In the publishing world, Jason Pinter has sat on both sides of the desk. As an editor, first with Warner and Crown’s Three Rivers Press, then at St. Martin’s, Pinter saw his share of the good, the bad, and the ugly as far as submissions were concerned. Pinter, however, wanted to write fiction–gritty, fast-paced urban novels. He sold the first of his thrillers in a three-book deal with MIRA, an imprint for Harlequin/Mills & Boon, a publisher best known for their success in the romance genre and looking to increase the male quotient of their author list.
MIRA’s faith in Pinter paid off. His debut thriller, THE MARK, hit a bullseye for MIRA and climbed the bestseller lists. His followup novel, THE GUILTY (released Feb. 26), features the same protagonist from THE MARK, Henry Parker, a Gen-Y reporter caught in a web of deceit and violence.
Pinter is also blogmaster of the highly-regarded Man In Black blog, which features tidbits from the world of publishing from both a writer’s and an editor’s perspective, and a founding member of Killer Year, an anthology which features the hottest new voices in thriller/noir fiction.
We are pleased to present part one of our interview with Jason Pinter.
Q: Tell us about your road to publication.
JP: It began on a gloomy night on route 666…no wait, that was Stephen King’s road to publication. The first thing I ever really tried to have published was a kind of literary suspense mishmash novel called THE REAL LIFE OF JOHN GILLIS, about a bartender who decides to write a memoir in order to get his stalled life back on track. The bartender then finds his life being manipulated by a literary agent in order to make his life more “salable,” while his idealistic assistant juggles her feelings for him with her desire to see him succeed. I managed to get an agent for the book, but shockingly most publishers didn’t think people wanted to read a somewhat critical novel about the publishing industry. Not that I blame them; publishing itself is as glamorous as shopping at H&M.
While GILLIS was on submission, I knew I wanted to write a true suspense novel, a thriller that I hoped would stand out. This was around the time that the DA VINCI CODE craze was peaking, so I decided my thriller would be without codes or puzzles, no ancient temples or secret societies, just a breakneck story without bells or whistles or feather boas. Though GILLIS never sold, my agent was very supportive and encouraging. Soon I began work on HERO OF THE DAY, starring a young reporter named Henry Parker. That book became THE MARK, and it was a dream come true when it was sold in a three book deal, my publisher desiring for it to be the first in a series.
Q: Your debut thriller THE MARK, received rave reviews and shot up the bestseller lists. Was it difficult writing a follow up novel to such a successful book?
JP: I think success is all relative. I was thrilled with the critical reception, and think my publisher did a great job supporting it. But it’s only one book, and from the beginning I really wanted to look at writing as a career. And unless you’re Harper Lee, careers aren’t made on one book. (and no, I’m not Harper Lee) Writing THE GUILTY was actually pretty easy. The storyline for the book came to me while I was writing THE MARK, and I decided that if THE MARK didn’t sell, this story would be the backbone for my next novel. And if THE MARK did sell, it would make a great backbone for the next Henry Parker novel. Thankfully the latter happened, and I was able to take a story I loved and populate it with characters I wanted to write more about. I think THE GUILTY is a more layered, more complex book than THE MARK. And as much as I’m proud of THE MARK, I think this book allowed me to flex my muscles a bit and offer readers something both familiar and different at the same time.
Q: What’s the trick to creating characters you DO want to write more about over the course of a series? Making cast members vastly different from one another? Creating loads of juicy backstory and secrets?
JP: I think the characters have to be interesting enough to make you want to read more about them. In THE MARK, I touched on a lot of things, planted seeds if you will, regarding aspects of Henry’s life that I knew wouldn’t be explored until later on in the series. Something about the characters needs to compel you, the author, to want to keep writing stories about them. Whether you identify with them to some extent, or they’re in a certain profession that can support several stories, or they’re the kind of character whose personality just keeps getting them into trouble, you need a reason to keep going back to the well. To me, Henry and Amanda, as well as other supporting characters, interested me enough so that I hoped I would be able to write more about them, and I feel fortunate to have that opportunity
Q: You said, “I think THE GUILTY is a more layered, more complex book than THE MARK. And as much as I’m proud of THE MARK, I think this book allowed me to flex my muscles a bit and offer readers something both familiar and different at the same time.” Would you say that you grew as a writer between these books? How? And in which ways will you continue to strive for growth?
