Today Mulholland Books has the great pleasure of publishing two chilling, supernatural-tinged thrillers: The Stolen Ones by Richard Montanari and We Are Here by Michael Marshall. While the two novels make for complementary reading, they couldn’t be more different. The Stolen Ones centers on killers who haunt forgotten catacombs and our dreams; We Are Here ventures that some of us really are being followed, but not by anyone we could imagine.
In the exchange that follows, Michael Marshall and Richard Montanari discuss their new novels and question each other about setting, genre, the writing process, and that all-important question for any writer: “How do I start?”
Michael Marshall: What was the genesis moment for The Stolen Ones? The idea that, in retrospect, caused the book to eventually exist? Was it recent—kind of like “This is what the next book’s going to be about”? Or did this book have to wait its turn to be ready to be written?
Richard Montanari: All my books begin with a “what if?” The Stolen Ones began with “What if the dreams of a killer could be implanted in another human being?” I put the idea on a shelf for a while, until I was able to gather together some of the shadowy research that has gone on in this area. The dream therapies in The Stolen Ones can happen. Once I was satisfied with that, the story took off.
We Are Here moves effortlessly between first and third person. Did you know from the start that John would be a first person character? What are the challenges of writing a novel from alternating points of view?
Marshall: I started using the combination of first and third back with The Straw Men, purely because I thought it might be interesting. I hoped to combine the intimacy of the first person with the broader perspective and freedom of the third person, and I’ve been doing it so long now that to be honest I’ve stopped noticing I’m even doing it — except when it comes to selecting the first person voice for a particular novel.
John was the obvious choice for We Are Here, partly because he’d been the first person voice in a previous novel, Bad Things (though it might have be interesting to switch him to third, precisely because of that), and also because he and Kristina form the backbone of the novel as a whole. The first person needs to be the person inside the book, the mainspring of the story’s action. John’s that guy.
Are you a planner as well as a writer? Do you hold this stuff in your head, or write it down? How much of what’s going to happen, big and small, do you need to know before you’re comfortable firing up the word processor and starting?
Montanari: I’d love to be a better planner and outliner. I’m convinced I would write more if I were. Usually, when I begin, I have an idea about who is doing the very bad things and why. From there the plot begins to take vague shape. The best part of writing a series, with recurring characters, is that I have a pretty good idea how they will react to certain things. They still surprise me, though.
Marshall: Which comes first—plot or research? Do you come up with story elements and then seek information to confirm or substantiate or support them? Or do you find ideas coming out of things you were reading for the fun of it, or places you just happened to be?
Montanari: The more I write, the more I realize (thankfully) that not everything is a good idea. I do a good bit of walking in circles at a running track trying to establish the connective tissue between two wholly disparate elements. Sometimes I’ll move forward anyway, but most of the time it is a matter of residue. If I can’t shake an idea, I have to deal with it. For me, research is the fun part. If I don’t know too much about a subject, I feel I can infuse a story with a sense of discovery. Research for The Stolen Ones took me to the sewer system beneath Philadelphia and to a mental health facility in northern Estonia.
Marshall: The Stolen Ones feels very firmly rooted in its city and locale. Is that important to you—the sense of place as character? How important to you is it to be able to see specific locations in your mind’s eye?
Montanari: I think sense of place is very important. The city of Philadelphia is one of the oldest in the United States. It has a long history, a diverse citizenry, many ghosts, and an underground culture that lends itself well to the stories I want to tell. I’ve used settings other than big cities in my work, but I always come back to the urban locale. Philly has more than one hundred neighborhoods. I am always discovering something new.
With its many parks and backstreets, New York lends itself perfectly to the “following” aspects of We Are Here. Did you ever consider setting those parts of the novel elsewhere?
Marshall: No — New York City was always going to be the venue once I decided to write the novel, not least as it’s effectively a character within it, too.
Your novels often take the mystery/thriller theme and imbue it with a strong vein of what one would have to call—much-maligned term though it is—“horror.” Is this a conscious attempt to blend genres, or simply where your imagination takes you? Do you enjoy playing with these distinctions, or do you wish people would stop trying to impose labels and let you write what you damn well please?
