Interview with author Storm Constantine

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing author Storm Constantine. download Storm’s work has covered many genres from fantasy, dark fantasy and horror to science fiction and slipstream. She has so far written twenty-three novels, and currently has most of her short stories collected in four Immanion Press editions.

Let’s start by discussing the re-release of SEA DRAGON HEIR. There is always an urge to rewrite older materials when it gets re-released; what has changed with this edition?

STORM CONSTANTINE: My urge to tinker with old works is simply that some were written when I was much younger and certain incompetencies in the writing and structure of the stories were just too much to ignore. Also, in some cases, publishers had asked for sections to be removed, simply because they wanted a shorter book. When I came to republish the books myself, I could restore them to my original vision. As I’m an editor as well as a writer, it was impossible for me to keep my hands off revising and refining!

I don’t think the Wraeththu books (the original version of the trilogy) were edited as well as they could have been. I was such a fledgling writer then, and when I returned to the books fifteen years later to republish them I was astonished really at what I’d been allowed to get away with, in terms of inconsistencies, plot holes, wobbly structure, and so on. It was glaringly obvious to me where the stories could be successfully reinforced. Some things happened ‘off stage’ that shouldn’t have. The ending of ‘Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit’ was a prime example of that. I added a couple of extra chapters to the revised edition to ‘show rather than tell’ things that occurred.

I also re-edited THE MONSTROUS REGIMENT quite heavily, as I’d never been happy with that book. The sequel, ALEPH, had technical errors to be fixed, but I didn’t do that much to it other than that.

As the reissues of my back catalogue progressed, there was less for me to do, because I’d been improving as a writer through those years of creating the original books. book_aleph_new_ed_smallBy the time I got back to ‘The Magravandias Trilogy’, all I was correcting was typos. I was happy with that trilogy as it was first written.

VENTRELLA: What projects can we expect from you next?

CONSTANTINE: I have so many notes written down for both short stories and novels, but my worst obstacle to realizing them now is time. I have sent a couple of stories off to anthologies, but as I’ve not heard back from the editors yet, don’t want to say which they are, in case my stories aren’t suitable for them. I want to finish off the other four or so I’ve got half written, because it’s always handy to have unsold stories available, should I be approached by an editor. Also I simply want to get the ideas down.

Novelwise, there are several books I could write, but it’s knowing which to do first. I’ve started work on the third volume of the ‘unofficial’ third Wraeththu trilogy, which is a series of novellas set in Alba Sulh. English Wraeththu. The first two were quite emotionally grim stories about betrayal and obsession, but the third has a different tone – it just happens to have a couple of the characters in it from the first books. I want this one to be a ghost story, and already have a lot of disturbing images for it that are just pure, enjoyable, supernatural scares. There will be less angsting in this book!

Aside from that, I have notes for at least half a dozen novels that are all unconnected, some of them with chapters already written. My plan is to finish the short stories, finish the Wraeththu ghost story, then take a good long look at what I have in my ‘ideas’ folder on the computer. I just feel like I need to clear the decks before venturing into territories new.

Nonfiction-wise I’m working on some ideas with a friend for a couple of books concerning magical path-workings/visualisations. They will just be fun to do; sit down together and invent the stories for them. The difficult part will be for us to get together, since my friend is very busy and quite often off on research trips around the world. I hope to get at least one of these books out this year, though.

VENTRELLA: How did Immanion Press come to be?

CONSTANTINE: When I sold The Wraeththu Histories (the second trilogy) to TOR in America, I wished that the original trilogy had still been available in the UK. WRAThis coincided with the advent of Print of Demand publishing, which meant that it was possible for small presses to bring out books at a fraction of the price of traditional publishing. So initially, Immanion Press was set up to coincide with the Grissecon convention I ran in 2003, where I relaunched ‘The Wraeththu Chronicles’ As I was let down in the UK by a publisher who initially wanted to publish the Histories, I decided I might as well bring out my new Wraeththu trilogy in the UK too. From there came the idea to reissue all of my long unavailable back catalogue titles. Then it just grew from there. Other writers asked me about reissuing some of their out of print titles too, and I had a rather altruistic urge to help new writers get published as well. Unfortunately, the latter idea didn’t really survive contact with reality. I found that it’s incredibly difficult to sell the work of new fiction authors, so I’ve had to cut back on that dramatically.

However, the non fiction side of things does well. People buy books on certain subjects irrespective of who the author is, or what they might have written before. Generally speaking, they just want a book on a particular topic, rather than to seek a name they already know. Megalithica Books, the nonfiction imprint, came about because a friend of mine, Taylor Ellwood, was interested in getting work out through Immanion. He saw a way to expand that side of things and eventually became the manager of the non fiction line.

VENTRELLA: Many established authors are now self-publishing their back catalogues themselves, avoiding the big publishers completely. What are the disadvantages of doing so?

None really, since the big publishers are largely not interested in doing this job for us. OK, we’re not going to have big publicity budgets at our disposal, and most presses (like mine) run on a shoe string. We can’t afford to hire staff, so have to do everything ourselves, or work with volunteers. In my case I simply don’t have enough time to be a full time publicity manager as well as everything else.

For established authors, it’s great to see their often long unavailable works back in print. SEA DRAGONYou just have to make sure you have a fairly active online presence to help publicize your work, and let people know where they can buy it.

Is Immanion’s goal mostly to allow for established authors to reprint old works or are you actively looking for exciting new talent as well?
As I said above, the new author experiment didn’t go too well. Sadly, it just lost me a lot of money. We’re moving into ebooks more now, though, which have far fewer overheads, so perhaps in that medium I can still endorse new writers.

VENTRELLA: Has it been successful?

CONSTANTINE: Well, we’ve been around for 10 years this year, so we’re not doing too badly. The downside of it is that it eats into my working day like a pack of starving wolves. That’s another reason I’ve had to downsize the fiction line. I was in the position over the past five years or so where my workload had grown so much editing other people I had no time at all, and no energy, for my own writing. That had to stop. So I started to delegate more, to a fabulous woman, Sharon Sant, who volunteered to do editing for me. We’re publishing her first novel RUNNERS in June. I might not be able to pay a salary to people, but I can help out in other ways.

VENTRELLA: Starting authors often mistakenly think they can do this as well; they self-publish and then go nowhere. What advice do you have for beginning writers concerning getting published?

CONSTANTINE: One of the biggest downsides of everyone being able to self-publish easily, either through ebook or printed copies, is that they can do so without their work ever being looked at by a critical pair of eyes, whether that’s a professional editor or a friend who’s prepared to be honest. Editing is a very different job to writing. Even though I edit my own work to a degree, I still get someone else to do so as well. Writers are too close to their own work. We know everything that’s going on, but the readers don’t, and sometimes we don’t put enough in, or we over-write and things have to be trimmed back. The more people who can read a book before publication, the better. SHADESYou have more chance of errors being found.

Even though there are now millions more people producing books of some format or another, sadly a lot of it is let down and diminished by the fact the writing itself isn’t up to scratch, and the writers don’t know their craft.

When I ran a creative writing class, I generally had to spend the first term every year teaching the students how to write. They knew nothing of grammar, syntax, spelling, punctuation or narrative structure, (the writer’s essential tool box), not to mention how to create credible characters, a compelling plot and realistic dialogue. They just had an idea they wanted to write stories or a novel, and didn’t even think it involved any particular skills other than the storytelling urge. From what I’ve seen there is a hell of lot of new writers actually publishing works with all of those aforementioned aspects being of poor quality.

So, first advice – hone your writing skills, learn your craft, share your work with other writers to get constructive criticism. Your Mom saying, ‘yes, that’s very nice, dear’, is no use to a writer. You want and need people to tear your work apart really. You don’t have to agree with every criticism, and might choose to ignore some of it, but without this flow and exchange you’re at a disadvantage. You owe your work your best shot, and that means using the tools at your disposal to make that work as good as it can be.

Also, it’s now absolutely essential for new writers to self-promote and use the Internet and social media to their full advantage to get word about and create a buzz.

VENTRELLA: Some writers tend to avoid controversy, but that doesn’t seem to stand in your way. Have you ever avoided an idea because you thought your readers (or editors) wouldn’t accept it?

CONSTANTINE: Not so far, that I can think of!

VENTRELLA: To the other extreme, have you ever specifically written in order to make a point about religion, politics, sexual orientation and so on, or do these things just flow from the plots?

CONSTANTINE: I think a writer’s political and religious beliefs tend to permeate their work naturally. book_monstrous_regiment_smallI haven’t gone out of my way to pontificate about these things, but I don’t think any reader of my work would be in doubt about where my political and spiritual beliefs lie.

VENTRELLA: Do you think fantasy/science fiction settings allow you to tackle these issues in a way you could not otherwise?

CONSTANTINE: These genres give writers marvelous freedom to tackle issues it might be more difficult, or even risky, to tackle in a mainstream novel. Science fiction has long been used to criticize political regimes under the guise of fiction. I can’t help thinking that writers who have run into trouble over what they’ve written wouldn’t have done so if they’d set their stories in a fantasy world. It’s liberating; you can say what you like really.

VENTRELLA: How much of your own personal religious beliefs are reflected in your work?

CONSTANTINE: I am a spiritual person but not a religious person, but I do possess Pagan leanings. And yes this is reflected in my work.

VENTRELLA: What book do you advise for the starting Constantine reader and why?

CONSTANTINE: When I discover a new writer to read, I like to start at the beginning of their works if possible, but other people might feel differently. I don’t think it matters, other than it’s perhaps not the best idea to start with the second or third volume of a trilogy! I do have a number of short story collections published through Immanion Press, which can also give people a taster of my style.

VENTRELLA: The Wareththu series is probably your most famous. Do you plan on continuing to expand it?

CONSTANTINE: I think I’ll always return to it, but as I’ve concentrated on it exclusively for quite a time now, I want to explore something different for a while. I’ll continue to produce the Wraeththu story anthologies to keep my hand in. These are published roughly annually (or I hope them to be) and include stories by other writers as well as a couple by me. The first was ‘Paragenesis’, and the recently published ‘Para Imminence’. Both are available through Immanion Press, and I’m just mulling over ideas for the theme for the next one. Paragenesis explored the start of Wraeththu, and Para Imminence its far future. Anyone interested in contributing, please do get in touch via editorial@immanion-press.com

On top of the anthologies, I’ll continue to publish novels set in the Wraeththu world but written by others. A thriving online community of fan fiction writers helped keep Wraeththu alive during the years (fifteen of them) when I couldn’t sell any more Wraeththu novels to publishers. 6880909I began to publish the best of these writers, and again am always on the lookout for new ones. If anyone is interested, get in touch at the aforementioned address.

