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Mark Willen

Interview with

Mark Willen

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

I "published" my first collection of short stories in a loose leaf notebook when I was 13. My first job was in writing news stories for radio. As a reporter, most of my young adult years were spent writing nonfiction, but when I "graduated" and became an editor, I really missed writing, and I thought fiction was more fun. I wrote fiction whenever I could but wasn't able to really focus on it until much later in life.

How long does it take you to write a book?

It's very hard to generalize. Once the idea is there and the characters are at least partially formed in my head, it usually takes about six months for the first draft and another six months or more for revisions. And that's before an editor goes to work on it.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?

How hard it is to be accepted by a traditional publisher. After a dozen agents told me they liked my work, but it wasn't commercial enough, I realized I had to try small independent publishers and quickly found a home at Pen-L Publishing.

Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?

Not nearly as much as I'd like. I've been invited to several book clubs and that is a wonderful experience and a great opportunity to learn how to get better. It always amazes me to hear what readers find in my books and my characters. Often it's something I wasn't even aware of.

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Both. Definitely both.

What is your writing Kryptonite?

Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?

You have to be original and find some way to stand out in crowded markets, but you always have to keep the reader in mind. It may be fun and interesting to write for yourself, but authors can't exist without readers.

What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?

At what point do you think someone should call themselves a writer?

As soon as they write anything that they weren't required to do for school. I lead a Writing Club for teens through the Maryland Writers' Association, and we have kids as young as twelve who are really talented. I think they are writers. A professional writer is something else -- I'd probably reserve that title for someone who has published their work in some form.

What do the words “writer’s block” mean to you? 

I've been lucky enough not to be acquainted with that particular term.

Are there therapeutic benefits to modeling a character after someone you know?

What comes first for you — the plot or the characters — and why?

That's an age old question that is hard for me to answer. In my Jonas Hawke series, the character came first -- creating him was actually an exercise in graduate school. The plot came separately and it took some time before I realized they belonged together. In the second and third books in the Hawke series, the characters were pretty well formed, so they obviously came first. In my mystery, The Question Is Murder, the plot idea hit first. But the truth is, the characters always change the plot as you go along and the plot changes the characters. I think the best books are those in which the characters and plot work in tandem.

How would you describe your book’s ideal reader?

How much research did you need to do for your book? 

Tell us more about your book/s?

All my books to date reflect my interest in ethics. I love creating good but flawed characters and putting them in a situation that requires a difficult ethical decision -- one where it's not always clear what the right thing to do is. Usually all the options are gray, and the characters wrestle with the best of several imperfect choices. And whether it's the Jonas Hawke series, which is a kind of family saga built around an aging patriarch, or The Question Is Murder, which is a murder mystery set in Washington at the intersection of politics and journalism, suspense and unpredictable characters are crucial.

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