Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Chris Grabenstein's Topsy Turvy Year

Chris, your mystery novels, Tilt a Whirl, Mad Mouse (and soon Whack a Mole) have a carnival theme. Did you love carnivals as a kid?
I remember loving roller coasters as a kid. We’d go to Six Flags and ride the rickety wooden coaster a hundred times in a row. I still love riding rides. Did the TILT A WHIRL this summer down the Jersey Shore at Playland in Beach Haven. My riding partner, the 10-year-old Meghan Morkal-Williams, is now hooked. I chose the titles for this series because I wanted, in the writing, to catch that particular sensation a good thrill ride gives you: giddy and giggling one second, screaming in terror the next. In the Ceepak mysteries, I try to mix laughs and thrills to give my riders an exciting and memorable ride.

Tilt a Whirl was very well received, and you’ve been nominated for an Anthony. How did you come up with the idea for this book and for your detective John Ceepak?
I have been thrilled (talk about a thrilling ride!) with the reaction to my first novel. I actually started with the title before anything else. A snippet of Bruce Springsteen’s “FOURTH OF JULY ASBURY PARK” kept rolling around in my head:

And you know that tilt-a-whirl down on the south beach drag
I got on it last night and my shirt got caught
And that Joey kept me spinnin' I didn't think I'd ever get off

Next came the character of John Ceepak. My attempt was to fashion a fresh protagonist. Not a noir, bitter and hardboiled drunk. In fact, I created a man who was almost the exact opposite. A by-the-book Boy Scout with a rigid moral code. Ceepak is based on soldiers and fire fighter friends. Guys who try to do what is right, no matter what the consequences, no matter how poorly led. I wanted to keep Ceepak spinning, to throw him through so many twists and turns he wouldn’t know which way was up. He would need his code to climb off this particular TILT A WHIRL with his soul intact.

Very well-worded. Tilt a Whirl was one of the best mysteries of 2005, according to “The Christian Science Monitor, The Detroit Free Press, The South Florida Sun Sentinel, BookBitch.com, and of course, Chris's Mother.” Well, first of all, is your mother a pretty good sounding board when it comes to your writing? And how did it feel to get all that love from the critics?
Interesting. I wouldn’t let my mother read anything until right before the book was published. Somebody once said “write like your parents are dead.” In other words, even a grown up (according to my driver’s license) will censor himself to make sure you’re not making mommy mad. When she finally did read TILT A WHIRL (when I finally gave her a copy of the manuscript) she devoured it in one night. Loved it. I apologized for the smattering of dirty language. She said, “that’s how people talk these days, you had to do it.” That’s why I love my mom.

As far as the critics, I was honored and terrified. Because I knew the Ceepak books would be a series. What if they loved the first book and hated the second? This is where the writer’s mind goes. We are nothing if not insecure. So, all that praise simply means you have further to tumble when the second book comes out. Fortunately, MAD MOUSE received even BETTER REVIEWS! Critics loved seeing the growth in the characters between the two stories. Now I’m worried about WHACK A MOLE…

You were once in the same improvisational comedy troupe as Bruce Willis. Who was funnier, you or Bruce?
Tom Carrozza. Another guy in the troupe, whom I’ve always thought is the funniest improv comedian in the world. My best Bruce Willis story takes place in London, about six years into my advertising career. He, of course, is a huge movie star by then. I’m in England filming a commercial for Matilda Bay Wine Cooler (remember wine coolers?) I’m supposed to meet my art director, producer, etc. in the lobby at 7 a.m. I’m early. They’re late. Bruce Willis and Demi Moore come into the lobby after an early morning jog. He sees me. “Hey, I know you don’t I?” he asks. Yes, Bruce Willis recognized me. And nobody was there to witness it!

That was a very adroit way of not answering the question. :)

All right, we'll move on. You’ve written all sorts of things (starting as the discovery of James Patterson). Among those listed on your website are “Muppet Scripts.” Hmm. Who’s your favorite Muppet to write for?

