A book with flip-flops cut out of the pages

Photography: (book) Ratko Radojcic; (sand) Hydromet/shutterstock; Prop Stylist: Alan Boccadoro

Life comes down to a hammock.

As personal philosophies go, there are far worse. Think how much less daunting problems look while you rock in the shade of your favorite tree. Thing is, as much as I love mine, a hammock is a difficult place in which to read. The angles are all wrong. You’re lying on your back, arms and fingers cramping as you hold a hardcover up to block the sun. Or you flip over, put the book on the ground, and read as the ropes carve divots into your cheeks.

Still, when I think of summer reads, I’m thinking of my hammock and of books that sweep me away even as the bugs circle and the sweat drips down my nose.

I’m not just talking about those with a breakneck plot. And it’s not a question of genre (although many of the books that fill Americans’ summers are filled with action and adventure). But while my hammock reads might feature spies or hit men, they’re equally likely to be gorgeously written and filled with stunning, brain-bending ideas. Jonathan Lethem’s Tourettic detective novel Motherless Brooklyn, Richard K. Morgan’s luridly brilliant Altered Carbon, and David Mitchell’s dazzling epic Cloud Atlas are perfect summer fare. They have it all: great characters caught in a driving plot, beautifully rendered.

‘Brilliance’ by Marcus Sakey

READ THIS TOO: Sakey’s new thriller, Brilliance (Thomas & Mercer, $15; out July 16), is set in an alternate present in which “one percent of the population are born savants,” says Sakey. The first in a trilogy, the book has been optioned for film by the producers of The Dark Knight.

This summer looks to offer up some doozies too—such as Neil Gaiman’s first adult book in years, The Ocean at the End of the Lane (William Morrow, $26; out June 18). Gaiman is perhaps the finest mythmaker working today; he’s a wizard of a stylist, weaving everything from Shakespeare’s plays to Norse fables into wildly entertaining tapestries.

Although it has been out since April, James Salter’s All That Is (Knopf, $27) could be the literary event of the summer. He hasn’t published a novel in more than 30 years, and while you might not guess there’s such a thing as a sexy octogenarian, this book will change your mind.

Finally, there’s a highly touted debut I’m dying to get my hands on called The Blood of Heaven (Grove/Atlantic, $25), which follows a preacher’s son on a brutal growth to manhood in the early days of the American frontier. The author, Kent Wascom, has won an annoying amount of acclaim for a 26-year-old. His story sounds reminiscent of early Cormac McCarthy—whose Blood Meridian, by the way, is another brilliant summer read.

Every time I sit down at my keyboard, I’m thinking of my hammock and trying to write the kind of book I would read there. It’s a useful clarifier, a way to gauge which darlings you keep and which you strangle. I doubt I’m alone. I mean, really, what writer says, “I’ve got it—my book will be the one readers dread returning to”? Salman Rushdie and I rarely—OK, never—have coffee, but if we did, I bet he’d confess that he’s shooting for the same bull’s-eye.

However, if you’ll excuse me, it’s a beautiful day, and the heart of the afternoon calls. If you want to find me, you know where to look.


Update: We just remembered we had an extended Q&A from our interview with Marcus Sakey. Enjoy!

Chicago: What did you do before you started writing full-time?
Sakey: I ran a graphic design company and worked in marketing. I always say that advertising is perfect training to learn how to write about thieves and killers.

You’re resistant to the label ‘crime author.’ Why?
Yeah, I’d say that I’m a thriller author. [With crime], there’s a police procedural connotation. [My novels] are more about people in extreme circumstances.

How do you come up with your ideas?
Where an author comes up with ideas is a mystery; it’s a subconscious process and ideas that may have been sitting around dormant suddenly spark up as something new. 

You’ve done a lot of crazy research for your books. How do you decide what you need to research?
The research is based on what I need to know. I don’t write procedurals but I want to know how systems work, what it feels to repel down a building or to be attacked by a dog in a trained canine unit. The last one really happened by the way.

Why do you think Chicago is such a popular city for crime and thriller novels? I’m thinking of Gillian Flynn and Gone Girl for example.
It’s the quintessential American city. New York leans east, L.A. leans west. Chicago is the center of the county. The more honest truth though, is that we live here. You want to write about a place you care about and love. You can do research about a place on the Internet, but it’s not the same as writing about a place you live in.

You’ve had some of your books—Good People, for example— optioned for film. What’s that process like? How much control do you have?
Your control comes in picking ideal producing partners who have a real passion for the book and who you trust. Once you option a book for film, you have to acknowledge that it’s a whole different thing. Film is a collaborative process, if it actually gets made. You’re just kind of the guy that kicked it off.