An Interview With Mark Souza

A writer wanders into a writer’s group…and sticks around for years, becoming a friend in the process.

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You have family who are also writers. Can you tell me the pros and cons of having multiple writers in the same home?

With three writers, heads down over laptops, it can be a long stretch between words. Then there are the times you want them as beta readers, or they want you. It’s time they don’t get to write, and half the time you wonder if what you’ve written is even worth reading.

What has been the hardest for you along your writing path? The easiest?

Easiest is when the story flows through you too fast to keep up, and you see it all playing out in your head and it’s brilliant – then you look up and 10,000 new words are on the page. The worst, there are so many; when you’re blocked and words won’t come. When you reach a point in your story where there is no bridge to the rest of it. And when you’re stuck in the DMV of edit/rewrite over and over again until you never want to see your story again.

In this day and age of millions of books available, what steps do you take to help become visible?

I write the best story I can, and good cover art and blurbs. Good writing and good stories will be found. The world is hungry for them. But readers may not even look inside if the cover isn’t appealing, and the blurb compelling. I’ve tried advertising and blog tours, they don’t work. You’re much better off putting the work into your story – the next one, that is.

What draws you to the genres you write in?

Money and passion. I started out a mystery writer – mysteries are a passion of mine as a reader. I became a horror and sci-fi writer because there were far more open short story calls for those genres and I wanted to be published, and I wanted to be paid. My first novel, Robyn’s Egg was going to be a short story. Sci-Fi pays the best. The call was for stories of up to 15,000 words, and paid five cents a word. At five cents a word, you get pretty Dickensian (who was also paid by the word). I got to my 15,000 words, let my wife read it, and she said there’s a lot more story there. So I kept writing, and it turned into a work of passion and a 162,000 word novel. I had some things to say. My second novel, Zombie-saurus Rex was a work of passion from the start. It’s about a gawky zombie kid just trying to get by and maybe be accepted, though he is clearly different. It’s sort of autobiographical.

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Where do you think your love of words and stories came from?

I’ve always been a storyteller, though initially my talent was oral storytelling. I’ve always known that the order you weave your tale, and the which words you choose makes a big difference. It’s all in the delivery. I would hear people tell their own stories, and internally wag my head while smiling on the outside, thinking, “that could have been a great story if you only knew how to tell it.” It seemed like a natural step to move from oral storytelling to writing – though it was much harder than I thought it would be. Practice, practice, practice. Get your one million words down on paper and you’ll probably be a decent writer. And don’t let anyone who doesn’t love you see those first ten stories.

What is the earliest thing you remember writing?

When I was 25, I wrote a Hemingway-esque story of a couple in the 1920’s whose marriage falls apart after the birth of a mentally handicapped child. There was no joy in the story, but it was visceral and real. I wrote it out longhand on a canary yellow pad and don’t know what ever happened to it.

When did you have that ‘aha’ moment that made you realize you were a writer?

When my first story was published and I got paid. It wasn’t a lot of money – dinner and a movie maybe, but it meant something.

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Aha!

Storytelling in one form or another has been around forever, from cave drawings to oral traditions, to e-readers. Why do you think stories create such a deeply important part of being human?

It’s a chance to travel somewhere exotic, meet a hero, or someone charming, and face down a villain. It’s a chance to escape your life and live a bigger one. It confirms your beliefs and challenges them. It makes you stay up all night because you just have to know. It’s because the world inside your head is so much bigger and more colorful than the real world.

Now that you have a few books out, do you see an underlying theme that comes through in them? Or a theme that draws you to write? I have a tendency to get on my soapbox in the novels I write. The one thing I’ll say is writing is so much easier (and better) if you are passionate about your story.

There is so much advice out there for writers. In your writing path, what have you found most beneficial and what advice have you found least helpful? On the helpful side, “write in active voice with creative, audacious verbs,” and “show, don’t tell.” The least helpful, “write what you know.” Write what you want. Write what you have a passion for. If you don’t know it, research and learn something along the way. And don’t be afraid to create your own world.

In all the interviews you’ve done as a writer, what is the one thing you would like to have been asked and haven’t yet, and how would you answer that question?

“May I fill your trunk with gold bars?” And my response, “yes, you may.” These questions were awesome – thanks Lisa.

