Mark Zvonkovic’s third novel, Belinda, showcases the author's strong eye for characterization. This cross-genre thriller follows Belinda "Lyn" Larkin, a beautiful and accomplished lawyer, as she is met with the inevitable end of her career. However, when her former lover unexpectedly reappears in her life, she is forced to doubt her own determination to fight retirement. With thrilling legal drama and an action-packed look into the lives of people who appear to have let their careers consume them - for better or worse - the story makes the reader consider why we often let our past decisions define us.
While the intricate plotlines are exhilarating and keep the reader intrigued, they also allow little time to explore the novel's large cast of supporting characters. Maybe in the next book? Overall, Belinda is a satisfying read that will entice you to explore the compelling world that Zvonkovic has created.
To learn more about the story behind the story, read A Good Book To End The Day’s interview with the author below.
Belinda alludes to characters from your previous books. As someone who hasn't had the pleasure of reading your earlier works (yet!), I found Belinda easy to read as a stand-alone novel. Did you find it challenging to connect the characters across numerous novels while keeping them readable for first-time readers of your work?
The characters in my novels are the same as friends. I keep up with them in my imagination after the novel is finished, and the memory of them is usually fresh when I include them in a later novel. But I do go back and check, just like one would ask a friend for a reminder about something that happened previously. Of course, to the extent it is relevant I always give the reader some background in a new novel about a character from a previous novel, the same as one might tell a new friend about another friend. Lyn Larkin, the protagonist in Belinda, is hardly mentioned in an earlier novel, A Lion In The Grass. There are some events in that novel concerning Jay Jackson, Lyn’s romantic interest, but those are described to the extent relevant to Lyn’s story in Belinda. I hope that readers of my novels become involved in the characters and enjoy discovering how the people they meet and the events that take place around them affect them, without being confined to a reoccurring plot formula as one might find in a series. Raymond Hatcher, the protagonist in A Lion In The Grass, has a minor role in my other two novels, but it is only tangential to the themes of those novels. The Narrows has nothing to do with the spy world; the action in that novel centers on religious cults from the 1970's. Belinda is focused on the effect of mandatory retirement on a successful career woman. Her romance with a man she doesn’t know was a spy–Jay Jackson was Raymond Hatcher’s protégé–is a part of her story. Of course, a reader who likes a character in one of the novels may be interested in reading more about that character in one of the other novels. That’s the same as getting to know a new friend. You ask your friend questions about his or her earlier life.
A successful thriller novel must have a great balance of action, dialogue, and characterization. Were there any other novels or authors from which you drew inspiration for your series in order to strike the perfect balance?
Definitely. My character development involves a great deal of research about people, whether that be through people I have known personally or through biographies, or by my own reading of fiction. The characters in the worlds created in my novels are a combination of all that kind of research. Developing a character is how I start a novel. As I get to know the character in my mind, I invent a plot as a means of further development. That’s how I balance those two. The dialogue is how the characters and the plot are combined. One finds these things well done by several authors of what I like to call “literary spy fiction,” because it is a fiction that puts the protagonist first and the plot second. Three great authors that inspired me in this regard are John le Carre, Charles McCarry, and Graham Greene. But I would say that spy and mystery novels are only a small piece of good literature. Great novelists who are masters of balancing character and plot in literary fiction are for me–and only to name a few–Somerset Maugham, E.M. Forster, and Wallace Stegner. And, of course, there are modern writers who are really damn good! It would take pages to talk about all of them. I read a lot, which every good writer must do.
Belinda has elements of romance along with action and mystery. What led you to explore that genre? And do you plan to write any more romantic dramas in the future?
Romance is an important part of life, in my opinion. One can tell so much about a character by a look at a romantic experience; it gives insight, certainly, into the degree to which a person is prudent, reckless, kind, or foolish. I’m sure you can see the metaphoric direction there. In Belinda, Lyn’s romance with Jay was a necessary counterpoint to her career; before the romance with Jay, the law was Lyn’s husband. And just like retirement, romance for her was going to be an entirely new life experience. In my earlier novels, romance was episodic, a minor tangent in the stories but a clue to the protagonist’s personality. I suspect it will have a bigger role in my novels after Belinda.
