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!)

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