Author interview: Jason Pinter

I met Jason for a very pleasant morning of coffee and chatting in The Merrion Hotel a while ago, and this was the piece that came out of it. He’s a really decent guy, depressingly young to have achieved so much, but altogether a down to earth geezer.

Enjoy!

Alex

Jason Pinter interview

Published in The Sunday Business Post on June 22nd, 2008, by Alex Meehan

Having won a seven-book contract, author Jason Pinter says he’s nervous but excited about the faith shown in his work.

When you’re a 25-year-old aspiring writer, getting your first book published is a big deal. Getting a three-book contract means major success, but having that deal almost immediately extended to seven books is the stuff of dreams.

For New York writer Jason Pinter, that’s exactly what happened three years ago. His debut novel, The Mark, was bought by publishing house Mira as part of a three-book deal and two weeks later, in an astonishing vote of confidence, he got a call to tell him Mira wanted four more.

‘‘I worked as an editor for five years in publishing and I saw a lot of deals get made. Usually, multiple book deals are for authors much further along in their careers,” says Pinter.

‘‘A publisher usually won’t be interested in a multiple deal like that until you have ten to 15 books under your belt and they can be sure you’ll deliver and they’ll sell. When an author like James Patterson signs a contract, it’s for 12 books at a time, but he puts out four or even six titles a year and it’s not that big a deal for him.”

‘‘For me, my deal was an incredible vote of confidence but also a little daunting because I knew this wasn’t usual. I have a lot to live up to.”

The Mark, which has just been published in Europe, features a rookie journalist, Henry Parker, who finds himself caught up in a story he is sent to report on. Parker has just arrived in New York City fresh from the Cornell School of Journalism and has landed himself the job of his dreams – working at the prestigious New York Gazette. His first day on the job starts out brilliantly when he find himself seated in the same office as grizzled newsman Jack O’Donnell, his journalistic hero.

O’Donnell is an old school newsman, renowned for breaking stories of national and international significance and Parker feels privileged to be in the same room as him. He is quickly pulled down to earth, though, when his first assignments arrive – instead of pounding the streets reporting hard news, he is put to work writing obituaries.

Parker can’t conceal his disappointment and O’Donnell decides to cut the new kid a break, promising him an ‘additional reporting by’ credit if he helps research a story. Parker’s task is to track down and interview minor mob convicts released from jail and see how their lives have turned out a few years down the line.

Henry sets out to interview young Hispanic man Luis Guzman and finds himself accidentally caught up in a shooting when a mob gunman turns up to threaten Guzman. A scuffle ensues, the gunman is killed and against his better judgement, an injured and confused Parker flees.

The next day, Parker wakes to find his own face peering out of the front page of the New York Gazette, under the banner headline ‘Cop killer.’

Pinter’s hero Henry Parker is deliberately not a world-weary anti-hero. Unlike the central characters found in the majority of popular crime fiction, he’s young and relatively optimistic.

‘‘I loved the idea of keeping the series a little different,” says Pinter. ‘‘There are loads of crime novels featuring cops or FBI agents or pathologists, so a reporter is a character that isn’t so saturated as an idea. He’s also young – there are actually very few central characters under the age of 40 in crime fiction but Henry’s only 24.

‘‘He’s not a cynical, divorced, alcoholic, world-weary misogynist – I wanted him to be an optimist, at least at the beginning. I really wanted to create baggage the reader could see and then explore how Parker carries it.

‘‘The things that happen to him over the course of the first book change his life and that’s what I want to explore in the later books – how is what happened to him in the first book going to affect him later on?

‘‘He goes into the second book having become exactly what he most disliked in his profession – a celebrity. He hated journalists who put their name above the headline – the Jayson Blairs and Stephen Glasses of this world – guys who had became bigger news stories themselves than the stories they wrote about. He just wanted to report good stories – but he acquires a degree of unwanted celebrity.

‘‘He then has to deal with former Gazette colleagues writing articles about him and trying to place him at the forefront of a new trend for notorious young journalists who’ll stop at nothing to become well known.” Now that Pinter has a bigger publishing deal, he’s looking forward to using the space to develop the stories he has had floating around in his head for years.

