Exclusive Q&A with Mark Rubenstein, author of The Storytellers.
By Madison Thompson
This book came about from a compilation of interviews from your Huffington Post series “Writer to Writer” could you describe what the process of interviewing 46 authors looks like?
It was a very interesting process. I interviewed one author each week. Over the course of five years, I interviewed about 200 authors, a few of them were interviewed three or four times. Some interviews were conducted face-to-face at ThrillerFest (specifically Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin, Peter James, Kathy Reichs, C.J. Box, and Walter Mosley). Others were interviewed via telephone. I recorded the conversations and then edited them so they read smoothly and did my best to preserve the conversational tone of the exchanges.
How much research went into interviewing all of the authors? Did you try to read everything they have written before the interview? Many of the authors interviewed are quite prolific, so I can imagine that would be quite a task.
I made sure to read the latest book written by each author before each interview. I had already read a number of the books written by many of the authors long before the project began so I had a full picture of their writing styles and themes. I also made sure to go online and read about each author before an interview and was well-prepared to ask questions that would address each one individually. But it would have been impossible to read everything written by each author.
Some interviews take place over a few years how did you blend those conversations? Were you looking to paint an accurate picture of the author, or did you go for the more interesting answers?
Yes, some authors were interviewed on multiple occasions, and preparing the chapters devoted to them required integrating the information that was evoked. I realized that each particular author had an authorial “signature” that could be tapped, and it was relatively easy to blend the interviews into one coherent conversation. I tried to get an accurate picture of each one which was easy since I asked relevant questions and then sat back and listened. Each author revealed whim or herself. And every one of them was interesting in an individual way.
What common themes in writing processes, inspirations, struggles did you observe between the authors? Did you find yourself relating to these commonalities being an author yourself?
There were a number of themes that emerged with virtually every author. One theme was the need to persevere and write each and every day so that it becomes an integral part of an author’s everyday life.
Another theme was the notion that there is no magical “inspiration” for these creative people. Rather, they formulate an idea that could come from virtually any source, and they sit and write, rewrite, and rewrite again. The most universally applicable theme was the sentiment that writing never gets easier no matter how many novels an author has previously produced. Each new novel feels like it’s the first time the author is creating a fictional universe, and virtually every author has a palpable level of insecurity when beginning a new novel. The common question that seems to haunt each one is, “Can I do it again?”
Were there any common personality traits you found in successful authors?
While each author brought his or her individual traits to the interviews (and to their books) I think the most common and virtually universal personality trait is that of perseverance. Almost every author interviewed had faced frequent rejections and disappointments early in his or her career, yet continued working toward the goal of being published.
Being a psychiatrist and a thriller writer seems like it would be beneficial to the interviewing process. Did you find that it influenced your approach at all?
As a suspense-thriller author myself, I was often on the same wavelength as those whom I interviewed. I learned very early on that even the most successful authors have the same doubts and frustrations I’ve had: namely, the insecurity that arises when beginning a new novel; the sense that midway through a story it’s just not working and the feeling that you may have to abandon a script after ten or fifteen thousand words have been written. I think every author must grapple with feelings of insecurity (myself included) while working toward the goal of creating a new novel.
I didn’t allow my training as a psychiatrist to color the interviews. As I sometimes say when it comes to my background in non-psychiatric settings, “My meter is off. Completely off.” The interviews were simply one person talking to another about a craft in which we were both involved and found gratifying and yet, tortuous at the same time.
You are a psychiatrist, an author of both non-fiction and fiction, and an interviewer, that’s quite a mix of careers. What would you say has spurred on those career transitions?
My non-fiction has focused on Medicine, Psychiatry, and Psychology, subjects I know well and about which I can write with authority. As a psychiatrist, I’ve spent years interviewing people both in consultations and in treatment. The bottom line is simply that you want to make people feel as comfortable as possible when they talk about themselves and their careers or interests. So that’s how it went with the interviews.
As for writing fiction, even as a psychiatric resident writing up case histories, I loved making the patient come alive in my reports, even putting in the patient’s dialogue. My years in psychiatry meant that I made a living because people told me stories. So, storytelling was part of my chosen profession. A major influence for me becoming a writer was reading: even as a child, I loved reading stories (the Grimm Brothers fairy tales, Pinocchio, all the Tarzan books) and a plethora of other books that opened the world of fiction and fantasy. So, the transition from reader to writer didn’t seem like a great leap for me. One other thing: they say “Write what you know.” Well, we all know love, anger, envy, futility, pity, rage, affection, and a range of other human emotions that are part of being a human being; so for me, writing about characters who embody these qualities just seemed to be the most natural thing in the world.
Were there any author/s you were looking forward to interviewing in particular?
I can honestly say that I looked forward to all the interviews. Those that were most fascinating to me and which I anticipated most were with Don Winslow, David Mamet, Lisa Gardner, Harlan Coben, James Rollins, Karin Slaughter, and Walter Mosley.
Finally, if you could have dinner with any five people from history or literature, living or dead, who would they be?
That’s always a tough question because there are so many people (fictional or historical) with whom I’d love to share dinner. If I have to limit it to five people I’d say, Edgar Allen Poe, Philip Roth, Martin Luther King, Hillary Clinton, and Sylvia Plath. If I had to pick a sixth one—fictional—it would be Seymour Levov from Roth’s novel American Pastoral.