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Most Read Interviews

All TopShelf Interviews


Mark Sullivan knew he wanted to be a writer at age seven when he got in a fight in parochial school that was broken up by a formidable, six-foot-plus nun named Sister Mary Joseph. She was vice-principal and holy discipline incarnate. Every kid in the school feared her. Mark was scared toward terror because she was his mother’s good friend. Sister Mary Joseph picked him up by the collar from the fight, and Mark figured hell was to pay. This was back when swatting with rulers was sanctioned by God. But instead, the nun told him that in atonement for his sins he was to enter the grade 1-8 fiction writing contest. To everyone’s amazement, except Sister Mary Joseph’s, Mark Sullivan won that contest. Fifty-one years later Mark is still writing. He has published eighteen novels of mystery and suspense by himself and with James Patterson. His books have won the WH Smith Fresh Talent Award, been nominated for an Edgar, and appeared on New York Times Notable Book lists and the L.A. Times best of the year lists. Beneath A Scarlet Sky is his first work of historical fiction.


Please tell us a little about your new thriller Beneath a Scarlet Sky .

Based on a true, untold WWII story, Beneath a Scarlet Sky describes the life of Pino Lella, a 17-year-old boy who guided Jews escaping Nazi-occupied Italy, became a spy inside the German High Command, and fell in love with a woman who would haunt him the rest of his life.

It’s also a story of faith and doubt, courage and tragedy, and grace and triumph set amid the all-but-forgotten horrors that unfolded in northern Italy in the last two years of the war.

I first learned about Pino back in 2006, on the worst day of my life. I didn’t believe it at first, but then learned he was still alive and reluctantly willing to talk. The old man and I spent weeks together in Italy as he recounted the best story I’d ever heard, a tale that not only amazed me, but touched, changed, and restored me at a deep level. I vowed I’d tell the story to as many people as possible. 

I just didn’t think it would take me ten years to fully research and write. 

The book is a thriller because Pino Lella led a thrilling life. But it’s also an unforgettable love story, an incredible spy story, and so much more.

As my friend, the excellent novelist, Andrew Gross said, “Beneath a Scarlet Sky is the story of a small life that ended up mattering in a big way.”


How frequently do you go on tour?

I try to tour on all my books. Mr. Patterson handles tours for the novels we write together.


Do you enjoy visiting independent bookstores? If so, do you have a favorite you’d like to plug?

I love visiting independent bookstores. I’ll plug my hometown store, the Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Montana. Run by passionate, friendly hand-sellers, the Country Bookshelf is everything you could want in a mountain town venue for books:  cozy, western setting, great selection, and a staff that cares about writers and readers. 


How did you celebrate the publishing of your first book?

My first novel, The Fall Line, about the world of extreme skiers came out in 1994. We were living in a converted barn in Vermont. If I remember correctly, we had a signing in Woodstock, and then went back to the barn and had a party.


Do you read reviews of your books? If so, how do you deal with the good, the bad, and the ugly ones?

I don’t read unsigned reviews, good or bad. I distrust them because the critic does not value his or her own work enough to take credit for their thoughts, in my favor or against. I do read signed reviews. I deal with the bad and ugly by first being grateful that, if they actually read the book, the reviewer spent hours in the company of characters and situations I crafted. As a writer, you trade the experience of your work for someone’s time. Even if someone reacts poorly to what I have to say, I’m still thankful they showed up and gave me their precious moments.  


You’ve said that Mr. Patterson, “gave you a master class in commercial fiction.” What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from him? What have you implemented in your own writing style?

I could list five hundred tips I’ve gleaned from Patterson’s process, but two stand out.

Outline. Before Patterson, I was like a crazed sailor of moderate skill with no maps eager to be out at sea. I’d just start writing, and see what came out, an approach that demanded endless revisions. Patterson taught me to think less like a sailor and more like a house builder, or boat builder as the case may be. Like an architect, you figure out the skeleton of the story before putting down word one of the narrative. I balked at the process at first, but quickly came to understand his reasoning. If you knew the rough plot, you could set sail, writing as best you can, knowing there’s land out there.

Follow the emotion: Novels are dramas in prose. Even though we write thrillers with many actions scenes, twists, and reversals, Patterson is constantly reminding me to probe the emotions underlying any scene. That doesn’t mean that there has to be some kind of explosive cathartic revelation going on all the time. But even if it’s unstated in the narrative, the reader should be able to sense the emotions at stake like compass bearings through the story. 


