This week, as the early signs of spring are starting to stay around for awhile, I hop in my transporter and pick up author Debbie Mack and in no time, we're sitting at a table at a streetside cafe in Rome. (You can see a little of where we're having the interview in the picture to your left.) I'm not sure what she's drinking, but I'm trying a very expensive dry red wine. (Hey, she's paying, I'm just the inteviewer.)
1. Who is Debbi Mack and what makes you the most fascinating person in your city?
Those are tough questions. Much tougher than they look. I can tell you that I’m the kind of person who would never claim to be the most fascinating person in my city, because I live near two cities full of fascinating and eccentric people – Washington, DC and Baltimore, MD. I’ll let you guess which trait is prevalent in which city.
I will say that I’m a good listener. I love to listen to other people’s stories. And I have a few of my own that are pretty interesting. I’ve lived through some unusual experiences and survived some close calls. A few near death experiences, even. It gives me pause sometimes and makes me appreciate what I have and life all the more.
2. Without revealing a deep dark secret (unless you want to), what one thing would people be surprised to learn about you?
I can imagine there are a few things about me that would surprise or even shock people, but I’ll pick just one: In my senior year of high school, I skipped school so many days during one grading period that they marked the number in red. Somehow or other, I managed to pass all my classes with decent grades. I think I had a B average. Maybe. I’d lost interest. Clearly. In fact, I didn’t even attend my graduation. I just picked up my diploma from the office. I was more than ready to move on to something else at that point.
3. What interested you to be become a writer rather than something else such as becoming an nuclear scientist?
I think my interest in writing began with reading. As I grew older, I started keeping journals and even tried to write stories, without much success at first. It wasn’t until high school that I wrote my first short story. It was science fiction, inspired in part by 1984, with a bit of Star Trek thrown in – in retrospect, I think, I was ripping off a few ideas here and there and combining them. Boy, was I surprised when the teacher gave the story an A-!
Despite that, and even though I ended up majoring in journalism (after starting off in electronics technology – long story), I ended up going to law school, because I figured I could practice law for a living and write as a hobby. But practicing law is time consuming and demanding. Life is too short to spend on things you’d rather not do, when you could be spending that time on things you want to do. Writing was what I wanted to do. So I changed careers.
4. Writers are readers. With which author(s) would you enjoy sharing dinner? Why?
Oh, boy! How big is the table? Let’s start with Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ross MacDonald and Margaret Millar. These four are among the classic hardboiled mystery authors that have most profoundly influenced my writing. Margaret Millar wrote both hardboiled mystery and psychological suspense. I’d love to add the late Mercedes Lambert to that group, since she wrote a hardboiled mystery series about a crime solving female lawyer in Los Angeles similar to mine. Judith Van Gieson has also written a hardboiled mystery series about female lawyer Neil Hamel in Albuquerque, NM, so I’d include her, too. And, of course, Sue Grafton, Walter Mosley, and the late Robert B. Parker, because these three are among the best known contemporary mystery authors that have influenced my work.
Outside the mystery genre, I’d love to add Mark Twain, because I imagine he’d tell great stories. Erica Jong because of Fear of Flying. Sylvia Plath because of The Bell Jar (yeah, I was a teenaged girl once). J.D. Salinger because of Catcher in the Rye (boy, is the seating going to get awkward or what?). Isaac Asimov, because he was a genius and a visionary. Harlan Ellison because he’s a no-nonsense, straight shooter and a writers advocate. Douglas Adams because he wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide and he was funny. John Kennedy Toole because it’s tragic that he didn’t get to enjoy the success of A Confederacy of Dunces and I’m sure he’d be great company. I could rattle on and on … but that would get boring fast.
5. If I were stranded on a deserted island (or suffering a four hour layover at the airport), why would your book(s) be great company?
My books tend to combine the feel and structure of a hardboiled private eye novel with the fast-pace and action typical of a thriller. At the same time, I like to write about real issues, and the characters and situations are often gritty and realistic. Somehow, I think I’m able to strike a balance between realism and the more plot-oriented action/adventure feel to end up with a story that both informs and entertains, and ends well, but not always due to the right reasons. There’s usually a bittersweet or ironic aspect to my endings, sometimes almost a touch of noir, without going so far as being tragic.
6. Share the Mack process of writing in regards to: idea and character development, story outline, research (do you Google, visit places/people or make it up on the spot?), writing schedule, editing, and number of rewrites.
Ideas can come from just about anywhere. For example, my idea for my latest novel Least Wanted was sparked after reading about girl gangs in The Washington Post and listening to stories my husband’s friend told about working as a security guard at a Prince George’s County middle school. The two things got me thinking and I wrote a rough draft of an outline for the story. I did some research on girl gangs on the Internet. I read a book about girls in gangs. I also spoke with someone in the PG County State’s Attorney’s Office who had direct experience with the subject. I spoke to an attorney who handled juvenile court work and corresponded with a school guidance counselor. There was also an embezzlement storyline that I had to research and vet, too, and I was fortunate to meet a financial auditor to help me with those details. Otherwise, I tried to read as much as possible on the Internet, including articles, government reports and other documents on various subjects including girl gangs, juvenile crime, juvenile incarceration, embezzlement, money laundering, pawn shops and other topics.
Regarding my writing schedule, every night I always plan out what I intend to do the next day. Usually, I’ll plan to write from around 2 to 4 or 4:30 p.m. (afternoons are best for me), after I’ve set aside time to handle email and marketing chores. I usually write a little every day, unless life absolutely makes it impossible, because that’s my job. My only day off is Sunday. Generally, as I’m writing the first draft, I’ll give the chapters to my writers group. They review them and comment on them, so I’m usually revising and updating as I go. So, by the time the first draft is finished, I have a pretty good idea what changes I want to make for sure. Then I take another look at the whole thing again and go over it once more and make any more changes I think are necessary before I hand it off to my editor.
7. “I think I have a good idea for a story, but I don’t know where or how to begin. Your process may not work for me. Any advice?”
First of all, just start writing. Don’t edit yourself. Just start and see what comes out. Get the bones down, as someone once put it. Check your local community college to see if they offer adult education courses on fiction writing. I took a course on mystery writing at my community college when I started out. It helped me understand story structure. You also might want to read books on writing, such as (to give a few examples) Stephen King’s On Writing, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird or (if you’re into mystery or thriller writing) Carolyn Wheat’s How To Write Killer Fiction. Also, you can learn so much from reading well-written books. Whatever else you do, I encourage you to read, read, read other books of all kinds. Read them with a critical eye and figure out what makes them interesting. As a writer, you may eventually find yourself doing this automatically.
8. I saw an amusing t-shirt the other day which read ‘Every great idea I have gets me in trouble.” What is your philosophy of life?
I think my life’s philosophy can be best summed up in one of my favorite quotations from Helen Keller: “Life is either daring adventure or nothing.”
9. Please tell me you’re not going to stop writing? What’s next for you?
Stop writing? Perish the thought. I’ll stop writing when I stop breathing. Right now, I’m working on the third novel in the Sam McRae mystery series. I’m almost finished. I have lots of ideas for more Sam McRae novels to come. I have two other standalone novels I’d like to revise at some point and publish eventually. I have an idea for a young adult novel that I’d like to work on next. I’ve also written a feature film screenplay. Any producers out there interested in hearing the pitch? Hmm?
10. Where can people find more information on you and your projects?
You can read about me and my work on my Web site at http://www.debbimack.com and on my blog at http://midlistlife.wordpress.com. I also have four other blogs (yes, five blogs total – insane, I know ), which you can find listed on the sidebar of my Web site.