A Conversation with Gyles Brandreth

Gyles CollageWhat can possibly be worse than a fictional character of your own creation getting far more fan mail than you do? In the case of Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s receiving three envelopes respectively containing a severed finger, a severed hand, and a lock of hair while you’re just trying to get away from it all for some R&R at a spa in Germany. To make matters worse, the celebrated author has been joined by the effusively chatty playwright, Oscar Wilde, who insists that they hop the very next train to Italy to answer an obvious cry for help.

Oscar Wilde and the Vatican Murders was my first introduction to the work of Gyles Brandreth but I knew by the time I turned the last page that I simply had to discover more about this wickedly witty and whimsical author.

And oh what a jolly discovery that quest turned out to be! From 6,000 miles away, this amazing gentleman graciously accepted my invitation to give readers a glimpse into his world and the passions that fuel his imagination.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: The remarkable volume and diversity of your published works suggests that you came into the world with your fingers aggressively fixed to a keyboard. What’s the real story behind your journey as such a savvy and prolific wordsmith and who were the mentors that helped shape your career choices?

A: You are about right. I certainly knew that I wanted to be a writer from about the age of eight. The poet TS Eliot went to the church where I was a boy server and he encouraged me! How’s that for a distinguished mentor? As a boy I lived in Baker Street (opposite 221B – truly) and I loved the Sherlock Holmes stories. I wrote my first play when I was 12. It was called “A Study in Sherlock”. My wife will tell you there’s not been much professional development with me over the past 50 years. What gripped me then grips me now. (My wife would also tell you that with me there’s not been much development of ANY kind over the past 50 years…)

Q: What authors were you reading at age 10? 20? 30? In retrospect, which ones would you say had the most influence on your own style of creative expression?

A: At 10, Arthur Conan Coyle and Agatha Christie. At 20, Oscar Wilde and Dorothy L. Sayers. At 30, Anthony Trollope and W.M. Thackeray. In any of my Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries, you will see how all of the above have influenced me.

Q: You’ve also worn the hats of an MP, a Whip and Lord Commissioner of Prime Minister John Major’s Treasury, a popular broadcaster, and a theatrical producer. Aside from the obvious question of, “When did you ever find the time to sleep?” which of your many venues exemplifies the tenets of your best-selling book, The 7 Secrets of Happiness?

A: One of the 7 secrets is to be “a leaf on a tree”. Every leaf is unique and a leaf that’s not attached to a tree feels free and floats about a bit, which is fun, but soon it falls to the ground and dies. Each of us needs to be a leaf on a tree – unique, yes – but also attached to an organism that is larger than we are and alive and growing. Sometimes a writer’s life can be lonely. I felt most like a leaf on a tree when I was a member of Parliament – attached both to the House of Commons (an amazing place) and to my constituency (the beautiful and historic city of Chester).

Q: What did you most want to be when you were a lad growing up?

A: So many things! That was the problem. I wanted to be an actor, a writer, a politician, a TV anchor, a woman. And, because I have been very lucky, I have had a go at all of them.

Q: If your philosophy of life were printed on a tee-shirt, what would it say?

A: “Be happy.” (See No. 7 of The 7 Secrets of Happiness for more details.)

Q: The two of us share a mutual love for the stage as fellow actors, directors and producers. (And kudos to you for wowing audiences with your musical theater portrayal of Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest.) What would you say are some of the best lessons that treading the boards have taught you about pennng snappy dialogue and compelling characters for your works of fiction?

A: Character is what counts. If the people in your play are real, your audience can believe in them. Character comes first. Then comes story. Then the lines will follow. If your characters are real, what they say will be in character and if the situations are dramatic, they will respond. The great Ibsen would spend a year thinking about his plays before he began to pen them. He would think through the characters first, then place them in their situation, then make them speak. With my Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries, I have had the advantage that so many of my “characters” are already there. The challenge is to portray them truthfully.

Q: So what was the inspiration for making the gifted playwright the cornerstone sleuth of your new mystery series?

A: Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde were childhood heroes of mine. When I came across the fact that they had met – in 1889 – and had become friends (Conan Doyle describes the meeting in his autobiography), it occurred to me at once that here was an opportunity to create a series of Victorian mysteries with Wilde and Conan Doyle as my Holmes and Watson. I have always enjoyed a traditional murder mystery. As Oscar said, “There is nothing quite like an unexpected death for lifting the spirits.” (Or did I think of that line and give it to Oscar? That’s one of the problems with writing these books. I lose track of where fact ends and fiction begins.)

Q: I simply have to ask this. There’s a point in the book where Conan Doyle is contemplating giving hs fictional detective an older brother named Mycroft who would be patterned after his witty, intrepid and sartorially colorful colleague, Oscar. Is it more than coincidence that actor Stephen Fry not only portrayed Wilde in film but subsequently played Mycroft in the second Sherlock Holmes movie starring Robert Downey, Jr.?

