Mark Pryor is the author of THE BOOKSELLER and THE CRYPT THIEF, the first and second Hugo Marston novels, and the true-crime book AS SHE LAY SLEEPING. An assistant district attorney with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office in Austin, Texas, he is the creator of the true-crime blog DAConfidential. He has appeared on CBS News’s 48 HOURS and Discovery Channel’s DISCOVERY ID: COLD BLOOD.
Here are just some of the quotes Mark has accumulated:
“Mark Pryor is one of the smartest new writers on the block. His new novel is a doozy.”—Philip Kerr, author of A MAN WITHOUT A BREATH, a Bernie Gunther novel
“A tale of a city that’s gritty, utterly real and filled with surprises both horrifying and tender. Much like a baguette, this fabulous story is crusty on the outside, sweet on the inside, and once you’ve had a bit, you can’t wait for more.”—OPRAH.com
“Enough intrigue to satisfy every reader…. A fantastic debut!”—RT BOOK REVIEWS
“The Hugo Marston series now belongs on every espionage fan’s watch list.”—BOOKLIST
“A good bet for Cara Black fans.”—LIBRARY JOURNAL
Mark kindly answered the following questions for me last week.
Mark, you’ve had great success with the previous Hugo Marston novels, what can we expect from the third novel?
Thank you. As with the other books, THE BLOOD PROMISE is set in Paris but Hugo gets to venture out of the city a little. This time he’ll visit two country houses, one quite grand, on either side of the city. In terms of style, this novel is a little closer to THE BOOKSELLER, it leans slightly more towards the mystery angle rather than the thriller. And as with previous Hugo novels, it focuses on and draws out an aspect of Paris for its central theme. In this case it’s a period of history. I can’t be specific because it’ll give too much away….
I also think this book is a little more complex, not so much the story but the emotions that the characters experience in the book. But more on that later.
You set the opening scene in Paris. What do you find intriguing about the city?
A sense of history runs through Paris, wherever you go in the city. You can see and feel history as you walk down its streets, and read the plaques on its buildings. You can drink coffee where Hemmingway and Camus did, stand with your nose close to a Monet painting, or linger on a bridge that’s had the waters of the River Seine flowing under it for centuries. Sometimes it seems like nothing in the city has changed for a hundred years (except the awesome heaters they now use for the outdoor cafes, those are modern and genius!).
For me, Paris is one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Most of its attractions are quite central, and that means someone exploring can do so on foot, which is absolutely the best way to get to know any city. I love that different parts of Paris have different characteristics, you can take a winding, quiet street from the Seventh Arrondissement and find yourself at the River Seine, cross over and be shopping at Tiffany’s in minutes. And in some ways, it doesn’t feel like a city to me, it’s not clogged with traffic and doesn’t have mile-high skyscrapers looming over you as you walk. And the café culture is so wonderful, a real chance to watch Parisians drift by as you sip coffee or nibble on a fresh-baked croissant.
How will you make the new novel fresh and interesting for readers?
A couple of things happen in THE BLOOD PROMISE that I think will surprise the reader. First, and I know some people are going to be upset by this, but one of the major characters doesn’t make it. I’ll be asked, I suspect, why I’d kill off a major character but the truth is, that’s how the story unfolded. And believe me, Hugo will battle with the sadness and distress of that event as much as anyone. It was a big deal for me to do this, and I hope I’ve executed (excuse the pun) that scene and its aftermath properly.
Also, and hopefully this will counter the loss, the reader will meet a new character, someone I plan to keep around for a while. Ah, I see your next question addresses this…
Will there be any major new characters in this book?
Yes. It’s someone who’s been appearing in my writer’s mind for a while, someone who’s required research and a lot of thinking, as well as a quick conversation with my editor. Camille Lerens will be making her entrance and, as of right now, I hope she will feature in upcoming books. She’s of mixed race heritage, is an ambitious, intelligent, and no-nonsense woman, and she’s my first ever transgender character. Now, I should emphasize that she’s not there to make any kind of political point, in fact I try to avoid that aspect as much as possible. Rather, she is (I hope) an interesting and nuanced person, who throws my existing characters off-balance a little, gives us a chance to see them deal with someone new. As the world around us changes, I think it’s fun, interesting, and maybe important for writers to reflect some of those changes. Not by hopping on a soap box, never that, but rather by introducing someone new and letting the players sort out their feelings and relationships on the page.
You set scenes two hundred years in the past and in the present. What attracted you to this way of telling a story?
