An Austin D.A. Turns to Detective Novels
Q&A with Mark Pryor on his Paris-set Hugo Marston mysteries
By Jordan Smith, 10:05AM, Wed. Oct. 10, 2012
Mark Pryor is a man of many talents.
He's a former journalist turned lawyer who now works as a prosecutor for the Travis County District Attorney's Office. He writes an award-winning blog (D.A. Confidential) and last year successfully prosecuted Dennis Davis for the 1985 cold-case murder of Natalie Antonetti, mother of Austin musician Johnny Goudie. On Oct. 12, he'll add published mystery novelist to his list of accomplishments with the release of his debut novel, The Bookseller (Seventh Street Books).
The novel, one in a projected series of four (at least), features Hugo Marston, a Texan and former FBI agent now stationed in Paris as head of security for the American ambassador. Like Pryor, Hugo is a history buff and is taken with the stalls of used and rare books sold along the banks of the Seine by purveyors known as bouquinistes. When Hugo's bookseller friend goes missing, Hugo is determined to find him. In the process of searching, Hugo quickly finds himself engulfed in a dark and dangerous plot that could reshape not only the landscape of the bouquinistes, but could also transform Paris itself. The book is tightly plotted and Pryor's street-level sense of workaday Paris gives the reader a café-side seat to the action.
On the eve of the novel's release, we sat down with Pryor to talk about his writing process, prosecuting Dennis Davis – and writing a soon-to-be-published memoir about it – as well as the misery of book reviews and the trouble of doing a book reading from the perspective of a character from Texas when, like Pryor, you're actually English.
Pryor will appear at BookPeople at 7pm on Friday, Oct. 12.
Austin Chronicle: I'm very curious about Hugo, and I'm wondering how long you've lived with Hugo. It seems you know him very well; how long has he been around?
Mark Pryor: Well, he's an amalgam of people I've known for a few years, the main one is my dad. So, you know, he's been around for however old I am.
But in terms of being a character, I had the plot first. I was actually in Paris with my wife, and whenever I'm on vacation, even if its in South Padre, I just have these great ideas for stories. So, of course, I'm in Paris and the idea came to me seeing these very cool little book stores [operated by the bouquinistes] along the Seine. And then I thought, what would the story be? What if one of these guys goes missing. Why? And who would care? And what if nobody cared except for one person, and who is that one person? That would be Hugo.
Austin Chronicle: So you have the idea for the story, but did you have to say, who would care and then create the character out of that? Or was Hugo already floating around in there?
Mark Pryor: Yeah, I think he was already floating around in there. I mean it wasn't a question of consciously creating different pieces of the puzzle. In some ways it's a game for me. I use the words 'what if' – something dangerous, or ridiculous, or outrageous, and then run with it. The other question is, what is my reader thinking? Because whatever they're thinking I need it to be the other way, or I need to be directing what they're thinking.
Austin Chronicle: How long did it take you to finish this novel?
Mark Pryor: I wrote it in about six months.
Austin Chronicle: Wow. How do you find the time?
Mark Pryor: People always ask me that.
Austin Chronicle: Yeah, because you've got a great blog – an award-winning blog. Did you kind of neglect that a little bit while you were writing this?
Mark Pryor: Somewhat.
Austin Chronicle: And then you're in the courtroom...
Mark Pryor: I know.
Austin Chronicle: You're making me feel pretty crappy about myself, I just want you to know.
Mark Pryor: The way I write is that, I plan out the next chapter or two in my head, never more than that. But I know exactly what's going to happen, so when I sit down I write pretty quickly. And I usually do that on the weekends. I have a very supportive family. They let me go out by myself to the library for a few hours. And once I get there I can sit down and write two or three chapters at a time.
Austin Chronicle: So all week long are these things sort of percolating? You must be in the story all the time.
Mark Pryor: Oh yeah, all the time. I mean, I'm in the middle of the third one right now.
Austin Chronicle: Did you go straight to number two after you finished this one?
