Please welcome award winning Chris Grabenstein, as he talks about his John Ceepak series and much more!
John Ceepak Mysteries:
Chris Grabenstein Interview:
NMR: Thank you for joining us Chris! Let’s start out with a brief background on your hit mystery series featuring small town cops John Ceepak and Danny Boyle - tell us a bit about who these characters are and how they winded up fighting crime in Sea Haven, New Jersey.
CG: John Ceepak is a former MP who served in the initial wave of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He lives his life in strict accordance with the West Point Honor Code: He will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those who do. After earning several medals for heroism and witnessing a horrible event in Iraq, he did not re-enlist. Instead, an old army buddy offered him a job “down the shore” on the small town police force in Sea Haven where “nothing ever happens.”
Danny Boyle has lived in Sea Haven all his life. When we first meet him in Tilt A Whirl, he is a twenty-something slacker. A part time cop, like so many tourist towns hire in the summer, who only took the job to earn a little extra beer money and because, as he puts it, “chicks dig the cop cap.”
Because of what happened in Iraq, Ceepak refuses to drive a vehicle. He is assigned Danny as a “chauffeur.” And, of course, contrary to what that old army buddy said – something does happen. Early one morning, the body of a billionaire is found murdered on the Tilt A Whirl and the guys are off on their first case.
NMR: You’ve chosen to identify this as a “John Ceepak” series, while at the same time writing the first person narrative from the viewpoint of Danny Boyle, Ceepak’s young and naïve protégé. Why did you choose to tell these stories from Danny’s eyes as opposed to Ceepak’s?
CG: I think for the same reason Sir Arthur Conan Doyle chose not to tell his Sherlock Holmes stories in Holmes’s voice: as brilliant as Ceepak and Holmes are, the guys would make annoying narrators. I like having Danny as my Watson. He is, at times, in awe of Ceepak. At others, he thinks the guy is a big goofuss. Danny stands in for the reader who is probably having the same reaction to the six-foot-two Dudley DoRight. Ceepak is like an overgrown Eagle Boy Scout with a seriousness meter set way past ten. Danny is flip and funny. I’m glad he’s the one telling the tales!
NMR: Ceepak, who comes off as a very serious and moralistic man, might initially seem as the worst partner for the looser Danny Boyle, yet this makes for one of the more appealing “Odd Couple” duos to come about in awhile. Is it ever difficult, when writing their stories, to make these two very disparate personalities get along so well?
CG: They have their moments. There is usually a point in the books, especially the early ones, where Danny can not believe how incredibly lame, embarrassing, and weird his partner is. As the series progresses, however, Danny and the reader learn more about what makes Ceepak tick. We also see Danny grow into his job and manhood. In fact, in WHACK A MOLE (book 3) and HELL HOLE (book 4) I gave Danny the opportunity to step up and take charge. In isolated incidents, Danny is the one who knows what to do, how to handle a situation – sometimes because of the experience that came with his own checkered, boozy past.
NMR: Your latest deals with the sometimes questionable behavior of soldiers on and off the battlefield; was it difficult to conjoin Ceepak’s feelings as a past soldier and highly moralistic man with some of the deeper ambiguities surrounding the “right and wrong” of war and some of its lesser known consequences?
CG: Yes! Throughout the series I have been wrestling with good men misled by dishonorable men. The West Point Honor Code exists, I think, in an attempt to make sure it doesn’t happen, that leaders don’t lie to their soldiers. The story at the core of HELL HOLE was actually “ripped from the headlines” of a news magazine. It is the darkest of the Ceepak books, I think, because the crime at the center has such wide-ranging repercussions. The war in Iraq is still very real to the soldiers who are fighting it, even if many Americans have tuned it out.
NMR: Your first in the series, Tilt A Whirl won the prestigious Anthony Award in 2005; so tell us, were you surprised to find yourself with a hit on your hands from the very beginning?
CG: I was touched, thrilled, and delighted that the mystery reader community embraced Ceepak from the start. I had set out to write a fresh, memorable character and, it appears, I was successful. People think of Ceepak and Danny as real people. They write me with questions about their lives: Will Ceepak get a dog? Will Danny get married? Winning the Anthony Award was one of the most exciting nights of my life!
NMR: Your next titles in the series received critical acclaim as well, not an easy feat by any means; so honestly, was there a bit of pressure on your end at anytime to live up to that first great novel in the series?
CG: I think there is always a fear of the Sophomore Slump. I actually wrote MAD MOUSE before TILT A WHIRL was published just to make sure it really was a series. I also decided to allow my characters to grow across and between the books. Not age! Grow. I think the emphasis on character is the main reason readers have taken to the series.
NMR: You have a very interesting background that includes writing both advertising and comedy; did it seem a natural progression to go into fiction writing having these skills?
CG: Well the flip/Danny side of me wants to say: Sure . All that advertising was pure fiction too! In truth, I do think the decades I spent writing copy for Kentucky Fried Chicken and Miller Beer and Burger King (with, by the way, James Patterson) did help me in several ways. First, I am used to sitting down and writing for eight hours a day. Second, in advertising you have to get and keep people’s attention. Fast. You also learn to be lean with words since you only have seventy of them if you talk wall-to-wall in a thirty second TV spot.
And I was following in the footsteps of a lot of other “Admen” in making the progression: James Patterson, Ted Bell (both bosses of mine), James Segal, Stuart Woods, Clive Cussler, and even, I think Dorothy L. Sayers. Those mystery writers were all advertising writers first.
