My guest today is Mr. Mark Pryor, author of THE BUTTON MAN, a thriller, that came out today. Please scroll down to enjoy his interview, where we talk about how to go about writing a prequel to an established series, where he finds the time to write and his favorite pastimes.
1. Mr. Pryor, thank you for this opportunity to be interviewed for my blog. THE BUTTON MAN, your newest mystery novel, comes out on September 2. Tell us a bit more about this book.
Thanks so much for having me, much appreciated. Yes, THE BUTTON MAN is almost here, and it’s the fourth in the Hugo Marston series. That said, it’s also a prequel, which means that it’s a great entry point for readers to get into the series.
The book shows my main character, Hugo Marston, as he starts his career as the head of security at the US Embassy. He’s in London for this book and this book only, subsequently moving to the beautiful city of Paris for the other books in the series (though he does get to travel Europe a little).
In THE BUTTON MAN, he is tasked with looking after a pair of married movie stars who have earned the wrath of the English public – they killed a farmer while filming a movie, and driving drunk, in the English countryside. Unfortunately, one of the pair turns up dead before Hugo can drop his protective cloak around them, found hanging from a tree in a London graveyard. Then the other movie star runs away from Hugo, leading him on a merry dance through London and England’s quaint villages.
Hugo teams up with a politician (and former MI-5 agent), a newspaper reporter, and a mysterious young woman called Merlyn (she’s pretty cool). Naturally, Hugo has to figure out why someone’s trying to kill these actors but he also has to find out why one of them felt the need to disappear from safety and put himself at risk in a foreign country.
I’d describe the book as both mystery AND thriller – Hugo spends the first half of the book figuring out what’s happening and why. Then, having identified the killer, he has to catch him… and avoid ending up as the final victim.
2. Who is Hugo Marston and how did you come up with his character?
Hugo is the head of security for the US Embassy – in London for The Button Man, then Paris for the other books in the series. His resume would tell you that he’s from Austin, Texas, and that he worked for the FBI as a field agent then a behavioral profiler.
His friends would tell you that he’s a straight shooter – he won’t lie to you and he won’t break the rules. A lot of series heroes these days are willing to do whatever is necessary to solve the crime but Hugo finds himself obliged to play by the rules. (Fortunately, he has a close friend named Tom Green who not only mocks him for his rule-following, but is willing to bend the rules on Hugo’s behalf.)
Hugo himself would tell you… not very much until he knows you. He’s quite quiet and, as I describe him in THE BOOKSELLER, he’s a watcher rather than a player. He’ll be more interested in finding out about you then sharing his deepest secrets. And he has a few, the one he holds closest is the death of his first wife, Ellie. He’s slow to make friendships, and even slower to judge people harshly, and consequently those who get to know him hold Hugo in the highest regard.
Which brings me to where he comes from: in large part, my own father. Strong, capable, unjudgmental, and quiet, my father is the basis for Hugo’s personality. He was the kind of man who didn’t say much, but when he spoke it was worth your while to listen. Like Hugo, he’s the kind of man who gets respect from others by the way he comports himself, by treating people fairly and not by self-aggrandizement. Also, both men look very good in a hat.
3. How hard is it to create a prequel to an already established series?
Good question. I had to be careful with my timeline and my facts – since I’d established certain things in THE BOOKSELLER, I had to make sure I didn’t undo them. Readers are so observant, you know, it’s really very impressive how little escapes them.
One thing I liked about it creating a prequel was that I could create a direct line to some of the characters that would appear in the other books. For example, in THE BOOKSELLER, Hugo has to find the people who kidnapped Max, his friend. I thought it would be fun to show how the two men met, so in THE BUTTON MAN that’s exactly what happens – Hugo takes a trip to Paris and meets Max for the first time. Similarly, a character named Merlyn pops up at the end of THE BLOOD PROMISE, and so in the prequel she features very prominently, and we see why Hugo likes and trusts her.
4. How is THE BUTTON MAN unique and distinguished from other mysteries in its genre?
Well, the title’s pretty unique, don’t you think?! Actually, I wonder if someone else answered this question for me – a friend read the book and said that it was a good mix of my first two, in that it begins as a mystery and sort of evolves into a thriller. In other words, for the first part of the book Hugo is focused on who the bad guy is. Then, when he figures that out, he has to deduce the why, so he can catch his killer, and then chase him down. Does that make it unique? I don’t know, I hope so.
I’d also like to think that Hugo himself is a little different. Not that he’s utterly original, no, more like the fact that he’s a very old-fashioned kind of hero. He’s not tortured by drugs/alcohol/ex-wives, and he’s not very flamboyant in the way he solves his crimes (he has his side-kick Tom, for that!). I think for a writer trying to distinguish a series, it’s done by the collection of characters he or she uses, and I suppose at the end of the day it’s not for me to judge whether I’ve succeeded with my cast. I do know, however, that I like them very much and hope to keep writing them.