VENTRELLA: Do you think that there are things women can write about that just can’t be done by men writers?

CONSTANTINE: Not really, but perhaps it’s fair to say they might be able to write about certain aspects of life more convincingly than a man.

VENTRELLA: Are you someone who outlines heavily or are you a “pantser”?

CONSTANTINE: Not quite sure what a pantser is, but I don’t outline that heavily. I feel that stories are organic entities that tend to create themselves as they emerge. Publishers always used to demand huge outlines from me, which I found a pain to do, and quite frankly the finished books rarely had much resemblance to their synopses. Once a story is written down, then it’s time to go back and work on fine-tuning the plots, locations and characters. I can’t put all that in a synopsis. The story has to come out first.

VENTRELLA: Do you start with an idea, a setting, or a character?

CONSTANTINE: It can be any of those, just a spark of an idea, a smell, an impression, an emotion.

VENTRELLA: All writers are told to “write what you know.” What sort of research do you do before writing?

CONSTANTINE: I think it’s important to get your facts right. I often see movies about the 70s and see so many anachronisms in them. That’s why I write fantasy instead of historical novels. You have far more freedom in a fantasy novel about, say, what people might have on their breakfast tables. You don’t want to find Pop Tarts on a Victorian table in a novel, do you? But you do see that kind of thing. I really admire historical novelists; the amount of research and checking they must have to do is phenomenal.

For myself, I research aspects that apply across universes and realities. For example, I have an idea to write a fantasy novel that heavily involves the weather – so I bought some books for research on that.

VENTRELLA: What techniques do you use to make your protagonist someone with whom the reader can relate?

CONSTANTINE: I think it’s important to observe in reality how people speak, how they use their bodies and faces to communicate, how much a silence says. No one really speaks in formal dialogue like an updated Shakespeare play. hermetechOf course, it would be really irritating to have characters in a story talking completely realistically, so you have to impose some boundaries and restrictions, but it’s important to have an ‘ear’ for realistic speech.

Giving your characters credible behavior makes them believable, and people will relate to them more effectively. One thing I always tried to stop my students doing was using fiction clichés, such as people screaming or dropping a teacup/glass/plate in shock. When people are really frightened, I think most are more likely to swear beneath their breath, or not make a sound, than scream like someone in an old horror film. And have you ever seen someone drop something they were holding in shock? I haven’t. Also, things like collapsing/fainting. I don’t see that happen much either. Screaming might have its place, but the dropped tea cup and maidenly collapse really have to go!

VENTRELLA: What do you do to establish a believable fantasy world? In other words, how can you introduce the fantasy elements into the story and make them real without relying on info dumps?

CONSTANTINE: It’s just a case of being aware of it, and not dumping too much at once. A great amount of detail can be introduced with subtlety, such as in the ‘stage directions’ you might use for characters during lengthy dialogue. What are they doing as they’re talking? What are they picking up, leaning on, looking at, avoiding, etc etc.

VENTRELLA: When going through second and third drafts, what do you look for? What is your main goal?

CONSTANTINE: Pretty much all of the things I’ve talked about throughout the interview. Plot holes, realistic characters and situations, grammatical/syntactical errors, spelling, compelling dialogue and so on.

VENTRELLA: What criticism of your work do you disagree with the most?

CONSTANTINE: I had this one reviewer, who used to go out of his way to review my books, who absolutely hated my work. CROWNHe obviously got his jollies by being able to slag me off once a year. I disagreed with his observations because they were subjective and just plain offensive. Clearly, he wasn’t comfortable with many of the subjects I include in my work.

I don’t expect everyone to like what I write – that would be an unrealistic expectation. And everyone is entitled to their opinion. A lot of people love writers I absolutely despise, but I don’t believe I am right and the others are wrong. It’s just down to taste.

VENTRELLA: All writers basically write what they would like to read. So what do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?

CONSTANTINE: My favourite authors are Tanith Lee, Alice Hoffman, Jack Vance, P G Wodehouse, Jonathan Carroll, to name but a few. I have just about everything the first three on that list have ever written.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give an aspiring author that you wish someone had given you?

CONSTANTINE: Don’t expect to be rich. Let go of any attachment to outcome, and simply write because you love to do so. Write what you love, because your heart will show, and other people will be more likely to love it too.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk with you about my work.

Interview with Author Myke Cole

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing author Myke Cole, who constantly upstages me whenever we’re on a panel together at a convention. Headshots of Myke ColeAs a secu­rity con­tractor, gov­ern­ment civilian and mil­i­tary officer, Myke’s career has run the gamut from Coun­tert­er­rorism to Cyber War­fare to Fed­eral Law Enforce­ment. Thank goodness for fantasy.

Myke, let’s start with the big news about your latest book FORTRESS FRONTIER. Give us a hint of what it’s about.

MYKE COLE: FORTRESS FRONTIER is the second book in my SHADOW OPS military fantasy series. It tells the story of a military bureaucrat suddenly forced to take command of a combat outpost against hopeless odds. The book explores the question we all ask ourselves: how would I stand up in a crisis? What would I do if I were truly tested?

Oscar Britton, the main character in CONTROL POINT (SHADOW OPS #1) is a character in FORTRESS FRONTIER, but not the protagonist. I always intended to use a ensemble cast in this series, and FORTRESS FRONTIER is the first step in that direction.

VENTRELLA: How are you promoting it?

COLE: The same way I promoted CONTROL POINT: I’m carpet bombing the Internet with guest blog posts, interviews, giveaway contests and excerpts. I just put out a book trailer. I’m getting out to cons as much as I can. I just got back from Confusion, and I’ll be hitting Boskone and Lunacon in the next two months.

But the biggest thing I’m doing? Not being a dick. I don’t bear-bait or take polarizing stances in public. I don’t tear other people down. I respond to my fans when they email or @ me. I have adhesive backed bookplates that I can sign and send to people if they want an autographed copy of my work, but don’t want to pay the high price of shipping a book back and forth. I generally try to be accessible, available and kind to people, whether they’re industry pros, personal friends or fans I’ve never met before. That’s rarer than you’d think, and it goes a long way.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the Shadow Ops series.

COLE: Peter V. Brett described it best when he called it “Blackhawk Down meets the X-Men.” It’s as honest a look I can provide into how the US military would deal with the existence of magic. It deals with some tough issues like the conflict between liberty and security in a free society, but it’s also crammed full of giant explosions and helicopter gunships squaring off against rocs. Win-win, if you ask me.

VENTRELLA: Do you have a set series in mind? In other words, do you have a plan for a specific number of books in the series?

COLE: I’m under contract for 6 books right now. BREACH ZONE will complete the arc of this particular story, but the other 3 will also be SHADOW OPS books. ShadowOps_FortressFrontier_US_Final1Books 4 and 5 will be prequels, taking place in the early days of the Great Reawakening before CONTROL POINT. Book 6 will follow an ancillary character from FORTRESS FRONTIER on his own adventure.

After that, I’ll take a look at the state of publishing and book selling, see how fans are reacting to my work, and decide where to go next.

VENTRELLA: I have to admit that “military fantasy” is a genre with which I am unfamiliar. Was that a hard sell to agents and editors?

COLE: I only ever tried to sell it to one agent – Joshua Bilmes. He has been a dear friend for over a decade now, and from our first conversation, I knew he was the only person in the world I wanted to represent me. He rejected 3 novels from me over 7 years before finally agreeing to represent CONTROL POINT, and a lot of people suggested I try other agents. But I never did. It was going to be Joshua, or it was never going to be.

Editors were a different story. They did balk at a blending of two genres that appeal to disparate audiences. When CONTROL POINT went out to market, it garnered rejection after rejection, many with comments like, “the story seems unsure of its voice.” I had almost given up hope when Anne Sowards made the offer.

VENTRELLA: How did you obtain Joshua Bilmes?

COLE: How did I “obtain” him? That makes it sound like I have him trussed up in my desk drawer. I knew of Joshua by doing research on who was representing authors I admired. I then deliberately sought him out at a SFWA party at Philcon in 2003. Fortunately, we hit it off amazingly, stayed up talking until 3 AM, and have been close friends ever since. As I said earlier, Joshua rejected 3 novels over 7 years from me. All that time we were visiting one another (I lived in DC at the time), exchanging phone calls and emails. The friendship was always separate from our business relationship.

But, ultimately, how did I “obtain” him? I wrote a good book and sent it to him. That’s the only way anyone ever gets an agent. There is no end run.

VENTRELLA: It appears that you started off, like me, writing mostly nonfiction. Do you feel that the skills learned in writing nonfiction are comparable to writing fiction?

COLE: In the bones, sure. Good nonfiction requires solid prose styling and feel for rhythm, the beats of your sentences. You have to be interesting and construct a narrative in essays just as much as in fiction.

The real difference for me is in Law-Enforcement/Military/Intelligence writing (reports, orders, plans, analysis, etc) that is a totally different animal.

VENTRELLA: What was your first published piece of fiction and how did you get that published?

COLE: Let’s talk about the first piece of fiction I had professionally published. That would be “Blood and Horses,” a military SF short that took 3rd in the Writers of the Future contest and was published in Vol. XIX. wotf191I did it the old fashioned way, I entered a story every quarter, without fail, for 5 years.

Now, it was a great experience and there’s no doubt that it launched my career. I learned a ton out in LA, developed some critical contacts, and got the shot in the arm I needed to keep going. Unfortunately, I later learned that the contest is not firewalled from the Church of Scientology, and there are personal and financial ties there. I certainly won’t judge the beliefs of the church (or of any faith), but there’s enough reporting of physical/financial abuse tied to them that I am now very uncomfortable with having participated. There’s nothing I can do about it now, other than caution new writers who are considering getting involved.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about writing. Are you someone who outlines heavily or are you a “pantser”?

