Ryan Lieske: Thank you for doing this interview. Why don’t we start by having you introduce yourself to the readers.
Mark Reefe: I was raised in Bowie, Maryland, but moved the homestead to the beautiful Shenandoah Valley a few years back where I live with my lovely wife, two boys, and one devilish dog. After twenty-five years of catching bad guys and causing mischief in various law enforcement and security positions within the federal government, I decided to “take the road less traveled” and pursue my passion for writing. The places I have been and the people I have met in my colorful past helped me create a vivid and dramatic world in my first novel, The Road to Jericho. El Sendero, the second novel in the trilogy, is due to be published November 1, 2017. The third novel, tentatively titled The Valley of Hinnom, is under contract with a pending release date. When I’m not writing, I enjoy woodworking, camping, breaking small appliances when they don’t appear to work, apologizing to my wife for breaking the previously mentioned appliances, and bourbon (though not necessarily in that order).
RL: What is the first book you remember reading, or having read to you?
MR: The one that sticks out the most was Ruthanna Long’s Witches, Ghosts, and Goblins, A Spooky Search for Miranda’s Cat. That was one that my dad used to read to me. The story was good, but it was the amazing artwork that I loved.
RL: What do you think it was about it that makes it stick out?
MR: I think it was the places described in the story that I remember most. There were haunted houses, a witch city, pirates, and a land of giants. What kid could resist all that? Also, Paul Durand’s beautiful illustrations seemed to bring these locations to life for me. I suppose I cut my book-loving teeth on this one. It was a bonus having my dad read it to me!
RL: What are the books that you feel sealed your fate as a lifelong reader?
MR: That’s a tough one. I think The Chronicles of Narnia was the first series I ever read. The idea of other worlds and going on epic adventures was very appealing to me. I was always a bit of a daydreamer (think Walter Mitty), so that series was a natural fit for me. It served as my indoctrination into the world of fantasy and helped prepare me for the likes of Tolkien and George R.R. Martin down the road. I still think very fondly about those books to this day.
RL: What is it about the fantasy genre that appeals to you so much?
MR: I like the idea of there being something out there beyond the world as we know it. The reading tied in with another one of my hobbies, Dungeons & Dragons (yes, you can say ubergeek now). Seriously though, both the reading and gaming required a vivid imagination to get the full experience. I spent many weekends either getting lost in a book or in a D & D campaign. I even took a stab at writing my own D & D adventure once. It wasn’t particularly good, but I guess you could say that was my first real stab at creative writing.
RL: I played D & D, as well, so I’ll let someone else call us ubergeeks. If they don’t get it, they don’t get it. Not our problem.
Now, a lot of people tell me that, even if they were a voracious reader as a child, it was their middle-school and high-school years that had the most impact on the reader they are today. Would you say this is true for you?
MR: For me it started in about the third or fourth grade and grew as I did. I began with the works of C.S. Lewis then worked my way up to more complex fiction. I enjoyed King and Koontz a little later, as well as Anne Rice. I found it very easy to lose myself in the pages of the books written by those talented writers. Some of the ones that had the most influence over me were The Shining and The Vampire Lestat. The Shining was just such an amazingly suspenseful book, and The Vampire Lestat showed me a side of the supernatural I had never seen before, one where you could easily find yourself rooting for someone who traditionally was cast as the villain.
RL: The Shining was King’s take on the haunted house subgenre. Did that book lead you to any other classics of that subgenre?
MR: I don’t know that The Shining lead me to seek out similar works though I do enjoy a good haunted house story. The Fall of the House of Usher was the first one of that genre that I can remember reading. It creeped me out, but most of Poe’s works do. The idea of being buried alive is particularly horrifying to me.
If you haven’t already, I highly recommend checking out Richard Matheson’s Hell House, and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Absolute essentials for not only haunted house fans, but horror fans in general.
Now, Lestat is definitely an iconic antihero. Why do you think it is that readers are drawn to characters like that?
MR: As far as Lestat goes, I believe people are drawn to him because the character is sooo well written. He is complex, yet readers can relate to him. He does terrible things for love (like turning his own mother into a vampire). In general, I think readers are drawn to these types of characters because of their flaws. I mean, you can’t help but root for the guy even though he’s a bloodsucker. I don’t have a current antihero that I’m reading, but some of my favorite books feature them as protagonists. The Godfather and The Great Gatsby come to mind.
