Monday, January 29, 2007

Interview with Author Chris Grabenstein by Lonnie Cruse

Morning all,

My post for today is a bloggerview with author Chris Grabenstein. Chris, Thanks so much for agreeing to be bloggerviewed by me. I'm sure our readers will enjoy getting to know you. And thanks for coining the term "bloggerviewed." I never would have thought of it!

LC: Please tell us about your Ceepak mysteries. I'm reading TILT-A-WHIRL now and loving it. Rumour is, you won an Anthony for it.

CG: Love those rumors. Yes, TILT A WHIRL was fortunate enough to receive the Anthony Award for best first mystery last fall at Bouchercon. I will always love Madison, Wisconsin -- and not just because I have a thing for cow-shaped cheeses. The John Ceepak series started with the Ceepak character -- I was fascinated by the firefighters and soldiers I had met over the years, men who face daily challenges and have seen the horrors of humanity but come through it all with their souls intact, their spirit's alive. I thought Ceepak would be a different kind of "sleuth"-- the opposite of the boozy, bitter, hard-boiled dick. He's almost a Boy Scout. His character led me to my second creation -- the narrator Danny Boyle, a 20-something part time summer cop who only took the job so he would have some spare beer money in his pockets. I’ve been thrilled by the critical reaction to my two characters and their chemistry since I think it is vivid characters we remember most from books, long after we forget the plot twists and turns.

LC: I agree, for me, characters make the book, and your's are fun meet. You've done improvisational comedy with such notables as Bruce Willis. Who knew? (I tend to think of Willis as walking barefoot on glass in Die Hard.) What was it like, and do you miss those days?

CG: It was a blast! I was twenty-three, in New York, getting up on stage in a dive of an East Village theatre, getting paid ten dollars a show, and loving every second. Improv is very exciting because you make the show up fresh every performance. Bruce was very funny and quite a smart aleck – people forget the Bruce Willis from MOONLIGHTING, which is closer to the Bruce I worked with. Kathy Kinney was also in our group, The First Amendment Theatre, and she went on to great fame as Mimi on the Drew Carey show. I sometimes still get together with pals and perform and I love going to mystery conventions where being on a panel or running an auction sort of take me back to being on stage. So, I don’t miss it because I still do it – a lot of my writing starts with an improvisational exercise. I might take the title and then run with it. For MAD MOUSE, I started thinking about all the different ways you could play that out (are you a man or a mouse? What if a mouse went insane?) and that led me to my story.

LC: I love the "insane mouse" idea. You write the Ceepak series and a new thriller series beginning with SLAY RIDE. How DO you manage to write them? Yeah, I know, you put fingers to keyboard. What I meant was, do you concentrate on writing one book for one series at a time, or do you write a bit on each every day?

CG: I just sit down and write 2,000 words a day. I think having spent 17 years in advertising -- where there is no writer’s block, only unemployment -- I’m used to sitting down and writing all day. My wife says I get cranky when I’m in-between. I write the Ceepak books over the winter, and start the Christopher Miller Thrillers in the Spring. (Now, of course, I have to work in my Young Adult work – that’s a new two-book deal with Random House). I once met Stuart Owen, another ad guy turned mystery-thriller writer, and he does at least two books a year.

I only write one book at a time but my mind is always thinking about what the next book in the other series might be. This is why it’s great to have a dog. Gives you plenty of time to think on all those walks.

LC: Okay, let's get personal here. I checked your website and on the "Events" page is a picture of the room where presumably you write. Um, your desk looks a lot like mine, meaning like someone tossed a grenade at it. Are those really randomly placed purple and green index cards on your cork board? If so, how do they help you "plot" or do they?

CG: Yep, that’s my office – the second bedroom in our apartment which I share with our three cats: Jeanette, Parker and Tiger Lilly. Fred the dog is not allowed in that one room. He’d eat all the cat food. I think that picture was taken while I was writing MAD MOUSE. On one cork board, I post pictures and photographs that help me create characters and scenes. Every summer, I go down the Jersey Shore and “scout locations” for the next Ceepak book. On the other cork board, all those note cards, are the fragments of ideas that come to me when I’m walking the dog or running. I always carry a pocket full of 3 by 5 note cards and a Sharpie when I go out. There are note cards and sharpies in every room of the apartment. This is a habit I picked up while writing advertising. Ideas come when you’re doing something else – in the shower, walking the dog, jogging, walking the dog in the shower – and I’m always prepared to jot them down. At first, I just randomly stick them to that cork board and then I pull the notions together and do an outline…which I redo three chapters later when new note cards tell me what happens next.

