Is the writing full time? If not, what’s the day job? Can you give us a quick biography of yourself? From a bit of googling, you’re an LA native, an author, possibly a film-maker, a dog-lover and you’re a man who pulled gun on the LAPD and lived to tell the tale.
It’s true, I did pull a gun on two LAPD officers…and lived to tell the tale. But it’s not really as bad as it sounds. I was on their side. But they were undercover and looked like a couple of major scuzzballs. The story can be found on my website at: . And it’s definitely not something I’d want to repeat. Who wants to tempt fate twice?
I’m definitely a dog (and cat) lover. We currently have two dogs. Both rescues and both that we think are German Shepherd mixes. One is from the pound – she was, I guess a real-life pound puppy. The other is from a Shepherd Rescue.
I am an LA native, born in Hollywood (literally), as a matter of fact. And I did do a hitch working as a script doctor: No Credit, No Glory. But in Hollywood everyone’s a chef, and those chefs often spoil the stew. Some have good ideas, some not so good. But either way, when you have so many chefs sticking in ingredient on top of ingredient you do often end up spoiling the stew.
According to Steven Bingen, one of the co-authors of MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot, I have the distinction, dubious though it might be, of having been the last person to have filmed on the last-standing MGM backlot. Some distinction, huh?
Your latest work Broken Windows was recently published by Down and Out Books, can you pitch it to potential readers in a short paragraph?
Broken Windows is the much-delayed sequel (and that’s a story in itself) to my Shamus-winning novel White Heat. White Heat is a mystery-thriller that takes place in L.A. during the 1992 Rodney King riots. Broken Windows takes place a couple years later, during a contentious California election season revolving around a controversial anti-illegal immigrant proposition known as Prop 187, sort of a precursor to the divisive debate that continues to this day.
So, while the storm rages over Prop 187, a young woman climbs to the top of the famous Hollywood sign—and jumps to her death. An undocumented day laborer is murdered. And a disbarred and desperate lawyer in Venice Beach places an ad in a local paper that says: “Will Do Anything For Money.”—Private Investigator Duke Rogers, and his very unPC partner, Jack, must figure out what ties together these seemingly unrelated incidents. Their mission catapults them through a labyrinth of murder, intrigue and corruption of church, state and business that hovers around the immigration debate. Along the way we explore the fiery immigration controversy from all sides and no one escapes unscathed.
How long from conception to completion did Broken Windows take?
It’s hard to say since I often work on more than one thing at a time. I don’t think Broken Windows took too long, maybe several months to a year. The writing wasn’t the problem – the agent was… See more about that down below.
Was it a smooth process or were there many bumps in the road along the way?
The bumps weren’t with the writing so much as with the agenting process. I finished Broken Windows shortly after White Heat came out and got a “very good” agent for it. Unfortunately, I think she had some medical issues and didn’t really do anything with it. Then, because of her illness, it was tied up in legal limbo for several years before I could extricate from that situation and get it out in the marketplace again. Very frustrating.
Did it end up being the book you anticipated at the start of the process?
I think so. My main goal is to entertain. To take the readers for a thrilling ride and I think I’ve done that. While on that ride I hope to explore some of the issues of today as seen through the prism of the recent past, but not being preachy about it. And one of the things that I like doing is having a B story threaded throughout that eventually ties up with the A story and I think that worked pretty well in Broken Windows, even better than it did in White Heat.
BW is your second Duke Rogers book, the first White Heat (which I enjoyed last year) originally dropped in 2012. In between times you published another novel, Vortex in 2015. Can you tell us a bit about these other two works?
Glad you enjoyed White Heat. It’s the first book in the Duke Rogers private detective series and where I introduce the character. Duke is a PI who’s screwed up a case really bad. He helps a client track down an old school mate. Doesn’t bother to get any info or even paperwork on the client, just does a quick and dirty job for cash. But when he later finds out the person he helped find has now been murdered he knows it’s his client who did it. And since he took cash and didn’t do the proper paperwork, he has no idea who that client really is. But he wants to make amends for his inadvertent part in the victim’s death. So he goes on the offensive and tracks down the killer, all while trying to keep his part in it secret. The murder victim was an up and coming actress who grew up in South Central LA, so Duke ends up in that part of town right at the time the Rodney King verdict drops and South Central explodes and he gets caught up in the chaos. Things only get more intense from there, as he jumps on the trail of the client.