But becoming a publishing sensation is not something he is entirely comfortable with. Given his experience in the publishing business, Pinter is in a uniquely qualified position to weigh up the pros and cons of being touted The Next Big Thing.

His five years spent as a book editor in New York have made Pinter painfully aware that marketing a new author is most easily done with an angle – something that sets them apart.

‘‘I worked in publishing and sat in on a lot of meetings where people discussed the author’s age or looks or other aspects of their marketability but thankfully in crime fiction, nobody cares what age you are,” he says.

‘‘If you’re going to write a tell-all about the fashion industry, then it helps to have worked for Anna Wintour. If you’re writing a tell-all about Hollywood, then it helps if you’ve worked with the Weinsteins.

‘‘But you don’t have to have been a cop, or for that matter a murderer, to write a crime novel. Nobody cares – the story is everything. I write the kind of books that people judge based on what’s between the covers as opposed to the age of the person in the mugshot on the back cover.”

One thing you will find on the back cover of Pinter’s books is the kind of endorsements other crime writers can only dream about. Authors like James Patterson, Lee Child, Tess Gerritsen and Jeffery Deaver have all raved about The Mark and obviously that doesn’t hurt when it comes to shifting copies of the book.

‘‘Eleven authors endorsed The Mark, but I’d only met one of them. Many of them were writers I’ve been a fan of for years so I was amazed. If anything, it gave me confidence to keep going and to think of myself as more than a one-trick pony.

‘‘If a reader picks up a book on the basis of an endorsement by James Patterson or Jeffery Deaver and they hate it, then they’re going to lose a little respect for that writer. So it means a lot to me that people put their reputation on the line to add to mine.” Pinter knew he wanted to be a writer from an early age, but his career to date has included a few literary detours. ‘‘Pretty early on I knew I wanted to write, but I knew nothing about the publishing industry and actually tried to query literary agents without having written anything. Not surprisingly, not many agents were champing at the bit to represent me,” he said.

Deciding it would be a good idea to see the industry from the inside, he spent his summer vacations from Wesleyan University interning at a literary agency in New York. This turned his head enough to make him opt for publishing and he subsequently worked as an editor with publishers Warner and Crown’s Three Rivers Press and then at St Martin’s.

A cynical observer might wonder if industry connections like these might open certain doors for an aspiring author.

‘‘Contacts will get you in the door of a publisher, but they won’t get you published and anybody that thinks working in publishing is going to get them a leg-up is sadly mistaken. The bottom line is that publishers want books that the public want to read. Had I written a book that nobody wanted to read, it would still be sitting in my desk drawer.”

‘‘I understand the business side of publishing better than most other writers, but I’m not sure if that’s a blessing or a curse. There’s something to be said for being blissfully ignorant.”

The Mark is a cinematic read. It’s fast paced, stylishly visual and it would be easy to imagine it as a movie. Was it written with this in mind? ‘‘I wrote it hoping that a film version might be made, but trying to write with that in mind is a mistake.”

Nevertheless, The Mark has been optioned by Irish company Treasure Films, best known for movies such as Shrooms, I Went Down and Man About Dog. Pinter says he’s thrilled about this development.

‘‘It wasn’t a carefully orchestrated campaign to sell the film rights. Paddy MacDonald from Treasure happened to be at Los Angeles airport and happened to buy a copy to read on the plane. He liked it and called my agent and that got the ball rolling.

‘‘It’s really exciting because they get what I was trying to do with the book and they seem like dynamic guys. My wife and I sat down to watch Shrooms and we thought ‘These guys have style and vision, so it would be great if it happened with this company’. We’ll have to see, though.

‘‘It would be nice to see something different and gritty done with it, and they seem like the guys to do that. But I’m getting ahead of myself – I’m very far down the pecking order when it comes to these things. They say the writer is positioned below the caterer on the totem pole of the movie business.”

