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10 Questions with Mark Harril Saunders

2012 May 29
Posted by Ethan Jones

My guest today is Mark Harril Saunders, author of Ministers of Fire, a thriller that came out on May 21. Please scroll down for the interview.

Who is Mark Harril Saunders?

Mark Harril Saunders was born and raised in the Washington, D.C., area. The son of a diplomat, he holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Virginia, where he was a Henry Hoyns Fellow. Since childhood, he has traveled extensively in Europe, the Middle East, the former Soviet Union, and China. Saunders has worked on Capitol Hill, at several bookstores, as a carpenter, and as a publisher’s sales representative. He is currently assistant director of the University of Virginia Press. His writing has appeared in the VQR, Blue Moon Review, Boston Review, and the Virginian-Pilot, and in 2001 he was awarded the Andrew Nelson Lytle Fiction Prize from Sewanee Review. A former fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Saunders lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Castine, Maine, with his wife and three children.

10 Questions with Mark Harril Saunders

Mr. Saunders, thank you for this opportunity to be interviewed for my blog. Your debut thriller, Ministers of Fire, came out on May 21. Tell us a bit more about this work.

At the heart of the book are two triangles, one romantic, the other political. The novel begins in Afghanistan in 1979, where the CIA station chief, Lucius Burling, witnesses the murder of the American ambassador. Burling has just begun an affair with the wife of one of his operatives, and the tangle of personal loyalties and betrayals ripples through the book. At the same time, he is working with Chinese intelligence to arm the mujahedin, who of course we know today as the Taliban. Blowback from that operation continues through 9/11 to the novel’s end, in Shanghai, in the spring of 2002, where Burling is drawn into the smuggling of a dissident physicist. Believe it or not, the China plot has some odd similarities with the recent story of Chen Guangcheng.

Who is Lucius Burling, the main character of Ministers of Fire, and how did you create his character?

Burling is too young to have begun his career in the OSS, the World War II precursor to the Agency, but he has the prototypical pedigree of an American intelligence agent of his day – Philadelphia blueblood, Princeton. He believes in the ideals that led to the American projection of power in the twentieth century, and perhaps for that reason he is not really equipped to deal with the post-Cold War world of the mujahedin and al-Quaeda. Personally, he and his wife are children of the fifties, and their marriage runs aground in midlife, which coincides with the social upheavals of the 60s and 70s. What I tried to do with Burling was to put a basically decent man from a slightly earlier era in a situation that tests all of his assumptions about himself and his country. There is a bit of Conrad’s Lord Jim in him, the flawed man who tries to do the right thing in a world he no longer understands.

When did you know you wanted to become a writer? How did this process take place?

I wasn’t really a big reader when I was a kid. I didn’t like science fiction or fantasy, and it didn’t seem like there was much else for boys. My father read to us a lot, The Hobbit and Watership Down, and I drew a lot of comic strips. When I was twelve or thirteen my dad gave me Dickens and Steinbeck to read, and that really sold me on fiction. By the time I was in high school I was writing stories and had decided I wanted to be a fiction writer, like Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. You know, glamour and adventure. It’s taken a lot of work to get from there to actually publishing a novel. I do have an MFA, which was valuable for the company of other writers, and the time it gave me to write. I have also read and traveled a lot, which helps.

You’re the son of a diplomat and have worked on Capitol Hill. How much did this environment affect your writing and the way in which you shape your characters and the events in your stories?

It had a huge effect. When I was growing up in northern Virginia, a lot of my friends had fathers who worked for the government—some, like my dad, for the CIA or the State Department. There were a lot of secrets in the air, and it was the 1970s, so it was weird for other reasons, too. Our fathers were involved in important work, almost like a priesthood, and a lot of us developed a real love-hate relationship with that sacred ideal of American democracy. On the other hand, a lot of the men and women I knew as a child and when I worked on the Hill were exceptional, good, dedicated people, not at all like some of the clowns and fanatics they have up there now, so I guess my characters represent that reality, the good as well as the bad.

What other books are you working on at the moment?

I have two novels in the works, one on counter-terrorism, the other on derivatives trading, computer security, and nuclear proliferation.

A word of advice for new thriller writers?

Don’t be constrained by the genre. Plot is important, for entertaining your reader but perhaps more importantly for revealing your characters. Write a good novel, and don’t worry about what category it’s in.

What is your typical writing day?

There isn’t one. I used to write every morning early, but now I have a typical day job, a wife and three children. I steal my writing time wherever I can, late at night, Saturday afternoon. It’s not ideal but it’s better than not writing, which I’ve found makes me crazy.

What books do you like to read, and what are you reading at the moment?

I have very catholic tastes, and much of what I read is not in the thriller genre, although I do seem to have an obsession with spies. Most of the fiction I love–Robert Stone, John Banville, Roberto Bolano—has great prose, great intelligence, with what you might call an edgy sensibility. I’m just finishing up the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn, which is about as far from thrillers as you can get, more like Downton Abbey on crack. One of the books reads like a how-to manual for a heroin addict, but St. Aubyn is an exceptionally good stylist, and he knows his characters, many of whom are absolute monsters. I may cleanse my palate afterward with one of the good new historical thrillers that are just out – William Boyd, Alan Furst, or Joseph Kanon, who was kind enough to blurb my book.

Beyond writing, what do you like to do in your free time?

I spend a lot of time with my family, coaching youth baseball and football, mountain-biking and skiing. I love music although I’m not a musician myself. I play chess with my youngest son. Carpentry is something I learned from my father and grandfather, who was an architect, and I have built or renovated most of the old house we live in, from framing to finish work. As my wife can tell you, I am always building, or rebuilding, something, and there are embarrassing corners of the house that are not finished.

What can readers expect to find in Ministers of Fire?

I hope they find a world that draws them in completely, entertains and fills all their senses, intellect, and emotions. If I’ve succeeded, it’s a world that is very much like our own post-9/11 existence, only structured, compressed in such a way that it sheds some meaning on things. When they put down the book, I hope it’s like coming out of a really great film in the middle of the day – everything is a bit more vivid, a bit weirder than before.

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