Mark Costello was born and raised near Boston. He is a former federal prosecutor. In 1990 he co-authored Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present with David Foster Wallace. He published his first novel, Bag Men, under the name John Flood. His second novel, Big If, has recently been published. Mark Costello teaches criminal law at Fordham University and lives in New York City with his family.
Robert Birnbaum: America being the land of reinvention and such, it’s not surprising that you, a former federal prosecutor, becomes a novelist.
Mark Costello: Yes.
RB: Should I ask you a direct question, or do want to take it from here?
MC: How does that work?
MC: I wrote a book with my friend Dave Wallace when I was a corporate lawyer in ’91 called Signifying Rappers and then I wrote a second book while I was a federal prosecutor and I had a notion that the two could go together.
RB: The second book was Bag Men.
MC: It was published in ’96 by Norton.
MC: I had the notion that the two things could go together—a little Henry Adams-like, since we were talking about Adams before. But I found that you can’t do your best writing if you have a full-time, very involved job. I knew that my novel, Bag Men—which is a book that I am proud of—it’s a strong book, but I knew I could do better. That was how the change happened, realizing that I wasn’t writing the kind of fiction that I like to read. I cut my lines and drifted into the stream.
RB: Why did you become a lawyer and then a prosecutor?
MC: I wanted to do something practical when I was 21, 22. I wanted to know something, to be able to do something. If I had been good with math I would have been an engineer. The law, seemed to me, to be like engineering with words. A contract is a contraption. It’s a device designed to accomplish things, it’s constructed entirely of words. As far as being a prosecutor, I come from along line of school teachers and my dad was a naval officer and I had the public service thing. I wanted to practice law in that context. Mostly, it’s that I wanted to do something practical. That had some definite use. Fiction has many uses, but they are not always so definite.
RB: My guess is that you have always been a reader.
RB: And from that came your interest in writing.
MC: Actually, I mostly wrote humor. I was a comedy writer in college. Dave Wallace and I went to college together and we wrote kind of a lampoon. Saturday Night Live skit stuff. I’d always loved fiction and I always loved writing. I didn’t set out to become a lawyer and say to myself, "But I’ll write on the side." That’s how it happened for a good ten years.
RB: At some point after Bag Men you decided to give up your day job?
MC: After it was published, I started working on another book. I had a contact with Norton to produce another novel. My first child was born. Between the kid and the job, the book wasn’t coming. And then when it started coming, I wanted something stronger and deeper. There is no way to accomplish that when writing is your third priority. It’s just too hard. This went on for a couple of years and I just felt I had to make a break.
RB: Why was Bag Men published under another name?
MC: Bag Men is about official corruption and corrupt prosecutors—all forms of corruption, both overt and sometimes more subtle. I didn’t want the book read as a tell-all, as a prosecutor blows the lid off. So I felt there had to be some separation. And the nome de plume was the best mechanism I could come up with.
RB: Your two novels are very different from each other. You seemed to have taken lots of chances in Big If. How much of the story did you know when you began the novel?
MC: I was 3/4 of the way through the novel I was supposed to deliver which was about FBI agents. And there was a walk-on character who was a burnt-out secret service agent who had just been kicked off of the protection unit detail for some unspecified mental breakdown and that was Vi Asplund. At this point, I was about 18 months into the other book and within 2 hours of meeting Vi she had taken things over. There was something about the mystery of her and the idea of a woman who was in this situation—very quickly I started to wonder how she got to be in the burned-out state she was in. Big If started with me trying to figure out what it would be like to be her. I had worked in the New Hampshire primary as a political operative for a number of different Democrats going back to when I was in high school. I always thought that would be an interesting thing to do if you could take the politics out of it. There have been some decent books written about political intrigue, but I was interested in everyone but the candidates and the wheeler dealers; the agents, the roadies, the low-level volunteers. So, those two things together, that was where the book started.
RB: There’s so much more. Vi’s sister-in-law selling high-end real estate to neurotic wives of the ridiculously wealthy. Vi’s brother, the math prodigy, working for a video/computer company on the verge of an IPO. And the black woman lead agent, Gretchen, who has her own story to tell. It was fun and engrossing not to know where the story was going and to expect to be surprised. Were you surprised?
