A dark and stormy night. A double-crossing jerk. Booze, bullets, and babes. These are the tenets of hardboiled crime novels, and they, like the heroes of such books, still pack a punch. But after talking to author Marc Rosenberg about his own crime drama, Headcase, while he may be familiar with the crime classics, he tried to write a whole new caper.
Let’s start at the beginning: What is your novel Headcase about and where did you get the idea for it?
Headcase is about disillusioned and damaged people and how they struggle to fit into “normal” society. It’s also about the dual nature of personality, which I believe all people have as a part of their makeup. And given the opportunity and the right set of circumstances, I believe people will always show their bad side. This has been my experience, and though I always have high expectations of others, I’m always surprised when my theory proves true. I worked towards infusing that concept into Headcase.
But to answer your question, my book is a crime thriller about a fallen cop, Detective Ash Aiken, looking to resurrect himself after being given an opportunity to lead a very publicized murder investigation. He has recently been reinstated after an emotional breakdown, and is determined to prove himself. This is the heart of the book, though there are a handful of ancillary characters and stories that impact this detective’s life in varying degrees that both support and hurt him in his police work and personal life. The book is multi-layered and follows another six story lines which all weave into the main story.
In the book, there’s a detective, a serial killer, a P.I., and a crime boss. All of these are familiar types of characters. In deciding how each of them would behave in Headcase, did you look to fiction, real life, or a mix of the two?
I’ve asked myself those questions as well. Certainly, being exposed to many stereotypical characters of this type through films, TV, theater, and real life, I was determined to create my own distinct variation of these individuals, and to try to instill a freshness in attitude, demeanor, motive, and behavior. Some are serious types, while others are rooted in comic book exaggerations. Many characters are drawn from my own life, though I pushed for caricature and a hyper realism with the hope that each person’s strength and depiction would stand on its own.
So what fictional sources — be they books, movies, TV, whatever — did you look to for each?
Inspiration is a key element for me. I’d have to say that my sources included books, movies, TV, theater, real life. But in the end, I drew these people from my own imagination. Newspaper and magazine articles were a contributing factor, as was the Internet as an invaluable research tool. Of course, there’s always a certain degree of research that needs to be done to understand the minds and roles that killers, cops, therapists, etc., play in the real world. Then I distill what I learn so that each character is rooted in some basis of realism and forge that information into my idea of what I want each character and situation to illustrate.
Were there any times when you decided to contradict reality for the sake of the story?
That’s a tough one to answer. I wouldn’t say that I contradict reality for the story. Reality is an important element for books to be accepted as a viable read. At least I don’t believe I did that in Headcase. But I certainty push those realities to an extreme limit where it still makes sense and adds entertainment and shock value, moving the storyline forward and holding the reader’s attention.
What about your writing style. What other authors would you consider to be a biginfluence on how you write, and where do you see their influence?
Though I didn’t see it at the time, I believe the writing styles of James Ellroy, Elmore Leonard, and Jim Thompson had an impact on my composition and use of words. These are classic crime noir authors that always held my admiration and rose above most others in their craft. I found that I embraced and adhered to the school of stark, simple, direct narratives that tell the story without superfluous text or adjectives. Short, impactful chapters helped me move my story along without getting bogged down in unnecessary detail.
Early on, my sister — who is both a professor and editor — helped me in editing my maiden draft of Headcase. She gave feedback that helped me sharpen the verve and intent of my passages. I read a lot of books at that time which helped and taught me how to find my voice.
Another tremendous artist who had a great influence on my writing is the filmmaker John Woo. His films, especially such early ones as The Killer and Hardboiled, were saturated with a graceful, lyrical, and blunt beauty that conveyed a million words within a single scene. His films occasionally come to mind when formulating certain setups, scenes, and action.
Some people write to entertain, others to education. When you first sat down to write Headcase, what was your intention?
I think my first intention was to entertain people. Give them a fun, wild ride. Provide an escape from the humdrum of the everyday life.
But as I developed the storyline, I felt that this would be a great opportunity to express my beliefs and observations about the people around me, whetherthrough business experiences or in my personal life. I believe fiction is a viable way to express these things without the outcome being too heavy handed or a turn off. My characterizations don’t depict real people; they are embellishments, an amalgam of different personalities. But I drew caricatures from the sources I expressed earlier to get my observation of the human condition across to the reader.
Look, I’d like to believe that all people want to make their lives and experiences as fruitful and as enjoyable as possible. Some people are capable of doing that, while others have a more difficult time for reasons that are beyond their control. Be it environment, genetics, the unhealthy foods we eat, the polluted air we breathe, we are all products of these various stimuli. Headcase attempts to express these views in a fun and entertaining way. I’m by no means a social scientist or therapist, but the book as a social platform appealed to me. I’d like to think I succeeded on both fronts of what I set out to do. I tried to depict a cross section of personalities and hold up a fun house mirror to accentuate the ride.
In your day job, you’re the executive producer of Lost Highway Films and have produced, according to your bio, “dozens of TV commercials, corporate films, music videos, network pilots, promos, and infomercials.” Which begs the question: Why not write Headcase as a movie or TV script?
