Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Mark Arsenault

JAN: Our guest blogger today is Mark Arsenault, a terrific writer I met through the Providence Journal, where we both worked as reporters, but at different times.

I knew he was a Shamus-nominated mystery writer. I might have guessed that he is a runner, hiker, and political junkie. But it came as a surprise that he's also an eBay fanatic who collects memorabilia from the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

His new novel is LOOT THE MOON, the second book in the Billy Povich series that began with GRAVEWRITER, a noir thriller that intrigued me with rich characters and kept me on the edge of my seat It's also been praised for a fusion of suspense, humor and human tenderness.

He used to write a terrific column on writing for the ProJo and we are lucky to get some of his insight here.

Writing on Faith

Writing is one of the hardest things in the world to start, especially if nobody cares if you finish.

When I began my first mystery, I had no idea if I could even write a novel, much less get it published. But we have to find the faith to write, even if there’s no guarantee the project will ever sell.

After four books and 20 years working for newspapers, now I write mainly to meet deadline, but it wasn’t always that way. I used to write on faith. And recently, I’ve been doing it again.

My wife, Jennifer, has an estranged brother she hasn’t seen or heard from in nearly 20 years. For many of those years, the family didn’t know where he was, or even if he was alive.
But the Internet makes it hard to hide, and several years ago we bird-dogged his on-line footprint and tracked him down to a city on the West coast.

We found where he had posted condolences on a memorial page for a friend who had died. He had made a few political donations, bought some real estate, and had apparently gotten married. We couldn’t manage to make contact, but we were cheered that he was alive and living what seemed a normal and healthy life, which we followed from 3,000 miles away through the tiny impressions he left in a living, growing Web that sees all and never forgets.

Then a few months ago, seemingly from nowhere, the wife of the brother-in-law I have never met reached out to the rest of the family by email.

This shocking, generous gesture, and the possibility of reconciliation, left my mother-in-law in tears. More emails, with pictures attached, zipped back and forth across the country for several days. My mother-in-law saw a digital photo of a grandson she never knew she had.

But this story is not a Hallmark card.

After a few days, my brother-in-law’s wife confessed she had contacted us in secret. The brother who had vanished nearly two decades ago didn’t know. She promised to get some advice from her clergy, and then break the news to her husband.

We never got another email from her.

This is where writing on faith is important. She doesn’t email us, but we still email her.

Every few weeks, I dash off a personal note to share with her the exciting things in our lives and to bore her with the mundane parts, as you’re supposed to do with family. I never mention the estrangement, the lack of contact—none of that. My emails read like Facebook notes between old friends, even though the notes only go one way.

I sent our Las Vegas wedding picture and a funny story about the pastor we hired sight-unseen off the Internet. A few weeks ago, I sent a full report on my brother’s nuptials in Ireland this summer, including pictures of pubs and green fields dotted with sheep. Most recently, I sent a copy of the cover art for my new novel. (A 20-year estrangement is no excuse not to support your family and buy a copy.)

I don’t expect a reply. I just fire these notes into the ether. The emails don’t bounce back, so maybe they’re reading them. Maybe they’re keeping tabs on us over the Internet, as we did with them.

When you write even when you can’t be sure anything good will come of it, you’re writing for love. That’s the second-best reason to write, just behind writing for deadline.
So has anybody else tried something unique to reach somebody who didn’t want to be reached?

With 20 years of experience as a print reporter, Arsenault is one of those weird cranks who still prefers to read the news on paper. His Web site is:

JAN: Come back tomorrow when I get Hallie to tell us how she put together her new book, THE BIBLIOPHILE'S DEVOTIONAL.


  1. Hey Mark, welcome. I look forward to reading your books. What a wonderful post, and thank you for sharing this very personal non-Hallmark saga.

    When I took off for Japan in the mid-1970s to live with my boyfriend and teach English, my mother disowned me for a while. I knew she was going through a hard post-divorce time of her own, and I just kept sending her chatty notes and postcards every month or two. By the time I returned two years later, she welcomed me back. (I think raising a teenager going through the sullen/rebellious phase can be a similar experience! You just have to keep giving them love and assume their real personality will reemerge someday.) And so also goes my fiction writing, on faith that someday the publishing world will welcome me...


  2. Thanks, Edith.
    Some things are just worth doing, and I'm going to continue reaching out to the estranged part of the family. It's frustrating because who cares about disputes from 20 years ago?
    We are never really defeated until we quit. Keep pounding on the door until the publishing world opens up!

  3. Hi Mark,

    I enjoyed your post. I'm still writing on faith, but working hard toward the goal of writing for a deadline. Thanks for the encouragement.

    I also had an estranged brother, my older brother, the rebellious middle child in our family. He drove a moving truck, lived out of his truck, and wanted distance from family, this I knew. But how he was doing, I didn't know. Then something dawned on me: truck stops.

    With youthful optimism, and with cell phones and the Internet still in the future, I visited several truck stops in Southern California. There, I handed out pictures of my brother and self-addressed stamped postcards, with the request that if a trucker saw him, could they jot down on a postcard things like where he was, how he looked and send it to me.

    Over the next year, I received six postcards. They said things like, 'Just saw your brother outside Dallas. He looks good, healthy. He has a dog riding with him—seems happy, but tired.' The last one said. 'I shared Christmas dinner with your brother outside Miami. He's missing home. I bet you'll see him soon.'

    And we did. I never told my brother about the postcards; I wasn't sure how he'd react to his little sister keeping tabs on him. But to this day, I've never forgotten the kindness of those truckers.

  4. Marianne,

    That's the MOST amazing and wonderful story. I hope you work that into your fiction because you had me glued the minute I started reading.

    what a brilliant and loving plan.

  5. That is so clever, Marianne. What a great story. It gives me hope. You could write a whole book around an idea like that.

  6. Wow. That was really quite a story, and one that's still writing itself with your hands on the keys.