Tuesday, November 25, 2008

On Chris Grabenstein

Our guest today is Chris Grabenstein (shown here with his dog Fred) soon to be president of Mystery Writers of America's New York Chapter and the author of two mystery series, one for adults and the other for middle graders (that's Chris, not Fred.)
JRW: Welcome Chris. Tell us a little bit about your journey to publication.

CG: Well, I guess it started back in 1984 when I was hired by James Patterson to write advertising copy at the J. Walter Thompson agency. Seventeen years later, when I was an Executive Vice President and Group Creative Director at Young & Rubicam but getting bored with selling beer and toothpaste, I wondered if I could have a decent second career like Patterson did. Okay, his has been more than decent. Dangerously close to indecent (every tenth book sold in America is one of his!) So, I quit advertising in 2001 and went to work in the second bedroom of our apartment. I spent the first year writing screenplays, winning contests, chasing agents, going to seminars, studying the screen writing craft. Sometime in 2002, I decided I was a) too old and b) on the wrong side of the continent to seriously consider a career as a screenwriter. So, inspired by Stephen King's ON WRITING, I set out to try to write a novel. Six months later, I had a book! I sent out hundreds of letters (with return post cards) to agents, finally found one, and came THIS close to selling that first book to Time Warner. I think we tried to sell that first book for over a year. I have some very lovely rejection letters to go with it. At this point, I read a very good (if, at the time, disheartening) article by an agent in Writer's Digest. The gist was: do you want to be a writer or write one book?
So, I started the second manuscript. When it didn't sell, I started another. When it didn't sell, I did the fourth. It was called TILT A WHIRL and, after four years, I was an overnight success.

JRW: So persistence played a role in your success.

CG: Major. Four years with nothing to show for your efforts but encouraging rejection letters? All alone in that room typing up stories that no one might ever read? I'm feeling vaguely suicidal just remembering it now. But, it was the "butt-in-seat, fingers-on-keyboard" work ethic that kept me going until I threw something against the wall that finally stuck. Not that you should toss my books against the wall. Come on. That TILT A WHIRL won an award and everything. Take it easy.

JRW: Was there a time you felt like giving up?

CG: Yep. And, there still are times. Usually when I'm 3/4s of the way through my first draft and I have just jogged past the statue of Shakespeare in Central Park I ask myself: who do I think I'm kidding? I am convinced I am the worst writer to ever sit down and try to tell a story. This depression bout is usually followed by a manic phase or a breakthrough. Hmmm. Maybe I should see a therapist. But, if I did, I might become mentally stable, quit writing, and get a job at Kinkos making sure all the copy machines were fed their toner.

JRW: I'm sure that would make Kinko's a less stressful place for the rest of us, but you'd leave a lot of disappointed fans! What advice can you give to aspiring authors?

CG: Keep going! If you love the writing, the craft, that's really all that matters. I learned this years ago in advertising when the client would constantly kill our favorite scripts or, sometimes, fun commercials that we actually filmed never made it to TV for some reason. I had to love the actual writing. It was the only thing I had total control over.

JRW: New Jersey is such a character in the Ceepak books...what's Joisey really like?

CG: It's like Canada. The humbler neighbor to this big hulking egomaniac. For Jersey, you've got Philadelphia to be envious of on one end, New York at the other. When I lived there, we were the bridge and tunnel people -- daring to enter the Emerald City, escaping to our humble homes in suburbia. NJ is also the most densely populated state in the nation. No elbow room. Leads to a lot of edge and attitude.

JRW: John Ceepak is the protagonist in your adult series. Is he based on anyone you know?
CG: Ceepak is modeled on several people. My nephew who fought in the first gulf war. An FDNY captain who is a close friend of mine. Some former MPs I met at a wedding. I wanted to create the polar opposite of the bitter, divorced, cynical, I-have-my-own-code sleuth since the world already seemed to have enough of those.

JRW: You also write middle grade books. How did that happen? And how does that feel - switching gears?

CG: I think of myself as someone who writes fast paced stories – in all sorts of genres. It’s why I liked advertising. One day, you’d write a funny spot for a beer or soft drink, the next day a tear jerker for heartwarming greetings cards or soup. I also wanted to write a book without dirty words so all the kids I knew could read something I wrote.
I am loving writing for a younger audience. They come to readings and signings hugging the book close to their hearts!