Gosh, that was soooo long ago. I wrote for Dial A Muppet back in the “Call 976-whatever” days. Kids would call up and talk to their favorite fuzzy friend. I remember having fun with Fozzie Bear, he of the corny jokes. I then wrote on a short-lived show “The Little Muppet Monsters,” which ran on CBS. They were the creatures that lived in the basement of the Muppet House and put on a show for the “grownups” upstairs. It was incredibly amazing to work for Jim Henson. They knew they were helping shape very impressionable little minds and were diligently concerned with the messages they conveyed. It was a great early lesson about the awesome responsibility that comes with mass communication. I still try to make sure my books say something worth being said, something that sticks with you a few days after you finish the final chapter.

You have a “beautiful and beloved” wife named Jennifer. How did you meet?
We were a fix up when I was a widower. (My first wife died after we went through a courageous four-year struggle with oral cancer.) I was very lucky in my Middle Years to meet someone as wonderful and unattached as Jen. A friend at church introduced us and, boy, was it weird to be dating again after being married for fourteen years. Who knew a first date is not a Broadway Show and Dinner at Le Bernardin, which is where I took Jen? Turns out, you’re supposed to meet at Starbucks first so both parties can run away easily. J.J. is an amazing actress who toured for years in the hit musical NUNSENSE and other shows. Now she is a voice-over performer for commercials and does books on tape (she is the reader on the unabridged version of THE ORCHID THIEF). I’m hoping some day she’ll do the recorded version of one of my books! And, as it turns out, she is also an incredible editor who reads everything I write first--and let’s me know if I tricked her!

On your website is a moving tribute to your late dog, Buster. Why was Buster such a special little guy? Was he a Beagle, or Beagle/Russell mix? (Because he looks a lot like my little mixed dog).
Buster and I were together for over fifteen years. He was a Beagle mixed with something taller, we never knew because he was rescued from an Animal Shelter in Edison, New Jersey (I was living in Metuchen, NJ at the time). Buster loved to go on walks and sniff stuff. We’d go on four long walks a day together most days. While he sniffed, I daydreamed. I came up with many ideas for commercials and, later, books, while walking with Buster.

In fact, it was during one such walk that Buster said to me: you need a Watson. I had Ceepak but knew this by-the-book ex-MP would be annoying as a first person narrator. Buster suggested, and I concurred, that I needed to create Ceepak’s opposite for my narrator and thus Danny Boyle, the young, smart-alecky part-time cop was created. I vividly recall jotting down the opening line of the book on a dog walk: “Some guys have a code they live by, some guys don’t.”

You saved your current dog, Fred, from Death Row. What did he do to get the death sentence?
Ran around loose in the Bronx. Somebody let Fred go and he was scooped by the New York Dog Catchers and taken to what is called a Kill Shelter. Fortunately, someone from the ASPCA saw Fred in that Shelter and realized he might be adoptable. So, he was placed in a no-kill shelter where Bill Berloni, the famed Broadway animal trainer, saw him and selected him to be one of the eight dogs in the musical CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG. Fred did eight shows a week for many months and when CHITTY closed last January, went to live with Berloni up in Connecticut. With the 15 other dogs. Fred, it was determined, deserved a home of his own and so, thanks once again to my beloved Jen (she works with an animal rescue group) I found a new writing partner.

How do you like living in Manhattan?
Love it! Our place is a block from Central Park. We can get anywhere by hopping on the subway. And, if you ever need a character or a snatch of dialogue for a book, a quick walk around the block or bus ride will give you one in full Technicolor 5-D and surround sound!

Are you working on any writing projects right now besides Whack a Mole?


SLAY RIDE, the first in a new series of holiday thrillers, will actually come out before WHACK A MOLE. It’s a little darker, a little faster-paced than the Ceepak stories. Told in the alternating third person POV. I love what best-selling author Michael Palmer says in his blurb for the book: “Santa Claus is coming to town. Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

SLAY RIDE might be my most intense ride, yet. It’s a thriller, not a whodunit. Some people in Hollywood are already talking about turning it into a movie. SLAY RIDE has a pub date of November 7th but, I’m told, Ed Kaufman from “M Is For Mystery” will have copies on hand in the book room at Bouchercon.

WHACK A MOLE is already at the editor so this fall I will start work on HELL HOLE, book #4 in the Ceepak series. I’ve also completed the first draft on TURKEY SHOOT, which might be the sequel to SLAY RIDE next December.

