Fourteen books since September 2005? Sure. Doesn’t everybody write three series at the same time?
A former improvisational comedian who worked with Bruce Willis and Robin Williams, Chris authors the John Ceepak Jersey Shore mysteries Tilt A Whirl, Mad Mouse, Whack A Mole, Hell Hole, Mind Scrambler, and this May, Rolling Thunder.
Chris also writes thrillers and award-winning ghost stories for middle grades readers: The Crossroads, The Hanging Hill, and this August, The Smoky Corridor. We talked to Chris online just after his latest Agatha nomination last month.
After the jump check out the full interview with Chris Grabenstein.
Jack Getze: You’ve been winning awards since your first novel Tilt a Whirl came out five years ago. How does it feel to win so many awards so quickly in your career? Is your hat size going up?
Chris Grabenstein: Well, sir, you are too kind. I’m reminded of an old boss in advertising. When you went into her office, you were amazed by the number of statuettes lined up on the shelves, all the awards she had won. But then you looked closer and read the plaques and realized that the fifteen kajillion hunks of shiny metal were all for the same ad. So, yes, it was great to win an Anthony Award for Best First Mystery with Tilt a Whirl because it told me I might’ve made the right career switch at age 50! And it was even more wonderful to win the Agatha and Anthony for The Crossroads, my first attempt at a YA book. In both instances, just being nominated made me feel I had made the right choice in either launching or slightly altering my career. And now that The Hanging Hill was just nominated for an Agatha, I’m thinking about purchasing a tea cozy or two! But no purple hats.
Part of the speed of the awards goes with my speed of writing. My first book was published in September 2005. My 11th effort (14th if you count the short story anthologies I’ve contributed to) will be published before September 2010. I credit all those years of writing ad copy for making my fingers swift. And the coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.
Tell us about the new Ceepak coming May 6. What’s the story about? Does the relationship between Danny and Ceepak make any change?
The new Ceepak (mystery number 6 in the series) is called Rolling Thunder. After going down to Atlantic City in Mind Scrambler, I wanted to get the boys back home in Sea Haven. The story starts on opening day for a brand new wooden roller coaster (The Rolling Thunder) built on the refurbished boardwalk that had some arson issues in Hell Hole. The owner and his family take the first ride around the rails and, halfway up the third hill, his wife has a heart attack. Or did she? Things get even more complicated when a local beach babe is found dead one week later. Danny has to really step up in this story and, in fact, at the climax is basically on his own! Ceepak’s skeevy dad shows up again, too.
What other books do you have coming out this year?
2010 is a busy year. In April, the Children’s Theatre of Knoxville will present a stage play I wrote and donated to them. It’s called Curiosity Cat and is the play within the book from The Hanging Hill. In May, Rolling Thunder (Ceepak 6) hits bookstores. In June, the first ever Ceepak short story “Ring Toss” (yes, it was a year for RT titles) will appear in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery magazine. In August, my short story “The Demon in the Dunes” will appear in the Death’s Excellent Vacation anthology edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L.P. Kellner. And, right before Labor Day, the third Haunted Places Mystery for Middle Grades Readers The Smoky Corrider will be published by Random House.
What are you actually writing this week? Danny and Ceepak, a new thriller, or a young adult horror? Can you tell us anything about the plot?
This week, I am working on a speculative Middle Grades book — a heist caper — just so I can collect some rejection slips this year. After that, I’ll move on to Haunted Places Mystery #4 for Random House. No title. But, I have an idea….
Do you work or more than one at a time — what’s your plan or strategy?
I can only “create” or “imagineer” (thank Walt Disney for that one) one work at a time. I can take a day or two off to copy edit something else, but I immerse myself in the characters of the work so deeply to get into an improvisational zone (yes, I make up a lot of what I write as I go) that I have not been able to work on two brand new ideas at once. And, I know a work is almost done when the next idea starts trying to nudge its way into my brain.
To me, the Ceepak series just gets better and better (Sorry journalism students, I am a fan), but I wonder if you still find the series fun and challenging to write?
Definitely! I have a blast with those two characters. Danny is such a great voice to work within. Very amusing company to hang out with. And Ceepak’s rigid moral code gives me a tight box to work out of that is always challenging. I think the fact that I chose to let the characters grow from book to book has also kept me guessing as to where they’ll go next.
Are you doing what you want to do, alternating between the series and thrillers and the young adults? Are contracts, deadlines, and money becoming a distraction?
A. Money? Money? If only. I am doing, I think, exactly what I want. I know I am too prolific to stick to one book a year. Swinging all
the way to the YA work gives me a great variety. I haven’t penned a thriller in a year or two. Well, I have, but nobody’s bought ’em!
Do you have a writing routine? Hours or pages? A certain time, special place, or can you write anywhere anytime? What’s on the desk with you when you write?
I am a creature of total routine. The thinking day starts at 6:30 when I walk Fred. Continues from 7:30-9:30 while I run or go to the gym, shower, eat some toast (I’m always writing notes). The actual hands on keyboard part of my days starts at 10a.m. My goal is to write 2,000 new words every day. I start the day by lightly rewriting the 2,000 words I wrote the day before, which puts me back into the story. Then I move forward. Some days, this can take me six hours. Others, especially if I am writing dialogue, three. Lately, because I want to see how the caper I’m working on ends, I have been doing 4,000 words a day and frying my eyeballs. I can write anywhere (as long as I have my headphones; each book I work on has its own playlist in my iTunes library: Springsteen for Ceepak, movie soundtracks for thrillers, lots of Mission Impossible movie music for the caper, etc.). I can’t create on an airplane but I can rewrite. Most days, however, I spend in my office, which has seven corkboards on the walls that I fill with notes and pictures. On the desk is my outline, a cup of coffee, and a refillable bottle of water. Oh — and a cat. I have an in box where Tiger Lily sleeps and keeps me company all the writing day.