A: I think it’s distinctly possible that Conan Doyle had Wilde in mind when he created Mycroft, Sherlock’s even more brilliant brother. (Stephen Fry, incidentally, was the first to bid for the TV rights to my Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries, not with a view to appearing in them but hoping to produce them.)

Q: Two of your acclaimed biographies are about members of the Royal Family (Philip and Elizabeth:  Portrait of a Marriage and Charles and Camilla: Portrait of a Love Affair). Given your enviable reputation as a skilled interviewer, who in history would you most like to have an extended chat with if time travel were possible?

A: William Shakespeare. It is strange that we know so little about him when he knows so much about us.  Apart from the hygiene issues, I think I’d have felt very much at home in Elizabethan England.  And I’d love to meet Shakespeare and to hear some of his theatre stories. And where was he during those “lost years”?  In France and Italy, I reckon.  And which of his plays is his favourite?  And does he have another for us hidden in his bottom drawer?

Q: Rumor has it that you’ll need a bigger fireplace mantle and more wall space for all of the awards you’ve won. Which of these many honors gives you the highest sense of personal or professional accomplishment?

A: As European Monopoly Champion I came third in the World Monopoly Championships – and that pleased my parents who met over a Monopoly game in 1937 and eloped a few weeks later.

Q: Which do you feel is more challenging – to write a story for children or a plot geared to adults?

A: it is all story-telling. With kids’ stuff it tends to be shorter, but the need to capture, hold, intrigue and surprise the reader is the same. I have written six murder mysteries featuring Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle as my detectives and the extra challenge there is to bring the period and the people to life as accurately as I can – while still (I hope!) spinning a compelling yarn.

Q: What would people be the most surprised to learn about you (besides behind a descendant of the last man beheaded in England for treason)?

A: That I was taught to play Scrabble by a friend of Oscar Wilde. He was 100 at the time and I was 15. He won all our games. I told him he cheated because he used obsolete words. He told me they’d been current when he first learnt them.

Q: Along with your daughter and grandson, you’ve authored a collection of family games called The Lost Art of Having Fun. Why is it, do you suppose, that we’ve misplaced the unapologetic joy of play and being silly? Is technology to blame or is it something more than that? Inquiring minds want to know.

A: Yes, our book is aimed at providing analog fun for the digital age.  Research suggests that kids in the UK are now spending up to 7 hours a day in front of a screen. This is terrifying. It’s got to stop. We’ve got to start looking at one another again: we’ve got to start talking to one another again. Playing games is a good way to get cross-generational communication going. The idea of playing a game alarms a lot of people – until they give it a go.  Fun is fun.

Q: Speaking of fun, you’ve got a delightful connection to teddy bears. Tell us about it.

A: My wife and I founded a Teddy Bear Museum about thirty years ago. Jim Henson gave us the original Fozzie Bear and he stills live at our museum. I was a friend of A A Milne’s son, Christopher Robin Milne, so I have shaken the hand that held the paw of Winnie the Pooh!

Q: What’s your best advice to today’s aspiring writers?

A: Mark Twain said the secret of writing a book is application – “applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair”. I can’t do better than that.  My other rule is: don’t talk about it, do it. Just get to that desk and stay there until today’s quota (1,000 words) is done.

Q: What style works best for you when developing a new book – to do all of the requisite research before you ever start writing or do you prefer to look things up as you go along?

A: With non-fiction you need to do your research before you start. With a novel – like my Victorian Oscar Wilde murder mysteries – you need the essence of the plot, but as you proceed you will find that events overtake you and the characters can take you to places you didn’t expect to go …  With my Oscar Wilde series I have been meticulous with research, so that all that you learn about Wilde and Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker, for example, will be true. With a history-mystery the reader needs to feel that the history is correct. For me, it’s been a joy to spend the first ten years of the twenty-first century living in the last ten years of the nineteenth.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: I am touring a show called “Looking for happiness”. It’s a two-hour stand-up comedy show that began life at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Now there’s a book to go with it, The 7 Secrets of Happiness that’s being published in the US, Russia, China and elsewhere. I am going to assorted launches: Moscow in August, for example. Because it is raining non-stop in England right now, next January and February I want to be performing my “Looking for happiness” show in Florida in January and New Zealand in February. Can you fix that for me? (Gyles: You should add Pasadena, California to your tour list. Not only is it a beautiful city with much to commend it but I’ll throw in the added bonus of taking you to lunch as well.)

 Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: if you have time dip into my website, www.gylesbrandreth.net, and find out a bit more about me – and what else I do. The pictures of me as Lady Bracknell with Oscar Wilde’s grandson are fun. And if you want to see a video of me talking about happiness try the Open Road Media website.  And if you fancy a short tour of Oscar Wilde’s London, take a look at www.oscarwildemurdermysteries.com

Bumpy Roads – A Collection of Short Stories

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Fasten your seat belts and prepare to travel down the bumpy roads of life. In his second collection of short stories, New Zealand author Brian WIlson entertains adults and adolescents with 35 humorous and thought-provoking vignettes based on his extensive globetrekking and observations of human behavior.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: Tell us about your personal journey as a writer. Was it bumpy or smooth?

A: Bumpy Roads – A Collection of Short Stories, is my second book, the first being Moments in Time -A Collection of Short Stories. As a second book I would consider that this has been a smooth ride. Writing is creative, albeit an art. I write when I am in the mood and when the ideas are flowing. It is quite different from when I wrote a thesis for a Master’s Degree with time restraints. Writing, though, is only a small part of the journey. For those of us who don’t have the luxury of being mothered by a traditional publisher, there is a lot of time spent after the stories have been written in cover design, organising the internal layout, formatting and organising the editing. All of these are required before the book goes to print. Then about 66% of one’s time is spent on marketing. The books you mostly hear about or see in a bookshop have been published through traditional publishers, because they have the financial resources and connections for marketing. Yet many of the best written books especially today are self-published. Even in earlier times exceptional writers found getting traditional publishers difficult. There are good examples of famous self-published authors such as Charles Dickens and Beatrix Potter.

Q: Did you have mentors along the way to guide you?

A: No. I see writing as a natural process. We all have different ways of writing; this is our signature and we shouldn’t change these simply because another person doesn’t like our style. Though, I guess in going through the school and university process there is some degree of mentoring. In Bumpy Roads my daughter Rachel wrote five stories and, as the reader will see, her style is very different to mine and some may consider it better. Rachel has an award in English from high school, and Bachelor of Art and Education degrees. She has also been one of the people editing my stories and I knew that she had the ability to write good stories.

Apart from helping her with surprise twists and suggesting rearrangement of several sentences, I restrained myself from trying to change her way of writing.

Q: Who are some of the authors you read for leisure and how have they influenced your own approach to storytelling and creative expression?

A: Recently I have been reading a number of short stories by famous writers. I left this reading until after I wrote my first two books as I didn’t want to be influenced by other writers’ styles and ideas. The stories read were by C.S. Forester, Liam O’Flaherty, E.C. Bentley, Katherine Mansfield, Norah Burke, H.E Bates, Somerset Mangham, I.A. Williams, John Buchan, H.H. Munro, John Golsworthy, O.Henry and H.G. Wells.

Q: How did your academic background and professional experience prepare you for the challenges of putting pen to paper (or, rather, fingers to keyboard!) and sticking to a writing schedule?

A: My approach to short stories is that I don’t write for the sake of writing; there has to be a good story or theme for the reader. Therefore, there is no writing schedule as such. My writing is as the mood takes me. Writing a thesis is different requiring a writing schedule, as one does not have the luxury of time or as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot says, “for the little grey cells to start working”. I was disappointed in reading ‘The Conga Eel’, by Liam O’Flaherty, as the whole story was simply that the eel gets netted and escapes. Simple plots are not unusual for short stories, but there has got to be something more there for the reader.  It seemed to me this story was written for the sake of writing. In my book Bumpy Roads, the story “The Journey,” can also be summed up in 7 words, but the story extends well beyond the simple story line and in fact encompasses the theme for the whole book.

Q: What’s your primary wellspring of ideas for your stories and poems?

A: I base the majority of stories on experiences. I build on these stories to create a fiction work. Stories will vary from being close to 100% true to maybe only 5%. By using experiences, I know my facts and descriptions are true and accurate. In Bumpy Roads I have stories in eight countries. They are all countries I have at some time visited and can provide accurate descriptions of.

Poetry is very much creative and lines may come in the course of having a shower or in the middle of the night. I sometimes get ideas for stories the same way.

Q: How do you go about deciding the particular style a story will embrace?

A: I don’t restrict myself to a style. It may be first or third person or narrative or dialogue. Some stories pose a greater challenge to me in the way they are written. In Bumpy Roads, the story “Three Granddads” is actually two stories being told at the same time which merge into the last sentence. This sentence also sums up the theme. Some of my stories include characters from the first book and the stories are more meaningful if you read this book first.

Q: Are your characters based on real people – including yourself – or do they materialize for you from thin air?

A: I try to create round characters and in doing so I have taken and used different parts of myself in various characters as well as parts of other people I know. It is a tricky area and I guess this is a reason why some writers use pen names.

Q: Tell us about Moments in Time. What’s that one about?

A: On the 22nd February 2011, Christchurch City, New Zealand was struck by a killer earthquake. Across the road from where I was working, a six-storey building collapsed entombing the 113 occupants. On that day 186 lives were lost, businesses collapsed, homes were destroyed and our lives were changed forever. This event marked a moment in our lives and the beginning of my short story writing. Some of my stories in Moments in Time recorded the events on that day. Others reflect overseas experiences. The stories are about times in life and are inspirational, many with humour and surprise twists.

