Friday, May 22, 2009

Mystery's Man of Comedy - Jeff Cohen!

For my vacation to Southern California, I packed quite a few books, but most importantly I pulled some down off my shelf that I had purchased - you know, those books that were repeatedly being pushed to the back of the line for library books, borrowed books, and books I'd been given. Obviously, if I'd purchased them, I wanted to read them, but I'd been doing a far better job of collecting dust with them than reading them. So my vacation was my vacation in more than one way. And all of that jabber was so I could tell you that one of the books I took with me on vacation was SOME LIKE IT HOT BUTTERED. And you know if you read my review, I absolutely loved it. So, off I went to have a chat with the guy who brought Elliot Freed to life in SOME LIKE IT HOT BUTTERED and then continued to delight fans with IT HAPPENED ONE KNIFE and most recently added to bookshelves A NIGHT AT THE OPERATION.

I am absolutely tickled to host the very wonderful, very funny Jeff Cohen!

Q: Jeff, you have two series of fiction books: the Aaron Tucker Mysteries and the Double Feature Mysteries. In addition to this, you work as a freelance writer, blog, wrote screenplays for many years, and published two non-fiction books. Whew! Did you always want to write? What inspired you to take up the pen…or word processor…or computer?

Jeff: Oh, go remember. I’ve been writing since I was ten or so, probably. I think I’ve always had an internal story going on, and at some point, it has to come out. But after college, I was working in a daily newspaper’s newsroom and trying to sell screenplays to Hollywood. That didn’t work out so well, and eventually, I ended up freelancing for a number of publications, including the New York Times, USA Weekend, TV Guide and a lot of others. And one thing really does lead to another, so in 2002 my first novel was published. I’m still trying to figure out what happened.
Q: When you decided to try your hand at novel-writing, what drew you to the mystery genre?

Jeff: To be perfectly honest, I didn’t set out to be a mystery author. I was trying to write my nine-millionth screenplay, and the story wouldn’t cooperate, because it was intent on being told in the first person. So I decided to take a shot and write a few chapters as if it were going to be a novel (knowing full well that I couldn’t write a real novel), and that would give me the outline for the screenplay. It just so happened that the story was a murder mystery about a suburban town. About eighty thousand words later, the screenplay was a novel, and it ended up being published, with the understanding that I’d continue to write about those characters. So it was a three-book (so far) mystery series, the Aaron Tucker series.
Q: Do you find that any of the writing platforms comes easier than the others? Or do you have a preference for any of them?

Jeff: Well, I can churn out a newspaper piece if you wake me up at three in the morning and give me forty five minutes, but that’s just through sheer repetition. I’ve been writing pretty much on a daily deadline since college, where I learned to compose on the keyboard for the Rutgers Daily Targum, the finest student newspaper in the country, in my opinion. But easier? What’s easy got to do with writing? When you know what comes next, it’s easy. The other ninety percent of the time, it’s creating something from nothing. That’s hard.
Q: I read in another interview that, like me, you love character. That definitely comes through in your books. The depth of the characters, their relationships to one another, those elements really drive your stories. So how do the characters come to life in your imagination – do you plan them out or get to know them a lot before you even start writing? Have they ever done anything that really surprised you?

Jeff: I don’t think any story can be really memorable unless the characters are interesting. I truly don’t. How many people remember who the murderer was in The Thin Man? And how many people remember Nick and Nora Charles? Your characters ARE your story, no matter what the plot might dictate. But I don’t do a tremendous amount of planning ahead of time. I have a pretty good idea of who the main character is in a flash when the idea comes, and then I populate his/her world with people who will make a difference to that character, one way or another. And yes, they surprise me all the time. The little devils. I suppose that speaks to my utter lack of responsibility in planning. I never outline.
Q: And of course, your books are wonderfully funny. You’re able to find the humor in simple everyday events and activities. Does that humor come naturally for you or is it something you’ve had to work at and practice?

