Please welcome distinguished actor, teacher, and author Matthew Arkin, here to tell us about his highly-acclaimed novel, In the Country of the Blind.
ABOUT THE BOOK
“A dead body is a lousy way to end a first date.”
So begins In the Country of the Blind, a modern noir tale that takes readers into the world of former attorney-turned building superintendent Zach Brandis. When Zach abandoned his promising legal career, it confused everyone, including himself. Now, with no apparent purpose in life, he has time enough on his hands to get into some very hot water.
When Zach takes Cynthia Hull to dinner, murder and a confrontation with the cops are the last things on his mind. But when he walks her home, he finds himself face to face with New York’s finest, who are investigating the suspicious death of the actress’s roommate and friend, Alex Penworth. Maybe it’s because Cynthia is beautiful and vulnerable, or maybe it’s just because the cops rub him the wrong way, but Zach steps in to shield her from their persistent questions. In the days following, Zach finds himself increasingly tied up in knots over the case, and what starts as simple curiosity may end up putting the former attorney in grave danger.
Captivated by the puzzle of Alex’s death, Zach begins to play with the pieces. When Cynthia’s apartment is ransacked shortly the murder, it becomes clear that Alex was hiding something, something of value to someone. Looking into Alex’s mysterious activities in the weeks before his death, more questions begin to emerge: Why was Alex fired from his bartending job? Why is a beautiful undercover narc hanging around the bar where Alex worked, and trying to keep Zach away? Why do the cops seem uninterested in the inconsistencies in Alex’s autopsy report? As Zach puts the pieces in place, a picture of the victim begins to emerge: Alex, another lost soul, plagued by his past and the demons of the cult he escaped — a man who, like Zach, abandoned a promising career to struggle as a going-nowhere actor/bartender. Driven by his feeling of kinship with the victim, can Zach discover what ultimately led to Alex’s death, and still get himself out of harm’s way before it’s too late?
A dark and witty tale in the vein of John Sandford and Lawrence Block, In the Country of the Blind is a true page-turner, suspenseful from beginning to end. This character-driven thriller will have readers on the edge of their seats, compelled, like Zach, to uncover the secrets behind the gruesome murder.
Q&A WITH THE AUTHOR
Did your own life experiences figure into the plot of In the Country of the Blind?
The seeds for this story came from several significant events in my own life. My experiences as a refugee from a controlling and dangerous cult figure heavily in the backstory of the victim. The period in my life when I had quit the practice of law in order to pursue acting again, and was struggling to make ends meet as a bartender are also reflected in the story. The victim’s separation from his family for a period is something that I struggled with myself for a time, and Zach struggles with it as well. It was in part trying to find a frame for those struggles, which all coincided, that inspired this story. It’s also part of what fuels Zach’s identification with the victim and drives his somewhat obsessive quest for the truth.
One of my moms, author Barbara Dana, (I use “mom” for both my biological mother who raised me until I was seven, and my step-mother who raised me after that), always told me “write what you know,” and that’s what I’ve done in this story. Part of the fun of writing fiction is that you get to jump into the combination playground/mad scientist laboratory in your head and run wild with your own past, mixing in your own imaginings and desired “what ifs” to make things turn out the way you’d like. In a way that is similar to my work as an actor, I get to explore alternative lives, but in writing, I have much more control over where those lives go.
Many people are dying to sit down and write a book, but it’s a daunting task. Tell us about the genesis of In the Country of the Blind and how you got it off the ground.
In 1990, shortly after I quit the practice of law, a good friend introduced me to the work of Lawrence Block, and I started burning my way through his books. Then, in 1995, I was heading out on the national tour of a Neil Simon play, and wondering what I was going to be doing with my free days as we travelled the country, doing the show only at night. My then wife had been encouraging me to try my hand at tackling the genre I loved, but like you say, it’s daunting, and there can be a lot of voices in your head saying “You’ll never get this done. It won’t be any good.” But I remembered that my mom had written her first novel while on the first national tour of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe. At the same time, I had found Lawrence Block’s Spider, Spin Me a Web. So with free time, desire, a history of obsession with the form, I began. There have been hitches and restarts along the way, but it’s been a terrific journey.
