Interview: Marcus Sakey

I met Marcus Sakey a few weeks ago at the Mystery One bookstore in Milwaukee. I wasn’t familiar with his books at the time, but my experience has always been a positive one when it comes to attending author readings. Even if I don’t know a thing about the writer I find that they usually have some interesting things to say.

The reading with Marcus Sakey was unique because of the location. The Mystery One bookstore is small, so there’s no sitting down and hiding behind a row of chairs. The intimate setting allows for great conversation and talk of all things books. Marcus graciously talked briefly about his latest book, The Amateurs, but was also eager to discuss favorite books and authors with us. If you have a chance to see Marcus at a book signing somewhere, I encourage you to do it! (And do pick up his book, The Amateurs
. I’ve read it and can recommend it.)

Enjoy this interview.


I just finished The Amateurs and really enjoyed it. I liked the fact that it was about human relationships as much as it was about the “action” of the story. How did you come up with the concept for the book?

First off, thanks!

For me, stories are always about people. I’ve never been interested in novels that are mostly about action, or solving a mystery. If I don’t care about the characters, why would I care what happens to them?

THE AMATEURS really took shape with a question. In this case, it was, “What would happen if your best friends became your worst enemies?” That gave me the initial structure. Later in the book there’s another question, “Which is worth more–the lives of a handful of people you love, or a lot of people you don’t know?”

I find that it’s usually a question like these that drives my storytelling. Not that I have the answers; more that I like to put my characters in a position where they have to deal with it, while also facing the highest stakes I can manage.

Your previous three books (The Blade Itself: A Novel, Good People, At the City’s Edge) have each been optioned. Describe the feeling of having someone take your story and move it to a different medium?

It’s odd but wonderful. I’ve been lucky in that the teams that have picked them up have been serious people–Ben Affleck’s production company, the producer of THE DEPARTED, and Tobey Maguire–so I’ve always had great faith in what they were trying to do.

The funny thing is that reading someone else’s adaptation of my work is as close as I can come to experiencing the story the way a reader might, because I really don’t know what’s going to happen page to page. So I really enjoy it.

When we met at your book signing, we talked briefly about agents. Do you recommend writers get an agent early on in their career? Or try to develop their writing skills and platform before they approach someone?

For fiction at least, you absolutely need an agent. Not only that, but you want one–agents are partners in crime, and the work they do more than justifies the 15% they charge.

Of course, you really can’t get an agent until you’ve finished a novel. So first order of business is to dedicate yourself to writing the best novel you possibly can. Finish it, revise it, polish the living shit out of the thing. Then go looking for an agent.

For anybody interested, I’ve got a detailed article on how to find an agent on my website:

Share some of your writing goals.

When I’m writing, I like to shoot for a thousand words a day. Having a concrete goal like that helps keep me on track, and assures that if I stick to it, I’ll end up with a novel.

On a larger level, I just hope to be able to keep doing this for a long time. It’s been my dream since I was a kid, and it’s everything I hope it would be.

What’s the most interesting book you’ve ever read?

Oh, man, how long have you got?

I can tell you about my two favorite novels: INFINITE JEST, by David Foster Wallace, and CLOUD ATLAS, by David Mitchell. Both of them succeed on so many levels–human, emotional, technical, philosophical. I’ve read them both several times, and each time I’m dazzled.

Beyond that, on my website I post reviews of good books I read. I’ve been doing it for years now, so there’s a pretty solid list of impressive books:

Favorite authors?


Any type of writing ritual you have?

Just trying to do it five days a week, and to get my thousand words. These days I lose a lot of time to promotion and so forth, so when I’m actually able to focus on writing, it’s a joy.

I find that afternoons are my best time. I drink a lot of caffeine. I listen to music sometimes, always stuff without words. When I get stuck, I move, and spend a day or two writing in front of the window, or standing at the counter, or at the coffeeshop.

Do you believe in writer’s block? If so, how did you get past it? If not, why not?

No. It’s a trade, like any other. Plumbers and bus drivers aren’t allowed to have block, why should we?

I do have times when I’m struggling with plot points, or when what I’m trying to do won’t work. That’s natural. But I think it’s a mistake to think of writing as something mystical that requires a touch from the beyond. Put your ass in the chair and your fingers on the keyboard.

What’s the measure of a successful writer?

That’s a question everyone has to answer for themselves. For some people, writing is a hobby, a way to entertain themselves. For others, it’s therapy, or religion.

Personally, the days I feel most successful are the ones when I feel like I have told a story well, when I feel like the characters are believable and the danger imminent and the pages flying.

Where can we learn more about you?

My underwear drawer? Kidding, of course. I’ve got a pretty extensive website at; on it I post excerpts and news, but also articles on writing, contests, interviews, and so forth.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Buy THE AMATEURS and save a life!

Images: Brett Carlson

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