Crime authors spill their guts about writing...
This week: Brad Parks
Tell us about yourself.
Where do you most like to do your writing?
I write at a Hardee’s restaurant, which is like a less-healthy McDonalds (if such thing exists). It’s basically me and a cabal of old people who are there for the 64-cent senior coffee. We have a lot in common: I’m writing about people who are dead, they’re talking about people who are dead. My agent worries constantly about the long-term effects of second-hand grease inhalation. But Hardee’s has free refills on Coke Zero and no wireless internet access—and thus, no possibility I will be distracted by shark videos—so it has become my go-to writing spot.
I’m a refugee of the crumbling newspaper industry who has no marketable skills besides writing, so I became a novelist. The transition was a little confusing at first: With newspapers, you get in trouble for making stuff up; with books, you get in trouble if you don’t make stuff up. But otherwise, things have gone far better than I had any right to expect. It turns out making stuff up is a total blast.
Do you ever get writer’s block? How do you tackle it?
I have developed a patented three-step process for dealing with writer’s block. Step One is self-loathing, wherein I think about all the ways in which I am the worst writer who ever lived. Step Two is moaning to my wife about how awful I am and how this time—this one time—really is different from all the others. Step Three is going for a long run, wherein I usually solve all my problems within about five miles or so. I go through this process a minimum of three to four times a week when I’m drafting a novel. My thighs are like rocks.
How do you go about plotting your book?
I write down every idea for the novel on note cards, which I then attach to a corkboard with the appropriate colour pin. The system is actually quite intuitive: Orange for scenes where something blows up, green if there is a reference to photosynthesis, chartreuse if the scene takes place on a Tuesday, and so on. I then connect the pins with opposite-colour string—to
bring out the conflict in my story—then use the string to weave a bracelet, which I... Oh, that’s right, I’m colour blind. So, yeah, I pretty much just write whatever comes.
How easy/hard was it to get your first break?
Say Nothing is my first novel to come out in the UK, so if we’re going to define that as my first break, let’s see... I turned to fiction full time in 2009. Since that time, I’ve written 15 novels. Six are only published in America. Five will likely never be published at all. Four I am contractually banned from talking about publicly. One (it’s called The System) is scheduled to come out next year. I’ve had three agents, two publishers, and was sure I was going to have to quit and sell real estate to support my family more times than I can count. So, yeah, it’s been a piece of cake.
How has your writing style developed over time? And the way that you approach writing?
I started writing professionally when I was 14, covering high school sporting events for my local newspaper. The results were predictably gruesome. (Like, seriously, the first article I wrote was barely in English). But what I discovered fairly quickly is that, while I wasn’t very good at it, I loved writing. What’s more, I loved being read. When I’d hear from a reader that my words had make some connection with them, that thrilled me. Still does. For as much as my writing has changed—or at least for as much as I hope it’s changed, given how awful I was at first—that basic desire to engage and entertain the reader is still what drives me.
What book do you wish you had written?
Quotations from Chairman Mao. It’s sold something like 900 million copies—the bestselling book of all time. Just once I’d love to see that royalty statement.
If you could be a character in any book, including one of your own, who would you be?
I’d like to be the spider, Charlotte, from the children’s classic Charlotte’s Web. Every time she writes something, people flock from all over to read it. Even when she writes something inane, like “SOME PIG,” no one cares. They’re just amazed she can write at all. That’s the kind of low bar I need for my own work.
Do you ever surprise yourself with what you’ve written?
All. The. Time. It’s one of the true pleasures of this crazy business. I once tried to write a book where I plotted out everything in advance. It had three storylines that all had to arrive in the same place at the same time, so I created this 18,000-word outline, measuring everything down to the last millimetre. Each day I woke up knowing exactly what I had to write. There was no room for the plot to surprise me, and it made the writing feel like Paint By Numbers. It might have looked like art... but it wasn’t really art. I ended up throwing the book away. There was simply no energy on the page.
What scene in your latest book did you most enjoy writing? And why?
I don’t know if I enjoyed it, but writing the last scene made me cry like a fountain. It not only made me cry when I wrote it, I cried every single time I edited it. My connection to the characters was just so strong.
What’s the secret of your success?
Stubbornness. I’d like to think I have more of it than most. A small anecdote to illustrate my point: When my wife was in grad school, she had to learn how to administer intelligence tests and I served as her test dummy. Literally. There was one test—I think it was for second-graders—where you had to rearrange blocks. The scoring was a sliding scale based on how quickly you could complete the task. You didn’t get any points if it took longer than two minutes, but the test administrator couldn’t tell you to stop. I kept fumbling with those stupid blocks for twenty-six minutes before I finally solved that second-grade problem. But that’s the great thing about writing. There’s no stopwatch on you. I may not be the smartest guy in the world, but I am willing to bash my head against the screen until the words come out right.