Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Mark Greaney: The Back Story

Posted By on Wed, Sep 29, 2010 at 10:59 AM

It was back in July, and Mark Greaney, author of The Gray Man, last year's hit thriller starring international hit-man Court Gentry, was just back from New York City, where he was a featured author at this year's ThrillerFest. And when I talked to Greaney by phone, he was back where he often is — at work, writing, this time on his third Court Gentry book.

But by the time you read this, Greaney's second Gentry book, On Target (in trade and mass-market paperback from Jove Books), will have reached its official publication date: September 28th. Greaney kicked things off at Borders in Germantown last night. But if you missed the event, he'll be at Cover to Cover Bookstore in Arlington on Thursday, September 30th (6:30 p.m.). And as for Greaney's whereabouts during our phone interview last July?

As Greaney said, "I do all my daytime writing at this East Memphis Starbucks. I don't know how people work at home. There's always a million things to do there."

Among the things to do this day: me to ask and Mark Greaney to answer a few questions:

It's a standard question, but I'll ask it anyway. How easy was it for you to get an agent?
Mark Greaney: Easy? Yes and no. I was kind of lucky. I'd spent 15 years writing a book, and when it was done, I thought every mistake you can make as a writer was in that book. So I wrote something else — another book, in six months. I was real proud of it, but I didn't know how to get an agent.

So I thought, Who's my favorite author? I'll find out who his agent is, and I'll pursue that guy. Well, I really like Ralph Peters, who writes great thrillers. His agent is Scott Miller, and I saw that Scott was going to be at a conference in San Diego. This was February of '06. So I went to the conference, and I gave Scott 20 pages of the book. He said it was the best thing that had ever been handed to him at a writers' conference. And then he said, "Well, that's not actually saying much."

But he ended up not going with that book. He thought the story line not very marketable. It was about the Bosnian civil war, 12 years after the war. But Scott said if I can write something else, he'd love to look at it, work with me. That was more encouragement than I'd gotten from anybody in any way. So I banged out another book, and he said great. He agreed to represent me. And we found a publisher in a couple months.

Jove Books, part of the Penguin Group.
After Penguin bought the first book, they bought two more. So I'm on a three-book deal.

My books are due to the publisher in November of each year, but last year was a real stressful time. It was my first deadline as a writer in my entire life. In the past, nobody cared if I wrote or not. I'm a little ahead of the game this year.

Your third Court Gentry book is going to be called "Ballistic"?
Yeah, it's the book keeping me up days and nights right now.

And you've just returned from New York City.
Penguin is doing a lot more with this book than they did for the first one, because The Gray Man sold more than they expected it to. So I had meetings with them. They filmed a video of me that they'll use in bookstores.

I also have a two-book contract with another publisher — to be a ghost writer for a guy who's had a best-seller. I can't say the name of the writer, but it's a big deal. December 1st is the due date for the ghost-writer project.

You were also at the ThrillerFest conference in New York. How'd it go?
I spoke at the conference and did a booksigning, which was nice. You're sitting there with other authors, and you're so afraid nobody will come up to you. You're going to be that guy everybody feels sorry for.

And what did you hear there from readers? What do you hear generally?
It's weird ... the demographics. I've never written FOR anybody. I just write a book that I'd like to read ... that I'd think is cool. But I get hundreds of e-mails from people or people at signings. They could be a 60-year-old woman, a 20-year-old man. My readers are no one thing.

People like the action. People like the settings. I hear everything. They like my "voice" or the way the story's told. It's no one thing I can put my finger on.

I've had people send me stuff to read, and sometimes I can sort of see what I don't understand about the writing, but I can't explain it to them. I'd be an awful writing teacher. I mean, I can't imagine telling people what to do and not to do.

I don't know. I don't feel like I'm any different a writer now that I've published. But suddenly you're looked at differently. I've sold the film rights to The Gray Man. Now people expect me to have answers about their writing, whatever. Unfortunately, I don't.

You want to talk about the pacing in "The Gray Man" and now "On Target"?
I like it fast. On Target is a longer book. It gets a little more introspective, more into the character of Court Gentry, his back story. The hero runs into people from his past. The action is a little more spread out. So it will be interesting to hear what readers say about it — whether they think it feels slower. But gunfight for gunfight, action scene for action scene, it's certainly not slower.

There are points in On Target, though, where Court can sit back. Some of his fears — the most dangerous aspects he's facing — are on the inside as well as the outside.

Do you sometimes wonder if the action in your novels is too over-the-top?
I take the action seriously. Yes, it's over the top, but there's nothing medically that couldn't happen. That's the case in all action thrillers. Court is pretty darn lucky. But I'll defend aspects of the realism.

You mentioned that some of Court's fears aren't only outside. They're inside too. Like this business of his with pain killers.
In On Target, it's three months after The Gray Man and Court's surgeries are over. Some of the worse pain is over. But I'm a guy who went through several back surgeries. I had a whole bunch of pain medicine, and I definitely took 'em when I hurt. It's no joke. I went through a lot physically for a couple years, so I can totally relate.

Who IS Court Gentry?
Court's a guy whose skill set is guns. He's good with them. But he finds himself in situations where that really doesn't do him any good. He's frustrated, almost like a child. In Ballistic, he wonders if he's gone too far. He wonders if he's turned into something that he can't turn away from. But I had lunch with my editor recently and he said, "I never want to see this guy too nice."

