How does your history in advertising and as an improvisational comedian inform your writing? Why did you choose the mystery genre?
Well, I guess the most important part about my history in advertising is the fact that James Patterson was my first Creative Director at the J. Walter Thompson Advertising Agency in New York City. When I was growing tired of writing nothing but commercials, I remember thinking: "Hmmm, Jim Patterson had a pretty good second career after advertising..."
James Patterson also taught all the junior copywriters like me working for him to "earn the viewer/reader's attention." To, as he put it in a training session after some knucklehead ran through the conference room door and creamed him the face with a pie, "Throw a pie in their face and, once you have their attention, say something smart." You may notice that most of my books start with a cream pie, figuratively speaking.
Before I joined the Mad Men on Madison Avenue, I spent five years doing improvisational comedy in New York City. A guy named Bruce Willis was in our troupe. Robin Williams used to drop by to perform with us whenever he was in the city shooting a movie. In improv, there is only one rule: "Yes...and." To take what you are given and add to it. I use this technique every day when I sit down to write. I know who my characters are, what they want, and where they are. And then I say "Yes, and..." to see what happens.
You write both adult and young adult/middle grade books. Although writing for young people isn't new to you (as a writer for Jim Henson's Little Muppet Monsters on CBS) how do you adjust your style for the various audiences? Did any particular YA books inspire you?
These days, about 80 per cent of my energy goes to writing for the younger readers in my middle grades audience. I still try to do one Ceepak mystery every year for the die hard fans (including my mom) who love Ceepak. (Book #8 in the Anthony Award winning series FREE FALL comes out this May).
When I write for the 8-12 year old crowd, I put myself in a zone where I remember what it was like to be in the 5th and 6th grade (a good dose of Bubble Gum music, with an emphasis on The Monkees, helps take me back). Those years are all about discovering who you really are ("I knew I was a wizard, not just a neglected nephew living under the steps!") and what your talents are.
I visit about thirty schools a year and that helps me keep in touch with what's going on. Interestingly, most of it is almost the same as it was back when I was a middle grader. I try not to put too much slang or contemporary references into my stories because Justin Bieber has already been dethroned by One Direction among 5th grade girls. And you don't want to sound like Uncle Morty down in the rumpus room where the kids are having a party and Uncle Morty is trying to show how cool he is by saying, "What's the dealio, my homies?"
I keep a keen eye on the language in my middle grades books. First, no four letter words (except, of course, "four" and "word.") If I use a word that some kids may not know, I try to follow it up with a secondary sentence that more or less explains what the new vocabulary word means.
When I was teaching myself how to write for middle grade readers, I read "Hoot" by Carl Hiaasen, "Holes" by Louis Sachar, and Mad magazine (to which I first subscribed when I was 10!)
Ceepak lives in Seah Haven, New Jersey; Zack in Connecticut; Riley Mack in small-town Fairview—how important do you feel location is to your plot?
In some instances, it is extremely important. Sea Haven, NJ is definitely a major character in my Ceepak mysteries. The tacky tourist town exerts a kind of pressure to keep everything seemingly safe for the two and half months of the summer season when the town makes all of its money for the entire year. Connecticut was my stand-in for Tennessee, the strange land that I was transported to when I was ten years old. My hero Zack starts out as a New York City kid and then gets rudely transplanted out in the bucolic countryside. I remember freaking out when I moved from the Levittown style homes of Buffalo New York to the rolling mountains and forests of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Plus, CT, with its history and rolling stone fences and ancient church graveyards just reeks of ghosts. Riley Mack's small town of Fairview is more generic. I wanted to create a sort of commuter town, close to a big city, but small enough that everybody knew everyone else's business.
Ceepak is a former MP back from Iraq and Riley's father serves in Special Forces in Afghanistan. What draws you to writing characters with military pasts?
The first Ceepak book TILT A WHIRL was written right after the United States attacked Iraq. I think I was wrestling with the notion of heroic troops being misled by their commanding officers. John Ceepak is the epitome of the good solider. He follows the West Point Honor Code and will not lie, cheat or tolerate those who do. In the military, you need that code -- to trust that everyone in the chain of command is on the same page. If your superior officer is adhering to the code, then you know your mission is just. But, if someone up the line is being untruthful, the most noble soldiers in the world can be horribly misused.
With Riley's dad, I wanted to continue the parallels between RILEY MACK and ROBIN HOOD. Riley, like Robin, is left to stand up for truth and justice "back home" while his father is off at war, like King Richard the Lionhearted in the Robin Hood tales, who is off fighting the crusades. That's why Riley's father is named Richard.
This question comes from the wonderful Lesa Holstine. Who was the role model for your wonderful stepmother in the Zack Jennings books?
My wife, J.J. Myers, the audio book narrator! J.J. came to me later in life, after my first wife passed away from cancer (if you smoke cigarettes, those warnings on the side of the pack are true). She helped me get back on "the road of life" in the same way that Judy Magruder (another JM) helps Zack. And, yes, J.J., like Judy, wore a purple dress for our wedding.
