A couple years ago, Mark Pryor took a break from his true blue series hero, Hugo Marston, to crawl into the the dark mind of an Austin prosecutor, musician, and sociopath named Dominic in the acclaimed Hollow Man. He has recently released a follow up, Dominic, with our anti-hero tying up his loose ends. Mark will be joining Meg Gardiner (Into The Black Nowhere) for a discussion of writing fictional psychopaths on January 30th. Mark was kind enough to talk to us early about dealing with his dark creation.
MysteryPeople Scott: Was there anything in particular that drew you back to Dominic?
Mark Pryor: Several things. First, I’m (still) kind of obsessed with psychopaths, and Dominic was and is my way to explore their mentality. So I wasn’t done with the subject matter, and he’s my way in. Second, I kind of missed him. Weird, I know, but he was SO much fun to write that I wanted to do it again. I wanted to know what he could pull off again. I wanted to let the dark side reign and write him again. I think, too, he’s such a change from my Hugo Marston series that writing Dominic gives me a good balance, so in a way it’s healthy creatively for me to write about such a total bastard once in a while.
MPS: This time you split perspectives, which you had never done to this degree in a book. Did that prove as a challenge?
MP: Actually, yes. You’re right in that I’ve not done this much before but as I thought about how to tell this story, I knew it was necessary. Put simply, if anyone who read Hollow Man read another book entirely from Dominic’s perspective, they wouldn’t believe a word he was saying. They’d be crazy to! So, I knew I had to corroborate events through other, more reliable, characters. It turned out to be fun, especially overlapping Dominic with the sycophantic Brian, getting two very different takes on one interaction.
MPS: One of the main reasons the book is so unsettling is that the reader feels they are in collusion with Dominic. Did you sometimes feel that way in the writing?
MP: Yes, and I think that’s vital. I mean, in practical terms I’m the one devising his evil schemes but even though it’s all fictional, and even though I could do anything I want, I really do sometimes feel like he takes the lead and does his nasty deed, with me as his note-taker. That may sound weird but it’s how I feel sometimes! I would say, too, that it’s a lot of work for me to get into the head of a psychopath, to abandon the emotion and the feelings, so I myself get that unsettled feeling and it makes sense that the reader would pick up on that.
MPS: How do you write a character with little or no empathy?
MP: Carefully. The biggest factor for me is accuracy. I’ve seen too many movies or shows, books too, where the character is given dabs of empathy here and there and I don’t think that’s realistic. Similarly, over the two books the one thing I wanted to avoid is giving him a character arc, because he’s not capable of it. Obviously, I’ve done a good amount of research to know what he would or would not feel as a psychopath, so there’s a crafty element to creating him, but as I say, I really want him to seem genuine. Genuinely horribly, that is.
MPS: What did you find as a key for writing a suspense novel like this?
MP: This novel and the previous one are much more carefully constructed than my Hugo Marston novels. By that I mean that I am more devious about planting clues and misdirecting the reader. I think the reason for that is knowing where the suspense comes from — the reader is going to be pretty sure that Dominic will achieve his objective(s), the question is how does he get there? Precisely how ruthless is he going to be? And, who will be casualties along the way? These aren’t straight forward mysteries where you can proceed from clue to clue like stepping stones, you have to look under the rocks (and find the snake!).
MPS: Since you are both a prosecutor and an Englishman living in Austin, what is the best way you have found to convince people you are not Dominic?
MP: You know, just between us, I’ve been surprised by how many people give me that side-eye and ask if I’m a psychopath. These are people I’ve known for years, and if you’ve known me for years I think it’s pretty obvious I’m not. So I laugh it off, and tell the story of how I took the psychopath test (yes, there is such a thing) at home, with my wife. Bottom line, the test is 20 questions, and you score 0, 1, or 2 for each. Anything over 30 and you’re a psychopath. I scored 7. Yes, seven. So low I was actually disappointed! I mean, as a prosecutor and crime writer you’d think I’d have something of a callous edge to me, but it turns out I’m a big softy.
The interesting thing to me is that if I’d written a character who was English, a prosecutor, and who had really been the one who killed John Lennon, no one would be asking, “Hey, did you really kill John Lennon?” All in all, I’ll take it as a compliment that I wrote a convincing psychopath, which is satisfying enough to stop me murdering whoever asks that question. Oh, wait, I didn’t mean that…
We hope you’ll join us January 30th at 7pm as Mark Pryor and Meg Gardiner discuss their new books!