Mark LaFlamme – Box of Lies

What is your most recent book? Tell us a bit about it.

Box of Lies is a collection of short stories. It follows five years of writing novels and it was a nice break. I’m extremely comfortable with the shorter format and wrote these with great glee over the winter and spring of 2010. The response has been amazing. Readers report they are hooked (and a little disturbed) by the end of the first story and there are a couple dozen more beyond that. One of those readers described this onslaught of stories this way: “LaFlamme is like a graffiti artist sliding around a corner in the dark with his collar turned up – a few bold strokes and he’s moved on. But the territory of your mind has been tagged with his distinctive images.”

Tell us something about yourself.

I’m a crime reporter and columnist at the Sun Journal in Lewiston, Maine. It’s very cold up here and very dark in winter. I’m generally miserable during the cold months, but it is a great opportunity to lock yourself in a room, grow a wild beard and write. I tend to start writing new novels in early winter and have them ready to go by the time spring comes along. Then I spend most of my time running around barefoot and riding a dual sport motorcycle deep in the woods.

What inspired you to write this book?

Short stories are great. Quick affairs instead of the long romance. Writing them is great fun. I come home every night and there’s a new world populated by new characters to play with. I can make them rich, make them poor or just throw the end of the world at them, as I do several times in “Box of Lies.” I can make them miserable, make them happy, make them march for their daily bread, as I do in the story “The Neighborhood.”
Writing short stories is like gluttony, I think. Or an orgy, depending on your proclivities. I like going into them with no clear idea where they are going to end up. My characters end up surprising me. I often frighten myself. It’s all part of the fun, for writer and reader alike.

How did you choose the title?

“Box of Lies” is the title of one of the stories in this collection. It’s about a military man who has the answers to all the big mysteries. Who shot JFK? He knows it. What are they hiding in Area 51? He knows that, too.

The story itself is fun and a little big frustrating. After all, chances are good that most of us will go to our graves without ever knowing the truth behind these things. But it was the title itself I fell in love with. What is a short story collection if not one big box of lies? It seemed fitting. It was short and snappy and there was plenty to be done with it when it was time to create a cover and write promotional blurbs.

Before I settled on “Box of Lies,” I was going to call my book “The Neighborhood.” I still like that. Might use it for a future collection so please don’t swipe it.

What obstacles did you encounter in getting this book published? How did you overcome them?

I’ve been publishing with Booklocker through five books in five years. They are a POD company that acts more like a traditional publisher. They don’t try to make money by offering an author a bunch of services he or she doesn’t need. They make money when you sell your book, so they have a genuine interest in its success. They help their authors generate ideas for marketing and they know the business inside and out. If you have a well-written book and some solid some ideas of how to sell it, these guys are the best. An author can do really well with them.

In the past, I’ve dangled my books in front of agents and publishers, an arduous process, as most of us know. I may go that route again someday, but I’ll never regret the experience I’ve had with Booklocker.

How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?

Whenever I get this question, I want to make something up – a near-death experience in youth or something dramatic like that. But the truth is, I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t a writer. As a wee kid, I wrote short stories about ghosts and things that haunted the woods behind my house. As a teenager, I got a little darker and sold some of my stories. Working as a reporter is a great way to strengthen your writing muscles – there’s nothing like breaking news and deadlines to make sure you don’t get much fat in your copy.

Being a reporter and a columnist makes sure I get my bills paid. But it also guarantees there will never be a day when I write nothing at all.

Do you have any writing rituals?

Not so many rituals, but I have trinkets. From each of my novels, some real world object has crawled off the pages and onto a shelf above my desk. There’s a Strawberry Shortcake snow globe that appears in the novel “The Pink Room.” One night while I was writing the end of that story, the snow globe started to play, on its own and for no apparent reason. Scared the hell out of me. I ended up working that into the story. And sought an exorcist.

There’s a twisted, stuffed flower with a wide smile that represents my plant-based horror “Vegetation.” I have a baseball for “Asterisk,” an old, somehow sinister box for “Box of Lies,” and a stuffed chickadee for the upcoming novel “Delirium Tremens.”

