Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Birthday Party for J. Mark Bertrand's BACK ON MURDER!


It's time to throw another party! J. Mark Bertrand's book, Back on Murder is hot off the press, and Roland Marsh is about to become a character you seek out among the pages of a great book!

I hope you'll enjoy talking with Mark about his book, and that you'll stick around for the gift he brings to his readers! This is a great solo debut, and we'll be able to look for more great books come from this fine author!

Please, welcome Mark Bertrand to my Window!

Introduce yourself! When did you discover your love for words? Write your first story? Realize your dream of publication?

I probably shouldn’t admit this. One of my grade school teachers made us turn in book reports every Friday, based on titles we ordered through the Weekly Reader. Instead of reading all those books, I made up my own stories to review. To lend authenticity, I invented imaginary books by the authors whose names appeared in the Weekly Reader. The teacher must have wondered about the plotlessness and the spike in violence -- most of my reports arrived on her desk lavishly illustrated, with copious amounts of blood drawn in red -- but she gave me one A+ after another. At the time, I thought I’d fooled her. In retrospect, I realize those were the first grades I ever received for writing fiction!

Fast forward many years later. I grew up writing, majored in English in college, then went on to grad school to study creative writing. My ambitions were mainly literary, though I read a lot of crime fiction along the way. Finally, my editor at Bethany House, David Long—who’d read a lot of my more literary stuff—suggested I take a crack at a detective story. The influence of the genre was already showing up in my work. So I decided to go all the way.

The world of a murder investigator is pretty far removed from the life of a writer, yet Roland March truly captures the essence of this gritty lifestyle. What kind of research did you have to do to create his character? Is he based on a “real” murder investigator?

March is a product of my imagination, an alter ego with a badge, though you’d meet people just like him on most any big city homicide squad. He’s one of the good guys, but that’s come at a cost, the way it always does. And we pick up his story after his early promise is mostly gone. March kills time on one pointless detail after another, a kind of loaner cop making up the manpower requirements. Back on Murder is the story of what happens next, how a once-promising detective gets back on track.

As far as research goes, my philosophy is to learn everything you can and then forget it. I write with a light touch where the details are concerned (at least I try to), striving for a deeper emotional authenticity. I’m writing about a man, not a job. I’m writing about a city, too. Houston has some quirks and challenges where law enforcement is concerned—the overlapping jurisdictions, the seemingly endless crime lab shake-ups—and I did my best to capture them on the page.

Another thing that helps with portraying March’s world is that he’s not working a single case from start to finish. Like a real detective, he’s sometimes bounced from one assignment to another, forced to pick up the threads and keep everything straight.

You boldly display the emotional angst in many areas of Detective March’s life, looking at his past, the present condition of his marriage, the self-doubt about his own ability and the emotional devastation murder brings to his existence. How on earth did you capture that emotional depth so clearly? Roland March felt very real to me!

I’m glad, because he’s real to me, too. As narrator, March suppresses things that are pretty central to understanding him. Maybe that suppression puts an edge on his emotional state. Back on Murder is about the cost of doing good. We grow up thinking that if we do the right thing, we’ll be successful in life—and if we end up successful, we assume we must have been good. A lot of the pain in this story comes from the reality that doing good can be a blueprint for misery.

On page 181 you make a very true statement; “You can prove things in court that you can never truly know. By the same token, you can know things that can’t ever be proven.” March winds up in some difficult places in relation to other cops that have succumbed to greed, power and darker temptations. How did you research this side of police work? Were some of the things you discovered disconcerting to you or was it what you expected?

I have an essentially theological vision. The world is corrupt down to the marrow. That’s true of people and institutions alike. Barry Unsworth, one of my favorite novelists, wrote somewhere: “Wickedness is too common in the world for us to think much of why and wherefore. It is more natural to ask about the rarer thing and wonder why people sometimes do good.” The cops you mention don’t get into trouble until their motives are pure. That’s a key to understanding March’s world. I don’t think I can explain it any better. Or maybe I should say, I’m writing these books to try and explain it.

March says there are things you can prove in court but never know. He’s obsessed, like me, with the epistemological side of investigation, conflicted about whether his goal is to discover the truth or to build a case. Because the two aren’t necessarily the same thing, are they? The popularity of crime fiction, I suspect, is directly tied to our anxieties about knowledge and certainty.