Jeff: Both. I’ve always been trying for the joke—my wife says that even when we’re arguing, she has to give me a certain leeway because “you’re incapable of not going for the joke.” So it’s natural in me. I look for the humor in any situation, because that’s my strength and that’s what I find interesting, anyway. So the books will reflect that. I won’t change the plot to fit a joke, but I will let a really good joke take me places I might not otherwise have gone. And thank you for saying the books are funny—it’s what I like hearing most.
Q: On the DorothyL list serve, you posed a question to the members, so I’ll ask it of you, “What’s the funniest book you’ve ever read?”

Jeff: Honestly, the funniest book I’ve ever read is a non-fiction book, Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo—A History of the Marx Brothers and a Satire on the Rest of the World by Joe Adamson. That book always cracks me up, and I re-read it regularly. And its facts are all true, too. I’m in awe of that book. Fiction? I have no idea. Sometimes, I’m so “inside baseball” on humor that I’m more interested in how an author makes a joke work than whether or not I’m actually laughing at it. So I could mention some names, and they’re all wonderfully funny writers, but since Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, I really don’t remember one book that I considered hilarious. There are other authors, like Lisa Lutz, whom I think handle humor very well. But I’m enough of an egomaniac that I can’t read those books objectively—I’m always wondering if I’m funnier than them.
Q: If your fans have exhausted all of your books, and they’re looking for something to fill their reading time until your next book comes out, what would you recommend they read (in addition to your answer from above)?

Jeff: Again, Lisa Lutz’s Spellmans books are very good. I never let one get by without reading it. I love the Chris Grabenstein Ceepak mysteries as well as his YA books (in the interest of full disclosure, Chris is a good friend, but I liked his books before I met him). I still read Robert B. Parker, because he got me reading mysteries a long time ago. I like a lot of mystery writers, and I’m not going to name any more for fear of leaving out someone I shouldn’t. Read James Thurber. Read Jean Shepherd. Read Joe Adamson.
Q: Elliot Freed is your central character in the Double Feature Mysteries, and he has a job that you’ve always wanted but knew wasn’t economically realistic – he owns and runs an all comedy movie theater. So what was it that originally hooked you on comedy movies, and what defines a classic comedy by your standards?

Jeff: I can’t imagine someone not being hooked on comedy. I mean, life is hard enough; what could be better than a good laugh when you need it? I guess I started at a very young age (Rocky and Bullwinkle?), but the real light-bulb moment for me was when I was in high school and late one night (in those days, you had to watch things on television when they were on) WNEW in New York decided to run Horse Feathers. Now, I’d heard of Groucho Marx and was aware he had brothers, but this was my first glimpse of the real thing in action, and it’s not at all an overstatement to say it changed my life. This was comedy that would absolutely be with me forever.

How do I define classic comedy? Anything I like well enough to watch over and over again. Comedy might be the most subjective of art forms—what I think is hilarious could be absolutely awful to you. So I can’t make judgments. Elliot gets to run the movies I’d want to program in a movie theatre if I were in charge. If you don’t like those, plug in your own.
Q: Are there any up-and-coming comedy writers, actors, etc. that you feel will be tomorrow’s “classics”?

Jeff: I’m really bad at predicting such things. Will the Judd Apatow school of comedy endure into the 22nd Century? I have no idea. I don’t find it especially hilarious, but then, I’m not the target audience there—I actually think that while sex is hilarious, there are occasionally other things that are funny, too. Right now, I think the best comedy is being done on television, to be frank. Something like 30 Rock or The Daily Show appeals much more to my brain than most of the comedies about mall cops coming out in theatres now.

Q: You’ve said that the similarities between you and Elliot end at his having this job you would love to have. So where did the ideas for Elliot come from? Why decide that he wouldn’t own a car and instead rides a bicycle to work?

