Mark SaFranko on Crime Fiction – an interview by Estelle Jardon

Mark SaFranko on Crime Fiction – an interview by Estelle Jardon

28 November 2018 0 By Barbara Schmidt

Writing Crime Fiction Today: Old Constraints, Contemporary Challenges, Future Perspective —
an interview with Mark SaFranko, conducted by Estelle Jardon, Master 2 Mondes Anglophones.

Journée d’étude IDEA, “Le texte dans tous ses états : genèse, publication, traductions”, 15 Nov. 2018

As my Master’s dissertation is devoted to the contemporary metaphysical detective novel —
or whydunit — I have included SaFranko’s crime novel The Suicide (2014) in my corpus of study.
The present interview, which was conducted at the end of the seminar, constituted a rare opportunity
for me, as a reader and researcher, to confront my personal insights into this unconventional type of
crime narrative with its own creator’s intentions. Though it is mostly concerned with The Suicide,
references to SaFranko’s other crime novels were also made. This interview also aimed at learning about
the past and present challenges of crime fiction writing, and discussing the state and possible
evolution of twenty-first-century crime fiction.

Estelle Jardon: Could you tell us a few words about yourself as a crime fiction writer? What are
your main influences?
Mark SaFranko: The interest in writing crime fiction has been with me from the very beginning: I
was always actually writing those confessional novels alongside crime fiction. For some reason, I
sort of needed the psychic balance of doing both, and sometimes that translated as “I’m bored writing
the confessional fiction, I need to go off and do something else, use a different voice”. Perhaps, the
strongest influence were the novels of George Simenon, the Belgian-French novelist, not his
detective novels but his other stand-alone romans. I’m still a great fan of Dostoevsky, who can be
considered as a crime writer. The lines between his genres are very blurred. Unfortunately, I think
that I’m more of a literary crime novelist, which takes me out of the selling genre of mainstream
crime fiction.
EJ: Your crime novels fall into what is broadly termed the modern crime thriller, the main focus of
which being the crime and the criminal committing it. Within this particular sub-type of crime
fiction, which traditions or rules of crime fiction writing do you feel compelled to follow? Which are
the ones you generally depart from?
MS: The only rule I try to follow is to subvert it in any way in order to keep my own sense of
freshness and originality. I mean, it’s almost impossible to do so because everything has been done
over and over again at this point, but let’s say we trick ourselves into thinking we’re doing something
a little bit different. So I would say subvert it in some way. With The Suicide, I thought of subverting
the conventional detective novel because I really didn’t want to write it, in a sense. I really didn’t
want to write a detective novel, but a confluence of pressures, both internal and external, made me
write it.
EJ: Considering the plot, the most essential element of crime fiction, do you give more importance
to the plot or to your writing style?
MS: Neither. I think more about characters than either plot or style.
EJ: So your stories are character-driven.
MS: Yes, definitely. In fact, I think of my style increasingly as “no style”. I think there’s very little
literary pretension in it. My publisher here [Olivier Brun] might think differently about that, I don’t
know.
EJ: Opinions greatly differ among crime fiction writers over the difficulties of writing formula
literature. For example, the American novelist Martha Grimes confessed that “writing a mystery is
more difficult than other kinds of books because a mystery has a certain framework that must be
superimposed over the story. […] It is appallingly difficult to write. Because these things have to
dovetail and I’ve got to get all of these elements going together” (1). Would  you say that writing within
the constraints of a formulaic genre is impeding your creativity or, on the contrary, is it liberating to
have a certain framework to work with?
MS: I’m not sure that I agree with her assessment there. If I go back to Camus’s novel [L’Etranger]
that we talked about earlier [during the seminar], it can be considered a crime novel which has no conventional structure
imposed upon it. It’s a confessional novel that becomes a crime novel and there are many different
ways to attack it. So I’m not sure that I agree with her assessment there.
EJ: …I was referring to the fact that crime fiction writers traditionally have to provide readers with a
neat resolution at the end of the story; something which can be difficult…
MS: That’s true if you’re writing for the marketplace, so to speak. If you eschew the demands of the
marketplace, then you have more room to breathe. I mean, you’ve read The Suicide. Is that a neatly
tied-up ending? I don’t think it is.
EJ: No, it’s transgressive.