Switching gears. How much work is required, even as a bestselling traditionally published author, to maintain your current level of success?

I write seven days a week, five hours a day, two hours a day while I’m on vacation. I’m usually working on two to three books at a time, each of them in differing stages of development. If I’m polishing one book, I’m outlining one for the future. I might work on one solo, one with Patterson, and a third, which is always a passion project. Beneath A Scarlet Sky was my passion project for ten years. But a lot of maintaining or increasing success comes down to faith in my ability to give the reader deep value for the time they’ve traded to be with me. When you think like that you’ll work harder and smarter to earn and re-earn that magical bond between reader and author.  


What is the secret to becoming a New York Times or USA Today bestselling author?

Write a lot. Study fine writers. Believe you have something to say, and say it. Write an unforgettable character. Tell a kick-ass story, or one we’ve never heard before. Make me laugh. Move me in ways that bring me to tears.


Do you write an outline before you start a novel? If yes, how detailed is your outline? If no, why not?

If I’m working with Patterson, the outlines are 60-90 pages covering a first draft of all character development, plot lines, plot twists, etc. The details are spare. On my own, the outline becomes an organization of all that, but also descriptions from my research notes, possible dialogue and an understanding of the emotions at stake. From that point on, in both cases, I rarely consult the outline. By then I know the story in my head and can focus on the writing, which is my favorite part of the process.


How critical are you in your evaluation when reviewing someone else’s work?

I’m honest, but I don’t believe in trolling or bitch slapping.


How do you feel about the eBook/Kindle revolution?

Well, obviously, I’m in big favor of it. When my agent and I set out to find a home for Beneath a Scarlet Sky, I wrote down that I wanted an editor who was as passionate about Pino Lella’s story as I was, and a publisher who could put the book in front of as many readers as possible. Thankfully, after many legacy publishers in New York passed on the draft manuscript, Danielle Marshall, an editor at Amazon’s Lake Union imprint fell in love with Pino’s story and championed it into the Kindle First program, which assured me that, at a minimum, hundreds of thousands of readers would learn about Pino. Under that program, the book immediately shot to #1 across all e-books and pre-orders for books on the Amazon site. That said, I love books, bookstores, and libraries, and hope they embrace Pino’s story as well. 


Reflecting back on a previous question, how might an independent bookstore or library participate in one of your book tours?

I’d love to talk to anyone at any time about Pino Lella. It’s a fascinating story, one that I think will appeal to patrons of bookstores and libraries. Call Dana Kaye, my publicist, to inquire about availability.


Do you have a favorite conference that you attend? If so, which one?

I have enjoyed Thrillerfest, Bouchercon, and Wordstock.


How do you divide your time between writing and marketing?

With Patterson, I’m paid to write and work with him. In that space, I’m not part of marketing. With my own books, I hire people to work with me on marketing so I’m still focusing the vast majority of my time where I’m most effective: writing.


For the independent bookstores who may be struggling in today’s market, are there any marketing strategies you've seen booksellers use that stand out as particularly successful?

Become a hub, a destination, a place people want to go. Country Bookshelf does this well by virtue of its downtown location, and the ambience of high, hammered tin ceilings and shelves of books everywhere.


What’s the most important thing a bookstore can do for an author, in your opinion and experience, to promote sales? Obviously, every book cannot be front and center.

If I’m coming to your store, help us get local coverage for the appearance. I’m almost as coherent on camera or into a microphone as I am on the page, so I will make for a great interview, which will in turn help bring in readers. With the story of Pino Lella, I can almost guarantee that.


Do you have advice for independent bookstores on how they might effectively organize events in their store?

Make it a habit with authors of all stripes. The more your store becomes a hub of such events, the more successful you’ll be.


How much work do you personally put into promoting your book signing events? And how long before the event do you start promoting?

I have publicists who do most of the advance work. If I know someone in media personally in a given city, I’ll get involved. Most of my work is giving interviews and supporting the book in any and all ways close to and after publication. With Beneath a Scarlet Sky, we started six months in advance of the May 1st release.


Have you ever been part of a writers’ workshop or group? Was it helpful? Or a waste of time? Any advice for bookstores or writers looking to start or join one?

I have been part of two. Both were good. It’s important early on in your career to get competent feedback. If you can learn to discard the reactions of whiners and know-it-alls, you can get excellent notes on your work as well as find camaraderie in these kinds of settings.