And…this just in…in 2008 I will enter the Young Adult market with a ghost story to be published by Random House.

Wow! You're a busy man.

James Patterson obviously helped to encourage your writing career. Who are some other mystery writers who inspired you?

I am so lucky to have had Jim as my first boss/writing coach at J. Walter Thompson advertising. His blurb on the cover of TILT A WHIRL is bigger than my name! (As it should be!). I love Lawrence Block. Robert Crais. Laura Lippman. Lee Child. My all time favorite author is Stephen King. I think he is a genius in his ability to say/write things other people are thinking but haven’t said yet. I also owe a great deal to Syd Field and Robert McKee – screenwriting gurus who taught me a lot about story and structure.

What are you reading right now?
I’m listening to Harlan Coben’s PROMISE ME on my iPod during my morning jogs around Central Park. At night, I’m reading Julia Pomeroy’s THE DARK END OF TOWN.

Are you writing an acceptance speech for Bouchercon in case of a glorious win?
No. Even though writers are supposed to avoid what Mad Magazine used to call Horrifying Clichés, being nominated is honor enough! Really. To think that TILT A WHIRL was picked as one of the top five first novels by mystery fans out of however-many-hundred first mysteries were published last year is incredible honor enough. If I do win, I’ll first thank my wife, who didn’t blink an eye when five years ago I quit my job as an Executive Vice President/Group Creative Director to spend my days (without a paycheck) in a room by myself typing (there were four manuscripts and countless rejections before TILT A WHIRL). I’ll also thank Don Weise and everybody at Carroll and Graf who took a gamble on an unknown ad man. And Michele Slung – my line editor -- who makes sure Danny stops wisecracking when the mystery demands it.

There’s a very cool resort map on your website, depicting some of the places from your books. Did you design the map?
Yes! And thanks for finding it cool. I always grab those Resort Map cartoon renderings of tourist towns whenever I go some place new. I tried to emulate that feel. The map started as a way to keep locations in the series straight. I did it on graph paper and laid out the streets of Sea Haven. Then I decided to try my hand at Adobe Illustrator. It took three full days to complete the first map. Now I just add to it! It is one of the most visited pages on my web site.

On your website is a picture of your office, and on your bulletin board are endless little scraps of purple paper. Are those story ideas? It looks like a homicide investigation board.
Those are 3-by-5 note cards. I have them everywhere. In every room of the house. In the pocket of every jacket. In my running shorts. Index cards and a Sharpie. When an idea strikes, I jot it down. Then, I pin all the ideas to a corkboard. They’re usually snippets of scenes. Notions. Character bits. When the board is full, I take all the cards down and fashion them into a first outline. As I start writing, more ideas pop into my head on dog walks and parks runs. The board fills up again. The outline gets revised. It’s an amazingly low-tech operation, but it works! And, I always try to save the note card where the “germ” idea for a book was first recorded. It’s like the seed or acorn that starts the whole, huge thing.

What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not writing or spending time with your beloved wife Jennifer? Or with Fred or the cats?
Hmmm. I love what I do so much (writing, being with Jen, playing with the pets) I don’t do much else. Except run and lift weights. That’s because I lost 80 pounds three years ago and have to work not to gain it back!

Okay, I will be getting back to you to find out how you lost 80 pounds.

How can people find out more about Anthony-nominated Chris Grabenstein?

I thought you’d never ask! Just go to www.ChrisGrabenstein.com. Heidi Mack does a fantastic job keeping my website up to date. Right now, you can see all sorts of photos from the MAD MOUSE tour and read the first four chapters of SLAY RIDE.

Thanks, Chris!


Neil Plakcy said...

Another great interview, Julia!

I loved Tilt-a-Whirl, which Chris signed for me at Thrillerfest, and I'm looking forward to getting a signed copy of Mad Mouse at Bouchercon.


Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Neil. I don't think I have enough money in the world to buy all the books I'd like to have signed at Bouchercon!

Anonymous said...

Great interview, Julia.
Chris, thanks for a wonderful glimpse into your life and who you are.
By the way, I'm thrilled you're reading my book.