INTERVIEW BY JOHN WISHNIEWSKI
“A dead body is a lousy way to end a first date.”
So begins “In the Country of the Blind,” a modern noir tale that takes readers into the world of former attorney-turned building superintendent Zach Brandis, written by Matthew Arkin, a critically acclaimed actor, acting teacher, and recovering attorney. He attributes his skill for crafting dialogue and creating characters to his more than forty-five years of experience on stage, television, and film, and to reading approximately one suspense thriller per week since he was a young child. Following the advice of one of his moms, author Barbara Dana, to “write what you know,” Arkin created Zach Brandis and the novel In the Country of the Blind. Like Zach, Arkin gave up a career as a lawyer. Like Zach, he was born and raised, went to law school and spent most of his life in and around New York City. His love affair with the city, his life as a former attorney, and his experiences as the victim of cult abuse allow him to approach Zach’s story with poignant, candid depth and realism – Amazon.com
AMFM: Could you tell us a little about writing “In The Country Of The Blind?”
I had the thought that I had a book inside me from a very early age, in the same way that I knew I had an actor inside me, because I grew up watching my parents act and write books. I think some kids feel a natural pull towards the paths their parents took, especially if their parents were successful. I recall the occasions when one of my mom’s new books would come out, and I especially remember the moments when, with each new publication, my dad would present her with a beautiful fine leather bound copy of the first edition. The celebration and sense of accomplishment in those moments were very inspiring to me. However, my father once said, maybe in passing, that “Everyone wants to write a book, but very few people actually have anything to say.” That thought made a tremendous impression on me. It didn’t slow me down as an actor, because of course as an actor you’re more of a craftsman bringing the words of someone else to life. But it did take me a long time to get to a point where I felt that I had something to say.
The first thing most people ask when they find out you’ve written a book is “How long did it take you to write it?” The answer I give is always the same: “Ten years, or one year, depending on how you want to look at it.” That’s because for about nine years I would piddle around with it for a couple of days. Then I would hear a voice in my head saying “Who the hell do you think you are trying to write a book” and I would put it back in a drawer and not think about it for months on end. When my second child was born, I was re-examining my life, as I think many people do in the light of momentous occasions. One day I looked at my meager collection of pages, perhaps 15,000 words in all, and I asked myself if this book was going to remain a dream forever, or if I was going to accomplish this goal. A year later I typed “The End” at the tail of a 125,000 word first draft. Then we have to tack on a couple more years for the editorial input, rewrites, and cutting that brought it down to its current 92,000. Of course, in terms of what the story is about, another way of looking at it is that it took my whole life up until the moment I finished it.
AMFM: What writers may inspire you while writing?
Harper Lee was a huge influence, and “To Kill a Mockingbird” had a profound influence on me and my thinking. The themes in that book have resonated for me since I first read it at age eleven. I went on to include it as one of the books examined in my undergraduate honors thesis, and it even shows up in “In The Country Of The Blind” as an influence on my protagonist, Zach Brandis. But it’s not in the genre.
In mystery/suspense, the list of people I have read is long, and runs from The Hardy Boys and Agatha Christie when I was a little kid, up to guys like John Sandford, Sue Grafton, and Robert B. Parker as an adult. But I have to say that perhaps the most influential have been both John D. MacDonald and Lawrence Block. The extra-legal, tarnished knight qualities of both Travis McGee and Matthew Scudder feed directly into the questions that interest me. Also, their writing combines grit with heart, and can be by turns very spare and then surprisingly philosophical. I love that, and hope that I have been able to achieve some of that in Blind.
Block, of course, has also written some wonderful books on craft, including “Telling Lies for Fun and Profit,” and “Spider, Spin Me a Web.” I would highly recommend these to anyone pursuing writing in general, and mysteries in particular.
AMFM: Are there any films that inspire your writing, Matthew?
I don’t think that there are any films that have specifically influenced my writing. I do think that being a working actor has had a tremendous effect. Growing up on film sets, and then working in film and television, as well as spending much of my time working with playwrights on new plays, has made me intensely aware of character, and the cause and effect aspect of human interaction. I’m always interested in the “he or she said this, or this happened, and so he thought that, and it caused him to do this” equation in a story. When I’m reading, I find myself very judgmental when I don’t feel that the human behavior of the characters makes sense, when I see actions or reactions coming out of a vacuum. I hope that when people pick up my work, they see a through line to the characters’ actions, and that in the end, they all fit.
AMFM: What is your favorite suspense novel?
With so many authors who have inspired me, it’s hard to pick one favorite book. There’s a little known book by Sue Grafton’s dad, C.W. Grafton, who was also an attorney. It’s called “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” and I think it’s just terrific, if you can get your hands on a copy. “The Green Ripper” stays with me. It’s perhaps the darkest of the Travis McGee books. I also find myself going back to Lawrence Block’s “When the Sacred Ginmill Closes.” But when people are asking me for recommendations, I usually find myself pointing them towards an author’s entire series. I like the creation of a neighborhood and cast of characters that I can revisit time and time again.
AMFM: Do you find writing comes easy to you?
Easier now than it used to. One of the biggest challenges for me in writing the first Zach Brandis book was the fear of taking on such a big project. I’d never written anything that long, and it seemed insurmountable. For a long time, the end seemed very far away. When I did finally did put my nose to the grindstone, I found that a good work habit for me was to sit down in front of the computer for at least an hour, whether I felt like it or not, with no obligation to actually write anything. Some days I would get struggle to get one sentence down, and some days a few pages would come flowing out. I learned not to judge myself on either of those kinds of days. On the stagnant days, stuff is growing and percolating, getting ready to come to the surface. Now that I’m working on the second book, I’m not so daunted by the size of the task, and consistency is the key, making myself available to the process, whether or not anything is happening.
AMFM: How important is structure in the writing of suspense novels?
It’s crucial. I thought about structure a lot when I was writing “In The Country Of The Blind.” I wanted a hook in the first line, and then another at the end of the first chapter. I wanted a three act structure. I think it’s a way of propelling the reader forward. I wanted a denouement after the climax. I was thinking, and I believe I’m right, that structure may be more important for the new writer than the experienced one, particularly in the mystery/suspense world. Not that I don’t think it’s great to switch it up sometimes and violate readers expectations. But you have to know you’re doing it, and honor their expectations at the same time that you violate them. That gives you both credibility and license.
In the past, I would never pay any attention to structure when I was reading a book or watching a play or a movie. I knew people who did, who were asking right away, “What is the act structure?” They used to drive me nuts. As a reader or viewer, I only wanted to immerse myself in the experience, to accept the work on its own terms and give it every opportunity to transport me. If it did, that was great. That’s the experience we’re all looking for. The only time I would look at structure, or engage in any critical thinking, was when a piece didn’t work. Then I’d start asking why.
Now that I’m writing more (I’m working on the second Zach Brandis novel, I’ve got a couple of scripts kicking around and I’m working on others) I spend more time looking at things that do work, and asking why. I’m wanting that information so that I can make my work better.