Interview with author A. C. Crispin

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I’m pleased to be interviewing A.C. Crispin, whose new novel is PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE PRICE OF FREEDOM. She’s best known for the novelization of the 1984 V TV series, but also for her bestselling Star Wars novels THE PARADISE SNARE, THE HUTT GAMBIT, and REBEL DAWN — although I first discovered her through her Star Trek novels: YESTERDAY’S SON, TIME FOR YESTERDAY, THE EYES OF THE BEHOLDERS, and SAREK.

Ann, You’ve been able to write novels in some of fandom’s favorite stories. How did you manage that?

A.C. CRISPIN: After I wrote YESTERDAY’S SON and V, publishers with franchises approached my agent when they had projects they thought would be a good match for my skills.

If your readers want to read about how to get an agent, soup to nuts, they should read “Notes on Finding a (Real) Literary Agent” on my website.

VENTRELLA: Do you make proposals or do the studios come to you directly now?

CRISPIN: For original novels I write book proposals. For tie-in work, they pretty much come to me.

VENTRELLA: Let’s discuss THE PRICE OF FREEDOM. How much freedom were you given to develop Jack Sparrow’s background?

CRISPIN: After a considerable amount of back and forth on the part of the Disney studio liaison, during which several detailed outlines were not approved, the studio liaison decided that instead of writing the project I had been originally hired to write (the story of the Isla de Muerta mutiny re: the Aztec gold) I should instead write the story of how Jack Sparrow worked for the EITC and wound up making that bargain with Davy Jones. So I knew where the story had to end up. How I got there was left pretty much up to me.

I did consult with both my editors on the book, the acquiring editor and the editor who completed the project. For example, they both agreed that there should be a “Lady Pirate” as a character, so that’s how Doña Pirata was born. The Legend of Zerzura plotline was my creation, but my editors suggested having talismans as a way to get into the Sacred Labyrinth and reach the treasure. So I then came up with the bracelets.

By the time I finished with my outline, it was over 70 single spaced pages long. Of course, THE PRICE OF FREEDOM is a long novel, some 235,000 words.

VENTRELLA: Did Disney censor any of your ideas or tell you to make major changes?

CRISPIN: My Disney editor (somewhat regretfully, because she really liked them) bowdlerized my hottest sex scene. I’m not sure you’d call that a major change. After all, we are talking Disney, here. (The scene was hot, but not graphic — she felt that it was a bit too hot.)

VENTRELLA: What were your main goals in trying to develop his character?

CRISPIN: To create the character of “Jack becoming” so that people would recognize Jack Sparrow, but also know this wasn’t quite the Jack they see in the films … this was a younger, more vulnerable, more trusting and less cynical Jack. He gets more cynical and “savvy” during the course of the book. He’s not the same Jack at the end as he was at the beginning. Of course that’s the goal of good fiction, right?

VENTRELLA: What adventures in your novel help shape Jack into the character we all know?

CRISPIN: Oh, Jack experiences betrayal, disappointment, fear of imminent death, hatred, and as a result learns to be much more wary and cunning, and to trust almost no one. Readers who want teasers can read the excerpts on my website. There are six there.

VENTRELLA: Do any other characters from the film appear in the novel?

CRISPIN: Edward Teague, Cutler Beckett, Hector Barbossa, Pintel and Ragetti, and a certain squid-faced Captain.

VENTRELLA: Were you given a peek at the script for the most recent film in order to work in some foreshadowing?

CRISPIN: No. I was given the script for “At World’s End” before the film released, but my book was finished before the script for “On Stranger Tides” was written.

VENTRELLA: The most recent movie is loosely based on Tim Powers’ novel ON STRANGER TIDES. Did you use that novel at all for reference?

CRISPIN: I’ve read ON STRANGER TIDES a couple of times, but aside from the fact that it’s an excellent pirate yarn, no.

VENTRELLA: Will there be more books in the series?

CRISPIN: That will be Disney’s call. I imagine they’ll base that decision on how well THE PRICE OF FREEDOM sells.

VENTRELLA: What’s your favorite of the Pirates movies?

CRISPIN: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

VENTRELLA: Do you find using established characters in your media novels to be a limitation?

CRISPIN: Nope. I find it a challenge to have them grow and change in ways so subtle that the studio doesn’t realize I’ve done it.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also written your own series: Starbridge. Tell us about this!

CRISPIN: Funny you should ask about that. There’s a good chance that the seven StarBridge novels will soon be re-released as e-books. There have been quite a few requests for them from readers, over the years. The series is about a school for young people from the Fifteen Known Worlds who come to an asteroid in deep space to learn to be diplomats, planetary advocates (known as “interrelators”) and explorers. The books focus on First Contact, and explore what it would be like in a galactic society.

