Robert Masello, whose latest thriller is Blood and Ice (Bantam Dell Edition, July 2010) is an award-winning journalist, television writer, and the bestselling author of many novels and nonfiction books.
Blood and Ice has received starred reviews from such major review sources as Publishers Weekly and Booklist. The novel is a supernatural thriller ranging from the battlefields of the Crimean War to the frozen wastes of the present-day Antarctic, where a deeply conflicted, heroic photo-journalist encounters worlds beyond imagination.
Robert’s previous novels include The Spirit Wood, Black Horizon, Private Demons, Bestiary, and the USA Today bestseller Vigil. His books have been translated into ten languages, and have garnered raves from many top reviewers, including theTimes of London, which trumpeted about his new book, “The ingredients of vampirism, doomed romance, and Antarctic adventure are too seductive to resist. Masello has written a winner, made for Hollywood.”
Today, we have the opportunity to interview Robert Masello about Blood and Ice, and many other fascinating aspects of his writing career.
Robert, in your successful career thus far, you have distinguished yourself on several fronts–as a novelist, television screenwriter, and an authoritative nonfiction author on many topics in many major newspapers and magazines. More on this in a moment. You bring a great deal of background and punch to your novel writing, of which Blood and Iceis the latest.
Can you briefly summarize for us the, let’s say, top three elements in that broad and varied career that have really made you a stand-out novelist?
I do believe I’ve learned something from each of the other kinds of writing that I’ve done. Journalism taught me a lot about getting people’s voices down, about conveying speech–as I heard it during the interview–in a convincing and naturalistic way. It also taught me to respect, and meet, my deadlines. Writing nonfiction–both books and articles–taught me to gather my own material and information first-hand, as much as was possible. I was always surprised that the truth, when I uncovered it, was stranger, and better, than anything I could have made up. And writing scripts showed me just how important structure is, and the importance of having an outline. Of course, having said that, I’m embarking on another novel with only the vaguest idea of where it’s going. I do NOT recommend my own methods. Oh, and one more thing screenwriting taught me was the need for things to keep moving forward in the story, to make sure that every chapter led in some inexorable way to what came next. I have a fatal propensity for shilly-shallying , which I have to fight against all the time.
Blood and Ice has drawn a starred review from Publishers Weekly and raves from your fellow bestselling authors like Kim Stanley Robinson and Lisa Gardner, among others.USA TODAY said, “If H.G. Wells, Stephenie Meyer and Michael Crichton co-wrote a novel, the result would be Blood and Ice.” In it, you create a split-time plot between a fascinating and atmospheric Victorian past, including the Crimean War, and a gritty, realistic, present-day story set at a polar research station. In the 19th Century, two lovers–Lt. Sinclair Copley of the 17th Lancers, and Eleanor Ames, a nurse from Florence Nightingale’s Harley Street hospital in London–are shipwrecked amid floating mountains of ice off Antarctica in 1856. Their adventure connects, in alternating past and present shifts, with the moving story of a tortured Seattle writer, Michael Wilde, who travels to Antarctica to get away from a tragedy in his own life. Michael’s story soon threads itself around the lives of Sinclair and Eleanor, when the two Victorians are revived. It’s a supernatural tale that transcends death, with a finale that is both sad and hopeful.
Is it fair to characterize your novel as a supernatural thriller, perhaps? Or some other category? Do you feel an affinity for, let’s say, Mary Shelley, whose Frankenstein is both a supernatural (or super-technological, super-scientific, as you wish) tale and a thriller, which coincidentally ends with the monster escaping into the wilds of the Arctic and North Pole?
You bet I feel an affinity for Frankenstein. I consider the climax of my book an homage to Mary Shelley’s classic; others might just say I swiped that big scene! I definitely had it in mind, just as I also had the wonderful old Howard Hawks movie, The Thing, in my head the whole time. (Most people today know the John Carpenter remake, but I highly recommend they go back and see the old, streamlined black and white flick. Scared the dickens out of me when I was a kid in Evanston.)
As for labels and categories, I have seen my novels in every section of the bookstore, from ordinary Fiction to Sci-Fi, Paranormal to Horror, Fantasy to Thriller. All in all, I think supernatural thriller is a pretty fair assessment. I like to write, and read, stories that have an historical, or realistic, grounding, but which then veer off into the speculative and scary. I always feel that I should display more elevated personal tastes–and I do read E.L. Doctorow, Philip Roth, Jane Smiley, et al , I swear!–but I also love a good yarn–especially one that can give me the willies
The story of Eleanor and Sinclair is a very long, tangled, and powerful, one. Would you say that the book, as a result, is a love story as much as it is a thriller?