Mark Pryor: Actually, I wrote another one, set in London, that I think I might make number four, because I want to keep him in Paris for a little bit. In fact, my agent suggested I keep him in Paris for a few books, but then my editor is now like, yeah, have him move around Europe a bit – why not?
Austin Chronicle: Well, he does work for an embassy so that's plausible, and he doesn't have to leave his job, necessarily.
Mark Pryor: The London one is kind of a prequel, it's before he came to Paris, so with that one I'm having fun bringing in characters that he knew back then, into the second and third books.
But as far as time, I write very, very quickly. I don't do – I try to get it down as best I can the first time around, so my edits are not very extensive, until my editor gets ahold of it. But even then it's not so bad.
Austin Chronicle: So, I know that previously you were an ink-stained wretch, a journalist, right? But in England. Correct?
Mark Pryor: I was a journalist on a paper in England for about three-and-a-half years. Then I came over here and did some freelancing, on and off, for about 10 years.
Austin Chronicle: What did you write about?
Mark Pryor: Mostly crime.
Austin Chronicle: Where were you living?
Mark Pryor: Chapel Hill.
Austin Chronicle: Good crime there? Well, you know...
Mark Pryor: Well, it was better than in England, where nobody has any guns. I was a police reporter for a year-and-a-half and we didn't have a single murder.
Austin Chronicle: How boring is that? Mark Pryor: I know. Right?
Austin Chronicle: How gruesome are we?
Mark Pryor: Pretty bad.
Austin Chronicle: So Chapel Hill was an improvement over that – at least from the journalism perspective.
Mark Pryor: Yes. Not for the people dying.
Austin Chronicle: This gallows... I guess we should stop that. Why did you come to the United States in the first place?
Mark Pryor: Initially I came to travel. My mother is from Chapel Hill, so I have a bunch of family there. I stayed with them. Then my grandfather got sick and I stayed to look after him up until he died. And then, what I tell people is I stayed because Chapel Hill is full of pretty girls, and I married the prettiest one. And she eventually brought me out to Texas.
Austin Chronicle: Is she from Texas?
Mark Pryor: No, she's from Philadelphia, but she had family here.
Austin Chronicle: So it sounds like you were migrating from family to family.
Mark Pryor: Yeah.
Austin Chronicle: So you decided to leave behind newsprint and go into the courtroom. I know a lot of journalists who kind of flirt with going to law school or practicing law.
Mark Pryor: Well, I figure that if I'm going to do a job where everybody hates me, I should get well paid for it, right?
Austin Chronicle: At least better pay.
Mark Pryor: At least better pay, right. I got well-paid for a while and then I came to do criminal [law].
Austin Chronicle: Do you think that your experiences as a journalist or as a lawyer helped you to navigate writing a novel, which is to say, you go in a courtroom, you have to have your case plotted out in front of you. You're telling a story and creating a narrative. Do you think that has influenced or has helped you plot your book? I think the plotting is quite good and it struck me that there might be some influence.
Mark Pryor: I actually think it's the opposite. The plot of each of my books changes as I write. I have a notebook for the second one that has the killer being a truck driver and lists all of his different victims and none of that ended up in the final book.
Austin Chronicle: What about this one [the first Hugo Marston novel]?
Mark Pryor: I didn't even try [to figure it out].
Austin Chronicle: You just went flying off.
Mark Pryor: Yeah, I just went – oh and what about this? And what about this? And so, I think the trouble with being a journalist and being a lawyer is that some of my writing can be very literal. And it's hard for me to kind of let go a little bit. And interestingly, a couple of reviews, the negative things they've had to say is that my prose can be a little, I don't know what adjective they used, not clunky or stilted, but something like that. And I think that's because when you're a lawyer you just have to use the words that are there –you can't describe the clouds and the sun. It's the same as being a journalist, really.
Austin Chronicle: With a journalist you can do a little bit more of that, to a greater degree.
Mark Pryor: Not when I was writing. Not with the crime stuff. Not with the newspaper I was on. It was this happened on this date to this person.
Austin Chronicle: Not while the sky was blue and a car went by?
