Marc Cameron, New York Times bestselling author of the Jericho Quinn series talks to us about his love for writing, the art of writing and how being open to experiencing new adventures provides him with fodder for his thrillers. His latest work – Open Carry – released on Feb 26th.
Tell us about yourself.
I’m married with three children and four grandchildren. My wife is from Calgary, Alberta, I’m from Texas, but we’ve lived in Alaska for over twenty years. I love the outdoors, and spend as much time outside as I can. Adventure motorcycling and sailing are two of my favorite pastimes.
What is your favorite childhood book?
Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. I read it when I was eight, then I took it to school and asked my 3rd grade teacher to read it to the class. I vividly remember watching her cry her eyes out along with the rest of us—and thinking how powerful stories could be. I was and am a voracious reader of most every genre. My aunt was a librarian so she kept me well supplied with books.
When did you first realise you wanted to become a writer?
I started jotting down simple stories about the time I read Where the Red Fern Grows, copying that, as well as every Hardy Boys Mystery I could get my hands on. We lived in a small house but I had my own room up in this little castle-like turret. It was the only room on the second floor, more like a closet really, but it provided me with a quiet place to read and dream and write. My parents are from the rural south—Louisiana and Texas. Their families both did a lot of storytelling on front porches while I was growing up, so maybe it’s hereditary. I can’t imagine this happening now, but I got my own shotgun for Christmas when I was ten years old. I hunted and fished by myself all over our small ranch in Central Texas—which made me feel a kinship to the protagonists in Where the Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller, and other adventure books about boys and woods and such. I filled up a lot of notebooks with vignettes about characters I met—a fifth grade softball coach who gave me my first (and only) plug of chewing tobacco when I told him it looked cool, my teacher that same year who asked me to trap her a pet squirrel, and pretty girls in my classes who I envisioned having adventures with.
We didn’t have a television for much of my young life. Reading and writing stories of my own was a good way to keep myself entertained. I thought I might want to write for a living by the time I was in high school. One of my favorite teachers nudged me in that direction and suggested I read All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. It became one of my favorite books. Later, she gave me a grade of 70 percent on a short story I’d written. There were red marks all over the page because of the poor penmanship and spelling errors —but in the top corner, she’d written me a short pencil note: “This looks publishable to me.” She was such a strict teacher that it didn’t bother me that the paper was one point above a failing grade. She liked the story. That was enough to change the trajectory of my life. I was eventually able to reconnect and get a couple of my books in her hands before she passed away. Her name was Charlotte Skidmore. I dedicated one of my early books to her.
How do you deal with bad reviews for your book?
Most of my books average four and a half stars on Amazon, but I rarely read reviews other than Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, The Real Book Spy, etc. Art is so subjective that someone might say: “This guy writes just like Tom Clancy” but the next will hate it and call me a hack. Little good can come of getting caught up in the review vortex. My first Jericho Quinn novel got dozens of five star reviews right off the bat. I read them all and waited eagerly for the next one. Eventually though, the inevitable happened and someone hated the book. I was gutted. I’m generally a little on the angsty side when it comes to my work so a couple of bad reviews could throw me off my game for day. It took me a couple of books to realize that I don’t need to pore over all my reviews. Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad to get them. I just think my time is better spent writing than reading other people’s pontifications. I do enjoy getting emails and read every one, even the ones that point out I got the half-life wrong on a certain plutonium isotope or some such thing…
What are some jobs that you’ve worked? Have any of them had an impact on your work?
I worked at a pizza joint when I was in high school—and I still draw a lot of character inspiration from those years. I started with the police department in my home town when I was twenty-two—having a notion that I could make extra money writing short stories. That did not happen for about a decade. I was a patrol officer, detective, law enforcement scuba diver, and mounted (horse) patrol officer. The experiences I had working homicides, assaults, and myriad other criminal investigations provided all kinds of grist for the writing mill. I kept up my habit of writing character studies in notebooks, many of which I still refer to today. It was an oil patch/cowboy town so we got into more than our fair share of scuffles during any given shift. A lot of the fights I write about now were inspired by those days.
Policing didn’t pay very well so I did some day-work as a cowboy, and apprenticed with a local farrier, eventually making ends meet as a horseshoer. I finally got published writing Westerns under the name Mark Henry, so the vernacular and characters were very familiar to me. I still wasn’t making much money, but it was enough that my wife relieved me of most of the honey-dos around the house so I could focus even more on writing. I’d come home from work and she’d give my butt a smack with a rolled up magazine and say, “The fridge is getting old. Go write us a new one…”
I spent the next twenty-two years with the United States Marshals Service—in Texas, Northern Idaho, and Alaska, where I retired as chief deputy. This job took me all over the U.S. on various assignments—hunting fugitives, protecting dignitaries, and keeping the peace after major events like riots or hurricanes. Early in my career, I spent two weeks in jail in Purvis, Mississippi guarding three prisoner witnesses during a major Dixie Mafia trial. It’s difficult to come by that kind of research any other way without going to prison for real. As a would-be Adventure/Suspense writer, I was fortunate to have a previous career that dealt with murderers, rapists, kidnappers, and bank robbers on a constant basis—investigating, hunting, arresting, and transporting. It was a heck of a good job for my personality, and suited my goals as a writer as well. More than that though, I got to work alongside some of the finest people on the planet. I’ve been retired for six years and I still consider the folks at the US Marshals Service to be my family.