COLE: I am an uber outliner. I frequently have outlines as long as 50-100 pages before I write a lick of prose. I also submit my outlines for feedback before beginning prose. This way, I don’t wind up with a problem later in the manuscript that forces me to throw out 30,000 words at the 11th hour. Oh, wait. That happens all the time anyway. *sigh*

VENTRELLA: Do you start with an idea, a setting, or a character?

COLE: In the case of the SHADOW OPS series, I started with an idea: “How would the US military handle magic?”

VENTRELLA: What sort of research do you do when building a character (or a setting or plotline, for that matter)?

I use the Internet almost exclusively. It’s rare I can’t find intimate details on almost any topic (I had to research heavy crane operations for BREACH ZONE). When I hit walls on Wikipedia, I turn to friends and sometimes acquaintances and fans I know through social media.

When all else fails, I make it up. These are fantasy novels.

VENTRELLA: What techniques do you use to make your hero someone with whom the reader can relate?

COLE: The irony here is that the technique I used arguably failed. I made Oscar Britton, the protagonist of CONTROL POINT as human as possible. He’s wavering, indecisive, terrified of the decisions that face him. I feel confident that is an accurate portrayal of how a person of his background (bad family, no sense of rootedness) would handle the situation he finds himself in, but it’s also the most consistent criticism of the novel. In the end, I don’t think readers want real characters. They want dramatic, inspiring characters that feel real. There’s a big difference there.

VENTRELLA: What do you do to establish a believable fantasy world? In other words, how can you introduce the fantasy elements into the story and make them real without relying on info dumps?

COLE: I cheated. I use epigraphs at the top of each chapter that allow me to engage in as much exposition as I want without getting accused of info dumping. I mask it all in the form of quotes, newsclips, etc, but the truth is that it’s all just stuff I needed the reader to know and couldn’t think of any other way to get it to them.

VENTRELLA: When going through second and third drafts, what do you look for? What is your main goal?

COLE: First off, 2nd and 3rd drafts are hors d’oeuvres. CONTROL POINT went through 14 drafts. ShadowOpsCoverFORTRESS FRONTIER had 9. BREACH ZONE is currently on its 7th. And what is my main goal? To make the book awesome.

VENTRELLA: All writers basically write what they would like to read. So what do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?

COLE: Totally disagree. Plenty of writers try to strike out and do something new, and others write what they think will sell. I certainly won’t pass judgment on either decision, but that’s not what I do.

My favorite authors? There isn’t room to list them all, but here’s a few: Peter V. Brett, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, George R. R. Martin, Richard K. Morgan, Naomi Novik, China Mieville, James Clavell, Bernard Cornwell, Jack Campbell, Mark Lawrence. Believe me, I could go on.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give an aspiring author that you wish someone had given you?

Stop writing short stories. There’s like 3 people in the entire world who read short stories for pleasure. Everyone else is an aspiring writer looking for the magic key. You want to be a novelist so write novels. If you write a dynamite novel, nobody is going to care that you didn’t have a story published in F&SF or Realms of Fantasy. They’re going to buy and publish your novel because it’s awesome. Stop wasting time and learn your craft.

VENTRELLA: With the publishing industry in constant change, do you think the small press has become more acceptable, prominent, and/or desirable for beginning writers?

COLE: No.

VENTRELLA: Do you ever advise self-publishing?

Yes. I think that self-publishing is a perfectly viable way to go about bringing your work to market. The trick is making sure that you actually have work that’s good enough to bring to market and you’re just an unrecognized genius, vice doing an end-run around the bald fact that your work just isn’t there yet.

I absolutely cannot judge my own work. I need an expert to give it the nod. Self-publishing also requires a lot of project management skills. You have to be your own art director, and you have to supervise the copy-editor and the proof reader. You have to get ISBNs, you have to convert and format your text. You have to get it uploaded and figure out a good price point.

That’s a shit ton of work. I’d far rather give a professional a percentage of my profits and let them deal with all that crap.

VENTRELLA: What other projects are you working on?

COLE: After that big speech I just made about short stories and self-publishing, I’ve just completed a novelette set in the SHADOW OPS universe. It’s a piece of backstory for BREACH ZONE told from the goblin point of view. I briefly considered sending it out to short story markets, but was turned off by the market policies (no simultaneous submissions). So, now I’m toying with the idea of self-publishing it, or using my literary agency’s eBook program (for which they charge the standard fee of 15%).

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Interview with author Alan Goldsher

I recently interviewed author Alan Goldsher, whose zombie novel PAUL IS UNDEAD has just been released. Most of my interviews are done over email but Alan was willing to do it through a phone call, which I enjoyed quite a bit!

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I just finished reading PAUL IS UNDEAD, being the big Beatles fan that I am. I hear rumors that this has already has the film rights sold. Is that true?

ALAN GOLDSHER: What was bought was an option from Double Feature Films which is owned by Stacey Sher and Michael Shamberg. They produced “Pulp Fiction” and “Erin Brockovitch” – they’ve done a whole bunch of great stuff. When we were shopping around the novel, they read it from top to bottom and fell in love with it.

Right now they’re putting together talent – screenwriter, director, some stars…

I produced a screenplay for it and I’m really happy with it but if they want to go in another direction if someone wants to, I’m sure they’ll find someone to knock it out of the ballpark. That’s it! Cross your fingers.

VENTRELLA: You actually sold the rights before the book was published?

GOLDSHER: That is correct.

VENTRELLA: Wow. You’ve got a good agent.

GOLDHER: Well, you’ve read it – I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s a particularly visual book, wouldn’t you say?

VENTRELLA: I would think so! I assume they’re going to make it sort of as a mockumentary, sort of like how the book was?

GOLDSHER: You know, that’s like the screenplay that I wrote but there is a concern among some that they should shy away from mockumentaries. I feel that you’ve got “Best in Show” and “Spinal Tap” – and those are classics. Zombies with a documentary format I’d like to think that has the potential to reach that audience that will be loyal and stick with it.

But if they want to do a typical three act thing, I’m sure they’ll find someone great to do it.

VENTRELLA: Do you think there will be any sort of issue over the rights to the songs?

GOLDSHER: That’s certainly an issue. The hard part (and the expensive part) would be using their versions of the songs. If we were to do cover versions, it’s significantly more affordable. For “Across the Universe” they paid $23 million dollars to get the rights, and that’s the budget of an entire movie in some cases.

I have one idea that’s pretty cool, but I’m not sure if anyone is going to bite on it… since we’re dealing with an alternate universe, take the existing songs, throw away the melodies, leave the lyrics and get completely different Beatleseque melodies, and get a very Beatles-sounding band…

VENTRELLA: Sort of a Rutles thing?

GOLDSHER: Yeah, except with the original lyrics. The only thing that will be similar will be the sonic aspect of it. You know, make a song from ’62 sound like it was recorded in ’62. I think that would be cool in that (a) it will be different and interesting and (b) it makes the soundtrack a hot item.

VENTRELLA: That’s true. I certainly bought the Rutles albums…

GOLDSHER: So we’ll see. There’s a lot in the air but as is the case with most books translated to screen situations, the writer doesn’t have too much say. Still, they’re open to hearing my ideas but they’re the pros. They’ll make the final decision.

VENTRELLA: So do you think Paul, as a vegetarian, will object to being portrayed as somebody who eats brains?

GOLDSHER: That’s a good question! Do you want to hear the Paul story?

VENTRELLA: Absolutely!

GOLDSHER: I heard this from a London Times reporter maybe three months before the book came out. He told me that he was at the BAFTA awards speaking with Jason Reichtman and who wanders over but Paul McCartney! Paul and Jason have a long mutual admiration society discussion and there’s this reporter – this is the first time he has ever met a Beatle – God knows why he said this, but he said “Have you ever heard of PAUL IS UNDEAD?”

I mean, if I’m meeting a Beatle, I’m not mentioning my book!

But he asked if Paul had ever heard of PAUL IS UNDEAD and Paul said “We put that rubbish to bed in the 60s.”

And the reporter said, “No, not ‘Paul is dead’ but PAUL IS UNDEAD. It’s a book about you guys as zombies.”

And Paul said “Oh. Heh heh heh” and then he walked away.

VENTRELLA: So now he knows of it.

GOLDSHER: He knows it exists. Ringo knows it exists too because a New York Times reporter mentioned it to him in an interview last month, before his 70th birthday. Ringo was very diplomatic as you would expect from Ringo who is just clearly a nice man. “Well, I don’t read any of the books about the Beatles, I’m just glad the records keep going.” I don’t think he’s going to say a bad thing about anyone.

VENTRELLA: Well, he definitely came across in the book as the nicest guy of the four, you’ve got to admit.

GOLDSHER: I’m sure you’ve watched the Anthology set…

VENTRELLA: Oh, of course.

GOLDSHER: He’s just such a nice man. I’ve watched the Anthology about six or seven times all the way through. At the end of it, Ringo gets kind of teary-eyed and says, “The Beatles were about four guys who really loved each other.” That kind of stuck in my head as I was writing the book. Ringo’s just a sweetheart and he was also the last in the band and he always seemed a little put upon because he wasn’t part of the original gang.

That’s part of why I made him a ninja. It’s kind of a huge metaphor for that. Also, often times in horror books – DRACULA, for instance – there is a living, breathing guide to the underworldy beings. So Ringo’s kind of that guide. He makes sure that nothing bad happens to them on this earth.

VENTRELLA: Did you have any problems with the characters being unlikable in that, you know, they murder people and eat their brains?

GOLDSHER: I think since you’re coming in with a preconception since the Beatles are intrinsically likable, since the humor is so silly and the gore is over the top that it’s kind of hard to dislike them.

VENTRELLA: I agree that you can’t take the book seriously in that regard in that it’s kind of a satire… well, it’s not really a satire… I don’t know! How do you describe it?

GOLDSHER: We had all kinds of discussions before we started the book deal about the legalities of it. There’s some law – if it’s satire or parody, you’d know this better than I would – if it’s very obviously satire then you’re cool as long as you don’t libel anybody.

VENTRELLA: Yes.

GOLDSHER: We were very very careful. We didn’t say anything out-and-out bad like “This guy’s an asshole” or “This guy’s a dick.” Instead it was “Here’s what he knows in this alternate universe.” There’s no way you can believe it, it’s very obviously a parody.

