NOIR “WHORES”

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"I was an actor in New York," said Charlie Huston, addressing fans, "which means I was a bartender."

First time novelist Marcus Sakey countered by saying, "I worked in advertising for ten years, which means I was a prostitute."

Wisecracks like this set the mood Thursday night when both writers appeared at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona.  Huston was promoting No Dominion, sequel to his popular vampire noir tale Already Dead.  Sakey, meanwhile, plugged The Blade Itself, a first novel with an unbelievable amount of buzz behind it (According to Murderati’s own Paul Guyot, Sakey is the next Lee Child).

9780345478252 I must come clean.  Before Thursday, I’d never read a single word from either of these guys.  But I felt compelled to see them.  Why you ask?

Seldom have I heard such praise for a pair of writers.  Word on the street says that Huston and Sakey have got the goods.  And who am I to argue with the street?  Argue with the street and you’ll find yourself with an ass full of asphalt.  (Wait… What the hell am I talking about?)

Anyways, I was not disappointed.  Both men spoke sincerely about the craft and business of writing with keen insight and wit.  A few highlights included…

  • Sakey recounting his days in the advertising field before becoming a novelist.  "I was working in one of those places where everyday I thought to myself, I could set the building on fire."
  • Huston’s imitation of his first literary agent.  "Hey, great book.  I almost finished it!"
  • Sakey’s advice for writers seeking agents.  Go to bookstores and check out the acknowledgment pages of your favorite writers.  If they mention their agent, chances are they might be someone you’d want to work with.
  • Huston working the terms FETISHISTIC and APOCALYPTIC GLORY into the conversation.
  • Sakey gleefully flipping Huston the bird after being reminded he’d been fired from his advertising job.

Hm_bookcover_1 In self-deprecating fashion, both authors claimed to be industry "whores."  I don’t buy it. 

While I have only read the first few chapters of Sakey’s Blade, the novel immediately establishes an uncompromising voice pandering to no one.  And Huston, who claimed he had to sign away his first born child to write the Marvel comic Moon Knight, has kept his hardboiled street cred in tact.  I devoured the hardback edition (collecting issues 1-6) in one sitting.  Huston’s Moon Knight has all the classic comic book elements–larger than life characters, brutal fist fights, tough guy banter–while touching on themes of guilt, redemption, and self awareness. 

Whores?  I think not.  But it does bring to mind a question I’ve struggled with.  (Yes–again with the questions)B000fxw2oo_01a2fzkgk21wip61__ss400_sclzz_1

As writers, how much are you willing to compromise your art for a chance at better book sales?  Most would agree keeping your voice as a writer is essential, but so is paying the mortgage.  So where do you draw the line?  And how do you know when you’ve crossed it?

My thanks to Huston and Sakey for doing what they do.  It was great meeting you guys. 

26 thoughts on “NOIR “WHORES”

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Marcus is a hell of a writer AND an absolute doll. And I just read the excerpt of Charlie Huston’s CAUGHT STEALING on his cool website and now am really pissed that I don’t have the book so I can keep reading.

    As to your question about art and compromise, well, I was a screenwriter for all that time, so!

    But I’m an author now. Luckily I really love genre, so my taste in premise and story run to the commercial to begin with. Then of course I add my own twisted – twists.

    The thing I see as a temptation is to not give every book you write the time it deserves. It’s hard enough to write ONE good book a year – I couldn’t write two or God forbid, three – without the writing and integrity really suffering. And I loathe books that are just barely sketched out and then thrown out on the marketplace. But I can see how doing multiple books per year might be one of the only ways of making an actual living.

    I don’t think I have the stomach to do that myself, but taking more time and care with my books may eventually put me in a position of having to subsidize quality writing with some other kind of job.

    Reply
  2. Mike MacLean

    Alex,

    “…taking more time and care with my books may eventually put me in a position of having to subsidize quality writing with some other kind of job.”

    Great point.

    I think your other comment illuminates an irony of the industry. I may be wrong, but it seems many of those authors who are able to publish two or three books each year are heavy hitters (excluding the media-tie in writers). My guess is that they don’t need to do it to make a living, but to maintain a lifestyle.

    There’s a temptation to point fingers at them, muttering comments under my breath. But I first have to ask myself honestly if I would do the same in their position.

