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Interview with Marshall Karp: 2007

Image: Marshall Karp - author 2007Debut novelist Marshall Karp pulls a Rabbit from the hat almost at the first time of asking.
By Chris High.

Marshall Karp starts his Website biography with “It’s been a great life so far”. Few could argue. Having carved a successful career in advertising and overseeing contracts for the likes of Coca-Cola, Gillette and Nestle, Karp turned to writing for television, stage and screen and is the author of the play, Squabbles, and the screenwriter of the acclaimed Sony Classics movie, Just Looking.

Now Marshall has turned his hand to the novel and his first, The Rabbit Factory (Allison & Busby), has already been cited amongst the top eight debuts for Spring 2007 by Publishing News.

The praise is justifiable. The Rabbit Factory is, when all is said and done, six hundred and thirty-two pages of unadulterated magic.

When an actor portraying Familyland's beloved mascot, Rambunctious Rabbit, is brutally murdered on park grounds, Lamaar Corporation executives fear their spotless public image will be shattered. Under pressure from the studio, LAPD Detectives Mike Lomax and Terry Biggs must conduct their investigation while avoiding the public eye. With the media closing in and political pressure mounting, the partners must race to discover the Lamaar-hating madman before he brings the family entertainment giant to its knees.

More than anything, it is the “ordinary-ness” of Lomax and Biggs that sets the book apart from many other crime fiction novels. Both are family men and both are dedicated to the job. Neither one is a hard drinking womaniser and neither one is a faultless Supercop. Was this stepping away from “the norm” deliberate? ‘I didn’t create a cop. First and foremost, I created a man – a three-dimensional guy with all the warts, flaws and disappointments that one can accumulate in forty-two years on the planet,’ Marshall explained recently. ‘Then I added a devastating personal tragedy to Lomax’s life – the loss of his young wife. Finally, I made him a homicide detective. For me the essence of comedy, tragedy, and character development – in fiction and in real life – is conflict. I’m a character writer. My goal was to create a hero who resonates in such a way that you feel you know him, you relate to him, maybe you even are him. If I’d written about another hard-boiled, tough talking, two-fisted drinking cop, I’d be competing with writers who have done it brilliantly in the past. I love that you say Mike is ordinary, everyday, and yet he’s not. He’s as unique as anybody else.’

On page one, readers are introduced to Eddie Elkins, a man who has just landed his “dream job” of being the Lamaar Corporation icon, Rambunctious Rabbit. That is to say, he’s a man dressed in a rabbit suit who is set free to pose for family photographs. Eddie, however, is also a convicted paedophile who has managed to slip beneath the intense Lamaar security radar to land the role. Did Marshall ever think it was a risk introducing such a character so light-heartedly, so early in the novel? ‘I wanted the reader to see Eddie as the patrons in the park saw him, ambling down Fantasy Avenue. But the jocularity wasn’t the risk because it is stripped away early on. When I let the reader know Eddie is an unregistered paedophile … that was the risk. One of my neighbours said she was ready to stop reading there and then and only changed her mind when I killed Eddie by the end of the chapter. A paedophile on page one can turn a lot of people off, but of course, in this case, it’s important to the story.’

‘Interestingly enough, I did what I think a lot of debut novelists do. I wrote the opening a dozen different ways and agonized over every choice. When I finally finished the book, I went back and rewrote it effortlessly,’ Marshall said.

There is a poignancy in the book that is counter-balanced by many laugh-out-loud sections. Did Marshall find the contrasts and pace of the novel difficult to sustain? ‘Not to sustain, no, but sometimes to restrain. I love humour as a counterpunch to murder. I had to make sure that I didn’t put the laughs in the wrong places though because there are times when humour is inappropriate. If you hang out with me for a while, you’ll see I’ve been known to cross the line. Fortunately with fiction, unlike in life, I can go back and delete the foot from a character’s mouth.’

Given the theme of the book, there are many comparisons drawn between the fictional Lamaar Corporation and other real-life entertainment conglomerates. Surely it’s not coincidence that one character has the first name Hannah, whilst another has the surname of Barber and Lamaar in itself isn’t a million miles from a real company name either. So, is The Rabbit Factory a direct swipe at corporate entertainment? ‘It’s not so much a “swipe” at the entertainment conglomerates, as it is an insider’s perspective of true corporate behaviour. The way I depict Hollywood in The Rabbit Factory, and even more so in my second book, Bloodthirsty, is to me an honest, “tell-it-like-it-really-is” portrayal of the business. If it’s revealing, it’s because I’ve been able to get up close and personal and see the way corporate America – and corporate Hollywood in particular – works.’

Then does Marshall miss being in advertising and so “up close and personal” to the industry? ‘I don’t miss the day-to-day “magic” that one has to put up with in the rat race … especially the meetings,’ Marshall said with more than a hint of irony. ‘I believe it was your own Gilbert K. Chesterton who said, “I've searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues of committees”. As a recovering rat I can avoid the madding crowds and still consult to large corporations – but only as long as I can interface with a single decision maker. And of course I now use my powers for good, not evil, by donating my advertising and marketing skills to charities or causes I believe in.
As to the actual process of writing a novel, I love it when the characters do the writing and I do the typing. Crafting the plot is a bitch but that’s my job, although it helps to have an editor to work with me as a sounding board. But once I have a wall full of index cards, and my plot points are outlined, I love to let the characters take over and help me tell the story. Of course, I also love the fact that there’s no commute to the office, no dress code, no nine-to-five, plus ample time to go to the gym, take a nap, or play with the dog.’

