Interview with Author Mark Conte

My guest today is Mark Conte.  Hello!  Welcome back to Writing in the Modern Age!  It’s such a pleasure to have you here again.

Can you tell us a little bit about your latest book? When did it come out? Where can we get it?

The Death of Sherlock Holmes and Other Stories is a collection of short stories that were published in national magazines and literary journals.  I thought it would be a good idea to put them together in a book to show the different types of stories I write.

Is there anything that prompted your latest book?  Something that inspired you?

Seeing other collections of short stories do well in their market prompted me to do my own collection.  So far it is doing okay.

Great!  So, when did you know you wanted to write?  Or has it always been a pastime of yours?

When I was eight years old, all the old Italian women in the neighborhood would come to my house every Saturday night at 8 p.m. and I would tell them a story.  It was always a story about an orphan and it always had a tragic ending.  The women would wipe their eyes and say they would come back the next week.  I finally wrote my orphan story, A Friend of the Family, a literary novel, and I am now sending it out to publishers.

Do you have any favorite authors?

Yes, my favorite authors are Don Delillo, Philip Roth, Tim O’Brien and some older ones - F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Hilton and Earnest Hemmingway.   You can learn a lot from reading these authors.

Do you write in a specific place?  Time of day?

I only write at my computer in my den and the morning hours are best for me when I don’t have anything else on my mind, usually from 7 to 11 am.  Once I get out and about and have other things on my mind, I usually don’t write unless I am near the end of a book and the ideas are coming so fast I have trouble keeping up with them.  Sometimes I want to shout, “Slow down, I can’t type that fast,” but there is no one in the room but me, so I just try to keep up.   

LOL.  That sounds familiar, Mark.

Are there any words you'd like to impart to fellow writers?  Any advice?   

The most important thing about a book is how well you write.  You can write a story in which five vampires are robbing a bank where nine people are killed, and no one will publish it.  But you can write a simple story about a dog who is trying to find his way home and it becomes an all-time classic - Lassie.  Why?  Because the writer made you care about him.  

Learn to write better prose.  Read it out loud to yourself to see how it sounds.  The editor of a publishing company is the first person who must like your book.  Make the first line of the book important to the readers, then the first paragraph, then the first page.  The editor is reading hundreds of manuscripts and wants a reason to read the rest of the book.   

Make your characters real.   The readers have to like and care about your characters and what happens to them.   When I write a story, novel or short story, I get a theme song for the story.  Whenever I hear that song, I imagine the characters and what they do in the situations I put them in.  After a while, they become like my children.  This always works for me.

I hope this helps.  Learn as much as you can.  Read other writers and learn to listen to the rhythm of prose in your head and maybe someday you will be on the best or near bestseller charts.  

Readers, here is the blurb for The Death of Sherlock Holmes and Other Stories.

A collection of stories that appeared in journals and magazine, headed by “The Death of Sherlock Holmes” with the master detective solving yet another crime in London and his untimely death, which answers every question readers have wondered about for years.  “Magic” is a May-December romance in metropolitan Philadelphia.  “The Morning Bird” won Honorable Mention in the PEN American award for short fiction.  “Moonlight and Love Songs” is about a woman who is trying to forget a bad relationship.  “The Book of Life” is about Albert Botham who has committed suicide only to wake up in a room that is all in white with a bearded man behind a desk, leafing through The Book of Life, looking for Albert’s section, who does not remember he committed suicide.  “The Easter Lamb” is a family story about a lamb that is supposed to be their dinner on Easter.

Here is an excerpt.