Q: Which do you personally feel is a bigger challenge – to compose a short story or to write a full-length novel?

A: I have asked myself the same question. Novels and short stories I believe require different skill-sets. The novel requires perseverance, maintaining the reader’s attention, consistency in characters and a lot more editing. Short stories in comparison, because they are short, require more creativity and attention to detail, and give the writer little room to develop characters. I think that the writer of short stories is put more under the reader’s microscope.

Q: Should authors don the hat of “Editor” for their own work or should they hire someone to do this for them?

A: Definitely not. In my second book I have used five editors because we all miss mistakes. We see with our brains and not our eyes, and our brain fills in the gap. Two of these people are exceptionally good at editing. A quality product is paramount.

Q: Tell us about your cover art and the input you had on its design.

A: I initiated the title Bumpy Roads as this is how you could describe post-earthquake Christchurch as well as the difficult times in our lives.

I would not in any way consider myself artistic in drawing, but I designed the cover and drew the cartoon. Trafford Publishing was happy with both my cover and title. They only modified my drawing to include the rectangular sign with the author names. Previously I had our names at the bottom of the cover.

Q: How much research went into your decision to find a publisher?

A: Probably not a great deal. I checked out various sites and was also very interested in an Australian self-publishing firm, but in the end it came down to costs and services provided.

Q: With so many publishing venues available today for indie authors, what influenced your decision to go with one that charges high-end prices?

A: I have found Trafford produces a quality product but I am open to better deals for future books. For both books published by Trafford, the publishing package I secured was discounted heavily to about half the advertised rate.

Q: Tell us about your marketing platform for your books and what you’re doing to build a readership.

A: When I published my first book I had no involvement in social media. Following my first book I got involved in Linkedin and later Pinterest. These are now well established. Over the last two months I have now set up Facebook and Twitter sites as well as Goodreads, Amazon, WordPress, Google and Blogger.dot com  I have been featured on many Guest Author spots and currently I am looking at putting out several trailers and doing a guest podcast. My first book had a very good review by a top USA reviewer: http://www.theusreview.com/reviews/Moments-Wilson.html

Q: What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you?

A: I worked as an investigator for about 28 years

Q: So what’s next on your plate?

A: I am currently writing my third book of short stories. Completion is about a year away.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: Thanks for the interview

Q: Where can readers learn more about you and your work?

A: Websites:

http://brian-d-wilson.com/

http://www.amazon.com/Brian-Wilson/e/B001K833VO

Blog spots:

http://www.pinterest.com/briandwilson78/pins/

http://wilsonbd.wordpress.com/author/wilsonbd/

http://brian-d-wilson.blogspot.co.nz/

http://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/3664510-moments-in-time-a-collection-of-short-stories

 

 

The Single Person’s Cookbook-Lessons in Life, Love and Food

Tonys cookbook cover

“Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.” This vintage quote by the late columnist/film critic Harriet Van Horne is the perfect introduction to this week’s interview with Tony Wilkins, author of The Single Person’s Cookbook – Lessons in Life, Love and Food. When he’s not stirring up fun, dolloping heaps of wisdom, and serving timely tips to fans of his weekly San Francisco talk show, this multi-talented entrepreneur can likely be found conjuring culinary magic – and courting romance! – in his home kitchen. Whether you’re young and just starting out, older and unexpectedly starting over, or simply savoring the simplicity of singlehood, Tony’s book is a tasty blend of approachable menus and saucy anecdotes.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: Are you a self-taught cook or did you spend a lot of time in your mom’s kitchen growing up?

A: I’m self-taught. However, I grew up watching Julia Child a lot as a kid.

Q: What was your favorite comfort food as a child? Is it something that still fills you with bliss as an adult?

A: My favorite meal as a kid was fried chicken with buttered corn and mashed potatoes. And to this day if I have a rough day it’s my “go-to meal”. With a glass of wine, of course.

Q: Are there any foods you run away from?

A: Yes. Cooked rutabagas. I can’t stand the smell.

Q: What’s your favorite spice or herb?

A: Herbs de Provence. It classes up everything from veggies to meat.

Q: So tell us what inspired you to write a cookbook.

A: I was inspired to write the book because writing my (first) book on telemarketing was more labor intensive. The cookbook was my way of telling my story thru my love of food. The rationale was that because it wasn’t about marketing or business, it would be a fun project. It turns out that it was a lot more difficult to write than the first book because I don’t measure anything unless I’m baking.

Q: Most cookbook recipes are written to accommodate 4-6 hungry people. What were the challenges in creating tasty meals for a person who lives – and goes grocery shopping – alone?