RL: Speaking of this time period, were you one of those kids who went rogue from the curriculum and read whatever you wanted, sometimes even ignoring what was assigned to read altogether?
MR: I was a bit of a nerd, so I always read what was assigned. That said, there were no rules that said I couldn’t read a little more, so I did. It didn’t hurt that my mom was a librarian’s assistant. She had a great passion for books and it was contagious.
RL: Were there any of those “assigned books” that you particularly liked, and if so, why?
MR: For some reason The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn comes to mind. I think it may be because Huck manages to do the right thing even though he is breaking the law and believes he’ll go to hell for it. There was something very noble about him even though he was dirt poor, uneducated, and a runaway. I wasn’t a big fan of Tom Sawyer though. He was too shifty for me (talk about an antihero!).
RL: Reading is inherently a solitary activity, so did your reading life ever supersede or cause conflict with your social life growing up? Were you more apt to hide out in the library at school, or stay home on a Saturday night to read a book?
MR: I didn’t have a particularly active social life through most of school (at least not until I grew out of my awkwardness around my senior year). As such, there was never much of a conflict. I spent some weekends in my room getting lost in the writings of my favorite authors. It wasn’t until I was able to drive and discovered girls that the books had any real competition.
RL: What were some of your favorite authors then? Any particular works of theirs that stand out for you?
MR: I suppose I went through a bit of a Brian Lumley phase then. I read his Psycomech Trilogy, Necroscope Saga, and a few works from his Cthulu Cycle. His unique spin of vampires, the undead, and other things that go bump in the night intrigued me. The books were a shade or two darker than the menu of Koontz books I had been working my way through at the time.
RL: And then comes college. What new books, literary styles, or genres were you exposed to in college?
MR: I branched out a little in college reading more in the thriller area (I was a criminology major). Thomas Harris, John Grisham, and Michael Crichton joined the menu. I still enjoyed a good fantasy mind you, but I found I didn’t need orcs or vampires to enjoy a story. A good villain is a good villain regardless of whether they’re human or not.
RL: I’m not a big Grisham fan, but three out of the four books of his I’ve read I really really like: The Brethren, The Chamber, and The Client. I’ve also read A Time to Kill, but I personally don’t feel like that story has aged all that well. I find it a bit preachy, pedantic, misguided, and extremely unrealistic. As much I wanted those rapists to suffer, murdering them was still a crime. Have you read that one, and if so, what are your thoughts on that?
MR: I didn’t get a chance to read A Time to Kill (I do like Samuel Jackson though). The Pelican Brief is one I remember fondly of his. I like it when the conspiracies go all the way to the White House!
RL: I love Harris and Crichton. Harris first: I have had a couple of people I’ve interviewed express their disdain for Hannibal. I liked it when it first came out, but now I’m starting to doubt myself. I feel like I maybe liked it just to spite the haters (and because I loved Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon so much, I felt like I HAD to like it, maybe). What are your thoughts on that?
MR: Red Dragon was the first Harris book I read and still my favorite of his. As for Hannibal, it is probably my least favorite of his books. I just couldn’t immerse myself in it like I could with Red Dragon. Plus, the idea of Lecter and Starling actually hooking up was a bit too much of a stretch for me.
RL: Crichton: NOT the greatest writer, but a hell of a great storyteller. I love his work. What are your favorites of his and why? Personally, The Andromeda Strain, Sphere, Eaters of the Dead, and Timeline are favorites. Jurassic Park is great too, of course, but I’m a “deep cuts” kind of cat, so I like to give props to the lesser-known works.
MR: I enjoyed all the Crichton books you mentioned. Out of them, I would say Eaters of the Dead is my favorite. I like the way Crichton blended in a mixture of Arabic and Viking cultures. It struck me as a clever way to introduce the reader to what would otherwise have been your plain old epic quest storyline.
RL: Can you talk about your early bookstore experiences?
MR: Every now and then I would drop by a book store and poke my nose in, but through high school the Prince Georges County Public Library was still my place to get books (a little shout out there). I believe I already mentioned my mom was a librarian’s assistant. She worked there and would always take care of me. Mom knew what I liked to read and who my favorite authors were, and she often came home from work with a stack of books for me. I guess you could say I was a bit spoiled.