Riley Mack returns on April 9th in RILEY MACK STIRS UP MORE TROUBLE. Your series takes cues from (and pays tribute to) The Sting, Ocean's Eleven, Robin Hood, and other groups of troublemakers. Tell us a little bit about Riley's latest adventures and your inspirations.
My main inspiration for Riley Mack was the old Mission Impossible TV show, which I remember loving when I was a middle school aged kid. So, I put together my own "Impossible Missions Force" with Briana Bloomfield, the talent; Jake Lowenstein, the genius; "Mongo," the muscle; Jamal Wilson, the fifth grader; —and—Riley Mack, the fearless leader
Together, these five are the Known Troublemakers, stirring up trouble in the name of justice. Wherever a wrong needs righting or an innocent kid needs protecting, Riley and his friends will be there, ready to use their problem-causing expertise for the greater good.
Only this time, injustice strikes a little too close to home. School's out for the summer, and somebody's polluting the gang's favorite swimming hole. And if that wasn't enough to ruin the vacation, one of the Troublemakers is in serious trouble, and all of Riley's efforts to help are only making things worse. With ten thousand dollars and the fate of his friends and family on the line, Riley will have to think fast if he hopes to pull off his most daring caper yet!
Are you planning on exploring any other genres? What's coming next for you?
Next up for me: RILEY MACK STIRS UP MORE TROUBLE in April.
Ceepak Jersey Shore Mystery #8 FREE FALL will come out in May. This time, Danny and Ceepak help a friend in a jam. But, do they also help her get away with murder?
In June, Random House Children's Books will publish my new puzzle mystery called ESCAPE FROM MR. LEMONCELLO'S LIBRARY, which, by the way, just earned a Starred Review from the tough-to-please critics at Kirkus. Here's a little of what Kirkus said about the book: "The author of numerous mysteries for children and adults turns his hand to a puzzle adventure with great success. Starting with the premise that billionaire game-maker Luigi Lemoncello has donated a fortune to building a library in a town that went without for 12 years, Grabenstein cleverly uses the tools of board and video games—hints and tricks and escape hatches—to enhance this intricate and suspenseful story. Twelve 12-year-old winners of an essay contest get to be the first to see the new facility and, as a bonus, to play his new escape game. Lemoncello’s gratitude to the library of his childhood extends to providing a helpful holographic image of his 1968 librarian, but his modern version also includes changing video screens, touch-screen computers in the reading desks and an Electronic Learning Center as well as floor-to-ceiling bookshelves stretching up three stories. Full of puzzles to think about, puns to groan at and references to children’s book titles, this solid, tightly plotted read is a winner for readers and game-players alike. (Mystery. 9-13)"
In September, a new action-adventure series I co-authored with James Patterson will come out. Called TREASURE HUNTERS, THE ADVENTURES OF THE FAMILY KIDD. The Kidd siblings have grown up diving down to shipwrecks and traveling the world, helping their famous parents recover everything from swords to gold doubloons from the bottom of the ocean. But after their parents disappear n the job, the kids are suddenly thrust into the biggest treasure hunt of their lives. They'll have to work together to defeat dangerous pirates and dodge the hot pursuit of an evil treasure hunting rival, all while following cryptic clues to unravel the mystery of what really happened to their parents--and find out if they're still alive.
And in December, I FUNNIER will come out. It's the sequel to I FUNNY, the number one New York Times selling book I co-authored with James Patterson last December.
Last question, how's Fred?
Still the best dog in the whole wide world.
QUESTION FOR PHILIP? COMMENT ON THE INTERVIEW? Tell us your thoughts by using the Comments box further down on this page, or commenting on this blog entry on our Facebook page and be entered to win a paperback copy of RILEY MACK AND THE OTHER KNOWN TROUBLEMAKERS and a hardcover of I FUNNY!
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QUICKIES WITH CHRIS:
Writing ambience: I write in spare bedroom that has been outfitted to be my New York apartment building writer's cottage with cork boards on all the walls..
To outline or not to outline: An outline that changes every day as I make stuff up. Basically, I stick to a three act screenplay structure and have fun in between the major turning points..
Reading now: An ARC of a great new middle grades book by Edgar Winner Tony Abbott. It'll definitely be getting a great blurb!
Book or eReader? Mostly eReader -- the Nook Glow. We have no room for bookshelves in our tiny apartment.
His protagonists should be played onscreen by: Matt Damon as Ceepak. Some seven year old kid who will be old enough to play Zack or Riley when the movie finally gets made.
Cats or dogs? Both!
Where he'd time travel: The future! I want to see if anybody is still reading my books. And if they invented jet packs yet.
Favorite online resource: Dictionary dot com. I keep it open all day most days.
Favorite independent bookstore:: The Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop in Mechanicsburg, PA. They always have me out to their store and pack in a crowd of Ceepak and Zack lovers!
Most effective promotional tool: School visits. I usually sign one hundred books.
He wishes he'd known when he started writing: That my thumbs would start hurting because I don't take enough breaks.
If he could have one superpower: To be Oprah Winfrey for a day. The day she announces the new book in her book club.