    Reply
  3. Elaine Flinn

    Well, Michael – you may have opened a can of worms here because I think most of us would like to think that compromising our ‘art’ for better book sales is out of the question. But that’s not real life. No matter how hard we fight to keep our own distinct voices intact, the integrity of our plots sacrosant, one eye is always watching the marketplace and what works and what doesn’t. We want, no-we need readers -and in order to capture their attention – we have to remember what they’re looking for. Most writers I know are prolific readers, and we seek and expect the same thing our potential readers look for. So, in that sense – yes – there is an element of ‘compromise’. And I know this first hand – it bit me in the ass when I refused to write chick lit. Thankfully, that’s no longer an issue for me.

    As for being a whore, I think it’s called BSP – so I guess we’re all whores then. The key is to do it with class.

    Reply
  4. Naomi

    I agree with Alex. Midlist writers may be able to cobble together a living wage if they write multiple books a year. But I don’t have the constitution or ability to do that.

    After recently picking up some regular side jobs, I’ve ironically felt much more free creatively. I know that we all want to write books 24/7, but yeah, you want to hold onto that day job, or at least a reduced version of that as long as you can.

    They say (now I can hear my associate editor’s voice–“who are they?”) that you don’t really start making money until the fifth, sixth book. I guess in this book economy, you’re lucky to even be publishing No. 5.

    p.s. Alex, congrats on the nice review in today’s Orlando Sentinel!

    p.s.s. I really dig Charlie Huston’s look.

    Reply
  5. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Mike,I love your posts because they:1. are intrinsically interesting2. always spark good discussion3. are just plain fun to read

    Of course, I’m going to have to read both authors now.

    Re: compromisePeople write to the market all the time and frequently get screwed. I know you, like most of the writers in Murderati, want to make a living at your craft. I think you have to keep an audience in mind if you’re going to do that. Don’t compromise . . . just know how your writing will reach the audience you hope to reach.

    For me, I’m sticking with Sasha for one of my series. A couple of people have told me that my books are too quirky, too small for a large audience. I’m hoping they’re wrong.

    ANDI’m going to try to be one of those people who writes two books a year. I’m going to give it my best shot this year. Believe me, I hope to hell it doesn’t hurt my writing.

    Frankly, I think it might help hone my skills and encourage creativity.

    Reply
  6. billie

    A request of the Murderati folk:

    is there anything on the blog here that lists your books/stories in anthologies, etc.?

    I have Alex’s book and am eager to dive into the rest of your writing!

    I can certainly go website to website if that’s what it takes. 🙂

    I can’t objectively respond to your question today, Mike. I am so in the thick of just that dilemma (or at least it feels that way) with editing my first one to see if it can get sold this time around. I actually think the book is now truer to *itself* than to my vision of it, if that makes sense, so from that perspective I think it’s more marketable. I don’t know what exactly the rub is for me personally. Sort of a vague feeling that I’m selling out? But not that clear, even, b/c I can’t say what the heck it would be that I’d be selling out! Nothing, actually.

    At this point, it’s just easier to fling about in manufactured angst than to get on with queries. 🙂

    billie

    Reply
  7. JT Ellison

    I’m going to be accused of being hopelessly naive here…

    I still believe that if you write the best book you can possibly write, it doesn’t matter what market is reading it. I write serial killer, noir fiction. Hardly the original genre. But by working hard to make my voice and style unique, I hope to transcend the “what the market craves” mentality.

    As long as I’m proud of the books I’m turning in, that’s how I sleep at night.

    Charlie Huston is amazing, btw, if you haven’t read him already. I’m not familiar with that Sakey character.

    Reply
  8. louiseure

    Maybe I’m just a Pollyanna, but I think book sales come from having a clear, distinctive and original voice. I think that’s what the best agents, the best editors and the most discriminating readers are looking for.

    Reply
  9. Mike MacLean

    Billie,“Manufactured angst” is such a great line, and I WILL be stealing it.

    As far as our publications go, I think you have to visit the individual websites for your lists. I was lucky enough to be in the 2006 Best American Mystery Stories (which I will gladly tell anyone) and in The Deadly Bride anthology (also very cool)—still trying to get a novel out there.

    Thanks for asking. Gave me a chance to get a plug in there.

    Pari,Thanks so much for the kind words. And how many times have you heard this or that is “too quirky” only to have it turn into a big success?

    Alex,Congrats on the review

    JT and Louise,Maybe the “hopelessly naive” and the “Polyannas” of the world are the ones who succeed because they ignore the barriers and believe in themselves.