VENTRELLA: Do you find writing books based on your own work easier?

CRISPIN: Not really. I put my full efforts into both my media tie-ins and my original novels. With the original novels, it’s generally a bit more work, because I have to create the world, the technology, the history, the geography, the society, etc. World-building and universe-building have to be done well if you want to create the illusion of reality –- something that’s essential to writing s.f. and fantasy.

VENTRELLA: We met at Balticon this year. Do you enjoy conventions and do you advise authors to attend them?

CRISPIN: You can learn a lot at conventions, and once you’ve gone pro, you can do a fair amount of networking and business at gatherings such as the Nebulas, Worldcon, etc. I enjoy conventions, still, even after all these years.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about Writer Beware. How did the idea for this come about?

CRISPIN: Back in 1998, Victoria Strauss and I both realized, independently of each other, that writing scams were proliferating on the internet. At some point our investigations brought us into contact with each other, and we decided to do something about it. SFWA gave us its blessing and sponsorship, and that’s how Writer Beware was born.

VENTRELLA: I meet many authors who have gone the vanity press or self publishing route and then wonder why no one takes them seriously. Other than “don’t do that” do you have any specific pieces of advice for these authors?

CRISPIN: I advise them to go to Writer Beware and read our articles about POD, vanity publishing, etc., so they’ll go into self publishing with a clear vision of what it can and can’t do for an author. E-publishing has taken off in the past six months, and it can now be a realistic way (provided the author has the sales numbers) to break into commercial publishing (advance and royalty paying publishing with a major press, that is). This is generally not true for POD and hardcopy “self publishing.” But there are exceptions.

The main problem with “self-publishing” is when authors confuse it with commercial publishing and expect their books to be on the shelves in bookstores nationwide, plus have other unrealistic expectations. It is really not a shortcut into a successful writing career for the vast majority of those who do it. I believe it’s still true that most POD and self published novels still sell fewer than 100 copies.

VENTRELLA: What bugs you most about the publishing industry and what would you change about it if you could?

CRISPIN: Here are my top two picks for that:

(1) I’d go back in time and eliminate the Thor Power Tools Supreme Court ruling. That had a terrible effect on a publisher’s ability to keep books in stock. Look it up.

(2) I’d get rid of the Internet for two reasons (A) the internet has given aspiring writers the idea that they’re entitled to be published, no matter how well or poorly they write, and (B) because of the internet, writers are getting scammed at an appalling rate.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read for pleasure?

CRISPIN: Terry Pratchett, Elizabeth Peters, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Margaret Mahy, Ursula K. LeGuin, George R.R. Martin, Lois McMaster Bujold, Charlotte Bronte, and too many others to name.

VENTRELLA: Of what work are you most proud?

CRISPIN: I do my level best on all my books. I’m pretty proud of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE PRICE OF FREEDOM, because I had to do so much research. It took me three years to write, and the whole time I was writing it, I was doing research on the historical period and the nautical stuff.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing process? Do you outline heavily, for instance?

CRISPIN: For tie-in work I HAVE to produce detailed outlines, so I’ve gotten used to working that way. I don’t like writing myself into corners, and a good outline usually prevents that.

VENTRELLA: Fantasy has grown tremendously in popularity over the past twenty or thirty years and now outsells science fiction. Why do you think this is? What is it about fantasy that appeals to readers that they can’t get from science fiction?

CRISPIN: I have no idea. Personally, I prefer science fiction, though I read both.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give to a starting author that you wish someone had given you?

CRISPIN: Learn to read and analyze publishing contracts. Agents aren’t perfect, and you really need to be able to read a proposed contract and spot pitfalls.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake you see aspiring authors make?

CRISPIN: Here’s my top five list:

1. They spend years writing a Star Wars or other tie-in novel without ever researching whether they can actually submit the thing and have a chance of having it published. (With Star Wars, for example, they won’t even read the book; all Star Wars novels are contracted for in advance.)

2. They look for shortcuts, such as “self publishing” or POD publishing, often with a scammy publisher like PublishAmerica or Strategic, because it’s the easy thing to do.

3. They develop “golden words syndrome” and can’t see any flaws in their writing, and if someone points them out, they get mad. This is death to any aspiration to ever be a pro.

4. They submit first drafts.

5. They want to write fiction, but they don’t read it. I’ve never yet encountered a single writer, in the dozens, maybe hundreds of workshops I’ve taught, who wrote fiction well but wasn’t a reader. In order to write well, especially fiction, you must be an inveterate reader. No exceptions.

VENTRELLA: What question do you wish interviewers would ask you that they never do?

CRISPIN: Where readers can buy my books. There are links to purchase all my books on my website.

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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 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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