When Peter S. Fischer left the bright lights of Tinseltown after nearly three decades as a network television writer/producer, it was with no intention of going quietly into a retirement mode on California’s central coast. If anything, the sound of keyboard tapping is louder than ever with his development of The Hollywood Murder Series, a sequence of mystery novels set against the historic backdrop of moviemaking’s glamorous heyday and which he publishes under his own imprint, The Grove Point Press.
The coincidence of my happening to interview Fischer stemmed from my having read his political thriller, The Terror of Tyrants, and – on the heels of my 5-star review (http://thegrovepointpress.com/tag/peter-s-fischer/ ) – sent an email to thank him for writing such a topical and chilling page-turner. Graciously, he not only took the time to respond but also to share his insights about the craft of writing.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: The glitz and glam of Hollywood has always attracted eager young hopefuls like proverbial moths to a flame. Coupled with this, however, seems to be an increasingly pervasive mindset of “entitlement” and arrogance. A case in point was a teen who recently wrote to me and declared, “The problem with movies and television today is that all you old people and your dumb ideas need to go away.” As someone who left the industry after a long career writing for hit series, why do you think that novelists and playwrights have a longer – and more respected – shelf life as authors?
A: First of all, I lend little credence to a teen who, unless she is exceptional, has no business lecturing us “old folks” about anything. I despair of a generation that believes “Thanks” is spelled “Thx” and spends a huge amount of time regaling each other about their last bowel movement or sexual encounter or the spinach they were unable to eat for lunch. These modern day twits know nothing about the art of conversation and for the most part do not even read unless forced to at the point of a hot poker. They get the television they deserve because TV is ratings driven. If you watch, you get it. If you don’t watch, it gets cancelled. Don’t blame us old folks for that!
The average TV executive at a studio or a network is about 30 years old. Movies have always been part trash, part escapism, often mindless and here and there, brilliant and absorbing. In an era where there are more and more low budget indy producers, you get a wide range from rotten to brilliant. No generalization fits. Ditto books and plays. For every Broadway hit, there are a dozen one-night turkeys. The same applies to books, Even in the old days when a handful of publishers controlled all of the market, many books were published that shouldn’t have been. Today, with self-publishing, the situation is even worse. I guess my point is, there will always be mediocre product and happily there will always be literature in many forms that rises above the norm.
Q: Once upon a time in Television Land, married couples slept in twin beds, no one swore, and husbands/fathers were not portrayed as henpecked twits. Nor were there reality shows in which contestants trashed one another and humiliated themselves to win a million dollars. In your view, are there any programs that indicate the medium is still salvageable as an entertainment venue or will it continue its drekky downward spiral?
A: In keeping with my response to the previous question, there has always been rotten television ever since the days of Lucy and Sid Caesar and Milton Berle, shows that were forgotten a day after they were cancelled. The old rule of thumb used to be for every pilot ordered to script, maybe one in five would be filmed. Of every filmed pilot actually aired, maybe one in five would be given an order for 6 and sometimes 13 episodes. Of those new shows, the odds of being renewed for a second season were also about 1 in 5.
It’s comforting to think back to the golden ages of television starting with the one-hour live dramas of the 50s and then the golden age of the sitcoms like Archie Bunker and Mary Tyler Moore and Cheers where the humor was genuine and character driven. For the most part network television is dismal and the best work is being done on the smaller cable channels where ideas and good writing make up for the lack of budget. Mad Men on AMC and House of Cards on Netflix are two prime examples.
Q: Blurring the line between fact and fiction has long been a popular device in doomsday novels, and you chillingly bridge that divide in your political thriller, The Terror of Tyrants. The premise: A corrupt government controls the major media (“an informed public is a dangerous public,” says one of the higher-ups), implements Executive Orders without Congressional approval, confiscates all firearms, fines and imprisons anyone who criticizes the administration, disables national telecommunications, and orchestrates a fake terrorist attack on a California coastal community in order to declare martial law, seize property and authorize assassinations. This book would clearly make a blockbuster movie but, given Hollywood’s fawning adoration of Obama, what are the chances of it getting produced?
A: The Terror of Tyrants will never get made as a movie unless it was championed by a powerful conservative producer with lots of money behind him. And even then it wouldn’t be easy because Hollywood actors and directors would be afraid to get involved. There are a couple of indy companies in Utah that have made some decent movies with a conservative message but in the end if you can’t get widespread distribution, it’s not worth the effort and liberal Hollywood has the theaters tied up.
Q: Any worries that there’s a drone out there with your name on it?
A: No worries. Invariably my name is spelled Peter Fisher by merchants and charities alike and the administration is a lot dumber than they are so I am safe. However, I do feel sympathy for any real-life Peter Fisher who may live in the vicinity.
Q: Your new Hollywood Murder Series is a juicy marriage of two subjects you know best – the mystery genre and Hollywood films. What governed your decision to start the storyline in 1947 rather than present-day? How many “years” have been published to date and how far do you plan to take this series?
A: I placed my books starting in 1947 because I consider the 30s, 40s and 50s, the Golden Age of Hollywood, rife with glamour real or imagined. These were kinder and gentler times as opposed to the chaos of modern day living and there is to me something intriguing about the nostalgia of old stars and old films. Since then hundreds, if not thousands, of brilliant movies have been created but the whole studio system run by Mayer and Warner and Zjukor, that was a world of its own.