    Reply
  10. Elaine Flinn

    Pari: I think those people who told you your books were too ‘quirky’ for a large audience are wrong. Sasha’s ‘quirkiness’ is what makes her so interesting and different from most of the cookie-cutter accidental sleuths out there now.

    Reply
  11. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Elaine and Mike,You’ll notice I’m still writing Sasha. That’s where the Pollyanna comes in, I guess.

    Billie,The only anthology I’m in so far is MYSTERY MUSES — and that’s nonfiction.

    Mike,This is still a damn interesting discussion.

    Reply
  12. Bryon Quertermous

    Mike might not think he’s a whore but I have pictures that prove otherwise.

    As far as what I’m willing to compromise for better sales, like JT, I’m not exactly writing in an original genre. I love PI fiction and I’ve always wanted to make my mark on my favorite genre and that’s what it comes down to.

    That said, it’s easy for me to say I’d maintain my integrity because I’ve always had very commercial tastes. And I have no standards.

    Reply
  13. Mike MacLean

    Bryon,

    Dude it was one night. And it was Bangkok. That doesn’t count.

    Crap, now I’ve got that song in my head.

    “One night in Bangkok makes a… hmm hmm hmmm.”

    Anyway, I think someone with “commercial tastes” can still sell out. That’s not to say YOU will, (you wrote a story called “Donkey Show” for Christ sakes). But I think it happens all the time.

    Elaine,You wouldn’t want to blind people with my Irish/Scottish tan.

    Reply
  14. Mike MacLean

    Paul,

    You shoul’ve said “Sheep” instead of “goat” being I’m Scottish and all.

    …and a goat! What kind a pervert do you think I am? Now a lamb…

    (ugh that last joke made me feel dirty inside)

    Reply
  15. Karen Olson

    I think we all try to write the best books we possibly can. We find our own voices and hope the readers fall in love with them. Who knows what makes a commercial success? I’ve read books that are commercially successful that just aren’t any good, and I’ve read really good books that aren’t commercially successful. As writers, because of that, we can’t pander to the public, writing what we “think” they’re looking for. We need to write from our hearts and just hope that we find that monetary success that so few writers get!

    Reply
  16. Guyot

    Let me drop some science on you all…

    Other than Nick Sparks, can you name me ONE author whose first book was a bestseller and was considered a market-pandering sellout?

    Just one.

    See, here’s what happens. If your book seels a ton of copies, suddenly you write commercially successful books that have nothing to do with artistic integrity.

    WTF???

    Did Lee Child compromise his artistic integrity? If so, which book? When did he sellout for selling those hundreds of thousands of copies?

    When did Connelly compromise? Pelecanos? King? Even Grisham.

    Yes, let’s look at Grisham. Just becaause he doesn’t write hardcore noir, does that mean he’s compromised? Absolutely not. He has written the same books from day one.

    The ONE thing all these hugely successful (and wealthy) writers have in common is the fact that they NEVER wrote for the marketplace. They NEVER thought about writing anything but the book they wanted to read.

    Stick that in your sheep and… wait.

    Reply
  17. Mike MacLean

    Paul,

    I can’t argue with a word you’ve said. You are totally right about the authors you’ve mentioned. And it astounds me when people equate book sales with “selling out.”

    But there are others—commercial writers included—that have compromised their integrity. They have gotten to a point where they don’t write the best books they can. Because of their names and the fan bases they’ve created with their quality books, they are able to slide.

    I’m not trying to sound snippy or superior. These writers got to where they are because they’re good and they worked hard. But they’re human and writing has become their job and sometimes we all just take the paycheck and run.

    Reply
  18. Guyot

    In my opinion… if you’ve made a healthy name for yourself by writing from your heart, then who cares if down the road you take the money without checking with that heart first?

    Compromising to me, is doing something you wouldn’t normally do, but for the payoff. If you’ve already “not compromised” then who gives a sheep?

    A lot of people slam Robert Parker for phoning it in the last five years or so. So what? If you’ve got that body of work on your shelf, I say you can do whatever the hell you want.

    It’s the people who do it BEFORE they’ve ever tried it from the heart, or do it when the heart-writing is not getting them a nice enough car – those are the sellouts for me.

    Reply
  19. Elaine Flinn

    “It’s the people who do it BEFORE they’ve ever tried it from the heart, or do it when the heart-writing is not getting them a nice enough car – those are the sellouts for me.”

    NOW you’re talkin’, Guyot.

    Amen.

    Reply

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