MS: It is transgressive. Well, it’s still very difficult to do as she [Grimes] says. That’s true, but I’m
not sure that you need to strangle the form.
EJ: This “art of fooling the reader without cheating him” (2) is  not something that contemporary
writers do anymore. It was a part of the British mystery writing tradition. You are American, you
write thrillers, so this difficulty does not apply to your novels. But still, readers expect a neat
conclusion at the end, that’s why it can be difficult to write such novels…
MS: You know, I wouldn’t call myself a thriller writer. You’re familiar with a couple of my styles
and I would hardly call myself a thriller writer. I think the closest description I would use in terms of
the marketplace is a psychological or literary suspense writer. I wish I was a thriller writer, I’d be
making a lot of money. [laughter]
EJ: The Suicide is your eighth novel and your fourth crime novel, published in 2014. Although its
title may at first signal a mystery-story-breaker, you successfully stretch the genre of crime fiction by
imagining a doomed detective protagonist who entraps himself into an absurd and yet suspenseful
investigation into a mere suicide. Could you explain the genesis of the novel and of this curious
detective?
MS: It was born from an incident that happened on the upper floor of the building where I was
living, and where a young woman fell out of the window — I think in the novel it is the eleventh
floor — but in reality it was the tenth floor. A policeman came to investigate the incident the next
evening and, of course, my wheels began to turn immediately. I’m trying to think of why… I can’t
remember, it was twenty years ago… why exactly I turned it into a detective novel. And then, the
injection of the transgender detective gave it another dimension, which then dovetailed with the
conclusion that I had set up. There was a lot of churning that went along that.
EJ: How long did it take to write it?
MS: Since I’m always working on multiple novels, it took a few years to write. I would go back and
forth, I’d do a draft of that, then go to another novel and return to it, maybe, six months or a year
later. It just kept expanding and developing over a period of a few years. In the end, it ended up
being rejected by seventy-six American publishers. It was almost signed by Ballantine Books, which
was one of the big commercial publishers in New York, but the editor who wanted it couldn’t get it
past his sales department. In other words, they weren’t sure how many copies would sell and that
doomed it. So it found a home in the UK. My agent at the time was a firm believer in the book, and I
thought it was a really good book too, so we kept going with it. At the end, we couldn’t figure out
what the problem was.
EJ: In terms of plot, you haven’t drafted and stuck to a definite outline since your writing process
evolved over several years.
MS: Yes, it evolved. Earlier [during the seminar], I talked about my notebook: I had a set of first notes but did not start
writing until later. The transgender detective, I believe, made his appearance maybe a year or two
after I wrote those original notes and then 9/11 intervened and gave me another dimension. At that
time, I think I had at least a couple of drafts. If I’m not mistaken, I believe that I’d written two or
three drafts before the 9/11 material was inserted. So it was a process that probably went through
somewhere between ten and fifteen drafts of the novel.
EJ: During this several-year writing process, how did you come to the resolution of your novel?
MS: I knew from the beginning what I wanted to do. I don’t want to give spoilers but I knew what
the outcome was going to be and that was the subversion of the conventional detective novel. What’s
been on my mind for years was to use what was done in William Hjortsberg’s novel Falling Angel,
which became the film Angel Heart. Even though the stories are widely divergent, the conclusions
are somewhat similar in one schematic way.
EJ: The suicide plot and the unconventional treatment of the detective figure make your novel
belong to the metaphysical detective novel. Detective Brian Vincenti is reminiscent of the famous
Sophocles’ Oedipus. Did you draw your inspiration from it?
MS: Absolutely. Another strong influence on me — a film that I’m never tired of watching and
which is a seminal part of my thinking whenever I do a crime novel — is the Greek tragedy of
Chinatown, Robert Towne’s script and Roman Polanski’s film masterpiece.
EJ: Your inspiration does not only draw from literature but also movies. That’s why your novel
contains so many visual scenes, so to speak…
MS: Cinema, but also philosophy. You mentioned Sophocles, there were certainly traces of him and
of the classically tragic dimension.
EJ: Could we go back to your idea of making something different. Did you intend to parody the
hackneyed homicide-dressed-as-suicide plot as it is often seen on American cop shows?
MS: Not at all. I was after something quite different there. Well, I guess it turns out to be one… But
