By Marcus Hennessy
Bob wondered why the detective was working alone. Two guys had picked him up. If this was the bad cop, Bob wanted to see the good cop in action. The one who’d be sympathetic to Bob’s emotional distress. Of course, if this was the good cop and the other one was going to come in and break his arm…it was just fine having the one detective.
–from Moist, a novel by Mark Haskell Smith
Despite being with the Writers’ Program less than two years, instructor Mark Haskell Smith has already taught numerous courses in the art of novel writing and has been invited to teach Writing the First Novel in the acclaimed Writers Studio at UCLA Extension coming in February, 2008. Mark brings to the classroom his insight as an internationally published fiction writer and author of the novels Salty (Grove/Atlantic, 2007), Delicious (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005), and Moist (St. Martin’s Press, 2002), along with his experience as a screenwriter for among others Columbia Pictures, Universal, Warner Bros., DreamWorks SKG, and Paramount Pictures.
Recently I had a chance to ask Mark a few salient questions about teaching, and writing, and anything else that came to mind…
MH: Your novel Salty just came out this year. It takes place in Thailand and involves an aging ex-rock star and his ex-model wife; the reviews have been great! How much of you is in the novel, and are you satisfied with how readers are receiving it?
MHS: How much of me is in the novel? Well, I’m not a recovering sex addict or a heavy metal superstar, but more or less there’s a little bit of me in all the characters in the book. I think that’s because I’m exploring issues of identity and sexuality, and any time you dive into stuff like that the characters come through my filter, my own experiences. The reaction to Salty has been fantastic. It was named a Book Sense Notable book the month it came out and bookstores have really been promoting it as a great “summer read.” It went into a second printing the same month it was released so, while it’s not on the bestseller list—and really it’s probably too risqué for that—it’s slowly finding an audience.
MH: You’re teaching in our Writers Studio event in February 2008 and it’s your first time. Are you nervous, anxious, excited, eager, full of trepidation…what?
MHS: All of the above. Those are all emotions that come with embarking on an adventure and that’s exactly what we’ll be doing.
MH: In your novel, Moist—a sharp, quirky look at L.A.’s criminal underworld—key characters are Latino and sound authentic. Have you had much exposure to the Latino culture, and do you know any good criminals?
MHS: Do I know any good criminals? Let’s just say that I’ve known some criminals in the past. I’ll withhold moral judgment and just say that they were pragmatists. I’ve done a lot of research on organized crime, La Cosa Nostra, the Mexican Mafia, Yakuza, and various biker gangs, so I’m familiar with how they work, how they’re organized. I live on the eastside of Los Angeles and a lot of my friends are Latinos. It’s pretty easy to pick up the lingo when you live in the barrio.
MH: You write screenplays, too. Is there one script that you’re especially proud of?
MHS: A Brazilian film called A Partilha which came out in 2001 and won some awards at various festivals. The lead actresses were nominated for Brazilian Oscars. That film—and I shared credit with the Brazilian writers Joao Carniero and Miguel Falabella—really turned out the way it was written. Screenwriters love that!
MH: What single novel has influenced you more than any other? Same for a movie.
MHS: Possibly A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, or maybe The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. But I like all kinds of novels. Recent favorites are The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz and The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai. As for films, I was heavily influenced by the German New Wave: Werner Herzog, R.W. Fassbinder, and Wim Wenders. Those movies made me want to make movies and I only wish that those kinds of movies were still being made.
There’s plenty of time to enroll in Mark’s Writers Studio course, Writing the First Novel, starting Thursday, February 7, 2008—but only if you’re prepared for an adventure!