It’s been my good fortune for years now to be friends with Marcus Sakey, host of the Travel Channel’s Hidden City and author of several bestselling novels. The release this summer of his newest, Brilliance, gave me the opportunity to ask him some questions.
1. I have my version of how we met, but I’d like to hear yours.
We met in a South Beach strip club next to a homeless shelter lit by a giant neon cross. You were carrying a package for Santo Morales, but the…
No, wait, I‘m thinking of an episode of Miami Vice.
As I recall, we met at the first Backspace conference in Manhattan around 2005. Of course, we knew each other digitally first, via the Backspace website. It was a huge influence on my developing life as a novelist, a real community of aspiring writers. It was an exciting time, too; it seemed like someone on the site landed a deal nearly weekly.
Which means, I supposed, we should all be shooting you royalties…
2. Your world of your new novel, Brilliance, is an exciting—and dangerous—world in which some people are born with special abilities, and are hunted down by the government. What special ability or superpower do you have? Would your wife agree with that? What ability do you wish you had but you definitely do not have?
I shut off streetlights. Seriously. It’s a sad and unconscious and essentially useless superpower, but streetlights turn off not infrequently when I pass them.
Interestingly, my brother stops watches. Like, dozens of them. Good ones, cheap ones, they all end up dying on his arm. We theorize that we’re genetic third-stringers on the path to a cool superpower, someone who can shoot lightning or ride storms.
I also have amazing abilities when it comes to knocking things over. Though as a consquence, I’ve also got fast hands. I can knock a wine glass from the cabinet, project its fall, and have a hand there to catch it before the last tones of the curse word leave my mouth.
3. What do you want readers to think about after they’ve read Brilliance?
Whether right now is the moment to telephone everyone they know and proselytize the book, or whether they should wait for the weekend.
Jokes aside, my goal is always that intersection of sleep-stealing thrill ride and thoughtful novel of ideas. The sweet spot is a small and moving target, and I don’t always hit it, but that’s the goal.
With Brilliance, I had the opportunity to write a social novel, a parable about difference and a fairly savage satire of modern life and political policy. Our world is growing increasingly fractured and extremist, with everyone dividing into camps so far apart they can’t see one another, and then starting fear the thing they can’t see. To me, a writer’s job—and privilege—is to point that out. To call bullshit.
First and foremost, I want to make people miss their train stop. I want to devour their lunch hour. But I do hope that after they’ve finished, the book lingers with them. That’s how it’s worked for my favorite books.
4. Who do you want to play the lead character in the movie version? And tell me about your experiences getting your work optioned for the screen, which is every writer’s dream!
Oh, I’ve got some casting in my head, but I tend to keep it to myself. The film business is an arcane and complicated one, and I’m an outsider to it.
That said, I’ve been enormously fortunate in my dealings with Hollywood. Of my six published novels, five have been optioned at one time or another, one just finished shooting, and Brilliance was picked up at auction by Legendary, the studio behind The Dark Knight,Inception, Watchmen, etc.
However, the truth is that by and large novelists are not terribly involved in the process. You want to sell to people whose creative vision you trust. But once you have, it’s no longer your project, it’s theirs.
Which is the way it should be. A film is a massive collaborative effort that costs tens to hundreds of millions of dollars. While great story translates to any media, it has to change for each new vessel. And novelists tend to be rigid about their babies.
I did recently watch the filming of my novel Good People, which stars James Franco and Kate Hudson. It was a truly surreal experience. Not because of the casting or location or the Hollywood glamour, but because I knew I made this up. I just pulled shit out of the air and now here’s a bustling film set and real people walking around pretending to be my imaginary friends.
4. You’ve said, “To research my books, I’ve shadowed homicide detectives, toured the morgue, gone shooting with Special Forces soldiers, ridden with gang cops, and learned to pick a deadbolt.” What was your most interesting research experience?
I’ve been fortunate to have a ton of them, especially because of my experience with the television show. Most interesting? Hmm. Hard to beat the time I got pepper-sprayed on camera.
I could describe it, but it’s more hilarious if you watch it.
Of course, there was also the time I got attacked by K-9 units. Or went diving for pirate treasure in the Keys. I rapelled upside-down off a twelve-story building with SWAT. Pub-crawled South Boston with a guy who robbed armored trucks. Met Harvey Milk’s campaign staff and heard firsthand about the morning he was assassinated. Interviewed a murderess serving two life sentences in a maximum security Texas prison.
I love my job.
5. What’s your life as a writer like? With your own TV show and your other commitments, how do you structure your time to write?
Writing is a wonderful job. You can do it from home, there’s no boss breathing over your shoulder, and you don’t need to wear pants.
That said, it’s still a job. If you don’t meet your deadlines, if you don’t write your heart out, well, time’s gonna come when it’s no longer your job. When you must don pants and head out into the real world.
And that’s kind of my methodology. Fear of jobs involving pants and, worse, meetings. Savor that fear and you’ll find the time to write.
And when you do, set goals. When I’m writing–which isn’t every day anymore–I usually maintain a minimum word count of 1,000 a day. But that’s a minimum, and I’m much happier at 2,000 or more.
6. What are you obsessed about now, and why?
Stand-up comedy. I’ve always been a fan, but recently I’ve started to befriend some comics, and learning what their world looks like is fascinating.
To be clear, I have zero interest in doing comedy. But I find the process fascinating. When a comic is really killing it, when they’ve left behind the safe, well-traveled joke worlds of sex and drugs and race and are instead saying something new, live, in front of an audience, well, they’re dancing on the edge of madness. The best comedy has that note of insanity to it, of someone going too far, too deep, right in front of you.
How can you not love that?