Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Diane Lunsford is talking with Mark M. Bello, author of You Have The Right to Remain Silent (A Zachary Blake Legal Thriller, Book 8).
FQ: Thank you for such a phenomenal read! Since this is book number eight in your series, what is your approach in picking the topic/subject matter?
BELLO: Thanks for the high compliment. My approach is usually to pick out and write about a hot social justice topic in the news. Betrayal of Faith was about the clergy abuse crisis, Betrayal of Justice about anti-Muslim bias, Betrayal in Blue about white supremacy and the thin blue line of policing, Betrayal in Black about a cop shooting an innocent black man at a routine traffic stop, Betrayal High about a school shooting, Supreme Betrayal about the Supreme Court and sexual assault, and Betrayal at the Border about the border crisis. This time, I was reading an article about an incapacitated person and I wondered: What would happen if a lawyer was called upon to represent someone who could not participate in her own defense? Legally, such a person could not be tried until she is able to participate, but, of course, I write FICTION! I took creative license and had Zachary decide to proceed anyway and the rest is history. Long answer to a short question, but my topics usually come from real events that catch my attention.
FQ: In line with my previous question, I was intrigued to learn you have a real, live person as one of your characters - Sheri Belitz. While I read her note in the acknowledgements, I’m curious to learn how the two of you connected. She’s just the right amount of spice and sass and the banter between her and character Zachary Blake was great.
BELLO: Again, thank you for the kind words. I met Shari on LinkedIn where she writes terrific posts about juries, psychology, and lawyers. We connected. I began reading and replying to her posts, enjoying our repartee. I invited her to be a guest on my podcast, Justice Counts. She introduced me to an attorney who also hosted a podcast and I was able to discuss my books on her show. As I was developing You Have The Right to Remain Silent, I thought of Shari, jury consulting, and, perhaps, including a mock trial in the novel. I asked her about it and she gave me helpful tips about her service and how to proceed. I thought to myself: "She's super-bright, talented, beautiful, an expert in her field—why create a fictional character when I can use the real deal?" I ask her whether I could do just that, and she was very receptive (to say the least). The real Shari represents the insurance defense side of things, civil litigation from the defense point of view. Zachary Blake is a plaintiffs' and criminal defense lawyer, the opposite of Shari. Again, though, this is FICTION, and I made her a character who could and would change sides and help out Zachary. With her approval, I wrote her sections or description and dialogue, received her enthusiastic permission to continue forward, and created a compelling character, more than a match for the great 'King of Justice,' Zachary Blake. I had a lot of fun collaborating with Shari—I hope she did too and that we have not heard the last of her in the series.
FQ: You reference in your bio that you are a social justice advocate. Are you able to share what your most rewarding experience has been for you in this realm? Did the end play out with how you envisioned it would play out?
BELLO: Betrayal of Faith is a fictional account, based on an actual clergy abuse case that my law partner and I handled back in the day. At the time, clergy abuse was a dirty little secret, often covered up by the church. Victims were paid for their silence, offending priests were transferred from place-to-place. Members of the hierarchy lied under oath. The book is a fictional embellishment of how these various behaviors felt to a young lawyer (me), participating in a David v. Goliath type struggle for truth and justice for my clients. In the end, we resolved the case publicly, very favorably to my client, did not agree to any of the church's confidentiality demands, and notified parishes the actual priest was transferred to until he was, finally, defrocked. Since our case, many lawyers across the country and the world have been able to pursue justice for their clients. I'd like to think that our trailblazing experience with the conspiracy and cover-up helped pave their way. Side note: The priest from our 1980's era case was recently sent to prison in 2021 (he is in his late 70s early 80s) for additional sexual abuse crimes that were not disclosed (as required) in our litigation. I have never understood the church's policies relating to these cases—cover up, conspiracy, transfers, and pay-offs, wherever these guys went—who cares about the innocent children? It is despicable.
FQ: Some of the nuances you played out in this story track fairly accurately with what is actually going on in our society today when it comes to the press and reporting. Specifically, there is an exchange between Shari Belitz and person ‘Number Four’ during her sessions of assessment and information gathering. She queries the group on the role the press plays in a highly reported account of a gruesome murder to which ‘Number Four’ responds: "There’s no question the press spins these stories...They want to make the story as juicy as possible. So, yes, I believe they spin these stories..." What is your opinion on how the ‘reporters’ report a lot of the ‘news’ these past few years?
BELLO: I'm not a fan. I read Grisham, Silva, Baldacci, Patterson, North Patterson, Turow, Flynn, or Child (or even this Bello guy), to name a few. While these talented authors may have been inspired by an actual event, they write FICTION and don't pretend that there is no political bias or particular/slanted point of view. When I watch reporters present a news story, I want it to be factual, not sugar-coated or biased, one way or the other. We no longer watch the news, especially at the national level. We watch propaganda presented as the news
FQ: How much input did Ms. Belitz have in her character and how she was to be portrayed in the story?
