David Marlett is an award-winning storyteller and bestselling author. David is a professor at Pepperdine Law School, has been published in a number of magazines, was Managing Editor of OMNI Magazine, and regularly guest-lectures on story design. He is the father of four, a graduate of The University of Texas School of Law, and currently lives in Manhattan Beach, California. AMERICAN RED, an historical legal thriller, is his second novel. (The highly praised Fortunate Son, was his first.) How could you not lvoe a novel that features both Clarence Darrow and the Pinkertons?
I'm so honored to have him here. Now take a look at some of the praise:
“Amazing storytelling. A legal thriller that holds you till the last train out.”
— Michael Connelly, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Bosch series
“A cracking good tale! Part love story, part espionage thriller.”
— Jacquelyn Mitchard, New York Times bestselling author of The Deep End of the Ocean
“Vivid, well researched and told bare-knuckled across a tapestry that is both broad and nuanced...with characters who are outsized and real.”
— Mark Sullivan, international bestselling author of Beneath a Scarlet Sky
“A gripping story…unforgettable characters…fascinating.”
— Adam Benforado, New York Times bestselling author
“A stellar novel of intrigue, adventure, engaging characters, and a fascinating backdrop. A true gem of a story.”
— Steve Berry, multiple New York Times bestselling author
“An important story of intensity and emotional pull. Be prepared to be captured by this gifted storyteller.”
— Jeff Kamen, Emmy-winning NPR and NBC journalist and author
I always want to know what is haunting a writer into writing a particular book. What was haunting you?
I love this question. It is a pleasure to talk with someone like yourself who, as a fellow novelist, clearly understands the writing mindset/process.
What originally fascinated me was an overarching question: At the turn of the last century, in the wake of Marx, many countries were beginning to gravitate toward national socialism and in some instances communism. And in many it took root—perhaps Russia most notably—obtained through bloody revolution. So why not here? I was fascinated by what it is about America—the people and the land, the culture and values—that led to our zealous adherence to capitalism, revulsion for communism, and our acquiescence to the lighter form of socialism that we have today. After all, America was heavily populated by people who—were they to have still lived in their countries of origin—would have been embracing if not fighting for national socialism, and perhaps even communism. So why did they, once here, go a different route? That was the fascination that sparked me to the story that would eventually become American Red—and drove me throughout the research and writing as I began to see glimpses of answers in the mix of our immigrant heritage, the wildness of our west, our religious fervor, the prospect of opportunity, and the evolution of our laws.
But you asked what was haunting me that led to American Red. The law is a fragile, imaginary thing held together only by the collective will of the society in which it inhabits. And the humans that comprise that society have proven, time and again, to be in self-entangled conflict with their nature—prone to great love and sacrifice while being vulnerable to an instinct for violence and extremism. We are no different today. As we were not a hundred years ago. So, I would say that it was that precarious duality, that swirling conflict with the personal and societal self, governed only by a collective belief system known as the law, that haunted me—and haunts me still.
First, I am flattered that you might think I found some balance of the three. I hope so. Yes, it was indeed a challenge. As for it being historical fiction, for me that is pure fun. The research, the time-travel. Going into those rooms, onto the streets, trying to inhabit the space and moment and bring the reader with me. Seeking out those elements that give the moment texture and immersive relevance while also propelling the story. This is the area of the three where I have to do the most editing. American Red is already a long book…woe to the reader if I hadn’t had a good editor!
As for the legal thriller through-line, that is more of a philosophical study for me. In fact, at its core, the legal aspect isn’t a story of the past, but only happens to be told there. Indeed, as the bulwark of our current legal system is founded on judicial decisions and axioms born decades if not centuries ago, the legal machinations in my novels speak as heavily about who we are today as they consider the events of the past. (It was that element that led me to my first historical legal thriller, Fortunate Son, which tells the amazing true story surrounding a 1746 trial that is the basis of our modern attorney-client privilege.) In addition, the modern reader is familiar enough with the legal system, from the crime to the investigation to the trial, that those processes can serve as a guide rope through what—in the instance of American Red—can be a complex plot.
And, ah yes, the love stories. That is what made me write American Red. Not long after Fortunate Son was published, I read Big Trouble, the deeply detailed non-fiction tome by J. Anthony Lukas that examined the events leading to the 1907 murder trial of William “Big Bill” Haywood. Though it sparked my interest in the events, the basic humanity, it lacked sufficient heart to inspire me to tackle the narrative as a historical novel. So, a couple of years went by, but I kept returning to the fascinating events, hoping to discover the soul, the spark that might conjure it alive. It wasn’t until I researched Neva, Big Bill’s wife, that I began to see a story that I wanted to tell. Unfortunately, little was recorded about the women in these very male-dominated events, but I began to gather bits and pieces. Eventually, I came to better understand the relationship between Neva and her sister and her husband, her journey with polio and her faith, and saw glimpses of her lovely relationship with another man. Also, anecdotes began to develop which would become Jack and Carla. With those two love stories, I knew it was a book I had to write.