Despite all the action and adventure elements, like diving into the polar seas and sword fights in abandoned whaling stations, yes, I do think Blood and Ice is at its core a very romantic tale–a love triangle involving Eleanor and Sinclair, the doomed lovers from the 19th century, and Michael Wilde in the present. I felt that this angle was actually something we–the publisher and I–needed to make known to the book-buying public. I was trying to write a book that had some of the feel of Wuthering Heights (I know, I know, that’s a very tall order, but I do believe that writers need to aim high, even if they know they can’t quite get there), and the character of Sinclair, you may have noticed, has an awful lot of Heathcliff in him. Doomed romance is just something that comes naturally to me (ask any number of women I once dated).
Would you agree (or perhaps you have a different take that readers would enjoy hearing about from you?) that two of the winning parts of a modern author’s recipe for success should be (1) a series and (2) a strong male and female lead whose investigation of the crime (since we are thriller and suspense writers) also may involve some romantic entanglement (in the broadest sense, either with one another or peripheral characters)?
First of all, God, how I wish I could write a series! Publishers have actually encouraged me to do so by revisiting previous protagonists, but for whatever reason I seldom do. Only once did I try it, with Vigil and then Bestiary–which together make an ongoing story–but I wasn’t able to get the same publisher to do a third, so that fell by the wayside and I wrote another stand-alone book instead. It’s funny, though, because I always think I’ve wrapped everything up when I’ve finished writing a book, but later on I often get letters and e-mails from readers who seem to think I left a lot of loose ends and was obviously setting them up for a sequel. I never write with that intention, though maybe I should.
As for strong leads and romantic entanglements, sure, I’m all for them. One weird problem that comes up, though, when you’re writing thrillers, is that the books often take place over a fairly limited time-span, and as a result you really have to compress the initial attraction and subsequent love affair into a short time-frame. I recently read a big supernatural thriller, which shall go unnamed, and two of the leads had to fall madly in love and be willing to sacrifice their all on behalf of each other, and they had only spent a few hours together over the length of, I think, one day. It just felt unpersuasive to me. I’ve had to make do in some books with not a lot more time than that, and I think it’s just a technical question that does need to be kept in mind and addressed by the author.
Previous novels included Bestiary, which involves the search for a lost manuscript detailing the real or mythological creatures said to have inhabited the Garden of Eden at the beginning of Creation, and Vigil, where the secrets of Heaven and Hell are incarnate in the discovery of a fossilized creature older than the earth itself. The heroes of those books–both of whom are experts in their respective fields–are paleontologist Carter Cox, and his beautiful wife, art historian Beth Cox. What’s the story on these two?
They were supposed to be my Nick and Nora, my Mulder and Scully. And they seemed to attract quite a few readers, who wrote me nice letters about the couple–and their baby (of indeterminate parentage). There’s always the chance that the baby has an angelic dad. Everyone wanted to know what happened to the family next. One day I may go back to them and write that third book, taking their story forward.
What connections do you see in your novels, from one to the next? What are your upcoming projects if we may ask?
It’s hard to say what connections there are from one novel to the next. All of them seem to have some historical basis, and all go off into the supernatural realm at some point. That, I suppose, is my formula, if I have one. But the next book coming out is called The Artisan, and it is largely focused on the Italian Renaissance. Its main character is Benvenuto Cellini, the famous sculptor and goldsmith, and the action of the story travels from the sixteenth century to the present-day. It’s a big, and maybe even bizarre, story, and I only hope I’ve pulled it off. Who knows? It was just an idea that struck me at the time, and took me to some strange places in the course of writing it. That book is in the pipeline now, so I’m trying to find the right idea for the next one. For me, that is a really huge issue. I’m not a very fast writer, so I know that whatever idea I pick, I am going to have to live with it for at least a year in the writing and research, and another year in the editing, etc. It’s a big commitment, and the last thing you want to do is get involved in something that hasn’t really grabbed you in the first place. The idea that I’m playing with right now has one signal virtue–nobody has done anything like it, that I know of–and one big drawback–I might not be able to pull it off either. I always wish I could come up with some simple, strong “high concept” (as they call it in Hollywood), but so far it ain’t happening. My books tend to be pretty complex, and hard to summarize in a single line or two. But that simplicity, I know, is the Holy Grail, and I am, like one of King Arthur’s knights, forever in quest of it.
Will there be a Robert Masello movie any time soon, perhaps in the spirit of Indiana Jones or Da Vinci Code?
From your lips to God’s ear. Hollywood, as everyone has heard by now, is an enormously frustrating but alluring place. The money, when you can get it, is great, but the chances of getting things done are slim. I wrote a fair amount for TV, for example, and when you write for TV, you’re writing as a committee–there are six other people in the room, helping you to “break the story.” On the one hand, that’s a huge comfort; you’re not alone, and other people sometimes come up with terrific ideas and solutions. But the downside is that nothing is ever really yours, or your vision. It’s all kind of a compromise. And I know many TV and screenwriters who, left to their own devices, become helpless. They need “the room” to survive. I did not want to wind up one of them.
