Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Atlanta Giveaway #2 - A Chat with Mark Bertrand

UPDATE: Thursday, 8/11/11, 3:00 pm - WINNER!

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Timestamp: 2011-08-11 19:57:46 UTC

Congrats to Lisa writes! Email me your address, Lisa, and I'll send the book your way!

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J. Mark Bertrand writes gripping crime fiction set in Houston. I enjoyed his first book in the Roland March series, Back on Murder and was excited to have the opportunity to meet him and sit down for an interview in Atlanta shortly after Pattern of Wounds was released.. Although this is a bit long, I actually did cut quite a bit of our conversation as we enjoyed talking about some of the Houston details found in the books! Besides, I couldn't leave out the part where he told me about the time he was (falsely) arrested! Some authors certainly go to extremes to research for their books! (Grin!)

Roland March is a tough weathered character who has been through the mill! Pattern of Wounds features Houston detective Roland March, whom we met in Back on Murder. He has weathered quite a few personal and professional trials in his life and they don’t seem to be done with him yet. In the HPD he is alternately respected and persona non grata—--with the disdain tipping the scales in this book. Tell me about his character and how you developed him. How much of it was deliberate and how much of it happened as the result of the story unfolding? Authors always fascinate me because I always thought y’all intentionally wrote these books, and then many authors talk about their characters doing things they had no control over!

This is good because I can give you a contrary view of that since I’m not one of those people! The character taking over is like a good metaphor, maybe, to use for the unexpected things that happen in the process. Because you do sit down and you plan ahead and you have a sense for what the story’s going to be, and it does change as you write it. But so far, I’ve never had the characters wrest control of the story from me! But we’ll see what happens in the future.

As far as where he comes from, there’s not any one inspiration from life that I could point to, where I could say “Roland March is my uncle who is a police captain” or something like that But a lot of different people probably influenced him. And at his start, I think he’s the result of asking myself “What would I be like under these circumstances?” I don’t want to say he’s a stand-in for me or anything like that, but he’s sort of living a life that as a boy, I imagined myself living. I always wanted to be a crime-fighting, gun-wielding homicide detective, and that ended up not happening. But by writing about it I get the joy of doing that vicariously. So I’ve enjoyed working with him. He can be abrasive; he’s not always the most likeable hero, but that’s part of the appeal, I think. I wanted to write about a flawed character, a flawed hero, who sometimes strains the reader’s sympathy a little bit. So hopefully it works!

The spiritual element of this book is subtle. Roland doesn’t want to have anything to do with religion and is a bit disgusted with the fact that the young couple that rents their garage apartment has convinced his wife to attend church with them. He feels betrayed when she discovers that she is sharing at church her feelings about what he considers their very private pain over their daughter’s death. Yet he can’t deny the change that her new faith has made in her, so he’s kind of confused. And there’s a lot of discussion about “Christian fiction” – does there always have to be a message or can it just entertain? Is there a message that you want readers to take away from this book? Or are you just trying to provide good clean fiction with a Christian overtone?

For me, I don’t think a lot about those questions when I’m working. I’m just writing the book I want to write, the kind of books I want to read. I don’t think about message except in the sense that every book has a message and we all have an ax to grind and we’re all interested in certain things. I guess the way I would describe myself is that where a lot of times we talk about Christian fiction as a place where you’re free to write about certain things that you couldn’t write about elsewhere. My own experience was that I would read a lot and I wouldn’t see a lot of writing about the church as I’d experienced it; the church in Christian fiction was often the perfect church, that I’d never attended, and everyone always knew the right thing to say at the right moment and they were all kind of generically good and generically Christian. One of the things I’ve tried to do with the March books is look at different kinds of Christianity with a realistic lens. So in the first book, Back on Murder, you get that very – which is very real in Houston – that kind of big box Christianity that is happening on a large scale, made for television. And March goes into that world and when he first sees the place, expresses surprise and shock that this is a church and not a mall, just from the building. But when he meets the people he gets a more nuanced view of what’s going on and his prejudices are undermined.

In Pattern of Wounds, it’s a little bit different. The youth pastor from the first book is now living under March’s roof and they’re having some interesting interactions. But March also runs into this guy, Curtis Blount, who’s another one of these interesting characters; he’s a kind of a fundamentalist preacher who preaches for DVDs. He doesn’t even have a congregation; he just sort of makes these thing and dresses like Johnny Cash, that kind of thing. But he’s the kind of guy you do run into. I tell people that the strange thing to me isn’t that I would have religious themes and theological themes in my work; the strange thing is that anybody writing about Houston wouldn’t, because it’s so prevalent. It’s hard not to see it. The largest sporting arena, where the Rockets won their back-to-back victories, is now a church. This is front and center in the city.

Things are looking up just a bit for Roland as the book ends, but the last couple of sentences in this book left me wondering . . .is there more to come? Is there a third Roland March book in the pipe?

Oh there is. The third book, which should be out next summer, picks things back up and puts March in a different kind of situation. Charlotte (his wife) is more absent. They’re together but she’s now changed her role at work and she travels a lot and he has to deal with that. And that’s one of the themes of the next book; he has to reckon with not having her in his life as much, and that creates a little friction. The thing I like about March, though, is that he’s a little different than other crime fiction protagonists. He’s not a functioning alcoholic. He’s not divorced. He has his issues but there’s a real commitment between them. And I think that the effect of their shared tragedy on their marriage is complicated. And so people looking at it from the outside won’t always judge it right. There’s a complexity to the way they live, and to me, the hopeful thing about it is that they do persevere together and are, on some level, good for each other, even though they have their hard moments. It’s probably not a marriage any of us would aspire to! I’m certainly happy my wife and I don’t have that kind of relationship. I think the two of them are happy together, but they both struggle with being happy, period.

