Please welcome our December featured author, Mark Arsenault, as he talks about Gravewriter, the first title in his exciting new series featuring fallen journalist Billy Povich!
NMR: Tell us a bit about your new novel, Gravewriter.
MA: As a journalist, I spent two years doing prison interviews with the most despised killer in modern Rhode Island history. Those interviews became a newspaper series in The Providence Journal.
The remnants left over in my imagination became this book.
In my newspaper series, a killer who had done monstrous things tries to reclaim his lost humanity.
The book is the mirror image. A flawed but good man, obituary writer Billy Povich, is consumed with thoughts of deadly revenge against the man he blames for his ex-wifeís death. He wonders if a murder could, just this once, be considered justice. Once Billy ends up sitting on a jury, the case unfolding in court triggers him to action.
NMR: You're also a journalist, and it seems more than likely that you have seen more than your share of possible plots for a good novel. Why, instead of creating a macho kick butt character that travels the world and exposes conspiracies, did you choose to create one who has crashed and burned and now writes obits?
When the fiction world runs low of macho butt-kickers, Iíll pick up the slack.
In the meantime, I prefer Billy Povich, the Everyman action hero. He takes a punch better than he delivers one, and heís taken a lot of them, but thereís a special kind of toughness in a person like that.
NMR: Billy's choice of self-destruction is gambling; why does he continue with it after all he's lost, besides the obvious reasons of addiction?
MA: I know a lot of addicts. They are ABOSOLUTELY POSITIVE they will win this one last wager.
NMR: It's refreshing that you chose to focus on Billy's relationships with his father and son, leaving out the romance factor. Was this a hard sell to your publisher?
MA: Not a hard sell at all. Hmmm, thatís an interesting question. I hadnít thought about that until now.
I sold the concept to St. Martinís before I wrote the book, and the concept was 90-percent based on the main characters: the Povich men. [Father, son and grandson] Relationships among men are often subtle. Much is unspoken and only hinted at. Thatís a great challenge as a writer. And I think there is more room to be original when the main relationship in the book involves not a hero and heroine, but three generations of males in a semi-functional household.
NMR: You've created a cast of characters so remarkably realistic and captivating that readers will definitely clamor for more; are we to be so fortunate as to see them again?
MA: Absolutely. The Povich family will return in my next book, probably next year sometime. I finished the draft in mid-November. I enjoy the characters, too, and Iíll keep writing about the Poviches for as long as people want to read about them.
NMR: Now a couple of questions about your writing. To quote your website, you say about inspiration, "Writing a novel is a matter of mind over ass. You have to put your ass in the chair, and type". Is it honestly that easy?
MA: Thereís nothing easy about it, but thatís where the battle against inaction must be won. When the wind is rattling the windows on a cold New England night, itís tough to call up that huge file, scroll to the bottom and start typing.
My battle cry for writing is this: ďMake it longer!Ē Itís not exactly the Knute Rockne speech, I know, but it motivates me. I measure progress by words, not by time at the keyboard. A thousand words is an excellent day for me.
I donít outline (Iíve tried, Iíve triedÖI canít do it). So Iím open to any thought that strikes me as Iím writing. Ideas are self-perpetuating; each one reveals another once the first exists on the screen. I donít believe in The Muse. I am the muse. Inspiration is what happens after Iíve become engaged in writing. None of this happens until my ass is in the chair.
NMR: Writing fiction is obviously a whole different ball of wax than news writing; which differences, if any, do you find affect you the most when writing fiction?
MA: Fiction is more difficult because you have to make up your own characters and storyline. You start with a white canvas. News writing is more like paint-by-numbers: the characters and storyline are already there, if youíre observant enough to see them. Whatís common to both is the need to pick the right details and recognize the themes. When Iím interviewing someone for a news story, Iíll ask him or her for the details I need to illustrate what happened. What color was the room? Where was the murder weapon found? What kind of knife was it? What channel was playing on the TV when you found the body?
When I write fiction, I seek the same details from my imagination, or borrow them from real life. [This is a one-way street, of course. Journalism does not borrow from fiction. Itís immoral, for one. Plus thereís no need. Every detail in the world already exists for the picking.]
NMR: Which provides the greater buzz after a job well done, and which do you feel more comfortable with during?
