Pascal Marco grew up on Chicago’s gritty East Side, where the smokestacks of steel mills belched particulates and education often ended with high school. Marco, however, went on to attend the University of Illinois Chicago, and he set aside a childhood interest in writing while he pursued a career in business. After he moved to Arizona with his wife and children, the desire to write began to stir again. Using both his childhood home and his adopted state as settings, he wrote his debut thriller, Identity: Lost, the tale of a boy who witnesses the brutal gang murder of a former Chicago Black Sox player. The boy comes forward to testify, only to see the prosecution bungle the case. When the five killers go free, the boy enters the Witness Protection Program to save his own life. After growing up with a false identity in Arizona, the witness emerges from hiding to confront the killers—and to reveal a secret he’s hidden for thirty years.
Recently Marco talked about the inspiration behind the story and about his new life as a writer.
What inspired Identity: Lost? What gave you the idea of writing about a character who has grown up in witness protection?
When I moved to Arizona from the Chicago area in 1994, I didn’t know a soul in the town into which I moved called Fountain Hills. Fountain Hills seemed like a suburb of Phoenix, but actually it was much more isolated, much more remote than anyplace I had lived. It was a relatively large, self-contained town with a couple of chain grocery stores and a McDonald’s and Burger King on opposite ends of its borders. When I moved there with my family, it was the middle of July, the hottest time of year, and the temperature was well over 115 degrees. There wasn’t a soul in sight, except for the movers and us.
No neighbors stepped outside to greet us, no welcome wagon. Just empty streets with no cars parked on them. No sign of life anywhere. I quipped to my wife and children, “Well, if someone had to be put in witness protection, this would be the place to send them.” I didn’t realize then but that would become a line in my novel.
What I also hadn’t realized was that, although it was one of the most gorgeous places one could ever imagine, sitting smack dab in the heart of the uniquely beautiful Sonoran desert, Fountain Hills, like most places in and around Phoenix in the middle of summer, was as dead as a ghost town. People wisely stayed inside at this time of year, hibernating, in a manner of speaking, from the relentless heat of the sweltering sun.
Years later, there was a well-played news story about how Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, one of the Gambino crime family who squealed to the feds and was now living in witness protection in Arizona, had blown his own cover when he began engaging in illicit drug activities. The media had a field day with it and it caused quite an embarrassment to the U.S. Marshal’s Service, who was responsible for monitoring Gravano’s comings and goings.
At about that same time, I had been doing a fair amount of business with the local Kinko’s store in North Scottsdale. I had developed a strong working relationship with one of the people in the graphic arts department, a guy by the name of John, who had helped me quite a bit with some of my various work projects. Frankly, he had become indispensible to my business. I valued his work because I had run across numerous people in the years I had lived and worked in Fountain Hills who seemed to be there one day then gone the next. It was an oddity explained to me by the locals as being quite common in Arizona, where they told me folks came to begin their lives over, to get a new start.
Well, one day, I show up at Kinko’s with a big project with a tight turn-time and I come to find out my graphic artist, John, hadn’t showed up for work that day. As a matter of fact, he had missed several days in a row. Their manager had tried reaching him at home but his phone was disconnected and he seemingly had vanished. The co-worker turned to me at that point in the story and said, “We think John is in witness protection. He had all the signs.”
I was dumbfounded. But this real story stuck with me until one day I realized I could use it in my own story, creating a character who lived in witness protection in Arizona in Fountain Hills.
Does your story delve into the lives of people in witness protection and the psychological effect it has on them? How did you research the subject?
When I decided to have a person in my story living in witness protection, I wanted to throw out all misconceptions I had about it. I wanted to forget about the TV shows and the movies, or anything I had read about it. I wanted to know how it really worked. I had a former Chicago homicide detective who was helping me with all of my law enforcement details in my story, keeping me on track with keeping it real, something he demanded if he were to help me. He had worked for a number of federal agencies on various task forces, loaned out by the Chicago PD. I asked him if he had any connections in the U.S Marshal’s Service that could answer some questions for me. He got back to me with a name and an email, telling me to write this guy and he’d answer any questions I had.
I sent the agent an email, introducing myself, and telling him the premise of my story. I asked him if I could ask him some questions. He obliged me and instructed me to send them to him. I sent him ten questions. He answered every one of them with, “I can’t share that information” or words to that effect. I realized at that moment that just about anything I wrote about witness protection was potentially plausible since no one would be able to corroborate what I had written even if they found the right person to ask, like I supposedly had done. That was an epiphany for me that I was really on to a great story line.
Was it tricky to write about the 1970s? Did you rely on memory, or did you research the era as you would any other historical period, to make sure you got the details right?
I lived in the 70s as a teenager and young adult, so many, many things about it are as clear as something I did this morning, sometimes even clearer! But memory has a way of fooling you after thirty years, so I definitely relied upon going back to newspaper archives and double-checking things I was unsure about. So, yes, I guess you could say I treated it as any other historical period. Thirty-plus years is a long time ago, so I think this is a prudent thing for a writer, or at least a writer like me who wants to get things really accurate and tell it like it is. I know writers who claim they do no research and just let their imaginations take them to where their memories lead them. I think this is great for them, but from the reviews I’m getting now from real readers, they’re in awe of my detailed descriptions of some scenes and locations, saying they felt like they were transported back in time to just the way it was. Some tell me I have the descriptions so accurate, so visual, that they want to go see these places in Chicago for themselves now, that’s how inspired they were reading about them. That’s a huge compliment. I’m not saying I’m 100% accurate, because I’m sure I missed some things or got some things wrong. But by and large, I think I succeeded in getting the details right.
