Thursday, January 14, 2016

A Conversation with Mystery Author Rebecca Marks

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Rebecca Marks

We are delighted to welcome author Rebecca Marks to Omnimystery News today.

Rebecca begins a new mystery series with On the Rocks (Black Opal Books; November 2015 trade paperback and ebook formats) and we recently had the opportunity to spend some time with her talking about her work.

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Omnimystery News: Introduce us to the recurring characters in your new mystery series.

Rebecca Marks
Photo provided courtesy of
Rebecca Marks

Rebecca Marks: My Dana Cohen mystery series is "anchored" by Dana Cohen, a 40'ish, red-headed, gorgeous, female, Jewish NYPD detective, who has retired after a 22-year career in the force to her childhood home above the Long Island Sound on the North Fork of Long Island, to see to her ailing father's winery.

Sam Cohen is Dana's father, who is in a nursing home suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Sam is the retired police chief of the little town where they live. Dana loves Sam dearly and is sad that he often doesn't know who she is.

Marilyn Jackson is the general manager of Sam's winery and Dana's BFF. When Dana is "losing it," Marilyn talks her down. Marilyn is a former jazz singer who was a favorite of Sam's but became hooked on hard drugs. After she rehabbed, Sam offered her the job at the winery, and she's been there over ten years. Marilyn's wise insights on people help Dana understand who are the goodies and who are the baddies.

"Charlie" is Dana's shaggy Briard dog, who loves to run on the beach and catch horseshoe crabs and who is instrumental in the first book of the series in unearthing some interesting evidence and trapping a murderer.

Pete Fitzgerald is Dana's estranged husband to whom she's been married for over 20 years and who continues to work as an NYPD detective. Pete has a roving eye, which is the main reason Dana got sick of the relationship, but he claims to love her still and to want to work on the marriage. He refuses to give her a divorce because he says his Catholic faith won't allow it. When Pete gets himself framed for a grizzly murder on L.I., he prevails on Dana to jump in and figure out who the real murderer is. Dana can't resist, and she jumps in with both feet and with help from a quirky PI solves the case.

Jedediah O'Callaghan is a crusty NYC lawyer who has spent his career representing indicted cops. Dana and Jed have a tremendous bond, because both Jed's wife and Dana's father suffer from Alzheimer's disease, and Jed and Dana are each other's small support group. Jed recommends a quirky PI to Dana to help her with her murder case on Long Island.

Isaac "Itzy" Itzkowitz is a quirky PI based in Brooklyn, who wears a yarmulke with the NY Yankees insignia embroidered on it and sounds like David Sedaris. Itzy reluctantly joins Dana in her investigation; reluctantly, because he thinks where she lives is "Siberia," and he hates making the trip there from Brooklyn. Itzy has an uncanny ability to assimilate into groups that seem to be polar opposite to him. Itzy and Dana form a snarky but efficient detective team.

Alex Frasier is a nurse at the nursing home where Sam is a resident, and he meets Dana because he's assigned as Sam's nurse. He begins to pursue Dana romantically soon after he meets her, and for the first time she feels there may be life after Pete. There is always a huge conflict between Dana and Alex, because Alex worries about her involvement in what he considers too dangerous activities.

Rabbi Horace ("Horsecar") Silverblatt is the rabbi in the small town where Dana lives. He is Sam's lifelong friend, and he frequently urges Dana to "get" religion, which she is not really interested to do. Horsecar provides Dana with support as well as historic information about her father and the town, which help her in solving the case.

Detective "Irish" O'Donnell is the head of detectives in the small town where Dana lives. When he was young, Irish was a protégé of Dana's father, and he has known Dana since she was a girl. Irish is very lenient with Dana about police protocol that might otherwise prevent her from doing the type of investigation she wants to do.

OMN: How do you expect these characters to develop over the course of the series?

RM: When I began writing this series, I really had no idea how or if they would develop. However, they tend to guide me in their development, sometimes changing in ways I never even expected. People get sicker, healthier, older, smarter, and so on.

OMN: Into which genre would you place this series?

RM: I'd have to say my Dana Cohen mysteries are a combination of hard-boiled and comic. Having said that, I prefer not to pigeon-hole it. Dana is a hard-drinking, sexual person who does not shy away from "colorful" language. But my books only succeed, in my opinion, if they incorporate much humor and self exploration with the hard-boiled-ness of the characters.

OMN: Tell us something about On the Rocks that isn't mentioned in the publisher's synopsis.

