Lisa: We’re so pleased to have author Mark Allan Gunnells joining us today to chat a bit about himself and his new book, The Exchange Student.
Welcome, Mark! Why don’t we start off having you tell us something about yourself that most people don’t know.
Mark: When I was in Junior High, writing a lot of super teen angsty poetry, I used to sign all my poems Silent And Desolate, or S.A.D.
Lisa: What’s your favorite scene in The Exchange Student, and what makes it a fave?
Mark: Probably the scene where my two leads kiss for the first time. I think there’s something sexy but also sweetly innocent about it.
Lisa: Would you care to share an excerpt from the scene with us?
Mark: “Nick shut me up by placing his mouth on mine. His lips were soft but insistent, his tongue hot as it slipped into my mouth. A hungry kiss, like a suffocating man getting his first lungful of air. The intensity of it stunned me at first, but then I placed a hand on the back of Nick’s head, feeling the spiky bristles of his short hair on my palm, and returned the kiss with a certain hunger of my own.
As suddenly as he had initiated the kiss, Nick withdrew. By the light that filtered through the window, I saw his face, pale and shocked. Without a word, he crossed the room back to his own bed.”
Lisa: If you could spend some real-life time with one of the characters in the book, who would you choose and why?
Mark: Hmm, I’d probably say Larry Keaton, the father of one of my main characters. I pick him because he’s a complex man with a lot of sensitivity and a very open mind considering the era in which he lives (the early 1960s). I have a lot of respect for him.
Lisa: On the flipside, which character would you probably least get along with? Why?
Mark: Definitely Gina Keaton, Larry’s wife. She is as close-minded as he is open-minded, with a lot of racist and homophobic attitudes.
Lisa: Let’s take off your author cap and put on your reader cap for a moment: what do you look for in a book, what sort of protagonists do you love, do you have a favorite genre?
Mark: I like interesting characters; for me characters make the book, drive the story. Doesn’t matter how intricate a plot you have, if the characters aren’t interesting then it won’t hook me. I like protagonists that are dynamic and complex. They don’t even have to be traditionally “likeable” as long as they are intriguing and compelling. My favorite genre is probably horror, I’ve been a fan since I was a kid, but I will read anything as long as the story is good and the characters breathe with life.
Lisa: What books and authors would you say influenced you to become a writer yourself?
Mark: One of my biggest influences early on was not a book or author, but The Twilight Zone. I loved the sensibility of that show, our own world but with things slightly askew and off-kilter. That kind of suspenseful atmosphere really appeals to me. Stephen King really influenced me as well, the way he creates believable characters and constructs small town life in a very authentic way.
Lisa: What are your least and most favorite things about being an author?
Mark: My favorite thing about being an author is that thrill of creating a story, diving into it and getting lost in it and seeing where it leads me. My least favorite thing is probably the self-promotion. I always worry I’m becoming obnoxious.
Lisa: What’s the best piece of writing/author advice you’ve ever received that you’d pass on to someone just getting started in the business?
Mark: Anne Rice has said some things I’ve really taken to heart. One, write the story you want to read, create the world you want to live in, the characters you would want to know. Also, there are no hard and fast rules on how to do it, so find what works for you regardless of what anyone else says.
Lisa: Have you ever written a line or paragraph and thought, “Darn, that’s pretty amazing, even if I do say so myself”? What was it?
Mark: False modesty aside, I do sometimes write things that impress me and make me feel that I really know what I’m doing. A recent example is in my work-in-progress where I had a character trying to squeeze through a crowd, and I compared it to going through those inflatable panels in some funhouses.
Lisa: What’s the one genre and/or trope you haven’t written yet, but would love to? What’s kept you from it so far?
Mark: I’ve dabbled in a little of everything. I’ve done vampires, werewolves, zombies; I’ve also done coming of age and romance. Part of me admires those fantasy novels where you build whole worlds from scratch, but I don’t know if I have it in me to do something like that.
Lisa: If you could choose one of your books to be adapted for the silver screen, which would you choose? Why do you think it would translate well to film?
