Thursday, May 16, 2013


HALLIE EPHRON: Thomas Kaufman has done the kind of work
the rest of us dream about -- he's a prize-winning cinematographer, shooting movies for the likes of National Geographic, the BBC, and PBS and working on gritty independent documentaries.  On top of that he's written two terrific mystery novels -- STEAL THE SHOW and DRINK THE TEA -- and his collection of short stories ERASED has just come out.

Welcome to Jungle Red!

HALLIE: Willis Gidney, the DC private eye in your series, is a born liar and an expert at the scam. In your short stories are you writing in a similarly darkly funny, gritty vein?
THOMAS KAUFMAN:   Yes.  I can't help it.  I've been to the best doctors, too.  Two of the stories in ERASED feature Willis, so the dark humor is there.  The rest of the stories range from funny to dead serious.

HALLIE: As a cinematographer, you've been the proverbial fly on the wall. Have those experiences fed your fiction?

TOM: Absolutely, it's been wonderful to film documentaries and interview so many diverse people.  I've learned a lot, especially from the cop shows I directed and shot. It all informs my writing.

HALLIE: Why short stories? Is there something about the form that appeals to you?

TOM: I'm a fan of short stories, from Guy de Maupassant to Somerset Maugham to Lawrence Block.  So I love the form.  Plus, some ideas lend themselves to the short story approach, I suppose. It's a way of trying something out, to see if it works. And if it does, maybe I can use it in a novel.  In a way, it's like using some new camera technology when shooting a commercial.  We're living through a Digital Revolution, and this is especially true in the field of media production.  So I'll get word of a new piece of gear, and the thirty second spot is a great way to try it out. If I like the new gear, whatever it is, I might use it on a longer form project. In a way, the short story is like that – I have something, a germ of an idea, and the short form is a way to try it out and see if I like it. If I do, that same idea may find its way into something longer.

HALLIE: Do you think you have a particularly cinematic style of writing? And just wondering if there's an up- and a down-side to that.

TOM: It's mostly an upside: readers have told me they can "see" the scenes unfolding as they read them. After so many years behind the viewfinder of a camera, I tend to visualize the scenes when writing them.  I'm also interested in body language and gesture, and try to include that information, if I can do it in a way the feels natural. If you look at the paintings of the Impressionists, you can see how important body language was to their method of telling a visual story.  As to the downside? When I finish a writing scene I yell "Cut!" That really annoys the folks at Starbuck's.

HALLIE: Tell us about one of the stories in the collection, and what the idea grew out of?

TOM:  I was researching precious violins and came across a Nazi program called Sonderstab Musik  a program designed to target and acquire valuable musical instruments from Jews before they were taken to the death camps.  In Washington, DC there the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, where I had filmed with Walter Cronkite and Elli Wiesel.  I had also filmed interviews with survivors of the camps.  So those experiences melded together, and from them I wrote the story FORSAKEN, which is the longest piece in the collection.

HALLIE: Gotta say, I love your titles. Where did ERASED come from?

TOM: During the summer when I was seventeen, I worked as a sandblaster. Just one of the many bizarre jobs I've held.  Now, sandblasting is hard work.  The nozzle is heavy, and you sweat under the protective gear.  Usually you're on a scaffold on the outside of a brick building, so there's a risk of falling.  And if you're not careful, you can bore a hole right through the side of a building.  You have to concentrate.  So there I was, up high, with my hood and my gloves and my air supply, and I come across a stone ornament, part of the façade. Now I have to be even more careful here, or I might erase the entire ornament.  So I suppose that was the germ of the story.

I didn't give it another thought until thirty years later.  It was on that same shoot with Walter Cronkite, we interviewed a survivor who told us about a day when the Nazis came and took all the adults of her village to the country to work in the fields. When the adults came back that night, they discovered the Nazis had abducted every child in the town.  These children were never seen again.  So that story somehow mixed with my experience as a sandblaster, and the result is ERASED

I wish I could explain it better. All I can say is that writers are like magpies we're always on the lookout for whatever interests us, and we file these things away until we need them. 

HALLIE: Tom will be giving away a copy of ERASED to one lucky commenter!

DEBS chiming in here: I love the way Tom talks about the ideas for his stories coming together from such diverse places. It's that way for me, too. And I can't wait to read ERASED.

Here's the Kindle link!


  1. Your titles make me sweat. I'm on edge just thinking about what is inside the book.

  2. Thanks, Reine. I hope you get a chance to read it. Maybe I could send you a paper fan?

  3. Marianne in MaineMay 16, 2013 at 8:54 AM

    Another author to add to my TBR list. Thank you, JRW.

    Tom, thanks for your perspective. I can't wait to read these books. I don't usually seek out short stories but this collection sounds wonderful.

  4. Hi Marianne,

    I'm glad you're interested. They were fun stories to write. Let me know what you think, once you've had a chance to read it.

  5. I've starting reading short stories again in the past year, and am looking for recent collections. Yours will be added to my list! I liked your sense of humor in this blog post. If that's an indication of what I can find in some of your stories, I think I'm in for a treat!