MC: I struggled with it. I was very interested in Vi Asplund as a character and then you picture the people around her. Having worked in NH in politics at a low level, as a grunt, but having dealt with Secret Service agents and watched them work a crowd and work a room, I knew that the group feel was very important to them. What I didn’t know until very late in the book was how it was going to end. Anytime you have secret service agents in real life or in a book, the first thing you thing about is, “Is there going to be a bang today?” We know that most days there aren’t and the whole ethos of the Secret Service is to always be on edge, as if today will be today. This event will be the day. They have to get in that head and stay there for long periods. What I finally decided—there is an event at the end of the book—but I wanted to make sure that the event didn’t overwhelm the real stuff of the book, which is the daily lives of people on both sides of the rope line. You don’t want a plot twist that’s going to overwhelm their daily lives.
RB: You’re not saying that Vi is the main character? It doesn’t seem to me that there is a main character.
MC: It’s an ensemble thing. If it succeeds, it succeeds as that. It’s a book about crowds, and as such, the model is looking at a whole group of people. There are six characters in the book that you go inside the heads of over the course of 350 pages. Three of them are Secret Service agents and three of them are civilians. My mental picture of the book was that it would itself be a crowd and that there would be a rope line running down the middle of it, agents on side and civilians on the other. Where they would meet would be very combustible.
RB: Does the Secret Service have any problem with you writing about their protocols and procedures?
MC: I haven’t heard from them. I have friends in the Secret Service who I had worked with as a prosecutor and I hope I haven’t gotten any of them in trouble. I haven’t had any problems so far.
RB: Is the Dome, in fact, a protection scheme?
MC: They have elaborate protocols. Calling it the Dome, which is their word for this whole branch of theology of how to keep someone alive, that’s invented. But the tactical doctrine, religion really, that they pursue, I don’t want to say that any of my friends in the Secret Service divulged things to me. They’re all intensely held secrets. But you watch them and see what they do. I have other friends who do bodyguard work. You can listen to the Secret Service radio. There are web sites run by people obsessed with the Secret Service. There’s a lot of weird stuff out there.
RB: I thought that these kinds of agencies don’t want any attention, factual or fictional. Is that right?
MC: Yes. It’s practical paranoia. It’s paranoia to a purpose because their first principle has to be that you never know. A lot of their tactics are base on over-awe, on deterring attempts by making it seem impossible. At a certain point paranoia grows beyond its purpose and becomes a thing onto itself. They are very, very tight.
RB: Someone forwards the theory that the reason there were 7 person details was because a shooter with a revolver couldn’t empty their gun and get every agent. This, of course, ignores, automatic and semi-automatic weapons. Were you joking around?
MC: What the books says is there are 7 people on a body team, within a Secret Service detail. Gore’s detail, for example, was closer to 50, or 75 people when he travels through little villages in New Hampshire. God knows what it would be when Clinton went to Syria (when Clinton went to China he had a thousand people with him, enormous) But the body team is a sub-sub-sub-sub sub division of a detail and their job is just to take the bullet. What you are referring to a joke in the book when the agents are joking about why there are 7. One says it’s to absorb the contents of six-shooter. Another says it’s the 7 dwarfs.
RB: In recent conversations, a number of authors have told me that the book they wrote was not the one they set out to write. We sit with the image that the writer is like the film director, in command of the narrative in all its detail and nuance. Now there is evidence of some mysterious process take seems to take over. Does that make it easier to write? Or harder?
MC: That’s a great question. I never thought of it. I know exactly the phenomenon you are referring to. (long pause) I think it makes it much, much harder. You can’t plan and you don’t know when lightning is going to strike. (Because) My model of writing for many years was engineering based. Write a contract, write a brief, write an indictment, write a search warrant, which is very linear—it’s engineering. One of the things I had to do in writing this book—and it was hard as hell—was freeing up and learning to let go. Let the fiction kind of happen, because I was very unused to doing that. Bag Men, was outlined, but I knew that there were 6 or 7 plot points I wanted to connect and I started with a pretty elaborated sense of 2 or 3 characters and it was written very quickly—in about 6 weeks. It was written in a linear way from start to finish. I’m happy with this book because that process failed for me and scared the hell out me but eventually something happened. I think really good fiction is accidental. It’s a traffic accident on the page of beautiful things and true things and resonant things. But if you are not willing to let it happen you are going to come up with something very controlled. It’s one way that good writers die.You have a writer, who their first book or first couple of books you really like—there’s a snap to them and freshness. Then there comes this pressure to meet a market and that’s a danger for writers.
