THE BLOG
01/12/2016 06:55 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

'Written in Fire,' A Conversation with Marcus Sakey

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Photo: Jay Franco

Marcus Sakey's thrillers have been nominated for multiple awards, including an Edgar Award nomination for Brilliance, the first book in the Brilliance Trilogy. His novel Good People was made into a movie starring James Franco and Kate Hudson. Brilliance is now in development with Legendary Pictures.

After graduating from college, Markus Sakey worked in advertising and marketing. His debut thriller, The Blade Itself, was published to wide critical acclaim, allowing him to work full-time as a writer.

Written in Fire is the gripping conclusion of The Brilliance Trilogy (following Brilliance and A Better World). In 1986, incredibly gifted people known as brilliants or abnorms were born, and thirty years later, constitute one percent of the U.S. population.

Federal agent Nick Cooper (an abnorm) has been assigned to a special task force designated to control renegade abnorms. He realizes a government official--Secretary of Defense, Owen Leahy--has become a genocidal monster, provoking conflict between the government and the New Canaan Holdfest, a Wyoming-based abnorm enclave. On the other side of the battle line is John Smith, an evil genius, intent on annihilating all normal human beings, thus creating a new world, one "written in fire."

The entire trilogy is a deeply imagined mixture of futurism, genetics, finance, the military, politics, psychology, and technology. Tell us a little about the research you did for these books.
The notion of the brilliants themselves came from my wife who has a master's degree in child development. She was fascinated by autism, and that triggered in me the question, 'What if the one in one-hundred people who has autism had something that had no negative social consequences?' As a writer, I took it a step further: 'what if they had gifts taking them closer to savant-like?'

The research started there, but I quickly realized the important element is the story I'm creating and the actions of the people in that story. Research can be a rabbit hole. I made myself a promise: I would look up whatever I needed to get things right rather than do a mountain of research and have the story derive from that.

I understand you developed the idea for this trilogy while hiking in the mountains with the writer, Blake Crouch. Did the idea come to you fully formed or otherwise?
It came otherwise. (Laughter). Ideas rarely come to me fully formed. I had the notion about the brilliants, the abnorms, based on my wife's work, but I didn't think I could write it. It wasn't the crime/thriller genre in which I'd written. This was going to be speculative fiction. The idea haunted me, but I didn't let myself think too much about it.

Blake and I were mountain climbing in Colorado. We talked about ideas for writing something different from what we had done. I don't know if it was because two writers were far from civilization, or if it was the bottle of whisky we shared (Laughter), but we talked about these ideas, and in a sense, gave each other permission to write the books we wanted to.

You and I have mentioned the brilliants, or abnorms. For those not familiar with the first two books, tell us who and what they are.
Starting in 1980, one percent of the world's population was born with savant gifts--ways of thinking, categorizing, and dealing with the world--far exceeding those of ordinary people. They didn't possess superpowers, but the most powerful could do things like sense patterns in the stock market, or be the strategic equivalent of Einstein. Some had the ability to recognize facial features or bodily movements, allowing them to discern motives and hidden intentions of other people.

It's the notion of there being super-beings among us. For me, the exciting issue in the books is not the brilliants themselves, but the way the world reacts to them. I've always been fascinated by mythology, or in modern parlance, by X-Men or vampires.

In your Acknowledgments of Written in Fire, you thanked the main characters of the novel for letting you "hitch a ride." Tell us about that statement.
For me, the best moments in storytelling are the ones where I feel I'm discovering something. I'm an organized writer; I plan and plot out things in advance, but doing that frees me up to experience the story more completely, most especially with characters I just love. And I loved the entire cast of the Brilliance Trilogy. The books gave me a chance to put them in terrible situations; let them make the best choices they could; and because it was a trilogy, follow the impact of those earlier decisions later on. I just loved writing an epic saga where the decisions of the first book impacted the ending of the third book.

Just as in life.
Exactly. Our earliest decisions in life have great meaning farther down the line. It was important to me to have Nick Cooper's early decisions in the first book tied fundamentally to the world gone awry.

I know you're a man of many talents and interests. Tell us about the unusual and dangerous experiences you've had doing research for your novels.
The kind of research I've done is the fun stuff. The notion of a writer sitting in a library doing research isn't what I want. The research I love doing isn't found in a book. It's what it feels like to rappel down the side of a building; to train with a SWAT team; to hold a human brain in your hands; or to dive for pirate treasure. Those are things I've done to research my stories. They let me put myself in the character's head. Sometimes it can be a small detail such as what a morgue smells like. At other times, it's trying to experience the feeling your characters have in a novel. That really helps me hitch a ride with them.

And to convey to the reader what it feels like.
That's the hope, to do exactly that. That's always a writer's first job. The first job of a storyteller is to make the reader feel the story, to get the reader to live in the skin of the character.