Vortex is my homage to the classic noir theme of the vet returning from war. One of my favorite film noirs is Somewhere in the Night, about an amnesiac World War II vet trying to figure out who he is and how he or people he knew might have been involved in a crime before the war. There are several noirs that deal with returning World War II vets, so I wanted to update that theme to Iraq and Afghanistan. Zach Tanner is on the run. He can run from the war, but he can't run from himself. Zach and his girlfriend, Jess, flee the city to get away from bad guys that seem to want something from him. But it’s hard to get away from the bad guys when they turn out to be Zach’s best friends, who think he’s stolen their spoils of war from a plot they hatched with him in Afghanistan. He finds more trouble here at home than he did in the war.
Set in and around LA and Southern California, Vortex showcases SoCal as its own character in the story. Novelist Steve Lauden said of this novel, but I think also of my writing in general, “…[it’s] almost as if the region was one of the main characters.”
Is there one of the three which you are most proud of? Which would you press into the hands of a new reader first?
Well, since Broken Windows is the newest, I think I’d push that into the hands of readers. One doesn’t have to have read White Heat (the first book in the series) to follow what’s going on in Broken Windows as there’s some backstory there. But if they want to start at the beginning then White Heat is the place to go. From there they can hit Broken Windows and in the near future the third installment in the series.
Was it always the intention to give Duke another case? It’s been quite a gap between outings.
As I’ve mentioned, Broken Windows was finished shortly after White Heat, but “due to circumstances beyond my control” it didn’t come out till several years later, so Duke had a new case coming out of the gate. But, it makes you wonder why you want to torture yourself in this biz sometimes… So, yes, I did intend to keep Duke and his very unPC partner, Jack, busy solving cases. And they’re working their way through the third now. It’s coming along nicely, though I’m not sure when it will be out. Hope Duke and Jack don’t fall into a trap they can’t escape from.
You’ve also been quite prolific and successful with your short stories… nominations, awards and volume - is it a different process writing a short story as opposed to longer works?
I attack both in a similar way. I’m a “pantster,” as opposed to an outliner, so I write by the seat of my pants, whether for a story or a novel. I usually have an idea of what I want to write, but that can change a lot through the drafts. But the process is very similar if not the same. I might have a handful of notes written down. I’m definitely not an outliner, though sometimes I wish I was. And I often, though not always, write the first draft or two in screenwriting/script format. The reason is I can do it fast and not worry about description. It’s basically INT. or EXT. whatever the location is, and dialogue, with the barest amount of “screen direction”. That way I can get to know my characters and let them just talk and walk.
I spend most of the time editing and refining. Sometimes the finished product is drastically different from the initial draft. I once set out to write a story that was about Dee Dee Ramone, of the Ramones, but it turned into a satirical murder mystery called Continental Tilt, with barely a mention of Dee Dee. Though part of it is set in a cemetery in Hollywood where he’s buried and where people gather to watch movies on a mausoleum wall, with wine and brie, while sitting on dead people’s graves – for real.
On your writing in general, do you have a typical writing schedule? Do you write every day?
I used have more of a regular schedule. These days I catch time when I can, usually in the middle of the night. Seems right for writing mysteries and noir, don’t you think? I don’t write every day. And I don’t have a set number of words. Early drafts are easy. I can just blaze along. It’s the editing that takes time. Honing and honing till you get something you’re not embarrassed to send out.
When you have an idea and you sit down to construct a story – do you know what the end result is going to look like? Are you a plotter, or do you make it up as you go along?
I pretty much make it up as a go along, flying by the seat of my pants. I might have a basic idea, maybe a twist or two, a couple of characters. Sometimes the ending. But mostly I let the story take me where it wants to.
