It was a gorgeous day—hot—and a bunch of pals
and I had just snagged the very last table-with-an-umbrella
outside last summer’s Book Passage Mystery Writers
Conference in fashionable Corte Madera, California.
All cotton-mouthed and fading, I threw my book-bag into
a chair and did the whole, “hey, anybody want anything
from the snack bar?” routine, suddenly hell-bent on
getting myself an iced coffee.
The line inside was long and slow, so I’m standing
there spacing out, trying not to think about how thirsty
I am and how many people are between me and my sublime potential
beverage, when this tall blue-eyed silvery guy walks up,
points a finger at my name-badge and goes, “You!”
A bit startled, I respond, “um. Yeah.”
Cornelia Read!” he says, still pointing.
I say “um” again, and he breaks into this huge
grin and says, “Marshall Karp,” holding up his
own badge, “Our books got published the same month
and I’m thinking we need to hang out. Bond. This whole ‘publishing
virgins’ thing, right?”
He grins again. I never make it back out to that umbrella
My buddies wander inside one by one over the course of the
next half hour or so and they don’t leave either.
Pretty soon, we’ve taken over the entire damn snack
bar—a dozen-plus people trading life stories and cracking
up and having the best time anyone’s had since Arlo
Guthrie sat down on the Group W bench back in ‘Sixty-whatever.
By the third hour Marshall is introducing himself to strangers
as “the Jewish father Cornelia’s been looking
for her whole entire life,” while I just keep toasting
him with my ninety-bazillionth iced coffee, and there’s
like thirty of us jammed into the place now, dragging more
chairs in from outside and totally laughing our asses off
to the point of outright choking.
And I swear the same thing happens every time I run into
him. The man is the social equivalent of catnip-for-humans-scented
electro-magnets or something… like if they shoved
a tank-truck-load of nitrous oxide and the entire history
of Vaudeville into one half of that teleportation machine
in The Fly and got Groucho Marx and Bob Newhart and Gene
Wilder to simultaneously push the Big Red Button, I guarantee
you’d get a flash of blue lightning and a sudden whiff
of ozone and—hey presto—Marshall would saunter
out the other end of the thing, cackling magnificently.
Plus he writes like he’s on fire. In a good way.
The paperback of The Rabbit Factory, his first novel, was
released in late March this year, while May first was the
pub date for Bloodthirsty, his TKO of a sequel.
In honor of that, we caught up recently by phone.
I asked him how he was feeling about the whole thing, now
that we were coming up on the one-year anniversary of having
our first novels published.
Cornelia: So your professional history was pretty amazing
even before you turned to novel writing… You spent
years in advertising creating campaigns like “Thank
you, Paine Weber,” then you did a successful play
and landed in LA writing for TV, not to mention the screenplay
with Jason Alexander. How does the whole publishing gig
compare to that?
Marshall: I’ve been marketing a product or putting
on a show for years, and now suddenly, I AM the product,
I AM the show… and I have to tell you, it’s
totally weird to be pimping myself.
When I go to a bookstore, I bring my salad chopper to attract
people to the signing table. I’m resigned to the big
picture of the business… you show up and try to present
yourself. If you like my style or just me and you’ve
got $25, maybe you’ll try the book.
Cornelia: What’s the best part?
Marshall: It’s fun to go out there and be with the
readers, getting to listen to what they have to say about
your work… the stuff I’ve learned from that
interaction has been a true education….
When I was in Miami for an MWA conference, I got asked about “the
language” in my first book. Now I think we all know
that cops in real life tend to say fuck fuck fuck fuck on
the job, and you want to be true to that…
Cornelia: Sure, instead of having them yell “Shucky
Darn” when somebody pulls a gun or whatever…
Marshall: Exactly… But one woman said to me, “You
know, it’s fine in the book, but it’s hard when
it’s on the audio in my convertible and I’m
driving down Biscayne Blvd. and have to stop at a light.”
I would never have thought of that, if I hadn’t had
the opportunity to be out there face-to-face with readers.
So in the second book, I ended up taking out 85 F-bombs.
Not just for the lady at the stoplight but because when
you write and you’re in a hurry, it’s too easy
to say “fuck…” sometimes there are better
ways to express that emotion.
And cutting out 85 fucks is hard when you’re writing
about cops… In Bloodthirsty I went from 115 fucks
to 30. It’s hard to get the ring of truth without
that language. I made a minor character into a Brit so he
could say “bloody” instead. Maybe that’s
Cornelia: Do you think winding up as a novelist was inevitable,
Marshall: I could always write… I wound up in advertising
by accident, literally because when my father made me look
for a job after college, I looked at the classifieds I went
alphabetically, and I couldn’t do accounting.
I got a job as a direct-mail copywriter at Prentice Hall.
A year-and-a-half later I went into Madison Avenue, started
doing print ads and television. I got awards and got attention….
But of course the punishment for being a good writer in
that business is you get promoted and get put in charge
of the writers, so I’m the creative director and supervising
instead of writing… same thing as when the head surgeon
ends up running the hospital and not operating.
