|Welcome to our New Faces column, where we're delighted to bring fresh voices in the mystery genre to our readers. This time we're visiting with Chris Grabenstein, whose debut mystery, Tilt-a-Whirl, is available from Carroll and Graf. Tilt-a-Whirl introduces John Ceepak, a former military MP who is now a cop in a seaside resort town.
Chris, welcome to TMR! Tell us about yourself.
I was born in Buffalo, New York and moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee when my Dad was transferred there. I was ten at the time and thought it prudent to move with my family: Mom, Dad and four brothers. Yes, I am constantly amazed by this fact: my mother had five boys in seven years. I think they were hoping for a girl. Maybe a basketball team.
Even though my JOHN CEEPAK mystery series is set in New Jersey, I grew up in Tennessee. Graduated with a journalism/communications degree from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Wrote for the school paper. Spent every free second acting in plays at the Clarence Brown Theatre. I did a stage production with Orson Bean, got my Actors Equity Union Card and set out for New York City in 1979...to become....
A typist. For five years, I worked by day at a bank and performed improvisational comedy at night and on the weekends. Bruce Willis was in the same Greenwich Village troupe with me back then -- before he became BRUCE WILLIS. So was Kathy Kinney (she played Mimi on The Drew Carey show). In 1984, after many wonderful reviews in the New York Times and seeing my improv comedy salary skyrocket to ten dollars a show, I took a writing aptitude test to see if I could become a copywriter at J. Walter Thompson Adversting.
James Patterson was the creative director at JWT at the time. He wrote the test questions. 2,000 people took his test. I was the first one hired. Back then, Jim would get to work early. I remember hearing him behind closed doors typing in his office at 6 in the morning. Apparently, he was writing books. Apparently, they were quite good.
I spent the next 17 years writing commercials. For Burger King, Miller Lite, Prudential, Trojan Condoms (yes I created Trojan Man for the radio), KFC, Dr Pepper -- and just about every other brand in the super market.
In 2001, I decided to try to once again follow in Jim Patterson's footsteps. I started writing books.
Are you coming to mystery writing from another job?
I do come to mystery writing from advertising. Several other authors have also made this leap. James Patterson. Stuart Owen. James Seigal. Many others. As my publisher once said, you advertising guys don't waste a reader's time. We're so used to writing 30 second TV spots, we focus and trim our words and try to build excitement and interest -- fast!
What led you to write mysteries?
In my advertising days, I commuted from my home in New Jersey. I also flew back and forth to L.A. about six times a year to shoot commercials. A good mystery or thriller was always my best friend on those trips. I loved books where I could read half on the flight out to L.A., the other half on the way back. A mystery, I find, is the most involving reading imaginable. You are invited into the world and teased to work out a puzzle before the protagonist. The first interactive medium!
Tell us about your road to publication.
My road to publication was three years, six screenplays, and four manuscripts long. I started writing screenplays, studying their structure. Although my scripts won a few competitions, I soon realized that New York City was on the wrong side of the country for me to become a Hollywood screenwriter. Thanks to Stephen King's words of encouragement in his book ON WRITING, I decided to turn my seventh screenplay idea into a novel. An agent familiar with my screenplays loved it. Signed me up. Shopped the manuscript around town. We came THIS CLOSE to selling THE PRAYER CIRCLE about six different times. We still might. It's a spooky page turner. Kept several of my friends up late over the holidays.
Taking the advice I read everywhere, I kept writing. I think I wrote everybody else's first book second. THE ADMAN was a mystery set in my old world of Advertising. Looking back, I realize it is about three books tangled up together. Sometime in 2006, I'm going to go back and rework it -- separate all those good stories. Next, I wrote another Horror thriller, THE CROSSROADS. I also picked up a new agent. A great one, by the way! All the rejection letters for all three manuscripts mentioned how much folks liked my writing. I seemed, however, to be writing in the wrong genre for a first-time author.
I had a character idea for a "detective/cop" rattling around in my brain so I gave it a shot. When I found the narrator's voice, I knew I was on to something. John Ceepak, Danny Boyle, and Tilt-a-Whirl were born -- in the fastest manuscript I ever wrote!
What is your debut book about?
There isn't much fun in the sun when a billionaire is found murdered on the Tilt-A-Whirl at a seedy seaside amusement park in the otherwise quiet Jersey Shore town of Sea Haven.
John Ceepak, a former MP just back from Iraq, heads up the murder investigation and is partnered with a 24-year-old, part-time summer cop who doesn't carry a gun and only works with the police by day so he has enough pocket money to drink beer with his beach buddies by night.
In the first novel in a new mystery series written in the spirit of Carl Hiaasen and John D. MacDonald's work, the Tilt-A-Whirl murder pushes Ceepak's deep sense of honor to the limits as the truth keeps spinning wildly in every direction.
James Patterson says, "Chris Grabenstein's TILT-A-WHIRL is a fast-paced thrill ride with lots of twists and turns and good writing from start to finish!"
What kind of research was involved for your first book?
The best kind: trips down to the Jersey Shore! I also spent a lot of time with Google -- searching for details about police procedures. My bookshelves are lined with forensics books loaded with gruesome pictures!
Who are your influences as a writer?
I love Lee Child, Tess Gerritsen, John D. MacDonald, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, James Patterson, Raymond Chandler, Laura Lippman.
What does your family think of having a mystery author in their midst?
They love it! My mom bought 40 copies of Tilt A Whirl. My brothers and sisters-in-law hosted book signings in their towns. We had a wild and wonderful ride on TILT A WHIRL!
My wife warns all our friends and family to be careful what they say around me: "it'll end up in a book!"
Tell us about plans for future books.
MAD MOUSE, the second book in my John Ceepak series, will be published in May-June of 2006. You can actually pre-order it now at Amazon and elsewhere. I just signed a contract to do at least two more Ceepak books in 2007 and 2008. In fact, I just finished the first draft of the third book: WHACK A MOLE.
We haven't signed the contracts yet, but Carroll and Graf also plans to publish my page-burner thriller SLAY RIDE in December, 2006. It might be the start of a second series following the adventures of FBI Special Agent Christopher Miller. The teaser for SLAY RIDE? Never mess with a driver. He knows where you live.
How can readers get in touch with you?
I love hearing from readers! They can send me an e-mail at author@ChrisGrabenstein.com. They can also check the Events listing on my web site to see where I'll be doing readings and signings and what conventions I'll be attending in 2006.
Chris, thanks for joining us, and best of luck with your future books! Readers, we have a review of Tilt-a-Whirl in our Police/Detective mysteries section.