With the rise of the self-publishing industry, do you think the writing market has saturated? How hard is it to get readers for your work?
It is saturated, but I think there will always be room for compelling stores. Ten people could tell the Romeo and Juliet story (and they do) and there would be ten different tales.
In the beginning, I was under the mistaken notion that I could write and leave all the publicity and marketing to my publisher. I still don’t have Twitter. I’m only on Instagram so I can see pics of my grandkids. Other than that, I’m not very active on social media. I’m trying to get better though, because I do enjoy connecting with readers.
Word of mouth has helped a lot. I’m a lot more inclined to buy a book a friend recommends rather than one the author tries to sell me. For me, social media is a way to let the readers I have know about what is coming out. Hopefully, they will tell their friends that that Marc Cameron guy is worth taking a look at.
What do you enjoy about your writing style?
I’m a meticulous plotter so I have to do a lot of research—which I thoroughly enjoy. I love interviewing people about what they love and then attempting to transfer that excitement to the character and page. The first Tom Clancy book I did had a scene about Coast Guard helicopter rescue. The guys in USCG Air Station Port Angeles opened their doors to me and sat for hours telling me their stories. I love that.
What are some unconventional habits you have when it comes to writing?
Storytelling is a compulsion with me, so I write anywhere and everywhere. But I do have favorite places to write. I wrote the lion’s share of a couple of Jericho Quinn books while I was on motorcycle trips on the Alaska Highway and in the Yukon. I like writing on a sailboat anchored out in Prince William Sound. There’s something about having an adventure that inspires me to write adventurous things.
For the past five years, my wife and I have come to the island of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands for a couple of months each year. It is an amazing place, much like I imagine Hawaii was in the 1930s. The South Pacific is having summer while we’re covered with winter snow in Alaska, so the timing is perfect for us. The people have welcomed us with open arms and we’ve made lifelong friends. I wrote the bones of my first two Tom Clancy books sitting in the shade of a coconut palm here in Rarotonga. We’re back again this year. In fact, I’m answering these questions from the veranda of the house we rent, trying to decide which pawpaw I’m going to pick for my smoothie later. It’s an idyllic place for a writer—miles of uncrowded beach, beautiful mountains, and a wonderful culture that is just different enough to wake up the senses.
The new Arliss Cutter Mystery series is set in Alaska, but Cutter’s partner, Deputy US Marshal Lola Teariki is a transplanted Cook Islander. She’s a great character to write, inspired by many of the strong women we’ve met on the island.
Do you have any regrets about your published works? Are there some things you wish you could go back and change?
Sure. There are typos and mistakes in every book (like the half-life of that plutonium isotope.) I’d love to go back and fix them all, but I’m too busy moving forward. Hopefully we’re doing better at catching them now so there are fewer and fewer with each new title.
Which of your works are you most proud of?
I feel like each successive book is my new favorite. The last full length Jericho, FIELD OF FIRE was the book Mark Greaney read when he recommended me for the Tom Clancy job, so I’m pretty happy about that one. That said, it’s not really the books that I’m proud of, but the characters. Jericho, Thibodaux, Ronnie, Emiko, Arliss, and Lola are all real people to me. I love plunking them down in unwinnable situations and watching them come out on top.
Tell us about your latest work.
OPEN CARRY, first in my new Arliss Cutter series will release February 26th. Cutter is a deputy US Marshal and man-tracker running the Alaska Fugitive Task Force—my old job. Years ago, I was sent down to Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska to hunt a man who’d cut off another man’s head with a splitting maul and then fled into the woods. We spend several days tracking him through the old growth forests and small islands around Craig, Alaska. We eventually found him, and I knew then that I wanted to set a book there someday. OPEN CARRY is that book.
ACTIVE MEASURES, the next full-length Jericho Quinn is set mainly in Cuba. It will be out later this fall.
My third Tom Clancy/Jack Ryan novel comes out in November.
Do you have any advice for writers struggling for inspiration?
Get off the phone. Get off social media. Get out of the house. Do something that you’ve never done before. I sailed in a traditional outrigger canoe last Saturday—photos on my FaceBook page soon. It was much more difficult to do without tipping over than sailing the bigger monohulls I’m accustomed to. You can bet that experience will end up in a book someday, as will bits and pieces of the chat I had during the day of sailing in a South Pacific lagoon with my Kiwi skipper (who is also my landlord here.)
Read. Travel, even if it’s only to a nearby city or town. Spend time there. Hear the local legends. Eat at the cafes. Talk to people. Listen to the way they turn a phrase. I told a lady at a fruit stand here on the island that I was a writer interested in local stories. I found out her name is Tuakana, which means eldest in Maori, and she thinks about being a writer too. She pulled up a chair and fed me fresh fruit while we talked for the better part of an hour. Most people love to tell their own stories. There’s limitless inspiration out there in that.
What are your tips to help find the right publisher?
Getting a good agent is key. Robin Rue with Writers House has been my agent for over fifteen years, and I consider her a friend. As far as a publisher goes—or an agent for that matter—write the best story you can, then start going to as many conferences as your budget will allow. Sign up for the editor/agent-author pitch sessions. This allows them to meet you in person, get to know you as a human being instead of a query email or letter. I’m not sure any of my books would have been picked up if I’d have waited for query letters to be answered…