JRW (RO): I can vouch for that, I was at The Crossroads book party and Chris had a packed house! And the cupcakes were phenomenal. I understand Crossroads has been optioned to Hollywood. Do you wake up in the morning and pinch yourself about what's happened? And who do you see starring?

CG: Well, let's remember: many books are optioned, few actually become movies. That said, this particular producer is known for actually making movies out of books he options. In fact, he is very close to filming one of Ken Bruen's novels. It's hard to think about who might star in the movie...since Zack is an eleven year old boy...the lead will probably be some kid who is in the fourth grade right now. I'd love for Tina Fey to play Judy Magruder, the step-mom. And Glenn Close would make an eery and creepy Gerda Spratling, the villainess in the book.

JRW (RO): She was pretty creepy. I got scared at some of the things in that book! What's your next book? And when can we expect it?

CG: MIND SCRAMBLER, where Ceepak and Danny go to Atlantic City and end up investigating the murder of a friend we met in an earlier book, will come out from St. Martin’s Minotaur in June, 2009. The sequel to THE CROSSROADS is called THE HANGING HILL and will be published by Random House in August, 2009.

JRW: Thanks, Chris. Any JR readers who have a question for Chris can reach him here or at his website http://www.chrisgrabenstein.com/


  1. Thanks for doing the e-terview, Ro! For a while, I thought Fred was going to need a tie so he could be President of MWA-NY!


  2. I think we should invite him to our next board meeting1

  3. Hi Chris,
    We met briefly in Bouchercon and I didn't realize you were a fellow New Jersey refugee, or I would have asked you that all important Jersey question, what exit?? (I was 153B). I agree with you on the edge and attitude, and finding all that fast paced edge in your books!

  4. Chris, one thing that hasn't come out in this interview is that you are very, very funny.
    Didn't I read that you've also been a stand up comedian? Is that harder than writing books?

  5. I was an exit 10 on the Turnpike guy: Metuchen. Old Native American word for me touching your thigh, I believe.

    And, yes, I used to do improvisational comedy with a couple New York city troupes all over Greenwich Vilage and on tour to colleges. We were "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" but back in 1979 when Bruce Willis was just another out of work actor doing improv comedy on the weekends with me and the First Amendment troupe. We were political and edgy. Made fun of Reagan a lot as I recall.

  6. Hi Chris, welcome to Jungle Red! And a special welcome to Fred, who is even cuter than you are. I've been on a couple of panels with Chris and love his report that he walks his dog when he's stuck on a plot point. Works for me too--occasionally! Maybe Fred has more to say about your plot twists than Tonka does...

    I grew up in NJ too--there's a lot more to it than the Turnpike, folks. My high school was famous for having the only all-girl marching bagpipe band in the country. Match that for local color!

  7. Hey, Chris --

    I remember laughing out loud when I read TILT A WHIRL. I was relieved to actually meet you and find out that you are not...a laugh a minute. A laugh every twenty minutes, maybe. And I confess, Ceepak reminds me of Arnold Schwarzenegger without the accent. So if you sell THAT one to the movies...

    I think writing funny is really tricky. Do you laugh at your own jokes? Does the dog laugh? Seriously, do you have someone who reads your work who's got a great eye for the nuance of humor??

  8. Hey Chris! And congratulations on your wild success. And your terrific auctioneering at Bouchercon.

    We had a fun panel on humor at Crime Bake. My husband was in the audience, and he said, afterward, that the reason he thought people liked books that were "funny" is that we all love to have friends with a good sense of humor.

    As he said, that's always on the lists of must-haves when people describe a friend or spouse material.

    So when your character has a good sense of humor, you like them, as you'd like a good friend. And then you feel connected with the book. And then you want to be around your new friend as often as you can.

    And then you go to the bookstore...

    Happy Thanksgiving, all! I'm off to try to find a place to keep the turkey for the night...

    And isn't anybody one bit curious about the big Jungle Red news in the works???

  9. I'm curious about why you need to find a place for the turkey. Are you getting it a room?

  10. Well, it's big.

    And the downstairs refrigerator is full. The other refrigerator is also full. So I either have to rearrange, or consider what would happpen if I put the turkey on the porch overnight. It's colder there than the refrigerator...I think.