Q&A With Peter Blauner

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Q&A With Peter Blauner

Today’s Q&A is with New York Times Bestselling author Peter Blauner. Peter is the author of several mystery books, some of which are, Sunrise Highway, Proving Ground, & his most recent novel Picture In The Sand. Peter has also written for several television shows which are Law & Order SVU & Blue Bloods. In a past life before becoming an author and television writer, Peter was a journalist for New York Magazine in the 1980s covering crime, politics & other types of bad behavior! Talk about impressive! 

Q: I love reading mysteries and I know you enjoy writing them obviously. What is it about writing mysteries that you enjoy so much?

A: I don’t necessarily think of my books as mysteries. Because they’re not always whodunits. They’re more whydunits and howdunits. What I’m really fascinated by is human behavior. And sometimes, in a mystery story, where you’re hiding the killer’s identity until the very end, you miss that element. What I enjoy more is getting you inside my characters’ heads from the beginning, so you can understand how different people see reality and come into conflict with one another.  

Q: Would you like to talk about your current novel Picture In The Sand & where the idea for it came from? 

A: Absolutely. I spent twenty years writing PICTURE IN THE SAND and the book means a lot to me. 

I started writing it on the first Passover after 9/11 when the country was still reeling from those terrible attacks. I found myself watching Cecil B. DeMille’s famous film THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, which always aired on the first night of the holiday. Normally, I only see the end with the famous parting of the Red Sea sequence. But that year, I saw it from the beginning and I noticed that in the credits, after Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner, it said the Pharaoh’s army was played by the Egyptian Cavalry Corps. I realized the film had been shot in Egypt right after its revolution, in 1954, at the exact time and place where the ideology that led to the attack on America began. It could be a story that combined the things I’ve always been obsessed with: Faith, hope, terror, and the movies.

I thought it would be a cinch to write it. After two decades, six trips to Egypt, ten trips to Hollywood, more rejections than I care to remember, I found a home for it. It’s no exaggeration to say it was the journey of a lifetime.

 Q: If it’s not too early to reveal any details, can you talk about your next novel that you are working on?

A: It’s another novel that takes place in the past. And like PICTURE IN THE SAND, it involves a strange but true moment where history brought together the most unlikely combination of people imaginable. So my job is to make that reality believable as fiction. And to put my heart into it.

I just hope it doesn’t take me another twenty years!

Q:  Before becoming an author, you were a journalist covering crime, politics and other topics for New York Magazine. What was it like being a journalist for such a major publication? What advice would you give to anyone wanting to go into journalism? 

A: I really went into journalism, so I could be a better novelist. I knew I wasn’t going to be a fantasy or science fiction writer. I was more interested in crime fiction – particularly writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. But I was just a dumb kid, who didn’t know anything about how the world worked.

I figured I could educate myself by getting a notebook, knocking on doors, and having an excuse to talk to people about their lives. I was very fortunate to work with writers I admired in New York like the great newspaper columnist Pete Hamill and Nicholas Pileggi, who co-wrote the film Goodfellas. They taught me a lot about how to listen and tell stories. They also gave me living examples of how to conduct myself as an adult. by being kind, patient and generous. 

My advice for anyone who wants to go into journalism/ Don’t do it for money. Do it for love – if you can afford to. Because when people open up to you and share the stories of their lives, you’re getting a gift that kings and queens don’t even know about.

Q: You’ve written for shows such as Blue Bloods & Law & Order SVU. What’s it like writing episodes for those major television shows? Which other shows have you, or would like to write episodes for?

A: I have had wonderful experiences with the actors and writers on those shows. I’d single out working with Mariska Hargitay, the star of Law & Order: SVU, as one of the highlights. I’m sure a lot of your readers know about her performances as Detective Olivia Benson on that long-running show and maybe some are aware of her real-life advocacy for victims of sexual abuse. What fewer people know is that Mariska is also a very talented director and I was fortunate enough to be writer on the first couple of episodes where she took her place on the camera. Sets can be tense places when a show is in production, but Mariska is one of those rare people who can be focused and committed to work without ever losing their sense of humor or humanity.

Other experiences have been less wonderful, but that’s true in any job. You’re collaborating with others and we’re all imperfect at times. Especially grumpy novelists who are used to doing everything their own way.

I’ve written for other parts of the Law & Order franchise, including the so-called “mothership” and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Right now, I’m writing for a brand-new Apple TV show, tentatively entitled Identity. But I try to forget all that when I’m watching other people’s shows – otherwise you notice the behind-the-scenes machinations and writer tricks. The best shows like The Sopranos and The Wire get you so caught up in their stories that you forget the artifice involved. 

Q: What is your advice for anyone wanting to write a great mystery?

A: Think long and hard about your characters. Gimmicks can be fun, but if all you’re doing is trying to fool your readers they will eventually turn on you. Personally, I prefer stories where the plot comes straight from the real world and authentic personal motivation.

The other thing I’d suggest is keep an eye on the true stories that move you and haunt you. Some of the television shows I’ve written for are dedicated to “ripped from the headlines” stories. But in my own work, I prefer to start with page 7 stories that stayed with me for reasons I don’t understand at first. So part of the mystery I’m trying to solve is not just the murder on the page, but why it compels me so deeply.  

Q: Would you say your journalism skills helped with writing mystery books?

A: Yes, definitely. A reporter’s notepad is the novelist’s treasure chest. Real life gives you dialogue and details that you could have never dreamed of if you were alone in a room. The private school boys who wrecked a Mercedes on a joy ride and then tried to pay for repairs by robbing a corner store in the Bronx. The “mole people” who lived in train tunnels beneath the city streets. The detective who always made sure suspects sat in a chair with uneven legs, so they always felt off-balance during questioning. The privilege of writing fiction is that you don’t have to transcribe reality exactly as it happened. But it sure gives you a good place to start. 

Q: Does Hollywood have the rights to your work? If so, it would be great if you were to write the screenplay to your books. I would like to see original content again.

A: I’ve had a fair number of my novels optioned and in some cases bought. And I’ve read many scripts based on the books. So far, none have been filmed. But there’s still time.

I’ve only been hired to do one of those adaptations myself. I worked with James B. Harris, who was Stanley Kubrick’s producing partner, on a version of my novel Casino Moon. As soon as we wrote the last page, Jimmy said, “Now I’m going to tell you what Stanley told me when we finished our first script together. He said, ‘We must never tell anybody what this is really about. We should let them make up their own answers. Because otherwise we’ll just sound stupid!’” 

I’ve tried to follow that advice.

Q: If you weren’t writing mysteries, which genres would you explore writing in and why?

A: After eight contemporary crime stories, I’ve been starting to write more historical novels. The present moment feels so fraught and choked with detritus of the internet that the past seems richer and more illuminating. I feel more immersed in storytelling when I don’t have to think about cell phones or social media.  I’ve also been writing  Substacks under the name Slow Motion Riot – also the title of my first book. It’s a faster and more freewheeling style than I can use in novels and television. I write about whatever is capturing my imagination at any given moment: true crime, movie reviews, William Butler Yeats, Pink Floyd, and things I’ve just seen on the street. The pieces are short and loose, and I really enjoy hearing back from the people who read them. It takes me back not only to my journalism days but to the pleasure when I started telling stories as a kid.