RL: I need to know… was there a library cat? (Sorry, I’m a cat dude. I loved my neighborhood library, and they had the coolest, sweetest cat, named Deuce.)
MR: No cats, my friend, just a bunch of bookworms.
RL: Did you find, as you grew older, that the books of your youth began to mean less to you? Or do you still enjoy all the types of books you’ve been exposed to throughout your life?
MR: Not at all. I’m a bit of a sentimentalist, and the books from my youth still hold great appeal for me. Sometimes I’ll find myself rereading a book from long ago. I just finished The Hobbit for the third or fourth time.
RL: How has your reading life survived adulthood?
MR: Finding time for reading and writing was a challenge for me. I was raised with a strong work ethic, and it took a little growing up for me to realize it was okay in adulthood to carve out some time for myself to both write and read. Once I understood that, I was able to find a balance. I try to reserve some time in the evening and on the weekend for one or the other. I believe finding that balance also helped me in performance of my adult responsibilities (career, husband, father, self-proclaimed handyman, etc., etc.).
RL: I love this answer. I’m all about the Tao. Balance. You say that balance has helped you. In what ways would you say it has helped, especially in terms of being a husband and father?
MR: I think reserving a little creative time has helped with my focus. When I’m not reading or writing, I can be more attentive to my wife and kids. I find that I enjoy my time more with them perhaps because I was able to get some good “me time” in. I’m also a little nicer to be around—or so I’ve been told. As for being a better handyman, that is still a subject of debate in the household…
RL: Currently, what types of books are you mostly drawn to?
MR: I’m trying to expand my horizons to authors that possess amazing talent but haven’t yet made it to the New York Times Best Sellers list. A couple of books I very much enjoyed reading were Kerry Alan Denney’s A Mighty Rolling Thunder and James Crawford’s Manleigh Cheese. Both books have fast-paced storylines, vivid characters, and unique, colorful, ways of describing the supernatural.
RL: Nice shout-out to a pair of great Burning Willow authors! Love it! Are there authors outside the BWP inmates you’ve discovered recently, and if so, what you liked about their work?
MR: Outside of the BWP Asylum the latest discovery I’ve made is probably James Michener. I decided to take a step away from the genres I usually enjoy and read Chesapeake. Man, what a treat that was! Some of my enjoyment could have derived from the fact that I’ve lived in Maryland and Virginia for most of my life and the book is rich with the customs and traditions of the Eastern Shore. I look forward to reading more of his works.
RL: How do you go about sharing your love of books with others?
MR: When it comes to reading, I’m not a big sharer. I don’t belong to any book clubs and its only on rare occasion that I would buy a book for someone. For me reading is a very personal experience. When I find someone that enjoys similar books it’s a treat, but I don’t go out looking for them.
RL: I’m one of those people who reads several books at a time. I’ve been called a “reading polygamist.” Are you? Or are you pretty monogamous when it comes to reading?
MR: I am a one book man, always have been. If I can get pulled into the story, I will read no others until the end. Sometimes if the book is really good, I find myself thinking about it and imagining where the plot might take me.
RL: You, sir, are a better man than I. I don’t know how you do it, but I respect it. I wish I were more chaste. Once I catch up with my To-Read pile, maybe…
MR: When I fall, I fall hard. It’s both good and bad. It’s good because with the right book I become totally invested in the story from beginning to end. The flip side to that is I can’t help but feel a little bit sad when I reach the end. That’s when I reach for the next novel and start all over. Fortunately, there are plenty of amazing stories out there to choose from!
RL: Now, I’m not a big fan of the term “guilty pleasure.” However, for want of a better term, what are your literary guilty pleasures?
MR: I would have to say maybe comic books. I don’t read them so much anymore, but if I see one lying around I’ll pick it up and give it a go. I built up a pretty impressive collection of both Marvel and DC as a kid, unfortunately most of those are long gone. I guess I just like the whole superhero storyline, good and evil duking it out. It kind of goes back to the whole imagination thing I mentioned earlier. I mean, who hasn’t dreamed of being a superhero at some point in their life?