From the journals of Dr. John Watson

  I am not quite sure exactly when it started.  Holmes was a private man, and would never have stood for the outrageous sympathy one is given simply because one knows the time of his death, but it was when he was asked to investigate the Metzinger case that I began to notice small changes in his character, so prominent of persons in that situation, and though he seemed more alive than at any time in his life, Sherlock Holmes was already dying.
  Holmes was a man of habit. I would always be able to see him from afar by the Inverness cape and deerstalker that he favored.  His speech was habitually concise, but idiolect, his personal language, and he continued to use the same colorful phrases that would distinguish his character in the novels I wrote about him, though near the end of his life, he would tell me he never said, "The game's afoot!"  However, he did admit to, "Elementary, my dear Watson."  He had a quick mind and was always eager to get on to the next point.
  In the evenings, Holmes would play his violin for hours, but even there he was a man of habit, playing the same four pieces day after day.  But now, he began to play more melodic pieces.  He played DeBussy and Shubert, and even Rachmaninoff, which had never been his favorite.  Gone were Mozart and Wagner.  There were times he played local ballads on his violin, but these too were the sad melodies of love and love lost.  He became more philosophical, and more tolerant of the world around him, and to my amazement, even began to write poetry.  Of course, some of this was due to the medication he had to take and, which I am sorry to say, I mistook to be a degraded habit on his part.
  It was in the year of the Fleming trial that I first began to realize something was wrong with Holmes.  Scotland Yard had inquired about Holmes' availability.  There were four particularly grisly murders near the docks.  Torsos had been found without their heads.  All of them had been found a few yards from the Thames River.  The only thing that was certain was that it was the torso of a woman, and the only suspect was a German national who was seen on that street an hour earlier.
He was a short, stocky man with a heavy German accent on the few English words he spoke, though he could neither read nor write English.  He was a carpenter and his shop was not far from the murder scene, and he could not communicate with Scotland Yard. 
The German Embassy had filed a strong protest with the national office, the suspect being a German citizen in good standing, and the papers were full of headlines demanding the arrest of the German.  Under this barrage, Scotland Yard asked for Holmes' assistance with the case because he was, after all, the best detective alive and his findings would be conclusive and irrefutable.
  Inspector Connell, not used to being replaced by a civilian, watched Holmes as he went over the records of the murders and interrogation of the suspect, Metzinger.  Holmes then asked to see the autopsy reports of the first three bodies and we were led into the morgue to see the fourth body.
  Holmes was very thorough in the inspection of the body, not only of the wound, a clean severing of the head, which had never been found but of the entire body of the corpse.  After that he asked if he could see Metzinger and was led to his cell. 
  Holmes, who was fluent in six languages, spoke to the man in his native tongue, and I imagine, impeccable German, as was his habit.  When he was finished, we walked back to Connell's office.  Holmes lit his pipe in that deliberate way of his when he was thinking things out.
  "Metzinger is not your man," he said finally.
  "How can you say that just by talking to him?"  Connell said.
  "He has the short, coarse hands of a man who has done a great deal of manual labor all his life, and I understand, clumsy even at carpentry.  He would not be the ideal candidate for a murder of a human body that was dissected at precisely the right vertebrae to sheer off the head.  Point one."
  "A doctor, Holmes?" I said.
  "More like a butcher," he said.  “Much like the others.  This was not an operation.  This was merely the chopping off of the head to hide the identification of the bodies.  This man left blood all over the place.  He was not careful at all."
  "Unless that is exactly what he craved," Connell said.
  “Possible, but also consider he knew exactly what vertebra to cut through.
  "Point two," Holmes continued, "This is an isolated area.  This woman has the soft hands of a woman of means.  She did not belong in that area.  So she had to be lured there, and Metzinger would have had a great deal of difficulty luring someone of those means there since he is a short rotund man of some 55 years and barely speaks a word or two of English, and point three," he said, rising out of his chair, "Although he seems strange to we English because he is a foreigner, he is quite normal to his wife and children who are standing outside the prison at this very moment, and they will no doubt give him a good alibi for the third murder.”
  "How could you know that Holmes?”  I said.
  "Why Watson, don't you remember?  We passed them in the yard, and if you look out this window, you will see they are still there."
