Sunday, April 18, 2010

On The Mark

There is a bald man living in Michigan living my dream. Yes, dear readers of this blog, he makes his living solely by stringing words together. On top of that he's witty, sharp as hell, and one hell of a writer. His name is Mark Terry, and he's is the best selling author of the Derek Stillwater thriller novels. The newest of which, The Fallen was just released as is now available at a bookstore near you.

No wonder he looks so damned pleased in that picture. Blogging has afforded me the opportunity top get to know and interact with a lot of great people. The talented, the funny, and the successful. Mark just happens to be all three. And graciously he was kind enough to answer a few of my questions so I could post them here for y'alls enjoyment.

And yeah, Mark is way ahead of my in the writing game, but at least I can take heart that I'm far better at growing hair that he is. One of these days I'll challenge him to a goatee growing contest though given his background he probably has some evil chemical compound that grows hair faster than you can say Homeland Security.

A bit about The Fallen before I ask my questions.

When twenty of the world's most powerful leaders meet at the G8 Summit, the fate of the world will rest on one man's shoulders.

Twenty world leaders meet for the G8 Summit at the beautiful Cheyenne Resort in Colorado Springs. But an ugly plot lurks beneath the surface: a terrorist group, The Fallen Angels, plans to wreak havoc on the summit.

With the Secret Service, the FBI, Homeland Security, the military, and security from twenty different governments on hand, shouldn't the resort be the safest place in the world?

It seems impossible that a terrorist group could infiltrate the summit. And yet they do. Within minutes, twenty world leaders are taken hostage, and Richard Coffee, the group's leader, makes his first demand: release twenty detainees from Guantanamo Bay, or he'll execute one leader each hour until his demands are met.

Only one man can disrupt this plot. Derek Stillwater is that man.

First off Mark, I want to thank you for taking the time to answer these questions.
Now let me jump right in. Given that this is the third Derek Stillwater novel you've obviously created a memorable character that readers feel compelled to root for. Did you create Derek first and built the plot of The Devil's Pitchfork around him, or did you have a clear plot in mind and only a vague sense of this Homeland Security troubleshooter?

Not the easiest question, actually. The prologue to The Devil's Pitchfork has Derek Stillwater and Richard Coffee as Special Forces operators in Desert Storm, way up on the front lines setting up a laser finder so bombers can destroy an Iraqi weapons depot. (The technology has changed to some extent and they use GPS now, although apparently lasers work for some situations). This was actually a scene I had written as an introduction to a tech thriller about two soldier-scientists who became bioprospectors and an adventure they had, but my agent didn't like what I'd written, so I abandoned it (twice, actually). But that prologue hung with me and Derek came out of it. But I had the idea that I really wanted to write about a genetically engineered virus being on the loose and I didn't specifically have Derek in mind, but he grew out of that prologue and that idea.

When did you first realize Stillwater would be a reoccurring character for you?

I'm not really sure. I didn't necessarily think I'd keep coming back to him, but at the end of The Devil's Pitchfork I started working on The Serpent's Kiss, partially because I thought I had this really cool idea for him. I'd learned the hard way in the past that if you can't sell a novel with a character, it's not a good idea to continue writing books about that character. I'd started Serpent before we sold The Devil's Pitchfork, somewhat against my better judgment. But I told myself the idea was too good to resist, plus I promised myself that if those two didn't sell I was done with Derek. Well, The Devil's Pitchfork got picked up and the contract negotiations went on for a month or two and during the process I finished The Serpent's Kiss, which we then used as a negotiating tool and got a two-book contract. That gave me a chance to work on #3--The Fallen--which we turned into another 2-book contract. Unfortunately, Midnight Ink dropped my contracts after the publication of The Serpent's Kiss, which left me with two completed Derek Stillwater novels and no publisher and a mid-stream series. It took us some time to find a publisher interested in picking up The Fallen, and they picked up #4 as well, although we waited a while before we negotiated a contract for it. Why, exactly, is one of those mysteries only known to my publisher and my agent.

