Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Q & A with Mark Arsenault

Q: What makes Billy Povich different from other (unofficial) PI's?
Billy Povich is an everyman. He’s not physically imposing. He doesn’t carry a gun. He’s much better at taking a punch than delivering one. He can’t meet a supermodel in Chapter 3 and get her in bed by Chapter 4. The idea of taking a human life—while he has considered it—is daunting to him. In other words, he’s not a cartoon. I think it’s easier for the reader to slip into the role of the protagonist if the hero of the story feels like a real person. And I also believe that the heavily armed action hero who thinks nothing of blasting a dozen bad guys over 300 pages has become a cliché.

However, a hero must have heroic qualities, and Povich has plenty. He’s extremely tough-minded. He is dogged. He’s a risk taker. And he maintains a dark sense of humor, no matter how dangerous the circumstances. That’s why readers root for Povich. The hero’s most important job in a crime story is to get the reader on his side.

Q: How did you come up with the character of Billy Povich?
First off, I named him after my Polish grandfather, who died when I was 16.
Then I put Billy in grim circumstances—he is a newspaper obituary writer in a dying business, who lives above a funeral home and investigates murders. To balance all that darkness, I gave him the weapon of humor. Suspense and humor are opposites. When you put them together both become more intense, like colors on opposite sides of the color wheel.

Q: Lucid dreaming is a part of Gravewriter. Is it something you are interested in?
Absolutely. I’ve only been able to experience it a handful of times myself. A lucid dream can occur when you realize you are dreaming, and in that state you have some control over the dream. A lucid dream can feel as real as being awake—if you’re standing in the dream, for instance, you might notice the weight of your body on the bottom of your feet. I’ll try to condition myself for a lucid dream before I sleep by reminding myself to look at my hands. It’s just a cue. With that suggestion planted in my mind, there have been a few occasions that I’ve remembered to look at my hands during a dream, and immediately I’ve become aware.

Q: What's next for you and Billy?
I’m probably going to take a brief break from Billy Povich. I’m currently writing a stand-alone novel with different characters and less of a noir tone. Doing something different keeps me fresh. I have a vague idea for a plot for the next Povich book, and I’m hoping a little time away will allow that plot to germinate in my mind.

Q: How do you promote your books?
My promotional campaigns are a blend of old and new methods. I’ve done some traditional radio interviews and local television in Providence, Rhode Island, where the books are set. I also do conferences, such as Bouchercon and the New England Crime Bake. St. Martin’s is good about getting the books to reviewers, including reviewers who write for popular blogs. I’ve also done a blast of Web advertising, Facebook advertising, and an extensive blog tour, in which I’ve written essays for a number of excellent Internet sites. A blog tour is a tremendous amount of work, from organizing it, keeping track of the deadlines, and delivering so many original essays. But writing those essays helped organize my thoughts on the craft of writing.

Crime fiction web sites, such as this one, have become so influential in introducing readers to authors. I’m very grateful to appear here.

Q: Do you have any favourite Sons of Spade yourself?
Here’s an obscure character that I love: Sam Holt.

Holt was the creation of the great Donald E. Westlake, better known for the Dortmunder comic caper novels under his own name, and for a series of dark crime books under the pen name Richard Stark. In the mid-1980s, Westlake, by then a well-established writer, wondered if he would make it as a crime writer if he were just starting out. So he signed a deal to write under another secret pen name, Samuel Holt. The four books in the Holt series are hard-boiled with a sprinkle of humor. Sam Holt—the main character’s name as well as the pseudonym—is a former actor, too typecast to find new work. He lives a rich man’s life and keeps steady girlfriends on the East and West U.S. coasts. Then one day somebody tries to run his car off the road for no apparent reason, and a new crime-fighting hero is born.

Westlake, my favorite author, died in 2008. I deeply regret never having met him. Still, his writing continues to teach me.

Oh, I almost forgot that Westlake’s experiment writing as Samuel Holt was ruined when the publisher leaked to the bookstores that this hip, new crime fiction author was really one of the masters in disguise.

Q: In the last century we've seen new waves of PI writers, first influenced by Hammett, then Chandler, MacDonald, Parker, later Lehane. Who do you think will influence the coming generation and in what way?
I consider myself part of that coming generation. I’d name James Lee Burke as an influence, for writing so damn beautifully. And Carl Hiaasen, and others like him, including Westlake, who have expanded the boundaries of the genre.

Q: Russel Atwood came up with the following question: Why do you do it?
The reasons I do this continue to change. Ten years ago, I was a newspaper reporter in an old mill town in New England. I was working on a fascinating story about a group of heroin addicts who lived under a railroad bridge, when my editor suddenly killed the story. He didn’t care to read about those people. I was furious, and decided to write the story as a work of fiction. That’s why I started. As that manuscript slowly grew, I wrote because I wanted to prove to myself that I could write a crime novel. I didn’t expect to sell it, but when I did, I wrote because I had a contract for another book. Now I write because I want to better what I’ve already done. Writing is difficult, and difficult things are satisfying.

Q: What question should we ask every PI writer we interview and what is your answer?
My question: In the fictitious world of your last book, does God exist?

My answer: Yes, and He is extremely ticked off.

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