Inspector Connell walked to the door and said, "I'll have them removed immediately."
  "Not necessary, Inspector,” Holmes said .  “They will have their father and husband back in an hour."
  "You are recommending releasing Metzinger?"  Connell said incredulously.
  "Yes, so you can find a more convincing suspect."  He turned to Connell and said.  "He is an innocent man."
  "If Holmes says he is innocent, inspector...”  I said, then let the statement stand on its own merit."
  I am sure Connell was not thrilled to have two old chaps come in and tear his arrest apart, so it was with a rather chilly note that we took our leave of the inspector.
  On the way out, Holmes stopped at the sergeant's desk and asked to see the list of missing persons in the past four months.  The sergeant mentioned twenty cases of missing persons.  Holmes took the list and crossed out the names of men and boys and women over forty.  There were now ten names left.  Four prostitutes, an Irish woman who had vanished two days after she arrived in London, a housewife who vanished from her estate in the middle of the night near Hardcrumpt Castle and four university students.
  Holmes asked if he could see the files of these cases, as he had just been assigned this torso case, and he was referred to Captain Wiggins.
  Wiggins was a robust man with a large waxed mustache, and was from the old guard Scotland Yard. 
  "Don't mind Connell," he said after we settled in burgundy chairs, "The new men still have to prove themselves and are a bit touchy."  He leaned back and took out a cigar from his breast pocket.  "What can I do for you, Holmes?"
  "I am interested in the missing persons' cases," Holmes said.  “Perhaps they can help with this case.”
  "Certainly," Wiggins said.  "Damn unsavory business these.  We have a suspect, but I am not comfortable with this one.”
  “Quite,” Holmes said.  “I told Connell to send him home to his wife and children.”
  “Yes,” Wiggins said.  “I just received a terse note from him on the subject.  He seems a bit put off by your unspoken authority.”
  "I'd like to take the missing person files home with me to see if there is something I can put together," Holmes said.
  "You're welcome to anything you need, Holmes,"  Wiggins said.  "I, for one, welcome your help in this dastardly business."  He rose and walked to a large cabinet near the window.  When he returned to his desk, he placed the files in front of Holmes.  Holmes took them and tucked them in the crook of his arm.
  "Oh," Holmes said, "Connell is going to be hesitant about the German chap, but I think you should let him go to his family before we have an international incident, considering the fact he is innocent of any crime."
  "Well, if you are sure, Holmes."  He rang for his secretary, and she came in straightaway. 
  "Tell Connell we are releasing the German," Wiggins said.  "And put a note on the front desk that Sherlock Holmes is helping us in this investigation."  He winked at Holmes.  “It’s all in the wording.  It makes Connell look like he is still in charge.”
Holmes thanked Wiggins and we were on our way to Baker Street.
When we had arrived at Holmes' residence, he settled into a chair and sat before the fire.  As I was about to take my leave, there was a knock at the door.  Since it was quite late, I went to the door myself rather than wake Mrs. Hudson, who was getting on in years as we all were.
Major Prendergast stepped inside and shook the fog out of his coat and hat.
“Please,” he said.  “I must See Mr. Holmes.”
Holmes met us at the doorway and ushered him to a chair near the fire.  After he was comfortably seated, Holmes said, “What is it, Major, that sends you out on a night like this?”
“It’s my dear Friend, Dr. West.  His wife is missing and I’m afraid he is taking it quite hard, as you can imagine, and we have had to transfer all his patients to another doctor.  Let me tell you, Mr. Holmes, we can only do this for so long.”
Holmes took out his pipe and tapped some tobacco in the bowl, then lighted the center.  “Tell me about her, Major,” Holmes said. 
“She is a quiet person, 33 years old as of last month.  Tends to her garden in the mornings and entertains her friends with afternoon teas on occasion.  A woman of means,” he said.  “She is a Hartley.  Quite wealthy family.  This is a dastardly thing for a family like that.”

How exciting, Mark!  This sounds like a fascinating read!  Thank you for visiting us today!

Author Bio

I have had fiction, poetry, articles and guest columns in 67 publications including Yankee, Poetry International, Sothern Poetry Review, Potomac Review, Philadelphia Daily News, Miami Jerald, New York Times and Washington Post.  I was director of the Florida State University Poet Series, appointed Master Poet by the Florida Arts Council and assistant director of the FSU CPE.  My previous books are Walking on Water (Poetry, 1986), Sex in the 90s (1993), In the Arms of Strangers (2003), Five Days to Eternity (2004), The Judas Scroll (2005), Of Flesh and Stone ((Poetry, 2009), The Ghost (2013) and The Death of Sherlock Holmes & Other Stories (2014). I am a member of the Authors Guild and the Academy of American Poets.

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