Monday, August 4, 2014

A View from Marcus Brotherton's Window - Feast for Thieves

Marcus Brotherton has been writing non-fiction for some time (his oral history We Who Are Alive and Remain put him on the NY Times bestseller's list!), but Feast for Thieves is his first foray into the world of fiction.

He has created a host of very strong, memorable characters who inhabit the town of Cut Eye, Texas.  Rowdy Slater is the main character, and his journey is very unique!  His life is a testimony of God's ability to take a broken vessel and use it in a mighty - and very unexpected - way!  Please join me as I discuss Feast For Thieves with Marcus Brotherton!  You can read my review of his novel, HERE.

Rowdy Slater – such a unique character!! You share your inspiration behind the character at the end of the novel – which is fascinating! I want to know how this character surprised you as you were creating the story line? (I know there has to be something he did to keep you guessing!)

Prior to writing the novel, I’d interviewed World War II veterans steadily for six years while working on nonfiction book projects, so I learned a lot about the mannerisms and traits of elite ex-paratroopers, the group I focused on most.

Rowdy came alive gradually. When I started writing the book, I knew his vital information, his birthdate, his full name, what happened to his parents, things like that, and I outlined an extensive backstory that I never used in the book.

What I didn’t know until Rowdy began living within the pages of the story was the totality of his personality, his unique speech patterns, and all the actions he would eventually take.

The biggest surprise for me emerged about halfway through writing the book. On page one, Rowdy robs a bank, but I didn’t know why until much later. I knew he needed complex, altruistic motives that readers would see as nearly justifying his criminal actions. But that was as far as Rowdy had revealed his reasons to me until later in the process.

Sheriff Halligan Barker reminds me a bit of Andy Tylor in the way he handles law in the area! No spoilers now, but who inspired this character and his way of handling law-breakers? (almost expected an Aunt Bea to show up! – maybe that was Mert!)

Ah, I love the old Andy Griffith shows. Halligan certainly shares some personality traits with Andy Taylor, yet Halligan is rougher around the edges. He’d shoot to kill if needed.

I wanted a resilient and wise mentor who had a mind like a chess player, always thinking several moves ahead. Halligan acts firsts and doesn’t explain himself. He’s an assembling of several people and personality traits I knew and had seen in real life.

He’s layered, too, a man of sorrows who has kept on living. Halligan has lost his wife, and his son-in-law was a rotter, but Halligan has kept his eye on what’s truly important. He lost any pretension along the way. He’s a bottom-line man who wants his town to succeed and thrive, and he’s well aware of the serious forces that threaten it.

Bobbie Barker is another strong, spit-fire of a character that really keeps readers on their toes! She doesn’t let Rowdy get away with anything! It seems to me she learns more about day-to-day faith from Rowdy than in all of her study and hard work until they meet. Have you ever had a Bobbie-like character in real life that challenged and questioned you at every turn? How did Rowdy know how to handle her?

Bobbie Barker is one of my most favorite characters. She’s a composite of people I’ve met. I knew I wanted a strong heroine, almost surprisingly strong, which Bobbie certainly is.

I also wanted the book’s heroine to have one or two flaws, which felt truer to real life. Bobbie is a wonderful idealist who wants to save the world, and she does some remarkable things toward that aim such as keeping a church together while the bulk of the men in her town are away at war.

But her idealism can emerge in the worst ways. Bobbie is the world’s worst poet. She keeps reciting her poems and demanding that everyone appreciates them, which Rowdy just puts up with.

She and Rowdy also struggle in their communication with one another, which most couples definitely experience. Sometimes you just want to shake the two of them and say, look—will you just sit down and talk this out!

Cut Eye is a town filled with problems, and Rowdy takes them on – literally! The first month of fighting was very telling about his strength and determination. What inspired this hands-on way of getting things done?

I had that scene in mind for about two years, long before I outlined the book. Rowdy walks into a bar full of roughhewn men and must beat them in a series of fistfights before they will come to church.
Later on, one of my early readers read this scene and said, “Wow, that’s a real metaphor for ministry, isn’t it? A pastor just needs to keep fighting for what he believes in.”

Rowdy was a man of secrets, and he faced secrets in the lives of others. Did the fact he had secrets of his own give him compassion for others that he wouldn’t have had otherwise?

Absolutely. Rowdy understands what it means to be broken, to have a past life that’s full of mistakes. He enters his new job with a humility for the frailty of humanity. He’s compassionate for the underdog, for the person who’s made desperate choices.

Rowdy’s antithesis is Deputy Roy, who lives only in a world of black and white. Deputy Roy is only about the law, all the law, all the time.

Which character has taught you something unexpected about your personal walk with the Lord?

