Hank Wagner

Marc Cameron

A brief interview with Marc Cameron, focusing on his latest Arliss Cutter novel, Breakneck, in which Cutter and associates are assigned to protect a controversial Supreme Court Justice visiting Alaska.

Hank Wagner for Mystery Scene: I just finished Breakneck, which represents the fifth appearance of central character Deputy U.S. Marshal Arliss Cutter. I enjoyed it immensely, finding the characters engaging, and the book's setting, the great state of Alaska, enthralling. It's my first taste of the series, but it was easy for me to quickly get up to speed on the characters and their shared history. Does it take a concerted effort on your part to weave that information into the narrative?

Marc Cameron: It’s always a bit of a juggle to reintroduce continuing characters in new ways. I want readers who have picked up a book in the middle of the series to understand what’s going on without making longtime series readers bored. That said, there’s something comforting—to me at least—in coming back to familiar parts of a series.

I read a lot of Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir’s Destroyer series when I was in middle school. My friends and I loved finding out how they were going to use “His name was Remo and…” in chapter one or two of every book. Arliss Cutter rarely smiles—so I customarily find a new situation to put him in where someone would normally be smiling, but he does not. His partner, Deputy U.S. Marshal Lola Teariki’s reaction to the same situation helps to demonstrate her character in slightly different ways from previous books. Still, I have to let the reader know early that Lola is of Cook Island Maori descent and Cutter is a big, surfer-looking dude with mussed blond hair and a resting mean mug. Beyond that, I have usually written some other book in between each Arliss Cutter—either a Jack Ryan for the Clancy estate or one of my own Jericho Quinn novels. That means I’m itching to get back to writing about Arliss, Lola, and the others, so it’s fun for me to reacquaint myself with them. Every book feels like Book 1 in the series when I start it. I usually end up putting in too much reintroduction in the early draft, and cutting a bunch down the road.

Do series devotees ever call you on it if you mess up the continuity?

Oh sure they do. I see these characters pretty clearly in my head—and try very hard to keep the continuity going through the series. I’m human though, so I make errors. I only know if I get emails though. I don’t read Amazon reviews, so maybe there’s a lot more of chastising going on there than I realize. I’m happy to get reviews, but I read them only occasionally when my wife says there’s a funny one. I used to hang out on Amazon when a book was released, but stopped about three Jericho Quinn books in. Nothing good can come of it.

I either start feeling too complacent because people rave or crappy because something I wrote didn’t resonate with them…or I made some horrible grammar or content error that they want to rub my nose in. I do try to answer every email though—except for the mean-spirited ones. I got an email from a nuclear physicist once who said he enjoyed State of Emergency (Jericho Quinn #3), but pointed out that I had transposed the numbers on the half-life of a plutonium isotope. I thanked him and let him know I was just happy a nuclear physicist was reading my adventure books. I enjoy that kind of interaction.

It feels to me like this book is part of an ongoing, continuous story, a roman-fleuve, I think it's called. At this point, do you feel like you're checking in on the characters, keeping the audience up-to-date on their activities, with you finding that out fresh, or do you feel as if you are reporting on history you already 'know”?

A bit of both, I suppose. I’m a meticulous plotter so I tend to have a good idea about the general story arc. That said, I don’t hold myself to any outline and often veer far afield from where I’d planned to go. My general MO is to come up with the situation/dilemma and then plunk the characters into it, allowing them to sort things out (or not) the way their personalities and skills allow. When I find I’ve written myself into a corner, it’s usually because I’ve tried to make a character behave in a way that isn’t consistent with their makeup. So, while I don’t know the plot or outcome of every book, I feel confident that I know how the characters are going to react to given situations. Mostly.

Arliss and Mim and Lola and Joe Bill and Chief Phillips and Grumpy have all lived in my head for so long that I do sometimes feel like I know them as friends. Rather than reporting, I’d say I’m rooting for things to turn out a certain way

Alaska Railroad map

It's no secret that a lot of the action takes place on a speeding train. Did you have to do a lot of research on the Glacier Discovery train? What about the physics of the related action sequences? That was some pretty harrowing stuff.

My wife and I have taken several trips on the Alaska Railroad, some of them to research Breakneck. I had originally planned to set the wilderness scenes farther north so we took the Anchorage to Fairbanks trip going by Denali National Park. My wife is a retired teacher and one of the railroad staff happened to be a former student. I could see the wheels turning in his head while I asked my research questions about walking on top of trains, tunnels, train speed, etc. He’s the one who suggested the Glacier Discovery. It was already late fall so the trains were done making that run for the season, but I took other trips, some in the middle of winter. I had tons of good talks with staff, fleshing out ideas and exploring, as you say, the physics, of the action sequences.

I ended up hiring a bush pilot to fly me over the remote areas I wanted to write about, comparing maps with aerial view of tunnels, bridges, and rivers. My wife and I took the first springtime trip on the Glacier Discovery in between drafts of the manuscript so I was able to tweak a few things before I turned it in. As far as the physics go, everything that happens in the book is possible, though as with much of what Cutter and Lola do, is very dangerous. Cutter even addresses the dangers of the train-top escapades with his nephews at the end of the book.

Marc Cameron’s Jericho Quinn thriller series debuted in 2011. Since then, he’s written eight Quinn novels and four Arliss Cutter novels featuring a deputy U.S. Marshal based in Alaska. He is also the author of six Tom Clancy/Jack Ryan novels for the Tom Clancy estate. A retired Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal, Marc spent nearly 30 years in law enforcement. He holds a second-degree black belt in jujitsu and is a certified law enforcement scuba diver and man-tracking instructor. Originally from Texas, Marc is an avid outdoorsman, sailor, and adventure motorcyclist. He and his wife live in Alaska where they raised their three children.