The Dark Side of Personality

Is there a psychopath in your neighborhood, boardroom, or (egad) bedroom? Maybe it's more common than we want to think.

Torture for Fun and Profit?

Professional torturer (almost) turns into hero in original novel.

Mark Allen Smith, a TV and documentary film producer and screenwriter who has done features for 20/20, has written a novel. A thriller. And it's a good one. The hero of The Inquisitor, known as Geiger, is a professional torturer, though he prefers to say he works in "information retrieval."

Smith was inspired to write a novel by news stories of torture, murder, and abuse. But can you really make a torturer the center of your novel? It's not one of those "cozies." Here is our interview:

Too graphic?

Q: Your novel has a professional torturer as the protagonist. How did you manage that fine line between gratuitous gore and ... well, its opposite?

The "gratuitous gore" issue was always a concern and a part of my focus. My goal, for better or worse, was to write a novel, set in a "commercial genre" construct, that dealt with what I considered serious issues, and I had no interest in hitting the exploitative elements one might expect to find in a "thriller about torture" with a heavy hammer. In fact, I felt that doing so would definitely detract from things I wanted the reader to (hopefully) be thinking about and experiencing emotionally. So, two points:

# 1: In the actual writing, I always trusted my instincts in walking up to certain lines and not crossing them. When I found myself in a moment when I had a "Is this too much?" feeling, I took the feeling itself as a "yes" and toned things down.

# 2: Perhaps an even more important reason why I was able to "manage that fine line" was that I always took my cue from Geiger, and clearly, Geiger has no interest in gratuitous acts of physical abuse. They have no place in his mind-set.

Q: Your agent requested several drafts. How major were they?

I believe I did five drafts with my agents, Nat Sobel and Judith Weber. I realized early on in the process with Nat that I had unwittingly formed an alliance with my own personal torturer. (That's a little literary torture humor.) Were the changes "major"? No, not in the sense of altering the plot of the novel. In the last draft, per Nat's challenge, I did make one major change: taking out a significant character present throughout the whole book to see what the effect would be (yes, he was right about it), but each draft was basically another step in making the book leaner, faster, more suspenseful.

At no time did I feel the sub-text or emotional depth was ever being comprised, and that is one of the reasons I kept at it every time Nat (and Judith) gave me notes. Did we always agree? Absolutely not, but trust is obviously the key word. It can be pretty tricky to define what it is that creates trust between a writer and an editor/agent, but it wasn't a difficult leap for me...because each draft was better than the last.

Another thing: When the book sold, I then spent over four months going through more "refining" with my editor at Holt, John Sterling. And again, each pass made the novel better.

And another thing: I have been a screenwriter for over 25 years, so I am really, really, really used to rewriting.

Novel vs. screenplay

Q: Why did you decide to write a novel? While the narrative is cinematic, we were able to get inside the characters' heads somewhat (though it might have helped that the main guy was actually so unaware of himself and his motives). (The only time I was aware that you had been a screenwriter was when you consistently stated the sizes of room in square feet!)

I love screenwriting, first and foremost because I love movies. I love writing novels because when you step into the landscape you can't see the horizon. When you write a script you know that the finished piece will be only the first step of a process. There will be many notes and many drafts, and even when the script is finally "done," it is still only 120 pages of scenes and dialogue on paper. Scripts are blueprints for something else. They are only truly "done" when they are produced, because outside the film industry, people don't read scripts, they watch movies.

Screenwriting is a challenging, satisfying art form, but it is defined in strict terms. The format is etched in stone: the layout, font, length, and certainly, in some cases, the subject matter. I once had a very literate producer point to a scene in the script I had written for him and tell me, "This is one of the ten best scenes I've ever read, but we have to lose it. It's too long. It's all dialogue. It's all character. It doesn't really move the plot." 

And therein lies the makes-you-nuts point:

The main (and I think, only) consideration in novel-writing is to tell the story you have in your head as you envision it, wandering out into said endless landscape and turning over every rock to find ways of getting it done. In screenwriting, that's just not the case. There are places that will be a waste of time to explore, and there are fences. The form makes it so; it is the nature of the beast. Something to consider here: There is a familiar, cliched figure -- the whining screenwriter. What is his or her plaintive cry of heartbreak and/or outrage within moments of a movie's premiere? "Look what they did to my script!" I'm not taking sides here: no one ever put a gun to a writer's head and said "You must write screenplays!" But you don't often hear a novelist say "Look what they did to my book!"

Q: It's intriguing to learn about those who manage pain by somehow transcending it. (There was a great scene in Battlestar Galactica where that gorgeous blonde talked Gaius through a horrendous torture session.) Do you have any particular affinity for that sort of thing?

Let's just say that I have had to deal with a number of chronic pain issues for a good deal of my life, been told by numerous doctors that I have a very high tolerance for pain, and have, over time, developed "mindsets" to work through it, so yes, there is a personal connection there between Geiger and myself.

Author vs. protagonist

Q: Sometimes I read novels by men about men who are closed off, the strong and silent type. I can't help but think the authors aren't stretching much. How like your own personality is Geiger's? I mean, are you naturally effusive or does emotional openness come harder for you? Or is that too personal (which will be another way of answering the question).

First of all, the last part of your question is a wonderful kicker, and had me laughing out loud.

My personality is not at all like Geiger's. One might almost say we are opposites. I can be quite talkative and passionate, and I have spent my whole life trying to create close relationships with friends, lovers and family, and have been indescribably fortunate in that endeavor. But I certainly have emotional issues and certain kinds of damage that I drew heavily on in creating his character. In some ways, I feel very connected to him.

Q: I read that you're working on a sequel. Do you already have a lot of the plot worked out?

I am writing a sequel right now -- and yes, I have a plot, but nothing I have ever written has been completely worked out in advance. For me, that would diminish the chances of those wonderful out-of-the-blue moments (that I definitely rely on) where something smacks me upside the head, "Yes! That's what's supposed to happen now!" I get a very potent, satisfying kind of rush from writing "by the seat of my pants" (to varying degrees). So, I wait until I have a fairly solid construct and then I begin to write and see where it takes me.


  • Read an excerpt from The Inquisitor here.  Hear Smith talk about The Inquisitor here.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Susan K. Perry

The Dark Side of Personality