Interview with Mark LaFlamme

Posted in Event, Writing at 12:01 am by Amber

For today I have an interview conducted with Mark LaFlamme through email.  If you have not read my review of his latest novel, DIRT: An American Campaign, you may want to read it first.  There are no spoilers in the review or this interview.  I’m happy Mark was able to spare some time from his busy schedule to answer my questions.  If you’d like to learn more about Mark or his novels, his web site is at http://www.marklaflamme.com/.

Amber: You’ve written several books but your day job is a crime reporter and journalist for The Sun Journal in Lewiston, Maine.  DIRT: An American Campaign takes place during the presidential primaries.  On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of crossover between crime reporting and the electoral process.  What prompted you to write this novel?

Mark LaFlamme: Believe it or not, my reporting background didn’t help at all. I write crime and largely ignore the clamor of politics. That was a real problem when I decided to tackle a story about a run for the presidency.

I had this half-waking dream about a man digging up his dead wife in the middle of the night. There was nothing more elaborate about this dream. Just that image: a very determined man with a shovel, digging a square hole to his bride. I liked the image a lot and eventually asked myself what kind of chaos such an act would bring about. At the time, I was reluctantly getting into the Hillary vs. Obama fight and really enjoying the campaign strategies of both. I started studying political strategy, learned a ton, and decided to introduce my grave-robbing protagonist to the concept. The result were some really great characters, some that the reader will love, some that they will despise. I think that’s the success of the book.

Amber: Was there a character in DIRT: An American Campaign that surprised you?

Mark LaFlamme: My characters surprise me all the time. They never do what I expect them to do or become the people I plan them to be. It’s a creepy part of the writing process.

In Dirt, I didn’t expect Billy Baylor, the drunken author, and Thomas Cashman, the mercenary, to bond so well. Their relationship is mostly antagonistic but they manage to reach some level of mutual respect. They bicker all the time and it was just a blast to write that dialogue.

I really expected Cashman to be more ominous than likeable. He’s a gun-for-hire, after all. But his wisecracking cynicism came to be endearing and most of my writers like him a lot. They save the real love for Billy, though.

Amber: The basic plotline of DIRT: An American Campaign follows a mercenary’s search for Calvin Cotton and his dead wife before the grave robbery scandal is discovered by Governor Frank Cotton’s opponents.  The reader walks away from the book asking questions about what is acceptable behavior for meeting ambitions and how far is too far for loved ones.  Was that intentional?

Mark LaFlamme: Yes, that was intentional. But I also think it should prompt the reader to ask how much of these win-at-all-cost tactics are at work in real world politics. I have no doubt that my premise, while shocking, does not depart from the reality of high politics. We will never see all the skeletons in all the closets. I don’t know if we could handle it if the truth about all of our leaders were revealed.

Amber: How long does it take you to complete a novel?  

Mark LaFlamme: I write a minimum of 2,000 words a night, banging them out in the hours after midnight, mostly. When things get really hot, I’ll produce more like 5,000. At that pace, it takes me just a few weeks to come up with a completed manuscript. Of course, that’s the easy part. I’ll spend more time going through the book and cleaning up various messes – inconsistencies, sloppy writing, etc. Then I’ll pass the book on to a handful of test readers to get their reaction to the story. That’s always a nerve wracking period. Often, they will love something I thought was weak, or fail to be impressed by something I thought was powerful.

The first draft of “Dirt: An America Campaign” was completed in about six weeks. The tweaking and editing took another three or four.

Amber: With each novel, does the writing and editing process get any easier?

Mark LaFlamme: With each novel you tend to make new mistakes. You learn from those and take the lessons into the next book. For me, though, each new work brings about a new set of problems. Sometimes, I’ll write with fingers of fire and then find that my plot has stalled and I have to get it jumpstarted somehow. That’s frustrating, but it is usually worked through with some “Aha!” moment that comes when you’re not thinking about it. Love the “Aha!” moments.

For me, the most difficult part of the process is the beginning. Once you force yourself into writing chair, with the help of chains and locks if you have to,
you’ll be okay. Get a sentences behind you and the glorious trip into a weird new world has begun.

Amber: Have you have any memorable moments on book tours?

Mark LaFlamme: I was at a signing at Borders in South Portland, Maine to promote “The Pink Room” a few years ago when a woman came in with her mastiff puppy. She wanted a photo of the author with her dog so we put it up on my little table full of books. There was no food being served in the store that day so the managers allowed it. The dog, named Milo, ended up staying with me the remainder of the afternoon and I swear, he helped sell a dozen books. I think for my next tour, I should get a puppy.

Amber: Is there anything about DIRT: An American Campaign you would like to share that I haven’t asked?

Mark LaFlamme: It was just a ball to research this book. To write one of the opening scenes, I needed an up-close look at a burial vault for the sake of authenticity. A local funeral director was kind enough to take me to the cemetery, open up one of the vaults and let me look around. He explained how the tomb could be secretly entered and how coffins could be opened if a person were so inclined. It was sort of a Grave Robbery 101 that I enjoyed. At the same time, I was eager to get out of the tomb.

It’s very dark in there.

At another cemetery, I was allowed to climb into a freshly dug grave in order to pose for a picture taken by newspaper photographer. It’s a little unsettling down there in the dirt. But now I can say that I have literally risen from the grave. And I say it often.

Please also tell your readers that I need to pay for an expensive medical procedure and to please buy my books. Or if you want to tell them something truthful, relate that I would love to hear from anyone who reads my work, whether they love it or hate it. As a journalist, I’ve always remained extremely approachable, answering every call and every letter I get with enthusiasm. I’d like to be the same as a novelist. Also, I’m very lonely.

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  1. Lisa Damian said,

    December 17, 2008 at 7:44 am

    To the author:

    I love that you take inspiration from your dreams. Many of my own plot ideas, characters, or scene details come directly from my dreams (or more likely, my nightmares).

    I enjoyed hearing about your writing process, and I also appreciated your humorous anecdotes from the book signing puppy mascot to rising from the grave.

  2. Cheryl Malandrinos said,

    December 17, 2008 at 11:28 am

    Great interview. This sounds like a book for me.

  3. Rhonda said,

    December 19, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    Great interview Amber. Between it and your book review I think I’ve just added another title to my TBR pile 🙂

  4. Amber said,

    December 19, 2008 at 4:29 pm

    Thanks, Rhonda! I’ve always liked interviews that included more than just publicity for the current book so I tried my best to come up with interesting questions.

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