I actually never envisioned a series of books, just the one – Jezebel in Blue Satin. And then I had to write a scene in a director’s office and I thought it might be fun to put a real person into the scene so I wrote in Gail Russell. That’s when it struck me that I could do a follow up book after a year had passed and so I settled on Treasure of the Sierra Madre and made characters of Bogart, John and Walter Huston, Tim Holt and even Ann Sheridan. The ninth book (1955) is currently being printed and revolves around Marty which was shot in New York. Number 10 takes place in Texas (Giant), number 11 in Memphis (Jailhouse Rock) and number 12 (Touch of Evil).The latter are in first drafts. There are a couple of on-going arcs from book to book and I believe I will wrap the whole thing up with either 15 or 16.
Q: Who would your protagonist, Joe Bernardi, prefer to brainstorm his ideas and theories with – Jessica Fletcher, Lt. Columbo or Ellery Queen?
A: None of the above. Except in one or two rare cases, Joe wants nothing to do with these murders that keep intruding on his life and when he gets involved it’s because he has a compelling reason why he cannot just walk away. He doesn’t consider himself a detective, not for one moment. He is closest in philosophy to Jessica who never considered herself a “detective,” at least not while I was running the show. Columbo took great delight in playing cat and mouse with his quarries but it was in the line of duty. It’s what he was paid for. Ellery loved the pursuit of the puzzle and wouldn’t quit until he’d unraveled it. So our man Joe is a reluctant protagonist at best , especially considering his job description. Whoever heard of a press agent solving murders?
Q: Does 21st century technology make it harder or easier for fictional villains to commit crimes and, conversely, for sleuths to solve them?
A: The technology of the 21st century has virtually destroyed the credibility of the so called ‘armchair’ detective. DNA is a shining example. Besides all the other highly technical and scientific things crime labs are capable of. It’s another reason why I started the series of books in 1947 . It’s also not a coincidence that we set the TV series Ellery Queen in the year 1947 for the same reason.
Q: What comes first for you when you sit down to pen a new story – the plot or the characters? In the case of a continuing thread such as Hollywood Murder Series, do you have the full map in your head – including the final destination – when you start out or do you sometimes allow your characters to take the steering wheel and, accordingly, take you along for the ride?
A: Good question. All of the above. First I need the gimmick, the incident that brings Joe into the story. I used Joe accused of murder once. I won’t use it again. I used Lydia, ex-wife, accused of murder. No more of that. In another I have his ex-live in gal pal Bunny eye witness to a murder and in deep trouble. In another, someone has plagiarized Joe’s book and ends up murdered. In another Joe sends out a press photo which may have gotten a man killed. etc etc etc.
Once I have the gimmick and I’ve decided the movie I am going to tell the story around, I invent a few characters and start writing. I don’t have an outline and in several cases – maybe half – have no idea what the ending is. Very often a lot of the pieces come to me while I am in the middle of a chapter. For the most part I let the characters take me where they want to go and most of the time I have no problem with it. Remember that between EQ and Columbo and MSW as well as my other shows, I probably have plotted over a hundred mystery scripts of one sort of another. It’s like second nature but more important, I discovered in later years that a rigid outline was stifling my imagination which is the main reason I gave up outlining. I do know the final destination of the series, I know what is going to happen to Joe’s career and to Bunny and to Jill and to the child, Yvette. How I reveal all this remains to be seen….
Q: The publishing industry has changed radically in the past decade and, as the combined result of downsizing at the major houses and the rise in popularity of ebooks, has driven numerous authors – yourself included – to go the DIY route. Tell us about the debut of your own imprint, The Grove Point Press, and the challenges/rewards of wearing multiple hats.
A: I think the days of the mass market, brick and mortar bookstores are over. People are reading less and less and other venues such as Kindle and POD are the coming thing. The old fashioned way the traditionalists do business has no future. If you are lucky enough to get an agent who is lucky enough to get you a deal for a book which they will publish the following year or maybe even later, it will sit on the shelf for maybe 5-6 months and then – unless it’s a runaway bestseller – it will be shunted off to Nowhereland to make room for the next Great American novel. Online your book lasts forever and there are enough success stories to lead me to believe that we are doing this the right way. I say “we” because my son Chris is handling everything about The Grove Point Press except the actual writing and he is doing a fantastic job. I have infinite patience and infinite enthusiasm for what we are doing
Q: If you could sit down for lunch with any famous author from the past whose writing and vision inspired you, who would it be?
A: I make it a rule never to break bread with any writer unless he is a lot smarter than me and a much better writer. This gives me a huge universe from which to select and I could spend all day picking and choosing! So I’ll keep it short. TV writers, only two. Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky. Novelists? Thomas B Costain, the first book writer that captivated me when I was 7 or 8. Scott Fitzgerald, Conan Doyle. Sinclair Lewis. Contemporary: Michael Connolly, John Grishham. Scott Turow. Playwrights: William Inge, Doc Simon, Tennessee Williams.
But if I had to pick only one it would be the late Robert B. Parker, creator of Spenser and Jesse Stone. I loved the way he plotted sparsely but effectively, the way he used humor to temper grimness, his facility with dialogue. I believe my style and rhythms, especially in the Hollywood books, are very close to his.
Q: What would your fans be the most surprised to learn about you?
A: Although I studied writing and drama at Johns Hopkins, I had to put my writing ambitions on hold while I raised a family. Then at the age of 35 I literally sat down at my kitchen table in Smithtown, Long Island ,New York and wrote a movie not knowing that nobody sells a movie this way and nobody gets into the business from a place called Smithtown, particularly at my age. It’s a long story but the happy ending has my movie airing on ABC Movie of the Week, produced by Aaron Spelling under the title The Last Child. It gets nominated for an EMMY for Best TV Movie of the Year. I move to Hollywood and freelance for a few months before I meet Peter Falk and get hired by Universal Studios and the rest, as they say, is history.