Do you have a preference between the two formats – the novel and the short story? Is one less daunting than the other?
Both are daunting. It’s really hard to sit down and face a blank screen and create something from nothing. That’s why the vast majority of people who say they have a great idea, the next best seller, never get around to doing it. It’s daunting!
But I don’t think I really have a preference. It’s like in the old days when you’d have a 45 single record – remember those? – and an album. They each served a purpose. And both have their own pluses and minuses. Their own pulse. In some ways, short stories are more challenging because you have to do so much in such a short space and it has to have punch. A novel can go off on different tangents, explore more characters, more threads. And while you want it to be fast-paced, it can also be more leisurely, if that makes sense. But both have to have a beginning, middle and end, unless you’re writing some avant garde piece.
From the two books of yours I’ve read, I feel the LA setting has a significance for you. I feel as if you’re documenting some of the city’s recent troubled racial history within the confines of your narrative. With White Heat – Rodney King and the 1992 LA riots; with Broken Windows – the 1994 California Proposition 187 (not something I’d previously heard of in the UK), a measure designed to deal with the effects of illegal immigration on public services and to try and save the racial identity of the state. I feel you’re trying to do more than just entertain readers with your work, without ever preaching.
I’m very glad to hear you say I’m not preaching. That’s the last thing I want to do and something that turns me off completely when I read something, whether or not I agree with the point of view. But I do sometimes like setting my stories in the context of the real world and real world events, like those that you mentioned. That said, my first goal is to entertain. There’s a classic old Preston Sturges movie from 1941 called Sullivan’s Travels, where a movie director, who makes silly movies like Ants in your Plants of 1939, wants to make a “meaningful” movie about the downtrodden, so he has the studio costume department outfit him as a hobo and he sets out to discover the real world. In the end, he gets more reality than he bargained for, finding himself on a chain gang. The prisoners get to watch a movie once in a while and what Sullivan finds out is that what they really want is to laugh and be entertained, to have an escape from the harsh reality of their lives, not some ponderous message movie. My books don’t exactly escape reality, but they are first and foremost roller coaster rides of mystery-thrillers, with a little dose of reality thrown in.
What’s the state of play regarding race relations in LA today? I’m guessing the current incumbent of the White House ain’t exactly helping matters?
It seems to me that on a one-to-one or micro level people of all races seem to get along really well. But in the macro picture race relations seem worse, probably because of agitation from all sides. And it seems really odd to me because you’d think it would be going in the other direction but I think all sides have something to gain by keeping the pot stirred but ultimately everyone loses. This is something I deal with in Broken Windows vis a vis the immigration issue. We see that people from all sides, left, right, Democrats, Republicans, Church and business, have something to gain by both bringing in undocumented workers/people and also keeping the pot stirring. There’s really no one who’s innocent. So, I guess you could say I’m cynical about the whole state of affairs.
Do you have a love-hate relationship with your home city? I get a sense of frustration and discontent with the shallowness and vapidity of all things Hollywood, aligned with a love and a sense of pride in its history and landmarks. (I loved some of the tidbits woven into your narratives - Sharon Tate’s last meal, Reginald Denny’s intersection – they gave a real sense of place to the narrative.)
You nailed it: Love-Hate! I love a lot of things about LA, even some of the not so pretty things from the past. I love its history and its fables, but I also hate the way LA throws away that history, is always ready tear down the old and put something new and trendy in its place. I’m also fascinated because LA is the end of the road, it’s as far west as people can go to get away from their lives, their pasts. They come here with stars in their eyes and big dreams, Hollywood Dreams. And most of them don’t make it. And that creates drama. And that creates good fiction.
Yeah, Sharon Tate’s last meal was at El Coyote, a Mexican restaurant I’ve been going to since I was about three or four and that my mother had been going to since she was a kid. Sooner or later I take everyone I know there and they either love it or hate it. In fact, my wife had to pass three “tests” before we could get married – and one of them was liking El Coyote. She passed. I could make up locations and sometimes I do, but I prefer to anchor things in real places and El Coyote, as well as a lot of other places, shows up in several of my works.
