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Keep It Spare and Lean: An Interview with Chris Grabenstein

Note: Chris Grabenstein will be one of the Guests of Honor at Sleuthfest, March 1 – 3, 2012. He’s the author of the John Ceepak series, for which he won the Anthony Award for “Best First Mystery.”

JCS:  Chris, I know that unlike most authors, you didn’t just get a wild idea and start writing. Before you started your Cepak series, you studied James Patterson’s success. What sorts of decisions did you make? How have they worked for you? (I recall you talking about the titles that were all of the same ilk.)

CG: Well, sometimes, I just get a wild idea and start writing. However, when I first contemplated writing a mystery, I did approach the task the same way we used to go after a new campaign in advertising. What could I do that would be different in a world cluttered with seemingly millions of sleuths? How could I make a character stand out? This was the same exercise we always went through when developing a new TV spot — how do I break through the clutter? How do I make someone not click the remote and zap my commercial?

Having worked with James Patterson at J. Walter Thompson advertising, I remembered his breakthrough coming with the creation of Alex Cross and a series of books titled after lines from nursery rhymes. (“Kiss The Girls,” “Along Came A Spider,” etc.) I set out to attempt to do the same thing. I had the title TILT A WHIRL before I had anything else. I knew the second book could be called MAD MOUSE or MIND SCRAMBLER. The books would all be named after amusement park rides…and the title rides would act as metaphors for what happened in the stories. To avoid the Cabot Cove syndrome (“Murder She Wrote”) I set my series in a tourist town that could easily have a transient population and a new cast of victims and killers every week of the summer.

Then I needed to create a sleuth unlike any the world had seen. That’s when I came up with the notion of an overgrown Eagle Boy Scout who will not lie, cheat or steal nor tolerate those who do. He seemed to be the polar opposite of the boozing, depressed, divorced, no-code-but-my-own, noirish heroes populating so many mystery stories — the dark knights I still love. I created John Ceepak to be different.

JCS: How did you come up with the name “Cepak”?

CG: I came up with Ceepak after going to a wedding where one of the groomsmen, a former soldier, was named Ceepak. And all of his buddies called him by his last name. If you hang with a group of guys, there is usually one who doesn’t seem to have a first name. I was always “Grabber” in high school; never “Hey, Chris,” always “Hey, Grabber.” You’ll notice that very few characters in the stories ever call John Ceepak “John.” And Danny Boyle is always “Danny.” It wasn’t until the third book that someone pointed out to me that Ceepak’s initials were “J.C.” Cue the Twilight Zone music…

JCS: Your books are a bit unusual because like the Sherlock Holmes stories, they are told in first person by a secondary character who admires the protagonist. How’s this working for you? Why did you choose to do this? What are the drawbacks and the strengths of this approach?

CG: I tell the stories in Danny’s voice for the same reason I think Doyle tells the Holmes stories in Watson’s voice: First person narration by our sleuths would have readers throwing the books against the wall in anger. Can you imagine a tale told by the arrogant, conceited, but brilliant Holmes? His brain would move far too swiftly to fill us in on all the little details he’d already deciphered and moved on from. The same with Ceepak. His by the book, just the facts, code-following ways may smack of a goody-two-shoes and Dudley Do-Right if he did the narration. So, I gave the story telling chores to a 24 year old part time cop who, like Watson, admires the master sleuth he is working with. Danny is also a lot funnier than Ceepak…although Ceepak is attempting to develop a sense of humor as the books progress.

I think the device works for this particular pairing — because of the “lead” sleuth’s personality.

The stories are also told in first person present tense…which drives some people batty. I think the present tense helps the action clip along and is how cops tell stories. “We go into a bar. There’s this guy with a gun who has his paws all over a waitress. We pull out our service revolvers…”

JCS: Your background is in advertising. What did you learn from advertising that you apply to your work in novels? Your writing is very spare, with no wasted words or overlong descriptions. Has the art of brevity, which is key to advertising, ever been a problem when working on books?

