The dog days of August are here, dear reader, and so is our wonderful August author, Jeffrey Marks, who identifies himself on his website as an author, publisher, husband, and doggie daddy. Retired from teaching in 2020, Marks is the author of two series, both mystery novels. One features a department store cosmetics department, and the first book in that series was awarded the very first Malice Domestic Grant. The other series comes from his short story work and features US Grant as the historical detective just after the Civil War. Marks runs Crippen and Landru Publishers and resides in Cincinnati, where he continues to write while sharing a home with his spouse and their dogs.
Janet Irvin: Welcome, Jeff, to the author’s corner. Like many authors, you had a career in teaching before your recent retirement, and your first writing endeavors were short stories. Did your teaching dictate the choice of that form (time available) or did you naturally gravitate to the short form for another reason?
Jeffrey Marks: Well, my very first Agatha Christie mystery was actually a short story collection, The Underdog and Other Stories. So it has a fond place in my heart. Short stories do lend themselves to working and teaching, especially over the past 18 months. Taking 15-20 minutes to write 250 words/day has always seemed doable. It would take forever if I did that with a novel or a non-fiction work. However, it’s only 15 days for a short story (not including editing!) Plus of course, Crippen & Landru Publishers focuses solely on short stories, so it does seem that I need to practice what I sell/preach.
JEI: You have also written a number of wonderful biographies of mystery writers – Atomic Renaissance American Women Mystery Writers of the 1940s and 1950s andWho Was That Lady? Craig Rice: Queen of the Screwball Mystery. Tell us how you came to write their stories.
JM: There were a few factors that led me to write about the lives of mystery writers. First, I knew Charles Norton growing up. He was the man who wrote a biography of mystery writer Melville Davisson Post. So I was aware of that as a path for writers. As a teen, I went on a rampage of reading as many mysteries that I could get my hands on. I read the stories of Craig Rice; her short bios on the covers of her book were always different. They didn’t know her name, and none of them seemed to have the exact number of times she married. That always stuck with me, and when I went looking for a project to write about, that memory came back to me.
After I finished the biography of Craig, I wrote a group biography of seven women authors of the 1940s and 1950s. Many of those women had known Craig and I’d interviewed more than one. When they passed away, I kept saying “someone should tell us about them.” So I did. Craig also knew Anthony Boucher, Erle Stanley Garner, and Ellery Queen. So everything has seemed to stem from that first biography I wrote.
JEI: Research is obviously a huge component of your writing. Can you address the process you follow as you examine the lives of your subjects?
JM: I usually start with an outline, and then pick a chapter at random to start with – something that will grab my attention. I will often start by introducing myself to the family of the author. They’re always the best source for material about the author. Then from there, I’ll start writing the chapter. I stop frequently because I have to answer the questions I have about the author as I go along. So it’s a lot of start and stop. Sometimes I’ll have done the majority of the research, so I’ll begin writing and just highlight pieces of text when I need to verify that information or check on a detail. That’s when the book will start to flow for me, and I know I’m getting close to being done.
JEI: Now that you are retired from teaching, how has your writing life changed?
JM: You’d think that I’d be able to say that I have all the time in the world to write, but that’s not true. I now meet daily for a 30-second check-in with a group of writers. We tell each other how long we wrote yesterday, how long we’ll write today, and what our goals/accomplishments are for the week. That’s been a real change to writing for me. Just having someone to be accountable to is so helpful (for me) to sit down and actually do the writing. With so much additional time, I needed a sense of accountability for my work. Otherwise, I would procrastinate until I was 98.
JEI: I’m sure many writers can relate to that! I understand you are currently working on a book about Erle Stanley Gardner. How is that progressing?
JM: Yes, Gardner donated 635 boxes of correspondence and other materials to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas-Austin. Unfortunately, they’ve been closed since March 2020, and the last time I checked, there is no reopening date for the center. So while I’m able to use other source materials from books, which I now need to purchase, and papers, there’s a big hole in the book that I’m waiting to fill.
JEI: That’s frustrating, I’m sure, especially now that you are also the editor of Crippen and Landru, a small publishing house that specializes in short story collections. How demanding is that role? How do you balance editorial duties with your writing?
JM: The role is very demanding. I honestly had no idea of the sheer workload involved in creating a collection of mystery short stories from scratch. You have to locate the stories for the collection, after deciding on the next collection. Then there is typesetting, editing, and then the production process. Then, of course, there’s shipping out the books and trying to squeeze some promotions into the mix as well. I typically spend the mornings doing work for Crippen & Landru, and then I write in the afternoons. I’m trying, now that I’m retired, to save weekends for my attempt at a personal life. I still have some writing things to do on the weekends, but nothing like before.
JEI: You have a collection of first-edition mystery novels. Where have you found most of the books?
JM: I find most of the books via the Internet these days. Back when I started (in the late 1970s), I waited by the mailbox for the catalogs. I had/have a few authors that I collect (Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, ES Gardner, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, and a few others.) So I would scan the catalogs to see what they had. As the Internet has taken a place in book collecting, the process has become easier and more difficult. Easier, because many of the books I looked for can now be found with a simple search. More difficult, because I can’t browse. So I likely won’t find any new authors to collect or a different edition of a book I enjoy.
JEI: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about dogs. How many dogs do you and your husband have? Do you still own Scottish terriers?
JM: I hope to always have Scottish terriers! We have Scooter, who is a West Highland terrier, which is a cousin to the Scotty. Then we have Penny (short for Tuppence from the Agatha Christie novels) who is a Scotty with all the attitude. And finally, we have Archie (as in Goodwin) who is a mix of the two breeds.
JEI: What one piece of advice would you offer to aspiring mystery writers?
JM: Definitely to make time for yourself and then use that time wisely. Even now that I have so much time, I still find that I need to use the time wisely or else I’ll fritter away the days.
My thanks, to Jeffrey for spending August with us! More about everything Marks can be found at jeffreymarks.com, Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Jeffrey-Marks-271929135155/ and at Twitter: @jeffrmarks