Body Language Headline

Michael Craft and the art of murder

Interview by C.A. Lawver
The Bottom Line, Palm Springs, California
July 12, 2002

       Committing the perfect crime requires almost as much skill as writing a novel. One is a society faux pas; the other, when done properly, is eagerly welcome and deserving of accolades. Author Michael Craft has once again succeeded at writing the perfect novel about a murder committed—almost—as perfectly.
       “Hot Spot is the sixth in the Mark Manning series,” says Craft. “When I first set out to write this book, I had, in the back of my mind, the idea this might be the last for a while. But my editor wouldn’t stand for that, and St. Martin’s has already contracted a seventh with me.” Fans of the central character, investigative journalist Mark Manning, will welcome that news. Their bookshelves invariably hold the titles of his other books, Boy Toy, Name Games, Body Language, Eye Contact, Flight Dreams, and Rehearsing.
       While mystery fans are dedicated readers, it is the fact that the struggles of Craft’s hero resonate through the underlying subplots with our own experiences as gay men that endear the character to us. “I think, in a sense,” explains Craft, “the growth of Manning—his exploration of self and identity—are complete. I don’t see taking that struggle any further. I have brought him to the point where I want him right now in terms of his development as an openly gay man, in his relationship with Neil, and of the family that Neil and Mark have been building with Mark’s nephew, Thad.”
       Now that he is committed to producing a seventh in the series, Craft says, “The plots that will involve Manning in the future won’t have as much to do with the process of his life, as they have in the past.” In fact, explains Craft, “Readers may get the impression that things are drawing to a close because a lot of the ongoing subplots that have been developing in the series do find their finish in Hot Spot.”
       There will be a two-year gap before the next volume will be printed. “I’ve been writing two books a year for a while in the process of developing my second series, which is set in Palm Springs, California, featuring the heroine Claire Gray.” The first book, Desert Autumn, has already been released and will soon be followed by the second in February, Desert Winter. Craft says he is already busy on the third.
       “The new series is very much like starting over in reaching and developing a readership. Thankfully, I have my backbone readership that has taken well to the series,” says Craft. “It’s delightfully surprising that my most avid readers of the new series are still gay males. I have a large following of straight women who follow the Manning series and I had intended to address them with Claire Gray, but the guys are holding in there.”
       While this new series takes shape, it is clear in talking with Craft that Manning is not far from his thoughts. “I wanted to step away from Mark Manning so I could at least breathe between books,” says Craft. “It gives me time to rethink the direction I want to take the series and the character. I think the seventh Mark Manning will have quite a different flavor than the previous books. I have just a germ of an idea right now. I think it may be a bit darker, a bit more surprising to regular readers.”
       As for Hot Spot, “There’s a certain tongue-in-cheek quality in the telling of the story. I had a lot of fun writing this book. Even though there is a gruesome murder, there is an element of dark humor in it. The very premise is outrageous.” Craft explains, “Mark and Neil’s best friend, Roxanne, has decided to get married. The wedding comes off without a hitch. There’s a large reception immediately following the ceremony. That’s when tragedy strikes. A beloved local matriarch of a paper-mill empire is electrocuted to death at the reception when she dips her hanky into a vat of ice water. A stray extension cord has found its way into the water, and foul play is immediately suspected.” None other than Manning’s friend Roxanne finds herself at the top of the list of suspects.
       While Manning’s development as a character is complete, this crime raises for him some profound dilemmas regarding the ethics of journalism, law, and friendship. “But,” says Craft, “I don’t consider that on the same level with the emotional battles he has fought in the past dealing with his sexuality and fidelity to his partner. Any investigative reporter working on such a case with a best friend involved would find himself dealing with similar issues.”
       Craft has found great satisfaction in writing the Manning series. “The emotional content is very much part of me. It’s easy to connect with and write because the narrations are me talking. Not that I think of myself as Mark Manning, but in any first-person narration, you’re hearing the author talk to you. Typically, in the longer narrative passages that don’t deal so much with action and dialogue, but tend to veer toward philosophizing—I admit, that’s me,” he says.
       In looking back over the course of his career, Craft recognizes his own struggles—as an author. “It took me twelve years to get my first novel published. After that, it took four years to get the second novel published,” he explains. “Frustration and insecurity are the major obstacles, but the first commandment is to be persistent because it pays.” It is a trait he recommends to all would-be authors.
       “Writers also need to learn to develop a thick skin and take rejection gracefully,” says Craft. “And when criticism is offered, try to put that criticism to constructive uses in terms of improving the writing. There’s no such thing as ‘perfect.’” He adds, “You can always take it to one more level of revision. A would-be published author needs to revise and revise and revise.”
       “Commandment number two,” says Craft, “is learning to be your own toughest critic. If you don’t, then someone else will surely step in and tell you it’s no good. On a more practical level, I think I would advise anyone trying to be published, who has not yet succeeded in doing that, to take a creative writing workshop somewhere. It’s important to get into a community of other writers who understand what you are going through and are able to express criticism productively and help you along the way. I’ve taken writers’ workshops at several junctures in my life, and since being published, I’ve taught a workshop. I’ve noticed from these experiences that the things writers do wrong repeat themselves over and over again. You can be taught to overcome some of the classic pitfalls that signal to an editor that you’re an amateur. The sooner you get all that behind you, the sooner you will get that first book contract.”
       Throughout his career as an author, Craft has always maintained what he considers a day job. “Very few writers of fiction,” he says, “could support themselves from writing alone. Sure, you could go to the bestseller list and tick off the authors that everyone knows, but those are the superstars, and the odds of anyone achieving that level of fame and fortune are infinitely small. If a person wants to be a novelist to achieve fame and fortune, they are probably in for disappointment. You have to do it because it is something you love and approach it as art, for art’s sake. What material rewards may come with it are great, but should be seen as icing on the cake.”
       Craft has been able to apply many of the skills he has as a businessman to his career as a writer. “In business, we always ‘plan, execute, and review,’” he says. “This business mantra can certainly be translated to equivalent writing principles, which are ‘outline, draft, and revise.’ Each one of them is equally important, and each is tremendously creative and fulfilling in its own right.”
       Craft says he outlines his books on paper, scene-by-scene and chapter-by-chapter before beginning them. Then, after an intensive period of drafting, he puts it away for a while to let it cook and simmer and comes back to give it an honest, objective revision. He says, “The point of revision shouldn’t be to confirm to yourself, ‘That was pretty darn good in the first place.’”
       Craft has found, even after writing a book and having it published, the job does not end. Publishing companies have their own publicists, and often, that is one person sitting at a desk and dealing with many books, a fact many first-time authors soon discover. It is a fact that Craft has dealt with in a logical manner. “In my day job, I’m Vice-President of Communications for a manufacturer of musical instruments, so advertising and public relations fall into my daily duties, but that doesn’t mean I know how to promote a book. For my last three novels, I’ve retained my own publicist. It really has helped, and I believe in that highly.”
       So, will Michael Craft leave his day job? With the skills and commitment he has shown to the Mark Manning series and now Claire Gray, he probably will be able to.

© Copyright 2002 by The Bottom Line, Palm Springs, California.
Reproduced with permission.

Click here to return to Hot Spot detail page.

Click here
to return to index of novels.

Click here to return to index of interviews.

Click here to return to main page.