Thursday, March 3, 2016

Drinking with Nilsson, Freaking out Mork, and the Nature of the Beast: Paul D. Marks Interview

Paul D. Marks pulled a gun on the LAPD and lived to tell about it, which makes him uniquely qualified to write noir and mystery fiction. He is the author of the Shamus Award-Winning noir mystery-thriller White Heat. Publishers Weekly calls White Heat a "taut crime yarn." His story "Howling at the Moon" (EQMM 11/14) was short-listed for both the 2015 Anthony and Macavity Awards for Best Short Story, and came in #7 in Ellery Queen's Reader's Poll Award. Midwest Review calls Vortex, Paul's new noir novella, "… a nonstop staccato action noir." He also co-edited the anthology Coast to Coast: Murder from Sea to Shining Sea. His short story "Deserted Cities of the Heart" will appear in Akashic Books' St. Louis Noir anthology, due out in summer 2016, and "Ghosts of Bunker Hill" will be in an upcoming issue of Ellery Queen.


David Cranmer: We are both devoted students of Ross Macdonald. Why do you return to his novels again and again?

Paul D. Marks: I've read all the Lew Archer novels twice and some of them three times. In fact, it's funny you ask, 'cause I'm in the middle of one now. I spent the last year reading/judging for the Edgars and that pretty much took up all my free reading time. Now that I'm free, I wanted something familiar and that I knew I'd like, so I jumped on Macdonald. Sort of "comfort food" for the mind.

Now to your specific question, why do I return to them: I think they say something about life and our lives in America in particular. Lots of people write good mysteries and noir/crime fiction. But the Archer novels are fast paced and carry on Chandler's tradition. They also delve deeper into the psychological aspects of the characters and the stories twist back and forth on each other. There's always something that happened years ago that led to what's happening today, often someone missing...or dead, that Archer has to find or sort out. In Macdonald, the past always affects the present and always comes back to bite you. That's something I relate to and, as someone who's a living testament to the past affecting the present, this appeals to me. I think we're all affected by our pasts, our childhoods, things we did as adults that we wish we hadn't, etc. I think people who say that the past doesn't affect them are probably in denial or very out of touch with themselves. So maybe that-the past is prologue-is one of the reasons I like his books.

In The Instant Enemy, he says, "The past was filling the room like a tide of whispers," and it does, doesn't it?

He also has good insights into human nature, how people behave, become who they are, etc. Too much to go into here. But here's another quote, from The Moving Target, that I think plays to that: "I used to think the world was divided into good people and bad people, that you could pin responsibility for evil on certain definite people and punish the guilty. I'm still going through the motions."-And aren't we still going through the motions?

DC: Tell me of your passion for La La Land. Is it more nostalgic? Bittersweet?

PDM: La La Land-Los Angeles-is a lot of things to me. Yes, nostalgic and bittersweet, because it's my hometown. But more than anything, it's the End of the Road, literally and figuratively.

Route 66 ends near the Santa Monica Pier and you can't go much farther west than that without crashing into the Pacific Ocean, which is sort of what happens in my short story Free Fall. Rick heads west after separating from the service. He meets Gloria (an homage to Gloria Grahame), who steals his heart and everything else he has. In the end, he might have been better off driving his motorcycle off the pier into the ocean. But he's like so many others who come here hoping for a new start that sometimes works out and often doesn't. Ditto for the female main character in my story Endless Vacation, who came to LA with stars in her eyes-and dreams of making it in Hollywood. But who ends up with a spike in her arm, dead in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where everyone from Tyrone Power and Jayne Mansfield to Dee Dee Ramone is buried. And where they show movies on the mausoleum wall on summer evenings, while people sit on graves munching their brie and wine, as shown in my satirical story Continental Tilt.

So Los Angeles is the last stop for many people. They head out here with stars in their eyes, thinking the streets are paved with gold. They often come for Hollywood, or should I say HOLLYWOOD. But they end up working as servers in restaurants or low-end fringy Hollywood jobs. Everybody thinks they're going to be a star, but few make it. So there's something about that proverbial story of people coming here to renew themselves, reinvent themselves that I find fascinating, especially when it doesn't quite work out the way they'd hoped.

And part of it is that I grew up here and my family, at least on my mom's side, goes back a ways. So LA is part of me, part of who I am. It's another friend, relative, antagonist in my life. When I was in college people used to joke that I was one of the few LA natives they knew. Everybody seemed to be from somewhere else, so there is some pride in being from LA. But it's a love-hate relationship with the city.