5. What’s the story behind THE BOOKSELLER, your first novel? How did that see the light of publishing?
The idea for the book came to me while I was on vacation in Paris with my wife. We were walking alongside the Seine and my evil writer-brain was on overdrive. I saw these cool bouquinistes and of course inverted their loveliness and tried to come up with some way in which bad guys could capitalize on this old Paris tradition. I had a few ideas immediately, and so we found a tabac where I bought a pen and notepad. My wife and I zipped into a café where I scribbled notes for about twenty minutes. Or, if you believe her, two hours.
When I got back to the States, it took me roughly four months to finish the book, I couldn’t get it out fast enough. Once I had, well, then the hard work began – trying to get it published!
THE BOOKSELLER was actually the third or fourth novel that I finished. The first three went nowhere, not the slightest bit of interest from agents. But THE BOOKSELLER, when I queried it, got a far better reception and several agents expressed interest. I know a lot of great writers have had agent problems, but I’m incredibly lucky to have found Ann Collette, she’s just wonderful.
Ann helped me tighten the book, she wasn’t afraid of making suggestions, and I wasn’t afraid of taking them. When the book went out on sub, we got very close to several of the big houses but in the end, despite the nice words, they all passed. Then Ann told me about this new outfit, Seventh Street Books, the new imprint of Prometheus. She thought it worth going with them, and they made a good offer for three books, so I trusted her judgment. A genius move on her part, I must say – SSB has done me proud, and they’ve been successful enough that Random House is now their distributor.
So, it was a long road, tiring and stressful, but when I walked into my local bookstore and saw THE BOOKSELLER on the shelves I about fainted.
6. Oprah.com listed THE BOOKSELLER as an “unputdownable mystery.” How much did this mention help its publicity and its sales?
You know, one of the frustrating parts to being an author is how opaque the sales info is. Not anyone’s fault, I should add, it’s just the way the book world works. I think with e-books it’s easier to quantify sales as they come in but honestly, I have to wait for my royalty statement to find out anything. Which is to say, I have no real idea how much that plug helped, but I’m pretty sure it helped a lot!
7. How did a career in journalism help you to in writing books?
I was talking about this just the other day with an AP reporter – I think it’s helped me in that I can focus very intently on writing and get a lot down in a short amount of time. Also, as a journalist I had to pound out stories not just quickly, but with no (or few!) mistakes. Consequently, I write a lot faster than most authors I know, which is very good because I’m pretty busy.
I think it’s good for my research skills, too. Not just in terms of finding out tidbits of information, but in the sense that I am constantly wired to look for stories. In the old days, of course, it was news I was looking out for whereas today it’s a crumb of conversation or a partial event that I con coopt into a good fictional tale.
8. Where does an Assistant District Attorney find the time to write mysteries? What’s your writing schedule like?
It’s not easy sometimes! As I said above, the fact that I write fast is very useful for an otherwise busy guy. But I do try to carve out solid writing time every week. For instance, as part of my job I ride out with the local police most weeks – that gives me comp time, which I take on Fridays. I usually head to my local library, that’s where the vast majority of my writing is done. I will try and go there on Saturdays, too, when I take my eldest daughter, who loves to hang out with me and read.
Funny thing, though, for a year I went there and sat at my table anonymously scribbling away. Then THE BOOKSELLER was published and I gave the library a copy – they were delighted! They’d all wondered what I was doing there so regularly, and when they found out I was a published author, they were just thrilled. Ever since, I’m welcomed by the fantastic staff, and introduced to the new people who come to work there. I’ve always been a huge fan of libraries, and even more so now.
Anyway, digressions aside… I do try and snatch an hour or even thirty minutes when I get home from work to write. I’ll sit on the couch while the kids come and go and my wife’s cooking dinner, we’ll put some music on and maybe pour a glass of wine. It’s a nice way to spend some time (sort of) together, and yet be productive.
9. What are your favorite pastimes?
I like to keep very active, so I play for two soccer teams (one indoor, one outdoor), and I have a regular squash game, too. I also try to swim a couple of miles a week, and ride my bike… Apart from exercise, I do a lot of stuff with my kids – sometimes it’s just driving them to their activities, but I love to watch them get involved in things they love. Of course, I travel whenever possible, I take a lot of little trips for signings or conferences, which I enjoy.
With all the writing, the day job, and family stuff, as you can imagine my pastimes get squeezed a little. But I have no complaints – in days gone by I would have listed ‘writing’ as a pastime, now I’m lucky enough to be able to do it as a second career.
10. What is your next book going to be about?
Well, I’m working on the next Hugo novel. It’ll be set partly in Paris and partly in Barcelona, but I think that’s all I’m allowed to say about it at this point (perhaps because I’ve not finished it yet…!)
I’ve also recently completed a stand-alone novel that’s in the hands of my agent. I’m very excited about it – it’s set here in Austin, it’s crime fiction but quite a lot darker than the Hugo series. Hopefully it won’t scare too many of my readers off!