In Conversation: Olen Steinhauer and Mark Mills
OS: Where Dead Men Meet is a thrilling ride through Europe on the cusp of World War Two, and as I was reading, it struck me that you’ve regularly returned to the first half of the twentieth century in your books, portraying it always in a wonderfully authentic way. Do you gravitate toward that period for aesthetic reasons, or is there something in those decades that speaks to you when thinking about the present?
MM: I sort of fell into that period of the twentieth century with my first novel, Amagansett (a.k.a. The Whaleboat House). A murder mystery set on Long Island, it demanded to be set in 1947 for reasons of historical authenticity. At its heart, the book is an exploration of the clash between “old” and “new” America, between the ancient fishing clans of the South Fork (resident since the seventeenth century) and the wealthy New Yorkers who adopted the area as their weekend and summer playground. Nowadays, the money has won through; back in the 1940s, the uneasy relationship was still teetering in the balance. Again, I didn’t consciously set out to a write a period thriller next—it was the chance discovery of a tiny memoir in a junk shop that led me to the war-torn island of Malta in 1942. I guess by then I had the bug and have now written two mysteries set in the 1930s. I am very intrigued by this decade. Societies and peoples still devastated and traumatized by the last war, and living in dread of another conflict, offer rich material for a novelist. And I do think there are a lot of contemporary resonances with the 1930s. They had their catastrophic financial crash in 1929, which was shortly followed by the rise of nationalism in Europe, fired up by right-wing demagogic political figures…. Speaks for itself!
OS: Novelists work in all sorts of ways—outlines, writing blind, index cards, and tarot cards—and some methods are more economical than others. I’m curious—how much did you cut out of Where Dead Men Meet, and were there some abandoned characters or storylines that you liked enough to want to use in the future?
MM: It’s always good to know where you’re going when writing a mystery, though not essential, I’ve recently discovered. Maybe it was the nature of the narrative in Where Dead Men Meet—it’s essentially a chase, a manhunt, from Paris to Venice—but I found myself writing the novel on the hoof, so to speak. I had a clear idea of Luke’s itinerary, the places where he would stop off en route, but I was also prepared for unexpected events and characters to surprise me at these points. I found the experience exhilarating, almost as though I were reacting to situations in the same way that Luke is obliged to. I tend to cut hard while I’m writing rather than putting down a first draft and reworking it, so there wasn’t much fat to be removed. That said, thank God for expert editors. Their input is invaluable for shaping a story that actually works.
OS: Further on the subject, I have to admit that about a third of the way through, I felt sure I knew the identity of Luke Hamilton, and it was refreshing to discover that I was wrong. I wonder, when you wrote When Dead Men Meet, did you know the answers to secrets like this from the start?
MM: In Luke’s case, I did have a clear idea of his true identity, of where he sprang from twenty-five years previously. The mystery of his origins is what propels him across Europe; it’s what spurs him on to survive. He needs answers to the burning questions that have haunted him all his life. I’m not sure I could have released little pieces of the jigsaw to him en route if I hadn’t had a fairly precise picture of the finished puzzle already in mind.
OS: If you could visit the younger Mark Mills when he was sitting down to write Amagansett, what advice would you share to help him through the trials to come, both in terms of the writing craft and dealing with the ups and downs of the publishing life?
MM: Maybe writing comes easily to some, but for most of the authors I know, it’s a struggle—a cocktail of pleasure and pain, a sort of masochistic torture. I experienced this with my first, Amagansett, and I wrongly assumed that the process might become easier with time. It doesn’t, not if you keep punishing your work, if it’s never quite good enough in your own eyes. Also, be open to criticism, but trust to your own impulses. You can’t please everyone. Every book you write will be both the finest novel that someone has ever read, and also the worst by a mile.
OS: What scenes, or characters, in Where Dead Men Meet did you find the most difficult to write, and why?
MM: As I mentioned before, Where Dead Men Meet is a manhunt, an episodic journey of self-discovery from A to B. Necessarily, some of the primary characters cannot be in play from the first; they are brought into being en route, often a long way down the line. This requires a sudden and unexpected change in voice and narrative perspective, and it’s tough to keep the reader with you at these points. The introduction of the Nazi nemesis, Kapitan Wilke, and of Luke’s grandfather, Vittorio, are two cases in point. It was hard work negotiating those transitions.
OS: Before the books, you had a significant film career: three feature-length movies and an award-winning short film. What led you away from the glitz and glamor to the muddy path of the novelist? Was it a creative choice, or were you perhaps seduced by the creative control available to a person alone in a room?
MM: Ah, the glitz and glamor of being a screenwriter…of being ignored in creative meetings, or ordered to execute changes to the story that are self-evidently disastrous, to say nothing of being kicked off the set of the film you have written by the bolshie director! It wasn’t all like that, of course, but it has been an immense pleasure to take a sideways step into novels. In fact, Amagansett started out as a film idea, but when it became clear that period movies were “out,” a friend of mine in publishing suggested I write the opening as a novel and see what happened. It was wonderful to witness a story of mine become something tangible and real, but also true to my original intentions. And yes, that’s a control thing that the intensely collaborative world of film can’t offer a writer. That said, I’ve recently dipped my toe back into the screenwriting pond, and very pleasurable it is (for now, at least!).