JP: THE GUILTY was a more complicated story. THE MARK was, as its heart, a straightforward, no apologies chase novel. I wanted it to take place of a short period of time, with no superficial bells or whistles. Just suspense from the get go. THE GUILTY required a lot more research in order to speak about certain historical issues with a sense of authenticity. Additionally, there were a few errors in THE MARK, mostly of the geographical manner, that upset me. So I wanted to make sure I grew not just as a writer, but as a professional. As for growth, it’s important that no two of my books are the same. Each one will tell a different story and affect the characters in different ways. And each one also speaks, without preaching I hope, to something a little deeper as well.
Q: In THE MARK, you unpack the pitfalls of celebrity, both contemporary (in a Paris Hilton doppelganger) and historical (in Billy the Kid). What drew you toward exploring the cult of celebrity in your novel?
JP: A lot of it comes from frustration, actually, with our culture’s obsession with celebrity, and how it seems to reward and recognize banality and ignorance much more than courage and decency. Billy the Kid was one of the first anti-heroes in American history. And despite being a mass-murderer, more books and films have been produced about the Kid than just about any figure in our nation’s history. Billy was, to a large extent, the first person to inspire “yellow journalism.” At the same time, a lot of people, then and now, view him as kind of a romantic hero, especially since in a way he was forced into violence by people more evil than he was. I thought it would be fascinating to take a character like that, someone both extraordinarily violent and cold-blooded yet whose motivations, in a way, could be understood, and place him in New York in 2008.
Q: Your novels are fast-paced, with shocking plot-twists and high-stakes, and you chose to tell it in two POV’s (first and third). Why did you make that choice, and what are some advantages to using different POV’s in the same novel?
JP: I used it in THE MARK for two reasons. First, because I wanted my supporting characters to have a voice, for their motivations to be understood. Even the so-called “villains” have real motivations for what they do, and I thought hearing part of the story in their voice was important to make the characters more believable. The second was, simply, to build tension. Often you’ll see other characters doing something Henry and Amanda aren’t aware of, so if you know they’re about to walk into a buzz saw you’ll be biting your nails and sweating to figure out just how the heck they’re going to get out of it alive. Kind of like the unwitting babysitter who goes down to the basement to inspect a strange noise, while everyone knows some psycho with a knife the size of Florida is waiting down there.
Q: Your publisher MIRA Books, a Harlequin imprint, is known for publishing romantic suspense, contemporary and historical romances. In fact, part of your publicity campaign is a stop on eHarlequin.com. Has being a male author of gritty thrillers for a publishing empire built on romances been a strange ride for you or has it given you unexpected advantages?
JP: Part of the reason MIRA appealed to me as a publisher was their success in building suspense writers, like Alex Kava, as well as the lure of being published by a house in the midst of becoming a big-time player in that genre. MIRA hasn’t been around that long, and having worked in publishing I know that nowhere in a writer’s contract does it say that just because you’re being published by so-and-so does it guarantee you’ll be a success or get the support your book needs. MIRA made it clear from the onset they wanted to support my books, and as someone who looked at writing as a career rather than ‘one and done,’ having that support was invaluable. They didn’t just consider THE MARK a book, but considered me as an author as well. And I think there’s a huge distinction there.
Q: Is there an advantage to hooking up with a newer publishing house? What? And: In what specific ways did MIRA make their long-term intentions clear to you? What did they say/do that made you feel, “Yes. Here’s a publisher I can count on in the long haul”?
JP: It really depends on each book and situation. While there is something great about being with a relatively new imprint, at the same time you want to be sure your publisher has the right distribution, good relationships with accounts, that the publicists have contacts, etc… You can be at a new imprint and have great success, or be at a more prestigious imprint and get lost in the shuffle.
At the same time, many imprints, like Knopf for example, have that reputation for a reason. Going with a publisher just because they’re new, or just because of their reputation, is doing your book a disservice. You need to decide what situation is best for your book, right now, and for your career. MIRA appealed to me at first because of both their desire to publish THE MARK as the first in a series, but also in their commitment to support in terms of marketing and co-op. Again I’m fortunate they chose to do that. And recently they extended my contract for four more books (seven in total). So knowing they have such an investment in time and effort in me makes my job as a writer easier, since I can concentrate on the books without too much worry for the near future. Of course nothing in this business should be taken for granted.
In part two of our interview with Jason Pinter, we discuss Pinter’s writing process, his perspectives as an editor, and the pitfalls of becoming the “next big thing” in publishing.