Mark Pryor: No. It was very restrictive writing. So when I'm writing a novel I have to kind of slap myself to let myself go a little.
Austin Chronicle: Is that the hardest part?
Mark Pryor: Yeah, I think it might be. Because I have the ideas, I can picture all of my characters very clearly. But it's letting go. That's why I read a lot, because I like to see how other people do it.
Austin Chronicle: You like to read mysteries and thrillers?
Mark Pryor: Yes.
Austin Chronicle: Who do you read?
Mark Pryor: I like the older writers like Eric Ambler, Cornell Woolrich. I'm a huge fan of Alan Furst.
Austin Chronicle: I don't know him.
Mark Pryor: Furst; F-U-R-S-T. He writes espionage thrillers that are set right before the Second World War in Europe. They're kind of like Ambler stories in that they're just about some dude going about his life, suddenly forced into becoming a spy.
Austin Chronicle: A little The Man Who Knew Too Much kind of thing.
Mark Pryor: Yeah, yeah. I've got one on my bookshelf now set in Paris that I'm waiting to read, to savor like a meal.
Austin Chronicle: In your book you've got the bouquinistes, you've got WWII in there, old-world Europe: Are you a history buff, by any chance?
Mark Pryor: That wasn't a part of the story, originally. The problem with writing a mystery is you have to keep coming up with twists.
Austin Chronicle: Yes, you do.
Mark Pryor: So when you ask the question, what if? you have to think of something a little off-the-wall. So, like I say, when I originally started writing it I knew why this guy had been kidnapped and I knew who'd done it, but then I have to create some legitimate threads that would lead the reader to wonder about different options. I don't want to say too much and give it away.
Austin Chronicle: No, of course not! No, we can't do that.
Mark Pryor: But I am very interested in the Second World War.
Austin Chronicle: I didn't know anything about the bouquinistes – I've never been to Paris, that's probably why. Did you discover them by being there, or are they something you've always been familiar with because you're a reader?
Mark Pryor: I guess so. I've been to Paris probably 10 times now. My mother lives over there now, in the South of France.
Austin Chronicle: Wow, that's rough.
Mark Pryor: I know, right?
Austin Chronicle: So you have to go.
Mark Pryor: Yeah, my parents moved there 15 years ago. So I've always been aware of them [the bouquinistes], I always thought they were a really neat feature. But I didn't really know a lot about their history until I started researching for the book. And then it seemed like they were a real throwback, but a kind of a fun one, a very original one.
And that's what I'm doing with the series is, I'm hoping to take a different feature of Paris, or France, and have fun with it, explore it a bit. The second one will explore the really beautiful, and fairly famous, cemeteries. And the third one, right now, looks like it's going to deal with Napoleon and maybe the Revolution. We'll see.
Austin Chronicle: So you do have a little bit of a history buff in you.
Mark Pryor: Yeah I do.
Austin Chronicle: You're going backwards in time to bring something forward in each one of these.
Mark Pryor: I think everybody does. It's like when you have something going on in the modern world and it relates to something from the past, it's like discovering a treasure. And I think people are fascinated when the past reaches forward and touches or impacts the present.
Austin Chronicle: I've never been to Paris, but reading this book made me want to go. I've read other books that are set in Paris or have parts that touch Paris, but they've never made me really want to go. I think you do a good job of – because Hugo lives there, it's like you get a view of the everyday. Maybe it goes back to what you said about your very literal writing. Here I think it's actually pretty compelling. It made me want to go to Paris.
Mark Pryor: Good.
Austin Chronicle: Did you choose Paris because of your connections there, because you've been there so many times? Is it that same kind of city for you [as it is for Hugo]?
Mark Pryor: It's my favorite city in the world. I love it because you can just walk everywhere. Everywhere you need to see pretty much in Paris, you can walk to. And also, you know, talking about the history, it's one of the few major cities, in Europe at least, that was not touched too badly by the Second World War. You walk around London or Berlin and you see some of these horrendous Fifties and Sixties constructions. Paris is a beautiful city and you can walk wherever you need to go. And, of course, I love the café lifestyle.