I chose to write a detective series in the suspense/mystery/thriller genre because those books have been my passion since I was kid. To me, they allow for the most interesting exploration of the concept of justice. There is an inherent conflict between the individual, with his or her inner voice, and society at large, with its laws and social mores, and it’s fascinating to investigate how that conflict plays out in the execution of justice. That question started to interest me at age eleven, when I read To Kill a Mockingbird. My fascination with it continued through college, when I wrote my thesis on that book, together with The Ox Bow Incident and The Virginian, and it persists to this day. Now I’m using my own past as a lawyer, my quitting because I was disillusioned, my experiences as a victim of cult abuse, mixed in with many other events and themes, to explore that topic even further.
Do you have anything in common with your protagonist, Zach Brandis?
There are a lot of obvious similarities between me and Zach. We were both born in New York City. Zach lived there his entire life, and I lived in and around the city for most of my mine. I’m in Los Angeles now, but I dream of returning, and still think I should be able to vote in the mayoral election, because I’m still a New Yorker. Zach and I both went to Fordham Law School, both practiced law for a time before becoming disillusioned and moving on. But while I had a passion that I returned to, Zach was lost and, at the beginning of In the Country of the Blind, he’s trying to find his way. Zach and I are both passionate about beer. We both brew our own when time allows, and we both enjoy cooking as a way to relax, or finding new, out of the way restaurants. We also both have a somewhat complicated relationship with our own spirituality, including our Judaism, and a discomfort with orthodoxy in all its forms.
Zach also comes up on the losing side of most physical confrontations. I’m glad this pattern has never been tested in my own life, but if I suspect if it were, the same would be true for me.
Why did you decide to self-publish?
Initially I was following the traditional route to publication. I was signed with a prestigious agent in New York, who had made very clear statements to me about her love for certain themes and energies in the book. After a small number of houses had passed on the manuscript, one terrific house expressed serious interest, and wanted to see the pitch for the second book, which my agent also loved, because it takes Zach even further down the dark road that he begins in Blind. The publisher was disturbed by the dark themes, however, and wanted everything about the book lightened. My agent responded by saying to me, “Get to work.”
While I had already done some serious rewriting and revision, I had a big problem with gutting the heart and soul of the novel, and a bigger problem with my agents willingness to ask me to do that in order to make the sale, particularly when we were so early in the revision process. It seemed to me that we would do better to stick with what excited me as a writer, and what attracted her to my material in the first place. So we had a parting of the ways.
Shortly thereafter, a very good friend of mine who has worked in publishing for over 30 years suggested that I self-publish. Following his advice, I started researching the process, and learned a lot about how the publishing world has been turned upside down in the past several years. It has gone through the same kind of revolution that has occurred in other fields, such as music, film and television. Digital changed everything in the arts, and no one knows how everything is going to shake out, how the new markets are going to stabilize, if they ever do.
Many people said to me, with a lot of judgment, “Do you have any idea how many people actually make any real money in self-publishing?” My response is, “Do you have any idea how many people make any real money in traditional publishing?” These days, even if you are published by a major imprint, unless you’re one of the authors that they are really going to get behind, you’re going to have to do all of your publicity and marketing yourself. If you get into the chain bookstores, your book is going to sitting spine out on the shelves. It’s not going to be cover out, or sitting on a display table unless the publisher is willing to pay for that space, and that money might be coming out of your advance. Unless the publisher has already anointed you as an author that they are going to make into a success, you’ll do all the work yourself, for a much smaller royalty than you get when you self-publish. And you’ll give up a lot of control.
Some people say that the old model still has a place. That we need the agents and publishers as gatekeeper, ensuring the quality of the finished product, separating the wheat from the chaff. I don’t think that’s true. How many of the great books struggled and struggled to find a house? How many of them had no one that believed in them until after they were a success? Agents and publishers look backwards, at what succeeded last week, last month, last year, and try to echo it, recapture it. Artists, by their nature, look forward, listening to their own inner voices. I have a good story to tell, and I tell it well. I know there is a market for that, and I know that I’ll reach it.
