American author and “retired” marketing expert, Marshall Karp, has recently had his first novel The Rabbit Factory, published by Allison & Busby to much acclaim. Here, the author speaks with Chris High
Mike Lomax is such an “ordinary” “everyday” person that he breaks a lot of the “stereotypes” we have come to expect from fictional detectives. He’s not a drunk or a drug taker or a hard-hitter. He’s a widower who loves his job, his family and friends. Was this stepping away from “the norm” deliberate?
I love that you say Mike is ordinary, everyday, and yet he’s not the norm.
That’s because I didn’t create a cop. First and foremost, I created a man – a genuine three-dimensional guy with all the warts, flaws and disappointments that one can accumulate in forty-two years on the planet. Then I added a devastating personal tragedy, the loss of his young wife. Finally, I made him a homicide detective. For me the essence of comedy, tragedy, and character development - in fiction and in real life - is conflict. Because Mike is more defined by his personal pain, especially when we first meet him, we connect to the man before we even know what he does for a living.
I’m a character writer. My goal was to create a hero who resonates in such a way that you feel you know him, you relate to him, maybe you even are him. If I gave you another hard-boiled, tough talking, two-fisted drinking cop, I’d be competing with writers who have done it brilliantly in the past but if I give you a character who reminds you of yourself, I’ve created someone familiar but totally fresh. He’s unique, just like you. I guarantee that if in my next book Mike screws up Valentine’s Day, the readers’ reaction will be “typical man,” not “stereotypical character.”
Where did the idea of Joanie writing to Mike come from?
It’s part of my very own personal end-of-life plan. If a bus ever hits me you’ll have to settle for what I’ve left behind. That includes forty years of New Year’s Eve letters I’ve written to myself, and hundreds of diary pages that I started when I first wrote Squabbles and kept throughout my TV and movie careers. No one has ever read them, and I’ve asked my wife to burn them, but who knows if she’ll want to or even be able to. On the other hand, if a doctor gives me some advance notice like Joanie, I’ll be writing farewell letters.
How much of Marshall Karp is represented in Mike and Terry?
So much that I’d say I couldn’t have written this book twenty years ago. I wouldn’t have allowed so much of me to be exposed. Mike is the sensitive, brooding, but hopefully everyman side of me. Terry is the New York wise-ass. Big Jim is the loveable, well-meaning, meddling father. And Joanie? In Chapter Two she writes “it serves you right for marrying a first-born, perfectionist, Gemini, control freak.” I’m the first-born, perfectionist, Gemini, control freak who inspired her.
There is a lot of poignancy in the book, counter-balanced by many laugh-out-loud sections and I have to say Terry’s “Character Assassination” line had me chortling to myself for hours afterwards. Did you find the contrasts and pace of the novel difficult to sustain?
Not to sustain but, sometimes, to restrain. I love humour as a counterpunch to murder. So I figured as long as I’m killing “people”, why not kill my readers and make them laugh out loud. I have to make sure that I don’t put the laughs in the wrong places, though. There are times when humour is inappropriate.
Did you ever think that introducing Eddie Elkins in such a “jocular” manner on the first page was risky?
I wanted the reader to see Eddie as the patrons in the park saw him, ambling down Fantasy Avenue. But the jocularity wasn’t the risk, because it is stripped away early on, when I let the reader know that Eddie is an unregistered paedophile. That was the risk. A paedophile on page one can turn a lot of people off, but of course, it was important to the story. One of my neighbours said she was ready to kill me as she read Chapter One, and only changed her mind when I’d killed Eddie by the end of the chapter.
Interestingly enough, I did what I think a lot of novelists, and especially first timers, do. I wrote Chapter One a dozen different ways, agonizing over every choice. When I finally finished the book, I went back and rewrote it effortlessly.
Is the book a dig at Corporate-run entertainment in any way and do you miss working in advertising, given that you’ve advertised some pretty big names?
It’s not so much a dig at the entertainment conglomerates, as it is an insider’s perspective of true corporate behaviour. The way I depict Hollywood in The Rabbit Factory, and even more so in my second book, Bloodthirsty, is to me an honest, tell-it-like-it-really-is portrayal of the business. If it’s revealing, it’s because I’ve been able to get up close and personal and see the way corporate America, and corporate Hollywood, works.
As for missing the advertising business, I don’t miss the day-to-day “magic” that one has to put up with in the rat race. Especially meetings. Group gropes. I believe it was your own Gilbert K. Chesterton who said, “I've searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues of committees.” As a recovering rat I can avoid the madding crowds. I still consult to large corporations – but only as long as I can interface with a single decision maker. And of course I now use my powers for good, not evil, by donating my advertising and marketing skills to charities or causes I believe in, such as Vitamin Angels: a global organisation aiming to eradicate blindness in children as a result of Vitamin A deficiency.