It was good, but I started to miss writing. That’s
what drove me to write outside of work in the ad business.
The first thing I did was a play, Squabbles. Twenty-five
years later, it’s still put on all over the world.
TV people saw that, so I started writing pilots and then
movies, which is where I met some of the people I’m
killing in Bloodthirsty… met them and worked for them.
I couldn’t spend too much time in Hollywood because
my wife and kids were in New York, and I came back and wound
up using both skills—my marketing background and my
show-biz background—by opening my own Internet ad
This was right when everyone wanted to get into the internet,
so I ended up being the gray-haired guy who could go into
Chase or Royal Caribbean or drug companies—whoever
the big clients were—and all of a sudden it took off,
because everybody wanted websites.
I had the long-form skills from the TV business, and I ended
up hiring the kids with the blue hair and the nose-rings
who the clients were afraid of. The kid with the blue hair
can say to the President of Chase, “I can make your
logo spin,” and I walk in and ask, “who’s
your target audience?”
That’s what helped me get where I am now… within
four years I turned that company into something I could
sell, and once I sold it I said, “now I can do what
I always wanted to do, which is go to my country house and
write a book…”
After my movie got produced, a woman in my town came up
to me and said, “I like your movie, when are you going
to make another?”
I told her it feels like everyone in Hollywood is twelve
years old, and I don’t want to spend the rest of my
life pitching American Pie Five, so what I really wanted
to do was write a mystery novel. She looks at me and she
says, “I’m an editor…” So…
One other piece of the puzzle was that I’d worked
with James Patterson in advertising. I bounced the idea
of The Rabbit Factory off him during a lunch,. He was incredibly
encouraging, so I decided try it.
Cornelia: So what drew you to mysteries?
Marshall: That’s what I’ve always wanted to
read, so that’s what I wanted to write. It inherently
had to be character-based, it couldn’t be about the
plot… my play, my movie, they’re always about
The character of Mike Lomax came to me years ago: this cop
who’d lost his wife and still has to do his job while
he’s grieving. He was a three-dimensional character
to me long before he was cop… first I made him a MAN.
And then I said, okay, a guy going through this much pain
can’t be carrying a book on his own… He needs
a counterpoint, and Terry Biggs became the wiseass New York
cop’s best friend, who, as they say in the TV biz
can “cut the treacle.”
Mike has the heart, but I don’t want people to go
oooooooooo for the entire book on his behalf. Terry helps
Mike be funny, once they get going. Terry’s the friend
I would want if, God forbid, I ever had to go through that
kind of pain… a real good guy who knows just the right
I think I also wrote enough beer commercials to know what
buddies are… I wrote Stroh’s commercials, and
sometimes you see a guy screwing his best friend out of
a beer…. I don’t believe in buddy-fucking, I
believe your buddy’s your buddy. I needed to create
someone where there’s that loyalty.
I think I’m quoting William Goldman on this, that “the
essence of loyalty is reciprocity.”
Cornelia: I really see that in your writing. In both your
books it comes across as the core of what’s happening
on the page.
Marshall: My fan mail is always about the relationships,
the characters. They want the characters back, they want
it to go on….
Cornelia: Character matters. That’s certainly what
I want to read about.
Marshall: It’s always about character. I knew I had
a good plot, but my focus is always on character… even
the minor characters who appear for one scene, I try to
give them as much as I can. I try to make them real, or
if they’re surreal, as some murderers are, at least
to have the ring of truth.
Cornelia: Do you think your other gigs in life have helped
inform your writing?
Marshall: Janet Maslin accused me of being a marketing expert
when she reviewed The Rabbit Factory for The New York Times,
but I’m not trying to sell to you, I’m trying
to write it this way because… look, you don’t
want to know some guy’s height and weight in a story,
you want to get inside his head….
Whenever I wrote a commercial, I didn’t think, “what
does the client want to say about his product?” I
wanted to be the conscience of the consumer. My job was
to understand what the consumer needs and wants.
I don’t market to people when I write a book, I feel
what it’s like to be a reader. But I’ve never
ever written for the critics. For me, it was always like, “do
you want to be avante-garde or do you want to be real?”
Cornelia: Ach, avant-garde. Don’t get me started.
Marshall: I come from real. I spent too many years in New
Jersey to have anything avant-garde about me… I’m
I like to think that I have a basic sincerity, and I think
my characters have it too, even the ones with a little guile
like Mike Lomax’s father, Big Jim. He’s Big
Jim Lomaxstein. He’s me when I’m trying to manipulate
Cornelia: Now we’ve both got a year of this under
our belts. What would you tell someone starting out with
Marshall: Well, as I said in the acknowledgements, it really
helps to write a mystery if you know James Patterson. But
in every business I’ve been in, I encouraged the younger
people to write. It’s all about giving back.
Cornelia: What do you think is the hardest part of breaking
Marshall: A British reporter sent me an email asking that
very question -- what I consider to be the biggest obstacles
for new writers. I sent him the glowing points from my rejection
letters… you know, “Oh, Marshall is so good,
but we want to get into forensics and be CSI clones too…”
Just keep writing. You will find a publisher. You will find
an audience—even though there are a lot more MBAs
acquiring books these days, and it’s a tough business.
