Interview: Mark Pryor, author of The Bookseller

I’m thrilled to have Mark Pryor on the blog today! I just reviewed Mark’s brand new book, The Bookseller, and he was kind enough to answer a few of my questions, so please give him a warm welcome!

Mark, your first novel, The Bookseller, comes out tomorrow! How did you celebrate when you found out the novel sold?
Actually, it was a weird evening because I’d already planned a party at my house. You see, the CBS show 48 Hours was screening a murder case I tried a few months previously and thirty or so people were due to arrive and watch the show. I was on my way back from a famous Austin BBQ place, Salt Lick, with food for everyone when my agent called. She actually said three publishers had made offers, but one offered the largest advance and a three-book deal. Easy choice. Anyway, when I got home with the food I phoned my wife Sarah from the driveway, telling her to come out and meet me. I wanted her to tell her in private, away from everyone so she’d be the first to know but she dashed out of the house thinking something was wrong! Then I gave her a massive hug and told her the news. So my first national TV appearance and three book offers all in one night, it was crazy. In a very, very good way.

Will you tell us a bit about The Bookseller?
Sure. The story revolves around the disappearance of some booksellers, called bouquinistes, who operate their somewhat iconic stalls alongside the River Seine. My main character is Hugo Marston who is a former FBI profiler and now the head of security at the US Embassy in Paris. The first bouquiniste to go missing is a friend of his, Max, and Hugo actually witnesses his kidnapping. The cops don’t seem interested, for some reason, so Hugo starts looking himself.

What he discovers, though, surprises him. His old friend Max has a much more colorful past that he’d ever imagined. Hugo also hunts for two books Max was selling at the time of his kidnap, and checks out several other leads that pop up along the way. He has help from his long-time and extremely irreverent friend, Tom, who has connections to the CIA that he won’t even share with Hugo.

I hope that anyone who reads it and doesn’t know Paris gets a powerful urge to visit!

As a former crime reporter, and now an attorney, you have plenty of experience to draw from in your writing. That said, how much do you think your experience has helped in your writing, and what do you enjoy most about writing mystery?
I’ve had a life-long interest in crime, which maybe led to my two careers in that field: reporter and now prosecutor. So I’ve read about all kinds of crimes from over the centuries but I’ve also seen first-hand a number of crimes and crime scenes. So I’m lucky (if lucky can be the right word in this context!) because I have a deeper well of personal as well as second-hand knowledge to draw from.

But it’s a funny thing, those two jobs have actually hindered my writing in some ways. As a reporter and attorney, one’s writing is very factual, stripped down to the bone with no room for flights of fancy or the use of clever (but relevant!) metaphors. I’ve had to learn to loosen up and give myself permission to write a little from my imagination, have some fun with the language rather than just plonk down a factual, sequential narration of events.

As for what I enjoy about writing mysteries, I just love putting together a puzzle, creating a kind of riddle and making it easy to follow but hard to crack. It’s a real challenge but I love it.

Is there anything in particular that helps you write, gets the creative juices flowing?
Yes, I have to have just the right amount of distraction! I do almost all of my writing at the local library where there is enough background noise for me. There’s something about being in a library, too, a lot of inspiration or motivation being around all those books and readers. If it’s too quiet, I don’t know, little things distract me. Likewise, I don’t write at home because I have too many potential distractions (three, very cute little ones as well as TV, the internet etc).

In terms of story ideas, though, they tend to come to me as I’m walking or hanging out in the hot tub. I know, maybe that’s weird, but what can I say?! I write them down in a little notebook as soon as I can but some of my best ideas have come while walking the dog. And every time I take a vacation the ideas flow freely. I have two non-Hugo books I want to write when I can find the time, one of which came to me while at the beach this past summer.