    (Thanks to everyone for the get well wishes yesterday. I am much better today and am taking a planned vacation day for spring cleaning and organizing. I'd better get started!)

  6. Hi Tom,
    You know, I never think of myself as a short-story enthusiast, but you made me remember how much I used to love Somerset Maugham's short stories, so I will have to give it another try.

    And how could anyone NOT want to read a book inspired by sandblasting?

  7. Hi Tom--You had me at Sonderstab Musik. Even the idea is haunting.

    And I love that you're so visual (for obvious reasons!) and have given us such a feast of images. The sandblasting photo is wonderful!

    I've already downloaded Erased. Now, if I could just find my tablet...

  8. Jan, thanks for the kind words.

    I worked as a sand blaster when I was 17. Anytime I think writing is hard work, all I have to do is remember what it was like to be fifty or a hundred feet in the air, swaying on a scaffold, sweating inside my hood and safety clothes, holding a heavy nozzle and trying not to bore a whole through the side of a building!

  9. Deb,

    So glad you're interested. The Sonderstab Musik program of the Nazis was something I ran across doing research for a novel, but somehow it took on a life of its own, and became FORSAKEN.

    By the way, the photo of me and the Statue of Liberty involved no sandblasting -- that's a motion picture camera in my hands! Still had the shakey scaffold though.

  10. Dark humor. Impossible to resist. How can one survive without it? Can't wait to dive into the stories in Erased.

  11. That's right, Liz, and it's something people have told me they enjoy about Willis Gidney, my private eye from "Drink the Tea." He (and I) use humor as a coping mechanism. Also, I've spent enough time around cops to see how humor is a survival tool as well.

  12. Tom, I'm intrigued by the title of DRINK THE TEA. Can you tell us what it's about?

  13. Ah yes, "Drink the Tea." This is my first book, it won the PWA/St Martin's Press Competition for Best First Novel, and unleashed my PI Willis Gidney on an unsuspecting world. Readers told me they really liked was the lead character. And I like Gidney too, though the guy does have some issues.

    I shot an Academy Award-nominated documentary about the homeless, (PROMISES TO KEEP) and I've spent a lot of time around them. I wanted a PI who grew up that way, because he'd see the world differently than the rest of us.

    So who the hell is he?

    "Willis Gidney is a born liar and rip-off artist, an expert at the scam. Growing up without parents or a home, by age twelve he is a successful young man, running his own small empire, until he meets Shadrack Davies. That’s Captain Shadrack Davies, of the D.C. Police. Davies wants to reform Gidney and becomes his foster father. Though he tries not to, Gidney learns a small amount of ethics from Shad---just enough to bother a kid from the streets for the rest of his life.

    Now Gidney is a PI, walking those same streets. So it's no surprise that when his closest friend, jazz saxophonist Steps Jackson, asks Gidney to find his missing daughter, Gidney is compelled to say yes---even though she's been missing for twenty-five years. He finds a woman who may be the girl’s mother--and within hours she turns up dead. The police accuse Gidney of the murder and throw him in jail.

    Maybe Gidney should quit while he’s behind. But when his investigation puts him up against a ruthless multinational corporation, a two-faced congressman, and a young woman desperate to conceal her past, Gidney has no time left for second thoughts. In fact, he may have no time left at all."

    thanks for your interest!

  14. I'm finally back from California and happy to dive into the Jungle Red pool again!

    I'm a huge short story fan - several years ago I was on the Edgars short story committee and I really got to see the breadth and depth of short mystery fiction.

    I'm deeply impressed by writers like Tom who can create in that format. It's really, really hard to fit character, plot, setting, story arc and a satisfying resolution into something with less than, say, 10,000 words. The times I've tried, I've hit 17,000 and realized I was in fact writing the first chapters of a novel, not a short story.

    My hat is off to you, Tom!

  15. Julia, thanks so much. It's a shame the market for short stories has dropped over the years. I wonder if the birth of epublishing will mean the rebirth of the short story market?

  16. I'm hoping that the digital platform will be a boon for short stories--even though, like Julia, they aren't my forte. While people may not be willing to pay for an anthology of short stories, especially when some of the authors may be unfamiliar. But a dollar or two or three to download a story on their phone or tablet--sure!

  17. I'm late to the party today . Lots of work.

    Welcome, Tom! I love your sense of humor, and the premise behind DRINK THE TEA sounds great. Now, to go find ERASED. As with Red Debs and Red Julia, short fiction's difficult for me, but I love to read really well-written stories. Best of luck!

  18. Running in, running in, me, too, LInda, late! At Pennwriters in Pittsburgh, soaking up the wisdom of Donald Maass.

    Anyway--the fabulous Tom! SO lovely to see ou here..and yes, the video thing is so important..I absolutely visualize, too.

    Is it funny for you to make things up, though?

    see you soon.xoxo

  19. Linda, thanks for your interest in ERASED. It surprises me that so many people have trouble reading the short story form. I wonder, is it because there are so fewer outlets for the short story than before?

    Anyway, I hope ERASED is to your liking!

  20. Hi Hank! Glad you could make it, we sill some coffee and cookies left. And no, it doesn't trouble me to make things up, not after shooting "reality" TV. ;-)