Michael Prescott Interview

© 1999, Joy Thompson

Author Michael Prescott recently spoke with Fiction Fix about writing the psychological thrillers COMES THE DARK, his best-selling first novel, and STEALING FACES, his new release.

FF: Who were your early literary inspirations? Who do you like to read now?

MP: The first thing that probably inspired me was a short film that our class was shown in elementary school. It explained the life of a writer--specifically, the author of a children's book about a hermit crab. I think the book was called PAGOO or something like that. What I remember was a close-up of the author crossing out a word in his manuscript and writing in a better word as a replacement. I found this very interesting--the idea that you could work on the story word by word and get it exactly the way you wanted it. Of course I was only eight or nine years old at the time . . .and already a control freak! So I think it was the editing, the detail work, that appealed to me at first.

I liked dinosaurs, so later I read a lot of dinosaur books; my favorites were Edgar Rice Burroughs' PELLUCIDAR series, which concerned a world of dinosaurs and cavemen at the earth's core. In high school I read mainly science fiction. The big names back then were people like Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Harlan Ellison. I have to admit that high school literature classes didn't fire my imagination at all. I hated MOBY DICK and most of the other classics we were forced to read. As an adult, I've come to appreciate some of the classics, particularly Shakespeare and the ancient Greeks, but I've still never been able to bring myself to reread MOBY DICK! I'm not sure that force-feeding difficult books to kids who aren't ready for them is the best way to cultivate a love of reading. On the other hand, many of these kids may never look at a literary classic once they're out of school, so the teachers probably figure this is their one shot.

In college I went through a period of really liking Ayn Rand's books--I read them all and was very taken with her philosophy, Objectivism. But eventually I moved away from her views somewhat, because I came to see them as cultivating a rather rigid, emotionally stunted personality, and stifling creativity. A friend of mine once put it very neatly when she said that Ayn Rand  as the ultimate spokesperson for the left hemisphere of the brain. The left hemisphere, loosely speaking, is the center of logical reasoning and methodical, step-by-step analysis. But there's the right hemisphere to consider as well -- intuition, symbolism, feelings, holistic thinking or pattern recognition, and grand creative leaps. I've come to feel that it's a mistake to put too much emphasis on either aspect of human nature; what's needed is a balance. I'm not sure any system of philosophy has found that balance. Maybe that's a job for the next

Some of the authors I read now include Michael Connelly, Thomas Perry, and Stephen Hunter. I enjoyed many of Ken Follett's earlier novels--books like LIE DOWN WITH LIONS and THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH. Stephen King is another writer who's been a big influence on me and on nearly every writer of "dark" thrillers. His book CUJO is one of my favorites. It has a compactness and a sense of realism that appeal to me, and the plot unfolds like the inexorable workings of

FF: How long did it take and how difficult was it to get your first novel, COMES THE DARK, published?

MP: I sold the book on the strength of a proposal, which ran about 13 pages. Selling it was not difficult, but actually writing the book was quite a chore. I expected it to run about 400 manuscript pages, and the first draft was only slightly longer. But my editor wanted a lot of things developed further, and in the rewrite the book grew to more than 550 pages. These changes improved the book and were very worthwhile, but I was worn out when I finished.

FF: Does an agent represent you? If so, at which point did you seek your agent?

MP: My agent is Jane Dystel, of Jane Dystel Literary Management in New York City. I sought out an agent after establishing some writing credits in other fields. I wrote freelance magazine articles for a while, and I also worked in the low-budget end of the movie business as a screenwriter. I didn't enjoy either job very much. Magazine writing pays almost nothing unless you get a staff position. Movie writing seems glamorous, but not when you're given one week to write a hundred-page script, as I once was. The other thing about movie writing is that you rarely get to do your own ideas; you usually have to develop whatever story the producer has in mind. Anyway, I used my credentials, such as they were, to pitch myself to New York agents in an unsolicited letter, and that's how I obtained representation.

FF: What was the most challenging aspect of writing about your villain, Robert? Did you have to do much research in psychology for this character? Who is your favorite villain in literature?