I recently had an opportunity to sit down with Robert Masello, author of the new thriller, THE MEDUSA AMULET, and an award-winning journalist, television writer, and the bestselling author of many novels and nonfiction books.
Robert, tell us about The Medusa Amulet.
Like my previous novel, Blood and Ice, this one, too, is a mix of historical fact and wild, dark fantasy. It is largely based on the life of the Renaissance sculptor and goldsmith, Benvenuto Cellini, who was also a dabbler in the occult. The book imagines that Cellini created a miraculous artifact, the Medusa amulet, imbued with great powers — an artifact that my hero, a young scholar at Chicago’s Newberry Library, is commissioned by a mysterious woman, with secrets of her own, to find. Although he has his reservations, he, too, has compelling reasons to search it out — and fast.
The story ranges from the Medici court in Florence to the Coliseum in Rome, from the French Revolution to the Third Reich, with roles for everyone from Marie Antoinette to Count Cagliostro. It’s a strange journey, but one that I hope its readers will find entertaining and even enlightening (there’s a pretty fair amount of art history, for instance, woven throughout the story).
Your novels straddle the line between supernatural and action thriller. What draws you to that style?
Probably a keen aversion to commercial viability. (Just kidding.) I’ve always wished my books could be neatly categorized and summarized (and shelved, reliably, in just one section of the bookstores), but I find it impossible to draw within the lines. Years ago, I remember reading some Clive Barker stories and his first novel, and I loved the freedom he gave himself — to cross boundaries, mix genres, let his imagination go in any direction it chose. For me, the supernatural element is as essential as salt to a cook. No matter how or where I start with a story, it is simply bound to take a supernatural turn at some point.
Thrillers are often slammed for sacrificing character development in favor of action & high concept; and yet your novels have fully realized characters. What’s the secret to keeping characters real in a fast-paced thriller?
I wish I knew. I do try my best to make my characters credible, and all of them — even my villains — sympathetic in some way. Otherwise, I just don’t think the readers will care when they get into a jam. I’m willing to sacrifice speed in the narrative for the chance to develop the characters and their relationships (though I hope not by too much). I’m always surprised when one of my characters suddenly seems unwilling to do what I need him to do. I wouldn’t say they take on a life of their own — I’m the boss, always — but I do take some satisfaction in it when they show some backbone.
How has your extensive work as a journalist prepared you for writing thrillers?
Working as a journalist for many years taught me a few things, not the least of them to get the work done and in on time. My editors were counting on me to fill some space in the magazine or newspaper, and if I didn’t, I wasn’t going to be asked again. It also taught me to prize clarity, to make sure my readers weren’t left unclear or confused about who was saying what to whom, what exactly was happening, where we were, etc. Writing interviews taught me to be very conscious of how people spoke, and writing articles taught me how to shape a piece so that it had an intriguing start and a strong finish. (Not that I always achieved that.)
How did you break into TV writing?
It was hard. But I had written a couple of nonfiction books on the history of the occult, and those books were used as research materials on various TV shows, from “Charmed” to “Poltergeist: the Legacy.” I started out as a consultant — the only card-carrying demonologist in town, so far as I know — and gradually worked my way onto staff here and there, or writing freelance episodes. I’d love to do it again, but in Hollywood terms, I date from the Paleozoic.
The publishing industry had been taking some serious hits lately. What will save it?
Well, I’ve done my best — but it wasn’t enough. I know we’re still waiting to see how this all sorts out, but it will be interesting to see what the net effect of Kindles and iPads will be in respect to authors’ royalties and incomes. What I truly mourn is the passing of so many good bookstores, ranging from the Mystery Bookstore in Westwood, CA, to the Barnes and Noble branch in Encino. Both were always welcoming and receptive to authors and readings. The next time I want to arrange a signing, I’ll probably have to do it at a car wash. (No, wait, I take that back — I have one coming up on May 8th at a terrific store called Dark Delicacies in Burbank.)
Why are readers (and the general public) so obsessed with conspiracy theories?
The older I get, the more I think it’s because they’re right. And I’m only half-joking. I grew up in a conservative, Midwestern household, but I find that I have become more skeptical of authority with each passing year. The American public has been lied to so many times, whether we’re talking about Vietnam or the WMDs in Iraq, that it’s easy to see why people have become ever more suspicious and less trusting. Hey, I voted for Obama largely to solve my health insurance crisis, and my premium just doubled.
What’s next for Robert Masello?
I have a new book in the works with the same marvelous editor and publisher, and with any luck it will be out sometime in 2012. This new one also draws on an historical background — Russian this time — to tell a story that spans many years and a couple of continents. I’ve really got to learn to rein things in.
Actually, I hope you don’t. Thanks and best of luck with The Medusa Amulet.
Robert Masello, author of the new thriller, THE MEDUSA AMULET, is an award-winning journalist, television writer, and the bestselling author of many novels and nonfiction books. His articles, essays and reviews have appeared often in such magazines as New York, Town and Country, Travel and Leisure, People, Redbook, Parade,Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, TV Guide, Men’s Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, Cosmopolitan, Westways, and The Wilson Quarterly. Newspapers include The Washington Post, Newsday, The Chicago Tribune, and The Los Angeles Times.
Robert has written for several popular television series, which have aired on CBS, FOX, USA, Showtime and the Sci-Fi Channel. His produced credits include such shows as “Early Edition,” “Charmed,” “Sliders,” and “Poltergeist: the Legacy.”
His nonfiction books cover a wide range of topics, from the occult — Fallen Angels…and Spirits of the Dark and Raising Hell: A Concise History of the Black Arts — to various aspects of the writing life, including A Friend in the Business: Honest Advice for Anyone Trying to Break into Television Writing, Writer Tells All (a Los Angeles Times paperback bestseller), and Robert’s Rules of Writing (selected by Barnes and Noble as a Back-to-School Essential).