Interview with Author Jeffrey Marshall

Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.

Recently, we interviewed retired journalist and author Jeffrey Marshall about his writing and his recently released book, Squeeze Plays, a fast-paced, sophisticated read. (Read the review here.) Jeffrey is the author of five books, including the novels “Squeeze Plays” (2022), “Undetected” (2019) and “Little Miss Sure Shot” (2014).

Jeffrey Marshall is a writer and retired journalist living in Scottsdale, AZ. He is the author of five books, including the novels “Squeeze Plays” (2022), “Undetected” (2019) and “Little Miss Sure Shot” (2014). He also wrote a business book on community reinvestment (1991) and a volume of collected poems, “River Ice” (2009). “Undetected” was named a “Notable 100” indie book by ShelfUnbound for 2020.

Marshall grew up in Connecticut but spent most of his professional life working in New York and New Jersey (hey, don’t knock New Jersey!). The bulk of his career was spent in business journalism, and included chief editor posts at two national business magazines; he was also, at various times, a feature writer, columnist and book reviewer. He also freelanced widely for magazines and newspapers, appearing in The New York Times and New Jersey Monthly, among many others. Most of his writing now is on environmental subjects, and he serves on two national boards of Trout Unlimited, the coldwater conservation group, and formerly served on the board of a local land trust in the Phoenix area.

Marshall has a bachelor’s degree in history from Princeton and a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern. Interests include tennis, golf, hiking, movies, finding new restaurants and travel. He’s stayed in or traveled through all 50 states – sometimes passing through was enough! He and his wife, Judy, have two rambunctious dogs, Maggie and Blaze.

What inspired the premise of your book?

Actually, my wife said to me one day, “Why don’t you write about Bob?” Bob (his real name) had been my editor at a financial magazine in New York, and he was a character, I thought sometimes, out of Dickens. He was volatile, and then some, but very dogged, and he became the hero journalist in my story, Squeeze Plays, which as I fleshed it out had three central characters for him to play off: a bank chief executive, an incompetent tabloid publisher, and a cunning Russian oligarch. It was my task to create a plot that would involve the three of them and their maneuverings and their foibles, and allow Bob to come in and write an expose that ties all of them together.

How do you come up with the names of your characters?

It really is a randomized process. For my book Undetected, I chose names that were popular in the era the characters grew up in, and ones that appealed to me esthetically. I loved the name “Suzy,” spelled with a Z, for my central character. For Squeeze Plays, I had fun with the names – a made-up Dutch-style name for a rich banker, “Crumm” for a character who becomes the butt of much of the satire, and “Maxim Ripovsky” – a play on “maximum ripoff” – for the Russian oligarch. The other names in the book are more conventional.

Has this novel changed drastically as you created it?

Not drastically, but substantially at the margins. I got a number of good suggestions from two accomplished fiction readers I worked with, and they helped shape the narrative. I changed the beginning, and introduced the journalist character much later. An online threat to the publisher and a chapter centered around his daughter’s arrest were scrapped, and I changed the ending three times – each time, I’m convinced, making it better.

How long on average does it take you to write a book?

I need to make a distinction between a first draft and the finished product. For Undetected, it was probably about 18 months, but I was talked into making it considerably longer than the first draft, which added several months. For Squeeze Plays, I wrote the first draft during the pandemic, and finished that in 8 months. But revisions and changes took me through another year. My first, short novel, Little Miss Sure Shot, took less than a year, all in.

What’s more important, the characters or the plot?

I guess this is a chicken-and-egg question of sorts, since both are integral to a good novel. But I always start with the characters: who are they, and what is their story? I’m not a plotter, and I work out a plot as I go along, sometimes with the help of Post-it notes that point me to future chapters. Some of those notes might be only a sentence or two, or even just a phrase. I call this kind of plot development “organic,” but some might call it haphazard. I generally recoil from the notion of a lengthy outline that the characters can simply be plugged into.

How often do you base your novels on real people?

That’s an easy question for my first novel, which was a fictionalized treatment of the life of Annie Oakley; her real life formed the scaffolding for the story. My other novels have generally eschewed real people, though they may have some of their attributes. The journalist character in Undetected is something of an alter ego (I’m a retired journalist), and I even have him editing a business publication, which I did for many years. The one exception is the Bob Mandell character in Squeeze Plays, which, as I noted earlier, is firmly based on a previous editor.

What is the most difficult thing about writing a novel?

For me, it’s plot – forming it and adapting it as the characters change or encounter new situations. Then there is the notion of polishing and rewriting, though I think the hardest part of self-editing is cutting out sections or even chapters that don’t contribute what they should to the narrative. There’s an expression for that: “killing your darlings.” Some of those drastic changes may be recommended by outside readers, and as a novelist you need to listen to those voices – who represent informed observers – and subvert your own ego, if necessary. As confident as you may be in your own abilities, it often pays to be self-critical and open to suggestion.

Do you try to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?

I come down squarely on the side of being original. Each of my novels is different – historical fiction, a psychological thriller, a morality tale/financial thriller. There are genres that are likely to draw a lot of attention – like sci-fi, fantasy or romance – but those genres don’t appeal to me, as a writer or a reader. So, my novels haven’t tapped into a ready-made audience, which has clearly hurt sales, but I have to stand firm on the choices I’ve made about the kind of books I want to write.

Do you read your book reviews? Do they please or annoy you? Do you think you could learn a lot from reading criticism about your work?

I do read them, and I’m like any creative person – artist, actor, writer, whatever: you want to be praised. Good reviews – especially great reviews – are very pleasing; bad reviews are demoralizing. I’m happy to say most of mine are in the former category, but I often wish reviewers (especially on platforms like Amazon) wrote more and talked the writing, the plot, etc. Many of those “reviews” are so short as to be almost useless. I find that even professional reviewers often hew to a set form where they spend most of the review describing the plot and then only a paragraph or two talking about the merits (or demerits) of the book. As a reviewer myself, I’ve always tried to get into the substance of the quality of the prose and an overall sense of the narrative and how well it works.


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