Montanari: It is purely unconscious. In fact, it never occurred to me that there were elements of horror in my work until a review pointed it out. Most of my work is, at its heart, police procedural, which means that the narrative is bound by certain rules and measures—a body is found, police show up, science is collected, witnesses are interviewed, investigations begin. Perhaps it is because I am drawn to basements, catacombs, abandoned psychiatric hospitals, and crawlspaces—fertile landscapes all for horror stories—that components of my work are considered horror. That said, some of the greatest writers of all time (certainly my favorites) have written horror. I don’t mind the label at all. For some reason, my short fiction is more mainstream horror, and my screenwriting is fantasy. I think form often determines genre for me.
I believe I read that The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub was instrumental in your decision to try your hand at fiction. Why that book (one of my favorites), and how do you think it has influenced you?
Marshall: Partly just because it came into my life at the right time. I think I’d started to realize I wanted to write, but hadn’t established the kind of story and imaginative landscape. I read The Talisman and immediately thought “Yeah, that. That kind of thing.” Quite apart from the majestic spread of the story, it represents an almost perfect combination of prose styles, seamlessly mixing the emotional warmth of King’s voice with the poised precision of Straub.
Montanari: You’ve written successfully in a number of genres and forms. When you have an idea for a story, do you instantly know where it will fit in your body of work? Have you ever started a project in one genre or form, gotten into it, and realized you needed a different set of narrative tools and rules to make the story work?
Marshall: I always work outwards from the idea, and so I tend to know where I’m going when I start. The factor that drives the decision about where a novel will sit in the—for me—rather nebulous and malleable genre landscape is that core notion, and it will always announces itself as being of one type or another. It either works within a totally “consensual” universe, or requires the doors of perception to be opened. I guess what I enjoy doing most is opening those doors as little as I have to—taking “otherworldly” ideas and grounding them as firmly within reality as possible, because they have much more resonance that way.
Montanari: What is the determining factor for you that an idea should be a short story, a novel, a teleplay, a screenplay? Is it the number of POV characters you have in mind, or something else?
Marshall: I seldom write original screenplays, though I have a few ideas stacked up for when I’ve got the time. I tend to think in fairly low-budget terms for the screen, and am drawn to ideas that need a simple, direct, visual treatment.
With prose choices it’s usually a matter of scope, how much time and space—and how many characters and locations—are required to support the central idea and story. I love the way you can come in fast and hard with a short story, say what you’ve got to say, and call it done. Sometimes that sparse, pared-down approach is the very best way of communicating an idea or emotion or atmosphere. Novels can be sparse too, but they need a breadth of ideas. Shorts can be just a single one.
Montanari: Congratulations on the BBC America project, Intruders. If you’re permitted to do so, what can you tell us about your role in the production, and what is involved in developing a novel into a series?
Marshall: My role is primarily being an extra pair of eyes on the scripts as they’re developed, and consulting on possible arcs for future seasons. This first series will effectively encompass the whole of the novel, and so the next step is working out how to develop the idea in a compelling way in future years. I’ve been in meetings around this, and have provided some initial discussion notes toward another four seasons.
The main challenge in developing a novel into a series is working out what to cut, what to add, how to show rather than tell, and how to move everything around to preserve suspense while proving the audience with enough information and drama to maintain their interest and excitement. Luckily, in Glen Morgan (lead writer, exec producer and showrunner for the series), they have a master of the form, with the experience to make it all work. I’ve read the first four episodes—and was present at the Table Read with the cast, just before principal photography started last week—and they’re looking great. It’s very exciting.
Interested in hearing more from Richard Montanari and Michael Marshall? Both authors have forthcoming events: on March 5th, Montanari will participate in a public Q&A with Tess Gerritsen on Goodreads. And on March 10th, Michael Marshall will be chatting with Malinda Lo and Kaye Wells in a Google Hangout moderated by Amal El-Mohtar. Please join us for these conversations!