Mark Arsenault is a Shamus-nominated mystery writer who uses his writing to answer questions and straighten things out in his own mind. At first, he seems to be a very serious man but, upon paying closer attention, one notices that he possesses a decidedly dry sense of humor. His latest book, Loot the Moon, is garnering terrific reviews from everywhere, including this humble interviewer.
Before penning mysteries, you were a journalist and reporter for the Providence Journal. Who—or what—got you writing?
I started writing fiction because of a homeless heroin addict named Julia. I met her when I was a reporter in Lowell, Massachusetts, around 1997. I was chasing a story about a dead body down by the railroad tracks, when I discovered a secret enclave of addicts who lived beneath a bridge that I drove over every day. Julia was the longtime girlfriend of the man who had overdosed and died. She was devastated by the loss. She told me about their lives, the two years they had lived homeless in the city, working odd jobs, stealing or streetwalking to get cash for heroin. People with nothing to lose are the most honest people you’ll ever meet. I rushed back to the newsroom with what I thought was a classic tale: a tragic love story. But my shortsighted editor wasn’t interested in the people under the bridge. He spiked my story. I would have quit in protest--if I hadn’t been broke. When Julia called me later, I told her I was having trouble getting the story in the paper. She asked, if you can’t write it for the newspaper, could you write it for me? I promised I would. Five years later my debut novel, Spiked, contained a fictionalized version of her tale. I never heard from her again. I don’t know if she’s alive. I don’t know if she realizes the book is dedicated to her.
Considering the topics of your past novels, you’ve clearly written about experiences you witnessed firsthand. Share with us your thoughts about writing about what you know versus writing about what you don’t know—after extensive research.
I wrote a novel about life in an underground heroin den, which I didn’t experience firsthand, but I think I nailed the experience through research, including my interview with Julia. In my novel Gravewriter, I wrote about a prison escape, which I fictionalized from what I heard from an inmate during an intense set of prison interviews. If you’ve done extensive research on a topic, then you know it; research can be just as valid as firsthand experience. I saw Barry Eisler one time take a question at a writer’s panel about a crazy, wild, over-the-top sex scene in one of his novels. How did he write that kind of stuff? “Research,” he said.
Other than newspapers and your own writing (or hiking, playing around on eBay, or doing whatever political junkies do), what is your preference in reading material?
I have a bias for good writing wherever I can find it. My heart was broken last December over the death of my favorite writer, Donald E. Westlake. He’s been a great teacher, even though I never had a chance to meet him. In addition to crime fiction and thrillers, I read a lot of history, right now I’m plowing through The March of Folly, by Barbara Tuchman. I had a long Einstein phase, and because I’m apparently too dumb to understand the original, I started reading books that present Einstein’s work in more accessible language. That evolved into many skull-blowing nights buried in pages about Quantum physics—no math, please. I like good travel writers, such as Bill Bryson. I recently read a bunch of the more obscure Mark Twain stories, then visited the Twain house and museum in Hartford, Connecticut. I have a strange fascination with Roller Derby, and books about the sport. I also read poll results and political blogs. I love well-written opinion columns. And I read maps. I just love maps.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer?
The biggest challenge I face now is the gap between what I want to create and what I see on the page. Sometimes it’s a small gap, or even too small to see. Those are good days. Other times the yawning canyon between expectations and results makes me want to bury my keyboard in the yard and run off to join a cult. One challenge I no longer have is the temptation to quit. That’s the toughest thing in the early days of a writer’s career. I beg all new writers: please don’t quit. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never published anything. You’re a writer so long as you don’t quit.
Loot the Moon is your most recently published book. Briefly tell us what it’s about and let us know where we can buy it.
Loot the Moon is the second book in my Billy Povich series, which began with Gravewriter. Povich is a world-weary obituary writer who occasionally does some investigating for a lawyer friend on tough cases. Billy lives with his young son and invalid father in an apartment above a funeral home. On one level the book is a potboiler about the assassination of a judge. The judge was shot point-blank by a two-bit swindler who crashes and dies on the high-speed getaway. The police close the case, but why would a lowly con man slay a judge in cold blood? Did somebody pay him to do it? On a much different level, the book is about fathers and sons. Relationships between men can be subtle and hard to write about in a realistic way. I also tried to tackle end-of-life issues in this book, exploring some serious questions within the lives of the offbeat and unconventional Povich family. Published by St. Martin’s Minotaur, Loot the Moon is available in classy bookstores and all the Internet booksellers. Operators are standing by. Please check it out.
What are you working on now and when/where do you expect it to be available?
I like to keep a wide variety of projects going at the same time. I’m working on a stand-alone novel, which I probably won’t finish for six months or more. I’ve also recently written a non-fiction book proposal, which my agent is shopping right now. I’ve been writing short fiction for the first time in my career, and in this November’s edition of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine I have a short story that combines sex, Roller Derby, and the death of Bruce Lee. (Really, that’s not a joke.) I still love journalism and you’ll see my name frequently in the Boston Globe and in a number of magazines.
Writers, especially new writers, are always looking for tips and helpful information. What is the single most important “tip” you can give to a new writer?
“Don’t quit” is worth another mention. The next most important thing is this: Don’t worry about finding an agent or a publisher until your first manuscript is done and as polished as you can make it. You can’t sell what doesn’t exist. Finish the book. I know it’s hard to write if nobody cares if you finish. Find somebody worth writing for, and finish the book for that person. Do it just to prove you can, then worry about selling it later. My best tip about the craft of writing is to make sure the story starts fast. Don’t waste two chapters on the windup. In Loot the Moon, the reader joins a carjacking in progress on Page 1.
What writers’ organizations claim you as a member?
I’m a member of Mystery Writers of America. That may be the only organization of any kind that I’m part of, except for AAA.
Do you have any upcoming book signings or appearances? If so, give us all the details.
I’m doing my first extensive blog tour for this book. It’s more fun than I figured it would be, and the response has been great. I’ll link to my blog posts at a special section of my Web site. My next in-person signing is at Borders Books in Providence, RI, on November 7. I’ll be at New England Crime Bake in Dedham, Massachusetts beginning November 13. It will be a bittersweet conference. I love Crime Bake, but I’ll be filling in on a panel for a friend, William G. Tapply, who died this past summer. Bill was a generous guy, a talented and disciplined writer, and I learned a lot from him.
Here’s your opportunity to tell us anything else you care to share.
First off, thanks for having me here. Secondly, if there’s one thing I’d like to do, it’s to encourage new writers. I’m on a one-man mission to demystify the writing process. I hate when successful authors talk vaguely about “feeling the muse,” which makes the creative process seem like some kind of dark art that only a few chosen people can achieve. That’s not how it is. I often say that writing is like hanging Sheetrock. A pro does it way better and faster than a first-timer, but most competent people can follow simple instructions and hang a piece of Sheetrock. In time, you’ll improve, so long as you stick with it.
What are the addresses of your website(s) and blog(s):
My Web page is http://www.markarsenault.net/ Please visit. I love traffic.
[Interviewer's Note to Readers: In September, Mark’s publicist sent me Loot the Moon for reviewing—along with four other books with October release dates. Although he lives not 10 miles from my adopted hometown in Massachusetts, we never “met” until after he read my book review. Click here for my review of Loot the Moon.]