NMR: You infuse your stories with a heavy dose of humor as well as suspense and finely drawn characters; which of these aspects is the most challenging to create and which is the least?
CG: I guess the well-paced suspense.
The characters seem to come to me because I used to be an actor and I try to act out all the parts in my head, make them three-dimensional, which is usually accomplished by giving them some contradiction. For instance, Danny is this hung-over slacker who, in Tilt A Whirl, lives to party. He is also very conscientious, even if he won’t admit it. It doesn’t fit with who he says he is but it makes him more human.
The humor just flows once I lock into “The Voice Of Danny” in my head. In fact, one of the most valuable things I learned from my incredible editor on Tilt A Whirl was when, as she put it, “Danny needs to shut up.” You might notice that his witty quips are few and far between in the final “act” of the books. That’s when the reader wants to race to the finish.
So that was the skill I think I learned: building suspense and conflict.
NMR: You also have a “holiday” mystery series and young adult series being published, albeit a bit more quietly in the background; how different are these for you to write, and is it difficult to change your focus for each?
CG: Quietly???? Hmm. Better talk to the press people on THE CROSSROADS, my Middle Grades ghost story from Random House. I even have a separate web site for it!
The holiday thrillers force me to ratchet up the tension and conflict. In those stories, you, the reader, usually know who did it. You just hope our hero can stop them from doing it again! Talk about your breathless page turners!
I usually take a week off between projects – do something suitable to day dreaming like wash the windows around our apartment so my subconscious can chew on the new ideas that pop up. In fact, that’s how I usually know when I’m done writing a book: the next one starts invading my dog walks with more and more ideas to be jotted down.
Currently, I have a rhythm of writing a mystery then a thriller then a middle grades book. That may change as I am having a blast writing for the younger audience and may look into doing two YA series.
NMR: I would be remiss as an interviewer if I didn’t ask this question: “Who are your favorite authors, and was any particularly inspirational?”
CG: Stephen King is at the top of my list. Dean Koontz, especially Odd Thomas. My favorite books of all time are To Kill A Mockingbird (everybody’s fave) and A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving. I’m not even sure why – it just really touched me. And the movie? That Simon Birch thing? Don’t get me started….
NMR: You did leave off in your latest with a hint of what is coming next, any more you wish to share about that?
CG: July 2009 looks to be a Chris Grabenstein-a-looza. Ceepak mystery #5 MIND SCRAMBLER will be published by St. Martin’s Minotaur. In that one, the guys go down to Atlantic City and end up involved in a murder investigation. The victim is someone readers will remember from MAD MOUSE.
Also in July 2009, Random House will publish the sequel to THE CROSSROADS. It takes place in a haunted summer stock theatre and is called THE HANGING HILL.
The Christopher Miller holiday thrillers are currently on hiatus. So if something really, really bad happens this holiday season – you’re on your own!
NMR: Thanks, Chris, it’s always a pleasure to read such well-written books as yours, and we can’t wait for the next!
Chris Grabenstein is an award-winning mystery writer and children’s book author, and a former advertising executive and improvisational comedian.
He performed in the same Greenwich Village comedy troupe as Bruce Willis back in the early 1980s.
Chris spent almost twenty years writing commercials for America’s top advertising agencies, representing clients such as Seven Up, Miller Lite, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dr. Pepper, and many others. He was, perhaps most famously, the copy writer who created Trojan Man, a radio campaign that still rides the airwaves today.
He went on to become an Executive Vice President/Group Creative Director at Young & Rubicam in New York.
Chris’s writing talent was first discovered by international bestselling author James Patterson, his Creative Director at J. Walter Thompson Advertising. Patterson had come up with a Writing Aptitude Test, which ran as a full-page as in the New York Times under the headline “Write If You Want Work.” Over 2,000 applicants responded. Chris was the first writer hired.
Chris has written screenplays, made-for-TV movies, Muppet scripts, and the occasional grocery list. In fact, he’s been writing since he moved to New York from Chattanooga, Tennessee—bringing along seven suitcases and the Smith-Corona typewriter he got as a high school graduation gift.
He won the Anthony Award for Best First Mystery (given at Boucheron 2006) for his debut novel, Tilt-A-Whirl—the first in a series of John Ceepak stories set down at the shore in a fictional New Jersey town called Sea Haven. The second novel in the series, Mad Mouse, was called one of the Ten Best Mysteries of 2006 by Kirkus. Whack-A-Mole was published to great acclaim in 2007.
The fourth Ceepak novel, HELL HOLE (it’s a ride like the Gravitron), will be the first to be published by St. Martin’s Minotaur on July 22, 2008.
Chris’s fast-paced Christopher Miller holiday thrillers include Slay Ride and Hell for the Holidays.
On May 27, 2008, Random House will publish The Crossroads, the first installment in Chris’s ghost series for middle school children.
Chris is a member of the Mystery Writers of America, the International Thriller Writers, and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. He lives in Manhattan with his beautiful, beloved wife J.J., along with their dog Fred and three cats, Jeanette, Parker and Tiger Lilly.
Although Chris lives in Manhattan, he still loves going down to the Jersey Shore—any place that has a restaurant called The Rusty Scupper, where they serve cold bottles of beer in an aluminum bucket and mountains of peel-and-eat shrimp in red plastic baskets.
And as a final piece of trivia, Grabenstein is a German name that translates to “gravestone,” the perfect name for a mystery writer.