A: That’s the strange part because I grew up watching my mom cook for the entire family (4 people) so I had to teach myself how to cook for 1-2 ;which took years to get right. Grocery shopping was easier because I tend to buy in bulk anyway although it can be difficult to see a sale on a 20 pound bag of chicken wings and not throw it in my cart. I think the real lesson to remember when cooking for two is this: buy in bulk but break things down into smaller packages whenever possible for faster, easier cooking. So, for example, meat can be purchased in bulk but cut into smaller pieces for easy freezing and cooking. The same with veggies, stocks (for soups) and sauces.

Q: Speaking of grocery shopping, are you someone who makes it a snappy and efficient expedition or a leisurely one?

A: Leisurely. I rather like the experience of finding new items to buy.

Q: What’s your favorite aisle?

A: I love the meat section. I don’t know why. I just do.

Q: It has long been said that the quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Tell us about how this applies to your three-date rule.

A: LOL. My friends would tease me all the time about cooking for my dates because they felt that it was a sure fire way to run off a man. It’s funny women love having others cook for them but many men feel trapped in a relationship if someone (male or female) cooks (for them) by the third date. Other than that, at my age I don’t really believe in the 3 date rule. Whatever makes you feel comfortable is what you should do. And no, I don’t listen to my friends’ advice anymore about cooking for someone I like.

Q: Do you have a signature “date night” dish when you want to impress someone new?

A: Yes. Chicken Linquica is a favorite or a roasted chicken always goes over well. Both are very simple one pot/pan dishes I can make without much thought or prep.

Q: Do you ever invite your guest(s) to help or do you prefer to run the whole show yourself?

A: I hate others in the kitchen with me. I often tell my guests to choose a movie while I’m in the kitchen but truthfully by the time they arrive dinner is usually already done.

Q: Have you ever had a kitchen disaster?

A: God yes. I think every cook has had a disaster at one point or another. It’s how we learn. It was when I was very young and really wanted to impress someone by cooking a dish in a pressure cooker for the first time. Needless to say I haven’t used one since.

Q: Do you set a formal table when it’s just you or do you carry your plate to another room?

A: I eat in the living room because I want to watch TV or work while eating. I know it’s bad but one should be comfortable when eating. There’s something a bit pathetic about (me) sitting alone at my large wooden kitchen table and eating a meal. For some reason it feels as if the neighbors are watching me with pity in their eyes.

Q: The book is filled with anecdotes about your love life. For you, which food is the most potent aphrodisiac?

A: Again, a really wonderfully roasted chicken is comforting and comfortable and puts everyone in a relaxed amiable mood for whatever comes next.

Q: With the holidays just around the corner, what do you do to keep yourself from stressing out as a party host?

A: Besides going to someone else’s house? I keep it simple and have cooking time down to 2 hours. I taught this trick to my girls, Leslie and Robyn, and now every year they call me with a report on how their cooking experiences. Here’s the secret. First handle as much of the prep work a few weeks in advance because it’s not the cooking that takes so much time; it’s the prep work. So any chopping of veggies can done weeks ahead of time and stored in the freezer until you need them. Next, if you’re cooking for 1-2 people buy turkey parts – legs, thighs, etc. separately instead of a whole turkey. This way you’ll cut down on prep as well as cooking time. Also I try to have all of my spices (for the day) seasonings, etc. all in one place or grouped together so I’m not spending 10 minutes searching for nutmeg. Lastly, keep things simple and on your terms because it’s supposed to be a time to relax and enjoy family and friends. So make sure that whatever you decide to do this holiday season, you do it on your terms.

Q: What are the 10 most important staples in your pantry?

A: I’ll give you a few extras. Salt, pepper, butter, olive oil, chicken, pasta, sausage, bacon, Herbs de Provence, tomatoes, corn, onions and shrimp. If I have these in my kitchen, then I can cook just about anything.

Q: What’s your most treasured kitchen appliance or accessory and how long have you had it?

A: I’d say my 3 cast iron skillets, all of which I’ve had for over 20 years.

Q: You live in San Francisco, one of the most foodie-centric cities in the country. On the nights when you’re not cooking, what are some of your favorite haunts?

A: Hmm. That’s a tough once since I tend to eat in a lot but when I do dine out I love The Sausage Factory for Italian food (in the Castro). I also love dives and since I live in the Tenderloin part of the city there are several to choose from. Here’s an interesting fun-fact. Although the “TL” as it’s called is considered a low income neighborhood, we have some of the best restaurants in the city. Most tourists, college kids and anyone wanting a good meal for not a lot of money will come to the TL instead of going to one the more expensive haunts

Q: Who do you think make better chefs – men or women?

A: Now that’s a great question. I think men and women approach food differently. Men tend to have a technical approach to cooking which in theory would make them better chefs (I suppose). But women tend to be more creative and approach food from an emotional standpoint which would make them better cooks (again in theory).