How do you come up with the names for your characters?

I love the story of John Sandford’s character Del Capslock, which came from two keys on the keyboard. I haven’t been able to use that technique myself, although I almost included a Tab Backspace in one of my short stories.

My novel “The Pink Room” has a few chapters that are heavily populated. For that one, I ended up mixing and matching the names of my old school teachers dating as far back as I could remember. Occasionally, I’ll ask friends for the names of their first lovers or favorite aunts and use some variation of those names. Now and then, I reach for the phone book.

Did you learn anything from writing and publishing this book? What?

A few of the stories in “Box of Lies” are science based. In “The End,” a scientist discovers how to achieve great knowledge by tweaking an unused part of the brain. It ends badly for the poor fellow, but I did a lot of research to make sure I got most of the science right.

In “The Bender Argument,” a professor discovers that we all may be nothing more than works of fiction. More precisely, we might be some grand being’s computer simulation. It doesn’t end well for him, either. The story is based on a real theory, which I studied enough to become uneasy with.

For “The Whole Shebang,” I had to learn how to play bingo. To write “Find a Penny,” I had to study chaos theory and the idea that stooping over to pluck a penny off the sidewalk could have major effects on one’s future. A very creepy idea.

I think it’s safe to say I learn something with every new story I write. I should be brilliant by this point. I’m not sure what went wrong there.

If you were doing it all over again, what would you do differently?

As soon as my book was shipped off to the publisher, I wrote a short story called “The Maker,” which I ended up liking quite a lot. I wish I could have written that one a week sooner so it could have been included. Instead, I’m publishing it piecemeal in my newsletter, which can be found at www.marklaflamme.com/newsletter

What types of books do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?

I love Poe. Unfortunately, Poe isn’t around to produce new stuff. I love Stephen King because he tells such a good story, and Ira Levin because you will not find a wasted word in a Levin novel. Go ahead and try.

I enjoy Jack Ketchum, who has never pulled a punch in his life, and John Sandford, author of the Prey novels.

Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?

Delirium Tremens is the story of a man haunted by two things: alcoholism and the ghosts of the soon-to-be-departed that visit every time he attempts to give up the habit. It’s a murder mystery, a drama and a horror story rolled into one. I wrote it shortly after The Pink Room and then I put it into a trunk. I showed it to a filmmaker recently and she insisted I get Delirium to the publisher. That’s coming in 2011. There’s a preview of the book at the end of “Box of Lies.”

What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?

The same as everybody else: Write every day. Write even if all you can manage is a letter to an imaginary friend. It doesn’t take long for the writer’s muscle to go flabby. I’m always amazed when someone who tells me they’ve always wanted to write admits in the next sentence that they haven’t written anything in years. Not so much as a diary entry.

I feel like every aspiring writer should flog his work to agents and publishers. It’s a grinding exercise that sometimes knocks you flat. But it builds character and it’s good to see what bites your work can get. If you get no love there at all, think about the alternatives. There’s publish on demand and there are ebooks, which may or may not be the way of the future. Write today and worry about becoming a millionaire some other time. Just keep at it and keep your writer’s muscles all big and bad.

Who is the perfect reader for your book?

Anybody who likes a good story is going to like this book. It sounds like a sales pitch, but it’s not. There’s something for everybody in “Box of Lies,” I really believe that. Some of the stuff is dark – Children go mad, the elderly play grim games of chance, a mind reader wishes he could turn off the onslaught of human thought. But there’s lighter stuff in there, too, like “Dual Sport,” in which an older man falls in love with a machine. There’s the menacing but almost loveable ghost of a fisherman in “Bone Lake,” and a house that takes care of its occupant in “Our House.” These are stories written to please, not to make big points or impress literary snobs.

Where can readers learn more about you and your book?

There’s a long excerpt from “The Neighborhood” and a lot of other stuff on my website: www.marklaflamme.com