DC: You have met a number of celebrities. Care to share some of your more memorable encounters?

PDM: Well, I've met a bunch of people through my former job. And when I was starting out as a writer I would do just about anything to get noticed, like write or call people at home if I could get their addresses. I wouldn't do these things today because you'd probably get arrested or at least have a restraining order slapped on you.

And except for one, I'll keep it to dead celebs. Unfortunately, I never met any of the major film noir icons like Bogart, Mitchum, Lizabeth Scott. I did have close encounters of the first kind with Cary Grant and Gene Kelly, but since I've told those stories several times maybe people can just check them out on my website: http://pauldmarks.com/cary-grant-gene-kelly/ . The Cary Grant story, in particular, has an ironic punchline.

I did spend a hard days' night drinking with Harry Nilsson. But to be honest I don't remember a lot about it, see, we were drinking. Hardcore. But I don't remember what we drank, though I doubt it had anything to do with limes and coconuts. What I do remember is him talking a lot about John Lennon and his death. He was very pissed off about it.

And not a star, but a friend of mine knew a friend of Joan Crawford's. I think he was her publicist, but I can't remember for sure at this point. So she took me to his house in Beverly Hills and it was like a shrine or museum to Crawford. He had her dresses displayed on the walls, like in a museum. And all kinds of other little gimcracks of hers. Everywhere you looked were echoes of JC. It was a trip and kind of spooky in a "Sunset Boulevard," preserved-in-formaldehyde way.

I did have an interesting encounter with Robin Williams. I was visiting a friend on the set of "Mork and Mindy" during a rehearsal and I freaked out Robin Williams. They were blocking. No audience. I was the only stranger there, someone he didn't recognize. He was nervous seeing a stranger on the set, having had some trouble with the tabloids.

He asked me if I worked for the National Enquirer. Strange question, I thought. But I can give as well as receive, "Yes," I said, joking. He freaked, though he didn't get nasty or anything like that, just uptight. I finally told him I was kidding. After the rehearsal he apologized. It was fun kidding the kidder though.

I'm also an unrepentant Beatles fan, so shoot me. And I have a friend who said she could get backstage passes for Paul McCartney. So a couple/few years ago I asked her if she could. And she did. So my wife and I got to go backstage, meet everyone and hang out. I'm not really star-struck, but that was a kick! I'll never wash this hand again.

DC: I always thought Abbey Road was their finest effort followed by the eclectic White Album. Your top picks?

PDM: I agree with you that Abbey Road is their best album and I love it. But it's not my favorite album. Until a few years ago I would have said that the American version of Rubber Soul was my favorite. All the songs have the same feeling and sound and it just flows. The British Rubber Soul has What Goes On and I think it ruins the mood to have a country-western song in the mix. It also has Drive My Car, which I like, but again I don't think it works with the other Rubber Soul songs in terms of tone and neither of those are on the American version. Nowhere Man, a great song, is also from that time frame and probably would have been on the American album, but since it was a single was left off. It is, however, on the British album. So I made a playlist of the Rubber Soul that I wanted, which was the American version of the album plus Nowhere Man and minus What Goes On and Drive My Car. It's perfect!

But in the last several years I've added the British Revolver as tied for my favorite with RS. I think Revolver is really the breakthrough album that people say Sgt. Pepper is. Revolver is where they hit their experimental stride and changed everything - and the songs are great. Songs like She Said She Said, I'm Only Sleeping, Tomorrow Never Knows and Eleanor Rigby. Unfortunately Capitol left some of the good songs off of the American version, like And Your Bird Can Sing (despite what John said about it in his hating-the-Beatles-days phase) and I'm Only Sleeping. Which kind of changes the album. So in this case overall I prefer the British version. And during this time they also recorded Rain and Paperback Writer (also experimental in their own ways), which were again left off the album since they were on a single. So I made my Revolver playlist, adding those two songs in, along with Drive My Car (from the English Rubber Soul), which I think fits the tone of Revolver better than Rubber Soul. I know some people will argue these points, but I'm happy.

My two fave Beatles songs are She Loves You, both because it's so identified with their early phase and is a fun song, and Strawberry Fields - neither of which are on either Rubber Soul or Revolver. But pretty much I like everything they did.

DC: Are any of your characters based on people that you've known?