RM: In the first book of my series, as well as in subsequent books, I deal with several universal issues over and above solving a crime — women's strengths and their ability to succeed as well as men; human rights and the immorality of prejudice; substance abuse and its results; and human trafficking.

OMN: How much of your own personal or professional experience have you included in the book?

RM: I was married to a dedicated policeman for 30 years, until he passed away too young. I am also a lawyer. And my mother was in a nursing home, suffering from Alzheimer's disease. So some of the actions of my characters are easier for me to write about because of my own experiences. However, none of the characters is based on people I know, and none of the situations in my books are based on real events.

OMN: Describe your writing process for us.

RM: I never outline my plots or create biographies of my characters. My ideas happen in strange ways: I am a meditator (transcendental meditation) and have been for over 7 years, and frequently as I meditate, I have "epiphanies" about plots.

Additionally, although I have a loose synopsis in my head about the crime and "who done it," more often than not, I am surprised during the writing of my stories to find that the person I thought was the perpetrator was actually innocent, and someone completely different was the perp.

Now that I have finished four books in the series, my expected cast of characters is pretty stable, although there have been a few additions to the cast but not many.

OMN: Where do you most often find yourself writing?

RM: I write in my living room on an iMac, unless I'm out and about, with my MacBook, and then I can sit in a Starbucks over a cup of black coffee writing for hours.

OMN: How do you go about researching the plot points for your stories? Have you come across any particularly exciting topics?

RM: I am the Internet queen, and do a great deal of research there.

Many of the subjects I write about are things that either I or someone in my family have experienced firsthand. So I tap into my own experience for some of the facts.

The most exciting topic to research was Boston in 1886, which was the subject of my next book, a time travel romance in which the protagonist travels back to that year in that city. I lived in Boston for many years, so it was fun to research the differences between then and now.

OMN: How true are you to the setting of the series

RM: My mystery series is set in a small town on the North Fork of Long Island. Because it's a small town, I decided to fictionalize it. (During the course of the novels in this series, my characters travel between that town and NYC, and the NYC places are real, not fictional.) Because I spent a great deal of time in that area of Long Island, much of what I describe about that small fictional town is what I actually experienced there.

OMN: If we could send you anywhere in the world, all expenses paid, to research the setting for a book, where would it be?

RM: It would probably be Paris. I have always loved Paris, and I find it somehow stimulates my creative process when I'm there. I studied a great deal of French, and the other thing that happens is I start speaking French when I'm in Paris, and that's exciting as well. I love its cultural institutions, its look, its smell, its lifestyle. To be able to do that first class would be a dream come true.

OMN: What are some of your outside interests? And have any of these found their way into your books?

RM: First, I'm a musician. I have played many instruments in my time, most notably the cello. My first novel (unpublished) was called The Cellist of Liege, and was set in Belgium, Paris, and New York. Music creeps into every facet of my life. Currently I study harp, which is a lifelong dream, and I also sing in a chorus in NYC (previously I sang in an a cappella group in Cambridge, MA for seven years).

Second, I'm a dog-lover. I have had Belgian Tervuren dogs for the past 18 years, and before that German Shepherds. I have shown two Belgians to their championships, both in the U.S. and in Canada. In addition, I have worked with three of them to train them sheepherding (recreational only), which was a passion of mine for a long time. I can't imagine life without at least one dog. My mystery series features a Briard named Charlie, who plays a huge role in the plot, especially in the first book.

OMN: What is the best advice — and harshest criticism — you've received as an author? And what might you say to aspiring writers?

RM: It's so hard to narrow it down to one thing that was the "best advice." Although it sounds a bit clichéd, I suppose one of the best pieces of advice I've received is to "show" rather than to "tell." The process of letting the reader see things through a character's eyes is really important. Being lectured to makes a reader glaze over, which is not something an author wants to do!

The harshest criticism I've ever received was when one member of my writing group said, in relation to one of my books, "I'm not a fan."

What any author can learn from criticism is that it's impossible to please everyone. Just not going to happen. I have some writer colleagues who change their work every time someone makes a criticism. I don't think that's necessary. Humans are very different, which is a blessing, not a curse. It's not the writer's job to please everyone.

First, keep at it. Writing is not an activity for the "faint of heart." Everything about it takes time — the designing, the writing, the rewriting, the re-rewriting, the editing; all of that before one tries to find an agent or a publisher; and then after publication, which also takes a long time, finding reviewers, finding an audience, getting the book out there. I'd tell aspiring writers that if they want instant gratification, this is not the field for them. And also, that one has to be tough and not crumble under rejection. If you believe in yourself, in your work, and in its merit, then it's worth doing this thing called authoring.