The humanity of Clarence Darrow was indeed interesting. His extraordinary legal talent was clearly rooted in his ability to connect with others, to understand the heart and mind of juries, to use language to manipulate and motivate belief systems regarding right and wrong. And I enjoyed exploring his conflicted morals—his willingness to compromise his values, his advocation for the downtrodden while also representing some of the greatest terrorists in American history. (In Angeles Los, my next historical legal thriller based on a true story—a continuation of some of the characters in American Red—Clarence Darrow defends the bombers of the Los Angeles Times only to get himself indicted for a felony.)
But to answer your question about my favorite character to research, I would have to say it was the aging Pinkerton, Chief Detective James McParland. (I would say it was Neva, Nevada Jane Haywood, as she was a favorite. But there was less to research as the historical record is more circumstantial about her, rather than direct.) McParland was an interesting man—timeless in his humanity while grappling with the passage of time. When we meet him in 1906, he sees his career nearing its end, perhaps his life—a life of rich stories all behind him then, all embedded in the 1800s. Technology and society are passing him by. But he wants one final accomplishment to cap off a very storied career: to bring down Big Bill Haywood. I admire him yet feel his distance—from his wife whom I made sure we never meet, to the young men whom he knows will soon replace him. Researching his background and coming to understand why he was willing to do what he did, was quite enjoyable.
The only major research-induced surprises came in first discovering the audacious events themselves, those that would comprise the spine of the plot. In other words, no surprises in the research derailed a previously anticipated plot line, though a few altered or led it. There are so many crazy actual events in the story, but little in the historical record connects them narratively. So a fair amount of my work was to imagine the bridge, what motivated characters from point to point. For example, when I learned what Adams did to that family in San Francisco, I knew I had to take the story there. It then became a task to give the story the framework to make that happen. Other research surprises ignited opportunities for detail and scene placement but didn’t alter the overall plot. Such things include the opening of department stores, the recent San Francisco earthquake and fire, the museum and zoo in Denver, early auto races, the advent of the Maxim machine gun, the touring theatrical performance staring Ethel Barrymore, and many others. Perhaps the most extraordinary surprises which definitely informed the plot were what Clarence Darrow did regarding Adam’s testimony, and what became of Big Bill Haywood. (Hopefully I am being sufficiently cryptic so as not to give anything away.)
I always want to know what you took fictional liberty with and why?
And I also want to know about the title—how and why you chose it.
First, I wanted a name that was a touch abstract, rather than on point, to better align with my style of historical fiction being similarly impressionistic. That said, the “American” part was clear to me from the beginning of the name search. As I mentioned, an early curiosity of mine was how Americans uniquely engaged with the pressures toward socialist revolution taking hold in other major nations at the time. Also, the story examines the American criminal justice system at an inflection point in its evolution. And the plot involves a number of archetypal Americans and American institutions, including Clarence Darrow and the Pinkertons. As for the “Red” part, it seemed ideal, being such a seminal stand-in for blood, passion, fire/explosion, anger, love, life, and socialism (albeit more for communism than socialism). And by modifying it with the word American, I like the implicit suggestion that perhaps our shade of red, in its representative meanings, is unique. And finally, the underlying heart of the book along with the representative nature of the title informed my abstract design of the “red cardinal at war with itself.” So, there you have it: American Red.
My first thought in response to this interesting question is, “Not really…writing is writing. I just jump in and get going.” But in truth, that’s probably only accurate about non-fiction. To write fiction I have to take a journey. I have to teleport into the environment and exist there. Sit in it. Feel it. Listen to the people speak. Smell the room. Especially for historical fiction. Over the past couple of years, my kids received this response a few times: “I’m sorry, what were you saying? I was still in 1907.” Or, “Don’t text or call me unless it’s an emergency. I’ll be in 1907 most of the day.” For historical fiction I usually begin with a caffeine surge, both literally and figuratively—with the figurative being to pick up a book I’ve been using as reference and flip through it. Or, more likely, I’ll go back and read the previous day’s work and let it ramp me into the action of the story. Then I just let go and write as it flows, fairly unconcerned with length or even structure sometimes. That said, I do enjoy using historical detail to slow myself down…to stop and research how that wall telephone worked, the fabric of her dress, the explosive yield of three sticks of dynamite, or if the derogatory word “gollumpus” was in use at the time.
Screenwriting is more methodical, more prone to bursts, more dialogue centric. I know the scene and I slowly shape it as I go, continually trimming lines. But I am acutely aware that the reader of the script is not the audience, but rather it is the producers/actors/director. So, that informs the writing—its need to adhere to a set of guidelines.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I’m currently deep into my next historical legal thriller, Angeles Los, which takes place in 1910 and 1911 in Los Angeles and continues some of the lead characters from American Red, including Jack, Carla, and Clarence Darrow. Angeles Los is based on the true story at the intersection of the first movies made in Los Angeles, the murderous bombing of the Los Angeles Times, and eccentric Abbot Kinney's "Venice of America" kingdom. Like American Red, Angeles Los will also be operating on three levels: a historical look at the social fabric that made Los Angeles—a legal thriller of the terrorists’ murder trial wherein Clarence Darrow himself was indicted—and a love story focusing on the challenges of young marriage.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
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