Mark Costello LAW ’88 said his three years at Yale Law School could not pass by fast enough. But as a third-year law student, the lawyer-turned-author collected the majority of the experiences that would later find their way into his latest novel, “Big If.”
Costello’s novel was nominated for the 2002 National Book Award in Fiction.
At Yale, Costello said he enjoyed laid-back parties and did not appreciate the school’s intellectual vigor. He said he was more likely to drink a Miller High Life with his buddies than attend lectures.
“I don’t think I was very promising material for Yale Law School,” said Costello, who received a bachelor’s degree from Amherst College in 1984. “I spent most of my time screwing around and went to class occasionally.”
Costello said he preferred practicing law to learning law, and worked as a federal prosecutor in New York while writing under the pseudonym “John Flood.” But since “Big If” — published under his own name — received critical acclaim, Costello has been propelled into what the New York Times Book Review called the “big leagues of American fiction.”
Costello’s second novel explores America’s obsession with assassination and politics by following a handful of secret service agents as they protect a presidential candidate during his campaign for the New Hampshire primary.
As a prosecutor, Costello often worked with secret service agents. He said he was struck by how daunting their job was. He tried to go inside the lives of the agents during the final days leading up to the election in order to capture the agents as individuals, he said.
Costello, who grew up in the suburbs of the Northeast, said he wanted to write about how a presidential campaign and its accompanying “big media machine” might affect civilians in small towns.
After working on three presidential campaigns himself — Ted Kennedy’s in 1980, Richard Gephardt’s in 1988 and Al Gore’s in 2000 — Costello said he is very familiar with the political process. On the Gephardt campaign, when the candidate would enter small diners and pancake shops to speak with voters, the number of aides and media personnel far outnumbered the civilians present, Costello said.
“It was fascinating to see what would happen when democracy would hit these small, suburban towns,” Costello said. “I wanted to get into the skin of people sitting there eating breakfast.”
Costello said “Big If” was received as a politically-driven novel inspired by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
“The weird thing about the book was that everyone said it’s such a ’9/11 book,’” Costello said.
He said it would have been a “perfect” Sept. 11 book — except that he finished his manuscript and sent it to his publisher only days before the attack.
But despite the success of “Big If,” Costello said he does not consider himself a political writer. When asked if he would support Gephardt in another campaign, Costello said he was not aware that Gephardt was a declared candidate for the presidency in 2004.
Costello, who has retired from his job as a prosecutor, is now a part-time law professor at Fordham University. He said he spends a lot of time writing, and added that there are more projects in the works.
“I’m glad people like the book,” Costello said. “It’s just a relief to have it come out and have people actually get it. It’s a bit of a crapshoot, really.”