Your website indicates that you were once arrested for a crime you didn’t commit. Were you a teen or an adult? I imagine that was a pretty unsettling experience. Do you care to share about that and how that impacts your writing?

I was 30. I was arrested for assaulting a ticket agent in the First Class line of Continental at Chicago O’Hare airport. That sounds really bad but what I actually did was, when the ticket was offered to me, I accepted it and said “Thanks” in kind of a sarcastic way because she was jerking us around. So I showed a little bit of attitude. And there were people between us, so [we both had to reach over them]. Suddenly these security guards just swarm around, and I don’t know what’s going on, but when I realize what’s happening, it’s just surreal. I keep thinking that as soon as I explain what really happened, they’re all going to just laugh about it and move on. But it doesn’t matter what really happened. Once you’ve been singled out for arrest, that’s what happens. The whole time, it’s sorta surreal because my mom is there. And she’s arguing with the police and they’re threatening to arrest her! I’m facing the prospect of not only being arrested, which is humiliating, but with my mom, which is even worse—to show up in jail with your mom! So I’m begging her to please just let them take me. They did and it’s one of those things you’re going through thinking, “This is an injustice, but I know I’m going to be able to write about this someday” so I’m trying to pay attention to every little detail. It was all dismissed but it was just an unusual experience. Apparently this was a big problem at the airport and happening a lot. One of the vice presidents of Continental called and apologized. To this day I’m still not sure what was going on. But it was a good lesson for me. I’m one of those people without a lot of patience for bureaucracy. If you were being unreasonable and giving me attitude, I’d just give it right back. Since then, I’ve learned to be more mature in those situations!

Interestingly enough, I think it was enough of an experience to balance my ingrained love of law and order and respect for law enforcement. It gave me an insight into how easy injustice can be because I found myself in the hands of people who I always thought were interested in the truth. And quite a few of them – the law enforcement officers – told me they thought this was bogus. But they were doing it because this was their job; they were going through the motions. They had no choice. I thought about that—to find yourself in a situation where you believed something is unjust but your job is to push it on down the line—I thought that would just be intolerable. I don’t think I could be a party to that. So that’s the kind of tension that I try to bring to the books as well. There’s a section in Back on Murder where he talks about the difference between: you can prove something that you don’t really know, and you can know something that you can never prove. And it’s sort of that slipperiness of what really happened vs. what I can make a case for that has fascinated me ever since. So it was a relatively minor thing, but it got me thinking. I like to think there’s an unusual mix in the books of the quest for truth and justice with the understanding that human quests for truth and justice are flawed by sin and ultimately unreliable.

Tell me a bit about the personal side of Mark Bertrand. Married? Kids? Is writing your full-time job?

I don’t have kids. Laurie and I got married in ’96 and in 2006 we moved back to South Dakota, where she’s from. It’s great; there are no distractions so I write a lot! I’d like it to be more of a full-time job. I do other things, but when I write, that’s all I work on. I’ve tried balancing other things but I couldn’t write a book if I was doing other things. I have friends who have a full-time job and raise a family and write books in their spare time, and I don’t see how that’s possible; there are so many things to keep straight in your head. I’m able to work only on books when that’s what I’m working on. And then I do a variety of other things – some design work, some consulting, some other writing. I will be content to continue doing what I’m doing.

Any last words for your readers?

I hope that people enjoy the books. I try to do something a little bit different and please readers but also surprise them with some of the things that happen, so hopefully that works.

Thanks so much, Mark! It was great to meet you, and I look forward to the third Roland March book and whatever books are brewing in your imagination next!


I have an extra copy of Pattern of Wounds for one of you. You can enter up to three times! To enter,

1. Leave a comment on this post.
2. Like my new Mocha with Linda page on Facebook.
3. Post about the giveaway on Facebook and link to my FB page - leave a separate comment telling me you did so.

All comments/entries must be received by 8:00 p.m. CDT Wednesday, August 10, and I will randomly draw a winner. US Residents only, please. Limit 3 entries per person. Be sure to include an email address if you don't have a blog.

This book can also be purchased on Amazon or at your favorite bookstore.


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sara said...

I love these interviews with the authors and what we learn!!!

I just liked you on FB!!!

Linda said...

Sounds like a great book--different views as an author. Would I need to read the first book to understand this one? Please enter me.

desertrose5173 at gmail dot com

Linda said...

I liked your FB page. Not sure how to do the link you request.

desertrose5173 at gmail dot com

Kim said...

Oh, you are sooo tech savvy my friend! Leaving me in the proverbial dust! :) I'll join the 21st century one of these days!!

Megan said...

Great interview! I love to read this kind of book.

lovetoread205 [at] gmail [dot] com

A Stone Gatherer said...

Would love this book!!! And you're on Facebook now! I'm heading over to Facebook to "like" you!!!

A Stone Gatherer said...

"LIKED" you on Facebook!

Lisa Spence said...

I read "Back on Murder" and would LOVE to read this novel as well!

Liking you both in person (ha) AND on Facebook too!!

And Happy Birthday, again!

karenk said...

a great posting, linda...thanks for the chance to read this novel...and HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

kmkuka at yahoo dot com

Anonymous said...

As the saying goes "I love a mystery"!! Mauneen

Lisa Spence said...


Thanks for hosting a great giveaway!