MA: Iím equally comfortable writing fiction or news, once Iíve done all my reporting. Thereís no better feeling than settling in with a quart of java and a full notebook, when you KNOW youíre going to nail the story. Writing has always been my favorite part of both jobs.
The pleasure of my celebratory pale ale after completing a mystery book compares pretty well to the publication of a narrative non-fiction news series that might have taken me a year or more. They donít allow pale ale at The Journal.
NMR: When you finish a news story, it's off and published, then you're on to the next. Do you find letting your manuscripts, especially your characters, as easy to part with when finished?
MA: By the time Iím done with a manuscript, Iím so sick of it, itís a pleasure to be rid of the damned thing.
Then, after a month or so without typing a word of fiction, Iíll start thinking about the characters again and deciding what to write next.
NMR: And, finally, if you could say "thank you" to someone for getting you on this wondrous path, who would it be?
MA: My fiancťe, Jennifer, of course, who has seen a lot of the back of my head as I tap away. She is my first reader once Iím done.
And one moreÖthe person who first got me to write fiction was a heroin addict named Julia.
I met Julia around 1997, when I was working as a reporter in the redbrick milltown of Lowell, Mass.
People with nothing to lose are the most honest people youíll ever meet. She showed me her underground world, in which addicts with needle marks like little purple worms under their skin lived beneath railroad bridges that the rest of us drove over every day. This would have been a great newspaper story, one of the best Iíd ever found. But my editor at the time killed the story. Iíve never been sure why.
At the time, I was two missed paychecks from homeless, so I couldnít even quit.
Instead, I decided to tell the story of the addicts in fiction. That project became my first novel, Spiked.
I never learned what happened to Julia. I donít even know if she is alive. I wonder sometimes if she ever knew that the book is dedicated to her.
Mark Arsenault is a mystery author, and a general assignment reporter for The Providence Journal, in Rhode Island.
His third book, Gravewriter, was released Nov. 28 by St. Martinís Press. The thriller is the first in a new series to be set in Rhode Island, and introduces a new protagonistóBilly Povich, an obituary writer on the overnight shift at a metro newspaper.
In Gravewriter, Arsenault combines the deep character development of literature with a plot that races as fast as any crime novel. To create the characters and the settings, Arsenault drew from his 50 prison interviews with one of the most feared killers in the stateís history.
Arsenault has drawn on 17 years in journalism for inspiration in each of his novels.
His first book, Spiked, (2003, Poisoned Pen Press) grew out of an argument with his former newspaper editor in Lowell, Mass. After the editor rejected Arsenaultís feature story about homeless heroin addicts living under a railroad bridge, their story became the heart of a mystery about a murder inside the cityís heroin trade, and was a finalist for the Shamus Award for Best First Mystery.
His follow-up novel, Speak Ill of the Living, (2005, Poisoned Pen Press) was also inspired by two years of jailhouse interviews inside ďSupermax,Ē Rhode Island's most secure prison, which holds the most dangerous inmates in the state.
Arsenault was born in Massachusetts in 1967. He slouched through public schools, and then lollygagged through Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., with a double major in philosophy and English. He likes to say he graduated 8th in his college class, but thatís only because they handed out diplomas alphabetically...
Nobody outside the newspaper industry has ever wanted to hire him. He has been a newspaper delivery boy, a newspaper truck driver, a Sunday paper section ďinserter,Ē a paste-up artist, and, since 1989, a reporter. He cut his teeth in the news business at The Gardner News, in Massachusetts, as a reporter and columnist, before moving to the Marlboro Enterprise in the early 1990s. He joined The Sun, of Lowell, Mass., as a reporter in 1994. It was during his time in Lowell that Mark discovered the setting and the character inspirations for Spiked, his first novel.
In 1998, Mark got a reporting job at The Providence Journal, where he works today, covering politics and general news. His prison interviews became a highly controversial newspaper series in 2004, entitled ďInto Another World.Ē He also spent one year writing about the aftermath of the 2003 Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed 100 people.
When Mark is not at his keyboard, you might find him backpacking up the side of a mountain.
He lives in Warwick, Rhode Island.
Samples of his fiction writing and journalism are available on his Web page: www.markarsenault.net