When I was a kid, LA was like a big, spread out small town. People used to complain about how polite people were, especially drivers. That just doesn’t happen anymore. And it’s now more like a big city than a small town, even a spread out one. And that comes with all the good and bad of being a big city.
If the readers want to get taste of “my L.A.,” they can check out this post I did called Adventures in La Land:
What can we look forward to next? Any hints on the current work in progress?
I’m working on two things. Duke Rogers #3, which also gets down and dirty in L.A. Hopefully there won’t be as long a gap between Broken Windows and that. I’m also working on another story in my Ghosts of Bunker Hill series that’s been appearing in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. That’s really a fun series to write because through the stories I can explore all the cool LA locations, including around Bunker Hill, Hollywood, etc. If you’re into film noir, a lot of noirs were filmed in the old Bunker Hill, that was filled with amazing Victorian mansions and Angels Flight, a really cool funicular railway. That’s still around, though it’s been moved and just isn’t the same. I feel lucky to have explored this area before they tore all that down and put up gleaming but sterile high-rises. Some of the noirs filmed there were Criss Cross, Kiss Me, Deadly, The Brasher Doubloon, Cry Danger and others, as well as non-noir movies. A new story in my Bunker Hill series – Fade Out on Bunker Hill – is coming out in the March/April, 2019 EQMM. If you like the classic movie Sunset Boulevard I think you’ll enjoy that one.
What’s been the most satisfying moment of your writing career so far?
I’ve been very lucky in some ways, my work has received some major recognition and that’s very gratifying. But I think the most truly satisfying thing isn’t a moment, but is just realizing how supportive the writing community has been. We work in solitude much of the time and it’s nice when you feel like you’re not alone and there’s a group of people who share your boat and support you. The other really cool thing is having someone I don’t know contact me out the blue and say how much they enjoyed something I wrote or that they’ve used it as an example of good writing or that I’ve inspired them to work on their own projects.
Any advice for prospective authors out there?
Keep your day job. If you want to get rich go to school, learn software programming or something. Writing is something you do for passion, because you have to. It would be great if you could get rich doing it, but ultimately you have to do it whether or not that happens and those who do get rich are the few. The other thing is, don’t give up. Everybody gets rejections. Just learn from your mistakes and be open to criticism. And sit yourself in a chair and do it. That’s the hardest part.
What’s the best thing about writing?
Creating something from nothing. You struggle, you beat your head on the wall. You wonder why you’re doing this. Nothing in the story works. Then, out of the blue comes an idea, the lynch pin that makes it all come together. And you feel like the heavens have opened up and all is right with the world. And it’s worth the blood, sweat and tears – and aloneness (not loneliness) – that you put in.
Though I’ve had agents in the past, I can’t get one these days if my life depended on it. It’s frustrating. And when I tell people that they’re in disbelief. They assume because I’ve won so many awards and such that agents would be crawling out of the woodwork, knocking down my door. So if any agents are reading this…
What are the last five books you’ve read?
I just finished re-reading Ross Macdonald’s “Zebra Striped Hearse”. He’s one of my favorite crime writers and that’s a good one.
“The Drifter” by Nick Petrie
“Pulp According to David Goodis” by Jay A. Gertzman – Goodis, “the poet of the losers,” is one of my favorite writers and a mysterious character…
“The Annotated Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler, of course, and Owen Hill
“The Bug Jar” by Ava Black
Who do you read and enjoy? Is there anyone I should be reading who has snuck under my radar?
I’m always hesitant to name people for something like this ’cause I know a lot of them to one degree or another and I don’t want to hurt anyone by leaving someone out. So I’ll mention some Big-Name writers and some classic writers and then hopefully no one will throw bricks at me:
James Ellroy, Michael Connelly, Raymond Chandler, Walter Mosley, David Goodis, Jim Thompson. And Carol O’Connell – I love her hard-as-nails (literally…) Mallory character, though some people don’t seem to. And in non-crime fiction: My favorite books are The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham and The Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas. I mean that’s the ultimate revenge tale and, as we all know, revenge is a dish best served cold, which Edmond Dantes does par excellence. I also like The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati (which is very far from a crime thriller), and Monte Walsh by Jack Schaefer, who wrote Shane. It’s about a guy who’s outlived his time or time has passed him by, and that’s a theme I both write about and resonate to.
