Shifting Genres and Collaboration: A two-part conversation with J. Mark Bertrand
I lucked onto J. Mark Bertrand's blog one day last summer when I was scouring the Internet for good advice about novel structure. I read a couple of his posts and recognized some of the advice as being from my old mentor, Dan Stern. I looked up Mark's background and found out that yes, he too had been at UH, and yes, he too had mixed feelings about changing genres. Emails flew back and forth, and I eventually learned that he had not one, but two novels coming out over the next year: Beguiled, co-authored with Deeanne Gist, and Back on Murder, due out this summer. J. Mark was gracious enough to do an interview here at BTO, and in fact, his answers are so meaty that I'm going to split the interview into two parts. In this part of the interview, we discuss his shift from literary to crime writing, and the process of writing a collaborative novel. Be sure to look out for part two, where J. Mark will reveal his secret for shaping the novel before a word is even written.
You just published Beguiled, which is romantic suspense, and your crime novel Back on Murder comes out this summer, yet your background is in literary fiction. What was it like shifting from literary to genre, and what have been the biggest gains and challenges?
On one level, it’s been nerve-wracking. I have a recurring nightmare in which I’m forced to appear before the paraded grad students in the University of Houston MFA program so the epaulets can be ritually struck off my Lit Fic uniform. I comfort myself with the thought that what I’m writing now isn’t terribly different than what I’ve always written. The only difference is that someone came along and told me it was crime fiction. I don’t believe in “writing what you know,” but I do think it’s sound advice to write what you’re good at. For me, that’s turned out to be crime.
The art of storytelling doesn’t change from genre to genre, and I’m more interested in telling a good story than a good genre story, if you see what I mean. The conventions are there, and for the most part I respect them, but at the end of the day I’m making use of the genre to tell a certain kind of tale about the detective as existential seeker and skeptic. The questions are forensic but also epistemological. The threads of the story that most appeal to me have to do with what we can never know, let alone prove in court.
For writers who’ve identified with the literary label but now write genre, there’s an expat quality to the experience. You maintain your allegiance to the homeland while growing increasingly native. And in your adopted country, there are old-timers griping about all the foreigners moving in and ruining the place.
Crime fiction is the only genre with a section in the NYTRB, even if the books are all lumped together, so it has some literary pretensions. Reading the best crime writers these days gives the lie to the old saw about literary books being character-driven and genre books being plot-driven. There’s a lot of character-driven genre fiction out there, and I happen to be writing some of it. But like I said, it’s not that different than what I was attempting before, if you don’t count the gunplay.
Beguiled is a collaborative project between you and romance writer Deeanne Gist. How did that come about, and what is it like to co-write a novel? Did each of you write certain parts, or did you write the whole thing together?
When Dee found out I was going to write a crime series set in Houston, she floated the idea of collaborating on a book. She’s a bestselling author of historical romance, and while that may seem like a stretch, I’d once taken a course at
To begin with, we tried passing the manuscript back and forth every time the male/female point of view shifted. That proved cumbersome, though, so we worked out a better system. I wrote a draft, which she revised. Then she extensively rewrote, and I revised. Going into it, I assumed having two authors on the same book would cut the work in half. In reality, I think we managed to double it! But Dee and I have been friends a long time, so the ‘work’ was also great fun.
When Dee was asked recently what the biggest challenge in collaboration was, she answered with a pair of photos. One was of a shirtless male model showing off his abdominal definition. The other was the late French actor Philippe Noiret in his late sixties suited up and brandishing a Beretta. Her idea of a leading man versus mine! Dee won that particular argument, to the joy of romance readers everywhere. My Noiret-inspired character did make it into the book, though, in the shape of the sinister “cherub” Marcel Gibbon.