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The Mystery Genre and Death

A writer’s group I’m in recently had a discussion around the need for a body when writing mysteries, and writing like this in a time of violence. The question came up right after the shootings in Orlando. Following is my response, which I decided to share here.

Mysteries, to me, used to always be about the puzzle and trying to figure it out before the end. But as I read more, and got older, I realized I wanted to see lasting impact. I wanted the death, or loss, to matter more than just being the opening gambit. I know as I write, I try to make each ‘body’ have a connection to the protagonist that doesn’t end when the story does. I think that’s one good thing about mysteries typically being a series. You can show the impact, the changes in the person’s life, how they continue on. And that connection to the ‘body’ is part of the mystery genre.

I was an EMT for years and the part that made the job incredibly difficult was never seeing the end of the story. Did they put their lives back together? Did they continue on? Did they find some happiness? You’re deeply, intimately, involved in a person’s life at their most vulnerable point, and then it’s over with no ending. Once in a while you get a thank you note. Or, in one case I can think of, you stumble across a memorial at a specific site and know the family is still there and still grieving.

So in writing, I wanted to find the ending. I wanted my characters to be able to continue on, and yet be changed by what happened. I want the loss to stay with them because we never truly end our grieving, and yet to be able to find happiness and to function. I want the loss to mean something.

Because of all that, I’ve never liked mysteries where the body is a complete stranger that the protagonist happens to stumble across. I want connection, grief, loss, and survival.

The problem, of course, is the loss in mysteries is usually the result of murder, which people typically rarely encounter, and which implies violence. The violence is the part I have trouble with. I dislike the criminal investigative type genre that show murder in violent detail and gore. I don’t want to see that, which is why I don’t write procedural style stories. I don’t want to let that level of violence, or evil if you will, into my brain. And most of the time the procedural, and some suspense genres, have the murder committed by a random stranger, a serial killer, etc. which I also personally don’t like. I want the loss to be more important than the detail and gore. I want the ending to be more than just catching the murderer.

Of course these are generalizations. There are authors in the suspense genre that do a remarkable job of writing within the constraints of their genre and  yet making the murder, death, or loss mean something to the protagonist. Those authors I read.

For you readers and writers out there, what are your thoughts on death and/or violence in fiction?

Well – Loved Books

A friend loaned me a book today. Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal, and between the pages was one perfect pressed leaf. Once home I flipped through the book, not looking for specific herbs, but looking for mementos of a well-loved book. Or a well-used book. Which is probably the same thing. I found leaves I recognized and others I didn’t.

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Big Leaf Maple, Vine Maple, some Alder

Many years ago when I started baking bread, one of my sisters gave me the Tassajara Bread book. I opened it to old bits of flour, squished and petrified bits of dough, and scribbled notes throughout. She knew that this would mean more to me than a brand new version. The recipes stood for years of her not just following them, but learning, tweaking, and experimenting. I still have the book and still use it.

I found a book at the second hand store that I haven’t read yet and really don’t have any desire to. I bought it because, throughout the pages, there are little tart comments in shaky, elderly lady handwriting. Rather like one of my books that is full of my grandmother’s commentary in the margins.

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An elderly friend’s diary that I inherited.

Do you write in your books? Do you leave mementos? Do you dog-ear a page that has words that mean something special? Do you make the book your own?

I don’t do that with all the many, many books of fiction in the house. But I write in books on writing and other non-fiction books. I mark pages I learn from, pages that grab my heart and pages that sing to me with beautiful language. Oddly, Barry Lopez’s book, Arctic Dreams is heavily highlighted, underlined, starred, and dog-eared. I say odd, because I did not expect a non-fiction book on the Arctic to read like poetry.

But it’s more than just signs that someone was moved by something on that page. The pressed leaves, the bits of flour, the fading penciled old-lady words are like ties that bind me to the readers. There’s a connection with that old lady, even though I will never know who she was. The herbal with its pressed leaves shows me another wonderful personality trait of my friend. It’s like walking an old path with companions, touching what has been, sharing the words.

I’m sure I’m going to enjoy the herbal and learn from it. But what warms my heart and makes me love the book before I even start reading, are the leaves that someone took the time to pick up, dry, press, and lay between pages, with the words, waiting.