Sunday, July 09, 2006

INTERVIEW: The Ubiquitous and Talented Jeffrey Marks

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Jeffrey Marks is everywhere! How does one man accomplish so many things? Let's find out.

Jeff, you are the creator and moderator of MMA (Murder Must Advertise). Is this a time-consuming job? Do you find it rewarding?
Well, technically, I’m not the creator, though I am the long-time moderator. I took over MMA in 2002 from Kate Derie, who was the creator of the group. We thought it was a good fit, since I’d written Intent to Sell the year before.

It’s not that time-consuming. I probably spend 15 minutes a day on it. I find it well worth the time and effort, because I see many of the writers from MMA now moving on to higher levels in their careers. It’s great to know you shared a small part of their success.

You have been nominated for an Edgar, an Agatha, a Maxwell, and an Anthony. How does that feel, so we can live vicariously through you? Do you just smile all the time?
Most times it feels very unreal. It’s hard to believe that my books were nominated for awards that were won by Lawrence Block, Tony Hillerman and other names who I’ve read and admired for years. Last year, I won an Ohioana Library award and was asked to speak to the governor’s wife and other politicians about the importance of books and literacy. That was a nerve-wracking experience for me. I’m much happier at home in front of the computer.

For the most part, it doesn’t affect my day to day schedule. I still have to get up and put words on the white computer screen. But on the days that I struggle, it’s nice to look behind me and see the awards on the wall. It helps to remind me that I can finish a book, even when I’m sure I can’t!

I do smile a lot thinking about them, except when I have to dust them all in my office.

You don't have to dust them. One of your earliest interests was Ulysses S. Grant, who shares your birthplace, and about whom you wrote in your first mystery, The Ambush of My Name. Has Ulysses gotten the credit he deserves in the history books?
Not really. I have to say Grant reminds me of Pete Rose and some other celebrities in some ways. It’s another case of a man who had incredible victories which I think are overshadowed by the later scandals. Grant’s presidential administration had innumerable scandals and those tarnished Grant’s reputation as the Civil War general. In the time period I write about though, he was unquestionably the most popular man in America.

Grant was also very progressive in some of his views. For being a military man, he was a firm believer in negotiating with the Indians in the West, rather than just massacring them, which had been the policy for decades.

You cite Agatha Christie as the writer who turned you toward the mystery genre. This makes sense. Do you have a favorite Agatha Christie novel?
I have a few favorites. I prefer the books without the major plot surprises. I like the smaller more quiet books. One of my all-time favorites is A Murder is Announced. I just did an essay on how that book impacted my own writing. I think it’s a wonderful book that deals with murder in a small town, but really tackles some interesting social concepts in that context.

I like the early Tommy and Tuppence books as well. Partners in Crime is a great book with all the allusions to the great detectives. And some of her other short story collections around that time, The Mysterious Mr. Quin, Parker Pyne Investigates, and The Tuesday Club Murders. I’ve always liked short stories, and Christie has some wonderful collections.

Your dog’s name is Ellery. I think we can all guess why. This Scottish terrier is a close companion, and has even appeared on television with you. As I asked Bill Cameron, do you think writers also tend to be pet lovers? Many of them pose with their pets. Also, how does Ellery feel about your busy schedule?
I do think that writers are pet lovers. In many ways, writing is a very lonely profession. You’re alone at the computer desk all day writing, lost in your own thoughts. It’s nice to have the companionship of a dog who will listen to you when you need to talk about a plot point.

For all the busy-ness, I’m still at my desk a lot, writing and revising. So he gets to see more quite a bit.

You wrote a biography of Craig Rice. What drew you to this mystery writer, and how does one go about writing a biography? Did you need to get special permissions?
Well, I’d done probably three dozen author interviews for magazines before I decided to write a biography. One of the things I noticed in doing the shorter magazine pieces is that authors tend to write about things that are important to them, whether they know it or not. Themes run through books and usually they are things that show up in the writer’s own life.

However, it was really hard to explore that in any depth in 2000 words, so I decided to write a longer work. I started looking around, and I love the works of the 1940s and 1950s. So I found a number of authors who interested me. One of them was Craig Rice. I was intrigued because no one had written more than a paragraph about her personally since her death and every short biography I found was different in every aspect (name, place of birth, number of husbands, etc.) So that made me want to learn more. That started the biography process, the idea of getting to the bottom of these mysteries of how a person could live in the 20th century and yet be so unknown.