BELLO: She approved the character, obviously. She read the first few chapters or concepts where her character appeared and developed, and was pleased with the content. She also provided a large amount of jury consultant content and input that I had to condense to make a readable novel. After that, the novel began to flow and she needed less input, but still read and approved. She's a terrific character and a great sport. Readers will love her, as I do. Thank you, Shari!
FQ: In line with my previous question, was there a moment of ‘agree to disagree’ in any of the scenes and if so, how did you come to terms with how it would play out?
BELLO: I am pleased to say that none of that happened. In fact, the only time it did, we incorporated it into the book. Did Zack need a focus group or a mock jury? What's the difference? After our discussion, I incorporated the back-and-forth into the book. It made for great dialogue and elevated her character.
FQ: I loved how ’Number Seven’ in the group defined ‘Schadenfreude.’ "...There are many different versions and contexts for the term, but the main point is that people seem to derive pleasure or self-satisfaction from learning about the troubles, failures, or even the humiliation of others, especially the rich and famous..." In your opinion, why do you suppose this is?
BELLO: That question is better presented to Shari, but my sense is that it makes insecure people feel better about themselves and their lives. In Betrayal of Faith, where Zachary Blake was first introduced, he was victim of this—certain people took great pleasure in his fall from grace. He fought back and made himself a better man and a better lawyer, but "Schadenfreude" is real.
FQ: Without giving too much of a spoiler, I enjoyed how the Southfield police joined forces with Zachary Blake to flush out the killer. Have you ever used this tactic in your law practice and what was the outcome?
BELLO: I had primarily a civil practice and never "joined forces" with the police. Zachary Blake, as you well know, has had many prior battles and collaborations with the police. Sometimes, like in Betrayal of Justice, Betrayal in Blue, and Betrayal in Black. He fights with and collaborates with the police at the same time in the same novel. This is nothing new for Zack Blake but it would be new for me if it ever happened. Lawyers do need to "join forces" with cops to verify fault in many different types of accidents, especially auto accidents, something I used to do all the time.
FQ: Is there a real ‘Micah Love’ investigator in your world? How often did you laugh out loud when you were writing the exchanges between him and Zachary Blake?
BELLO: While Micah is crafted from a variety of people I know, love, have met along the way, there is no real investigator version of him. A lot of his "schtick" comes from my warped mind and reflects my sense of humor. In 46 + years of marriage, my wife rolls her eyes at a lot of my attempts at humor, but I think I am a very funny guy! Micah reflects, without a doubt, my own sense of humor, warped though it may be. And, yes, when I come up with dialogue for Micah, I sometimes laugh out loud.
FQ: Clearly, you have the quintessential ability and an incredible formula in delivering these thrillers. How difficult is it to say goodbye to your characters from one book to the next?
BELLO: I am topic driven not character driven, so it has not been too difficult. Besides, I have never written a character (unless he or she is killed) that cannot someday return in a future novel. I never write anyone (living) off. Who would you like to see in a future novel?
FQ: It was such a pleasure to talk with you today and I thank you for your time. I can only hope there is a book number nine in this series in the works. If so, any chance we can get a sneak peek? If not, what’s next?
BELLO: I have no series novels projects in the works right now—I'm developing concepts and ideas as we speak. But that doesn't mean I haven't been busy...
I recently released a cookbook (The Blake-Lewin Family Cookbook of Traditional Jewish Recipes), written by Zachary Blake 'as told to' Mark M. Bello. What do you think of that? Fun, no? The cookbook is available as an ebook or paperback for purchase on Amazon and other online booksellers. It is a whimsical look at my own family history, with real family recipes (with pictures) from the old countries, some over a century old. The cookie-dough apple pie, trifle, banana cake, Hamantachen, and German chocolate cake recipes, to name a few, are to die for. In a previous question, you asked about Micah's sense of humor, and his type of humor is graphically on display here, with funny stories and family anecdotes, some of which are true or based on actual events. The book was a departure for me, a fun project 'written by a fictional character.'
I am about to release my first children's series social justice/safety picture book, Happy Jack-Sad Jack, A Bullying Story, a compelling look, from the eyes of a bi-racial child, at what it feels like to be bullied on your first day of school, and what kids, parents, teachers, and administrators can do about it. I have long felt that certain social justice and safety issues are reaching children too late in life. Nelson Mandela once said:
"People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite...Man's goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished."
I intend this series to provide social justice and safety lessons to small children, effectively, sensibly, in a kid-friendly way. Hopefully, we can make things better, one reader at a time. Thanks for having me.