Mark Allen Smith is the creator of one of the most eye-catching protagonists in crime fiction – the torturer known simply as Geiger. So far Geiger’s appeared in The Inquisitor and The Confessor. You can read Crime Thriller Fella’s review of The Confessor, available in bookshops now, further down the page. Or – tell you what – you can click here.
It takes a hell of an author to make us cheer for the bad guy, so I’m absolutely delighted that Mark Allen Smith gives us The Intel on Geiger, torture, and banging out a tune when you should be writing.
Geiger, the protagonist of The Confessor and its predecessor The Inquisitor is a professional torturer – where did you get the idea for such a singular hero?
In 1980, as an investigative news producer, I became involved in a story about a brutal political torture/murder by the secret police in Paraguay. The victim was the 17 year-old son of a political dissident. It was a shocking awakening. Then, in 1987, the murder of 6-year Lisa Steinberg in New York City after years of torture by her adoptive father became a national outrage. More stories about parental abuse started to emerge.
I had become a father, and remember holding my sleeping 3-year old son in my arms and trying to put myself inside the head of a man who tortures his own child. Then another thought came: If a child survives years of torture, who do they grow up to be? How do they anchor themselves in the world? That’s when Geiger was ‘born.’
Torturers are not going to be everybody’s idea of a sympathetic protagonist – how do you go about making Geiger someone the reader can root for?
That was certainly the big risk, wasn’t it? How do I introduce a monstrous character, Geiger, not hedge on his ‘reality,’ and get the reader to keep reading? I didn’t expect someone to care for Geiger at the start – but I wanted the reader to have just enough of a sense of his buried humanity that they would wonder – How does somebody turn into this? – and hang in there with him instead of tossing the book. There were three keys.
1) Tap into his tragic nature – to give a sense (but not too much) of it as the plot unfolded and hope it drew the reader to him, and
2) create a detailed picture of the controlled life he has meticulously constructed in order to function in the world. I think it helps make clear, from the start, that Geiger is a far more tortured individual than those he tortures, and
3) give Geiger a subtle ‘childlike’ aspect. I think people picked up on that, and were brought closer to Geiger because of it. His lack of guile and irony are reminiscent, I think, of a child, and create a kind of sympathy – and the truth is, in many ways (as we discover) Geiger is still a child.
What kind of a research did you do?
Years of reading, pre- and post-internet. Thank god for Google. The sad truth is that there is a ton of stuff about torture on the web – the history, its evolution, techniques, legal aspects. You could spend a year just boning up on the Spanish Inquisition…
At this point that may be true. When I started writing The Inquisitor it was not the case – the Bush Administration’s post-911 ‘enhanced interrogation’ agenda was just being exposed and had yet to become a frequent and contentious topic of conversation. One of my reasons for writing The Inquisitor was to bring the issue into the public consciousness – but not just in a political context. As I wrote –
‘…Geiger had come to understand that the practice of torture was not an aberration…(that) immeasurable time and effort had gone into creating and perfecting methods for inflicting pain in the pursuit of what a person or group considered indispensable information or truth…’
– but what I also wanted to share was the belief that torture was not some rare atrocity committed by entities – political, religious, militaristic – with well-developed agendas. To look at it that way is almost comforting. ‘Well… That torturer guy is crazy…evil…not like the rest of us…not like me…’ I wanted to draw a connecting line from the ‘professional torturer’ to the ‘average’ person and the abuses they/we commit.
I wanted to make the case that the desire to torture is part of the human psyche – something we are quite adept and creative at – and needed to be considered as such in order to better understand it and deal with it. So… Desensitized? Probably. If so, it is a shame, and dangerous, because the conversation needs to continue – but in today’s sensory-bombardment world it is almost inevitable – almost the norm – that any ‘hot topic’ issue eventually (with alarming speed) turns cold, and many grow numb to it.
What’s your writing process? What comes first – plot or character?
Most often it’s character first, but for me that is a multi-tiered thing. A character will come to life in my head, but he/she brings along a predicament and an issue that usually gives me a jump-start for the plot. Once a character becomes alive and vibrant to me I often end up following them as they head into the ‘story.’ Which is to say – yes, life is somewhat weird when I’m writing. I tend to live with my characters 24-7. I follow them, listen to them, try and guess what they’re thinking and what they’ll choose to do. Another way of answering the question ‘What comes first – plot or character?’ Character is plot.
Take us through a typical writing day for you?
At my desk by 9.00 AM with coffee and a wistful desire for the cigarette I shall not smoke. I re-read the last ten pages of the work-in-progress to get my brain up to speed. I eat little until dinner, so except for trips to the coffee pot for refills I usually stay planted at my computer all day. When I get stuck – alas, not infrequently – I swivel in my chair to my Yamaha Motif and play for a few minutes, until I start to feel guilty, and then I swivel back to my ‘job.’
I stop when my wife Cathy gets home around 7.00 PM, we cook a good dinner and eat it, then I go back to work with my wine until 11.00, or later. Some days, up to six pages – some days, half a page. Perhaps my best description of the writing process is the rhyme by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
When she was good she was very very good
And when she was bad she was horrid.
Who are the authors you love, and why?
I could list dozens, but to be brief…
John Barth – for his outrageous arrogance and courage at pushing the envelope.
Herman Melville – for changing the way I looked into myself and others by writing Bartleby The Scrivener (and yeah, some other stuff, too).
J.P. Donleavy – a great musician of prose, and a lover and chronicler of all that is melancholy.
How do you deal with feedback?
I get pleasure from reading critical praise, humbly underplaying that pleasure to those around me, while secretly agreeing whole-heartedly with said critics, bless them all. I pay grim attention to the damning thoughts of others, underplaying that displeasure to those around me, while secretly wishing those that would wound me an eternal stay in Hell, damn their blackened, presumptuous souls.
How have your own experiences shaped your writing?
I will answer this question with a few lines from my new work-in-progress – spoken by a dying novelist to a group of college creative writing students.
…Every choice, to a degree, is a reflection of who the author is.
Each act we make a character commit, each uttered word, everything
they feel. Whether great art or wince-worthy production of a hack –
the work is an offering, consciously or not, with the stamp of one’s
inner self on it. ‘Hey… I’m in here somewhere. Do you see me?’
Don’t wait to start writing until you think you’ve got the ‘whole story’ in your head. Not having the whole story in your head is half the fun.
Take chances. Go with an impulse, something you hadn’t considered up to that point – you can always go back and change it, or scrap it.
Don’t read someone else’s fiction when writing fiction. It’s the only kind of celibacy that is beneficial.
Last… I’m embarrassed to admit I can’t remember who said the following – Tennessee Williams, maybe – but its message has served me very well, time and again. I’m probably doing it a great injustice – but it goes something like this.
‘I get up in the morning, have coffee, and at ten o’clock sit down at the typewriter and put a fresh sheet of paper in. I take the bourbon from the desk drawer, pour a glass and put it on the desk, and start thinking. At four in the afternoon I finish whatever is left in the glass, and leave my desk. It doesn’t matter if I wrote ten pages…or the page I put in the typewriter is still there, blank. I’m a writer. I put in a day’s work.’
What’s next for you?
I have personally paid for Geiger to go on vacation. He needs a rest and so do I. Dealing with him is exhausting. During our break, I am writing a picaresque tragicomedy about a revered, 40-year-old novelist who discovers he has a rare, incurable disease and decides he must write one final book before he kicks. But fate and chaos and global forces have other plans for him. Death, god, pharmaceuticals, incest, terrorism… I’m really enjoying the work – when it isn’t making me miserable.