RL: I’ve always been a fan of comics, yet strangely I’ve never been into the superhero ones. I’ve gone through phases: you know, a Batman series here, a Daredevil series there. But overall, I’m a Vertigo kind of guy. So I guess that means I’d rather be Sandman or Death, than a superhero. Not sure what that says of me. Although, to be honest, my biggest comics hero is Spider Jerusalem in Transmetropolitan. I would kill to be him in his weird, cyberpunk dystopia. If I had to pick a traditional superhero, I would have to go with Aquaman. No idea why. I’ve just always dug that dude. Speaking of which, have you read Kingdom Come? Now that superhero comic I LOVED! Great writing, great art. A must-read!
MR: I didn’t catch that one, but I’ll put it on my list. It’s funny that most of my favorite comics growing up in the late seventies and early eighties are now becoming huge blockbuster movies. I was a big fan of The Avengers, Iron Man, and Spider-Man. DC was okay. Martian Manhunter was my favorite from that side.
RL: This one could apply to all art, really, but in terms of writing, what are your thoughts on “genre?” What I mean is, do you feel it’s necessary to label?
MR: I believe there is a value to the reader in categorizing by genre. It can help them navigate the ocean of books out there to find ones similar to those they like.
RL: Are you a physical copy person, or do you prefer other ways of “reading” books, such as e-books or audio? Does the “delivery system,” as King calls it, matter to you?
MR: I’m oldschool. I like having the book in my hands while I read. Maybe it’s a nostalgia thing. I think there are enough dinosaurs (like me) out there to keep physical books around for at least a little bit longer.
RL: I’m one of those dinosaurs, too. And proud of it. Speaking of King, he’s often been seen at baseball games reading a book during rain delays or between innings. Says he never goes anywhere without a book. Do you take a book with you wherever you go?
MR: Sad to say no. The chaos of family life tends to distract me from thinking far enough ahead to always bring a book with me. I think it would be a great habit to form though. Food for thought…
RL: I don’t go anywhere without at least a paperback shoved in my coat, or back, pocket. So, I would say as far as habits go, it’s safer than smoking, and healthier than ice cream. But take what I say with a grain of salt, because when it comes to carrying books, I’m an unapologetic enabler.
MR: You know, I’m thinking I may have to go audio. I’m averaging about two and a half hours commute time each day. Sometimes I use that time to plot out a novel I’m working on in my head, but listening to a good book would be a nice alternative to that.
RL: What are your favorite books of all time, and why?
MR: My favorites include all of the novels in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series and the Odd Thomas collection by Dean Koontz. Martin’s world building skills are phenomenal. His descriptions of food are so good, I had to go and buy A Feast of Ice and Fire (it’s the Game of Thrones cookbook—the beef and bacon pie is my favorite so far). As for Koontz, I love the sense of humor he puts into his first person narratives.
RL: What books―and they don’t have to necessarily be “all-time favorites”―do you feel have influenced you and shaped you the most: as a human being, as an artist, etc.?
MR: Of all the books I’ve enjoyed, the ones by Dean Koontz have probably influenced me most as a writer. Novels such as Watchers, Cold Fire, and Dragon Tears are such easy reads, yet still intriguing enough to make you want to turn the page. I have been told by my readers that the same holds true for my works.
RL: Lastly, just for fun, what is the one book―be it a widely lauded classic, or bestselling popular phenom―do you find absolutely unreadable?
MR: There is no particular book that comes to mind, but one of things that will quickly cause me to stuff a book back on the shelf is when the writer loses the story in favor of showing their artistic genius. If you load each sentence with twenty dollar words to demonstrate your knowledge of the English language while forgetting to develop your characters and dropping any trace of genuine dialogue, you’ll lose me fast.
RL: So I take it you’ve never read Joyce’s Ulyesses? I do like a bit of stylish indulgence, but there are some authors I just can’t deal with. You can experiment with your storytelling calisthenics all you want, but DON’T LOSE THE STORY. I’ll stick with any book, any genre, any style as long as I still get the characters and story.
MR: Agreed. As for Joyce, I’m still recovering from an attempt at Finnegans Wake (my head still hurts thinking about it).
RL: Mark, thank you for discussing your reading life with me. Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!
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