I usually start with contacting the family of the author. My purpose is not to write a “tell-all” book about the author. I’m not Kitty Kelly. So having the cooperation of the family is important to me. From there, I start looking at the papers for the author, which can be found at popular culture libraries around the country. That gives me a lot of source material to start with and finally I start putting the ideas together to make up the story of the person’s life.

You are an 8th Grade math teacher. You are the MMA moderator. You are a consulting editor to Mystery Scene Magazine. You attend conferences and give lectures. How exactly do you fit it all in? Do you ever have stress attacks?
It’s difficult at times. I had a very difficult time for the past nine months as family things have taken a prominent place in my life. My dad and sister were in the hospital at the same time. I’ve had one family member pass away and another is in the final stages of cancer. But on the other hand, I became a grandfather.

All of this has thrown my schedule WAY off. I took a six month hiatus from writing. I did find myself getting overly stressed from all the commitments. But things are getting back to normal (somewhat) and I’ve started devoting more time to all of my commitments. Mostly it’s a matter of cutting down on my TV time and working a couple of hours on the weekend to make it all happen. It’s not terrible, but it’s busy. I’m not sure what I’d do with a week of free time.

You’ve written a book called Intent to Sell: Marketing the Genre Novel. Since mystery writers might be reading this, what are a couple ways they can market their novels? Why might they want to buy your book? Why might you want to buy theirs?
Well, one of the hot ways today to promote is to join a group blog. I write one day a week on The Little Blog of Murder which is a blog of five Ohio mystery authors. It has spilled over into several of us touring and doing promotional events together, which is another thing that I see becoming very popular. Group events bring in more people and there’s some cross-pollination of audiences.

The book was written because I’d done two rather extensive tours for my other books, and the publisher had been looking for someone to write about how to promote genre fiction. Most of the books out there talk about promoting non-fiction, which having written biographies, is much much easier than fiction. So the book was the first to look at the problems in promoting genre fiction.

You’d be surprised how many new authors I’ve met and helped over the years. I’ve not only read great books, but I’ve made some wonderful friends from my work with new authors.

You wrote a book called Atomic Renaissance about women mystery writers of the 1940’s and 1950’s. What a terrific idea. What drew you to these special writers? Is it a popular book? Who are some of the women featured in it?
Most of these writers are people who worked with or knew Craig Rice. When I was researching the Rice biography, I got to know many of these women. How wonderful is that? Sadly, many of them passed away while I was completing the book, and I kept hoping that someone would write about these women and their works. They’ve been painfully overlooked by many of today’s readers, who would really like these women. People like Margaret Millar and Phoebe Atwood Taylor, who I think is the funniest mystery author of all times.

The book continues to sell well, so I’m happy with the results.

You are also an editor. How would you compare editing fiction with writing it? Is one a more grueling task than the other?
I’ve edited numerous short stories and a few novels as well. Well, to me editing someone else’s work is like editing my own. It’s a matter of it being a rough work that needs some assistance. I always find editing to be more grueling than the actual act of creation. I know others who love it, but for me, it’s more work. Perhaps that comes from the research and fact-checking that goes into the revision process. Not to mention those pesky footnotes.

You’ve interviewed and met many mystery writers, famous and otherwise. Is there any one feature that all mystery writers seem to have in common?
There are a few things that most mystery writers have in common. They are by and large some of the nicest people around. Many of my friends (like Heather Webber and Sharon Short) I’ve met through writing. From writing the biographies and recognizing it in myself, I think that many authors are insecure as well. No matter how many bestsellers or awards, they’re still not sure that it’s good enough. It’s a good thing in that it makes you strive to write the very best book you can, but it does seem to be fairly common in writers as well.

What is your latest writing project?

My latest project is a full-length biography of Anthony Boucher, renowned mystery author, science fiction editor, and New York Times book reviewer. It’s a bigger project than I’ve done in the past, so it’s taking a long time to complete. But Boucher was into so many incredible things that the research is a lot of fun. I’ve spend the last month listening to Sherlock Holmes radio episodes. How’s that for work??

And will you, in honor of Boucher, be at Bouchercon in the fall?
No, I won’t be at Bouchercon, but I’m trying to complete the biography this fall, and that meant saying no to some conventions. I’m really sorry not to be attending, but I need to do it in order to keep to my timeframe on this. I’d love to see you there, but it would mean less time for the book!

That’s fair. And what a great choice for your biography. Thanks for talking with me, Jeff!

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