ANN ARBOR – All the people with whom I have had the pleasure of speaking in Ann Arbor have been exceedingly kind and gracious, and Mark Beyer is no exception. Beyer, who was beyond courteous with his time and just a genuinely nice guy, met with me to discuss his debut novel, "Hired Man." He will read from the novel and discuss it at 7 p.m. on Friday at Literati Bookstore.
Beyer works in advertising, but that's hardly the whole story. He began writing at a young age and moved to Los Angeles for a period of time to write and try to sell comedy scripts before eventually returning to "the mitten," never quitting his passion for writing during his off hours from his day job. We talked about his writing process and the decision to set his novel in several Michigan cities, including Ann Arbor.
I was very grateful for the opportunity to meet with another writer, especially one as talented as he. Be sure to pick up a copy of "Hired Man," which several Amazon reviews have called a "page-turner." Talking with Beyer, you understand why. He's just as fascinating, if not more so, as the world he creates in his novel.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
What is your current day job and how, if at all, did that lead into writing?
I’ve been an advertising copy writer and creative director for about 30 years in Detroit. I went from the old analog advertising world of radio and TV commercials, and now I’m a digital copy writer at Blue Cross and I work on their website.
Has writing always been something you’ve been interested in? I mean fiction specifically.
Yes. Quite literally, when I was 10 years old, I won a school contest called the Young Authors Contest at Vaughn School in Bloomfield Hills and I wrote this story called “The Case of the Ivory Cobras,” which I also illustrated, and it won. I got to go to Oakland University, where there was a big presentation, and all the kids from the grade schools went. After that, I realized, “Wow, this is something I seem to be able to do." So I’ve literally been writing with semi-seriousness to extreme seriousness ever since I was 10 years old.
What was “The Case of the Ivory Cobras” about?
From the title, you can guess it was a pot-boiler, involving a secret agent and mysterious Indian criminals and green gas. The source material was the “The Wild Wild West,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and James Bond. All that TV and movie stuff was right in my 10-year-old brain, and I crafted this tale, which actually turned out to be pretty long, but it won.
How long was it, exactly?
It was 17 typed pages and I think they were single-spaced, so it was a rather in-depth tale. And, of course, I wrote it to impress a girl. I never got the girl, but it was my first beginning-to-end story and I’ve been writing a lot ever since then.
You told me before that you went out to Los Angeles to become a TV and improv writer. Did you always gravitate toward fiction?
Something happened to me in Los Angeles that was kind of unexpected. I wrote a piece of short fiction and I submitted it to the L.A. Reader and they printed it. It was, like, “I don’t do this. I write ‘Mork & Mindy’ scripts and stuff like that.” They printed this story and it was (my first foray into) “real writing." I started thinking that maybe it was where my future lies, but of course I couldn’t make any money at that either. So I came back to Michigan, started a career in advertising, got married, got a family, got a mortgage -- all that stuff.
The story I always tell is that I start a novel every 10 years. “Hired Man” is the third attempt. I’d start a novel and I’d get a couple chapters in and it would falter. And then 10 years would go by and I’d start another novel, which wasn’t a planned thing, and then nothing. “Hired Man” was the one that took root, and once it got going, there was no stopping it.
What about “Hired Man” worked this time around, as opposed to the other stories you’d started?
I had a premise that could drive the whole story to its conclusion. The other stories I’d started had a situation, like a setup, but not really a premise. And the premise, I’ve learned, is the engine that drives the story. A setup or a situation -- “Here’s the environment for a story. Now what’s going to happen?” So “Hired Man” gets to the root of the matter and it became a premise where I didn’t know what was going to happen. I just had to see it through and follow where the characters and story go.
I’ve heard a lot of writers talk about how the characters they write become real people. Would you say that is what happened here?
All those cliches are true. It sounds so trite when I say it, but it really is true. Once I got this thing going, I don’t feel like I was really writing it at all. I was just writing down what was happening -- what these people were saying and what they were doing. It was like reportage. I was just reporting what I was seeing. That sounds a little conceited in a way, but I found it to be very true.
“Hired Man” is set in a number of Michigan locations including Ann Arbor. Was that intentional and crucial to telling this story?
It was one of those “write what you know” things. I love Michigan and the areas that I’m writing about. So part of the locations are a love letter to Michigan.
Was there something specific about Ann Arbor that you wanted to incorporate into the book?
I had a physicality to the Ann Arbor location that I wanted to get into. The lead character, Terry Holbrook, is a video editor (who works) in Ann Arbor, and (I realized) that Detroit is a little too big to bite off in an intimate sense, so Ann Arbor was perfect. It seemed like a good, workable hub.
Was there any aspect of Ann Arbor and the other cities in which “Hired Man” takes place, that you wanted to specifically call out?
There are a couple of street corners in Ann Arbor that are rather specific. Conor O'Neill's is in it, Felix is in it, and the protagonist lives in Dexter and works in Ann Arbor, so there’s a lot of that bedroom community going on. But one thing I wanted to make very deliberately was a contrast between Grosse Pointe and Delray and really get that social spectrum covered. I think I was able to do that.
What it is it about Ann Arbor that you love and that inspired you to write about it?
Ann Arbor is a real legacy with my family. We didn’t really plan to be a “Go Blue” family, but that’s just how it worked out.
My favorite part of Ann Arbor, which I share with my wife, Linda, is the constancy of it, the constancy of an enlightened people and community, the campus. It’s all great. It’s one of the greatest towns in the United States, if not the world. It’s always on the top lists. How can you find anything wrong with Ann Arbor?
Is there anything about “Hired Man” that you want people to know?
The one thing in my book that’s actually the spine of it is that it’s actually a very spiritual story masquerading as a crime thriller, which is on purpose. Not many readers have picked up on that, but people’s spiritual senses are their own. If they’re tuned into that sort of thing, they pick it up, and if they’re not, they read it as a good crime story. But I think the spiritual side of people is very important, so I tried to weave that into the tale.
Mark Beyer is a Detroit-based writer, creative director and video producer. He and his wife, Linda, live in Beverly Hills, Michigan. His fiction has been published in the L.A. Reader. "Hired Man" is his first novel.
About "Hired Man"
What would you do if a dying stranger begged you to save his daughter and then paid you seven figures to do it? When suburban dad Terry Holbrook stops to help the quickly dying driver of an icy car wreck on a dark, lonely country road, he can't believe the bloody check thrust into his hands is worth the paper it's printed on. Yet, in no time, Terry and his family are swept into a dangerous vortex of powerful Detroit drug dealers, vicious blackmailers, homicidal white supremacists and the dead man's vengeful family. Enter Pearce Butler, a "ghost" who operates both inside and outside the law. But is his true motive to mete out justice? Or simply to get to the money first? From word one, "Hired Man" speeds like a bullet train through ever-tightening coils of suspense toward a climax as riveting as any in crime fiction.
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