As an established author, do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
Yes, I always read my book reviews. And I also write book reviews on other novels, which are published in various places, but collected on my website for anyone interested. So, I know what is required to write a fair review. For my own novels, I deal with good reviews and bad ones exactly the same: I appreciate them. A review gives me a glimpse of what is in the mind of the reader, and I respect that, regardless of whether the review is positive or negative. Of course, some reviews are actually more about the reviewer than the book, but that’s okay. It means the book evoked a reaction, even if it was one I didn’t expect or intend. And that is what reading is all about. As alluded to by E.M. Forster, to know yourself you must connect with others. Reading does that for you in so many ways, and you don’t even have to leave your chair! And for authors, I believe a lot of reading is a prerequisite for good character development.
My favorite question to ask authors is: what does literary success look like to you?
That’s a difficult question, and I suppose the answer for me is influenced by where I am in my life. I’m a recovering lawyer, retired, and looking to do something meaningful during this later phase of my life. Of course, I wouldn’t mind fame and fortune. Whoever says they wouldn’t is probably lying. But I don’t think for me that particular goal is worth the effort it takes to write a good literary novel. For me, success primarily comes from completing a work that people will think is worthy of reading. Belinda took three years to write, and it’s far too early for me to determine whether it is successful. But based on my life experiences to date, I think that judging myself based only on a standard of how many books are purchased and dollars collected would in the end be a hollow determination. I’m the first to admit that I suffer from “impostor syndrome.” The protagonists in my novels all have that in common. So, a careful evaluation of success has to involve some serious self-examination and not a simple mathematical judgment.
Do you have any new projects in the works?
I have glimmers of an idea, but it’s far too soon to say anything definite. The last six months of the publication process for Belinda hasn’t left much time for me to do any serious thinking about the next book. From what I’ve said before, my next novel will certainly focus on a character, and that character will undoubtedly have some small connection to a character or event in a previous novel. I’ve lately wondered about what has happened to Larry Brown, the protagonist in The Narrows. The world I created for him in that novel was the 1970's when he was a young man. Cultural changes in the world can appear to you to become faster-paced the older you get. Think back about what’s happened to you since your childhood. Could you have predicted what you’ve experienced? From what I remember about Larry, he certainly couldn’t have done so, and I am very curious about what has happened to him and how he has dealt with it. I am very invested in the characters in my novels; they live on in my imagination long after the novels end.
An additional observation from the author:
Some readers of Belinda have wondered why I included at the beginning a quote from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, by T.S. Eliot, or, in the case of one reviewer, what is the relevance of Prufrock to the story. This has disappointed me a little because I am concerned that I didn’t do a good job connecting the metaphors. The connections are subtle, and the references to Prufrock in the body of the novel are never with direct quotes but with casual allusions, such as coffee spoons, flickering greatness, and sea waves. But I believe that the themes in Prufrock are the themes in Belinda, the most notable being desire, hope, anxiety, and indecision, which describe the growing concern Lyn has with mandatory retirement, not to mention her awkward commencement of a romance with Jay. I believe that one can read Prufrock as the musings of one confronted with retirement and what to do with oneself after retirement. Or the thoughts can be broader, those of a person looking back on her life and trying to come to terms with it. I have read Prufrock many times over the years, and it seems to me to be quite illustrative of what Lyn is experiencing during the story; her internal monologue is much the same. She may measure out her past in martinis, as opposed to coffee spoons, but she looks at her body growing old near the end of the story, feeling abandoned, and in Eliot’s prose, “having seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker.” In my opinion, good literature is full of metaphor and allusion, rather than straightforward explanation. And so it is my hope that Lyn’s metaphorical journey toward the next stage of life, like Prufrock’s, can be conveyed by her observations about wind-blown ocean waves, an outdoor shower, an empty vase, and her attempt to roll up her thoughts and fears into the overwhelming question that awaits her answer in San Saba.
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