Having said that, both are equally important to the food industry. Nigella Lawson, for example refers to herself as a “cook” but she’s got more passion for food than just about anyone on TV today. On the other hand, Julia (Child) was a chef and was equally passionate about cooking but she focused more on the technique of cooking. Keep in mind that Julia also trained at Le Cordon Bleu and was the only female in her class.

Q: If you could invite your favorite celebrity to dinner, who would it be, what would you serve, and how would the table be set?

A: Oh that’s easy although I would invite several people including singer Julia Fordham, her sister Claire, and Nigella Lawson. Ironically, a singer, a writer and a cook who all happen to be British. The dinner would be a simple roasted chicken with veggies or my new favorite comfort dish – fried catfish over Campbell’s Chunky chicken gumbo. The dish sounds (It’s a Creole dish I came up with one night) very odd but trust me, not only is it delicious but it’s done in about 15 min. The table would be simple, elegant but welcoming with a bit of candlelight and Julia Fordham playing in the background.

Q: What are you having for dinner tonight?

A: I’m making a deep dish sausage pizza

Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know?

A: I guess the only thing I want your readers to know is that they should always be curious and creative when it comes to cooking. Try new things including herbs and veggies that you wouldn’t ordinarily try.  I’m not much of a baker but every now and then I really love the process of learning to bake something from scratch. My book is available at http://www.amazon.com/Single-Persons-Cookbook-Lessons-Life-Love/dp/1463721064

Kiss Chronicles

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“The sound of a kiss” wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes, “is not so loud as that of a cannon, but its echo lasts a great deal longer.”

Do you remember the very first kiss you ever gave or received? Virginia M. Sanders not only waited three decades for this auspicious event to occur but also made it the subject of her memoir, Kiss Chronicles. While her text is primarily targeted to females between the ages of 15 and 35, its message of love, loss and unabashed mirth will resonate with anyone who believes in the magic of romance and the priceless value of supporting worthy causes.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: Tell us the inspiration behind your new book, Kiss Chronicles.

A: To answer that question, I actually need to take it back a little farther, to what started the whole Kiss Chronicles project. Before I turned 30, I’d been feeling anxious that I hadn’t gotten my first kiss yet. And then after my 30th birthday, I wanted to take action, to do something that felt right to get that kiss. When the thought occurred to me that, hey, people have auctioned stranger things than first kisses on eBay, so why not? At first, I threw the idea out because the money in an auction involved made it a bad idea. Then the idea came to me that the money didn’t have to come to me — it could go to charity instead. And I fell in love with the idea. Then everything that happened after that eventually lead to the book.

Q: The craft of writing not only enables us to make new discoveries about ourselves but also to provide closure for certain events and relationships in our past. What was your own experience with this in penning a soul-bearing memoir?

A: By the time I began writing the book, I needed it. I needed to put every word down, one after the other, to process my feelings and thoughts and work past them. I needed to pull my stories together to see how I’d come to that point in my life. Writing Kiss Chronicles was like being at the narrow point of an hourglass, filtering sand through that point grain by grain. The process brought me valuable lessons and healing.

Q: What governed your choice to make Kiss Chronicles a nonfiction title instead of a novel?

A: Wow, it never even occurred to me to novelize it. Huh. But truthfully, even if it had occurred to me, I wouldn’t have done that. By writing nonfiction, I discovered that this was the one story I could tell that could never belong to anyone else. Still, I do look forward to going back to fiction writing.

Q: Fiction enables a writer to take more liberties with the truth and, in doing so, maintain a safe distance of personal privacy. Are there other differences you encountered over the course of structuring your story?

A: The difference between fiction and nonfiction…to me, writing nonfiction felt kind of like cheating because I already knew the whole story. I didn’t have to invent characters or their backgrounds. I didn’t have to build a world. I was never surprised when something I wrote went in an unexpected direction. Writing nonfiction was like adding colors to a sketched outline rather than facing the daunting prospect of painting on a blank canvas.

Q: Were you/are you a voracious reader? If so, who are some of the authors you most admire and why?

A: I love to read. I admire C.S. Lewis for his wonder, Tolkein for his astonishing commitment to his world, and Lewis Carroll for his nonsense. In more modern times, Rob Thurman and S.U. Pacat are both writers that I stalk, er, um, I mean I appreciate their talents. And Robin McKinley wrote my favorite book, the darkest of dark fairy tales, Deerskin.

Q: What are you reading now?

A: I’ve started Les Misérables, unabridged, and let me tell you, this one’s going to take me a while. I expect I’m going to have to take a break from it once or twice and read something that’s pure, unrepentant fluff.

Q: Fairy tales are everywhere, frequently permeating literature, movies and stage plays with characters, quests and object lessons that subsequently feel familiar to us. How do you use this storytelling device in your own work?