Roland March isn’t a man of much faith in this story. After all that he has been through, will we ever see him come to some sort of truce with God? Can you give us a peek into the development of his faith in the next book?

One of his colleagues, Theresa Cavallo, who’s an evangelical, tries to fit March into the “angry at God” category, but his case is more complicated than that. All I can say about his future is this: things will get worse for March before they get better.

As a crime writer, one of the things I try to do is satisfy my readers’ expectations without pitching everything across the plate. March defies some of the genre’s stereotypes, and his world works a little differently than readers might imagine at first. The same is true where faith is concerned. He’s not the typical narrator you’d expect in a novel with a theological bent—but in my mind, that’s an advantage, because he can see things the typical narrator wouldn’t.

Will we get to know some of his co-workers better in future stories, or will the focus remain on March and the development of his character?

The second March book picks up about a year after the main action in Back on Murder. One of the major convictions from early in his homicide career, the case that Brad Templeton’s book The Kingwood Killing is based on, suddenly erupts again. A lot of the same players from Back on Murder reappear, and we learn more about March’s family, too.

These books are about March’s development as a man. They’re also about the crime genre. Hannah Mayhew, the girl whose disappearance looms so large in Back on Murder, is one of those blonde-haired, blue-eyed victims who attract an inordinate amount of media attention—in part because everyone can identify with her. In March’s terms, she’s everyone’s missing daughter. The media attention exerts an enormous pressure on the course of the investigation, and that’s a phenomenon I’m fascinated by. The next March book takes on another media/genre obsession, the serial killer, while at the same time revealing another layer of the detective’s psyche.

One scene was particularly heartbreaking to me – the scene where he describes to his co-worker about his wife’s time in the hospital. How on earth did you come up with that scene and how did your heart survive the ache of that loss? You truly captured this loss in heartbreaking detail in several scenes, so how did you do it?

I have to tread carefully here, since the moment you mention is the book’s open wound, where all March’s suppressed history comes out into the light. If I’ve done my job right, it will hit like a hammer blow.

Novelists are curators in the museum of pain, collecting other people’s stories and repurposing them to illustrate character. I’m relieved to say that March’s tragedies are not my own. From a technical standpoint, I always approach emotional scenes with restraint, believing in the power of unadorned narrative and the occasional rhetorical note. There are writers who do sentimentality well

What do you like most about the character of Roland March? Is he anything at all like the man who created him? Why? Or Why not?

I like the way March can identify, rightly or wrongly, with people like Carter Robb, a youth pastor whose own attempt at being a good guy led to tragic results. I wouldn’t describe March as empathetic, but he’ll latch onto certain people in a way I admire. Before, I called him an alter ego with a badge, by which I mean he’s my vehicle for exploring the world. We’re very different, though, by design. In the same way that readers want to experience something new, something unlike their own existence, as a novelist I want the same thing. If March was too much like me, I wouldn’t want to write about him!

What exciting things is God doing in your life right now?

Well, at the risk of stating the obvious, the most exciting thing going on in my life at the moment is the relea

se of Back on Murder, an all-consuming sort of event.

Closing words of encouragement you’d like to share with your readers?

If you like crime fiction, give Back on Murder a try. And let your friends know about it, too. March’s story takes some interesting twists and turns, so join him for the journey.

Mark is offering an autographed copy of Back on Murder to one lucky reader who leaves a comment on this post!

I know you will enjoy getting to know Roland March as he struggles to solve one mystery after another while trying to sort out his life as well!


I will choose a winner next week!


Mocha with Linda said...

I have been eagerly anticipating this book ever since I read his collaboration with Deeanne Gist! I love this interview.

Linda Henderson said...

I enjoyed the interview very much, and I would love to read this book. I have always enjoyed stories about law enforcement, so I know I will enjoy this book.

seriousreader at live dot com

Merry said...

Back on Murder sounds like an intriguing, gritty mystery, please include me in the drawing. Thanks!

karenk said...

would enjoy reading this novel...thanks for the chance :)

kmkuka at yahoo dot com

Kim said...

Merry -

Be watching for my email!!