for me, it’s not a parody. The only word I can think of is a transgression or a subversion.
EJ: As a crime fiction enthusiast, I really liked your novel quite paradoxically because it is more
than crime fiction. What first seems to be yet another American thriller featuring the clichéd
disillusioned and emotionally distraught cop, quickly takes on a deeper psychological turn and ends
on a witty metaphysical twist; and all the while The Suicide also broaches big issues such as youth
suicide, domestic violence, rape, police brutality, child sexual abuse by Catholic priests, the place of
marginalised minorities in the US (transgender individuals, Muslims). What is your novel most
essentially about? Is crime fiction a vehicle for tackling current events, social or political issues?
MS: No. I don’t think the writer can ever escape those environmental factors, they make their way
in, but I’m a firm believer that politics should never enter a work of art — I know that many people
would disagree with me. The artist, I believe, has to render without judgement and when you have
very obvious political stances or opinions, you are implicitly and explicitly making judgments about
people and themes. You must render without judgement, that’s my rule. You observe and you see
things but I don’t believe that I make any judgments about any one. If writers are condemning, they
condemn themselves. In my opinion, it’s a flaw.
EJ: Do you write crime fiction for “crime fiction’s sake”, for entertainment?
MS: No, it’s really to plumb human characters. That’s really my goal.
EJ: Your novel has been described by some critics and reviewers as a post 9/11 novel. It’s true that
the most striking and horrendous visual scene imposed upon readers’ imagination is that of a young
woman jumping/falling out of her window, which is sadly reminiscent of the 9/11 tragedy. As you are a New-
York-based writer I cannot but ask the question: to what extent did the 9/11 terrorist attack influence
your writing?
MS: That’s a really difficult question to answer because it was an event that happened around me but
I wasn’t paying particular attention to it. Aside from that, it was part of the backdrop of the place and
the time. I lived in Hoboken for several years. My son at the time was very small and we spent all of
our time in the playground right in the shadow of the World Trade Center. My wife worked in one of
the buildings. So it was there as a backdrop but I did not intend to use it as anything more than my
own environment at the time.
EJ: You said you were interested in a sense of tragedy for this novel. Was the 9/11 event a good way
to question fate? I’m referring particularly to this passage on page 175: “But — who could tell? —
maybe things would be even worse then. A man could never predict anything in life, could he? He
might get up one morning and be washed away by a tidal wave. Or report to his job and never come
back. Like damned near three thousand did on a certain September morning, when the sky was blue,
the temperature perfect, the world a relatively peaceful place, the kind of day a man or woman would
never think…”. I interpret your choice of time setting, March 2002, roughly 6 months after the
attack, as a way to tackle the notion of fate.
MS: Absolutely. Fate, destiny, those things are always part of my concerns.
EJ: …That’s why, in my opinion, your novel can be labelled as a contemporary metaphysical
detective novel.
MS: Yes, absolutely. There’s no question that it’s a preoccupation of mine.
EJ: Was it conscious in this novel or did you reflect on these themes afterwards?
MS: No, it was definitely conscious. I think about that all day long every day. I mean, what else is
there to think about? Why we’re here? Where are we going, if we’re going anywhere?
EJ: Do you think it is the writer’s job to make readers reflect on these universal topics?
MS: I think it is, yes. I think that God, death, fate, destiny, character… should be the terrain of the
artist.
EJ: Regarding your transgender character, Tommy Flaherty/Ellen Smith. How did you have the idea
to introduce such a character in your novel? What is his significance?
MS: There was a newspaper article about a policeman who had gone on vacation for three or four
weeks and who came back as a woman. He expected to go back on duty and was promptly fired. The
story stayed with me, I was really fascinated by what must have happened within the psyche to
prompt a being to take such a drastic action about him or herself. That stayed with me and somehow
I managed to include it in the plot.
EJ: It was a good way to create a loss of bearings for your detective protagonist.
MS: Actually, yes. It contributed to that for sure, because that was his best friend and he was having
trouble coping with that sea change in his life. His best friend and partner has become a woman
which, you know in that ultra-macho world, would certainly pull the rug out from under your feet.