I also tried very hard to tell it with as much love as possible. I really do love the Beatles! I love the band and I hope that comes across.

VENTRELLA: It does.

GOLDSHER: And I’d like to think that if they do read it – If Paul or Ringo or Yoko or anybody associated with the group or who was mentioned in the book reads it that they will realize we’re just having fun, and that’s just a gory, disgusting love letter.

VENTRELLA: Did you ever say to yourself “Oh, this reference is too obscure.” I certainly caught things that an average reader would not… such as John’s first girlfriend, that kind of stuff…

GOLDSHER: I wanted to include as many obscure facts as I could for people like you, who would read it. To me, it made it feel very insider for all the Beatles nerds to take Thelma Pickles’ name and laugh at it since it’s so ridiculous. The whole thing about Jimmy Nichols – those are the kinds that keep Beatles fans from looking at me and thinking “Wow, he’s just trying to wreck the Beatles name and he doesn’t really care about the group.”

I care about the group! I did research for things like when I named their instruments. I was very careful. “This was the instrument Paul was using in ’64 so here’s what he would throw against the wall.” Little nerd stuff like that. Many fans know that stuff right off the top of their heads. I have some incredible nerdy friends. Yeah, I wanted there to be this stuff so people like me wouldn’t get offended.

VENTRELLA: It’s nice when you can make that kind of insider joke and someone else will get it. I was in a band in Boston and playing in a club and a bunch of German sailors were in the audience who were cheering and yelling. My friend Matt then shouted out “Mach Shau!” and maybe three people got it… but it was nice to know someone did.

GOLDSHER: Yeah, if one person gets it, it’s cool. But we are nerds together.

VENTRELLA: Are you working on a sequel now for the solo years?

GOLDSHER: Well, not for the solo years. It’s called POPPERMOST OVER AMERICA will take place immediately after PAUL IS DEAD ends.

VENTRELLA: So you’ll be a zombie in the sequel?

GOLDSHER: No, I actually don’t get turned into a zombie! Put down “Spoiler Alert!” They kidnap me and take me along on their Poppermost Over America tour, where they will continue their quest to take over the world. And depending on what the legal department of whatever publisher I end up going with will say, I’ll put current musicians in there and contemporary figures who will try to stop the Beatles from taking over.

VENTRELLA: Have you read any other similar books? Have you read PAPERBACK WRITER by Mark Shipper?

GOLDSHER: I did not. A number of people have pointed out to me that the book exists, but I didn’t know about it.

VENTRELLA: It’s nothing like yours other than the fact that it’s a fake Beatles history.

GOLDSHER: Is it fun? Is it a good book?

VENTRELLA: Oh, it’s hilarious! It rewrites the history and is full of insider jokes, but it’s been out of print for years.

GOLDSHER: When was it written?

VENTRELLA: Probably in the early 80s, I’m guessing (EDIT: Turns out it was in 1977.)

GOLDSHER: I should probably seek it out so I am knowledgeable in case anyone else ever asks me about it.

VENTRELLA: It’s only because yours are the only two I know of that are fake Beatles histories. Other than that, there’s no relationship. He just changed history and made it funnier.

GOLDSHER: There’s a mythology about the Beatles, so it’s kind of easy to take these events and twist them because they’re already fun to start with!

VENTRELLA: Well, PAPERBACK WRITER came before the Rutles so it’s kind of the Rutles except they didn’t change the names.

Let’s talk about some of your other books. Was JAM your first novel?

GOLDSHER: JAM was the first, and that was almost an experiment to see if I could write a novel. It turned out pretty OK and people seemed to like it. I wrote it in ’96 and finished in ’97. Any writer who has written a number of books knows that it’s embarrassing to reflect on your first novel.

VENTRELLA: Well, I’ll agree with you there; I’d like to go back and rewrite mine. JAM is another music novel though, right?

GOLDSHER: It’s semi-autobiographical. I kind of put my own life in every book. At the beginning of PAUL IS UNDEAD, I discuss how I fell in love with McCartney’s music. That’s the absolute truth. I didn’t know who the Beatles were until I heard “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.”

VENTRELLA: I’m a little bit older than you, I guess. I got into them after “Let It Be” which was probably one of their weakest. At the time, I was still 12 years old or something, I was into the Monkees. Then I heard “Let It Be” and went “Hey, these guys are better than the Monkees!”

GOLDSHER: The first Beatles music I remember having was a 45 of “Hey Jude.” I had the close-and-play record player, and I brought it outside on a hot and sunny day and it melted! I don’t know how much it would be worth now, but it sure would be nice to have it…

Then I got the red and blue greatest hits album, and kind of worked my way backwards.

VENTRELLA: I remember my friend finally got the White Album and back then we didn’t know anything about it. He came to me with a list of songs on the album, and I thought he had made them up. “Oh, really? You expect me to believe there’s a song called ‘The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill’?”

GOLDSHER: (laughs) “There’s a song called ‘Piggies.”?

VENTRELLA: “‘Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey’?” Yeah, sure.”

GOLDSHER: How many animal songs on that record?

VENTRELLA: That’s true! I should count them. Back to your books though… you wrote some chick lit books?

GOLDSHER: I was working with a literary agent who said “You have an interesting ability to write in different voices and for an exercise, why don’t you write a chicklit book?” This was around 2004 and the chicklit market was happening at that point and he thought it could be something I could be part of. So I took JAM and took that basic outline and rewrote it with a female protagonist. And then on the second draft through, I threw all that out the window and it became its own entity.

I found a place for it with a publisher in the UK called Little Black Dress. For God knows what reason, they signed me to a three book deal. All three came out and they’ve done pretty well. Up until PAUL IS UNDEAD they were my bestselling books.

I’m working on a new one now called NO ORDINARY GIRL which is a paranormal chicklit book. It’s about a girl who has superpowers. It’s kind of a metaphor for – you know that these books are geared toward a very tight demographic? 21 to 29 women… the metaphor is that women have a certain part of them that they’re not happy with: “Oh, my ass is too big, I’ve got this mole on my face…” and this woman says, “Oh, I’ve got these superpowers.” So it’s about how she comes to terms with something she’s had since birth.

VENTRELLA: You started off writing nonfiction though, correct?

GOLDSHER: The first actual book I wrote was fiction. Then I wrote the book about jazz drummer Art Blakey. I was also doing magazine work at the time.

In a perfect world, I’d write whatever I want! Like right now, I’m jonesing to write a book about Miles Davis. My agent and I are trying to pitch the concept around, because (a) I love Miles Davis and (b) the Miles Davis books that are out there now – some of which are very, very good – are for jazz nerds like me. I’d like to write something that’s a little more populist. I think that would be a cool thing for the jazz canon. My first love was jazz.

VENTRELLA: You were a ghostwriter for quite a few people as well.

GOLDSHER: It’s exciting when it comes along.

VENTRELLA: How do you get those kinds of jobs? How do they seek you out?

GOLDSHER: It starts out with literary agents. The first project I did with a celebrity was Bernie Mac in 2000. He was working on his first book and this agent that I knew reached out and said “Would you be interested in ghostwriting the book and the proposal?”

“Absolutely,” I said. Bernie Mac is a funny, funny man and this was right before he was on the cusp of stardom. He’s from Chicago, and I’m from Chicago, and we hung out and had a great old time. We sold the book and then he ended up going with a ghostwriter who had a little more experience, which is one of the catch-22s about the entertainment industry: You can’t get the gig unless you have more experience and you can’t get more experience unless you get the gig.

That was a great notch in my belt, so in 2007, when I was working with another literary agent and another ghostwriting thing came up, I was ready and was attractive to potential clients.

The ghostwriting project I am proudest out was a book I did with a woman named Sarah Reinestsen. Sarah was the first female above-the-knee amputee to complete the Iron Man triathalon in Hawaii, and she is an absolute inspiration. She has a great joy and was very honest about relaying painful facts. The most painful one was that her father abused her. Her leg was amputated when she was seven, and her father physically and verbally abused her to the point where one consistent punishment for a while was threatening to take away her prosthetic leg if she wouldn’t wash the dishes or something. But she impressed me and it really shows in the book.

I did Robert Englund’s book which was a nice project. Robert was a sweet sweet man and if you were going to say there was a weakness about the project it was that he was too nice! He wouldn’t dish anything. I mean, you get Mackenzie Phillips coming out and saying “Oh, I slept with my dad” and the book is an immediate sensation and sells a lot of copies. With Robert, he talks about how much he loves this person and that person. That doesn’t really translate into sales. I don’t think he has a problem with that, though. He’s proud of the book as it is.

VENTRELLA: I assume as a ghostwriter you get paid a set amount as opposed to a percentage of the book sales.

GOLDSHER: Depends on your negotiations. David Ritz, one of the best pop culture ghostwriters out there, I guarantee gets a percentage of the books because he’s one of those guys whose name brings cache to the table.

VENTRELLA: Are you planning on going to any Beatles conventions to promote PAUL IS UNDEAD?

GOLDSHER: Maybe next year if the book is still doing well, and that’s not out of realm of possibility. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES is still doing well after a year. I will be at the Chicago Comic Con on the weekend of August 20, and then I’ll be at the Comic Con in New York on a panel on October 10.

VENTRELLA: I was going to be on a panel there as well until I realized it conflicted with another convention I had already committed to that exact same weekend.

GOLDSHER: I’m looking forward to it. I think that’s the best place to reach the people who would obviously like the book.

VENTRELLA: Most writers I know who have books on the bestseller lists still have jobs, too. It’s always amazing to me how (with a few exceptions) this is not as profitable an occupation as many people think.

GOLDSHER: I’m doing OK! We make the rent, and my wife and I are trying to start a family. I think there are two things that really help me are (1) I take rejection really well! How do we make this work? How can we get this off the ground? And (2) I have a legitimate interest in writing about all kinds of stuff in all kinds of different platforms and formats.

For instance, my agent hooked me up with a gentleman who had written a 175,000 word novel. That’s a long novel! There was a book buried in there and I had to dig it out. That was a bunch of work, just as if I had worked for a month anywhere else.

So I have all kinds of projects like that, like the superheroine book and a couple other mash-ups in the coffer – I’m doing one called FRANKENSTEIN HAS LEFT THE BUILDING, which is a retelling of the Frankenstein story with Elvis as the creature.