OMN: Complete this sentence for us: "I am a mystery author, and thus I am also …".

RM: I am a mystery author, and thus I am also a voyeur — I enjoy exploring human decrepitude, digging into the armpit of humanity, smelling its rancid smells, being horrified at its horror, but also extracting its goodness. I am also a problem solver. I love being able to dig into things piece-by-piece, inch-by-inch, until I solve whatever the problem is. I am also a student of human character, pulling back the leaves of the onion in an organized way to get to the ultimate truth.

I am a mystery author, and thus I am willing to suspend my disbelief, and that of my readers.

OMN: How involved were you with the cover design for On the Rocks?

RM: I'm very excited about the cover. The designer is a young man who happens to be my husband's nephew. This fellow, Jim Gallagher, who is in his thirties, has been a talented artist all his life, but he's never really made a living from it. I love his work, much of which he does for graphic novels and comic strips, so I threw out the possibility of his designing the cover, and he grabbed it immediately. Jim "got it" right away when I threw some ideas out at him, and he threw me several sketches, one of which turned out to be the mockup for the final cover. I have had incredible feedback about the cover of this book, and if Jim is willing, he's going to illustrate the covers of all of my books going forward.

OMN: What kind of feedback have you received from readers?

RM: The question I get most is, "Where do you get your ideas from?" And it's a hard one to answer intelligently. At first it was an interesting question, but after having been asked it hundreds of times, it gets a little "old." I think we all have ideas, fantasies, stories going around in our heads, but just as I couldn't imagine designing a piece of artwork, I guess people who aren't fiction writers can imagine thinking up a plot and characters.

OMN: Suppose this series were to be adapted for television or film. Who do you see in the lead role?

RM: From the inception of my mystery series, I have had a picture of Mireille Enos in my mind as the main character of my book. I first saw Mireille playing a police detective in Seattle in the series The Killing. She epitomized the tough, flawed, gorgeous red-headed detective who is my protagonist. She let me into her mind in that series, and she's the one I'd want to play the role of Dana Cohen.

OMN: What kinds of books did you read when you were young?

RM: As a child, I read books as disparate as Little Women, Nancy Drew, and comic books of all kinds. As long as I was reading anything, I was happy, and I was a voracious reader. I don't think the books I read had much influence on what I write today. I think my taste was eclectic then, and it still is now, both in what I read and what I write.

OMN: Give us an example of your eclectic taste.

RM: I love anything by Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, but I also love mystery stories like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels. I love historical fiction, modern fiction, mysteries. Frequently, if a mystery author has a huge series of books, I get bored after several of them if the plots are basically the same. So I prefer series that are shorter. When I'm trying to find a new book to read, I often scan the blurb to see if it appeals to me. Frequently, just from the blurb, I find a book I enjoy. I also enjoy memoir and biography, and other types of nonfiction books, especially if they are about an era or social mores or a city's history.

OMN: Create a Top 5 list for us on any topic.

RM: Top five favorite authors:

• John Updike
• Charles Dickens
• William Styron
• Charlotte Bronte
• Alice Walker

OMN: What's next for you?

RM: Having just finished book four of my Dana Cohen mystery series, I am now deciding what the next one will be. I have a couple of projects in process, but I am leaning toward another time travel novel, which is a kind of mystery within itself.

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Rebecca Marks studied creative writing with Joseph Papaleo at Sarah Lawrence College as an undergraduate, and currently studies at the Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute with Jimin Han and Patricia Dunn. She shares her life with her AKC champion Belgian Tervuren, Moki, just outside NYC. She plays the harp and the cello, and sings with The Canby Singers in New York City.

For more information about the author, please visit her website at and her author page on Goodreads, or find her on Facebook.

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On the Rocks by Rebecca Marks

On the Rocks by Rebecca Marks

A Dana Cohen Mystery

Publisher: Black Opal Books Print/Kindle Format(s) Print/Nook Format(s)iTunes iBook FormatKobo eBook Format

At forty-two, Dana Cohen has retired from her twenty-two-year career as a detective in the NYPD and moved back home to the rocky cliffs above Long Island Sound to take stock of her life. Her drinking has become problematic, and she increasingly relies on it as her life becomes more complicated.

Her estranged husband, Pete Fitzgerald, surprises her at her house, armed with flowers and promises to finally be faithful. Although Dana sends him packing, when he's later accused of murder, she jumps to his defense. He swears he's innocent, and she wants to believe him. But with all the evidence pointing directly at him, reasonable doubt is a very scarce commodity.

On the Rocks by Rebecca Marks


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