How big a part does baseball play in the story? Why did you decide to make the murder victim a baseball player?
Baseball plays a big part in the story, but it’s not a baseball story, or even a sports story for that matter. I say that because my publisher, Oceanview, told me when they signed me that the title had to be changed so it didn’t in any way reflect a sports book. They explained the majority of readers of my type of book—mystery/thriller/suspense—will be 30-60 year-old women and that demographic doesn’t respond well to (meaning: buy) books they think are about sports.
I use baseball as a theme that continues to interact with the characters in some way throughout the book. I’m a guy and I love baseball. But I use it in a way that even a non-baseball or even a non-sports fan can relate to. So far, I haven’t been told by readers there’s too much baseball in it. Actually, they’ve commented how much they like it as a theme that binds the story together.
As for the second part of your question, answering that is a bit of a plot killer, so I’ll keep that a surprise for those who haven’t read it.
How did your family and friends react when you took up crime fiction writing after a career in business? Was this an ambition you had nurtured for a long time, or a recent interest?
That’s an excellent question. I think I can best explain it using my mom as an example. She’ll tell you herself, she was never much of a reader. Actually, after she read my book she shared with me that the last novel she had read was The Thorn Birds when it had first come out in 1977! But when she was done with my book she told me how proud she was of me and that she’d never realized I could write like that. That’s been the reaction of most of the people who know. They tell me they never knew I was a writer or writing a book, let alone a crime fiction thriller.
Those people who have been really close to me in my life have known that the arts–the creative process, be it film, music, architecture, dance, theatre, or even academia–have always been a passion of mine. I’ve shared the story many times how I first knew I was passionate about creative writing when I was in grade school. A buddy of mine named Dan Dietrich and I used to write spy stories in steno pad notebooks and share them with each other, critiquing each other’s writing, seeing how vivid we could be with our imaginations. I loved doing that but really didn’t share what we were doing with any of my other classmates.
But as I grew older I set aside my interest in writing creatively for more than three decades. Over that time, I had dabbled here and there with taking some classes in creative writing or script-writing and they were all great; but I never went further than writing a few short stories and half-finished scripts for class. I enjoyed it immensely when I wrote but couldn’t seem to ever get serious about it, always putting job and family (and laziness) ahead of it.
But my excitement was reignited when the Chicago White Sox won the American League Championship in 2005. I was able to attend the game in which they won the title, and this inspired me to write an essay about my serendipitous experience of getting into the sold-out game. This essay was eventually published on a White Sox fan web site, which led to several more articles being published. My creative juices had begun flowing again and that’s when I resurrected this story about a boy who had witnessed a crime in Chicago in the 70s.
At the same time, I joined a writers group in Scottsdale, Arizona, and when I discovered the members of that group were almost all writing fiction in some form or another, I decided I was going to tell this boy’s story through fiction, by writing a novel about it.
How did it feel to return to your old high school in Chicago to speak as a published writer?
Quite simply, it was the experience of a lifetime. Being surrounded by so many of my high school classmates (some of whose names or derivatives of their names I used in the novel, never thinking it would be published—and by the way they were flattered by it, even the bad guys!) was so rewarding and fulfilling that I’ll never forget the generosity and love they shared with me that afternoon. They were just so damn proud of one of their own accomplishing something that was usually never done by kids like us from the wrong side of the tracks. Our fathers were steelworkers, firemen, and policemen, and our moms typically stayed home. Our future most often turned out like the lives of our parents. So to honor me in the way they did, showering me with congratulations and good wishes, well, I haven’t yet found any words in the English language that can describe how that made me feel.
As a final statement of the wonder of the event, someone reminded me just before I got up on stage to speak that our school’s namesake, St. Francis de Sales, was the patron saint of writers. I had forgotten that tidbit of information, but as I approached the podium, I did feel like right at that moment, all my schooling at SFDS, both grammar school and high school, the sacrifices my parents made to have me attend a Catholic school—that particular school—now had come full circle, had paid off and all made sense.
Are you working on a new book?
Yes, I have several books that I’m writing, researching, or plotting. One is a sequel of sorts to Identity: Lost, where we pick up with some of the story characters in the present day. The other is an alternative historical novel I plan to pen about Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist. And one of the others is a book about my experience in sales for the last twenty-five years, but I haven’t figured out if it’s going to be non-fiction or fiction because some of the things I want to tell readers couldn’t possibly have been made up.
Pascal Marco, a Chicago native and long time resident, uses his intimacy with that city and his present residence, Phoenix, to weave a tale of terror and murder with as many twists and turns as the city streets themselves. A successful entrepreneur, he’s a graduate of the University of Illinois Chicago and a member of the Scottsdale Writers Group.
He will appear at The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, AZ, on August 8 at 7 p.m. For more information, visit his website.