Paris is a rich, historic setting, and where The Bookseller takes place. For you, how important is setting to a story? Are there other locations you’d like to write about in the future?
For me it is important. Or, for my stories it’s important. I’m sure the importance of location varies according to the writer and the particular story but I like to give people a real feel for the city, if I can. The River Seine, for example, really reflects Hugo’s moods and emotions – one minute it’s giving life to the city, through the traffic and tourists and the water itself. Then it becomes colder and more menacing as bodies start to pop up.

Absolutely, I’ve talked with my editor about having Hugo move around Europe. I think it’d be fun to have him (and therefore the reader) get to visit and experience different cities. I’m happy to take suggestions, too, if your blog readers have a favorite. I’m thinking London, of course, but maybe Barcelona, Prague, Berlin… so many choices. Of course, I’d have to do in-person research, right?

Do you outline before a project, or just start writing?
A bit of both. I start a book knowing who dies, why, and how they’re caught. Roughly. I do need a goal in mind and maybe an idea for a twist or two but I’m not good at detailed planning so once I have the basics in my head I’ll just sit down and start writing. The story inevitably changes, too, as new ideas pop up. I have to be a little bit organized though because I do like to keep the reader guessing. It’s almost a game for me because when I read I try and solve the mystery so I know people will do the same with mine. I hope to foil as many of them as possible and flying by the seat of my pants is a tough way to do that!

Who are your biggest literary influences (classic or contemporary?)
I suppose it would have to be the mystery writers I loved growing up. Agatha Christie for her incredibly clever plots. Likewise, Conan Doyle for his. And who doesn’t love Sherlock Holmes? About ten years ago I started reading Eric Ambler and I think I’ve gone through every one of his — now there’s a writer who can create tension and atmosphere without car chases and explosions. More recently, I have become addicted to Alan Furst’s pre-war spy novels. He’s very much in the Ambler tradition of dropping a regular guy into a tough spot, then making it tougher. He, too, is a master with words, with place and atmosphere. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we’re so lucky in the genre right now with people like William Landay, Tana French, and Gillian Flynn putting out great books.

If you could read one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
Great question! Catch-22. My favorite book of all time and I remember the first time I read it, my eyes just got wider and wider. I’d be fine with that happening again.

What do you enjoy in a good mystery?
I like more than action, and I suppose that makes me more of a mystery reader than a thriller reader, though the distinction can be blurry. I like someone who can create characters I care about, and story lines I can wonder about. Some authors are great at putting you alongside their hero, as if you’re in the book helping them figure stuff out. I just reread this answer and it’s horribly general… I suppose in my view there are several necessary elements: memorable characters (be they good or evil), a fun puzzle for me to help solve (aka “plot”), and something extra… maybe a fun location? Can’t beat an English country house for a mystery setting. Oh wait, my books are set in Paris, I shouldn’t say that!

What makes you want to put a book aside in frustration?
One-dimensional characters who are served up as foils for non-stop action. I threw one aside recently for that exact reason. Car chases and fights are hard to recreate on paper and the excitement, for me personally, is the tension before the fight or the fall-out after the car chase. But I’m pretty selective about which books I pick up so it’s rare for me to start something and find I don’t enjoy it. Thank heavens for friends and the Internet, right?!

I imagine balancing a writing schedule with being an Assistant DA and wrangling twin toddlers is demanding! How do you do it?
I snatch moments where I can. My schedule at the moment gives me Fridays off so I try to spend two hours on Fridays and two on Saturdays at the library. When I’m writing a book I spend almost every waking minute thinking about it so that when it comes time to write, I can get straight to it. I write quickly and because I plan each step out in my head, I don’t tend to do too much rewriting. Mostly, though, it’s thanks to my wife who not only takes care of the kids and house while I’m writing, but actively encourages me to go and write.

