Monday, February 28, 2011

Interview with Michael Orenduff

Mike Orenduff grew up in El Paso Texas, in a house so close to the Rio Grande that he could frisbee a tortilla into Mexico. Before he turned to writing humorous murder mysteries, Mike taught at universities in seven states and three countries. He was also a college administrator, serving as President of The University of Maine at Farmington, The American University in Bulgaria, New Mexico State University, and Bermuda College. He served as Chancellor of the University of Maine System and a visiting faculty member at West Point. His first murder mystery, The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras, won the New Mexico Book of the Year Award, and the Kindle version won the 2010 EPIC Award in the Mystery/Suspense Category. The second book in the series, The Pot Thief Who Studied Ptolemy, was chosen as Best Fiction Book by the Public Safety Writers Association and is a finalist for this year’s EPIC Award. The third in the series, The Pot Thief Who Studied Einstein, is a finalist for the Lefty Award for best humorous mystery of the year. Mike and his wife, the noted art historian Lai Orenduff, have two grown children. Jay is a dean at Columbia University in New York, and Claire teaches art history at Georgia College and – more importantly – is the mother of their grandson, Bram

KN: What’s your publishing story? How did the Pot Thief books come to be?

MO: I entered the Dark Oak Mystery Contest sponsored by Oak Tree Press and won. The prize was a contract to publish the book. This was perfect for me as I hate writing query letters. As I often say, a query letter is a good thing to read if you want to hire someone to write query letters. But author aren’t chosen to write queries; they are chosen to write stories. The publishing business would be a little less insane if agents and editors read a chapter instead of a query.

KN: Hubert Schuze is one of the most original characters I’ve read in a mystery. Can you tell us a little bit about him? How did you come up with him?

MO: I wanted to set the books in New Mexico because I love it, I know it, and it has a certain mystique about it that I thought would help attract readers. Then I wanted my protagonist to have some moral ambiguity. What better flaw for a character in New Mexico than to be a pot thief. It also allows me to work in the Native American angle so important to the locale.

KN: How is he similar to you, and how is he different?

MO: He is physically my opposite. He is short and has a full head of hair. I am tall and bald. One personality trait he shares with me is a tendency to overanalyze everything. His musings are a feature of the books and readers tell me they like that.

KN: Hubert has a distinctive voice and an exceptional and charming gift for rationalization. How hard was it to find his unique voice?

MO: It wasn’t difficult in the sense of requiring great skill or insight on my part. But it was time consuming. I simply started writing and kept at it. After I finished the first draft of the first book, The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras, I put it aside for a month or so. Then I read it and saw that Hubie was not a consistent and coherent character. So I marked all the passages that didn’t seem to fit. I changed them and let the book age for another few weeks. Then I repeated the process. If I found Hubie saying or thinking something that didn’t seem right for him, I either changed it or, if I couldn’t make it work, threw it out. After several iterations of this process, I found myself very comfortable saying, “Hubie would never say that.” And once I reached that point, I knew I was on the right track. But I’m still working on it. I think his voice has improved with each book.

KN: There have been three Pot Thief novels so far. Do you have a specific number planned for the series?

MO: No. The 4th one, The Pot Thief Who Studied Escoffier, will be out next month. I have a first draft of the 5th one and am working on the sixth. I’ll keep going as until I get tired of it or run out of ideas and/or readers.

KN: Do you have any plans to give Hubert a romantic entanglement? Any chance of love blooming between Hubert and his friend Susannah?

MO: Hubert will lurch in his unsystematic way from one romance to another. The relationship between Hubert and Susannah is deliberately ambiguous, and I have to keep it that way for the books to work.

KN: How are your novels born? Do you begin a novel with a full-blown plot or the seed of an idea?

MO: The seed of an idea. Then a very short and rough outline, more a list of key plot points. I don’t have the patience to do a complete plot before starting to write.

KN: You seem to know a lot about ancient Native American pottery. Do you have a background in archaeology?

MO: I majored in anthropology/archaeology for a while before switching to philosophy.

KN: Do you research your books before you begin writing? If so, how extensively? If not, how do you work around any gaps in your knowledge (if any)?

MO: I do extensive research and still get things wrong.

KN: Pantser or plotter?