A: I mention fairy tales more than once in the body of the book, but I also had fun with the theme by threading a completed fairy tale throughout the book, beginning each of the chapters (and ending one or two of them). I took my nonfiction story and turned it into a fairy tale allegory, which supports the through lines of the whole tale. And, of course, the fairy tale concept had an obvious impact on the cover.

Q: In one word, how would you describe your first kiss?

A: Spoiler!

Q: If you could go back and invite any celebrity to the kiss auction in your book, who would it be and why?

A: Ahaha, wait, what? You mean to be the kisser? I can tell you this for sure: It would NOT be Gene Simmons!

Q: What is a typical writing day like for you?

A: Stare at blank page. Walk away. Come back and stare again. Chew fingernail. Walk away and use the laser pointer to tease a cat. Come back and write a sentence. Shout with joy and suddenly write bunches of paragraphs. Realize that an hour has gone by and, oh, where did all those words come from? Good job. Eat chocolate. Repeat.

Q: Are critique groups a help or a hindrance in a writer’s journey to find his/her unique voice?

A: A critique group, a good critique group, will be the greatest asset on a writer’s journey to tell a story. As for finding a unique voice, I’m not sure about that. Although I’ve belonged to a critique group for four years now, and I’ve met many people through it, I have yet to meet a writer who didn’t already have a unique voice. The group might have some influence on how that voice gets refined, to help polish it and make it shine, but it was already there to begin with. The group, my group at least, has much more to say about the mechanics of the writing.

For writers looking to find a critique group, the first place to check is MeetUp.com to see whether there are any local, established groups. If that doesn’t work, poke around at a library and see whether a friendly librarian knows of any crit groups. Or try searching online for “writing group [your location]” or “writing critique [your location]” and see what’s out there.

If you decide you need to start your own group, you can set it up on MeetUp.com and make it a regular event. (My group started off meeting every other week. Now we meet weekly.) Try to have at least a couple of other people you know, writers, who can help establish a reliable core membership. You’ll also want to set up rules, such as how long critique submissions should be and how far in advance of the meeting people need to submit the text to be read. You can use systems such as Dropbox, Yahoo! Groups, or Google Docs to share files.

Q: Was the decision to self-publish one that you made from the outset or did you pitch through traditional channels first?

A: I didn’t decide to self-publish at the outset, but nor did I pitch to any traditional channels. I pitched through entirely non-traditional channels at first. What I really wanted to do was work with a cancer-related charity and have the book benefit it directly. And who knows? Maybe that could be a possibility in the future. But for now, I’m content to be self-published and still benefitting charity, albeit through a workaround.

Q: What do you know now about the pros and cons of self-publishing that you didn’t know when you started?

A: In traditional publishing, the author gets hears a lot of “no” on the front end, before publishing the book. In self-publishing, the author hears a lot of “no” on the back end, after publishing the book. In self-publishing, the con is that I still have to fight to get my foot in the door and gain acknowledgement, but the pro is that even while I’m doing that work my book is already out, available, and able to start collecting reviews and momentum.

Q: How do you deal with the bias of publishing a “free” ebook?

A: For me, it’s still early days. I don’t think I’ve had to face this bias directly yet. I know it’s out there, though, the opinion that an author would only publish a book for free because it just isn’t that good and wouldn’t sell. That’s not the truth. Sometimes great writers have valid reasons for making books or short stories free.

However, I’ve realized a terrible indirect downside to my book being free: I can’t hold giveaways. People love to get something for free that wouldn’t otherwise be free, and so many authors are using that as a great promotional tool, giving away free or discounted books and gaining attention in the process. It’s a valuable way to spread the word, but I can’t join the giveaway fun.

Q: You indicate that you wrote this book for social good and wanted to leave it to readers to decide how and whether they take action. Tell us a little more about that.

A: Yes, this book is devoted to raising funds and awareness for cancer research and patients. It’s a cause that’s very personally significant to me because I’ve lost two immediate family members to cancer. I have a fundraising page set up for the book on Razoo at http://www.razoo.com/story/Kiss-Chronicles. It’s a third-party fundraising site, so the money is going to the charity and is tax deductible for the reader.

Donations are great and very much appreciated. However, each reader is unique and might want some say in where the donation goes. I picked a charity that fights multiple cancers, but what if the reader would prefer to donate to a cancer-specific charity, such as the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society? I welcome the reader to do that. And what if the reader doesn’t have the cash to spare but has some free time? In that case, volunteering for a charity event might be perfect.

Of course I’d like my fundraising page to do well. In fact, it can and will do well. But I also think that someone reading my book might be able to come up with a brilliant idea that I never thought of, and I want to encourage that. I realize, of course, that plenty of readers will simply read the book without taking action. Still, I believe in planting seeds of potential even if they don’t sprout right away.

Q: What would fans be the most surprised to learn about you?

