Interview with Mark Zvonkovic, Author of A Lion in the Grass, Belinda and The Narrows

Can you share a bit about your journey to becoming a writer/published author? Any interests or early signs as a child that hinted you would later put pen to paper?

At various times, starting in college, I began writing fragments of stories, but I never did anything with them. I taught junior high school right after college and I would often write the beginning of a story and ask my class to finish it. Law school and the first decade of practicing law didn’t allow much time for writing anything but briefs and contracts. But near the end of my career, I decided it was time to pursue writing fiction, and for several years I would get up at five in the morning and write for several hours before going to the office. And then, I began to plan for early retirement and became more serious about finishing a book I’d been working on during those years.

But I think I crossed a line toward being a writer during my law career. It’s a funny story. My writing career hadn’t technically started in the mid-1980s because I was hardly writing anything beyond contracts, but I would say that I started down my writing path during a business trip I took to Paris. I was there with a client who was negotiating a multinational energy project. The second day, the representatives of the Italian company and those of the Spanish company got into an argument. It almost became a brawl, with the Italians getting up on their chairs and shouting while making startling gestures. Then they left town. My client said this had happened before, and I should just hang around and wait for them to return. So for five days I waited in Paris, sitting in cafes that once had been frequented by Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. In fact, I read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast while I did that. It made a deep impression on me that I took home to Texas, where I started my early morning scribbling. I’m lucky there was no such thing as email back then, and I had the luxury of just hanging around the Left Bank.

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Your 3 books - A Lion in the Grass, Belinda and The Narrows - are all subtitled as a part of The Raymond Hatcher Stories. I feel the common thread with the first 2, but The Narrows feels very different. What to you see as the threads that link them.

There is no spy in The Narrows, but the characters are descendants of the spies in A Lion in the Grass. Herrick is the son of Bradley Wright Sr. His parents are in A Lion in the Grass. After Herrick is rescued by Raymond Hatcher in Vietnam, Hatcher becomes a kind of uncle to Herrick. My novels are all about their characters, and not so much the plot. So The Narrows is about the extended families who appear in A Lion in the Grass, in particular the Clemens sisters, and goes deeper into the social and psychological impacts that affect Herrick, Bradley Jr. and Larry Brown, who all appear in The Narrows.

What was the inspiration for each of these books? How do you develop such diverse characters so that they some alive for the readers and their actions stay true to who they are?

There isn’t a single inspiration. I love history, and both The Narrows and A Lion in the Grass revolve around historical events: a World War, the Cold War, and the social upheavals of the late sixties and early seventies, particularly the popularity of cults. I love to learn about people. I read a lot of biography and a lot of literary novels that have complex protagonists. And finally, I take a lot of interest in the backgrounds of people I meet. The mixture of all of these people, real and fictional, bring my characters to life. And I keep developing them after a novel ends, which is why some of them reappear. It’s like getting to know a friend better.

Review coming Oct. 12th

How does the writing process work for you? Do you schedule a time every day, work madly when inspiration hits or ?

I don’t have a schedule and I don’t require myself to write for a specific time period of number of words. Some days I only revise. But I do write every day for the most part, and generally I write in the mornings and revise in the afternoons. I never write at night.

As an author - what do you enjoy most about the writing process or comes easily to you? What feels most like a chore - a struggle?
Everything about writing is exciting. I particularly enjoy developing the story around the characters. I also enjoy the research that I do for each book. Fact checking can sometimes be boring, and working out ages and dates can be frustrating.

Do you have any spoiler alerts you'd like to share with readers about what you are working on now?

I’m trying something new at the moment. I’m working on two novels at once. One is a mystery that has no connection whatsoever to the three previous novels. The second is a fictional memoir narrated by Larry Brown from The Narrows in the present day. A lot has happened to him since 1972. And obviously a lot has happened to his extended family.

Any last words for budding writers of any age who are diving
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into their first manuscript?

1.  A good writer never stops revising. His or her characters never stop changing. And it doesn’t all happen at once. My novel A Lion in the Grass is all about an unexpected journey of a young man into intelligence work at the beginning of World War II. Before I finished writing the book, I constantly returned to his early years, knowing more about the old man he was to become.

2. Write for yourself, not for the market. Of course, if it’s the blockbuster novel you want, maybe you should study the market. But good luck with that. Sophisticated readers want to learn, not just be entertained.

3. Never stop reading. It is as important to be an observer as it is to be a creator. I was once asked how I met all the people I base my characters on. The fact is many of those people were characters in other novels. Reading a good novel is a way to do exhaustive research about life, and it gives you a point of comparison between the real world and the one you are creating in your writing.

4. Reach out to other writers. It’s very difficult to learn without experience, and developing a relationship with another writer can sometimes be more helpful than a year-long class. I’ve made several author friends by writing thoughtful reviews of their work. It’s been my way of starting a dialogue.

5. Make an investment in an editor. A developmental editor is essential to writing a good story. And an independent one is necessary. If your publisher assigns an editor, that editor will most likely be more attuned to what the publisher wants. Best to be polite but utilize you own editor behind the scenes. A good editor challenges an author to look beyond himself or herself, and delivers a perspective one can never obtain on one’s own writing. On my novel Belinda I worked with an independent editor for almost two years. Together we revised the manuscript in its entirety several times. And half of the words I wrote for the novel aren’t in it—they’re on the cutting room floor.

connect with the author: website ~ facebook ~ bookbub goodreads

Note - Author photo by Rebecca Westerveld