LC: FYI, Chris, some bright person recently came up with a marker board and pen that work IN the shower. I gotta get one of those. Still grilling you about your desk, are the postcards above your desk from places you've traveled to, places you set your books, or just for color? Inquiring minds wanna know?

CG: They’re post cards from Beach Haven. New Jersey. Wildwood. Seaside Heights. All to put me in the summer mood during January and February when I’m actually writing the books. On the lower bulletin boards are photographs to help me write a particular scene. I try to find a specific place and then recreate it. In fact, on my web site, I did a little “essay” on the News/Media page that walks the reader through how one scene in MAD MOUSE was created and the photographs I took to get me there.

LC: I use postcards on my board the same way, to set a scene. Great to know I'm in good company. Do you write while touring to sign/sell books, or do you concentrate on promotion only?

CG: I found that I can’t “create” while on the road. I’m such a creature of habit: get up, walk the dog, think about book, run around central park, think about book, come home, shower, eat toast, read e-mails, write 2,000 words, take a break every 50 minutes to rest my eyes, finish around 4 p.m., walk the dog some more, think about tomorrow’s chapters. However, I have found that rewriting/editing is fun to do on the road and makes the plane trips breeze by.

LC: Whew, 2,000 words a day. You rock! Your dog, Fred, is a former Broadway actor. I understand he has ideas for your book WHACK A MOLE. How does Fred share in your writing process? And how much of your royalties does Fred receive?

CG: Yes, Fred was one of five dogs in the Broadway version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. We play his song sometimes (Toot Sweet) and his ears perk up – he knows he is on. Fred was rescued from a kill shelter by the Broadway animal trainer and when the show closed he decided that Fred needed a home of his own (the trainer has about twenty dogs running around his place).

Fred, as I’ve noted, helps me dream up ideas on our walks and will wait patiently when I ask him to sit so I can write something on one of those index cards. He and I have also started running together, three days a week. He’s fast! We do five miles in Central Park and again, he’ll let me stop and jot down notes. He is paid in Milk Bones. As am I. Perhaps I should speak to my publisher about that…

LC: What authors do you typically read and what is it about their work that you enjoy?

CG: I love Stephen King – a great story teller and what a voice, THE voice, I think of the boomer generation. I listen to a lot Dean Koontz – it helps my vocabularly. I also enjoy Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman, Harlan Coben, Louise Ure – all of whom create characters I really care about.

LC: Thirties black and white noir or 2007 color mystery movies, which would you most likely sit up late and share a bowl of popcorn to watch?

CG: Black and white noir! We used to do a lot of old movie parodies back in the improv days and I was an early TCM junkie.

LC: You recently contracted to write a young adult mystery. Do you find it more difficult to write for younger readers, or easier?

CG: My young adult Ghost Story THE CROSSROADS actually started as an adult book but I like it much more as middle grade novel. I think all writers are eternally 12-years-old inside, still smarting from the slights we received in Junior High, so this is a blast. You also get to be silly and tell fart jokes. My internal 12-year-old loves that.

LC: Fart jokes, that's a guy thing, right? Hehehe. Anything else you'd like our readers to know about you or your books?

CG: Let’s see, I just posted a home made trailer for WHACK A MOLE, the third Ceepak book, on You Tube:

I’m always updating my web site . . . there are a lot of fun events coming up as I’m trying to go to some Mystery Conventions I haven’t attended before. And I am thrilled and, honestly, amazed to have been selected The Guest Of Honor for Deadly Ink, the terrific convention in New Jersey! Danny and Ceepak are proud of me.

Thanks a million, Chris, the bloggerview was fun and informative. Thththhhhhat's all, folks? (Hope I spelled that right?)


Julia Buckley said...

Hi, Chris! I am so envious of your writing day. Maybe someday . . .

And I love your book trailer.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Great interview. I've met Chris f2f, and he's a wonderful guy virtually and otherwise. His remark that "mystery writers love to help each other" is carved on my heart. :) I too get ideas in Central Park--no dog, but I jog 3 1/2 miles, usually around the reservoir, very, very slowly. And instead of index cards, I carry a featherweight digital recorder. I've taped a lot of heavy breathing and scuffling footsteps along with those bright ideas. Liz

Unknown said...

Nice interview, Lonnie. I met Chris at Murder by the Book and bought Tilt-a-Whirl, which is a lot of fun. I did a short video interview with Chris, and it's posted on YouTube.