Mark Chisnell writes high octane thrillers. He has a new novel out, The Sniper, available September 25th. It is about an assignment for a young US Marine Corps sniper who comes up against an intervention. Mark met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about his protagonists and crime fiction.
Tell us about your new book.
My latest book is The Sniper, and it is available for pre-order for a 25th September release. It’s a short story (12,000 words or about 36 pages) featuring the central character from my ‘Janac’s Games’ thrillers; The Defector and The Wrecking Crew.
The action focuses on an assignment for a young US Marine Corps sniper, Paul Robert Janac. It’s a simple task made dangerous and ultimately deadly by a startling intervention. A pulse-pounding manhunt through the Vietnamese jungle follows that leaves Janac with a life-or-death choice.
This is the first of several stories that will follow Janac’s progress from the Vietnam War to drug trade dominance, to the place where we meet him in The Defector – these stories are the origins of Janac’s Games. This is the moment when it all begins to unravel for a good and decent soldier.
How far do your protagonists have to step outside the law and why?
I tend to write books that isolate the main protagonists somewhere beyond the reach of the normal rule of law – high in the mountains, at sea, or on the run from the SS in Nazi Germany for instance. Of course, this also places them beyond the reach of any help from the normal places – the police – and forces them to fall back on their own wits and abilities to survive whatever threat I’ve dreamt up for them. Inevitably they have to step outside the law and sometimes outside accepted moral behaviour to survive. I think it’s this last part that links my books thematically. When there’s no one else around to help, how far will you go and what will you do to survive?
Do you think the expectation for authors to write something ‘original’ is misguided?
Essentially, yes, because there’s a theory that there are just seven basic, original plots (see this link for an explanation; http://lenwilson.us/seven-stories/). If you believe that to be true, which I do, then everything is ultimately derivative and there are no new stories left to be told. Of course, within those parameters, then there is a great deal of scope for originality in the writing, the tone, the characterisation and so on. When you find that kind of originality it’s great, but in the end, it’s still one of the same seven old, old stories – so striving for originality for its own sake is pretty pointless.
Do you think much crime fiction sanitises crime?
I’ve just finished reading a book called ‘Violence: A Writer’s Guide’ by Rory Miller, a U.S. prison service employee with SWAT team experience. His message was very simple – crime in general, and violent crime in particular is a lot uglier, messier, and more brutal than it’s generally portrayed in books and movies. And having read his accounts of criminal violence, I’d have to agree – so yes, I think that some crime fiction does sanitise crime. Having said that, there has been a long-standing trend towards greater realism and there are plenty of very hard-to-read accounts of violent crime in the bestseller lists, so I think that this is something that’s being corrected.
What do you make of the E Book revolution?
I think it’s been a fantastic thing in many different ways. On a personal level, I love my Kindle and the access it gives me to a vast range of books wherever I am, and whatever time it happens to be. At a professional level, it’s reenergised my fiction career in a way that I wouldn’t have thought possible five years ago – I’m one of those people who’s much better suited to self-publishing than traditional publishing, and the coming of the Kindle and Kindle Direct Publishing has made that a proper, respectable business. And finally, I think it’s been a genuine revolution, one day we might come to see it as just as important a step in democratising access to mass media as Caxton’s printing press. It’s been very clear from the types of self-published authors and books that have been successful that the traditional publishing industry just wasn’t providing the books that many readers wanted.
Graham Greene wrote, ‘There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.’ What do you make of his observation?
I’ve never been quite sure what to make of this quote. On the one hand, I think that good writers need to be able to observe people clearly, and this means maintaining a certain amount of distance – so the ice splinter will come in handy. On the other hand, when it’s time to start writing about people it’s essential to be able to walk in their shoes, to empathise and feel what they feel – so the ice splinter needs to melt. But then, if you’re not going to go crazy suffering for your characters, then you’ll need the ice splinter back when you shut down the word processor!
How detailed an understanding of the military do you have?
My only understanding of the military is through research – having said that, I am something of an obsessive in this area, and I do have a tame ex-Royal Marine and security consultant on-tap as a source for the details. I’d like to think I get most of it right, and so far I’ve only had one letter of complaint. It was from an ex-policeman who thought I’d got a couple of things wrong about the investigation in my historical novel, The Fulcrum Files – but that’s an area that’s always fraught!
Who are your literary influences?
When I was a teenager I read everything that had been written by Alistair MacLean and Ian Fleming, and I guess they were the original inspiration for writing thrillers. In particular, MacLean tended to put his characters in isolated situations and then present them with a threat or a problem, and I can see that style of story in my own books.
The other consistent thread in my books is probably the element of moral dilemma, and I have George Orwell to thank for the idea that books can have big ideas – I read Animal Farm and 1984 when I was 14 or 15 and they had a huge impact.
Finally, I’d also have to mention Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I read this book just before going to college and it had a major impact – not least, it prompted me to change out of a pure science course to one that combined science with philosophy. It was during the philosophy lectures that I came across the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and that formed the core of the plot of The Defector.
Do you think moral philosophy has any place in academia post Wittgenstein and if not should it?
I don’t think anyone should have the final word on anything, anywhere – even Wittgenstein!
What’s a genre that you don’t normally write that you would consider trying?
The historical fiction was a big step into a new genre for me, and it made me realise how much work you have to do on these books. I have yards of books on my shelves that I had to read to get the historical detail right in The Fulcrum Files. So I don’t know that I want to swop genres again anytime soon, but if I did it would definitely be Science Fiction. I don’t read it much these days, but my top two or three movies are Sci-Fi (Blade Runner at #1), and I did a physics and philosophy degree originally, so I’m fascinated by all those ideas of alternative worlds and realities.
Thank you Mark for an insightful and versatile interview.
Visit Mark’s website for news, inside information and to sign up for new-book alerts: http://www.markchisnell.com/