Is there any one book you wish you had written?
Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn. This book blows me away. It’s the ultimate surf-noir story and definitely not the Beach Boys’ version of sun, sand, surf and surfer girls, but a much darker vision of life on SoCal’s beaches. It’s set in Huntington Beach, down the coast from L.A. I guess it has a cult following – hell it was a finalist for the National Book Award. But most people I talk to haven’t heard of it, though it seems more have lately.
Favourite activity when not working or writing?
You mean when I’m not killing people…on the page, of course? Or pulling guns on real-life cops? Well, reading, of course. And I like to read a lot of different things, not just mystery-thriller-noir fiction. I like walking my dogs by the creek near our house. Exploring LA. Film noir – can’t get enough of that. Photography. Movies – old movies in particular. If I’m channel surfing and see something in black and white I’ll at least stop to check it out. And in the good old days, SCUBA.
What’s the last film you watched that rocked you?
Old Yeller. When I was a kid that movie truly rocked me.
I’m afraid to say I don’t get rocked much these days. Maybe I’m cynical like Rick in Casablanca, or just plain jaded. I’m not into the comic book movies that a lot of people seem to like and horror movies seem to be little more than scare fests. Lots of noise, little real scare. Though I have to admit I liked Saw. Some thrillers I like a lot are: Fracture, with Ryan Gosling and Anthony Hopkins, though it came out 2007, is a movie that I think is mind-blowingly good and mind-blowingly clever. And since we’re talking Ryan Gosling, Drive is another great one.
Sideways ’cause I can relate to the struggle of the Miles/writer character. And Ghost World because, even though I’m not a high school girl, I totally relate to Enid’s alienation from the world.
I also like Michael Clayton, Up in the Air and Gran Torino, because, like Monte Walsh above, they’re about people who’ve outlived their time and usefulness, a theme I resonate to and like to write about.
I’m sure there are more recent movies, but off the top of my head I can’t think of anything. And nothing on the scale of Godfather, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, LA Confidential, comes to mind. That’s not to say that I haven’t liked a lot of recent movies, but when you say “rocked” that’s another level altogether.
TV addict or not? What’s the must watch show in the Marks household?
Not. The TV is on a lot, mostly as background noise. There aren’t any shows that I’m really addicted to. I like things that end and that I don’t have to go back to time after time or binge watch for three weeks of my life to follow the story. What I am addicted to – and I don’t know if you have it or something similar in the UK – is the Discovery ID Channel. Which I call the Murder Channel. “Real-life” murder shows/cases 24/7. Who could ask for more, especially if you’re a crime writer…
In a couple of years’ time.....
Well, of course, I’d like to cure cancer and bring about world peace – hey, if it works for Miss America it’s good enough for me. But seriously, he said, I have a completed novel, The Blues Don’t Care – a mystery set on the LA homefront during World II, with a very unique character… And I’d love to see that see the light of day.
I’d sure like to see that get reviewed in the New York Times and other major publications and shoot up the NY Times Best Seller list. But right now I can’t even get an agent for it. So, agents…
Many thanks to Paul for his time.
You can catch up with him at the following haunts
Many thanks to Paul for his time.
You can catch up with him at the following haunts
Website is: . — There they can see the whole story about me pulling the gun on the cops. My encounters with Cary Grant and Gene Kelly and more.
Newsletter sign-up: http://eepurl.com/bkhUbD
Facebook: facebook.com/paul.d.marks/ . – People who like film noir should follow me ’cause I often put up “film noir” alerts when I know one is coming on TV.
Blog at two different blogs: 7 Criminal Minds (https://7criminalminds.blogspot.com/) every other Friday, and SleuthSayers (www.SleuthSayers.org) on Tuesdays, once or twice a month, depending on their schedule.
Thank you for having me, Col. It’s been a blast!