RB: Sure. Do you have a fallback, a day job?
MC: I teach law. I’m part time, teaching criminal law at Fordham. Nuts and bolts lawyering classes. I prefer that to jurisprudence or theory classes. There are many jokes at the expense of theoreticians in the Big If, part of me really like the practical. So, that’s what I like to teach.
RB: Am I safe in assuming you are working on something now?
MC: Yeah sure. I was into some really fun stuff before all this [book publicity tour] started. I haven’t written in 2 months.
RB: You know David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen?
RB: I’m assuming in blurbing Big If, they are sincere.
MC: I hope so. They are both pretty punctilious guys in terms of that. Of course, the blurb world is a little bit of city hall in the literary community. But they’re good friends and they both read the book in manuscript and gave me good reads and helped it come out the way it did and they were nice enough to give me [book jacket] quotes.
RB: You use a group of readers to help your work?
MC: Everyone has to have that. Not too big a group. I know people who have 20 readers and people reading drafts. I couldn’t work that way. I think you need a small group of people who are going to be tough and one good read.
RB: Interesting character, Wallace.
MC: Dave is a very private guy. I think the publicity stuff is fairly hard for him. And for Infinite Jest it was crazy, for a good solid year. Publicity is a mindless god. Of Dave Wallace’s books, I think the book that sold the least copies—I don’t know I’m just guessing—was The Girl With Curious Hair, his second book, a story collection. I think it’s maybe the best story collection published in the United States in the last 30 years. Fantastic book. Infinite Jest is a great book too. Look, if there is a buzz about a book like The Corrections or Infinite Jest, both of which, whether you love them, like them or don’t even like them are really big serious literary books—anytime there is a buzz about something like that it’s just a good thing. It’s easy for me to say that from the outside. But if you are in the middle of it, I think it’s probably pretty weird.
RB: Seems like it is a high quality problem for a literary writer.
MC: It’s been said before the business of selling a book is completely at odds with the writing of a book, but what are you going to do?
RB: Do you think literature is important?
MC: I do.
RB: Despite the fact that it seems to affect so few people and is consumed by relatively few people and that pop culture makes so much noise…
MC: There is a filter out effect. You’ll see a book that’s published and maybe not that many people read it—take Gaddis’ The Recognitions, published in 1954—that book influences people like the Beats who do have a much bigger readership. The Beats’ attitude influences their readers and in turn it seeps into the culture. Anything that stops and tries to make us feel human as opposed to making us feel like consumers or productive units, I think that’s important. Occasionally there are books that do get read widely, like The Corrections. It says something that you publish a novel—it doesn’t always happen, but sometimes—the next thing you have 5 people from Hollywood calling you because they are hungry for stories and they are hungry for people. So there is something in these books that have value. Now maybe what they want to do is make those stories and people and turn them into something moderately trashy or thoroughly trashy. Or maybe not, maybe they make a great movie. Or maybe no movie gets made. The point is there is a scarce commodity in there somewhere. A surprising number of people in Hollywood are really good readers and that’s how they start. So they finish a book and have all those good feelings that you have when you finish a book that you love…
RB: Wait a minute, the people who do the reading aren’t the ones you do deals with. They’re the people hired by deal makers.
MC: I guess I’m taking a contrary view. A surprisingly large number—I’m not saying all—are people who have read your book and they love the stuff that you want them to, that you are intending. And they want to transpose that feeling that they have when they finish the book to the screen. A lot of what makes books work doesn’t go over to the movie, how you do character and events on the page. I don’t fully understand it, I think part of it is that there is a certain prestige to a book and it’s finished and it seems like a package and that’s attractive. But part of it is wanting to transpose the readerly satisfaction to the movie screen, But it often gets lost in the process. What’s fascinating to me is when the movie is a better novel than the novel. The movie The Grapes of Wrath is a better novel than the novel. The movie To Kill A Mockingbird is a better novel than the novel and it’s a great novel. So that’s an achievement. I think it’s getting harder and harder because of where novels are going.
RB: Where are they going?