What do you enjoy most about the process of writing a novel?
I love it when the characters do the writing and I do the typing. Crafting the plot is a bitch. That’s my job, although it helps to have an editor to work with me as a sounding board. Once I have a wall full of index cards, and my plot points are outlined, I love to let the characters take over and help me tell the story.
You’ve said you wrote your play, Squabbles, at night because you didn’t have time during the day. Is this a habit you’ve maintained? Do you have a set routine in which you write?
For many years I had a full-time day job as Executive Creative Director of a big New York ad agency. I didn’t have time to write during the day, so I was relegated to nights and weekends. God bless my family for their encouragement and their tolerance. The agency was supportive of my outside writing and gave me a two-month sabbatical to work on the play when it was first being produced. By the same token, they really expected me to be thinking about clients’ problems 24/7. Even during shower time. It’s different now. When I’m in plot development mode I tend to walk around and talk to myself or read or do whatever while the ideas percolate. Once I’m in a writing mode, I write morning, noon and night, five days a week in upstate New York, and then on weekends I become a husband-writer. I don’t like to think of myself as having a routine but what I do have is a ton of discipline. When my US publisher asked for the second Lomax and Biggs novel to be written from beginning to end in only four months, I finished two days ahead of schedule.
The Rabbit Factory took five years to write. Were you working on anything else at the same time?
Life. After starting the book in May 2001, I was in New York City on September 11, and my daughter was at Ground Zero, although she escaped unharmed. I put the book aside for eight months and just tried to make sense of the world, spending all of 2002 as if some doctor gave me one year to live. My goal was to live life to the fullest, and my mantra became Live every day like it’s September 10th. My wife continued to live and work in New York City, and I spent weekdays in upstate New York. We’d reconnect every weekend and I finally got back to writing The Rabbit Factory in the summer of 2002. I worked on it like any spec piece – dedicated, but not under any deadline pressure. I did a little freelance consulting for big corporations like Mercedes, and became very involved with Vitamin Angels. I also worked hard to convince my wife to quit her job in New York City and live full time with me in idyllic upstate New York. She refused. I threatened to get a mistress or a dog. She said, “for God’s sake, get a mistress, because you won’t bring her home to the city every weekend.” Naturally, I got the dog … Jett, a black Lab. Of course, my wife adores her.
Do you enjoy the promotion process of being a novelist?
My first book event was in New York City. My entire family and every friend I had since second grade showed up. The store ran out of books in the first twenty minutes. The manager dashed out and bought more from a big chain store, and sold those out. A hundred and forty copies – and if they had more, they’d have sold more. My arm was numb from signing books and shaking hands. It was all pretty heady. Two weeks later I was sitting in a tiny bookshop in a little town called Nobody Here Knows Marshall Karp, with a dozen unsold books on my table. You could practically hear the crickets chirping and see the tumbleweeds rolling by. Humility comes fast in the publishing business. Eventually, I learned that it’s not about how many books you sell. The true value of a promotion is in the relationship the author forges with the bookseller. The hard part for me is having spent so many years marketing products, it’s unnerving to realize that suddenly I am the freaking product! I’m the box of soap- suds on the shelf, and if nobody is driven to my table by the marketing, I have to stand up and shout pick me, pick me.
What’s next for Marshall Karp?
First, to develop Lomax and Biggs into a series that I love writing and people love reading. Secondly, write a non-fiction book about mid-life career crisis. I believe that many of us wake up in our 40’s doing the very thing we set out to do when we were18, which is fine if you’re happy but if you’re a 42-year-old dentist, and you’ve come to hate spending your days looking into gaping wet holes, don’t keep doing it because the 18-year-old version of you thought it would be really cool to fill teeth. The book is titled “Confronting The Kid Who Screwed Up Your Life.” And I’ve got the life experience to write it.
Third is to continue working pro bono for VitaminAngels.org. It boggles my mind that if I write something that convinces someone to donate one dollar to Vitamin Angels, that miniscule amount of money will actually prevent one child from going blind, or in fact, from dying in childhood. That’s because we’re not spending money looking for a cure. Instead we take 95 percent of every dollar donated and administer vitamins to children in need in forty-five countries. In the midst of writing The Rabbit Factory, I contacted a global pharmaceutical company and convinced them to put up a quarter of a million dollars to set up a program to Eradicate Vitamin A Deficiency Childhood Blindness on the Planet by the Year 2020. I then wrote a tagline for Vitamin Angels - Be An Angel. Save A Life. I’m as proud of those six words as I am of the 138,670 words in my first novel.
Marshall Karp’s The Rabbit Factory is published by Allison & Busby
on April 6th, 2007
For more information about Marshall Karp visit www.lomaxandbiggs.com