MO: Pantser. I have been known to decide halfway into a book to make someone a victim when the original plan was to make him the murderer.

KN: What is your writing schedule/writing process like?

MO: I need large blocks of time because once I start, I don’t like to stop. I do almost no editing while I write because I’m immersed in the story. So a writing session is strictly writing, and an editing session is strictly editing and re-writing. I typically edit and re-write a book somewhere between twelve and twenty times. I have no idea if that is typical.

KN: Your writing is very crisp and tight. How much editing do you do to get it that way? Do you have a special editing process or system?

MO: My first drafts are about 100,000 words. They eventually get edited down to 60,000 or so. I think that help keep them tight.

KN: What are your goals and hopes as a writer?

MO: I didn’t become a writer to make money. Good thing, right? I’m retired on an adequate income. I didn’t become a writer just to have something to do. There are other hobbies I enjoy. I became a writer because I wanted an audience. I like the idea that people read what I write. Perhaps after all those years as a professor, I still have the need to have an audience.

KN: What’s been the most surprising thing about being a professional writer?

MO: Discovering how bizarre the world of publishing is. I had no idea how publishing worked, how bookstores worked, etc. It feels like I ran away and joined the circus.

KN: Your Pot Thief books have received critical acclaim and have even won several awards. Does the recognition affect your writing (e.g., inspire you, give you more confidence to try new things, make you less likely to stray too far afield from what’s been successful for you)?

MO: I’ve never been asked this before, so I had to think about it. I’m pleased by the recognition because it means I do have that audience and it may get larger, but I don’t think it has affected my writing in any way.

KN: Humor plays a large role in your books. In fact, in last week’s discussion, you said something to the effect that the mysteries in your book are the platform for the humor. Has humor always come naturally to you?

MO: It has. I don’t have many other talents. I can’t play a musical instrument, juggle, or tap dance, but I can make people laugh.

KN: How about marketing? What do you do to promote your books?

MO: I know this sounds unimaginative in the Internet age, but I rely primarily on book signings at brick and mortar bookstores, and on reviews in newspapers and magazines.

KN: What can we look forward to from you next?

MO: I am writing a serious novel. Whether it will be completed and whether it will be worth completing remain to be seen. It is much harder work for me than writing humor, but I decided it would be an interesting challenge.

KN: Last question: What’s our discussion question for the week?

MO: Would it be a good thing if celebrities stopped “writing” books? After all, authors don’t run for the Senate, star in movies, or throw touchdown passes, so why should politicians, movie stars, and quarterbacks pretend to be writers?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Interview with Author Bill Fitzhugh

Bill Fitzhugh (third from the left) calls himself the much-derided author of the cozy-thrillers “Kitty, Kitty, Kitty,” “Death by Kittens,” and “Hey, Kitty, How Much for the Throbbing Love Muscle?” (which was short-listed for the Booker Prize, losing to Salman Rushdie in what was clearly a rigged contest). Confounding critics and readers alike, his series explores the dark underbelly of the world of testicle transplants, the international kitty porn industry, and pie-eating contests. Series protagonist, Angus McNaughty, is a loner; an alley cat, who travels only with a toothbrush and furball medicine. Fitzhugh lives in Los Angeles with very little hope of a decent future.

KN: Your writing career began in radio when you were in high school, and from there you progressed to writing for film and television. How does your background in radio and television influence your books?

BF: To the extent that any type of writing you do helps you become a better writer, writing for tv and radio had some unmeasurable influence.

KN: PEST CONTROL began as a screenplay. How did you get the idea for a story about a down-and-out exterminator who is mistaken for an assassin?

BF: It evolved from an idea about a guy desperate for money to pay his rent (they say write what you know and at the time I was broke). The original idea was this normal guy was going to seek out work as an assassin because he needed more than he figured he'd get robbing convenience stores. When I went to the library (this was a few years before most of us had heard of the Internet) I looked up assassin in the encyclopedia. That's where I learned about assassin bugs. Lightbulb went off and the story evolved to one about an exterminator working with assassin bugs who people come to mistakenly think he's an assassin who calls himself The Exterminator.

KN: Bob Dillon, the protagonist of PEST CONTROL has extensive knowledge of insects, and the book includes a lot of obscure scientific details about them. Did you have to learn all that for the book, or is entomology a hobby—or were you perhaps an entomologist in a past life?

