Interview with Author J. Mark Bertrand
1. When did you begin to write?
I had a grade school teacher who made us write reviews of books we ordered through the Weekly Reader. Instead, I started making up reviews of books I invented, attributing them to authors whose names were in the Reader. The teacher must have wondered why the Weekly Reader books had gotten so violent all the sudden, but she always gave me an A. After that, I figured writing stories must be my calling.
2. The main character of the Roland March series is, of course, Roland March. Where did you get inspiration for creating him?
Flaubert said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” I could say the same about Roland March. He’s somewhere inside me, my dark, cynical, wounded, yet somehow idealistic self. When I tell people who know me this, they’re always surprised. I assume it’s because I’m such a tough guy in real life and March seems soft in comparison.
3. Where did you get the inspiration to come up with the Roland March series?
I wanted to write about Houston. That city is the living embodiment of everything we tend to think is wrong about America, and yet it somehow manages to totter on. Like March, I have a love/hate relationship with the place. His badge is my passport into the underbelly of that place.
4. What do you say to people who say that fiction is useless and one can learn nothing from it?
Fiction is pretty useless in comparison to some things. When they’re trying to rebuild the world after the zombie apocalypse, I’m going to be embarrassed to admit to my rag-tag team of fellow survivors that the unique skill I bring to the equation is making stuff up for money. Fortunately, I’m pretty good at making head shots, too.
5. How long did it take you to write Back on Murder, your first solo novel?
Back on Murder took a while because there were some false starts as I struggled to find March’s voice. In the original manuscript, March didn’t narrate. It was a very different book, a much easier book to write. Doing everything through his eyes can be challenging. But I like a challenge. The first pages were written sometime in 2007, before I’d signed the contract, and I turned in the finished book in 2009.
6. How long does it take you to write a novel now?
I spend about a year writing a book––writing, revising, deleting, crying, re-writing. Let me put it this way: I give myself a year. There’s a deadline, but it’s far enough in advance that I have time to go back and start over if I want to.
7. What are your favorite hobbies?
There’s a workshop in my attic which I use for bookbinding and leather work. It’s full of these low-tech wooden presses, hand tools, hides of leather with odd bits cut out. Writing a novel can be very intense intellectually. You have to keep 300 pages worth of story in your head all the time. It’s relaxing to get away from that and work with your hands. Over Christmas, I took the manuscript of the third Roland March novel, typeset and printed it, folded the pages into signatures and sewed them into books, then bound them in various types of covers. So I made those books in every sense––I wrote them, designed them, printed them, bound them. That was very satisfying. They probably look like a monkey did the work, and I can’t guarantee they won’t fall apart, but still …
8. What is your favorite time-period?
The 1450s, the 1560s, the 1640s, the 1790s, the 1890s, and the 1930s.
9. Time for a random question: Do you prefer Kraft or Veleeta macaroni & cheese?
I’ve never had either one. Ignorance doesn’t usually prevent me from giving an opinion, but in this instance, I’ll keep mum.
9. Who are your favorite authors?
No particular order, and leaving plenty out: Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Georges Simenon, James Lee Burke, Walker Percy, Shelby Foote, Evelyn Waugh, Barry Unsworth.
10. Have you considered writing any books outside the crime genre?
I have written books outside the crime genre. I’m an omnivore when it comes both to reading and writing. There aren’t many things, however, that can’t be made more interesting with a bit of murder.
11. If anything, what do you eat while you are writing?
I eat mostly crow and sour grapes and the bread of adversity, and I drink a lot of coffee, too.
12. Do you listen to music while you write?
A friend and fellow novelist creates a playlist to put him in the mood for each book, and I’ve followed suit more or less––though my playlist for Pattern of Wounds served pretty much unchanged for Nothing to Hide, apart from an injection of Johnny Cash, more March’s thing than mine.
13. What is next for Roland March? How many books can we expect?
The contract was for three books, but Nothing to Hide doesn’t end with March dead or anything final like that. I plan to write about him for as long as people will keep reading about him, though he may take breaks from time to time.
14. When done with the Roland March series, what do you plan on doing with your writing career?
Do you do something with a writing career, or does it do something to you? I haven’t figured that one out yet. All I know is, I want to keep writing good books, finding new readers, and exploring new aspects of the world around me. Thomas Narcejac, writing about Simenon, said that “the novel is a method of understanding which one has to use when the means of scientific or philosophic investigation become inadequate.” With that in mind, my plan is to continue my investigations indefinitely.