VENTRELLA: That’s the key, I think. The writers who do make a living at it are writing constantly, and they write all kinds of different things. Jonathan Maberry comes to mind; I notice that he gave you a quote for your book cover … He did the same for me, actually!

GOLDSHER: Jonathan’s a nice guy and I would love his career. He’s done wonders for himself. He’s a hustler and that’s also part of the business. And he’s like me in that he takes rejection really well. It seems like he comes up with an idea a day. He’s writing comic books and all sorts of stuff. Total admiration for Jonathan.

(Here we got into a prolonged discussion about bass guitars since both of us play bass. The conversation continued on after the tape ran out!)

Interview with Janice Gable Bashman

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing Janice Gable Bashman today. Janice is co-author (with Jonathan Maberry) of WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE: VAMPIRE HUNTERS AND OTHER KICK-ASS ENEMIES OF EVIL (Citadel Press, August 2010). She has written for many leading publications, including NOVEL & SHORT STORY WRITER’S MARKET, WILD RIVER REVIEW, THE WRITER, INDUSTRY TODAY, and FOOD & DRINK QUARTERLY. Janice is a member of the ITW (International Thriller Writers) and the Horror Writer’s Association, as well as a contributing editor of the ITW’s newsletter the BIG THRILL. Her writing won multiple awards at the 2007 Philadelphia Writer’s Conference.

Your book WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE is due out shortly. Tell us about the book!

JANICE GABLE BASHMAN: WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE deals with monsters of all kinds (supernatural, fictional, or real) and the people/beings/forces that fight them. It’s a pop culture book for fans of the genre. We interviewed tons of people for the book — FBI profilers, authors, screenwriters, comic writers, actors, directors, producers, criminal experts, psychologists, and others — as well as luminaries like film-maker John Carpenter, author Peter Straub, and the legendary Stan Lee. The book also has over forty illustrations from fantastic artists.

Here’s what some of the experts have to say about the book:

“WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE is a fascinating, far-ranging analysis of the nature of evil and those who rise to fight it … in real life, in pop culture, in literature and in legend. A must read for those who want to dive deep into the reasons for why we are fascinated by monsters … and love those who make it their business to take them down.” — Rachel Caine, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Morganville Vampires series, Weather Warden series, and Outcast Season series

“WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE is a riveting chronicle of all things that drop fangs in the dead of night. All aficionados MUST have this in their library!” — LA Banks, New York Times best-selling author of the Vampire Huntress Legend series

“Jonathan Maberry and Janice Gable Bashman probe into pop culture’s Heart of Darkness, and what they find is both fascinating and thought-provoking.” — Charlaine Harris, creator of TRUE BLOOD and the Sookie Stackhouse novels

VENTRELLA: How did your writing styles work together?

BASHMAN: Jonathan Maberry and I each wrote individual chapters and reviewed and edited the other’s work. Other chapters were a collaborative effort. Prior to writing anything, we had to decide who was best to write each chapter. Although writing the book was research and interview intensive, we each brought our own skill sets and knowledge of the subject matter to the project; therefore, some chapters were better suited for one of us than the other.

When writing or co-writing a book, voice is important. The challenge with two authors is finding one voice that both authors can write and that fits the tone of the book. At first it takes a bit of trial and error (and writing and rewriting) to get there, but the end result is, if you do your job right, a voice from two writers that sounds like it’s from one.

VENTRELLA: Do you have any similar books planned?

BASHMAN: WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE is a companion to VAMPIRE UNIVERSE by Jonathan Maberry (2006) and THEY BITE by Jonathan Maberry and David F. Kramer (2009). I’m finishing up a proposal for my next non-fiction book; it’s still under wraps so I can’t share the details at this time. I can say that dozens of key players are already on board for the project and it’s sure to be a fun one.

VENTRELLA: You primarily have written nonfiction. How does that differ from writing fiction?

BASHMAN: Writing fiction and non-fiction differ and yet are the same. By that I mean that both forms of writing have a story to tell. In fiction, the story comes from your imagination (and research); in non-fiction, the story is derived from fact. Whether I’m interviewing an author for the NOVEL & SHORT STORY WRITER’S MARKET or THE BIG THRILL or interviewing a CEO of a major corporation for a trade magazine, the process is the same. I gather my facts and tell a story — the story of the person or organization I’m interviewing.

I’ve received many e-mails from authors and others I’ve interviewed thanking me for giving them such an interesting interview, one where the questions differ from those they’ve been asked so many times before. I make it my business to thoroughly research my subject before I construct an interview and find a way to take that interview to a deeper and more personal level, to get to the heart of the person and talk to them about what really matters.

But, in the end, it’s all about story. Finding the story and crafting it in a way that’s exciting for the reader. That’s my job as a writer whether I’m writing fiction or non-fiction.

VENTRELLA: How did you get started in the business?

BASHMAN: About four years ago, I decided to take a swing at publishing some articles after I became involved with a writing group. I learned to craft a query, sent out a few ideas to some local publications, and sold my first article. In the years prior, I had published my master’s thesis and a few book reviews, so I did have some, albeit minimal, publishing credentials. Once that first article was published, I began sending out more queries to both local and national markets, and the sales began rolling in. I’ve written dozens of interviews and profiles for numerous publications, but I’ve also written features, book reviews, and now a non-fiction book.

VENTRELLA: How do you pitch a nonfiction book or article?

BASHMAN: Pitching a non-fiction book is different than pitching an article, so let’s tackle a book first. To pitch a non-fiction book, the writer must write a non-fiction book proposal. The book proposal contains detailed information about the editorial format, the book contents, the author’s marketing and promotion intentions, who will buy the book, media contacts, and more. A sample chapter or two is also submitted with the book proposal. The author must then pitch the book to an agent, via a query letter, in order to find an agent to represent him in selling the book. Some publishers may accept proposals directly from an author, but most do not. So, unlike fiction, the entire book does not have to be completed before pitching to an agent or editor.

The process of writing a non-fiction book proposal is helpful beyond obtaining a sale. It helps the author flesh out and refine his ideas and really get a good handle on the book. And when it comes time to write, the author is ready to go.

Pitching an article is a different beast. To pitch a non-fiction article the writer must send a query to an editor telling that editor about the proposed article and why it’s a good fit for his publication. This is done prior to writing the article. It does help sometimes, depending on the type of article you wish to write, to have one or two quotes from “experts” in your pitch to support your proposal. For an interview or profile I have not found this necessary, but I would recommend using expert quotes for a feature article. It shows the editor that you not only have the knowledge to write the article but that you also have access to the experts who can support the material.

My experience has shown that once I’ve worked successfully with an editor, it is easier to pitch new ideas to him and have them accepted for publication, as long as the ideas are good, obviously, and fit the publication’s needs. I’ve also had editors contact me on numerous occasions asking if I would be interested in writing a particular piece for their publications. When that happens, it certainly makes life easier because I bypass the query process. If and when that happens, it’s important to remember that it’s okay to turn down an assignment if your schedule will not allow you to complete the piece on time to meet the editor’s deadline. Always, always, always meet your deadlines.

VENTRELLA: Giving a pitch to a fiction editor or agent is a skill few have. How do you manage it? What advice do you have?

BASHMAN: The hook is all important. A query letter must hook the agent or editor in the first sentence just like the first sentence of a book must hook the reader. The writer must give the agent a reason to continue reading the query letter and to request sample chapters. It may seem like a simple thing, especially after writing and editing a manuscript, but it’s not. Crafting a good query letter takes time, but it’s important for the writer to take the time to do it right. How awful would it be for a great manuscript to sit forever in a drawer because an author didn’t take the time to learn how to write a good query and therefore couldn’t get an agent or editor to read the manuscript?

My advice is simple. It takes practice. Write and rewrite your query until it sounds like something that would make you request pages if you were an agent. Run your query past a few colleagues, post it on a writer’s critique board such as Backspace or Absolute Write Water Cooler, or if you’re really brave post it online for either the Query Shark or Evil Editor to critique. But before you even get that far, read through Miss Snark’s blog achieves where you’ll find hundreds of query critiques to study as examples. Publishers Marketplace is also a good resource. Take a look at the deals page and you can easily see how authors/agents have summed-up a book’s hook in one sentence. Find books in your genre and read the back cover copy, see how the wording hooks the readers and find a way to do the same for your book.

The more a writer studies and writes queries the easier it gets, but it takes time and practice. Don’t expect perfection right out of the gate. Work on the query, study your sentence structure, word choices, etc. until you get it right. Put the same hard work into the query that you put into your book. And if you query and don’t receive requests for pages, you either need to rethink/rewrite your query letter or ensure you queried the agents/editors who are interested in your type of book. One or the other wasn’t on target.

VENTRELLA: What advice can you give an aspiring writer?

BASHMAN: Remember that you’re writing because you love to write, because you have something to say that is meaningful. Be persistent. Push through the tough times; they will come. Relish the rewards of your work. And remember that publishing is a business, so try not to take rejection too personally. A rejection may not be a reflection on your work but may simply show that what you wrote is not the right piece for the marketplace at that particular time.

VENTRELLA: What’s the worst thing you have seen writers do that ruin their potential careers?

BASHMAN: I cringe every time I see a writer bash an agent or an editor in a social media setting such as Twitter or Facebook because the agent or editor rejected that writer’s work. Agents and editors receive and respond to hundreds of queries a week and often read them on their own time outside of business hours. They are searching for that next great book to represent, the book they love, and the book they believe readers will love too. They’re in the publishing business because they love books, and believe me, they want to find the next great book just as much as the writer wants to write it.

Rejection is part of the business, and a writer’s response to that rejection should be kept private or shared with a few select friends. It’s okay to feel disappointed, hurt or upset, but publically airing those feelings and lashing out at agent or editor either online or via e-mail is awful. First of all, it’s cruel. It’s done out of anger and feelings of rejection — that the writer’s work isn’t good enough, which may or may not be true. Second, agents and editors know one another, so when a writer bashes an agent or editor, that writer is labeled as trouble based on their online or e-mail rant. The writer may have written a great manuscript, but who wants to work with a difficult author, especially one just starting out in the business?

VENTRELLA: How do you manage promotion for your work? What things do you have planned?