BF: That was all research. By happenstance, while I was researching the bugs, I landed a gig writing a natural history program on insects so I got a lot of interesting BBC insect research given to me.

KN: Do you do extensive research for all your books?

BF: Yes, mostly. And far more than I really need to but I get very involved in the subjects and I think that ends up informing the character in positive ways. I did very little research for Radio Activity and Highway 61 Resurfaced, unless you count the years I worked in radio.

KN: Your books are smart, funny reads. Does humor come naturally to you, or do you have to work at it?

BF: Humor comes naturally to me but I have to work at getting it written correctly. There are so many ways to add humor to writing: funny characters, funny situations, puns and other word play, funny dialogue, etc. But it doesn't just land on the page, at least not for me. It takes a lot of work to make a funny paragraph that also advances character and or plot.

KN: Do you have any advice for writers who might like to incorporate more humor into their work?

BF: Think twice. Consider going to law school (this was the advice P.J. O'Rourke gave me years ago and I'm still kicking myself for not listening). Because while you can always write a book on the side while practicing law or you can quit and write a book; it's much harder to return to law school in your 50s and make a go of it after the writing career goes south.

KN: For your book, CROSS DRESSING, you employed a promotional strategy called product placement. Can you tell us a little bit about how and why you did it? How did you decide what products to place, and how did you draw attention to it?

BF: Since the book is a satire on religion and the advertising industry, I thought it would be funny and satirical and would help with marketing the book to make a product placement deal. Since I thought of this only after writing the book, I decided to use one of the products already in the book so I could claim commercial purity. The protagonist drinks scotch, so I went with Glenlivet.

KN: Some people missed the irony of your product placement strategy in a book that satirizes the business of advertising. Was there a lot of opposition to the idea? If so, how did you deal with it?

BF: I wouldn't say some people missed the irony; I'd say EVERYBODY missed it. There were a few literary purists who poo-poohed the idea but that was petty and pointless given that I'm not exactly writing literary fiction. The only way I 'dealt with it' was when The Guardian (UK newspaper) asked me to write an article explaining how everybody missed the joke. That didn't seem to help or hurt matters...

KN: Do your tailor your marketing strategy to each of your books?

BF: I always left that up to my publisher. And short of a million dollar ad campaign, marketing in the traditional sense is a spectacular waste of time, especially in the age of the Internet. We used to live in what you could call a "push media" environment. When there was very little media in the world (few tv networks that the majority watched, few radio stations that everyone listened to, a few magazines etc.) it was possible for publishers or movie studios or record companies to "PUSH" products into the public consciousness. We now live in what I'd call a "pull media" environment. Consumers have SO MANY choices of tv, radio, print publications, and MILLIONS of websites, that they can now "PULL" what they want from this vast pool and ignore what NBC or Warner Brothers Records wants them to watch or listen to or buy.

Leaving aside branded, best-selling authors whose books sell for no reason other than it has a FAMOUS NAME AUTHOR on the cover; the only way to sell a lot of books is by having word of mouth spread the name of your book virally. And there is no way to MAKE that happen or else we'd all be on the best seller list. Websites and Facebook and Twitter are an enormous waste of time and will not make you a best seller. You're probably well advised to have a website and a Facebook page, etc., simply so people can get information on you if by chance they hear about you. But the most effective way to market yourself is to write a book so good that complete strangers tell others that they have to buy your book.

KN: Hold on a minute. I want to write that last bit down...Okay, moving on. FENDER BENDERS is a humorous mystery with a Nashville setting. Are there any sites you visited when researching it that readers should be sure to check out?

BF: Well, Nashville's a nice enough place to visit. Lots of good places to hear great music. You definitely want to visit the Bluebird Cafe, especially if my friend J. Fred Knobloch is playing.

KN: Can you tell us a little bit about ORGAN GRINDERS? I admit to having a special interest in this book because it’s about a really interesting subject and also because it has monkeys in it.

BF: Baboons! Not monkeys.

KN: Of course. Sorry about that. But primates of any kind always make a book more interesting.