Certainly the character of Bobbie Barker and her actions is a layered picture of what it means to receive grace. Without giving too much of the book’s ending away, Rowdy eventually must accept what Bobbie does for him.

For all his brawny strength and skilled capability, Rowdy is helpless without Bobbie along. Rowdy must come to grips with this other great strength, and what it holds forth for him.

Up until Feast For Thieves, you have written non-fiction. How does writing fiction differ from writing non-fiction? Which is easier for you personally?

I have a strong respect for nonfiction and the process it takes to research a true story and produce a winning book based on that story. Undoubtedly I’ll continue to write nonfiction, particularly collaboratively. Yet the opportunity to write a novel held out strong allure to me. I knew I needed to head that direction to see if I could make it.

With a novel, I found I needed to bring alive everything. The characters. The story. The world they live in. The conflicts and challenges that arise. How the characters overcome those obstacles. How everything resolves satisfyingly at the end.

Fiction offered me a big blank canvas that allowed me to be as creative as I could be.

How long has Rowdy’s story been “brewing” in your heart and mind? What was the process like to get this novel published?

Years. When I first started writing fiction, I was already an established writer and newspaper journalist. I figured that since I was a capable writer, all I needed to do was sit down at the keyboard, and the next “Moby Dick” would flow out of me. I wrote three and a half novels that needed to be thrown away. All had strengths, but none were good enough to be published.

After I’d written a few novels that didn’t find publishers, I wised up and started studying books on the specific craft of fiction writing. I read book after book after book. Story structure. Plotting. Dialogue. Character creation. How to write the first thirty pages, which is key. It felt like getting a university education all over again.

That kind of new, targeted learning needs to happen frequently within the writing industries, I learned. A person can write a good clear declarative sentence, for instance, but he or she might not yet know the specifics of a field to break into—high level blogging, or magazine journalism, or screenwriting, or novel writing, or whatever. Each specific field of writing holds secrets to unlock.

I also started to intentionally study novels to see what made them work. Lots and lots of novels. Books that I liked reading. Books I devoured.

When can we look forward to another Rowdy Slater novel? Can you give us a sneak peek without giving away any plot spoilers?

At the end of Feast for Thieves, Rowdy has come to love and respect the town of Cut Eye, this dusty wayside community that has embraced him in big ways. So it feels now like he will need to fight for the town on a greater level than he’s done before. In book 2, something will threaten to divide the town, perhaps even destroy it.

There’s also the big question of when and how the love story between Rowdy and Bobbie will finally come together. At the end of Feast for Thieves, we know it’s going to happen eventually, but we don’t know the details yet. Bobbie is still fired up to go to Haiti and needs to do her language study at a university first.
More surprises will emerge with these characters for sure.

What does a day of writing look like for you?

Writing Feast for Thieves was a process like none other, but on a normal day I get up early and check email first since I live on the West coast and many of my contacts are on the East coast. I either take a run or a walk, depending on the day, then come back home, shower and change and get ready for the day.

My wife and I have three children, so I try to keep fairly normal office hours for their sake, 8 to 5:30, that type of thing. It’s hard to write at an intensely creative level for that long in a day, so I write in mornings and early afternoons then do errands and non creative work later in the afternoons. Rarely do I work nights or weekends, but I’ll sometimes work a half day on Saturday morning if I need to catch up.

I know other writers who work best in coffee shops or public places, but I work best in silence. I have a home office and spend most of my day working there. I never work with music on, either. I need focused quiet to work best. I travel by plane on research trips or to promotional events about four to six times a year, so the travel is quite manageable.

Writing full time is a job that involves multiple stages: pitching, outlining, researching, writing, editing and revising both with yourself and the publisher’s team, and promoting. Out of necessity I’m always working on several projects at once, though each will be at a different stage of the process. By the time you’re promoting a book, you’re already well into the next.

What would you say to encourage someone who wants to get their story published?

I always try to be both realistic and encouraging at the same time.

Reality says it’s a steep climb to break into the publishing world. Think of book publishing as a process that takes years to break into and succeed at, rather than months or weeks. It’s a tricky, highly competitive industry. You need to do your homework and remained determined.

The encouraging part is that it definitely can be done. People publish books all the time. You have skills and creativity. Why not you?

If you want to get your story published, then enter the industry with humility. Make the right contacts. Be polite to everybody you meet. Study the craft. Financially invest in your career path of writing like you’d invest in anything else worth obtaining—travel to writing conferences and pay for outside editing and buy books and resources that teach you more. Pour your heart into your work-in-progress and bleed onto the page. Then drive hard for your story to be published.

It can be done. It definitely can be done.

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