Who are the authors that have influenced or inspired you?
I have always been a fan of the detective series, whether the more traditional PI or cop, like Lucas Davenport, Spenser, and Archie Goodwin, or the non-traditional tarnished knight, such as Travis McGee or Jack Reacher, and from that list, you can probably surmise the authors who are my heroes in the genre. I’ve been making a study of the work of those authors, and others, such as Sue Grafton and Greg Rucka, my entire life. Although I’m sure that readers familiar with them will recognize their influences, I think that they have blended in a unique way in my own work.
Do you have another project in the works?
With the release of In the Country of the Blind, I’m hard at work on the next Zach Brandis novel. The working title is Cherchez la Perp, but I’m not sure if I’m going to stay with that. At the end of Blind, Zach is in a pretty complicated personal space. He knows more about who he is, which is good, but he’s also become acquainted with some of his own darkness. That’s a good thing, in the long run, but it can also be a pretty scary and lonely place for a while. I guess you could say that if the only way out is through, he’s entered that tunnel that takes you through, and he doesn’t yet see the light at the other end. In the next book, that tunnel is going to get even darker as he continues to discover more about who he is at his core.
Three nights later, on Thursday, I had a late dinner with Leo. We went to a delicious, small, inexpensive Japanese place. It was right next door to a delicious, large, expensive Japanese place. The expensive place was always packed. The inexpensive place was always empty. Leo and I could never figure out why, or how it stayed in business. We speculated that the same people owned both and that somehow the losses from one helped with the taxes from the other. During dinner we drank Asahi, which is good as long as it’s ice cold. It was. I told Leo about the Penworths. After dinner we drank tea and Leo reminisced about his former student. Sometime after eleven o’clock we said goodnight and I grabbed the R train uptown.
The subway that night was strangely deserted, with only lone travelers preoccupied with books and magazines or simply staring at the floor. Times Square Station was close to empty. Two transit cops stood silently at the top of the stairs as I transferred to the uptown 1 train. They could have been statues, and didn’t glance at me or the other passersby as we moved through their field of vision. A lone flautist echoing from the far end of the downtown platform only increased my sense of isolation as I waited. After five minutes a local train arrived and I took it, needing to keep moving, not wanting to wait for the express. At Seventy-Second Street I got off and escaped up into the night air. Broadway, too, was uncharacteristically deserted, except for Gray’s Papaya on the corner to my right, teeming with life as always, models mingling with bums mixing with business men, eating the incomparable hotdogs twenty-four hours a day. I resisted the urge to run across the street and grab one, feel the snap of the skin on my teeth. The aroma of beef and fat was a siren song even on a full stomach. I cut north across Seventy-Second through Verdi Square and up the west side of Amsterdam.
At Seventy-Fifth I paused in front of Tempo, where Alex had tended bar until he was fired. I peered through one of the plate-glass windows. There was activity inside. Whatever was slowing down the rest of the city had no effect here, and I wondered what the allure was. I knew it was trendy, but I had never been in. The idea of trolling in bars for what passes as romance has never appealed to me. I find loneliness more bearable if I’m actually alone, rather than alone in the midst of a crowd of other lonely people.
Sometimes I’ll watch a movie with the sound turned off. It’s something I learned from Leo, an assignment he gives to his acting classes. He says you can judge the acting much better that way. Without the distractions of dialogue, music and foley, it’s easier to see the seamless work of the true artist, the false technique of the hack. Looking inside at the crowded bar was like working that exercise. I saw patrons engaged in animated conversation. Music was playing, and my fingertips could feel, faintly, the bass line through the plate glass. Some people were moving to the beat. Inside, I would hear the tinkling of silverware on plates, the clinking of glass on glass. But without the distraction of all of the noise, I could see loneliness on the faces, desperation in the eyes, the falseness of the smiles.