Who are your writing heroes? Why?
Stephen King. He writes movies for the mind.
What’s one question you would like to ask one of these dead heroes?
Wait. To quote Monty Python, he’s not dead yet!
What is the most recent mystery or crime novel you read and really loved?
In my research for my own caper, I read a bunch of Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder books. Wonderful!
Where and how did you learn your craft? I know for a fact that some editors and critics don’t like first person, present tense. How do you respond to them?
I learned my craft first as a journalism/theatre student. Sorry, no MFA. I took a couple classes at Marymount Manhattan and NYU.
Learned me my POVs. I think the first person narrator is the best for a fair play mystery as the reader sees everything that the sleuth(s) sees. And, I think present tense is great for momentum and for emulating the feel of cop talk in a police procedural. Cops
usually tell their war stories in present tense: “I go into this dark room. This perp comes at me with a semi automatic. But, I get the
drop on him.”
Do you start with an idea, an outline, a single scene? What’s your process?
I usually start with a character. I think characters are all that anybody remembers a week after they finish your book. Then, I ask a What If? What if a tree decorated with a roadside memorial is haunted by the ghost of whoever died there (that’s how The Crossroads got started)? Then I toss my character into that What If. I do write an outline. And rewrite it every other day. The characters drive my plots. That said, I do hold my self to a tight three act structure with major plot turns at 1/4, 1/2, and 3/4 of the way through the manuscript. The twist in the middle has to change but unify the first and second parts of the second act. The 3/4 turn launches us into Act Three. Act One ends at 1/4. Yes, I do math when I write.
How do you decide which story to tell next? Gut, fans, the publisher — which has the most influence?
Used to be all gut. Now that I have relationships with publishers, I bounce 2 or 3 notions off an editor and see which one we are both most excited about.
What’s your take on the publishing business now? How do you see the online/digital download thing playing out over the next decade?
Personally, I think we are where music was three years before the iPod and 99 cent songs in the iTunes store. That said, I think the demand for stories will remain. We are just talking about distribution methods. I also think we will see a deluge of self-Kindled/iPaded books. You just need to spend a few bucks getting your story electronically formatted (actually, you can do it for free at the Kindle store) and — boom — you’re a published author with a book for sale in the Kindle store.
What’s your biggest fear as a writer?
That I won’t be given another chance to write.
What gives you the most satisfaction about being a writer?
The stories people tell you about your book helped them get through an awful night in a hospital with a sick loved one. Or the emails I get from parents who thank me for writing a book their sons who haven’t read in years couldn’t put down. That’s cool.
Where did Ceepak come from? Is he all imagination, or did you pull things from real people? A Jersey policeman?
Ceepak was a conscious effort on my part to create a memorable character that had not yet been done in the genre; almost the polar opposite of the bitter, hard drinking, burnt-out ex-cop. He is an amalgam of an FDNY fire captain friend of mine, a nephew who was a Marine in the first Gulf War, and some soldiers I met at a wedding, one of whom was named Jon Cepak.
Rolling Thunder will be the sixth book in the Ceepak series, the third publisher. Can you explain briefly what happened, how you got from A to Z and why? Did the shifting around hurt sales?
The first three books (Tilt a Whirl, Mad Mouse, Whack a Mole) were published by Carroll & Graf, a terrific imprint, very famous for its mysteries. Their parent company, Avalon, was sold to a company called Perseus, which only publishes non-fiction. So, as soon as they took over Avalon, they shuttered the three fiction imprints. The series was then snatched up by an enthusiastic acquiring editor at St. Martin’s Minotaur, who, about three months later, went off to write his own thrillers. As is often the case, my two book deal was more or less orphaned within the house. If you don’t have a true champion rooting for you, you can kind of fall by the wayside. And by the wayside we fell. So, I thought I’d keep Ceepak alive with short stories.That’s when I wrote “Ring Toss”. Then there was a very touching outcry from Mystery Fans and a very influential critic saying Ceepak deserved a new home. My agent asked me if he should look around. I said, what the hey. Fortunately, a small but classy publisher called Pegasus was very interested. In fact, many of the folks at Pegasus used to work at Carroll & Graf, including the cover designer, which is why Rolling Thunder looks like the direct descendant of the first three books. I must say, Pegasus may be small but they are HUGE on making writers feel loved.
Can you give us any hints where the characters might be in, say, three or four books?
That’s a good question. I’m really not sure. I drop a hint in Rolling Thunder that Ceepak may be made a detective; my fictional Sea Haven PD doesn’t have a detective bureau, but given the spate of murders down the shore, I think they need one! I am also on the fence about Danny’s love life. With Ceepak married, I don’t want the two of them tied down.
Do you have to “dumb down” the young adult books — language, emotions, violence? How much or why not?
Not at all. Yes, I avoid the F bombs and, since I’m writing Middle Grades books, sex or any lovey-dovey stuff is cootie territory so we
don’t even go there. But, if someone deserves decapitation, they will be decapitated. My editor at Random House would not stand for any writing down to kids. They can tell. Plus, fifth and sixth graders are voracious readers. There’s a lot of good stuff out there right now!