Peter Blauner is the author of nine novels, including Slow Motion Riot, winner of an Edgar Allan Poe award for best first novel from Mystery Writers of America, and The Intruder, a New York Times bestseller and a bestseller overseas.
He began his career as a journalist for New York magazine in the 1980s and segued into writing fiction in the 1990s. His short fiction has been anthologized in Best American Mystery Stories and on Selected Shorts from Symphony Space. He has been a staff writer for several television shows, including Law & Order: SVU and Blue Bloods.
Peter’s new novel, Picture in the Sand, which spans sixty years and the distance from Hollywood to Cairo, was published by Minotaur/St. Martin’s Press in January, 2023. It is his first work of historical fiction. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. with his wife, author Peg Tyre.
Hi Peter, welcome to Famous Writing Routines, great to have you here with us today! Congratulations on the release of your new novel, Picture in the Sand! How does it feel to have your first work of historical fiction out in the world?
Honestly, it’s a great relief. I started working on the book twenty-one years ago. Meanwhile, I’ve gotten a little historical myself. But I’m glad to have it out there because I’ve never really been comfortable in the category of “mystery writer” or a “thriller writer.” I’m happy to be swimming in a bigger sea.
The story of Picture in the Sand is based on the grandfather’s political rebellion in 1950s Egypt. What inspired you to write about this topic?
It was watching Cecil B. DeMille’s film The Ten Commandments right after 9/11 and realizing the most extravagant film in Hollywood history was shot in Egypt in the aftermath of a revolution that changed the course of global history.
What was your process like for researching and writing this novel, which spans sixty years and covers locations from Hollywood to Cairo?
When I write a novel, I have to convince myself a fictional story is true. I tend to do a lot of research. With Picture in the Sand, I went to Egypt six times and interviewed something like 200 people about the time period of the story, turmoil in the Middle East and the production of the DeMille movie.
But research can just be a sophisticated form of procrastination. At some point, you have to give your story a beating heart. That took a very long time. This book was rejected by just about every major publisher and even some minor ones. But I was still convinced there was something I had to get to on the other side of that brick wall.
It was during the pandemic, when I couldn’t do any first-hand research on my other projects, that I turned back to this book and decided to put it in the epistolary form of a grandfather sharing the cautionary tale of his life with his grandson
In Picture in the Sand, the grandfather Ali writes a manuscript for his grandson Alex, sharing the secret story of his own life that he’s kept hidden from his family. As a writer, how do you approach creating layered, complex characters like Ali?
I guess you could say the approach is somewhere between journalism, method acting and deliberative insanity. Through research, I accumulate as many details about the character’s birthplace, education, job and family. Then I actively marinate in them, by thinking and writing dialogue, until I start to absorb their traits as second-nature. Unsurprisingly, members of my family don’t always love this. Especially when I’m writing about psychos and grifters.
You’ve written for television shows like Law & Order: SVU and Blue Bloods, as well as short fiction that has been anthologized in Best American Mystery Stories. How does your experience in these different mediums influence your approach to writing novels?
The best things I got out of working for those television shows were friendships. I also probably learned a few things about working with cameras and actors that were useful in writing about a much-grander movie production. Mainly, I was very lucky to get those jobs so I could pay the bills while I was desperately flailing away, trying to get this novel to come together.
Slow Motion Riot won an Edgar Allan Poe award for best first novel. Looking back on your career now, what advice would you give to your younger self when you were just starting out as a writer?
Be a better reader. I started my career working for a great newspaper man named Pete Hamill. He taught me three things: 1) Always write everything down right away, because you never know what the most important detail is until later. 2) Always have the courage to ask the hard question. You’ll be glad you did in the long run. 3) Always read writers who are better than you. While I was in Egypt doing research, I heard an addendum. I met Naguib Mahfouz, the Noble laureate, shortly before he died. He said, “I’ve learned more from the near-great than I have from the great.” Makes sense, doesn’t it?
Can you tell us about your writing routine? What does a typical day look like for you?
I try to avoid drinking alcohol the night before I do any serious writing, because it dulls the five physical senses and the access to memory you need to put everything you have on the page. Then I get up as early as possible and try to avoid engaging with the internet or other people, so I can concentrate on being involved in my own imaginary world.
For a first draft, I try to write a minimum of three typewritten pages a day. Or if I’m writing in longhand, as I often do, it’s six pages. If it’s going well and you stop after 750-800 words, then you have a great place to pick up the process the next day. If it’s going terribly, well, that’s not too much to recover from. With rewriting, the gloves are off. I’ll go all day and night unless someone stops me.
If you could have a conversation with any author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be?
Leo Tolstoy. The man was a beast. He wrote everything. Epic war scenes, party gossip, religious tracts, soap opera, piercing psychology studies, crime stories, death stories, prototypes for Hollywood movies, and words that inspired the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. He sounds like he could be an ornery dude, especially if you were married to him. But I think it would be worth the effort of bringing over a sandwich and a cup of coffee to see if you could cadge a little wisdom off the master.
I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favorite recent reads?
Maybe because the world seems so unstable, the work that really speaks to me comes from the period between the world wars. In particular, 1939 was a banner year for literature, including Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter, Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West, Good Morning Midnight by Jean Rhys, and Ask The Dust by John Fante. I recently discovered a forgotten classic from that year, Christ in Concrete by Pietro Di Donato, a truly great literary achievement about actual working people that deserves back in print and back in readers’ hands.
What does your current writing workspace look like?
Any quiet place with decent light, a comfortable seat, good coffee and no one trying to pull you into any other world.
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