Author interview: Colin Bateman

Colin Bateman Interview

Published in The Sunday Business Post on April 13th, 2008

For some novelists, writing is a tortuous process, with each paragraph and page struggling to come to life. Not so for Colin Bateman. The ex-journalist has successfully applied his newspaper skills to the world of fiction writing and, as a result, enjoys an enviable chapter-a-day productivity rate.

‘‘As a journalist, you write two or three stories a day and nobody comes up to you and says: ‘Oh, you must be exhausted, you’re such a warrior.’ It’s just expected. You go in and do your job; the discipline of churning out thousands of words a day is a useful one. There’s a huge difference between the two fields, but I can touch type and I’m comfortable expressing myself in print,” he says.

Bateman joined the County Down Spectator as a cub reporter at the age of 17 and, as is the norm with regional papers, quickly found himself filling a wide range of journalistic roles. He particularly enjoyed writing a satirical column on life in the area.

‘‘There was lots of space to fill and I was pretty much allowed to write whatever I wanted, so I took the piss out of stuff a lot. Lots of bits of columns got recycled into later books, and the reactions I got locally for my writing gave me the confidence to sit down and do what I always wanted to do – write books. It was great training.” Today, Bateman has reinvented himself as a one-man media production unit – he writes bestselling novels, children’s books and movie adaptations (including the critically acclaimed 1998 comedy Divorcing Jack), and hopes to direct his first feature film in the next year.

He has returned to fiction with his latest novel Orpheus Rising, an unusual but deeply enjoyable road trip novel with a twist. Michael Ryan is an Irish journalist-turned-author who returns to the small Florida town of Brevard on the Space Coast, where his wife was murdered ten years ago during a botched armed robbery.

Accompanied by his Pulitzer prize-winning, but deeply irritating, journalist sidekick, Ambrose Jeffers, Ryan is drawn back to the area, needing closure and sensing that there’s unfinished business for him in Brevard. So far, so good – the reader is entertained comfortably within the boundaries of the crime thriller genre. Until around 200 pages into the book that is, when Ryan hits his head and things appear to take on a supernatural twist.

‘‘Or do they? That depends on the slant you want to put on it,” says Bateman. ‘‘I never plot my novels in advance, but I always knew this one would involve something like this. I actually wrote 20 pages of this book several years ago – it was called Ghost Town – before moving onto something else.”

‘‘But, generally, I don’t like supernatural things in books – I think Stephen King is a superb writer, but I don’t really like that kind of writing. So, the challenge for me was to write it in away that was believable tome, so that I liked it,” he said.

‘‘I grew up fascinated by writers and the way they write – the ones who struggled to produce the drafts they had to do by hand in pre-computer days, but also the pulp fiction writers who had this colossal output. I veer towards the pulp fiction writers. Write it quick, get it out, and once it’s out, it’s gone – I don’t think about it any more.”

In 1995, Bateman’s first novel, Divorcing Jack, was rejected by all the usual publishers and agents, before being pulled from the HarperCollins slush pile to become a huge hit. More books followed, along with successful screenplays and a film adaptation of Divorcing Jack.

Bateman’s books draw deeply from the conventions of the crime genre, but are also thickly peppered with humour and, as with his fellow crime writer Ian Rankin, references to popular culture and music. ‘‘One of my biggest influences in life has been punk rock, which was a massive part of my life when I was growing up,” Bateman says. ‘‘Ironically, I remember reading other people’s crime fiction as a kid and the authors would quite often go on about jazz – and I remember thinking: ‘I’m not in the slightest bit interested in Dizzy Gillespie, get on with it, would you?’

‘‘Of course, now, I’m doing exactly the same thing, with punk references all the way through. It’s a generational thing, but the music of those years was extremely important tome, and it came full circle with the Clash story.” Bateman is referring to the time when Divorcing Jack was being made into a film, and the producers asked Joe Strummer to write the title track for it.

‘‘To me, that was like Elvis or Frank Sinatra writing a personal song for me. I was thrilled. He wrote and recorded a rough demo mix of the song and submitted it to the producers, who rejected it and instead, re formed the Nolan Sisters and got them to do a song for the film.