He was coping with that along with all the other things that were going in his life at the time.
EJ: The presence of this character is meant “to question his own blindness” as you wrote on page 83.
It is again a way to make readers reflect on notions of being and knowing, which are linked to
metaphysics.
MS: Yes, and in the end, Vincenti is completely blind about it. He hasn’t seen anything coming at all.
EJ: In Gender Bending Detective Fiction (2017), Heather Duerre Humann states that: “SaFranko’s
The Suicide is rather unconventional. For one, the inclusion of a transgender character disrupts the
conventions of the genre even as her presence forwards the plot. […] Another way that this novel
departs from tradition is in the way that SaFranko also makes the book about Detective Vincenti
coming to terms with his former partner’s transition”. While we cannot disagree with that, I don’t
think the inclusion of Ellen Smith/Tommy Flaherty disrupts crime fiction in itself. There’s nothing
disrupting, it is just an original addition. But what contributes to this metaphysical dimension of the
novel is the way you use that character as a tool for the plot but also to destabilise the detective
protagonist and raise these existential questions. Do you agree with me?
MS: Absolutely, it became a convenient vehicle for it. At the beginning, I certainly did not think I
was adding it for that reason. I mean, so much of what I do as a writer is really instinctive. There are
conscious elements but the vast amount of what I do in anything is purely instinctive or intuitive.
Often, I’m stunned when people read something and start telling me about the dimension of
something that I’ve done but that I had no clue it was there at all. Of course, it makes me think about
what I did and why, but I operate really instinctively.
EJ: But it must be extremely difficult to operate only instinctively in writing this kind of genre since
you need to make everything dovetail for a good conclusion.
MS: The craft part of it comes a little bit later. The instinctive part is what really gives you all the
raw material and then later you must shape it. I’ve been fortunate, since most of my work comes out
shaped to a large extent. I have to make conscious changes here and there, but on the whole I follow
my instincts for better or worse. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it works
better than at other times.
EJ: Would you say that The Suicide corresponds to what you originally wanted to write? Are you
satisfied with it?
MS: It traveled rather significantly afield from those original notes for sure. It did… I believe you’ve
read Hopler’s Statement? That novel was written in a different way early on as well. At first, it
followed the main character throughout and then I introduced the other characters to break up the
narrative and fill out psychological crevices, let’s say. I think it helps the narrative to add elements
afterwards, and that came a few drafts in. As you’re going over it, you think of different things…
EJ: So The Suicide is the result of re-working your drafts over and over again.
MS: This is what I was explaining to the people who came to the creative writing class: ideas are
really generated, even refined, by repeated visitations of the canvas. People don’t really understand
that, how would they know? They think that writers generally write a first draft or get to a second
draft and they figure that they’re done. It couldn’t be further from the truth! It’s that constant revisiting
of the material that works. Every time you read what you’ve done, you generate new ideas
and see it from a different perspective. And then, at a certain point, you just get tired of working on
it. One of my favorite adages as an artist is: “no work of art is ever completed, it is abandoned”. I
think, that’s true. You just get to a point where you can’t work on it anymore, it’s as good as you can
do. Although Tennessee Williams re-worked his plays all the way until his death bed so it can
happen. Personally, I couldn’t do it.
EJ: By the end of the novel the detective figure, Brian Vincenti, contemplates committing suicide
himself. What kind of sequel to The Suicide have you imagined?
MS: I’ve started writing it. This one has to do with an incident that happened within my own family.
A family member disappeared twenty-three years ago — not a trace of this person has been seen
since. That’s my plot. I just haven’t had a lot of time to spend on it since I’m working on several
different things.
EJ: So this novel only amounts to a few notes in your notebook at the moment?
MS: No, I actually wrote about sixty or seventy pages. I can jump right back in but I’m having a
tough time finding time right now.
EJ: …Because of the ARIEL project?
MS: [laughter]
EJ: I would like to talk about contemporary challenges in crime fiction writing and the possible
future of crime fiction. Your writing of unconventional crime narratives — Hopler’s Statement
(1998) and The Suicide (2014) — reflects somehow the exhaustion of traditional crime fiction — be