Austin Chronicle: Who doesn't love that?
Mark Pryor: Exactly, who doesn't love that? So it just seems like it's a very rich city full of history and because you do everything on foot, who knows what you're going to run into around the next corner. So it was a natural choice for me.
It is also escapism. While it's 115-degrees here and I'm sitting in the library, I can be sitting in the café with a chill wind blowing on me.
Austin Chronicle: I wanted to say, I did notice in the endnotes that you give a shout out to some talented people, including Johnny Goudie. Now, obviously, you prosecuted his mother's killer. I'm curious, maybe you can explain the evolution of the relationship between the two of you.
Mark Pryor: Well, that case went on for, the preparation went on for, I can't even remember, a year-and-a-half, two years, maybe. And he would show up to every hearing, usually with his cousins, with his aunts, with his friends. Do you know Johnny?
Austin Chronicle: Not like that. Through friends, really – like one-degree of Johnny Goudie.
Mark Pryor: He's just a really good person. He and I are really very different. I mean, look at me, I wear a tie to work most of the time. But he is super intelligent and a super nice guy and we just became friends. And he's been super supportive of – you know, I guess he's an artist so he supports the arts generally, but he's been very supportive of me and my writing.
And I just feel like he's one of those people who, once you get to know him and a friendship develops, he doesn't let it sag. I mean, last year he called me up and said, 'Hey, Texas Book Festival, let's go.' So he and I went to the Texas Book Festival together. And hopefully we can do that again this year.
He's just a super nice guy and has also been supportive of my writing the other book as well.
Austin Chronicle: Yes, I was going to ask about that. Why don't you tell me a bit about that.
Mark Pryor: This is the journalist side coming out. I'd always wanted to write a non-fiction. And this case [of the murder of Goudie's mother, Natalie Antonetti] was so twisted and turned up that it seemed like a good one. And a lot of the true crime books are written by journalists so they're written from a 3,000-foot perspective. I guess they're trying to be very objective, and this is more a memoir in some ways because it was my first murder case.
Austin Chronicle: Really.
Mark Pryor: It was the first murder case I was assigned – it didn't end up being the first one I tried, but it was the first I was assigned. Nobody else wanted it.
Austin Chronicle: Why is that?
Mark Pryor: I think it was seen as a very difficult case to win.
Austin Chronicle: Sure. Absolutely, it was not a slam dunk. There was no smoking gun laying there saying, 'I did it,' with a fingerprint on it.
Mark Pryor: It was a difficult case to win. And I think a couple people looked at it and were so busy that they didn't have the time to devote to it that it needed, and so I was like, 'I'll do it.' I didn't know what I was getting into. But it unfolded like a mystery in some ways. I thought it would be interesting for people to see what we do, by writing it from my perspective as the investigation unfolds, and as the trial itself unfolds.
Austin Chronicle: So you're writing it a bit like a Hugo book, unfolding the mystery as you're going through it.
Mark Pryor: I guess, in some ways. In some ways it is very much like a classic true crime in that you have an investigation and then you have a trial. But all the way through I'm letting the reader know why I made that decision or why the defense did this. So hopefully it'll just give people a bit more insight into how a case like that moves and how it's dealt with.
Austin Chronicle: When is that due?
Mark Pryor: I think January 13 . I just finished it this week.
Austin Chronicle: And meanwhile you've got Hugo's number three going on, right?
Mark Pryor: Well, I've got number two that I have to finish edits on by the end of the month [September], because that's due out in May . This time last year, well, where are we at....this time last year I had an agent, and a whole ton of wishes.
Austin Chronicle: Did you have the first book done at that point?
Mark Pryor: It was done. I worked with my agents on the edits to get it done. But we were rejected by all of the big houses. We got real close a couple times, but they passed.
Austin Chronicle: Was that really disappointing?
Mark Pryor: Oh, yeah. It's the most agonizing process in the world. This is the third or fourth novel I've actually finished, but the first three or four didn't even make it off the ground, I didn't even get an agent for those. So there's all that rejection. And then once you get an agent, and they submit it to the publishers, then there's all that rejection.