The Rabbit Factory took five years to write. What else was Marshall Karp working on? ‘Life. After starting the book in May 2001, I was in New York City on September 11th and my daughter was at Ground Zero. Although she escaped unharmed, I put the book aside for eight months and just tried to make sense of the world. I spent all of 2002 as if some doctor gave me one year to live. My goal was to live life to the fullest and my mantra became “live every day like it’s September 10th ”. My wife continued to live and work in New York City, and I spent weekdays in upstate New York. We’d reconnect every weekend and I finally got back to writing The Rabbit Factory in the summer of 2002. I worked on it like any spec piece – dedicated, but not under any deadline pressure. I did a little freelance consulting for big corporations like Mercedes. I also worked hard to convince my wife to quit her job in New York City, and live full time with me in idyllic upstate New York. When she refused I threatened to get a mistress or a dog. She said, “for God’s sake, get a mistress, because you won’t bring her home to the city every weekend”. Of course, I got the dog, Jett, a black Labrador, and my wife adores her.’

In the novel, Mike Lomax’s wife, Joanie, has died of cancer. In an attempt to come to terms with her illness, she has written a series of letters that are to be opened, a month at a time, on the anniversary of her death. Where did the idea for that come from? ‘It’s part of my very own personal end-of-life plan. If I’m ever hit by a bus you’ll have to settle for what I’ve left behind. That includes 40 years of New Year’s Eve letters I’ve written to myself, and hundreds of diary pages that I started when I first wrote Squabbles and continued writing throughout my TV and movie careers. No one has ever read them, and I’ve asked my wife to burn them, but who knows if she’ll want to or even be able to. On the other hand, if a doctor gives me some advance notice like Joanie, I’ll be writing farewell letters. I even thought about a video to be played at my funeral. Always leave ‘em laughing.’

How much of Marshall Karp is represented in the novel’s characters as a whole? ‘So much that I’d say I couldn’t have written this book twenty years ago. I wouldn’t have allowed so much of me to be exposed. Mike is the sensitive, brooding, but hopefully everyman side of me, Terry is the New York wise-ass and Big Jim is the loveable, well-meaning, meddling father. And Joanie? In Chapter Two she writes “it serves you right for marrying a first-born, perfectionist, Gemini, control freak”. I’m the first-born, perfectionist, Gemini, control freak who inspired her.’

After being so involved in marketing, does Marshall enjoy the promotion process that goes hand in hand with being a novelist? ‘Do food critics enjoy eating in restaurants? Probably not all of them. My first book event was held in New York City and my entire family and every friend I had since second grade showed up. The store ran out of books in the first twenty minutes. The manager dashed out and bought more from a big chain store, and sold those out. A hundred and forty copies – and if they had more, they’d have sold too. My arm was numb from signing and shaking hands. It was all pretty heady. Two weeks later I was sitting in a tiny bookshop in a little town called Nobody Here Knows Marshall Karp with a dozen unsold books on my table. You could practically hear the crickets chirping and see the tumbleweeds rolling by. Humility comes fast in the publishing business. Eventually, I learned that it’s not about how many books you sell. The true value of a promotion is in the relationship the author forges with the bookseller and the hard part is realizing after so many years in marketing that suddenly I am now “the product”. I’m the box of soapsuds on the shelf and if nobody is driven to my table by the marketing, I either have to stand up and shout pick me, pick me or shrug and be grateful that I even made it to the shelf. I tend Book image: The Rabbit Factory by Marshall Karpto shrug.’

Does the author have any plans to visit the UK in the near future? ‘Definitely. My passport is up to speed and I’m coming to England in early April to help promote the book when The Rabbit Factory is launched by Allison & Busby. I’m looking forward to it immensely. I only pray that I don’t incur the wrath of God for promoting a dead rabbit over the Easter holiday.’

What, in his opinion, are the biggest obstacles facing aspiring authors today? ‘Good question. When I first landed an agent, I thought the manuscript was ready to be submitted but my agent insisted on not one, but two rewrites, the first of which was major. “Shouldn’t I be rewriting for a publisher,” I asked. “Isn’t that what editors are for?” I was then instructed in the New Publishing ethos … Editors don’t edit. The days of that guy with the green eyeshade and the blue pencil who sits lovingly and ruthlessly hunched over your masterpiece are either gone, or in some houses, never existed. Today’s editors acquire books. They market. The publishing “business” is now just that – a business. A lot of Editors liked my book from the off but that didn’t transcend their business plans. What many of the rejection letters I received gave me as a new author was promise. What aspiring writer wouldn’t want to get positive professional feedback on his or her first novel? But rejection is rejection and many slips were also tempered with “sales projections against the trade audience” or requests for “cutting edge forensics” because CSI and its clones are what’s hot on TV right now. The sheer business logic of being “focused on growing our existing authors” – IE: “money makers” – is a lot more prevalent these days. In business, profit trumps passion every time. That said, all you Aspiring Writers out there, don’t give up. I sold my book and if I didn’t want to deal with all the obstacles I’d have stayed in advertising, or television, or any of my previous incarnations where I was on a high rung on a solid ladder. Then again, my life philosophy has always been “the view is fantastic from up here. Now, get me another ladder.”

The Rabbit Factory by Marshall Karp is published by Allison & Busby on April 6th, 2007. Reviewed here

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“Writing gets me away for a while' from this world and into one where I, alone, can make or
break the rules as I see fit.” - Chris High 2003.
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