You grew up in England and are now living in Austin, TX! As a Texan, I’d say that makes you an honorary Texan.;) What did you love most about growing up in England, and what do you enjoy most about living in Austin?
Hey, I have the boots to prove it! I was very lucky, I grew up on a farm and had a best friend living nearby, so we had a giant playground to roam, woods to poke through, even a ramshackle, crumbling cottage on a dark country lane to explore. I’d tell you what we found in it, but I swore a blood oath…

And now, Austin is fantastic. So much to do here, and now that the kids are a bit older we’re starting to get out and about more. Obviously, the music scene here is huge but so is the film industry and the other arts, some great restaurants…. The weather’s great, too, apart from about ten weeks in the middle of the year – but after 25 years of rain and drizzle, I swore I wouldn’t complain about overly hot days. We’re very happy here, I can’t really imagine a better place to be a writer (maybe Paris?!) or raise a family.

When you manage to find some free time, how do you like to spend it?
Find what, now? Free time?? Actually, I do have a few moments here and there. I play soccer in a league every Sunday, and I also play squash and hit the gym several times a week. I also try to read a lot, which isn’t exactly a hardship. Otherwise, it’s about spending time with my wife and kids. We take trips when we can and at home we like to play card games in the evening, and have ‘movie night’ every Friday.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about upcoming projects or events (or anything at all!)?
Sure, thanks. I suppose I’d like to let people know I have a true-crime book coming out in January, about the ‘cold’ murder case I tried last year. It’s called As She Lay Sleeping. I think it’s as much a memoir as a traditional true crime story, as I aim to let people into how detectives and prosecutors go about trying and proving such a hard case. An inside look at the process, which I hope people will find interesting.

After that, for those who enjoy The Bookseller, the second in the Hugo Marston series will be out in the Spring, May I think. It’s called The Crypt Thief, and focuses on several mysterious break-ins at two of Paris’s famous cemeteries. Hugo has to figure out who’s stealing the bones of long-dead Cancan dancers, and why.
Also, I want to say: thank you for having me!
Keep up with Mark: Blog | Twitter | Website

Purchase The Bookseller:  Amazon | B&N

About The Bookseller:
Hugo Marston buys an ancient book from his friend Max, at the old bookseller’s stall beside the River Seine. Moments later, Max is kidnapped.

Hugo must now connect the old man’s bizarre history with the ancient book, and solve the mysterious disappearance of other booksellers.

Then, as he himself becomes a target, Hugo uncovers a conspiracy from Paris’s recent past that leads him deep into the enemy’s lair.

Just as the killer intended.

About Mark Pryor:
Mark grew up in Hertfordshire, England, and now lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and three young children.

Over the years, he has been many things: ski instructor, journalist, personal trainer, and bra folder (he lasted one day: fired for giggling at the ridiculousness of the job. If it’s any excuse, he was just nineteen years old.)

His first real career was as a newspaper reporter in Colchester, Essex. There, he covered the police and crime beat for almost two years. He also wrote stories on foreign assignments, including accounts from Northern Ireland while with the British Army, and from Romania where he covered the first-anniversary celebrations of that country’s revolution.

Mark moved to America in 1994, mostly for the weather.
He attended journalism school at the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill, and then law school at Duke University, graduating with honors and a lot of debt.

He is currently an Assistant District Attorney with the Travis County DA’s office. Or, as he tells his kids, “I help catch bad guys.” Simplistic, yes, but you try explaining the judicial system to six-year-old twins!

He has prosecuted a Mexican Mafia enforcer, murderers, rapists, robbers, and a transvestite prostitute. (He felt bad about the last one.) A cold case he prosecuted in 2011 was featured by the CBS news program 48 Hours. Here’s a link to the show. He is currently writing a non-fiction book, AS SHE LAY SLEEPING, about that case.

Mark adds:
“I write fiction because I can’t help myself, and I set my stories in Paris because I love the city and its people. And, of course, its food — snails are a direct (if slow) route to my heart.
“And if you’ve ever sat in a Paris cafe, watching the world pass by with a carafe of red wine in front of you, then I’m sure you can understand why Hugo lives in Paris. And if you haven’t done those things, well, I encourage you to do so. Just be sure to invite me along.”

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