Books have always my main source of entertainment since I was a kid. I love reading books. They provoke my imagination and allow me to take the written words and transpose them into imagery that worked for me as I interpreted and absorbed characters and story lines. Don’t get me wrong; I love films when they are smart, well-written, and cohesive. Even as a kid, sitting in a darkened theatre with popcorn and soda, the experience was intoxicating as I sat lost in the big screen images. But in time, as films became redundant with fewer original ideas and stories, I embraced fiction books even more dearly, though as in all things, there were always some disappointments. And though I was a TV kid growing up, TV ultimately left me cold with very few things stirring my imagination, with the exception of some excellent programming that has come out of cable TV over the past ten years.
But having said that, I’ve written screenplays and enjoyed the experience and even had one script optioned, though nothing ever happened. But for me, the written word in book form was always my preference, so it’s no surprise to me how much I enjoyed writing Headcase and the ease I found in expressing myself through the novel format.
So do you think Headcase would work as a movie or TV show?
Headcase could definitely work as a movie. I feel many of the scenes depicted are cinematic and well scripted for the big screen. I imagine the same could be said for a TV movie. Not sure there’s enough material as written for an ongoing series, though the ending certainly leaves room for a sequel or a continuation in the lives of many of the characters portrayed. As I expressed earlier, I feel that some of my writing skills were influenced by John Woo’s style of directing films. It would be a blast to see Headcase turned into a film. I believe my dialogue, action, and storyline lend themselves to movies.
Has there been any interest from film or TV people wanting to buy the rights?
There was some interest early on from two indie filmmakers who had one film under their collective belts. Though I felt their enthusiasm and excitement, I just felt theyweren’t right or serious enough for a collaboration. But I remain hopeful that there will be other parties attracted to the book.
If it was to be made into a movie, who would you like to see cast in the main roles, and why them? And to make things interesting, let’s say that they can’t turn you down, even if they’re dead, and you can even say someone from a certain time, like “Mel Gibson around the time of Mad Max.”
Wow. That’s a tough one.
I never thought that this story would be a vehicle for a star performer. I always thought of casting a strong ensemble group who would play well off each other. So many actors came to mind when writing the book. But I discounted many because of unreal expectations.
I guess if I had to choose anyone I wanted, though, I’d definitely look for immediate reads and the ability for great physical and emotional performances. For Ash Aiken, I think about Brian Cranston. He’s one of our great American actors today. He’s so iconic with the ability to be over the top and underwhelming at the same time. Aiken is damaged goods, and Cranston has certainly proved his acting chops in that capacity in both Breaking Bad and [the play] All The Way. He would be an obvious choice. His complexity as a performer and ability for emotional performances, fantastic physical presence in conveying carnal characters makes him ideal.
For Lizzie, I think Eva Green from 300: Rise of An Empire and Penny Dreadful could do an amazing job with this role. She seems to convey so much devilish joy in performing these roles. Eva can certainly walk the emotional tightrope that Lizzie constantly teeters on.
For St. Juste, I thought of Denzel Washington. He would give an exceptional performance in this role, exhibiting depth and a feral, innate hunger. He’s actually my favorite American actor today and can do no wrong.
For Boyle, John Leguizamo would be perfection, a powerhouse in that role. Great performer. Lots of attitude. Capable of broadcasting a feral, innate hunger.
As for Louie, I never had a specific actor in mind. Maybe a young Robert De Niro from his Mean Streets and Taxi Driver days would be the exception. His wild and seemingly impulsive performance capabilities would bring an intoxicating and savage intensity to the role. I feel Louie is this passionate force that has a unique persona and interior landscape all his own. All fervor. As an option, I’d look to hire an unknown actor for that role to bring spontaneity and freshness to the cast.
A lot of people who write detective novels do so with the intention of turning them into a series of books. Is that you’re hope with Headcase, or would you like to write something completely different next time?
I always looked at Headcase as a private project that I set out writing for my own pleasure. It was a personal challenge. I wanted to see if I could actually write it. And with each step that followed — various drafts, positive feedback, finishing the book, getting it published, seeing it for sale online — I viewed it all as a gift. For me, it was always about writing a fiction without really considering what would happen beyond that.
I once had a short story published in a small press publication. I was invited to read the story in a Greenwich Village coffee house. The audience laughed and grew quiet at all the appropriate places. As I finished, customers applauded the story and some gave me a standing ovation. What a wonderful dreamlike moment that was for me. Overwhelming. The experience was such a joy that I wanted to capture it again.
But to answer your question about having Headcase made into a series, that would be an unimaginable thrill. Still a gift, but a thrilling one.
As far as the future goes, I’m halfway through my next piece of fiction. The book revolves around an accidental kidnapping and revenge storyline. Again, the book is layered with many characters and storylines that converge at the end. It has a different timbre than Headcase. I find that the book just seems to write itself. I’m having a lot of fun with it.
I usually end my author interviews by asking which of their other books people should read next. But since this is your first novel, I’ll ask this instead: If someone likes Headcase, what other crime novels that have serial killers, detectives, mob bosses, and a P.I. should they read?
That’s an easy one. I’ve read so many great books and authors that I love making recommendations. But rather than give you a laundry list of my favorite reads, I’ll suggest a handful that have made a strong impression on me. They are, in no particular order: Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir, James Ellroy’s Blood’s A Rover, Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman, Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, James Sallis’ Drive,andCormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men. There are so many other terrific books out there, but this is a striking selection of great reads. At least in this author’s opinion.