That's the danger. Court isn't the type of guy to get a sidekick or a dog. This is a guy who's barely hanging on. He can flip the switch off his humanity and get to work. His "compass" doesn't point true north. His solution to problems is to shoot his way out. My "good guy" isn't a white hat, and the bad guys aren't the black hats. The bad guys have their reasons for doing what they do.

I hate these books or movies where the bad guy is basically the plot device and not a person.

In On Target, the bad guy is the president of Sudan, and he's wanted for war crimes. When I'm writing from his point of view, I see him as crafty, a little charming, a man with an objective. He doesn't get up in the morning and think, I'm gonna do evil today.

Can we talk about the weaponry in your books?
The weaponry's easy. I own most of the guns used in the novels. I like to shoot.

There's a training ground called Tactical Response a couple hours north of Memphis. It's preeminent in the country for training high-risk contractors, special-activities divisions, SWAT teams, members of the French army, Belgians, Brazilians, etc. I train with those guys a lot. And it's not just training in how to shoot a gun. I stay in a team room with these guys. I've learned to incorporate some of their dialogue, their mannerisms, the way they talk.

But it's very realistic training. You have bullets whipping by your head. You have to pay attention to what's going on, because if you jig left instead of right, you're going to have a bad afternoon. The weapons are the easy part.

But I've had to learn about these things, understand them in layman's terms — whether it's explosives or aircraft, whatever. So I subscribe to open-source data bases. Jane's Intelligence Review or Jane's Defense Weekly. It's all nonclassified information. Or I'll just ask people.

You've done a lot of world travel.
For On Target? No, not so much. The meat of the book is set in Sudan, and though it's not illegal for Americans to go there, for the advance I got, I would've spent every penny getting into and out of Sudan. I'd have had to have a "minder." It's a tough deal. But I'd be more concerned about the treatment I got from Homeland Security on the way back from Sudan than I would be by the Sudanese government. I'd have things stamped on my passport. I'd have a body-cavity search every time I flew. But I did spend a couple months in Mexico researching Ballistic. I was in the drug cartel area.

Well, when you see the federal police on the street, it doesn't mean that everything's okay. When you see soldiers with HK rifles and wearing balaclavas ... when you see those guys, that doesn't mean there's no cartel presence in the area. The corruption is pervasive. I saw a sign down there with a mobile phone number to call if you want to join a drug cartel. It's overt.

I get the feeling you're not troubled much by writer's block.
I always have ideas. Last night, for example, I had an idea for my ghost-writer project, which made me want to drop everything and work on it for an hour.

If I stopped and thought about my two deadlines this year, I'd probably freak out and just leave the country. As long as I sit here and write, everything's fine.

But writer's block ... You can always go somewhere else in a book and work on that. I honestly feel that it's a little bit of cop-out to stop writing. As if writers have to write linearly.

If I'm stuck in a place, which happens all the time ... Right now, I've got to get my guy into an armored car, and I don't know how to do it. So I moved to another part of the book where I'm not stuck. Until, that is, the deadline's getting close, when you've got to dot your i's and cross your t's ...

I think a lot of writer's block is people who just don't have a good, general idea of what their story is about. But I'm, in fact, more of a person who doesn't think he's productive enough. I'm not proud of it. It's something I'm working on. If I write three hours today, I'm thinking I should have worked for six. So, I have my own problems, but it's not coming up with groovy ideas.

The obligatory question: Where does the screenplay for "The Gray Man" stand?
It's totally out of my hands. And I get more questions about that. It's funny. People perk up when they hear about the screenplay.

A doctor asked me what I did for a living. I said, "I'm a writer." And he said, "Oh, when's the movie coming out?" I said, sarcastically, that the film option's been sold. But what I wanted to say was, "What if the book hasn't been optioned?" I'd just be a writer that people make smartass comments about.

That's so unfair. I've got four books due in the next 18 months, and I probably won't sell a screenplay on any of them. I guess I'm a loser, because I'm just a guy with five books in the hopper, which doesn't garner any respect. It kind of depresses me.

So, I've had this conversation with people — a lot: "Hey, what IS going on with the movie?" Which is fine, but I won't know anything until they exercise the option, hand me a check that says, yeah, we're making the movie.

You were born in Memphis, reared in Memphis, right?
Born here, grew up here, went to the University of Memphis. My dad, Ed Greaney, was general manager at Channel 5 — worked there for 50 years, starting right after the station opened. He was an infantry sergeant in WWII in Germany and the Philippines.

We traveled a lot. My dad was always interested in current events. And he was a big reader, so I was always a big reader too.

And I always wanted to write. When I was a kid, I read everything: spy books, World War II books. Graham Greene, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Fleming. I was raised on it, and I don't see myself writing outside the genre. I can't see writing a romance novel.

And you still travel.
I've been in Guatemala three times and learned Spanish. I lived in Germany for a few months after college. I've been to Central/Eastern Europe. Everything ties in with my interests. The places I write about now are the places I've wanted to go to.

When I got back from that trip to Mexico for Ballistic, my agent said, "I promise. For your next book, we'll let you go to Monte Carlo." And I thought, You're not paying me enough to hang out for three weeks in Monte Carlo! But the next Court Gentry book probably will be set in Europe. I already have a good story idea.

For more on Mark Greaney, his website's here. And for some basic training, get with the program.

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