Many parts of the Brilliance Trilogy are lyrical and are quite "literary." Which writers have influenced you most?
How long have you got? (More laughter) To me, the highest achievement in novel writing is the intersection of a story I cannot put down, with writing that's so impressive, it lingers afterwards. I'd include David Mitchell, David Foster Wallace, Aaron Sorkin, Elmore Leonard, Dennis Lehane, and Richard Price. Their ideas, stories, and characters are believable, and they're written so well. What can I say? I love words. I've loved them all my life. I'm not saying one needs a license to put them together, but there's skill involved, and those writers along with some others have influenced me by their enormous skill with words.

Your descriptions of places and of emotional feeling states are richly described in the Brilliance trilogy. What are your thoughts about describing scenes and feelings?
Honestly, I strive for a minimalist approach. I never have paragraphs of description of a place; I don't talk about what my characters look like. I try to evoke these things through my choices in language. Describing feelings should hit the reader on a gut level. It should convey palms sweating, a stomach churning. You never just feel hungry--you smell something and it makes you hungry.

The old saw, 'Write what you know' is misleading and often misinterpreted. A better way to think about it is 'Use the things you know and put them into the story.' So, my work has changed with my life. When I became a father, my understanding of paternal emotions deepened in a way no imaginative exercise could have given me.

Given the nature of the Brilliance Trilogy, I must ask you: what's your outlook for humanity at this time in history?
(Laughter) I'm a tremendous optimist. There are billions of us on this planet and we don't have it all figured out, but we're more or less co-existing. I can turn on my tap and clean, drinkable water comes out. These everyday miracles are often forgotten. The Robert Ardrey quote I put in Written in Fire 'We are born of risen apes, not fallen angels' is the essence of my optimism. We're not perfect and have a long way to go, but we came from apes. Look how far we've come.

What's the most important lesson you've learned about writing?
Butt in chair, fingers on keyboard. I've learned a hundred techniques but it boils down to: Just write! You keep going and you get better as you go. You must have the will to throw it out when it's not good.

Tactically, the most important thing I learned is how to understand story structure. Knowing how structure works gives a writer a set of diagnostic tools to discover why and how something in a story isn't working.

Tell us about your journey to become a novelist.
I wanted to be a writer since I was five years old. I remember the moment I learned to read, when I got it, and could 'see Spot run.' But, I always held off writing. When I began working, I realized I didn't know enough about life to write a novel. It's a rare twenty-one year old who has something to say that people need to hear. Ideally, you should go out, get a job and gather life experience. Writing a novel was something I always hoped to do.

For ten years, I worked in advertising, marketing, television, and graphic design. I knew I would have to sit down and actually do it.

How did that breakthrough come, where you sat down and wrote that first novel?
I was working in an advertising agency, and hated the work. I came home, talked with my wife, and concluded the only way I'd ever write the novel would be to quit. So, after a great deal of deliberation, I went in the next morning, walked into my boss's office and asked, 'Do you have a minute?' And he said, "I've got something to tell you. Marcus, I'm gonna have to let you go." I was fired thirty seconds before I was about to quit. It was great because it came with a severance package.

I spent a year not writing the novel. It was an apprenticeship during which I devoured short stories, books on the craft, and dissected novels I admired-- sort of looking under the hood. I started writing The Blade Itself, my first novel, which took about a year. It wasn't my intention to write crime novels, but I wanted to make a living as a writer, and looked at what people were reading.

If you could have dinner with any five people, living or dead, fictional or real`, from any walk of life, who would they be?
I'd want different points of view for really good conversation. I'd like to pick the brains of some people I admire, such as Aaron Sorkin and David Mitchell. I'd invite someone with a larger than life personality, Mohammad Ali, a man with fire in his belly. And then I'd invite someone to make sure the conversation keeps moving, someone like Ira Glass. If I didn't invite my wife, I'd never hear the end of it, so she would be the fifth person. (Laughter)

What would you be talking about?
We'd open some bottles of wine, and I'd cook a good meal. My favorite occasions are when there's an interesting group of people sitting in a room, talking and listening to each other, and the rest of the world goes away. We're just living in the conversation, laughter, and the jokes. We'd be talking about everything--art and life and we'd be telling stories. I'd only want to do it if there was lots of laughter.

What's coming next from Marcus Sakey?
I'm working on my next book. It involves the same notion of a big idea, a kind of epic story. It's too early to get into details. It's been kicking around my consciousness in one form or another for almost a decade.

Congratulations on writing Written in Fire, the last--and brilliant--novel in The Brilliance Trilogy. This book, the conclusion of an epic trilogy, showcases unique depth, intelligence and an abundance of passion. The praise you've received from Michael Connelly, Gillian Flynn, Lee Child, Dennis Lehane, Don Winslow, and Laura Lippman is well-deserved.

Mark Rubinstein's latest novel is The Lovers' Tango