MC: In a broad sense, I have no idea. But in a crude, superficial way, it doesn’t seem satisfying anymore to create the 4 corners of one character’s head and then set up a railroad track called plot—now all kinds of novelists, who may have nothing else in common, they are in to multiple perspectives, messing with cause and effect. That transposes less well to the movie. There are examples where the movie nails the essence of the book. And there are lots of examples where a good movie is made of a great book. I had an experience with Bag Men which was set in 1965, in Boston and it’s all about the coming of the ‘60s, the eve of Vatican II and you have Irish Catholic cops and prosecutors—we know there are no such things in Boston. Their world is cracking apart. A very smart producer—very smart—who had read the book, gave it a really intelligent read, said, "I’m wondering if we could set in the present?" How in the world and why in the world would you do that?
RB: If you lift the elements of official corruption and organized crime as the main story, I suppose, then the rest was dispensable.
RB: Part of the point of Bag Men seems to be the historical backdrop of a more innocent or naive age where people were more shocked at these things. Are people today surprised that FBI was feeding Whitey Bulger information and more? I don’t think they really are.
MC: I was pretty shocked at the depth of it. The larger point is right. It’s not 1965, and it’s not Boston in ’65, when law enforcers and people who stood for the status quo in general had this glow around them and we all believed in the world and we all believed in order. It would have been a very strange project to try that as novel set in 1990.
RB: Do you read James Ellroy?
MC: I did read Ellroy for a time. I love The Big Nowhere. I think it’s one of the 3 or 4 great crime novels ever written. It’s right there with The Maltese Falcon and the best Raymond Chandler, Lady of the Lake and The Long Goodbye. I read him religiously after that. I haven’t enjoyed the books after that as much.
RB: The last two, American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand took the glow and the shining armor from the American law enforcement establishment.
MC: I was a Fed for five years. I’m not very interested in the world view that says that they are the flip side of criminals. That’s a boring world view to me. I can tell you it’s false. It’s not a good model of humanity. There are some evil federal agents, but there is a far larger number of people whose lives are slowly mildewing, like yours and mine. That’s interesting to me. That’s great fiction, cataloguing that process by which someone becomes untrue to themselves, like you do and I do.
RB: You mentioned The Long Goodbye. The film by Robert Altman was truly great.
MC: The movies made from Chandler’s books are almost better than Chandler. There are exceptions, but what they are missing are Chandler’s wonderful voice. He might have played for the Boston Red Sox in that he had 4 or 5 really great seasons. He was awful before and awful after that. But he wrote 4 or 5 books during the Second World War that are fantastic and then he was terrible for 20 years and a drunk. But there is this wonderful, awful, scary voice that’s really a funny voice too. That’s one of the 2 or 3 things that fiction does best, that is almost impossible to transpose. The sense that you are in a room with the voice and that you know it.
RB: What about using a narrator, voice-overs?
MC: The problem is that you can’t have much of that on the screen. I think it’s a really interesting point. An even better way to do it—the thing that functions like voice in a movie is face. Bogart’s face and Chandler’s voice are so similar and there’s the same sort of familiarity and humor and the toughness and the sadness. Bogart’s face is to the screen what the voice is like to the page. It’s always there. It’s lulling and you end up trusting it in a way, even when far out things happen. Sometimes when you get the actor married to the voice, it can really work. I can’t think of another example except Fonda’s face in The Grapes of Wrath. Which is also a very literary movie with the famous speech at the end, is very Steinbeckian. When was the last time you read The Grapes of Wrath?
RB: Never read it. I have huge gaps in my…
MC: Don’t we all. I have the same problem. All those years I frittered away locking up drug dealers.
RB: What do you read now? Or how do you come to read what you read?
MC: I find out what my friends are reading. I probably spend half my time trying to stay current and the other half filling the huge gaps in my education. Some periods there are books that are really important to me. When I was writing this book, I was going back to Alice Munro a lot. And those stories really saved my ass a lot of times. Right now I am reading old stuff. I just came back from Paris so I am rereading a bunch of Hemingway. It seemed like the thing to do. It was in the airport bookstore.
RB: Alice Munro’s name does come up a lot when you talk to writers.
MC: She’s a writer’s writer. She’s not obscure. If you ever want to know why to write fiction go read a good Alice Munro story. What she does in a paragraph, she does it seemingly without effort.