BASHMAN: Promotion takes a lot of time, but it’s a necessary part of business. Today, authors are expected to do most, if not all, of their own promotion. It’s important to have a game plan and follow-through with it. A writer can write a great book, but if no one buys it the book is considered a failure.

For WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE, we’ll be posting expanded interviews on our websites with some of the people we interviewed for the book, we’ll reach out to readers through social media, we’ll attend upcoming comic, horror, and other events, we’ll participate in speaking engagements at local libraries and other organizations, we’ll attend book fairs, hold book signings, and a whole slew of other things to get our book out there and to bring it to the attention of readers.

VENTRELLA: How important is it for a writer to post on Twitter and Facebook and keep a blog? And what can a writer do to make his or her blog different and noticeable?

BASHMAN: It’s extremely important for a writer to connect with as many potential readers as possible. The internet has given authors a powerful arsenal of tools to connect with readers through social media, blogs, Yahoo! groups, websites, etc., and authors need to recognize those opportunities and use them. I recently spoke about building your buzz to drive up sales at the Backspace Writers Conference, and I’ll be speaking about it again to the Brandywine Valley Writers Group in September. I embrace these social media and online opportunities and have found them instrumental in helping propel my writing career forward. I’m on Twitter , Facebook, LibraryThing, Shelfari, LinkedIn, and a bunch of Yahoo! groups. I also follow and comment on numerous blogs and post to my own blog, usually about the writing business.

In order for a writer to make his blog noticeable, the writer must provide content that is engaging and relevant to the blog readers. In order to achieve that, the writer must identify his blog audience—who are they and why they are there. Also, what does the writer want to talk about? How can the writer make that interesting for his readers? If the writer’s target audience is other writers, for example, how can a blog post on writing draw in potential readers, agents, editors, etc.? Find ways to target new audiences while maintaining the readers you already have? Study those blogs you admire and see what they are doing and how they are doing it. Learn by example. Then try your twist on it and see if it works. If it doesn’t draw the response you desire, tweak your approach and try again. There’s no sure-fire formula for success. Just do what you do and do your best.

VENTRELLA: What projects do you have upcoming?

BASHMAN: In addition to the upcoming non-fiction book project I mentioned earlier, I continue to write for various publications. I’ll also be shopping a young adult novel shortly.

Me and Janice

Interview with Betty Webb

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Primarily I interview writers of fantasy and science fiction (since that’s what I write) but today, I am pleased to be interviewing mystery writer Betty Webb.

Before writing mysteries full time, Betty Webb worked as a journalist, interviewing everyone from U.S. presidents, astronauts who walked on the moon, and Nobel Prize-winners, as well as the homeless, the dying, and polygamy runaways. The six dark Lena Jones mysteries, based on stories she covered as a reporter, include DESERT LOST (judged “One of the Top Five Mysteries of 2009,
Library Journal), DESERT NOIR (“A mystery with a social conscience,” Publishers Weekly) and DESERT WIVES (“Eye-popping,” New York Times). Her humorous Gunn Zoo series debuted
with the critically-acclaimed, THE ANTEATER OF DEATH (I love that title) to be followed this August 15 with THE KOALA OF DEATH. A long-time book reviewer at Mystery Scene Magazine, Betty is a member of National Federation of Press Women, Mystery Writers of America, and the Society of Southwestern Authors. She also volunteers at the Phoenix Zoo, which is the inspiration for her Gunn Zoo mysteries. Her web site is www.bettywebb-mystery.com.

Ms. Webb, you began your career as a journalist, writing nonfiction. Why and how did you make the switch to fiction?

BETTY WEBB: I was a full-time journalist for 20 years, but after 15 years, all that fact-checking started to drive me nuts. So I thought I’d just write a novel “for fun.” After three rejected novels, I hit pay dirt with DESERT NOIR, the first of my Lena Jones mysteries. The second Lena Jones book, DESERT WIVES: POLYGAMY CAN BE MURDER, was sold to Lifetime-TV, eventually making my retirement from journalism possible.

VENTRELLA: Do you find your writing style changes from fiction to nonfiction?

WEBB: Absolutely. In journalism, which is non-fiction to the max, you must always use non-judgmental language, especially verbs, such as “He said,” as opposed to “He shrilled.” And unless you’re a columnist — which is very, very different than straight reporting — you can never interject your own opinions in an article.

When you’re writing fiction, you can let it all hang out, as I do in both my Lena Jones novels and even the Gunn Zoo series. Of course, the Lena Jones books are much more political and issue oriented; Publishers Weekly called them “mysteries with a social conscience.” The Gunn Zoo books, being very funny and much more relaxed, are much less issue-oriented, but they do give readers a lot of information about exotic animals and a behind-the-scenes look at life in zoos. Plus they say nasty things about people who are cruel to animals.

VENTRELLA: Your Lena Jones books are based on actual cases. How do you go about preparing these mysteries?

WEBB: I spend an average of two years researching each novel, which includes trips to the area where the event happened. During that time, though, I’m doing the actual writing for the previous book. Therefore, although I’m now in the process of writing DESERT WIND, I started researching it two years ago. And I am now in the process of researching the next Gunn Zoo mystery and the Lena Jones book.

VENTRELLA: Have you received any protests for these books (from Mormons, for instance)? And how have you dealt with it?

WEBB: Mainstream Mormons weren’t bothered at all by either DESERT WIVES or DESERT LOST, which were both about polygamy. In fact, various Mormon newspapers and periodicals gave both books warm, accepting reviews. Why? Because the mainstream LDS (Latter Day Saints) church outlawed polygamy almost 150 years ago and today’s Mormons are appalled by polygamy as it is currently being practiced. Also, the state of Utah is leading the way in polygamy prosecutions. They have sent many polygamists to prison for polygamy-related crimes, such as child rape (polygamists like 13 year old girls), financial fraud, and sadly, murder. the infamous Warren Jeffs is just one of the now-imprisoned polygamists.

The people I have had a problem with are the polygamists themselves. I’ve received death threats from them, and some of the male polygamists have shown up at my book signings in order to scare me. They finally stopped doing that when I started identifying them to the audience, and asking them to stand up and take a bow. That’s when I discovered that those guys are cowards. They’re good at intimidating 13 year old girls and battered “sister wives,” but not so good at intimidating grown, non-polygamous women.

VENTRELLA: It certainly seems that you still have that journalistic goal of exposing injustice, but are working through fiction now. Is that the case? Have you had much success about informing people about these issues?

WEBB: I absolutely write the Lena Jones books to expose injustice. For instance, are you aware that we have legally allowed immigrants into this country who believe in cutting off little girls’ genitals in order to make them submissive? They see it as no different than spaying a dog or gelding a horse. Those folks continue their ghastly practice in America today. I exposed it in DESERT CUT, and I named names.

Have I had success? Again, absolutely. DESERT WIVES caused such a fuss in Arizona that the Arizona legislature enacted its first ever anti-polygamy law. Readers of DESERT WIVES continue to organize and ride herd on the still-existent polygamy compounds. DESERT CUT has been read by many social workers, medical professionals, and law enforcement officers, who are now on the lookout for it. Immigrants who continue this practice are now being sent to prison, when before it was just shrugged off as a “cultural difference.”

VENTRELLA: What other issues are you interested in that may make future books?

WEBB: Can’t tell you that. DESERT WIND is still a big secret. I always keep my subject matter secret until the book comes out.

VENTRELLA: Your character also lives in Arizona. Why did you decide to do this?

WEBB: I’ve lived in Arizona since 1982, and much of my subject matter — such as polygamy — is rampant here. Plus, Arizona is a beautiful place to write about. On the other hand, the Gunn Zoo mysteries are all set on the Central California Coast, where I vacation every year. And my zoo keeper sleuth lives on the same houseboat I once spent a summer on.

VENTRELLA: How did you make your first sale? Did you have an agent?

WEBB: I was fortunate enough to get an agent, based upon my reading of “The Literary Marketplace.” She also sold one of my books to Lifetime-TV. Thankfully, I still have my agent!

VENTRELLA: Why did you choose Poison Pen Press for your work?

WEBB: My agent sold my books to Poisoned Pen Press. In a happy coincidence, I had already written an article about that particular publishing company for the newspaper I worked for. Therefore, I was very, very comfortable with the sale. We have now enjoyed a 10-years-long relationship.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake you think new writers make?

WEBB: I think the biggest mistake they make is in thinking the first book they write deserves to be published. I didn’t write a truly publishable novels until my 4th, which was DESERT NOIR, the first Lena Jones mystery. Even though I’d been a professional journalist for years and wrote for an average of 10 hours a day, 5 days a week at my newspaper job, the two skills don’t always cross over. I had to learn to write like a novelist, and that took about 5 years of writing from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. every single day before I went to the office. Good, publishable writing is more hard work than most beginners realize.

Another big beginner’s mistake? Writing only when they feel “inspired.” I teach creative writing, and one of the first things I tell my students is, “If you only write when you feel inspired, write a haiku. You won’t able to produce much else.” Professionals write for hours every day, regardless of how “inspired” they feel. As for the entire “inspiration” issue — I say “Baloney!” True inspiration only hits once you’ve been at your keyboard for several hours. Writing is work. Period. It’s not a game you play only when you feel like playing.

VENTRELLA: And finally, a fun question: With a time machine and a universal translator, who would you invite to your ultimate dinner party?

WEBB: William the Conqueror (1066), William’s opponent Harold Godwin (also 1066), Shakespeare, Dorothy Sayers, Dorothy Parker, Ernest Heminway, Lillian Hellman, Truman Capote, William Buckley, and Gore Vidal. Of course, I’d have to wear a suit of armor to that dinner party because it would probably turn very, very violent. And I’d enjoy every savage, bloody minute!

Interview with Tommy James

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: It’s not every day I get to interview a bona fide rock star! Tommy James had so many hits songs in the 60s and early 70s that I could fill the blog just listing them (I Think We’re Alone Now, Crimson and Clover, Draggin’ The Line, Mony Mony, Mirage, Hanky Panky, Crystal Blue Persuasion… you get the idea). He recently published his autobiography, ME, THE MOB, AND THE MUSIC, which has already gone to its fifth printing. Usually I do these interviews by email, but Mr. James wanted to talk by phone. Do you think I was going to say no?!! We had a great conversation about writing and music!