PDM: Most of my characters are based on people I've known, see or saw in daily life or based on me in part, things I saw or did, thought and felt. Some of them are simply based on observations of people I see here or there, or apropos of the above question, here, there and everywhere. For example, I was in the original Barney's Beanery, a famous LA dive and two guys were playing pool, got into a fight. Beer flying. Pool cues cracking. It ended up as a scene in something I was working on. Both my lead and secondary characters are based on people I've known through the years. But more likely than not they're composites. And then there's part of a name here or there, from people I've known. Bad guys are often based on people I, uh, don't like...

Now for Nature of the Beast I'm not saying I do or don't know any hitmen. But either way, the character of Jack Lake, the hitman, is based on the experiences and world outlooks of people I've known over the years, as well as on parts of my own experiences (and no, I'm not a hitman). We extrapolate traits, characteristics and motivations for characters from our own lives or the lives of people we've known or have come across, even if the characters are different in some ways from the real people. So you can take character traits from anyone and insert them into any character that they'll work for. I may not know any hitmen, but I know some hard people and so their traits make it into Jack.

DC: Are there certain aspects of writing a story that's difficult?

PDM: Making the transition from screenwriting to prose writing caused me some problems. Movies and screenwriting are visual in nature, but there's not a lot of description or getting into characters' heads. When I wrote my first novel (still unpublished and based on a screenplay I'd optioned several times but that was never produced) people who read it said, "It reads like a screenplay," not a good thing. Also, in screenplays you basically cut or dissolve from one scene to another. So transitions were another thing I had to work on. And then there's description. In a script you basically say: EXT. BEACH - DAY and don't have much description of it unless there's something significant that needs pointing out. You're not talking about the glorious colors of the sunset, etc. But in a novel you might want to describe the beach, say what the character/s are thinking, etc. I think I'm better at it now, but still learning as I go.

Another problem I had coming from there was using the omniscient POV. In most screenplays/movies you jump around, see everything from all points of view. So initially I did that in my prose writing. I think I have that pretty much sorted out now, though I might shift POV here and there but in different sections of a story or chapters of a novel. Not all in the same section.

Other than that, writing is hell. Like Hemingway or Red Smith, or one of the many other people this quote is attributed to, said, "Writing Is Easy; You Just Open a Vein and Bleed." But It's Alright, Ma I'm Only Bleeding.

DC: Is it true you were the last person to have shot a film on the MGM back lot? What was that all about?

PDM: Well, I didn't say that. Steven Bingen, one of the authors of MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot, said it about me. And I think it's cool...sort of. But a dubious distinction. In its heyday MGM had, I believe, five backlots in Culver City (part of the greater Los Angeles area). They sold them off over the years and they were developed for housing. The one remaining backlot (gone now too), separate from the main lot where the offices and soundstages were, was Backlot #2.

I was doing a musical (about as far from noir as you can get; but on a more noir level, I did pull a gun on the LAPD and lived to tell about, but that's another story...) - and when you think of musicals you think of MGM. Of course, it wasn't what it was in its prime. And we didn't exactly have an MGM musical style budget. But I figured it couldn't hurt to ask. Kind of like asking someone out on a date - what's the worst they could do, say no. But they said yes. During part of the time we were there Dino de Laurentis was also filming his version of King Kong with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange. They'd built this huge wall. It was pretty cool. Some of our people hung out with their crew during down times and I took a torch from their set, which I still have. My celebrity torch.

But it was also cool to be on the backlot and film on the same streets and places where Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney and Jimmy Stewart and so many others walked. I know one of the sets we used was in Philadelphia Story and another in Singin' in the Rain. Anyway it was fun, and now I'm infamous as the person who shut the lot down and turned off the lights on the way out.

7 comments:

oscar case said...

An interesting interview, David. Mister Marks has had some great experiences and I'm sure his stories are mighty fine, too.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for the comment, Oscar. I hope you'll check out my story Nature of the Beast up on David's Beat to a Pulp site.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

David, thanks for another fascinating, and anecdotal, interview with Paul D. Marks. It's always a pleasure to "get to know" new writers (for me) and learn about their art. This one was fun to read. I'm going to look up Paul's stories, both long and short.

Charles Gramlich said...

I think it would be hard to go from screenwriting to prose and vice versa. Very different demands it seems to me.

David Cranmer said...

Charles, I've been asked to make the jump to screenwriting with the Cash & Miles series. We'll see. Different demands for sure.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thank you for your comment, Prashant. Hope you’ll enjoy the stories.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Charles. Well, it had its difficulties for me, as I said in the interview. But screenwriting is very structured and I think that was a help in making the switch.