On the surface, it would seem easier to use an already established character when creating a new novel. But then again I sense there are pitfalls as well. How do you cope with challenges such as remaining true to the character but also showing character development and change so that the protagonist doesn't grow stale?
My suspicion is that the primary reason to stay with a single character is that in theory you build an audience faster. Readers--and I'm definitely like this--like to hang out with the same characters over and over again, if they like them. For years I always wanted to have a long-running series, something like Robert B. Parker's Spenser that ran for 50 years. Now, I increasingly think that most series have a finite life. I don't know how many books I'll have with Derek, and I'm not always sure it's a matter of me growing tired of him; he may be growing tired of me and just want to retire and take it easy. But not for a while yet. I also have a problem with a suspension-of-disbelief issue. How many times can Derek get into these messes? It's like, how many really bad days can Jack Bauer have? How many murders can Jessica Fletcher solve in Cabot Cove? Readers and viewers might be able to suspend their disbelief and go along for the ride, but the writer needs to, too, and sometimes that can be a problem. And I do find that there's a freshness and energy that comes to starting a new book with a new character that's different than working on with a repeating main character. Granted, there are pluses with revisiting a main character, because you know how they'll behave and know at least some of their backstory. But you need to dig each time to add depth and that can be hard work. Strictly from a writer's perspective, I increasingly see the value of writing stand-alone novels, each one a unique character, unique self-contained world and idea and character arc. One of the problems with a series is generally speaking the character doesn't change much book to book. They change some, they grow and develop, but it's a much slower process than in a stand-alone, where the novelist can really show a character's growth and response to events.

I've read your blog long enough to know you are a tireless researcher, but given the fact your characters are knee deep in matters of national security, how do you go about gathering information on weapons and procedures and such without raising red flags in gov't institutions the world over? Or does the FBI and CIA hold a constant vigil outside your door? Yeah I'm mostly joking, but have you ever had any "interesting" inquiries as to why you are looking into such matters as chemical warfare and biological weapons?

I'm reasonably certain my Internet searches have caught the attention of the FBI etc. Here's an example: over the last several weeks I've been researching chemical weapons that come out of Russia and domestic terrorism in Russia. Then, two or three weeks of that, there's a Moscow subway bombing by domestic terrorists. If my name doesn't come up on some sort of list somewhere at the Federal level, then someone's really not doing their job. Particularly in that some of my searches are for things that are a little bit more esoteric than, say, VX gas or Sarin. I mean, how many people have even heard of Soman?

At my last house my next-door neighbor put up this huge satellite dish (this was before the small dishes) that looked like something you could contact Mars with, and then--weirdly--built an addition onto the house so the satellite pole came up out of the roof. For a while there we swore Juan must have been working for the NSA. And once I had a private investigator come to the house, flash his credentials and ask if he could use our driveway for surveillance purposes. Not to be paranoid, but you do start to wonder. I haven't noticed anything in my current neighborhood, although there's this one neighbor...

Now that you are a multi-published best selling author have any doors opened that were closed when you were researching earlier novels?

Maybe a little. People were reasonably willing to answer questions when I told them I was writing a novel, although I've found law enforcement people quick to ask, "You're not a journalist?" followed by "Have you had any novels published previously?" The journalist question becomes something of a problem now, because I am a freelance writer. It's also helpful that I have a good friend who not only is a toxicologist, but she trains cadaver dogs, and consults to the Department of Homeland Security. She's my go-to person for bizarre questions, but she's got even weirder interests than I do, so she's cool with it.