Mr. James, it’s an honor to be speaking with you today. Let’s start with the latest news about the play or movie rights that are coming up!

TOMMY JAMES: Well, the book ME, THE MOB AND THE MUSIC is going to be made into a Broadway show and movie.

VENTRELLA: Obviously, it’s going to be a musical!

JAMES: Yes, next year the Nederlander will be bringing it to Broadway. We’re really glad to be associated with them. And they’ll be bringing it not only to Broadway but all over the world.

VENTRELLA: And the movie?

JAMES: The movie is being produced by Barry Rosen and Mary Gleason, and we’ll be making an announcement within the next week or two with a whole lot of things concerning the movie. It’s scheduled for release in 2012 and it’s going to be a real all star cast and a first rate production.

VENTRELLA: Who do you want to play you?

JAMES: That’s above my pay scale!

VENTRELLA: Well, who would you like?

JAMES: There’s probably going to have to be two actors involved because of the time span. The older Tommy quite likely will be played by Val Kilmer. He did a great job with Jim Morrisson a few years ago, and he’s a friend and also is a great actor and a musician. He is being very seriously looked at right now.

I take it you’ve read the book?

VENTRELLA: Yes, I have…

JAMES: So you know that it goes all the way from teenage years to 1990, so there’s quite a time span.

VENTRELLA: Since my blog is mostly about books, let me ask you a few questions about that. What was the process you used when you worked with Martin Fitzpatrick?

JAMES: Martin is very skilled at constructing chapters. The book started out like a train leaving a station, kind of slow and easy paced, and as it gets further into the book it gets faster and faster and faster and faster and by the end of the book, it’s quite riveting. I am very glad he wrote it that way. I’m glad it’s concise. I’m glad it’s not a particularly long book. I didn’t want it to be drudgery. I wanted it really to the point and easy to read. And I think that was accomplished.

VENTRELLA: You decided to concentrate the book on your relationship with the mob. Why did you choose that aspect as opposed to marriage relationships or solely on the music for instance?

JAMES: Martin and I actually started out writing a book about music and the studio and that would have been interesting. We were going to call it “Crimson and Clover.” This was almost eight years ago. We got about a third of the way into it and we realized that if we don’t tell the Roulette story, we’re cheating everybody. What happened with Roulette had to be the focal point of the book for a couple of reasons.

I’ve been wanting to tell this story for a very, very long time but I’ve never really felt comfortable doing it.When we decided we wanted to tell the Roulette story, we realized we couldn’t yet because some of these guys were still walking around. So we put the book on the shelf for a couple of years until the last of the ‘Roulette regulars’ passed on.

VENTRELLA: The Genovese family…

JAMES: Exactly. The last one to pass was Giovante, who died in December of ’05 in prison. So the bottom line was that after that, we felt we could really write the book.

VENTRELLA: Any bad experiences since then? No one’s threatened you?

JAMES: No, I haven’t had anything like that although a couple of interesting characters who I thought had passed away hadn’t. Their family members actually came to a couple of our book events and concerts, but I haven’t had any problems.

As soon as we finished the book it got gobbled up by Simon and Shuster. They put it out, since February 16th, and it’s in the fifth printing! So it’s just exploded. I’m amazed. I am really very awed that it has been accepted like this by the media and the fans.

I’ve never been a writer so you never really know if you’ve gotten your point across. Let me tell you – it’s not like writing a song!

Almost immediately we were invited to do the movie and the Broadway show. Since “Jersey Boys,” it’s really opened up Broadway. Rock and roll musicals were sort of taboo a couple of years ago until “Jersey Boys” blew all the doors down.

VENTRELLA: And you have a more interesting story than they do, I think…

JAMES: It’s about real people, and it is a pretty fascinating story. I must say that it is kind of amazing that the star of my autobiography is going to be Morris Levy.

VENTRELLA: But see, you have an interesting story even without that. The whole “Hanky Panky” story about how that song became a hit without you even being aware of it…

JAMES: That is very true. It’s one of those ‘only in America’ stories. When I came to New York – I was still only 18 years old, and with a new group of Shondells – we came out of Pittsburgh – we were so thrilled because we got a ‘yes’ from all the record companies. Everybody!

VENTRELLA: But then Morris Levy got involved.

JAMES: Yes. I went to bed that night feeling so good because we got a thumbs up from everyone: Columbia, RCA, Epic, Atlantic… and the last place we took the record to was Roulette. The next morning, one by one all the companies called up and said, “listen, we gotta pass.” Finally, Jerry Wexler from Atlanta leveled with us and told us Morris Levy called them up one by one and said [Godfather voice] “This is my record.”

He scared everyone else until he was the only one left.

I just want to say though that every time I say something negative about Morris Levy, my conscience bothers me. The truth is that if it hadn’t been for him, there wouldn’t have been a Tommy James. I don’t know why the Good Lord decided to bless me with these people, but He did.

And also, if we had gone with one of the corporate labels, especially with a song like “Hanky Panky,” we would have gone with a producer, gotten lost in the numbers, and that would have been the last time anyone would have heard of me.

VENTRELLA: Yes, you actually had say in what songs you were going to record which not all bands did in those days…

JAMES: They left us alone. He allowed us to morph into whatever we could be. We had the attention of the public long enough that we could go through our different phases. I got an education at Roulette that I would have never gotten anywhere else. I would never have had that freedom anywhere else.

VENTRELLA: Since I’m a musician, that’s the part that interests me the most…

JAMES: What do you play?

VENTRELLA: Bass mostly, and I’ve been in plenty of bands and written plenty songs! You started writing songs early, with “Wishing Well.” When did you first realize that you could write as well as some of the professional guys? What song made you think “Hey, I can do this”?

JAMES: It wasn’t until I got to New York that I felt that I was on top of it. We learned early on, I must say, we had a great revelation. Our first two albums were basically cover songs. And then, Bo [Gentry] and Ritchie [Cordell] came to me with “I Think We’re Alone Now.” And once that happened, we sort of took control of our career. “I Think We’re Alone Now” was a very important moment for us, because I changed studios and began writing in earnest. I had a kind of epiphany that we were writing records, not songs. Suddenly you’re thinking verse / hook, formula – your writing suddenly had bookends it never had before.

VENTRELLA: “I Think We’re Alone Now” also was important in relationship to other songs of the time because it didn’t sound like every other song.

JAMES: It started us down a new road. Up until that time, we pretty much had been a garage band. We really were! But with “I Think We’re Alone Now” we added Jimmy Wisner, who was our George Martin. We really started layering our records properly. Even though it was four track back then – when we first started out, there were four track but they were still recording everything at once even though things were put on different tracks. I sort of went through the technology and began to see how this turned into this and that became that – we literally went from four track to twenty four track right in front of my face. That happened in a very short period of time.

VENTRELLA: That song also made the public take you a bit more seriously too.

JAMES: I think so too. It was our fourth gold record in a row, and we were starting to declare our independence at that moment, really taking control of production. Although Bo and Ritchie were still producing us, basically they answered to me, not Morris. We were learning our craft.

VENTRELLA: And of course you were touring constantly too, and with a record every five months or something…

JAMES: Even sooner than that. We were averaging a record every 90 days.

VENTRELLA: “I Think We’re Alone Now” is sometimes called “the birth of bubblegum” which I don’t think you actually want as your…

JAMES: I think we accidentally invented bubblegum music!

VENTRELLA: But that sound came back again in the ‘new wave’ era, with the Cars and other bands…

JAMES: True enough. When we did “I Think We’re Alone Now” the term ‘bubblegum’ didn’t exist. It was sort of – with the eighth notes… it was just something we went through. It was actually something I had done years before that, and we just incorporated that into the song, and that became a sort of signature sound for us for a bit…

VENTRELLA: You used it in “Mirage” after that.

JAMES: Yes. It was the sound of the album.

VENTRELLA: But then, like the Beatles, you didn’t stick with one sound. There were a lot of bands back in those days that once they had found their sound, they never changed.

JAMES: True enough. It was very important for us to always stretch the envelope and I believe that it’s the reason why we had so many hits. You know, we ended up with twenty three gold singles and nine platinum albums and we sold over a hundred million records.

When you look at it, this was only an eight year period of time, but now it’s been forty four years in the major leagues. This is a business that maybe gives you two or three years, so truly I am very grateful for the longevity. It’s been an amazing time.

VENTRELLA: Back in the 60s when you were writing these songs, did you feel yourself in competition with anybody else?

JAMES: Yeah, everybody! Myself! It’s funny, you know – for the first five or six years of your career (if you’re lucky enough to have it that long) you really believe that if you screw up, they can take it away from you.

We were competing with all the big groups. We went head to head with the Rascals! They were great friends of ours, and we were always working together and they were always one hit record ahead of us. They started out just before we did, and we always felt like we were playing catch up with them. We’ve been friends all this time!

All the acts – we all worked together, we all compared notes. It was a time of incredible creativity. The 60s were an unbelievable moment, we just thought they’d go on forever.

VENTRELLA: Who did you listen to mostly?

JAMES: Who I listened to then, of course, was every radio station I could. You get to know everyone else’s records as good as your own, because you’re always listening hoping to hear your record on the radio. So you start learning everyone else’s records, and so by the time you work with them…

VENTRELLA: You could practically play the songs with them!

JAMES: That’s right! You could do their set.

VENTRELLA: Are you still living in New York?

JAMES: I live just outside of New York, in New Jersey. Where are you from?

VENTRELLA: I’m out in the Poconos, so I’m not too far away.

What cover songs of yours do you like the best?

JAMES: Wow!

VENTRELLA: There have been quite a few…

JAMES: There sure have. Well, Prince did a beautiful job of “Crimson and Clover” last year. The album went #1 and it was the first single. R.E.M. did a fine job with “Draggin’ the Line.” Oh boy! There’s a group from England called Tight Ship that did a great job with “Mony Mony.” That’s probably my favorite version. You know, Tom Jones just did “I’m Alive” around Christmas time. He did it on all the TV shows and it was really funny. He did a great job on it! He did a better job than I did!

But you know, we’ve had over 300 cover versions. Everyone from the Boston Pops to Billy Idol.