When you write your first book, you can’t imagine
that this is ever going to be your day job. Everybody’s
got to keep going with it to make it.
I watched the DVD of Da Vinci Code a while ago, and there
was an interview with Dan Brown on it.
He said that he’d first realized he had something
when he went to a bookstore in Washington for a signing,
and there were all these people hanging around outside the
store. He asked if they’d had a fire or a bomb scare,
and was told no, they’re here for you…
Have no expectations, just those from yourself. I was happy
having been a writer in various careers all my life, happy
to have finished a book. When I got to the end of that first
draft, that was, to me, monumental. When I found a publisher,
that was just an unbelievable added benefit that turned
the personal goal into something I could do—what a
lot of writers want to do—which is to share what I’ve
Writers don’t get into it for the money. Writers write
because that’s what they want to do…
Cornelia: …I heard Robert Crais speak the other day.
He said if you want to get into writing for the money, you
should go sell BMWs instead.
Marshall: Selling BMWs. Exactly… I was going to say
sell cocaine. “Buy enough cocaine, we’ll throw
in a BMW!”
Cornelia: I’d end up buying all of anything you had
to sell. Stick with the books… I can almost afford
books. Any other business, you’d bankrupt me without
Marshall: I’m still learning this business, and I
find it fascinating, but it’s a process. I find it
really interesting that the readers know so much more about
the business I’m in now than I do.
When I was in TV, I knew a lot more about how it all worked
than the average viewer… The audience doesn’t
know what goes on behind the scenes.
But the fans in this business? The real fans who are at
the conventions and signings? They know more than I do.
I find that fascinating, and to some degree intimidating… They
may not do what I do, but they know more than I do. I’ve
been to book events where somebody raises a hand and says, “didn’t
Carl Hiaasen do something like that in his fourth book?“
And I say, “I’ve only read two of his books,
I don’t know enough! I don’t know as much as
The readership raises the bar for you. The only thing that’s
ever came close to this for me is when I started doing my
The first eight weeks we were doing it, I’d come in
and sit with the audience, listening to what they said about
it. I made changes because of audience feedback that they
didn’t know I was hearing.
Cornelia: What’s the best part of it, for you? How
does this compare to the other kinds of writing you’ve
done over the years?
Marshall: Of my many writing incarnations, this is the final
frontier, because I really enjoy the ability to create without
a committee. In advertising—TV and movies even more
so—it’s about the committee.
These days, the only committee I have is when I get up and
think I’m going to write something and the characters
want to do it differently… it’s almost like
an actress saying, “my character wouldn’t say
that!” She’s pissed off. When you’re “the
actor” as a writer and that happens, it’s fascinating.
But the best cool thing is you get to meet a lot of really
fascinating, three-dimensional, fun people and you’re
way at the top of their list. This is a really fascinating
genre, and how great that there’s something this interesting
that brings us all together.
I found it really refreshing that the first fan I talked
to at LCC was a pediatric cardiologist, and I wanted to
say, “You’re saving lives every day, let’s
talk about you!”
Cornelia: Speaking of saving lives, I want to know more
about the charity you’re involved with, Vitamin Angels…
Marshall: There’s great information at http://www.vitaminangels.org.
Working with them started out as my reaction to 9/11.
My daughter was at Ground Zero, and that left me with a
visceral understanding that I had to make a difference in
the world. There are a great many worthy charities out there,
but I had to know I was doing something real. Something
that mattered. I didn’t want to just buy tickets to
a charity dinner, or bid on something at an auction for
a good cause…
When I found out about the Vitamin Angel Alliance, I realized
I could use my marketing abilities and my writing skills
to raise awareness and money for an organization where you
can literally have the accountability that what you’ve
done matters--to specific people, specific kids around the
world. It’s quantifiable.
Cornelia: Tell me about what they do.
Marshall: They get vitamins and supplements to kids and
families around the world. Vitamins can prevent a tremendous
amount of suffering. We KNOW this. We KNOW how it works,
but there are so many people who don’t have access
to basic, essential nutrition.
Five cents’ worth of Vitamin A can keep a child from
going blind. Pre-natal vitamin deficiencies kill upwards
of 585,000 women and four million newborns every year. When
people ask me, “what’s the best thing you’ve
written?” I tell them it’s what I’ve written
for Vitamin Angels.
Now that Marshall’s got two books out, I think we’re
going to need a bigger coffee shop for the next time we
get together… possibly a circus tent.
I guarantee you won’t find a better way to spend an
afternoon than in this guy’s company, whether on
the page or in real life.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Cornelia Read is the Edgar Award Nominated author of A Field of Darkness. In a starred review Kirkus said: "Read's sensational debut features spot-on descriptions of upstate-downstate conflicts, strong characterizations and a fascinating plot."
Her second book, The Crazy School, is due out in January 2008. For
more information visit her website: http://www.corneliaread.com/
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