Austin Chronicle: They always say you should frame those rejection letters, right, because you have to fail to succeed.
Mark Pryor: Yeah, except now they all come in by email.
Austin Chronicle: You can frame your emails and one day you'll be laughing at those.
Mark Pryor: Yeah, right. I know. So in the span of 12 months I went from no book deals to four book deals.
Austin Chronicle: That's fantastic. That's a roller coaster right there.
Mark Pryor: It's amazing. And it's about to get super busy now, with the launch.
Austin Chronicle: Yes, tell me about that, tell me what going on.
Mark Pryor: It's Oct. 12, Friday, at BookPeople, at 7pm. Obviously, its an event that's open to the public.
Austin Chronicle: Are you going to read?
Mark Pryor: I don't know. The only thing I'm tempted to read, to be honest with you, is the acknowledgements, is the part about my wife. And I'm not sure I could read it without crying. She's been so amazing. And she hasn't seen this yet.
Austin Chronicle: I guess the problem with your reading from the book is your accent [which is English, and having to read as Hugo, who is a Texan].
Mark Pryor: What I'll probably end up doing is giving a talk about the process, and try to make it funny, because I do that better than being serious – in case you hadn't noticed. So I don't know if I'll read or not. This is the amazing thing to me. I sent out invitations and so far 74 people are coming. I've got friends from my soccer team, from work, from my personal life, I've got my mum flying in from France for it.
Austin Chronicle: That's exciting. Are you nervous at all?
Mark Pryor: Yes! Judge [Mike] Lynch is coming!
Austin Chronicle: Yes, I noticed that you thanked him too [in the acknowledgments].
Mark Pryor: He and I exchange books. He's a big thriller reader.
Austin Chronicle: I see, so you have a book club of two.
Mark Pryor: Yes, I suppose we do.
Austin Chronicle: Has he read this?
Mark Pryor: No. I was real stingy about who I let read it.
Austin Chronicle: Why is that?
Mark Pryor: Part of it was that I was just worried that people wouldn't like it. The first review, my publicist emailed it to me and said, 'Here is your first review,' and then attached a link of the review. And I was at the collision center and I had it on my iPhone. And I just couldn't read it. So I forwarded it to my wife and said, 'I can't. Can you please read this and let me know what it's like?' And it was Publisher's Weekly and it was a good review. But it was awful, I couldn't open it.
I mean, what are you going to do...even as a journalist, you're not going to come in here and say, 'that was the biggest pile of shite I've ever read in my life,' are you?
Austin Chronicle: Well, no, not like that.
Mark Pryor: And my friends aren't either. And so the reviewers, they have no reason to be nice to me.
Austin Chronicle: But they like you – they really really like you. I guess they'd better, because they're about to get a whole lot more of you.
Mark Pryor: I guess that's right. The Library Journal one, it was a starred review and debut of the month – that was huge.
Austin Chronicle: See, so...that's even more reason that you should do a reading.
Mark Pryor: What do I read though? Not a single one of these [characters] has an English – there's not an English person in the book.
Austin Chronicle: Can't you do a Texan? Mark Pryor: No. No, no, no. My wife would get up and walk out.
Austin Chronicle: Let me hear it.
Mark Pryor: No, I only do it when I'm drunk.
This is the hardest thing I've ever done. It's terrifying, actually.
Austin Chronicle: Why do you think that is? Because it's exposing so much of your inner world?
Mark Pryor: Partly that, and partly because, by the time I'm the age I am, I've done everything I do lots of times. This is like a first-time thing, so I think it's partly because one of the biggest dreams I've ever had is to be published. But, you know, the bigger you are, the harder you fall – so the bigger the dream is, the harder is comes crashing down, and you don't have that dream anymore.
Austin Chronicle: But you've done it.
Mark Pryor: I've done it.
Austin Chronicle: Well, I hope that Hugo has a long life.
Mark Pryor: Thank you, I do too. He's going to be in three books, for sure. And hopefully they'll do well enough that they'll want another one – especially since I've written it already.