When you write a novel, it’s your baby, all the way, for better or for worse. A number of my books have been optioned for the movies–some of them several times each–but we’ve never reached the production stage. In some cases, I have written the scripts, and in some cases I have stepped back and let others do it. As neither one has worked yet, I can’t tell you which one I’d exactly recommend. Maybe I should just collaborate with an A-list screenwriter. Blood and Ice got wonderful reviews, a couple of which assumed that I wrote it with the movies in mind and that it would of course instantly sell to some studio. Well, it’s been optioned, but no movie so far, and for the record, I never write anything with the movies in mind. I think that’s a big mistake. If you want to write for the movies, write a screenplay. That’s another beast altogether. If you want to write a book–an effective book that utilizes all the tricks and techniques that writing fiction offers you–then do that. Make it the best book you can, and then hope for the best. Any adaptation for the movies will of necessity truncate and alter the book, anyway.
Is there anything I missed–a topic dear to your heart? Your readers await your thoughts. I, in particular, am always eager to ask what the secret of becoming a bestselling author is, and I’m sure I am not alone. Is there such a nutshell, and if we cracked it open, what would be find inside? Or maybe it’s a magic lantern. Speak, please, genie.
If there’s a secret to writing bestsellers, I sure as hell don’t know it. My apartment is awfully messy, so there’s always a chance that the secret is tucked under some sofa cushion, or lying on an upswept floor, but if it does turn up, I’m not letting on! I’m just going to join James Rollins and Patricia Cornwell and Anne Rice and John Grisham, and finally get a good night’s sleep on a pillow stuffed with cash.
Who are your favorite novelists, in so far as their work touches on yours? Do you feel any affinity with others who have, in modern times, blurred the edges between thriller and supernatural? Your thoughts on authors, categories, and anything else in this area?
I read pretty eclectically, and enjoy everybody from Ian McEwan to Martin Amis, David Lodge to Michael Frayn. And that’s just the Brits. I always enjoy Tracy Chevalier, Philip Roth, Rebecca Goldstein. I have long been a Stephen King fan–and I think it was a long time before he got his due as a writer–and I must say that Clive Barker had a strong influence on me, early on. He opened my eyes to what could be done in the “horror” genre–that you could deal with adult subject matter, for instance, not to mention extravagant imaginative turns. He broke open a lot of the borders for me.
And let’s not forget Shirley Jackson, and Jeff Long, who did the same. I think Jeff Long is not only a terrific story-teller, with a remarkable imagination (seen in books like The Descent and Year Zero), but a fine prose stylist, too.
But what probably influenced me the most were the classic British ghost stories that I read as a kid, most notably the stories of M.R. James. I can re-read those now and still get a chill every time. Also, “The Monkey’s Paw,” by W. W. Jacobs. The stories of Sheridan Le Fanu. And Robert Louis Stevenson. (Talk about a great “high concept”–” Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Please God, grant me one such idea before I die!)
As a television series writer, your long list of screenwriting credits covers a number of award-winning TV shows (Sliders, Charmed, Early Edition, etc.) on many major networks (CBS, FOX, USA, Showtime and the Sci-Fi Channel). As a nonfiction book author, you have written nonfiction books about etiquette, the history of the occult, how to break into television writing, and how to overcome the hundred and one problems that assail every writer. (Robert’s Rules of Writing, we are told, has since become a staple in many classrooms.) As a journalist, you’ve also published articles, essays and reviews in many major magazines and newspapers, including New York, The Washington Post, Newsday, People, Redbook, Parade, Cosmopolitan, Town and Country, Travel and Leisure, Elle, etc. The list goes on and on. Is there any one kind of writing that you prefer?
Novels are what I consider the greatest challenge, so I will always be drawn to writing those, with whatever degree of success. But what I liked about doing journalism was that it got me out of the house! It was nice to meet some people–often of the celebrity ilk–then come home, and write something relatively short and sweet, and send it off. It provides a nice sense of completion and progress. The article appears anywhere from a few days to a few months later, but at that point it’s definitely out there, and over. But journalism no longer pays what is used to, nor does it offer many opportunities to write at any decent length anymore. Magazines for which I used to write four and five thousand word pieces now run nothing longer than 1500 words at best. Newspapers always paid poorly, and there are fewer of them by the hour.
TV writing is generally the most lucrative, and I have been grateful for every gig I got (even when I felt under-utilized on staff). Book royalties are never certain, but TV residuals falleth like the gentle rain from Heaven, and with some predictability. And it’s definitely the way to impress your old high school friends. When they see your name on the television screen, they sit up and take notice. I only hope some of the girls who broke my heart in high school see my episodes. (Take that, Susan B.!)
A native of Evanston, Illinois, Robert Masello studied writing under Geoffrey Wolff and Robert Stone at Princeton University. He served as the Visiting Lecturer in Literature at Claremont McKenna College from 2002 to 2008. He now lives, with his lovely wife and his hyperactive Labrador retriever, a few blocks from the beach (which he says he never gets to) in Santa Monica, CA. More on Robert Masello on his personal website,http://www.robertmasello.com/, and on his publisher website at Random House:http://www.randomhouse.com/bantamdell/bloodandice/