Improvisational comedy. Ad writer. Successful author of mysteries and young adult ghost stories. Chris Grabenstein is the creative artist who combines all of these skills. Thursday night, he spoke at The Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale.
It felt as if it was a gathering of friends. Chris' appearance was so casual that Lorri Amsden, the moderator for the evening, actually joined the group after Chris had already started a conversation. Grabenstein, who won the Anthony Award for Best First Mystery for Tilt-A-Whirl, was there to promote the latest in his Ceepak/Boyle series, Hell Hole, and his young adult book, The Crossroads.
Chris said that Danny Boyle is John Ceepak's Watson. Ceepak, who lives by the West Point Honor Code, "will not lie, cheat or steal or tolerate those who do." He needed someone to soften him, and make him likable. That's Danny. In the first book, Tilt-A Whirl, Danny was a part-time summer cop in Sea Haven, New Jersey, a resort town. Ceepak, a veteran of the Iraq war, had such a terrible experience there that he won't even drive so he needed a driver. That's how Danny was partnered with him. Someone told Grabenstein that "Danny's learning how to be a man, and Ceepak's learning to be a friend." Danny's parents live in Arizona in a gated community.
Now, Grabenstein has a technical advisor, the Chief of Police of Long Beach Island, who drives him around and talks about the job in a resort community. His nightmare? What if he was called to a house with a number of troopers who were partying, and were armed?
Grabenstein borrowed that idea for Hell Hole. There are a bunch of soldiers back from Iraq who are partying in a rented house, and there's a noise complaint. Danny responds. While he's there, they receive a phone call that another soldier supposedly committed suicide at a rest stop on the Jersey Turnpike. Chris calls it the first "locked toilet stall mystery." The book brings up a lot in Ceepak's past. Ceepak's characteristics are based on someone Grabenstein knew whose father was a raging alcoholic, and he grew up to be a fireman.
Grabenstein read a very funny scene from Hell Hole, an early scene in the book that shows how honest Ceepak is, because it's always better to show a character than to tell about one. Chris said he sometimes writes himself into a corner since Ceepak won't lie. That's sometimes hard to write.
In answer to a question, Chris talked about his creative career. He said he wrote in junior high and high school. He liked MAD magazine. He moved to New York where he did improvisational comedy in a group called First Amendment, that performed at the Greenwich Village Theater. He performed with that group, for five years. Bruce Willis was a part of it as well. He learned the structure behind improv.
He went on to talk about James Patterson, who orchestrates books, and runs them like an ad agency. He's the creative director who gives out ideas to his co-authors. Then he reads what they write, gives them notes, and then he does the final draft. He said when he was ready to move on from improv, Patterson ran an ad for the ad agency he worked for. It said, "Write if you want work," and he gave applicants an aptitude test. They tested skills for writing advertising to see if they could come up with ideas quickly. Grabenstein was the first person hired because his improv skills helped him write when they were given scenarios such as, write a dialogue in a dark alley.
He said every ad writer was also working on a book. Patterson was known to come in at 6:30 in the morning, and work on a book for a few hours before meeting with the staff. Tilt-A-Whirl was Chris' first book, but his fourth manuscript.
Since there were no kids in the audience, Grabenstein didn't talk much about The Crossroads, his ghost story. He said he can probably write kids' books because he
can remember what it was like to be a kid because he doesn't have any. Friends say they couldn't write them because they'd want to write from the parent's point of view. Zak gets beat up in the same way that Chris did. Chris took revenge on the kid who regularly beat him up by writing a scene in the book. He said his humor helped him when he got picked on. It's why he developed his sense of humor. MAD Magazine saved his life.
When I said that the stepmother in The Crossroads was wonderful, Chris was pleased because she is based on his wife, J.J. She's an actress who read The Crossroads for Audible.com. The next book in that series is The Hanging Hill. It will take Zak and his stepmother to a haunted theater. My nephew and I both enjoyed The Crossroads.
When asked about his writing day, Chris said he's a Virgo, who has a routine. He takes Fred, his dog, for a walk or run. He takes notecards with him. He has notecards and Sharpies all around the house so he doesn't lose ideas. Grabenstein tries to write 2,000 new words a day. The next day, he tightens up the previous day's work a little, and writes the next 2,000. He normally writes 90,000 words for a Ceepak novel, then cuts it to 75,000. Chris doesn't outline. He tries to find true life crimes similar to his book's in order to study the psychological angle because he wants to get it right. Usually, he knows who did the murder. But, characters take on a life of their own. And, he always likes an extra twist at the end. Grabenstein normally writes five days a week, and takes weekends off. Throughout the process, he keeps tightening it up. His wife is his first reader and editor, then he has six readers or so, then it goes to his agent and then his editor.
I mentioned how terrific the book trailer on his website is, and he said he filmed it himself with a handheld video camera. He also did the one for The Crossroads. The Hell Hole trailer is fantastic, and the music and cadence are perfect.
Mad Mouse, the second book in the Ceepak series, is not easily available because Grabenstein's first publisher, Carroll & Graf, went out of business. There were taken over by Perseus, who only publishes nonfiction. He's now published by St. Martin's Minotaur for the Ceepak series.
He was asked why he chose amusement park rides for the titles. He said he analyzed James Patterson. Patterson wrote two books, and then his books took off when he wrote the Alex Cross series, a series with continuing characters, and branded them with nursery rhyme titles. Chris made a list of amusement park rides. People ride them, and they "survived that, and it wasn't so bad." And, he liked a Bruce Springsteen song about "Tilt-A-Whirl". A tourist town would be a nice setting, and he was trying to avoid the Jessica Fletcher syndrome - everyone in a small town is killed off. His agent gave him the title for the fourth book, Hell Hole. The Hell Hole is a ride that spins around, and the floor drops out. Then Chris heard that someone knows New Jersey when they know about the Hell Hole in Wildwood, New Jersey. People are frozen against the wall, and they can only see straight ahead. He said in this book, everything Ceepak believes in drops out, and he and Danny can only see what the killer wants them to see. The next book is Mind Scrambler, set in Atlantic City, and he messes with Danny's mind.
Spend a couple hours with Chris Grabenstein at a bookstore, if you get the chance. It will feel like an evening with a friend. It's just that the friend is a creative writer, with a terrific imagination.
Chris Grabenstein's website is www.chrisgrabenstein.com
Hell Hole by Chris Grabenstein. St. Martin's Minotaur, ©2008. ISBN 978-0312382308 (hardcover), 304p.
The Crossroads by Chris Grabenstein. Random House Books for Young Readers, ©2008. ISBN 978-0375846977 (hardcover), 336p.
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