it the British puzzle story, the American hard-boiled novel or the thriller — and a desire for a
profound renewal of the genre. What do you think about this?
MS: I haven’t given it any thought. I don’t know what to think about that.
EJ: When you transgress or stretch the limits of the crime genre, do you do so because you
personally want to write something different? Or do you consider the reader and what he might want
to read?
MS: Both. One of the reasons I cannot really commit to doing a conventional detective series is that
I dislike the entire notion of the detective novel. I don’t want to know how a novel is going to end,
that really kills the detective genre for me. So I was trying to keep it fresh for myself as well. The
conventional format doesn’t interest me, unfortunately. I say unfortunately because if I could do the
conventional format, well I might not be here right now. I’d be like, sitting on an island somewhere.
[laughter]
EJ: Do you feel compelled to subvert and renew the crime fiction formula as a result of the
increasing competition in entertainment that TV shows and movies now create?
MS: There’s so much content out there: TV, movies, self-published books… that you’re literally
swamped. You have to be extraordinarily fortunate to get something that stands out in that ocean of
content. And I’m not sure there’s a chance to have anything original or unique. I think people want to
see the same things in many ways over and over again. I don’t know, that’s a very tough question to
answer.
EJ: Do you think that 21st-century readers have become more demanding, more difficult to satisfy?
Do you have any idea?
MS: None. I mean, do people read nowadays? I think some people in France read, but I don’t see
many Americans walk around with novels, even in New York. That’s to me not a good sign. There
are probably more writers than readers now with the explosion of self-publishing.
EJ: How has The Suicide fared on the book market so far? Do you know anything about your novel’s
reception?
MS: Much to my amazement, this novel was selected as one of the best novels of the year 2014 by
Foyles, which is the oldest UK chain of booksellers that has now been absorbed by Waterstones. But
the sales have certainly not bought me a yacht. [laughter]
EJ: But at least it’s been read and appreciated. I’ve conducted research on online comments left by
your readers and the novel seems to have had a good reception.
MS: It’s got a nice critical reception. Actually, it broke my relationship with my second agent who
had trouble with the ending. Recently, there were some publishers in the US who didn’t like the
ending and did not think it works at all.
EJ: Why did they dislike the ending?
MS: They didn’t tell me why. My agent accused me of not “fixing it”. I looked at it again and again
and said “well, that’s the best I can do”. I honestly did not know. I was at a loss for what I should do.
Maybe, if they’d given me something to change in the result, you’d be reading something different
right now.
EJ: There’s an interesting passage in No Strings where your main character, a failed writer, is
looking at his wife reading a rewarded Indian author in bed and bitterly complains about the
American publishing industry: “That’s what American editors and agents seemed to go for—
foreigners. ‘Fresh voices,’ they liked to call them. I guess that’s why I’d never gotten anywhere with
my work—I was stale. I was white. I was American. I was a male. Publishing was run by women.
Women were the agents. Women were the editors. Women were the readers. There was no place for
somebody like me.”
MS: Well, that’s actually all true. I’m sorry. [laughter]
EJ: Who is really speaking here, your character or yourself?
MS: It’s the character speaking, I would never say anything like that. [laughter] That wouldn’t be a
very smart thing to do. Incidentally, that novel was the only one of all my work that I thought might
be commercial. When I wrote the short story as a predecessor for the novel, I thought “you know this
might actually be commercial, so I’ll write it for money”. [laughter] It didn’t work.
EJ: Your novel The Suicide is currently being translated in French. How do you feel about it? Have you
experienced any feelings of dispossession?
MS: No, not at all. As long as the check clears, they can do whatever they want. That’s my thought at
this point. I’m very happy that this book will reach the French reading public. I have no clue how my
new novels will be regarded by the French public, I hope they’ll like them.

Notes

(1) Rasicot, Julie. “Interview: Martha Grimes, Woman of Mystery.” Bethesda Magazine May/June 2013. 21 Nov. 2017
<http://www.bethesdamagazine.com/Bethesda-Magazine/May-June-2013/Martha-Grimes/>.

(2) Chandler, Raymond. “The Simple Art of Murder.” 1944. The Simple Art of Murder. 1950. New York: Ballantine Books,
1972. 28 Nov. 2017 <http://www.en.utexas.edu/amlit/amlitprivate/scans/chandlerart.html>.

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