A limousine pulled to the curb behind me. The driver hopped out and ran around to open the rear curbside door. Two men in their early thirties emerged dressed in well-cut Italian suits, laughing lewdly, helping their dates out, two beautiful women in their early twenties, model thin, not dressed for the cold weather. Still laughing, they headed into Tempo. On a whim, I caught the door before it shut and followed them. There was the attractive hostess, wearing a short dress and ready smile. As the men requested a table, I caught her eye and inclined my head to the right, towards the barroom, questioning her with my eyebrows. She nodded almost imperceptibly before she turned the high beams of her graciousness back on the party of four. I squeezed past and headed for the bar, which took up the two back walls of the room that opened up to the right of the hostess station. It was crowded, and all of the stools at the three or four tall freestanding tables were taken. I managed to nab a lone seat at the bar near the end. The bartender approached. He was in his early thirties and had a ruddy face that looked like it leaned more toward easy embarrassment than quick anger.
“What can I get you?” he asked as he set a napkin down in front of me. It had the Tempo logo on it, a stylized martini glass/clock with two toothpick-speared olives forming the hands. They had Palate Wrecker from the Green Flash Brewing Company, so I ordered a pint. The best beers in the country, some of the best in the world, are coming from San Diego County right now, and I do love my hops. I turned on my stool to look past the hostess station to the large split-level dining room beyond. The lower level looked completely full. The upper level was only partially visible through archways in the wall, but I could see the wait staff from the shoulders up as they took orders and served drinks, so it must have been fairly full as well. Brisk business for a Monday night. The crowd was mostly mid thirties to late forties, dressed either very well or with the kind of studied casualness that can be very expensive. They ate, talked and laughed with forced gusto, as if they had been ordered to enjoy. I spotted a couple of minor celebrities at two of the tables in the main dining room, and a very famous film star standing beside a table of six. He finished a story, everyone laughed appropriately, and he strode back to his table in the more private dining area.
My beer arrived. I took a swallow and surveyed the barroom. This crowd was more frantic, more bent on reaching a good time, with more ground to cover to get there. A movement caught my eye, the turn of a head a little too quick, a woman talking to two men, her back to me. I took another sip of my beer and watched. From the looks on their faces, these guys were smitten. A burst of laughter erupted from the party to her left and somebody jostled her, forcing her to turn, giving me a glimpse of profile. She was stunning, and looked familiar, but I couldn’t figure out from where. Odd that I couldn’t place a woman that beautiful. I’m usually pretty good at remembering the truly important things. Then she glanced my way. Our eyes locked for a just a moment, and she quickly returned her attention to the two men. I stood, threw some bills on the bar and picked up my beer. As I threaded my way through the crowd, she glanced at me again and her eyes lit up.
“There you are!” she cried. She said something to the men and edged quickly my way. I still couldn’t place her. When she reached me, she stood on tiptoe, grabbed my face with both hands and pulled me in for a full, hard kiss with a delicious mouth. She squeezed the back of my neck hard as she whispered in my ear.
“Don’t say a fucking word.” She spun on her heel, pulling me behind her by the hand. We passed her companions and she let loose a peal of laughter.
“Sorry, fellas, but I haven’t seen this guy for ages, and we’ve got some catching up to do. I’ll see you around,” she said, and we were out the door. She still had hold of my hand, and I stopped to protest, but she grabbed my face for another hard kiss. It is unwise to object when kissed by a beautiful woman dressed to the nines, even if you don’t have any idea who the hell she is, so I began to reciprocate. She broke it off and spun me around, my back to the restaurant.
“Not here,” she said as she waved over my shoulder to the guys. She put her arm around my waist and pulled me quickly down the street. I followed, or rather, let her drag me to the corner, where she hauled me a few steps down Seventy-Sixth and pushed me into a dark alleyway where the only light was cast by a single bulb above an apartment building’s service entrance at the far end. She was backlit by a street lamp near the entrance to the alley and I couldn’t see her face.
“What the fuck were you doing in there?”
“Excuse me?” I said.