Jeff: I wanted Elliot to be the anti-Aaron Tucker. So he wouldn’t be married. But just being single seemed a little flat, so he became divorced, from a woman he sill has feelings for, and without children, because the Aaron series was all about raising the kids. Aaron used to take his children with him on interrogations. And Elliot is not really as connected to society as Aaron was—he has this weird movie theatre that only he thinks is a good idea, and he lives by himself in a townhouse that has no furniture because he never really goes there except to sleep. Why no car? Because in New Jersey, people use a car pretty much to go from room to room, and I wanted Elliot to stand out. And I liked the idea of the bicycle to show that he’s taking the action he thinks other people should take to help the planet. But not to the point that he won’t borrow a car when he needs to go somewhere. Elliot’s committed, but he’s not crazy.

Q: You newest novel in the Double Feature Mystery series is called A NIGHT AT THE OPERATION, which came out this year. Tell us a little about this novel. Who should we expect to see returning?

Jeff: A Night at the Operation is a more personal story for Elliot. I always think the third book in a series—after you’ve established the characters and their relationships—is where you can start turning the screws. So Elliot’s world is about to go a little haywire: His ex-wife Sharon, for whom he’s still carrying a large torch, vanishes, and she’s wanted for questioning by the police in the death of one of her patients. And Elliot, despite his wanting to help the cops find his ex, can’t just sit around and wait—he has to do something. I thought it was interesting to see how this one incident could bring certain issues home to Elliot. And pretty much all the characters (aside from the ones in jail from previous books) are back, as are a few who have never appeared “on screen” before, like Elliot’s mother and Sharon’s soon-to-be-second-ex-husband, Gregory. They’ve been discussed before, but now they get to have the stage to themselves a little.
Q: A NIGHT AT THE OPERATION is book number three in the Double Feature Mystery series; there are presently three books in the Aaron Turner Mystery series. Do you know where you’re going from here? Is either series gearing up for a book four? Or is there a brand new project on the horizon?

Jeff: I’m currently writing (or should be) the first book in a new series, which I can’t talk about yet. As for Aaron and Elliot—well, if there’s tremendous demand for either, I can certainly tell you I’d love to see them again. It’s not always up to the author (it’s almost NEVER up to the author).
Q: Do you have any plans for Aaron and Elliot to team up?

Jeff: They’re from different publishers, so it might be a little like the unbelievable machinations that went on to get both Disney and Warner Brothers characters to appear in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, only without the consumer demand. Although readers who look closely enough might see Aaron around the fringes of an Elliot book or two.
Q: When you aren’t writing, what do you like to do for fun? What hobbies or interests fill your free time?

Jeff: I’m almost never not doing something related to writing, marketing, promoting books or other work. And then there’s this 100-year-old house to maintain. But I do play guitar—I made a YouTube music video about mystery genres that you can find on my web site and on YouTube—and I’m a big fan of the New York Yankees, so I try to watch a lot of games. And now, I’m starting on a project more difficult than anything I’ve tackled before—I need to lose about 40 pounds.
Q: There is a book out called NOT QUITE WHAT I WAS PLANNING: SIX-WORD MEMOIRS OF WRITERS FAMOUS AND OBSCURE, tell me what Elliot’s six-word memoir would be. (Note to readers: Jeff's six-word memoir will be revealed in the very near future. Stay tuned!)

Jeff: Bringing the Marx Brothers to Jersey.

Thank you, Jeff, for hangin' out with us today. It has been a great pleasure. And I know I personally have to thank Jeff for the laugh therapy he's provided with his books. It's absolutely the best medicine!

And I also highly recommend that you head over to Jeff's website and check out the great video about mysteries. You can learn more about Jeff and both of his fiction series after you finish laughing. Finally, I haven't had a chance yet to read the latest Elliot Freed novel, A NIGHT AT THE OPERATION, but you can check out what Oline Cogdill had to say here.


le0pard13 May 22, 2009 at 8:41 AM  

That was a fun interview. Nice going, Jen.

Alan Orloff May 22, 2009 at 3:37 PM  

Nice interview.

And Jeff is as funny in person as on paper.

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