” I’m a design and typography buff, and the Bible is perhaps the most challenging design problem ever, so I’ve combined these interests into a rather unique niche covering the design and production of modern Bibles. It keeps me sane and drives a lot of obsessed readers in the opposite direction.
How do you choose your characters’ names?
What is the accomplishment that you are most proud of?
For me, pride isn’t link to accomplishment, which might explain why I’ve achieved so little over the years. I’m endowed with a sufficiently unrealistic view of myself that I don’t need accomplishments to buoy my pride. Indeed, nothing I’ve ever done has measured up to my inflated idea of myself. As a kid, I used to pretend I was a future scholar being interviewed about the significance of J. Mark Bertrand (it was vast). At my own suggestion, my school friends called me Mark the Great. Perhaps the accomplishment I should be proudest of is that no one has (yet) beaten me senseless with a stick.
If you were an animal, which one would you be, and why?
I’d be a monkey for sure. They’re cute and they can wear a fez without anybody mistaking them for Shriners.
What is your favorite food?
In light of my last answer, I should probably say bananas, but the real answer is fried chicken. Michael Pollan says fried chicken is for feasting and he’s right about that. The thing I miss most after leaving the South is the chicken. (The heat I can live without, unlike my hero Roland March.) Nobody above the Mason/Dixon line seems to get it.
What is the problem with writing that was your greatest roadblock, and how did you overcome it?
My greatest roadblock was talent. That sounds arrogant, especially in light of Question #8, but the fact is I was always pretty good at writing, which meant I didn’t have to work all that hard for a good first draft. When good enough comes easy, it’s so much harder to reach great. The thing that changed me as a writer was learning that no matter what the first draft looks like, the magic happens during revision. Raw talent can’t hold a candle to the power of rewriting.
That statement is so true. What advice would you give to an author just starting out?
Do a lot of reading and re-reading. Do a lot of writing and re-writing. Avoid workshops, seminars, and how-to books for the time being, and don’t get too caught up in the so-called rules. If you need instruction, enroll in a local creative writing course, but take everything you hear with a grain of salt. Give yourself time to develop. Don’t worry about what’s selling at the moment. Just focus on telling an interesting story in an interesting way. Once you’ve done that, you can worry about all the rest.
Tell us about the featured book?
Back on Murder introduces Houston homicide detective Roland March at the low point in his career. Thanks to some earlier misdemeanors, his superiors keep loaning him out on various special assignments—essentially punishment details. He wants to get back on murder, and his chance comes when he spots something at a crime scene that everyone else has missed. Now he must work a baffling investigation where the victim’s body is missing from the scene. And against a lot of internal pressure, he insists the case is linked to the high profile disappearance of the teenage daughter of a Houston evangelist (who himself went missing years before). Along the way, March makes some intuitive leaps and some terrible mistakes that put himself and the people close to him in jeopardy. Will he find the missing girl and put his career back on track? Read the book to find out.
I'm intrigued. Please give us the first page of the book.
Here goes …
I’m on the way out. They can all tell, which is why the crime scene technicians hardly acknowledge my presence, and my own colleagues do a double take whenever I speak. Like they’re surprised to find me still here.
But I am here, staring down into the waxy face of a man who, with a change of wardrobe, could pass for a martyred saint.
It’s all in the eyes. Rolling heavenward in agony, brows arched in acute pain. A pencil mustache clinging to the vaulted upper lip, blood seeping through the cracks between the teeth. The ink on his biceps. Blessed Virgins and barb-wired hearts and a haloed man with a cleft beard.
But instead of a volley of arrows or a vat of boiling oil, this one took a shotgun blast point blank just under the rib cage, flaying his wife-beater and the chest cavity beneath. He fell backward onto the bed, arms out, bleeding out onto the dingy sheets.
Lorenz stands next to me, holding the victim’s wallet. He slips the license out and whistles. “Our boy here is Octavio Morales.”
He’s speaking to the room, not me personally, but I answer anyway. “The money guy?”
“La Tercera Crips,” he says, shuffling away.
That’s the first page. Hooked yet?
How can readers find you on the Internet?
For more information about Back on Murder and the Roland March series, the best place to visit is BackOnMurder.com. If you want to know more about my other books and side projects like Bible Design Blog, the details are at JMarkBertrand.com. Thanks for having me!
And thank you, Mark, for this peek into your life.
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Posted by Lena Nelson Dooley at 2:03 AM