I was fortunate enough to receive an advance copy of Contract City, available this month from Bancroft Press. Iced in with my kids for three days, this book was my salvation against the insanity of endless games of Candyland and prattle of a desperate “Magic Schoolbus” binge. Entering into the Contract City world, via protagonist Sara, was a welcome and thrilling respite. Today I am ecstatic to present an interview with this talented writer, Mark Falkin.
What was the inspiration behind Contract City? What compelled you to tell this particular story?
I knew for a couple of years before starting to write this book—which was written mostly in 2009-2010—that I wanted to write about something that truly scared me and that the reason it scared me is because it does happen, has happened and could happen again. Massive social upheaval is real and scary. Riots are scary. I wanted to tell a story of a middle America family caught in such times in a not too distant, recognizable, and most frightening of all, possible, future. I saw a family, particularly a girl and her dad. The girl was a filmmaker. The dad was a disgruntled policeman. Their worlds were going to collide.
I am usually critical of how people write teenage girls. One of the novel’s strengths is the narrative voice of Sara. How did you develop her? What were the struggles of writing her?
Sara just came. From the get-go, I got her point-of-view and the essence of who she was. Initially, I thought the book would toggle back and forth between her father’s POV and hers. Writing his . . . felt stale and wrong. I moved to hers and that was it. The story would be told through her eyes, her lens.
Contract City succeeds in being both literary and genre. How do you achieve that balance?
Hey, thanks. I write what I would want to read. Long form fiction, novels that take many hours of my life to read–I don’t just want to finish it; I want to be gripped, by the heart and the head. The narrative must be compelling so that you bemoan having to put it down and rejoin the world. But for me, a story can only really be gripping if the prose is elevated to the point of intoxicating you. I think fiction works best when the reader is under a spell. If the prose doesn’t have that certain je ne sais quoi—call it tone, voice, lyricism, elegance—it won’t mesmerize. If it doesn’t do that, it’s kind of dead. If that balance was achieved in Contract City, it’s simply because I was mesmerized in the writing of it. Mesmerism comes from language. I like putting sentences together.
What is your writing process?
Morning, coffee, intuitively, from the hip, every workday whether I feel like it or not. I try to get in 1000 words a day when I’m in that raw first-drafting phase. I don’t do much editing or rewriting on the first draft. I just throw down that wet clay on the potter’s wheel and see what I’ve got to work with. I don’t write at night and I don’t outline in the formal sense. As things develop from that nebulous cloud of beginnings, then I start to create a rough outline. But nothing ever stays locked in. It’s like you’re throwing the cement in front of you as you move forward down the road. I have a general idea where I’m going, but there are always moments where things change, sometimes dramatically.
What do you read?
I’m a literary agent, so I read a lot of pitches and queries during the day. For my own fun, I tend to read so-called literary novels that have driving, kinetic stories, e.g., in the last year I was blown away by Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz, The Goldfinch, A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Love Stewart O’Nan. Love Daniel Woodrell. Love Karen Russell. Love (most of) The Cormac. All of Gillian Flynn’s books. Brett Ellis, Chuck Palahniuk. And I’m a Constant Reader (Mr. King). I try to read unputdownable stories written artfully. I cannot stand self-important, dull “Literary” work that looks down its nose at you.
What is the most valuable piece of writing advice you have received?
Easy reading is damn hard writing. – Nathaniel Hawthorne
You have self-published and worked with a publisher–how do those experiences differ?
While it may not be fair, the realities of the marketplace dictate that self-published books aren’t worthy of attention. When a publisher acquires your book, you’ve got people behind you who believe in it on some level. The editorial direction you get working with a publisher is a collegially adversarial yet exciting process.
Setting of Contract City in Tulsa is a particularly effective choice. Why did you feel that was the place to set your story?
I grew up there, so I know it on a visceral level. Tulsa is smack dab in the middle of the country, the Heartland, the real America we’ve heard so much about. Tulsa is a very religious town—more churches per capita than anywhere. Oklahoma is a politically and culturally conservative state of this union. The historical reality of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots provided even more incentive to set it there. Tulsa is a test-market town. Why not try out full-blown privatization there? If it were attempted, wouldn’t that be exactly the place?
What role does research play into your writing?
I do just enough to achieve a semblance of verisimilitude and to move the story forward. I do not try to become an expert in a given subject matter. I find research, even a little, tends to propel a story into exciting directions. The context research provides is critical. It creates the aperture through which the story can be viewed. That’s been my experience so far anyway. I can see how research could be stultifying, though.
What is your biggest challenge as a working writer?
Post-writing: in a world of screens and “content”, getting people to believe in the work enough to somehow compete with that. And then developing a readership.
A huge thank you to Mark for gifting me Contract City and taking the time to share such insightful, thought-provoking answers. Order Contract City today. Go ahead. Do it. I’ll wait . . .
Did you do it?