Mark: My zombie novella ASYLUM might make a good film. It’s contained to pretty much one location, with a limited cast, and might be easy to film. I’d also like to see my coming of age novel THE SUMMER OF WINTERS made, just because I think it would be fun to recreate the early 80s, when the story takes place. For similar reasons, THE EXCHANGE STUDENT with its primary setting of 1963 could be fun to see on screen.
Lisa: What’s the one book you’ve read in your lifetime that you wish you’d written? Why did this particular book leave such a lasting impact on you?
Mark: There are many books I marvel at. I’m in awe of J.K. Rowling’s world building in Harry Potter, King’s ease of creating characters in a lot of his work, McCammon’s sense of beauty and power in Boy’s Life, Joe Lansdale’s economy of words…but I don’t wish I’d written any of them because I’d rather write the stories that exist in me.
Lisa: If you could sit down to dinner with any author, past or present, who would you choose, and why? What are some things you’d want to chat about?
Mark: I would love to meet Stephen King. I think he is such a natural storyteller, I’d love to talk with him about the writing process, his influences. I’d also love to meet Anne Rice, because she is a romantic figure that almost seems from another time and I’m fascinated by her.
Lisa: If you were stranded on a desert island, what are three things you’d absolutely have to have?
Mark: Books, my husband, and food.
Lisa: If you had to choose between becoming a superhero or supervillain, which would you choose and why?
What would your superpower be?
Mark: Definitely a superhero. I believe in the responsibility of everyone to try to leave the world a better place than when we entered it. Maybe I’ll steal the ability to multiply the loaves and fishes because it would be nice to make sure everyone had enough.
Lisa: If James Corden invited you to Carpool Karaoke, what song(s) would you sing with him?
Mark: I would sing a lot of Adele and Kelly Clarkson, like I do in my own car. He might kick me out though because I can’t carry a tune in a bucket.
Lisa: If you could be any animal in the world, what would you choose? Why?
Mark: A bird. Birds represent freedom to me, to just take flight and soar off toward the horizon.
Lisa: If you could travel back in time, with all your years of experience and wisdom intact, what advice would you give to your teenage self?
Mark: Don’t be afraid to be who you know you are, because who you are is just fine. Keep writing, and dig deep to tell the stories that only you can tell.
Lisa: If you were to sit down and write your autobiography today, what would the title be?
Mark: Forever a Child
Lisa: Star Trek, Star Wars, both or neither? Explain.
Mark: Star Wars, original trilogy, I think they are fun and exciting and despite the darkness in them ultimately about hope. Star Trek for some reason never appealed to me.
Lisa: If you could be any fictional character in the history of literature, who would you like to be and why?
Mark: Harry Potter. Strong and kind and he never let his power corrupt him.
Lisa: It’s the zombie apocalypse. It’s up to you and 5 other uninfected humans to save what’s left of humanity. Which fictional characters would you want on your team, and why?
Mark: Well, I don’t know how much good I’d be, so I’d have to pick some bad-asses. Might as well pick The Terminator so he can do some damage. Hermonie from Harry Potter could do some kick-ass magic. Buffy could slay some undead. Rick from The Walking Dead of course has massive experience at these matters. And Auntie Mame just because in grim times we need someone full of life who can keep us laughing.
About The Exchange Student
Sometimes love lives in the past…
In an alternate 2014, time travel is commonplace, regulated by the government. 17-year-old Trevor Bartley has been selected to be an exchange student to the year 1963 to study the civil rights era. The rules: do nothing that could alter the natural flow of time. But when he meets his host family, he finds himself incredibly drawn to 17-year-old Nick Keaton. In his own time, Trevor would have pursued his feelings without a second thought, but in 1963, when an entire race was subjected to violence and hate, pursuing his feelings openly would be dangerous in the extreme. And that was if Nick were even open to the idea.
Until it becomes clear that he is.
But if things aren’t complicated enough, Trevor soon finds himself caught up in a terrorist plot of murder and political intrigue which could send the natural timeline careening off in dangerous directions, and could have life or death consequences—or worse—for everyone.