CG: Yes. Right. We ad folks write tight. They used to tell us to keep a copy of a Hemingway book in our desks. Keep it spare and lean and don’t waste time on the stuff nobody wants to read anyway, to paraphrase Elmore Leonard who, I think, also has a background in advertising. The biggest thing I learned in advertising came from James Patterson, who was my creative director: Hit ’em with a pie in the face and once you have their attention say something smart. Remember, nobody wants to watch TV commercials or stop listening to music on the radio to hear your ad or quit flipping through Kardashian Wedding updates in People magazine to gaze upon your glorious print ad. We learned to give readers/viewers a reward for their attention. Interestingly, when I was published by Carroll & Graf, the publisher told me, “I like advertising writers. You don’t waste people’s time.” I guess that’s because we only had thirty seconds (70 words max) to grab someone’s attention and then convince them to go buy whatever Whopper we were selling that month.

Has it ever been a problem? I hope not. But, I try to write the kind of books I love to read: page turners that can make a transcontinental flight seem like it lasted three minutes instead of six hours.

JCS: Your plots hustle right along. What’s your process? Are you an outliner?

CG: I’ll talk more about this at Sleuthfest on the plotting panel. I am a hybrid, I think. I stake out four key plot points, as if I were scripting a two hour, two-act movie. I then know where I have to be at a certain word count and work toward that goal. It help keeps things focused…but I make up what happens in between the plot points on a day-to-day basis. I also overwrite like crazy. My 75,000 word Ceepak novels tend to have first drafts that are 90,000 words long. Then I go back and chop and prune.

JCS: You’ve had such a successful career as a writer. What sort of advice could you share with others just getting started?

CG: First of all, that’s very kind of you to say. My advice is probably the same as everyone else’s: Read a lot. Write every day. I heard somewhere that it takes 20 minutes to drift off into that “awake dreaming” zone where the real magic starts happening. So, try to sit down for an hour everyday and get 40 minutes of dream time in. Also, and I learned this writing 500 TV commercials for every one that ever got produced, I think you have to LOVE the writing. Not the riches (well, there aren’t any of those anyhow), fame, acclaim, awards, snazzy author photo, or cocktail parties with publishers (do they still have those? If so, how come I’m never invited?). The only part of this business you have control over is the words and the process of writing. I absolutely love sitting down every day and getting lost in whatever story I am weaving. I always have, I think. No one can take that feeling away. Everything else? It may never come or it might all disappear. Love the writing…not being “a writer.”

JCS: You learned a technique in improv classes that you use with your writing. Would you share it?

CG: Yes, I will. In fact, my afternoon talk on Craftfest Thursday will be an improvisational workshop where I will teach everybody the “Yes, and…” rule of improv. It is a rule I use every day and will help writers get beyond the blank page and into places they never could’ve dreamed they’d be going. (Okay, that was a thirty second ad for Craftfest. Once an adman, always an adman…)

JCS: You live in New York City. Make us all jealous. Tell us if that has been a boon or a bane to your career.

CG: I think New York is a great place to live as a writer. If I need a crazy character, I go out and walk around the block. I found a major character for my new middle grades caper series on a bus ride uptown one morning. It is nice to be able to go to an MWA meeting in New York and rub elbows with superstars like Lee Child. However, I think writers can live anywhere.

I really think having an agent in New York has been a boon to my career. They go to cocktail parties. They schmooze with editors. They do a lot of lunches. That’s how we got the idea to turn THE CROSSROADS from a 120,000 word adult ghost story into a 50,000 word middle grade mystery. My agent bumped into an editor at a party who was looking for ghost stories for middle grade readers!

JCS: Anything you want to tell me?

CG: I’m looking forward to Sleuthfest. I’ve always heard it’s the best “writers” conference. And I can thank Charlaine in person for making me a New York Times best seller (because she and Toni Kellner asked me to do a short story in DEATH’S EXCELLENT VACATION which made the top ten..and not because MY name was on the book cover!)

Visit Chris at

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