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The ‘Brilliance’ of a good brand

By Rick Koster

Publication: The Day

Published July 22. 2013 4:00AM
Marcus Sakey pens new book

Celebrities who professionally multi-task in the establishment of their personal "brands" are more plentiful than ticks on a summertime stag.

It's only a matter of time, for example, before Jay-Z markets his own beef jerky or one of those Kardashians introduces a line of designer translations of Epicurus.

Crime writer Marcus Sakey has been extrapolating his "brand," as well - though the wittily self-effacing author would hardly think of it in marketing or commercial terms. Instead, his popularity and creative experiments have developed organically, starting with several bestselling and critically acclaimed novels of modern noir including "The Blade Itself," "The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes" and "The Good People," the latter of which is in film production and starring James Franco and Kate Hudson.

Spinning off from these literary successes, Sakey was offered a clever and intriguing television gig, serving as a writer and the host of the Travel Network's "Hidden City" program. In each episode, Sakey visits a different city and explores certain crime stories indigenous to the characteristics that help define that particular community.

With Sakey's newest novel "Brilliance," though, he's blasted in a new stylistic direction that definitely spins his image. It's a futuristic story, and only the first of a planned trilogy. The protagonist, Nick Cooper, is one of the small percentage of the population who, since 1980, have been born brilliant, each with a respective, savant-like intellectual gift - yet without any of the social or emotional deficiencies also associated with autism.

Cooper's particular skills make him an expert at hunting terrorists, but many of his targets are people of his own kind - so-called "Brilliants" - who have exploited their gifts in ways that have shaken the economic, social and political structures of the U.S.

One such militant is the elusive John Smith, who has organized the Brilliants into a militant outfit determined to destroy America in a Civil War. Cooper's on the case, but at great personal sacrifice. Not only is he betraying his own kind, but the well-being of his own wife and children will also hang in the balance. Plot shifts and U-turns are surprising, clever and abundant, and Sakey's cast of characters and precision approach to story and momentum are terrific.

Recently, Sakey spoke via phone from his home in Chicago about "Brilliance" and the process of writing. Here are excerpts from his comments.

On when and how he realized the "Brilliance" story arc was too big for one novel.

"I figured it out very early on. Before, I've always written stand-alone novels. After working on a book for a year, I get tired of the characters. (He laughs.) You know: 'Don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.'

"At the same time, I've always admired authors who write series because it's not just a continual set of events but an overarching, bigger story. In this case, I had an idea of the story, and it was just bigger than just the events in 'Brilliance.' I kept coming up with characters, each of whom had history and stories, and the more I jotted notes, the more each idea would open five or 10 more questions."

On the seemingly overwhelming task of having to conceptualize and reimagine an entire society based around the premise of the Brilliants.

"Quite often, it WAS overwhelming. but it was also a lot of fun - and that's what moved me even from the very beginning. There are these gifted people, and this is a world that has to adapt to them. What would the differences be? There would obviously be technological improvements, but the world would still be familiar. Society would have to deal with the same issues we've always had: whether the rise of Islamic fundamentalism or accepting homosexuals into mainstream society or whatever.

"But what if there was something that happened that essentially redirected all those prejudices and hatreds to a new group?"

In the shift from hardboiled crime to futuristic thrillers, Sakey alters his writing style substantially. The staccato pacing and wit of the earlier works is almost by necessity very different - more nuanced and expansive. Was that hard to do?

"I agree that it's different, but I'm not sure that I started out trying to do something different. When you start out, there's this shimmering target you're shooting for and you never get there. (He laughs.) But you get somewhere - close or not - and it's not necessarily better or worse.

"But I definitely wanted it to be a different book - not a crime novel - and I wanted it to be very real. I wanted the prose to be open and honest; in crime, there's a bit of a game to write noirish and have fun with it. At the end of the crime novels, I always use the 'search and replace' to see how many times I've used (the F-bomb). 'Oh, look: about 150! Maybe if I can get it down to 80 it would be better.' For ('Brilliance'), there's maybe four."

Sakey has stated his goal as a writer is to get the reader so engrossed that they miss their subway stop. When was the last time that actually happened to him?

"Last summer, I was reading 'Gone Girl.' It was in manuscript form because Gillian Flynn is a friend of mine. Man! She's like a warlock, and I don't know how she does what she does. If you write, sometimes I think it gets increasingly rare that something hits you in that context.

"You know, when I was a kid, I could look at words in a sequence on the back of a cereal box and be amazed. But once you become the man behind the curtain, it's harder to find that magic. When it happens, though, it's one of my favorite things in the world."

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