‘‘I was able to get a copy of the song and a nice letter from Joe, so, in away, I have my own personal Joe Strummer song that’s never been released anywhere. It’s not a bad song either. That means more to me than winning a Booker Prize or anything like that.”

Since Divorcing Jack, Bateman has written a startling 21 books in 13 years, with significant chunks of time spent working full time on screenplays, including the successful BBC series Murphy’s Law.

‘‘I did the pilot for that and the first two series of it, and then the producers and I had artistic differences and, essentially, I got fired from my own series,” he says.

‘‘Basically, it was a crime series that was reasonably dark, but one that had a humorous element. They wanted to take out the humour and make it darker with more violence, to change it significantly from one series to the next.

‘‘I didn’t object to that as such, but my feeling was that, if you want to dramatically change a series, why not just make a totally new one, rather than alter the existing one so fundamentally? It’s done quite well since I left, but I wasn’t comfortable with that move.”

So, is he bitter? ‘‘In some ways, but in another way, it was a good thing for me. When you spend a long time working on a series full time – and I wrote almost non-stop for two or three years on Murphy’s Law – it does affect your other writing. It was good to get back t o novels after that experience.”

According to Bateman, writing scripts is quite deceptive. ‘‘You can finish one in two weeks and think, ‘That’s easy money’, but then you can end up rewriting it for the next year. On a series, there are multiple scripts for multiple episodes, so it gets a bit hairy. I do like seeing my stuff on screen though.”

When it comes to researching his novels, Bateman does not conform to the cliche of the method-writer. He doesn’t exhaustively collect background information and freely confesses to basing an entire 500-page novel set in the Empire State Building on the leaflet given out to tourists taking the tour.

‘‘At the end of the day, it’s fiction; as long as it reads well and you can lose yourself in the world, then that’s good enough for me. I don’t do a lot of research in general, and I’m not from the John Connolly school of research – I don’t need to live it. That’s not to say you can do all your research online – I do need to be there in order to pickup on the little things that happen that add authenticity to a book.

‘‘I don’t write outlines for any of my books, but I think if you watch enough movies, you pickup intuitively how stories should work. I don’t worry about character arcs or intersecting plots,” he adds.

‘‘I’ve had producers come tome and say they want me to write a screenplay using this story structure and this arc, and I just say, ‘Stop there, I’m not interested’. If I can’t write it the way I want to, I’m not interested. Especially when it involves humour – how can you ask a writer to do something as forced as insert a joke on page 26?” Unlike many of Bateman’s other books, Orpheus Rising isn’t funny, and isn’t meant to be. ‘‘It just didn’t lend itself to that – in fact, in some places, it’s quite romantic and in other places, tragic. I don’t try to analyse these things, they organically grow.”

Even though the book has only just been published, Bateman has already finished his next novel, due out next year. Entitled Mystery Man, it’s about a crime-solving bookseller and sees the writer return to his familiar Northern Ireland stomping ground.

He also has a new children’s novel out in June, and is working on a TV documentary on the changing face of Belfast, as well as editing an anthology of Northern Irish crime fiction, entitled Belfast Nights. Bateman hopes to try his hand at directing a feature film in the next year.

‘‘I directed a short before for the BBC and the bug bit me,” he says. ‘‘Last year, I also got to go to Moonstone, the film maker’s lab in Germany, to shoot some scenes from a book of mine [Mohammed Maguire], and that was fantastic. I came back expecting someone to meet me with a cheque for millions at the airport saying ‘make your movie’, but sadly it doesn’t work like that.

‘‘Your ambitions change over time. At one point, I just wanted to be able to write the words ‘the end’ and finish my first book- but then you want the book to be well received, and then you want it to sell well, and then you want a screenplay made of it. It’s the oldest cliche in the book; the screenwriter who says, ‘What I really want to do is direct’.

‘‘I think it’s a Northern Irish thing. I’m not sitting here thinking I can be the best director in the world – instead, I’m sitting here thinking I can do at least as well as some of the crap directors out there, so why shouldn’t I have a go at it?”