RB: When you say ‘seemingly,’ do you think it’s without effort?
MC: She certainly is prolific. What I mean by without effort is the sense that her prose has this lovely walking pace. It’s like walking down the street with someone. It has a definite pace, like walking does but it seems very relaxed. A woman goes top a train counter and buys a ticket to western Canada and talks with the agent about when the trains go. And that’s all that happens in the paragraph and by the end of the paragraph you have a sense of who the woman is and where she stands in this town. And you care. It’s incredible.
RB: I just reread The Great Gatsby.
MC: Great book. I reread that every 2 years.
RB: There was a scene in Big If that had a dock with a green light…
MC: There is a Great Gatsby joke on page 160. The thing that I noticed the last time I read Gatsby again—talk about the great voice of the early scenes, Nick Carroway’s tired, this great American voice, the gleam is off the apple, this sad, knowledgeable but also funny voice—what I noticed was how avante-garde the book is. I had forgotten how free Fitzgerald was as a young writer. He was just slinging it and it was all landing on the bulls-eye. Also a wonderful book because it takes this tabloid story and re-imagines it as great literature. It’s a very American achievement. Great book.
RB: So, what’s happening with the movie version of Big If?
MC: I don’t know what’s happening. There’s talk and conference calls and the wheels are turning.
RB: Are you interested in writing screenplays?
MC: I don’t have any desire to write the screenplay of this books. I like movies and great screenplays are great writing but I don’t have any particular desire to be involved.
RB: You mentioned that you have gotten started on the next thing. Do you now have plan for your writing career? Or is your life like this novel?
MC: I was going to say that like the Secret Service and like everybody else I have incredibly elaborate plans.
RB: Being the engineer that you are.
MC: Yes, I couldn’t live without them. But how much of it real is another question. I have two tracks of plans. One is to keep writing books and the other is to get up in the morning and take my kids to school. Beyond that I have plenty of plans but I don’t have much faith in them.
RB: Do you have a contract with Norton for what you are writing now?
MC: No, I don’t. I’m a free agent.
RB: Are you disturbed by that?
MC: No, I’m very happy with Norton and I’m sure they will be glad to read the manuscript put out. I don’t think about it much.
RB: Do you talk to your agent much?
MC: No. I talk to my agent about what my kids are doing. Knowing about the business is not information I can do anything with. The writer is peculiarly powerless in that process unless you are John Grisham. So, sticking your nose in just ends up being a daily re-affirmation of what little power you have.
RB: Have you written things other than novels?
MC: Yeah, I’ve written stories. I haven’t published them.
RB: You wrote them as exercises or had an idea and…?
MC: You have something and you think it’s part of something else and it ends up just being itself. I love short-story writing. Obviously, it’s very different than the novel. The attractive thing and the scary thing of the form for me is that you can’t distribute the weight over this long structure. If you are Alice Munro you have to make it happen in 4 scenes. If my disease is loving structure too much, it can take some of those problems away.
RB: Do you have an idea beyond what you are working on now?
MC: I have lots of ideas.
RB: I can take that a number of ways. That you are always thinking and or that you have a little cigar box with snippets of paper or a folder on your computer. Which is it?
MC: The cigar box. I find the more deeply I get into a book, the more I am tempted by ideas for other books. And that, is just another procrastination device. Because I was out in the world a lot longer than most fiction writers, I think I saw a lot more. It’s hard to be starting in this business when you are 40 years old. But on the other hand I think it would be hard to write fiction where your life experience had been that you were in college, then you were in fiction graduate school and then you became a fiction writer.
RB: That would describe what percentage of people being published today?
MC: 80. And people make wonderful books. Ultimately fiction is about family, and being in love and having children and everyone does that. But this why we have so many novels about college professors philandering about the campus and novelists writing about what it is to be a novelist. I’m not criticizing—my hero is Conrad. He didn’t settle down to write until he was 38 and then he had all this stuff in his head. He knew how to handle ropes on the deck of a ship. He knew what the captain of a steam ship would do when he went to the bridge, what he would look at, what he would check. He had all this knowledge but he was determined to render that and put us in that world, which he does—but also to make universals. That’s the greatest thing you can do. If I can do that for the world that I lived in then I’d be happy.
Copyright 2002 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing