How do you start an investigation when you have no evidence that a crime has been committed?
Such is the premise of Mark Leichliter’s gripping new suspense novel, The Other Side. When a seventeen-year-old girl abruptly disappears from a sleepy Montana tourist town, the ensuing investigation probes dead-ends seemingly as deep as Flathead Lake. The effort to discover what has happened to Britany Rodgers takes readers inside spectacular lakefront mansions and within gritty trailer parks, and into the lives of those who exhibit motivations as murky as the fog-choked Montana woods. Fans of realistic procedurals, pulse-pounding mysteries and contemporary crossovers will not be disappointed.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: What was your age and circumstance when you first learned that language had power?
A: I was actually reminded of this circumstance via a social media post by a former classmate remarking on the publication of The Other Side. That post mentioned my favorite teacher of all time, Mrs. Garcia, who was fabulously creative, caring, and passionate. 7th grade, so I must have been twelve, all hopped up on adolescent hormones and filled with self-doubt. Because I’d been writing little stories on my own practically since I could hold a pen, and because Mrs. Garcia was the sort who championed all of her students and enthusiastically shared their work, there were numerous times that year where she made me see that writing could provide one agency, but I recall one transformative moment. One semester-long assignment was a collaborative class project—together we were supposed to create a “feature film.” Teaching genius years ahead of its time. And I mean every aspect of the film, from producing scripts to final editing and sound mixing. The project started with a contest. Every student wrote a script. Mrs. Garcia and some colleagues narrowed those to a few finalists, and then the class voted on the project they would “produce.” This will date me, for I wrote a comedic spoof of a popular television show of the time, “The Six-Million Dollar Man.” I titled my take “The Six Cent Man.” I had a great time writing the script and was proud of it. I was also aware enough to recognize what a rare, great teacher we had in Mrs. Garcia, so the fact that my script made it to the voting stages meant that she must have liked it, and that knowledge brought me satisfaction.
The class voted to produce a script titled “The Amazing Ham-burglar,” choosing a campy physical comedy over the nuances of my script, or at least I like, with the distance of time, to believe my twelve-year-old self understood nuance, social commentary, and more sophisticated comedy. I’m sure I was wrong. However, Mrs. Garcia approached me after class on the day the results were announced. She said, “Mark, I just wanted to let you know that the class got it wrong. I don’t think they can fully appreciate what you are doing in this script. Your movie is the one we should be making. You understand something fundamental about the creative act. I’d like you to be the director for ‘The Amazing Ham-burglar.’ If you’re interested, I think you’re the one who can best understand the creative process behind shooting this story.” My directorial “debut” (also my only director billing) was a consolation prize, but it’s one that I valued. To have a teacher who I so respected read, with care rather than obligation, something that I’d written was the real prize. I was a shy, skinny kid in “love” with a girl I was too scared to ask out and too nervous to try-out for the basketball team. I did well in school and particularly well in English and related subjects, but I was quiet in class. With Mrs. Garcia’s support, writing became my voice. It was the vehicle that allowed me to speak to the world, and belief in that work was enough to allow me to take on the leadership directing a class project required.
Q: What books might we have found on the nightstand of your adolescent self? What are you reading now?
A: Like most people destined to be writers as grown-ups, I was a voracious reader all my life and a particularly committed reader as an adolescent. As I’ve said, I was shy, so books were an important outlet, and I particularly enjoyed books that allowed escape from my sheltered life and that featured strong male protagonists who were confident, mysterious, and idealistic. You most certainly would have found one of Don Pendleton’s books from his The Executioner series on my nightstand. The protagonist was Mac Bolan, a decorated American sniper from the Vietnam War who is granted leave when his entire family is killed by his father in a murder/suicide. Learning that his father’s actions were prompted by the mafia having kidnapped his sister and forced her into prostitution, Bolan starts a one-man crusade to rid the world of organized crime. Non-stop action, a clear case of good vs. evil, racy covers of Mac rescuing attractive women—it was a teenage boy’s dreamscape. I was also big into science fiction as an adolescent, and my world was definitely changed by reading Dune. To watch an adolescent discover himself and begin to realize the power of his gift was extremely attractive to a young kid living in the Wyoming prairie. I was entranced by Frank Herbert’s world-building, even if was only beginning to decipher the geo-political commentary he’d embedded, inspired by the America’s addiction to oil and dependence on powers in foreign deserts to provide it. But adolescence also brought the wisdom of Mrs. Garcia and lists and lists of more literary titles we could read and report on for extra credit, so I was reading the original versions of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer that I’d read in abridged form as a child. It was in her class that I first read The Great Gatsby, a novel I’ve read, and taught, dozens of times as an adult. Eventually I outgrew The Executioner, largely stopped reading science fiction and traded it for literary realism, but those novels are as much a part of me still today as any lived experience I had.
Q: Upon reflection, what author(s) would you say have/had the greatest influence on the development of your style and voice as a storyteller?
A: Honestly, I could fill a book in response to this question. I do truly think everything we read influences the writers we become. Probably the dominant force in my own voice is a love affair with the nuances of language and how great language lives first in the reader’s ear, then helps them form imaginative visions that compel emotion, then, with the echo of language still reverberating in the ear, they move on to an intellectual understanding of where the language leads them. Writers who use precision of language in its full elegance are the ones to whom I’m most instinctively drawn, and in this regard, I have to highlight Fitzgerald as an early influence. My strongest two influences share these qualities—Tim O’Brien and Andre Dubus. They are the sort of writers who literally changed how I saw language and the nature of storytelling. They came earlier for me, but a writer like Jennifer Egan, who came later, extended such lessons. She, like O’Brien, also offered evidence that a writer can experiment with structure and learn to have the rhythms of language and syntax become mechanisms for supporting theme. Kent Haruf, among others, taught me to learn to simplify. All these same qualities that lean to what gets labeled as the more literary part of the marketplace are everywhere present in the crime fiction of Tana French. Within the crime genre, she certainly sets the bar I want to learn to reach.
Q: What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel (and why)?
A: In all of my work I wish to present characters in as realistic a vein as possible, and I wish to honor the complexity we all have within us as human beings. People are rarely “types.” They contradict themselves, have vulnerabilities, demonstrate unexpected grace, possess monsters within them, and are regularly floored by beauty and love and kindness. A novel that far too few know (well, really, I’m cheating a bit because it’s a novella and short story collection) that conveys people as they truly are, is The Times Are Never So Bad by Andre Dubus. Dubus is a writer’s kind of writer, and while he had/has a nearly rabid, devoted following among writers and editors, he steadfastly refused to play a lot of the publishing game, staying with the same small press for nearly the whole of his career, never producing an actual novel, constantly writing sophisticated anti-heroes and finding strength in unlikely characters. “The Pretty Girl,” the novella that opens the book, alone offers an unflinching exploration of the shaky ego behind those who are bullies and abusers, daringly accessed via first person, alongside the devotion of a parent even when powerless to protect those they love, the grit and tenacity of quiet strength in those who others might never see or reduce to a dismissive reduction based on physical attractiveness, just to name a few of its remarkable character portrayals. To convey how the world actually is can take far more talent than to fabricate the world that only exist in the imagination in my estimation, and Dubus was an absolute master at that. To do so and have those stories still be the places we want to spend our time requires the kind of ability that is replicated in great architects; there is a near parallel in creating spaces that are fully functional living or work spaces that are structurally sound, efficient, utilitarian and simultaneously provocative, beautiful, and stimulating. The Times Are Never So Bad is a book equivalent of that kind of architecture.
Q: In your opinion, who was the best written character of all time (and why)?
A: I’d probably give you a different character on a different day because there are many, but immediately my mind goes to Count László Almásy, who most of us only know at “the English patient” in Michael Ondaatje’s novel of that name. He is a mystery inside a mystery, a man inside of gauze and burnt skin, a figure inside layers of stories. We get to meet what seem multiple versions of him across the novel, and, perhaps most important to the novelist, he undergoes such transformations that we see him quite differently at different parts of his life and in different parts of the novel. Finally, for a person who has lived richly and explored the world, consorted with fascinating people, learned more than most ever dare, ultimately, he is a figure defined by the love of another. He’s all the romanticized parts of a larger than life being as we often expect in novels, and yet Ondaatje captures him as human, as frail, as lovesick as any of us might be. He is unknowable and known in the same breath. He can be pathetic. He can be brave. He can be funny. He can be vulnerable. He can be wise. He can be naïve. And he can be all these things at once. That’s a character we must peel away in layers, one we will never forget once we meet him.
Q: Plotter or pantser, and why does your chosen method work effectively for you?
A: I am absolutely a ‘pantser.’ 100 percent. Every writer approaches their work differently, as they should. It’s important you find what works for you. We all have different needs. I have writer friends who plot every aspect of a novel and spend years meticulously doing research for it. While I’m a stickler for research and spend important time consulting experts in fields that are vital to what I’m writing at the moment, when it comes to process, I relish not knowing where a book is going. It’s actually a topic I’m passionate about, for I find tremendous joy in the act of discovery that comes with writing. I believe in the E.L. Doctorow idea that writing is like driving at night with your headlights on; you may only be able to see what’s immediately ahead of you, but you can make a whole trip that way. As long as I begin to see the next scene at some point while I am writing a current scene, I trust that I’ll find my way to the end. For me, this allows me to get out of the way of the book, listen to its rhythms and patterns, hear my characters’ voices. I learn to put my trust in discovering the characters’ stories rather than telling them what to do. I find it a more authentic process. Of course, my process could never work for another writer. And it greatly complicates the revision process where I spend a lot of time moving material around into a new order. But I find tremendous energy in this silly approach. I take that to heart in all my work; indeed, The Other Side was written in this manner, defying the sort of “who-done-it” where, for a good part of the writing process, I remained open to the “who” of that question.
Q: If you could invite three famous fictional detectives to dinner, who would they be, what would you serve, and what would you most like to ask each one?
A: Sherlock Holmes, Phillip Marlowe, Cassie Maddox. I’d prepare something hearty and layered in flavor to keep the conversation going and keep people at the table, yet a dish that might appeal to Homes’ and Maddox’s homeward yearnings, perhaps bouillabaisse. Chocolate mousse for dessert because it pairs with brandy, a drink I think I could get all three on board with and then loosen their tongues a bit. For Holmes, because I first encountered him as a child and took a somewhat narrow, purposeful (though still fun) focus on his use of logic, I’d want to ask technical questions about people’s behaviors and their “tells,” those elements of applied observation of human behavior that might help a detective know when they were being truthful. For Marlowe, who I didn’t encounter until college, my questions would be directed at the softer, more reflective parts of him that appear under the hard-boiled, oft-stereotyped mask; not only would they be questions focused on rooting out the person behind the role, they’d reflect my sense that we all are likely to hide our vulnerabilities. I’m not certain that Tana French’s Cassie Maddox meets the typical definition of “famous” since she is contemporary, but French either is or has cemented her place in the crime fiction we’ll all still be reading two generations from now, and Maddox is among her most interesting creations from what might be her best novel. For Maddox, I’d want to go to the heart of what The Likeness is all about: when, as an investigator, do you risk becoming the very thing you are hunting; what does Maddox find in her alter-ego that makes her come so near to wanting to disappear herself? For all three, there’s a uniting question: does the commitment to the work preclude an ability to maintain a relationship—something I play around with in my character Steven Wendell.
Q: What’s a typical writing day like for you?
A: My love is in writing novels. Most of my income comes from editing work for others and ghostwriting for thought leaders. As a result, I purposefully split my days. From nearly the moment I awaken until a late morning break for a work-out, I’m ensconced inside the novel that I am writing at the moment. I write in layers and typically open the writing day by reading and revising a portion of what I’ve written over the past few days and allow that momentum to carry me forward into new pages. I always follow the Hemmingway advice of stopping a writing day mid-sentence, so many days I feel strongly compelled to finish that sentence and am back inside the writing without thinking about it. I don’t outline. I rarely know beyond the next scene where the text will take me, so I feel an urgency to listen to the characters and uncover the story.
The afternoons are nearly opposite affairs in that I’m typically working from an outline, puzzling out how to best say content that I know the client wants to include, researching alongside writing, constantly turning inside transcripts of interviews to find the thread of expression. It’s all writing, but they originate in different ways.
They day closes by research on materials I need for my own novels, some close editing either of my own work or a client project or of work that will be published in a literary magazine I edit. If I can keep my eyes open, I turn to the book(s) I’m reading for pleasure/study.
Q: You began your first novel 25 years ago while teaching full time, raising a family, coaching, and working a part-time job to supplement the family income. Did you ever feel you should just quit and throw that manuscript into a bottom drawer, never to be touched again?
A: I may hold the record for rejection—from agents, editors, magazines, you name it. I get told “no” almost constantly. The smart move would have been to quit. I’m a Taurus, so maybe I’m just stubborn. But honestly, two things remain true to me on why I have kept writing: 1) stories are an inherent and central way in which I view the world; while some think in terms of formulas or math or data or things they produce with their hands, I hear the universe in stories and metaphors. Many times I can’t make heads or tales of complex material until I hear the human story underneath it. So, in this regard, I’d almost say I don’t have a choice. 2) On the stubborn front, there has always been a part of me that wants to prove those who frequently say “no” wrong, and truthfully, I remain steadfast in the belief that the only logical response for a writer to rejection is to return to the work, scrutinize it even closer, make certain it is as good as it can possibly be, and send it out again.
Q: Do you edit as you compose or save all of the editing until the first draft is completed?
A: In a way, I do both. I definitely edit as I compose. By the time a manuscript is typed, I’ve already been editing across it through multiple passes. That said, revision is a long process for me, and I come back to the full draft again and again. Because I don’t plot—writing is a far more organic process for me—much of the revision goes well beyond “editing” and involves moving entire chapters to different locations, finding gaps of ideas that need developed, and other larger scale concerns.
Q: Does anyone get to read your works-in-progress or do you make everyone wait until you have typed THE END?
A: My wife often reads or has me read aloud work-in-progress. When she does, she’s quick to ask, “What happens next?” That creates a certain momentum that can be really useful. At times, we enter long, contemplative conversations about characters, which in turn prompts more questions and more investigation.
Q: Detectives Steve Wendell and Stacey Knudson are the law enforcement protagonists in The Other Side. From where/what did this pair arise?
A: Both are entirely fictional beings, but Wendell does have a handful of facts/qualities that are an amalgam of several real law enforcement friends or acquaintances, including the notion that he doesn’t come to the police side of the law enforcement world until he’s forty, which makes him something of an outlier from all the other rookies. That outlier status is key to his personality, and that was very purposeful. I wanted a cop who likes to largely work a case in his own way and who, while he is respected by his colleagues, is quite different from them. The one particular I share with Wendell is that I’ve made him a trail runner. While I don’t run as fast or as long as he does, to be a trail runner you have to be able to adapt to changing and challenging trail and weather conditions, be resilient and push yourself when you’d like to turn around (and we share Montana as our home, so trails always are uphill), be comfortable alone, and find comfort in the quiet of pine forests where you can think and problem solve. Wendell is careful in nearly every way, deeply moral, and precise even in how he speaks. He never wants to offend—that’s a real part of his personality that is instilled in him by not wanting to judge people. That’s why he’s paired with Knudson, who is outspoken, crass, and likes to poke at people. She uses this part of her personality as a bit of a defense mechanism, for she’s an outlier as well, but her status is largely forced on her as a woman. Law enforcement is changing and continues to become more inclusive, but historically it’s very much a man’s realm and it often still attracts alpha-male types. Knudson is willing to stand up to these forces. Both characters care greatly for victims and take the “protect” part of the police pledge to heart.
Q: What’s unique about Steve and Stacey as investigators and why are they the right characters for the readers’ experience in this novel?
A: That last part of the previous response is key to understanding Steve and Stacey. It could even be their undoing, for they are entirely sincere in their vow to never give up on a case or on the people impacted by a case. They are dogged in their pursuit. For this novel, that’s key because it is an investigation that’s filled with dead-ends and there’s very little logic behind what they begin to uncover. One crime bleeds into another. One person of interest has as little or as much reason to retain their interest as another. It’s the sort of investigation that requires original problem solving and perseverance.
Q: If Hollywood came calling, who would comprise your dream cast for an adaptation?
A: I’ve simply got to be honest and say that such a question simply doesn’t align with my thinking. I’m not saying I wouldn’t love for the novel to be adapted. I think it actually would lend itself to film extremely well. I just don’t think in those terms. And honestly, I think part of the power of reading is that the reader is a partner, so every reader has his or her own way of seeing characters and a text. I’d leave such vision of casting to a reader who was so engaged in a text that they wanted to lead an adaptation.
Q: What does your title—The Other Side—mean to you and how does it apply to the plot (without giving away any spoilers)?
A: “The other side” as a phrase has numerous applications to the nature of the novel, from the most superficial to the most metaphysical. On one end of the spectrum, the geographical center of the book is Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, and the criminal events literally take place on the other side of the lake from where Steve Wendell lives. In some aspects, the two communities are quite different from one another. In another application, from the beginning of this missing person investigation, it is unknown if Britany will be found alive; “the other side” is a common reference to the crossover from life to death, something the characters, like the reader, is reminded as a possibility. Because of where the novel is set and the nature of the Flathead Valley, there’s a great deal of flow between the lives of the “haves” and the “have-nots”, and a lot of contemplation about how the other half, or “the other side,” of the economic spectrum lives. For the divide is quite real and many of the “haves” in my neck of the woods have A LOT, with grand, lakefront mansions and luxury cars, both of which they may use for only a few weeks out of the year. One highlighted question revolves around the natural daydreaming common to youth and with Britany’s fixation with those whose lives are so different from her own. Lastly, from a psychological standpoint, in police work there’s always that question of the person you are supposed to see vs. “the other side” of their personality, and the person they may wish to hide.
Q: How did you go about finding a publisher?
A: This book had a complicated publishing journey, including being represented by an agent with whom I ultimately parted ways. Shortly after that representation ceased, I stumbled into Level Best Books, which was growing their list pretty substantially and had placed a call for manuscripts. But I’ve been studying the industry a long time and know more than I might like to about the search for agents and the like and am lucky enough to have enough writer friends to be able to know a lot about some of the comings and goings in publishing, trends, reputations, etc.
Q: Best advice to aspiring authors?
A: Write the books you want to write and concentrate on learning the craft so that you can make them the best books you are capable of writing. Publication is a different animal. A lot of it is luck and timing, but good work finds a way. Don’t get caught up in the hype or the trends or the pursuit. The work is the work. Follow your passions; sure, you’re unique, but you’re not so unique that there aren’t others who share those passions and who will want to read the stories you write. Write them well. Get over the difficulty of having your work critiqued; it needs it. Solicit readings from those who are knowledgeable and who are capable of honesty. The world does not need more mediocre books. Readers deserve the book you believe in with all your heart and into which you have poured your time and your soul.
Q: What would people be the most surprised to learn about you?
A: Probably how different I am from the characters I write and the stories I tell. I care a great deal for realism and try hard to apply my powers of observation backed up with research and talking with people who have experience radically different from my own. I like to think my books are highly imaginative and introduce characters with a lot of mystery and depth—psychologically complicated people, world travelers, cross-cultural…—so perhaps the surprise is how boring and ordinary I really am.
Q: What’s next on your plate?
A: I’m a quarter of the way into writing a new novel that opens in 1966 in what was then Saigon and that pursues as its protagonist a woman who only entered diplomatic service in a blue-collar capacity in her forties. She finds she is adept at work in the chaos and uncertainty of an unfamiliar culture in the midst of war. I’m pairing her with a second narrative of a younger woman contemporary to our own time who might learn from the life of an independent, extraordinary woman.
Meanwhile, I’m in the midst of research and some notetaking for the follow-up to The Other Side, which will focus on human trafficking and feature an unexpected façade for a trafficking ring operating out of Flathead County, Montana.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: Only a thank you. I appreciate your time and your interest. Writers are very indebted to those who help guide readers towards great books. The industry pours all its money and attention into a tiny handful of books—often the very ones already guaranteed an audience—so the role of those in the industry that share interviews, book news, reviews and the like are tremendously important to readers and writers alike.