She stepped towards me. “I asked you what the fuck you were doing in there.” “Uh . . . having a drink?”
“Don’t get smart with me.” She straight-armed me farther into the alley. “If you’re
dicking around with this, you’re in big trouble.”
I was starting to be less amused. It’s one thing to be kissed and manhandled by a
beautiful, sexy stranger, and another to be threatened by her.
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
“Don’t fuck with me,” she said, shoving me again. The tone of voice and her language
completely belied the refined image projected by the woman I had seen in the bar. “Excuse me,” I said, “but who the fuck are you?”
“Who the fuck are you, and what the fuck are you talking about?”
She took another step forward. I wasn’t exactly afraid of her, but if I stood my ground and she pushed me again, I might have to give her a good one back. I didn’t want to do that, she was so small, so I took a quick step back. My foot landed on a piece of pipe, it skittered out from under me, and I went down as quickly as if I’d hit a patch of ice. I tried to arch my back to keep myself upright, and the first thing to hit the pavement was my head. I heard the crack, felt the dull penetrating vibration of the impact, and a sharp searing pain. A twin star revolved in the night sky, and two women loomed over me, speaking words I couldn’t understand, could barely hear. The twin star slowly resolved itself into the single bulb above the service entrance, and then one of the women was gone. I could hear the remaining one more clearly, speaking from the end of a long corrugated steel tunnel.
“Zach, are you all right?” “ngh.”
“Does your neck hurt?” “ngh.”
“Dammit. Just lie still for a minute.” She put a hand on my chest. “That must have knocked the wind out of you.”
She kneeled over me, looking into my eyes. She raised one hand and blocked the light from the bulb, putting one of my eyes into shadow, then moved her hand and repeated this motion a few times with that eye, and then again with the other.
“Does your neck hurt?” “ngh-ngh.”
“Can you sit up?” “ngh-hah.”
“Okay, let’s try it, nice and easy.” She put one hand behind my head at the base of my skull and wrapped her other arm around me to support me from behind my shoulders. Her face was next to mine and I could smell her perfume, dark and spicy, as she pulled me up into a sitting position on the pavement. She sat back on her heels and held my neck, kneading, probing gently with her fingers. The light finally caught her face, and it hit me: the police station, before my meeting with Cynthia and the two homicide dicks.
She pulled her hand away from my neck and held it up in front of her. It was covered with blood.
“Shit,” she said.
“Is that mine?”
“It would appear so. It looks like you hit the remains of a beer bottle when you went
down. Goddammit. Now I’ve gotta fill out a shitload of reports.”
“Yeah. Not to mention dealing with IAB and a brutality investigation.”
“You’re kidding, right? That might be tough to pull off. I’ve got witnesses who saw us
smooching our way out of that restaurant and up the street.”
“Well, if there’s more smooching to look forward to, I might be persuaded to drop the charges.”
“Shut the fuck up,” she said. “Turn around. I wanna see how bad it is.”
“Sally, right?” I asked as she probed the back of my head to get a good look. “Yeah. Good memory.”
“So, Sally. What do we do now?”
“We get you to the hospital for some stitches.”
“And then?” I asked, turning back to her.
She was digging in her shoulder bag. She pulled out some paper napkins and handed them to me. “And then you go home and forget this ever happened.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Matthew Arkin is a critically acclaimed actor, an acting teacher, and a recovering attorney. He attributes his skill for crafting dialogue and creating characters to his more than forty-five years of experience on stage, television, and film, and to reading approximately one suspense thriller per week since he was a young child.
Following the advice of one of his moms, author Barbara Dana, to “write what you know,” Arkin has created Zach Brandis and the novel In the Country of the Blind. Like Zach, Arkin gave up a career as a lawyer. Like Zach, he was born and raised, went to law school and spent most of his life in and around New York City. His love affair with the city, his life as a former attorney, and his experiences as a victim of cult abuse allow him to approach Zach’s story with poignant, candid depth and realism.
More information on Matthew and his career is available at matthewarkin.com.