VENTRELLA: Let me ask you one questions I’ve been meaning to ask you. Did you really have a dog named Sam that ate purple flowers?

JAMES: I had a cat named Sam, but that just didn’t sound right! [laughs] I can’t sing “my cat Sam”!

VENTRELLA: No, that doesn’t flow right…

So there’s no chance of getting all that money that Morris owed you from all those years ago?

JAMES: Well, you know, the Good Lord has an amazing economy. This story, and with the movie – think of how boring it would be without Morris Levy! What kind of story would I have? “Me, My Mom, and the Music?” [laughs]

Truthfully, this is all payback for those years.

VENTRELLA: When I was a student in Boston, I worked for Strawberry’s record stores, and when I read your book I thought “Oh my God, I was working for the mob and didn’t know it!”

JAMES: Morris was an amazing individual. You read the book so you know all about him…

VENTRELLA: Well, I had heard of him before because of how he screwed over John Lennon.

Where are you performing now?

JAMES: We’re all over the country this year. If you go to my website, www.TommyJames.com, we’re not only performing but we’re doing the book tour.

VENTRELLA: Are you doing new material?

JAMES: Yes! Actually, the original Shondells and I are back in the studio doing music for the movie.

VENTRELLA: The originals?

JAMES: Yes, the originals from Pittsburgh. My touring group has been with me for about 25 years but the original players are with me back in the studio. We just did a really good version of “I Think We’re Alone Now” that we’re going to use for the closing credits. It’s slow. It’s completely opposite from the original record and it changes the meaning of the song. The last scene in the movie is when Morris Levy dies, so “I Think We’re Alone Now” – it really changes the meaning of the lyrics.

VENTRELLA: Wasn’t that song brought to you originally more as a ballad and then you sped it up?

JAMES: The circle is complete!

Interview with Daniel Kimmel

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Since I write fiction – and fantasy fiction at that – most of the interviews I have done have been with writers with similar interests. Today I’m going off in a different direction by interviewing a nonfiction writer … But we still have a lot in common. Like me, Daniel Kimmel graduated from law school in Boston and within a few years after graduating started writing about movies.

His love of movies propelled him to a career as a newspaper film critic, Variety correspondent, and TV reviewer. He has five books in print, the most recent being I’LL HAVE WHAT SHE’S HAVING: BEHIND THE SCENES OF THE GREAT ROMANTIC COMEDIES. His book about Fox TV (THE FOURTH NETWORK) won the “Cable Center Award” for best book about the television industry in 2004. He’s also written a play about Hollywood blacklisting. IMG_3294

DANIEL KIMMEL: I actually passed the bar and worked as a lawyer for two or three years. I didn’t start reviewing professionally until the end of 1983.

VENTRELLA: Dan, how is writing non-fiction different from fiction? Do you think it’s easier or harder? Are the skills similar?

KIMMEL: Well, a big difference is you can’t make things up. I have written fiction, both in a humor column I did in college and law school and managed to do for local newspapers for a few years. In both cases it’s a matter of figuring out the story I want to tell, but having to work around the facts with non-fiction. Some writers of non-fiction do make things up and when they get caught it gets messy.

VENTRELLA: Did Law School help or hurt your writing style?

KIMMEL: I think it helped, but not from legal writing. In my first year I had Rikki Kleiman for my writing instructor (who went on to Court TV and even appeared as herself in a few episodes of “Las Vegas”) and I remember her telling me after reading some of my early efforts that she could teach me what I needed to know about legal style and research, but that I had already developed a clear writing style. Later a professor reading a draft of a paper on pornography and the law said when he got to my paper he put down his red pen and sat back to enjoy reading it. (And all the quotes were from court cases, so it’s not what you think.) However I continued doing humor columns for the law school paper and for an “underground” college paper at Boston University and I kept pushing myself as a writer to get out of my comfort zone of doing Art Buchwald style columns and try other forms.

VENTRELLA: Besides your play, have you written any fiction? Do you have any such desire? Would you ever consider writing a screenplay?

KIMMEL:Yes, yes, and yes. I have several unproduced screenplays in collaboration with other writers. We actually made money off of “The Waldorf Conference,” our blacklist script, which was produced in a staged reading for “L.A. Theaterworks” and nationally broadcast on NPR. (The audiotape is available through Amazon.) It’s currently sitting on a shelf at Warner Bros., unlikely to ever be made. I’ve also written two novels, both humorous and one decidedly science-fiction. However since my name is not Terry Pratchett, publishers haven’t expressed any interest. Any publishers interested in an SF comedy about Hollywood should contact my agent, Alison Picard.

VENTRELLA: For a starting writer, in order to have a fiction book published, you have to have a completed manuscript. How does selling a nonfiction book work? Do your publishers give you a contract based on a summary, for instance?cover pic

KIMMEL: My last two books (THE DREAM TEAM and I’LL HAVE WHAT SHE’S HAVING) were done on simple descriptions and outlines since I was dealing with the publisher of my FOX book (THE FOURTH NETWORK). That book had a troubled history. I had a proposal out for a book on science fiction films but the SF publishers didn’t want to do film books and the film books publishers weren’t interested in SF. However one editor liked my writing and asked what other ideas I had. I went through several e-mails coming up with numerous ideas and the one that he liked turned into THE FOURTH NETWORK. That was sold on an outline and a description. When I was finished — I was down to writing captions for photos that were to be included in the book which had been fully edited — the editor left the company and the publisher got cold feet. I started getting ridiculous demands (like securing letters from every person I had interviewed allowing me to quote them) and I quickly saw they were trying to get me to breach our contract. So instead I contacted my own lawyer who succeeded in getting the manuscript back from them. It took almost three years for my agent to place it with another publisher and at that point I had to do some new interviews and write an additional chapter to bring it up to date.

For a current proposal I have a much more complicated package which includes not only a description and an outline, but sample chapters, quotes from reviews of my previous books and a marketing plan. I find the last particularly galling but that’s the state of the publishing industry today. If you’re not a superstar author you’re largely expected to do your own publicity. Maybe the publisher will help a bit before he/she is distracted by the next book on the release schedule.

VENTRELLA: Do you have any specific books on writing that you use as a guideline?

KIMMEL: No, although I do give Strunk and White’s ELEMENTS OF STYLE credit for teaching me the difference between “its” and “it’s.”

VENTRELLA: I would assume that outlines play a much larger role in nonfiction than in fiction. Since you are not “telling a story” in the strictest sense most of the time, how do you decide the organization of your books?

KIMMEL: Each book had its own organization. The FOX book was set up so each chapter followed a television season. The DreamWorks book tended to be thematic rather than chronological. One chapter was on their building a studio except they never really did. Another was about animation. Another was about their publicity machine.

For the romantic comedy book I had agreed with the publisher it would cover fifteen films. I selected them based on their importance (“It Happened One Night,” “Annie Hall,” “When Harry Met Sally”) as well as making sure they were spread out over the decades. I could have easily focused on just movies from the 1930s (a great era for romantic comedies) but I limited myself to three. When I got to the ’50s I decided to focus on three different iconic actresses: Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and Doris Day. If my agent sells my current proposal I’ll be happy to share how that’s organized as well.

VENTRELLA: What kinds of fiction do you like to read?

KIMMEL: Science fiction, of course. The occasional legal thriller or mainstream novel. For the former I much prefer Scott Turow to John Grisham. For the latter I’m a big fan of Philip Roth. Of contemporary SF writers I like William Gibson, David Brin, the late Octavia Butler, and John Varley. I am in awe of Dan Simmons and have his massive latest novel, “Drood,” waiting for me.

I’ve also become a fan of some authors I first got to know at local conventions, like Walter Hunt and Jeffrey Carver, and only later started to read. Recently I found that someone I had met under other circumstances, Shariann Lewitt, was a published author and I was embarrassed I didn’t know it. I went out and got one of her books and subsequently wrote her that she had a new fan. That’s one of the neat things about the world of science fiction: you can actually get to know the writers of the books you read.

VENTRELLA: I’ll never get to meet the characters I have created for my novels. One of the advantages of writing nonfiction, I suppose, is that you get to meet some of the people you are writing about. Care to share any interesting stories about encounters with the famous? (Not counting me, who is quoted in your DreamWorks book)
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KIMMEL: I’ve met lots of famous people over the years, but that’s not a reflection on me. It’s my job. When I did a Facebook survey on 25 famous people I’d met, I had no trouble coming up with 25 and had stories to spare. I do have a short list of people I can’t believe I was lucky enough to meet: Gene Roddenberry, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin,” Jonathan Winters, and John Cleese. I was interviewing Cleese about some hilarious business training films he was involved in making and distributing and afterwards he had nothing on his schedule and so he invited me out for a cup of coffee and conversation. He told me about a script he was then working on that would become “A Fish Called Wanda.” When I asked him what else he had been up to he mentioned that he had co-authored a book with his therapist called FAMILIES AND HOW TO SURVIVE THEM which he didn’t expect would get much notice. I reached into my briefcase and pulled out a copy. I told him that was what I had brought him to autograph. He was very pleased.

I suppose the best story about a celebrity encounter is when I met Penn & Teller after having reviewed their film PENN AND TELLER GET KILLED for Variety. It was a favorable review and when I met them Penn — a big scary looking guy in person — gave me a big smile and thanked me for the nice review. I said there was no need to thank me. I was simply expressing my opinion. He said he understood, but if I hadn’t liked it he would have had to tear my heart out. I’d like to think he was only kidding.

VENTRELLA: That’s the second John Cleese reference in an interview I’ve done in two weeks! I’m a big fan of Cleese and also Penn and Teller. This has nothing to do with writing, but I’m just curious: What are your favorite movies of all time?

KIMMEL: “Annie Hall” is my all time favorite. Also in the pantheon are “The Producers,” “North by Northwest,” “Holiday” (1938), “The Fly” (1986), “Dr. Strangelove.” “High Noon,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “Love Actually,” “When Harry Met Sally” and “Casablanca.” When I first met my wife she had not seen a lot of films. We soon had a VCR festival to educate her but there were two movies I would only let her see on the big screen, which she did eventually: “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Lawrence of Arabia.” People who have not seen these films should do so immediately, except for the latter two which really do need to be seen on a big screen.

Dan and me on a panel at the Arisia 2011 convention

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