As I mentioned earlier, Paris is brimming with history. Some of it is physical, like the buildings, boulevards, and bridges. But not all of it is. I am interested in the idea that events from the past, the people and their relationships, can reappear like ghosts to affect people in today’s world. We think we know ourselves and can control our destiny, but what if you learned something about yourself you never suspected, you never even dreamed about? Would you be in a position to carry on as normal? Maybe… but not everyone can. THE BLOOD PROMISE examines the dramatic, and deadly, changes that can result from powerful people learning secrets about themselves, and trying to keep those secrets, those promises from the past, from coming out into the open.
Was it easier to write this book than your previous three novels?
Actually, it was a lot harder. The first two books were written before I had a publishing contract and so I had no pressure, no external expectations for the finished product. By the time I started writing THE BLOOD PROMISE, my first novel was on the local store’s bestseller table and I had more people than just my wife, mum, and a few friends bugging me to write the next Hugo novel.
As a matter of fact, I changed my approach to writing with this book. With the first two (THE BOOKSELLER and THE CRYPT THIEF) I didn’t plan or outline. I just sat down and wrote. I tried to do that with THE BLOOD PROMISE but I ended up writing myself into a corner. I think I tried to make the story too complex, too mysterious. So after about 20,000 words I hit a brick wall and had to step away. I kept the central theme, the idea of history coming back to haunt a character (or two) but otherwise pretty much started from scratch. I bought myself a white-board and drew a very basic timeline of events. Then, in a small notebook that I have for every story, I divided the pages into boxes, six on each page. I scribbled (in pencil, so I could change it) the major events and chapter endings, and then sat down to write. As the story unfolded, I kept drawing and filling in new boxes in the notebook, and used that rolling outline system until the end of the book. Very different from the “seat-of-my-pants” approach of the first two.
Has your own life journey given you an insight into the impact of real violence and have you brought some of that to your new novel?
Yes, I think so. As a prosecutor, I have to sit with the families of people who’ve lost loved ones, or with victims of violent crimes like robbery and assault. My experience is therefore very victim-focused, and so in THE BLOOD PROMISE I think Hugo’s sadness and emotional responses to losing a friend are reflected in those experiences. Like me, he’s seen death and violence a lot, too much, perhaps, but it’s never the same when it’s someone you know. I believe that while one can learn to compartmentalize violence, it’s not possible to become immune to it. What Hugo and the other characters have to do is deal with a new kind of violence, one that touches them very personally.
Can you give us any clues as to what the secret in the book is about?
Only generally… the secret is contained in a letter and… another object. And all I can say is, they open a door to the past, one that several characters would very much prefer had remained shut. (As do the victims of those people… !)
You have also written non-fiction. Which do you enjoy writing more, fiction or non-fiction?
Fiction. Sometimes crafting a story is hard and frustrating work, but the joy of creating something totally new is a fine reward. Non-fiction is easier for me, in the sense that the story already exists, but for the same reason it’s a little less satisfying. Maybe that’s heresy for a former journalist to say, but writing is a personal experience and mine is that writing fiction is more fulfilling.
Where will your writing journey be taking you next?
I recently signed a new contract for three more Hugo novels, which I’m thrilled about. Even more exciting, he’ll be roaming a little further afield. For example, the fourth book will be set in London. It’s actually a prequel, showing his first stint as an RSO (Regional Security Officer) at a US Embassy. For those who enjoyed Max, in THE BOOKSELLER, the prequel also shows how he and Hugo first met. After that, I’m planning on setting book #5 in Barcelona. I visited that city in October to do some research, gather some background materials, and I think it’s a perfect location for a Hugo Marston adventure. As for book six… I’ve still not decided where to set that one, it’ll have to be a place that my wife and I want to visit! Istanbul, maybe. Prague. Perhaps Florence? We shall see.
I’m also working on a stand-alone novel. I’m knee-deep into that right now and loving it. It’s still crime fiction and is set here in Austin. It touches on the music scene, and I think it’s a little darker than the Hugo novels. I’m enjoying doing something a little different and hope to have that in the hands of my agent soon after the New Year.
Many thanks for your time Mark. I wish you well with THE BLOOD PROMISE.
Mark Pryor is the author of THE BOOKSELLER and THE CRYPT THIEF, the first and second Hugo Marston novels, and the true-crime book AS SHE LAY SLEEPING. An assistant district attorney with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, in Austin, Texas, he is the creator of the true-crime blog DAConfidential. He has appeared on CBS News’s 48 Hours and Discovery Channel’s Discovery ID: Cold Blood.
To learn more about Mark, please visit his website.
Photography credit: Alia Michelle Photography
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