NOTE: For a detailed review of Marc Ross's debut novel "The Good Citizen" read here.
1) Prior to your authorial debut, you have worked in various fields, always pertaining to law, while your experience stretches as far as the criminal justice system and prisons. Has your vocational background affected your writing in regards to your selection of main themes and the process of -an authentic- characterization?
M.R.: In a nutshell, yes. My ambition for the novel was to create a simple yet intriguing plot within which to explore some more complex themes through the lens of a small cast of characters. People who you could easily imagine passing on the street. Anyone who has had any experience of working in the criminal justice system for any length of time will probably say that it can turn the eternal optimist into a hard-line cynic. You are exposed to situations and people that—if you’re remotely the introspective type—will make you ask some hard questions about the state and success of our systems, and look at the objective nature of punishment and morality. I am reticent to expound on the themes in the novel, as each person has a unique perspective on life and will infer something different, but one overarching concept I was keen to explore is whether there really is such a thing as an ‘objective morality’. As a society, we seem to have largely agreed upon a set of principles and laws that guide us towards being decent human beings. But are these laws and principles really objective, or simply a set of ‘ideas’ conjured up by other subjective minds which have merely influenced us? Ideas that we blindly follow because that’s how it has always been. For example, most of us agree that taking another person’s life is objectively immoral, but people tend to flex their opinion if the victim was an immoral person themselves or committed some heinous crime. In those cases, some would this call this poetic justice. The question remains: are we in control of our minds, or are we simply that way because that’s what society says we should do? Are we just slaves to the system we created? If so, we have lost our free will to arbitrary laws in the pursuit of being a perfect citizen. Some will argue that if we had no laws, then the world would live in anarchy. They could be right, but I am certain we will never know.
2) In "The Good Citizen", the protagonist is -literally- a man without a past. At one point you have Jacob saying: "But how can you know who you are if you can't remember where you've been". Did you find this peculiarity to be liberating or constraining in respect to the crafting of the protagonist and the plot?
M.R.: Certainly both. It was liberating in one sense as it allowed me to focus on the present moments in the story by making Jacob’s journey of self-discovery part of the plot. On the other hand, I found myself having to be much more nuanced with backstory, weaving it into the story in ways that made sense to a man who has no conscious frame of reference for much of his life. To that end, it left me unable to delve too much into Jacob’s mind, purely because a lot of it is a blank sheet. His memories are no more than the blurred shapes of passing cars on a highway. The idea of ‘identity’ is largely determined by our memories. If we cannot remember those, then what does it mean to be human? Would we be the same person without our experiences? And, in that sense, are we born bad or are we just the products of our environment? This was liberating to explore through Jacob as a character.
3) Loss of identity is a theme/trope that is employed by many crime writers. Are there any novels embracing this particular narrative vehicle that served as an inspiration for your first-ever fully-fleshed story?
M.R.: Yes, absolutely. It’s a well-trodden trope with many (good and bad) examples to gain inspiration from. Knowing this, I really wanted to try to subvert the trope and take it in a different direction, so its function to the story is a plot device to explore the idea of ‘self’ and ‘identity’ at a deeper level, rather than it being a crutch to an action plot. That’s not to say those stories are bad—quite the opposite! For example, the Jason Bourne books and films do this expertly. Other inspirations include Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Philip K. Dick’s Paycheck, which play with the trope in unique ways. Both Dark Matter and Recursion by Blake Crouch are also books I read and enjoyed, although lean more into the science fiction elements. I’d recommend reading both.
4) As I was reading, and immensely enjoying, your debut novel, it struck me as rather odd that Jacob, despite being a blue-collar worker, possesses such a rich bookshelf containing the most prominent works of the literary classics. Did you attribute that trait intentionally, wishing to highlight the contradictions that reveal the complex mentality of Jacob? Or was there another reason?
M.R.: The idea of Jacob being well read was born out of the desire to show him as a man wishing to make sense of himself and his world, which is largely alien to him. His life feels like fiction and so reading is his way of trying to discern and impart meaning and purpose through other stories. Equally, the fact that he has a bookshelf full of the literary classics is testament to his emotional intelligence, perhaps where his intellectual side may abandon him. As you rightly say, on the surface, he is a simple man, but underneath there is a heart and mind that yearns for meaning. Much like all of us.
5) At a more personal note: I read somewhere in the novel a statement by one of the secondary characters who stated: "Either way, punishment seems like a misguided idea as a bedrock for a moral society". I am particularly interested in your take over that subject, given your professional experience which brought you into contact with the concept of punishment.
M.R.: I guess I have largely covered my thoughts on this above. Personally, I have come to an opinion that punishment is more effective at treating symptoms rather than causes. Sometimes, it is not even effective at that. I have seen many young and unworldly inmates come into prison for a relatively minor crime, only to leave as hardened and experienced criminals. Why? Because prison is the perfect breeding ground for criminality. It is the college of crime and villainy. So punishment may be a temporary solution, but it is also where bad people can learn to become worse. Some of these people will end up back in our societies equipped with greater knowledge of how to be a villain. That’s not to say there isn’t a place for punitive action—there definitely is—but our fascination with justice is, in my opinion, a misguided one.
6) You decided to use the mundane New Brunswick as the setting of your story. Your descriptions of the town ring so authentic that I wonder if you write from personal experience. Have you ever lived in New Brunswick? Or perhaps still living there?
M.R.: New Brunswick is actually a fictional town, although it largely inspired by some of the old steel towns in and around the Pittsburgh area, many of which have fallen on harder times.
7) Tell us a bit about your future writing plans. Are you currently working on something or are you taking some time off from writing?
M.R.: I have a few ideas which I am exploring and one which is fairly fleshed out It's a concept I'm really interested to get into and I think anyone who enjoyed reading The Good Citizen will like the premise. I'm keeping that under wraps for now but would be happy to share more as it develops!