The Magic of Plot and Catharsis: A Conversation with Smith Henderson and Jon Marc Smith
By Ivy PochodaOctober 11, 2020
IVY POCHODA: Okay partners, where to begin. There are so many things I want to ask you about this book from process to genre crossing to commercial aspirations. But because we are discussing it in a rather highbrow publication I’m going to begin here. Why, after the quite enviable literary success of Fourth of July Creek, did you make such a stunning pivot into what is called and dismissed as genre fiction?
SMITH HENDERSON: Well, first of all, thank you for the kind word on Fourth of July Creek, but I had no idea who would be an audience for it. I just tried to write what I’d want to read, and hoped that a few other people would share my enthusiasm for Gothic prose, wretched situations, dark humor, and mountainous landscapes.
But this pivot, as you call it, is rhetorical to me. Of course, every book is in relation to every other book, and readers can’t help but tend to judge a book by its genre. The people I chatted up at airport bars (in the Before Time) always said they liked “historical” or “sci-fi” or “fantasy.” Which is a right and proper way of describing an area of reading interest. And “literary” is probably the weirdest genre of them all, no? I think for 90 percent of the reading public, the word is probably a turnoff. And those same people would probably get nothing out of the word “genre” either.
To me, it means risky prose, personal obsessions, questioning the deeper human mysteries. Fourth of July Creek aimed for those targets, but writing that book never really clicked until I began to see the social worker protagonist as a kind of detective. So maybe it’s as much a genre book as this collaboration with Jon Marc.
“Literary” is perhaps a catchall phrase for books that don’t sell well in airports or sell in airports at all, so taking the temperature of readers in airport bars seems apt. Of course in asking that question, I’m subscribing to conventional genre norms myself. But people aren’t as open minded to such fluidity and love to build boxes that help booksellers shelf novels among other things. We seem to require ways to understand and categorize the world regardless of the damage it can do. But while we are on the topic of genre, one thing that will probably raise eyebrows about Make Them Cry in, let’s say, the NBCC and NBA set is that it’s a collaboration. If you read a lot of thrillers or mysteries, co-written books aren’t all that unique. And I think a lot people would be surprised to discover how many writing teams are out there producing fiction. Jon Marc — I gotta ask the obvious — how do two people decide to team up for a novel?
JON MARC SMITH: We were sick of getting bad notes in Hollywood, basically. Smith and I had been working on screenplays for a while — I think this was our third — but we were stuck in what you might call pre-development hell. Constant rewriting and reimagining is to be expected, but we’d reached our end with it. When Smith sold Fourth of July Creek, he felt like we should try to get the book world interested in the Make Them Cry project as a novel. That turned out to be the right call, even though everyone who heard about it thought we were crazy.
Collaborating on a novel is very different from collaborating on a screenplay. Everything in a screenplay has to be conceptualized visually so that it can eventually be manifested in a physical space. You’re not really going into your characters’ heads. But zooming into headspace is a big part of what novels do, even genre novels. Make Them Cry isn’t stream-of-consciousness high modernism, but we definitely wanted to explore our characters and sound their depths — if we weren’t going to do that, what’s the point of writing this story as a novel? That was tricky, figuring out how to do that together. So much of what novel writers do is almost unconscious. I’m not talking about the plotting or the drama. Figuring out plot is very hard work, but the causal, logical nature of it makes it a kind of natural collaborative enterprise. I don’t think that’s the part of team-writing a novel that surprises people. What people are interested in is how two writers come up with together the voices and perspectives of the characters, the disposition of their souls. Calibrating that is the truly hard part.
Smith, we have discussed at length the ridiculous pigeonholing of genre, but you have to admit, when you decide to write a thriller based on an idea that was originally conceived as a screenplay, there are a few conventions you’ve got to satisfy. How did you couple these with your touchstones, as listed above — risky prose, personal obsessions, and questioning the deeper human mysteries, attributes I’d venture are as present in Make Them Cry as they are in Fourth of July Creek?
SH: Well, the conventions of a genre aren’t really an enemy of those touchstones of literary prose. Our book takes some stylistic risks — a whole backstory is conveyed in a polygraph, for instance. Our editor, Zack Wagman, was key in helping smooth those out.
And personal obsessions are just part of the gig. In the case of this book, our shared obsession was probably the utter disaster of the War on Drugs™️. Realizing that no one in power has an incentive to “win” — let alone just end the thing — just makes me crazy.
As for the deeper human mysteries, I am a big believer in writing toward understanding how people decide to do things that are incredibly wrong. In this case, we had three main characters who were all struggling to get unstuck from their roles in the aforementioned Drug War. A DEA agent fundamentally at odds with the meaninglessness of her career. A cartel hit man longing for an honorable life. And a CIA agent trying to implement a radical new way of curtailing the violence of black markets.
Which is another way of saying that we took the ideas seriously. While at the same time trying to make sure the plot hummed like a V8 and the characters’ stakes were as high as we could make them. Which was what I was trying to do in my last book as well, I reckon.
What it boils down to is this: I like to try to write books that work in a couple registers. I loved Sarah Smith’s Marilou Is Everywhere for this reason, for instance. And your work is a keen example of this — particularly These Women, which is a total overachiever in this regard. How do you manage to do all the things?
Well, thanks, Smith. I guess when I conceive of a book I think of an atmosphere — a three-dimensional space, not simply the flat line of a story but a space where all the thousands of stories that have led to that particular story, the emotional moments, the private convictions, the future projections, meet up. I’m not interested in the progression of story per se, but in a collection of instances, and I guess that approach results in something multi-register. And yeah, a lot of that is exactly — and I mean exactly — what you mention above — writing toward understanding how someone decides to do something incredibly wrong, which is of course not a split-second decision but an accumulation of thousands of instances and experiences, large and small. Putting this overlap of process aside for a sec, it does seem that you two had to learn a lot about a host of issues perhaps not in either of your immediate wheelhouses. When I interviewed Don Winslow about The Cartel, he told me that the major difference between researching that one and its predecessor, The Power of the Dog, was that so much of cartel business had gone online and was being played out in real time and publicly on the internet as well as in Central America’s red press, which freed him up to stay safer at home while learning about what was going on across the border. Jon Marc, I’m super loath to ask about research because, you know, it’s research. But how did you learn all this stuff?
JMS: I like thinking about books as a three-dimensional space with an atmosphere. That metaphor also works for thinking about how writers should use research. Research has to become a structural part of the storyworld. Otherwise, what’s the point? In fact, it has to be so in there that it’s a little hard to see, the way the foundations of the real world are hard to see. I do think it helps if you’re really interested in what you’re researching, and even better if it’s already an obsession. What the writer is doing is a magic trick. You try to mystify readers, so they don’t see any of the research on the page. Think about, say, McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad or Mantel’s Cromwell books. Every page has been researched, but the writers have baked it in perfectly. I don’t think you could do that if the research was just something you only sorta kinda cared about. Smith and I are both interested in the ways that policy and politics affect people, and what has affected more people than the rituals and sadisms of the Drug War? What could be more interesting?
Or maybe it’s just that we like crime and criminals. Write what you know and all that.
Smith did do some primary research with cops, the DEA, and the CIA, which I’m very grateful for since there’s no way I could have — I’m just not compartmentalized enough to have conversations with officers of the state. I don’t know any actual sicarios. But my lifelong interest in crime helped prime me for all the reading I did. There are many fantastic books out there about the Drug War, and in particular its Mexican iteration and focus, which has been really important for at least 25 years (basically since the Mexican cartels wrested power away from the Colombians in the ’90s). These are writers who have actually put themselves in danger and I have a great deal of admiration for them. Alfredo Corchado’s Midnight in Mexico, Anabel Hernández’s Narcoland, Carmen Boullosa and Mike Wallace’s A Narco History, Ioan Grillo’s El Narco, Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera’s Los Zetas Inc., and a bunch of others. I tried to keep up with newspaper and magazine stories, too. It was a lot of work, I suppose, but it’s hard for me to think of reading as work.
So I have to ask, how did two dudes decide to write a book featuring a female DEA agent?
SH: Fundamentally, this whole idea is really about a firm that has a unique approach to ending the Drug War and the violence in black markets. But we slowly realized that you can’t just drop readers into a world where fed-up spies and jaded gangsters team up to bring order to the world of criminal syndicates on page one. And Diane Harbaugh was our way into that world.
She’s ambitious, but knows there’s something rotten at the heart of the system she’s in. She wants to make a real difference, but keeps breaking the rules that prevent her from doing so. As the book begins, she’s in deep shit and needs to find a way out … which leads to her discovery of what was our central conceit: this thing called The Concern … I guess l better quit spoilering …
But to answer your question: it’s not really up to the writer(s) who the protagonist must be. The story tells you who should tell it. And for us, that was actually a kinda fraught process.
I happen to know writing this book wasn’t an easy or rather linear process — not simply the transition from screenplay to novel, but also from the earlier conception of the novel to what we see now. If I’m correct, when the book was “complete” you tore it down and started again. That’s got to be a rough decision but also an important one. What was your reasoning, and how did the book develop as you reconceived it?
JMS: Oh man, that was hard. We figured out that we wrote the wrong book. We’d started too deep into the story. That may be the fault of it being a screenplay first. We began this project in ’08 or ’09 and it had already been through many iterations by the time it became a book in ’14. We then made this last big change in ’16. So part of the problem is that we were building one thing out of another: laying the foundation of a house but starting with the chassis of a car.
More specifically, movie scripts don’t have as much story tolerance as novels do — there’s not as much give in them. Our book doesn’t start off slow or anything (there’s a home invasion and suicide in the first chapter!), but screenplays are an incredibly strict form and there’s a lot of narrative pressure to start as late as possible. In general, getting into the story late is a good thing, but we realized that we hadn’t properly set up the world and we’d skipped over the best parts. Also, Diane Harbaugh turned out to be the most interesting and complex character. She had the most compelling desires. She was the one with the biggest hill to climb. So we had to reconceptualize the project and focus on her.
At the time I was upset, but, thinking about it now, there’s just no doubt that scrapping and starting over was the right move. We’re both really grateful to Zack and Nicole Aragi for being patient and waiting on us. I’m also deeply grateful to Smith, since he’s the one who first realized we needed to do this. This is the nature of all creative projects, to some degree. You’re diving into an open sea and trying to find shore. But we’d already been swimming for so long — and now we’ve gotta fucking dive again? That was very tough. I’m glad I trusted Smith. One of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Smith, you said the key to Make Them Cry is that you took the book’s ideas seriously. I think there’s a definite sense, especially by those who dismiss genre stuff as a bag of cheap thrills, that thriller and crime novelists do not take their material seriously but use sensational settings and situations to sell copies and get movie deals. The tentacles of this war (which is too often categorized as a Mexican drug problem as opposed to an American drug problem — after all, who is buying those drugs) reach deep across the border and into different communities and sectors. Journalism can always convey the facts, but fiction has the ability to plunge into hidden truths — at least that’s how I see it. How do you think the job of thriller writers in our current climate has evolved?
SH: Well as a far as hidden truths go, I’d start with the fact that the Drug War is something that so few can afford — let alone want — to end. Setting aside your average roaring-twentysomething coke-and-molly phase, there are literally millions of self-medicators with debilitating physical and emotional pain. We’ve sourced a huge part of our health care in the black market.
Which creates a massive ancillary economy. Set aside the carceral administration (judges, lawyers, jailers), there’s still a whole economic superstructure dedicated to and dependent upon crime and punishment. Piss-test takers. Baristas brewing flat whites for pencil-skirted federal DAs. The people who make brass casings and plastic handcuffs … it just touches so many lives and livelihoods.
So we decided to take an imaginative look at that particular hidden truth, which is only hidden because it’s so large and forms an entire landscape of our socioeconomic reality. The novelist, especially that heretofore maligned “genre” writer, has a tremendous opportunity to contextualize something like this. And this writer can perhaps, if not provide workable solutions, offer through the magic of plot and catharsis the feeling that the insurmountability of our problems is the greatest lie of all.
Right on. I remember clearly when I worked for the Amsterdam Weekly, a free paper founded by veterans of the Chicago Reader and the Village Voice, our office cleaner was a Colombian refugee who had received Dutch asylum because she had been Pablo Escobar’s housekeeper and had not just witnessed atrocities but was living under threat of retaliation from his associates. That was, in the midst of the heady party-hearty haze of certain sectors of Dutch life, a stark reminder that there’s a personal, human cost to the privileges of a dawn-breaking rager. But I digress. Okay, I think it’s essential for all novelists to imagine that their characters live on after the last page of their books. These people we’ve created cannot simply exist in the three-to-four-hundred pages we’ve allotted them. For them to be real and fully functional, they must continue. You guys are in a slightly different boat — Agent Harbaugh must live on because any excellent thriller demands a few sequels. What space does she occupy in your minds as you close in on publication of this first outing, and how do you imagine new adventures?
JMS: Harbaugh’s in a new game now — she’s not on the side of the law, and she’s using her skill sets to break the law rather than serve it. She’s showing her chops and creating value for The Concern. She feels productive and worthy. Basically, she’s started a badass new job, and I think she’ll be high on that for a while.
Her problem, though, is that she didn’t completely think through this change. I foresee some moral problems arising for her — ethical concerns and dangerous choices.
What do you think, Smith? Where’s Harbaugh at?
SH: Harbaugh’s story is moving quickly from the compromised and finite reality of the Mexican/American Drug War to a globe-trotting gig in multiple black markets, shadowy corporate boardrooms, dirty banks, and agency safe houses.
And as Diane tries to make truly meaningful changes to the black markets, she’ll discover the very thin difference between the so-called legitimate world and the mirror world of criminals and spies. It’s gonna get very twisted and very kinetic.
Ivy Pochoda is the author of Wonder Valley and These Women.
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