Derek Stillwater has been compared to both Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer. How do you feel about the comparisons and what makes Stillwater different from those characters?
I'm pleased with them, because those are very successful, well-liked and memorable characters. It's a kind of shortcut for readers who aren't familiar with Derek. If you like Bourne and "24" there's a good chance you'll like Derek Stillwater. But that goes for a lot of other characters, too, like Lee Child's Jack Reacher and others. One obvious difference is Derek's subspecialty, which is biological and chemical terrorism. Another, I think, is he's a little more quirky and neurotic than Bourne and Bauer. He's sort of superstitious, he has panic attacks, he gets in these odd moods where he sort of withdraws from what he's doing to listen to music and let his subconscious take over. His background is different, too, not just the Special Forces training, and the doctorate in microbiology and biochemistry, but being raised by missionary physicians all over the world. It hasn't played a direct role in the books yet, but it's an odd influence that helps explain some of his quirkiness, I think.

What's next for both Derek Stillwater and Mark Terry?
At the moment I'm promoting The Fallen a lot. The 4th Derek Stillwater novel is written and edited and scheduled for September 2011. It's title at the moment is THE VALLEY OF SHADOWS. My agent is shopping around some other work, some of it a little different than Stillwater, one a thriller that takes place in Beijing. I've started working on the fifth Derek Stillwater novel, tentatively titled THE SINS OF THE FATHER. I've got a pet project I've been working on for about half a year, a science fiction novel that takes place on a different planet a couple hundred years in the future. I also have hopes of writing a Derek Stillwater novella and possibly publishing it as an e-book, but we'll see if I have time for it. If that sounds like too many projects at once, you're right. It probably is, but it's sort of reflexive. I just write.

"I just write." Mark that's a great way to wrap up. Too many of would-be writers fail at that simple task all too often. myself included. thanks again for taking the time to join me here on the blog.

For those who've never had the pleasure of reading Mark's work, be sure and pick up a copy of The Fallen at your local book store or online by clicking on the links provided. And of course check out his blog as well.


Cloudia said...

Pro interview, Travis

Aloha from Waikiki

Comfort Spiral

Old Kitty said...


Thanks for introducing me to Mark Terry! I will certainly have a look at his books in the thriller section of my local bookshop.

Great interview - I love how he stuck to his gut instincts about his idea only to polish and perfect it with a recurring character.

take care

Mark Terry said...

Thanks Travis! I was having lunch with an old friend last week and we were discussing the fact that I'm going to Arizona in June for a meeting and he commented that he was in Phoenix in the summer and it was 112 degrees. He said, "It felt like my hair was going to catch on fire." Then he looked at me and said, "Wear a hat."

Mark Terry said...

Can I visit you in Waikiki??????

Old Kitty,
Y'have to learn to trust your gut.

Charles Gramlich said...

Sounds like a thriller indeed.

Mark Terry said...

Charles, I'm glad you think so.

Stephen Parrish said...

Mark taught me how to cut. Learning how to cut got me through.

Karen Walker said...

Hi Travis,
Thanks for the visit and comment on my blog. Best of luck with your memoir. Where in the Panhandle do you live? My hubby's from Plainview.

pattinase (abbott) said...

From Michigan and I never heard of him. Will check him out, thanks.

Anonymous said...

Unbelievable! A man even more adorable and big-teddy-bear-like than Travis. I just want to smish his widdle cheeks.

And he writes, too?! Beauty and talent all in one package; I'll bet he has to beat 'em off with a stick.

Writing Without Periods! said...

What an interesting interview. I love writers. Keep plugging Travis...writing is all about practice...I love your blog and two buck chuck.f

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Mark's such a nice guy :) I can't wait to read his book. Good job Travis

Jenn Jilks said...

Hey Travis, I spotted a blog post you might laugh at. Called Skunk Monkey. I thought of you and your sense of humour immediately.

Thank you for visiting My Muskoka !

Eric said...

Interesting stuff! I think writers face a real dilemma with series characters. As a reader I don't want the main character to change so much as to be unlike the character I first enjoyed reading about. On the other hand it is probably unrealistic for a person not to be changed by his or her experiences at all.

Beth said...

What a wonderful success story of a man who “just writes” – and does so with such commitment, enthusiasm and dedication.

Avery DeBow said...

Great questions, great answers.

I look forward to finding The Fallen in my local store.