NEW YORK (AP) — Marcus Sakey's new novel is a dream come true.
"It was one of those fairly vivid dreams where I was wandering around Chicago, where I live, and there was nobody. It was this sort of lonely, abandoned Chicago," says Sakey, a million-selling author whose "Afterlife" comes out this week and takes place in a Chicago both real and otherworldly.
"And I had that dream knowledge, where it was like, 'Oh, you're dead.' And I wasn't scared. It wasn't like a nightmare. ... But then I woke up, lying next to my wife of 20 years, and I imagined not being in the same place as her — literally standing in the same room and not being able to see her or interact with her or talk to her. And all of a sudden it became very scary indeed."
Known for his "Brilliance" thriller trilogy and other works, the 43-year-old Sakey combines numerous genres and influences in "Afterlife," from crime and science fiction to Greek mythology. In "Afterlife," FBI agent Will Brody seemingly dies in an explosion, only to awake unharmed in a ghoulish Chicago he hardly recognizes. He will be joined in his new surroundings, and in his old ones, by love interest and FBI task force head Claire McCoy. Together, they fight killers on Earth and villains in the cosmos.
"Afterlife" is also Sakey's way of using an alternate world to make sense of this one. Will finds himself wondering if the Chicago he has landed in is the final stage of existence or just a pathway. In one scene, Will watches thousands of shadowy figures drifting to "Pure and total nothingness. A black hole" and, spotting Claire among them, vows to rescue her.
"I was kind of fascinated by the notion we all have this idea that at the end, in death, we're going to get the answers," Sakey said during a recent interview at a Manhattan restaurant. "If you believe in any particular theology, you'll be judged. And if you don't — and I personally don't — then there'll just be nothing and that's an answer, too. And it was really fun to think, 'What if you just landed somewhere and there were no answers?' It ended up becoming an interesting parallel for life, because we don't have any answers here and we go on living anyway."
Citing Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman and Michael Crichton as among his favorite authors, Sakey has written eight previous novels and found a following among general readers and Hollywood executives. His novel "Good People" became a 2014 film starring James Franco and Kate Hudson. "Brilliance" was sold to Legendary Pictures for more than $1 million, although a planned production with Will Smith eventually stalled. "Afterlife" has been acquired by Imagine Entertainment, Ron Howard's production company.
His new book is his fourth with Thomas & Mercer, a crime and mystery publisher owned by Amazon.com. Sakey had been at Dutton, a Penguin Random House imprint. But, saying he wanted more control of his work, he bought out his contract in 2012 ("I wrote them a check that just cleared out my bank account") and signed with the Amazon imprint, taking on the risk of being associated with a retailer scorned by many in publishing, with many independent sellers avoiding books released through Amazon.
But Sakey has some strong connections with local store owners. He is launching "Afterlife" with an appearance at The Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona. In Manhattan, Otto Penzler of The Mysterious Bookshop usually shuns Amazon publications but is stocking "Afterlife."
"We are not particularly interested in supporting Amazon but I've been a fan and pal of Marcus since the first book and we will make an exception in his case," says Penzler, who praised Sakey's "compelling plots, interesting characters, crisp, witty dialogue, really good stylish prose."
For "Afterlife," Sakey did depart in some ways from his previous books. In researching his crime stories, he has bonded with everyone from SWAT teams to bank robbers, and he loves to talk about riding around with police, listening to their stories. Much of the preparation for his new novel was private and internal, walking about the streets of Chicago, wondering what they would look like in the next dimension.
"This one was mostly me kind of going deep into my own head," he said.
Born in Flint, Michigan, Sakey says he's always wanted to tell stories and was writing them from middle school through college, the University of Michigan. But he lacked life experience, first trying several other professions, working in television, graphic design and advertising, where he learned about getting learning people's attention for "something they actively don't want." By 2003, he was working at a boutique ad agency in Chicago and was so tired of the business that he "was just wanting to set the building on fire."
"My wife and I talked about it and she said, 'You wanted to write a book since I met you, that's partly how you got me into bed, saying you wanted write a book someday. Maybe now is the time,'" he recalls. "I went into my boss and said, 'I need to talk to you if you've got a few minutes,' and he said, 'Marcus, I'm going to have to talk to you, too. We're going to have to let you go.'" It was a bit of a karmic kick in the pants."