BF: It's a weird little book that got started when I saw the word 'xenograft' in a newspaper article about an AIDS patient who petitioned the CDC and the AMA and the DHHS to be allowed to have a baboon bone marrow transplant to see if it would strengthen his immune system. He was eventually allowed to do it and none of the things people feared would happen, happened. On the other hand, it didn't help the guy. But that got me started on research into the fascinating area of biotechnology called xenografting, which is any cross-species organ transplant (think Baby Fae and the baboon heart). Because there is much more demand for human organs than there is supply, biotech companies see there is a vast fortune to be made if they can find a way to transplant animal organs into people. Most of the research at the time I wrote the book was on pig organs, not primate. It's all very Frankenstein-y and driven by money and that struck me as plenty to base a book on.

KN: How did you come to write THE ADVENTURES OF SLIM AND HOWDY, which is based on a character by Kix Brooks of Brooks & Dunn. Did you collaborate with Brooks & Dunn? If so, what was it like to work with them?

BF: Weird series of circumstances led to that. I had just moved to a new literary agency and this agent had just been contacted by the Brooks and Dunn people about one of their writers. They wanted to have someone write a novel based on the characters Kix Brooks created in the liner notes of their CDs. The writer they were asking about was a sci-fi writer or something so my agent said that wouldn't work. BUT she said, she'd just signed a guy (me) who had written a comic novel set in Nashville (Fender Benders) and they should read the book. They did. They loved it. We met once and then talked on the phone and exchanged emails. They were great to work with; gave me some funny stories and then let me do my thing. They loved how it turned out too. Someone at Sony optioned the film rights but it fell apart the way things usually do in Hollywood.

KN: From your website, it sounds like a number of your books are collaborations, to some extent. Do you prefer to write alone or with a partner? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?

BF: The Brooks and Dunn project was the closest I've come to collaborating on a book. A couple of my books however are based on screenplays that I co-wrote with a partner before I turned them into novels on my own. (Our screenplays weren't very good since the collaboration resulted in a compromised voice, at least in our instance and I think that claim is borne out by virtue of the fact that we couldn't sell the screenplays but I sold the film rights to two of the novels I wrote based on the screenplays. Unless you happen to find a partnership where the two parties both do 50% of the work and the work pays off specatularly, it's all disadvantages. Arguing about every line and paragraph and page and chapter will wear you out. Splitting the money hurts, especially if one writer does most of the work. It's a can of worms best left unopened if you ask me.

KN: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention your new radio show, Fitzhugh’s All Hand Mixed Vinyl. Can you explain a bit about that to us?

BF: It's a half-hour show of stuff from the 'classic rock' library, sometimes well know tracks, sometimes artists or songs you've never heard. Generally speaking I do two types of shows: In one, I'll take 6 or 7 songs that just sound good played in the order I play them. Great songs that FM rock radio stopped playing decades ago but that are too good not to play! The other type of show revolves around doing cool segues and mashups of artists. I might take a long Yes track and find places where I can segue over to a Gino Vannelli track and go back and forth between the two several times over 15-20 minutes. Sometimes I'll take two tracks and play them simultaneously (if it works): I've got a great one where I play part of Santana's Soul Sacrifice over a violin solo from McKendree Spring for a couple of minutes. It's breathtaking if I do say so myself. I've got a list of all the sets on my web site.

KN: Do you devote more of your time to one medium (radio, novels, TV) or do you try to keep a balance between them?

BF: In terms of writing? Depends. When I'm under contract for a book; I'm all about the book. For a while I was both writing books and writing / producing the radio show. Then I started a tv project and so I did that and the radio show.

KN: What’s your writing schedule like?

BF: When I'm working on a book, I start in the morning, work to early afternoon on actual writing. Later, over a scotch, I'll consider the bigger picture of the story but won't do any actual writing, just plotting and thinking of character stuff.

KN: What’s next on your agenda?

BF: This blasted TV project that I've been working on for over two years (on spec!). It's a pilot for an hour long cable drama, a la Dexter. Based on (but totally different from) The Organ Grinders. I figure if it doesn't work out, I'll actually turn the (expanded) script back into a novel (though with a different title since it will have nothing to do with the original)...

KN: Thanks for joining us, Bill. Before we wrap it up, what’s our discussion topic for the week?

BF: You're asking the wrong guy!

KN: In that case, the House gets to decide. In honor of Bill's gift for writing humor, here's our question for the week: What role does humor play in the mysteries you enjoy reading and/or writing?