A: I once had a dream that I got my first kiss from a web comic character named Skids. True story. He was a good dream kisser, too.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: Fiction! I want to write some short stories and work with some new characters with super powers and maybe even go back to an old fairy tale that’s still in progress. More blogging as well, so the nonfiction doesn’t get to go away completely.

Q: Where can readers learn more about you?

A: I blog at http://kisschronicles.com, and occasionally I post on the BlogHer network site. And you can find me tweeting on @KissChronicle.

What Are You Laughing At? How to Write Funny Screenplays, Stories and More

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“Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps,” wrote English essayist William Hazlitt, “for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be.”

While pain and loss are the common denominators that universally produce tears, identifying the elements that trigger giggles, chuckles, and rip-snorting, knee-slapping guffaws is much harder. Humor is not only predicated on whether we´re a victim, participant or observer in the hilarity that ensues but also age, gender, education, ethnicity, social status and even where we live. A penguin that walks into a bowling alley in a New Yorker cartoon is likely to generate adult mirth from an incongruous caption that mixes sophistication with silliness. In a children´s show, the same penguin isn´t funny until he gets hit in the face with a cream pie or tries to evade an oncoming rush of bowling balls. If someone trips over the penguin in America´s Funniest Home Videos and smacks his head on the ball-return mechanism, we laugh at the man´s clumsiness, disregarding the realities of potentially knocking all his teeth out or getting a concussion from which a blot clot forms and subsequently kills him.

Humor sits at a complex intersection between context and audience. And who better to explain what tickles our collective funny bones than Brad Schreiber, author of What Are You Laughing At? How to Write Funny Screenplays, Stories and More.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Let’s start with some general background about who you are, what you’ve done, and when did the writing bug first bite you?

I describe my writing background as “psychotically eclectic,” because I have written for film, TV, stage, radio, advertising, fiction, nonfiction and was once hired to write dialogue for a pre-recorded phone line called “Dial-an-Insult” but I´m not so proud of that. I attended Burlingame High School in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I actually became more interested in acting than writing. Then, I eventually was the Editor-in-Chief of the school newspaper and Editor of the school literary magazine as well.

My writing career evolved from medium to medium and I now crossover in TV, film, books and theatre. Writers who work in numerous media find that some pay better than others, but those others sometimes provide greater artistic satisfaction so the trade-off is calculated and very worthwhile. I´ve always advised writers to try and develop their skills in one more than one area.

Some people are funny in person while others are funnier in print. Which category best fits you and why?

I think I am funniest wearing my flannel pajamas covered with the character Stewie from the TV series Family Guy. I think the humor writer who is “good in a room” pitching or has performance experience has an advantage over other comedy writers in TV and film. Success in those media is predicated not only on perceptions of your talent but your personality and ability to adapt to new suggestions.

Thus, the comedy writer who has performed onstage may well have this advantage. I don´t think more introspective humor writers need to be standups or in comedy groups, but I strongly advise taking an improvisation class at least once to loosen up, to expand their abilities, to free associate. When I was 18, I was in a comedy troupe in the Bay Area called the Burlingame Philharmonic Orchestra. Unfortunately, an actual orchestra complained when they saw our name on the bill at a club, asking who we were and why they did not get the gig. Still, performing on radio, TV, stage and in recording studios helped me to gain confidence in meeting new people and promoting my work.

Humor covers a broad spectrum of everything from pie-in-the-face pratfalls to sophisticated wit and sarcasm. Tell us a bit about what kind of mirth appeals to different demographics and how writers can use this awareness to pen funny scripts and stories.

This is a tricky question. As I say in my humor writing book What Are You Laughing At?, humor is as personal as the clothing you wear, and sometimes in as bad taste. I´m not sure of the exact demographic for fruit-pie-in-the-face compared to meringue but I can tell you this: the more people you try to appeal to, the broader and less sophisticated the humor becomes. Thus, a comedy screenplay based on wordplay will not be as accepted in other countries as one relying upon physical comedy.

English male comedians like wearing women´s clothes. Perhaps because women get to wear more silk. I don´t know. But the English also have a love of wordplay, so there is room within the culture for sophistication as well. I think it´s dangerous to make universal assumptions about what kind of humor will appeal to Ecuadorians. Here´s an example of the unpredictability of humor to a specific nationality. After one of my books was published, I went to the Book Expo America in New York City. I met a group of German publishing executives at a party. They were dressed in suits, seemed very intelligent, business savvy and knowledgable about American culture and the corporate world. But when one of them mentioned not liking a type of food because it made him fart, they all erupted into laughter like a group of prepubescent boys. Then, they started talking nonstop about flatulence. But it would be a mistake to think all Germans like fart jokes. Or at least, I pray to God they don´t.

In the end, you should write humor from passion and from strength. As always, it is good to learn about all kinds of approaches to comedy. But I have to quote the great Bill Cosby, here: “I don´t know what the key to success is. But the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”

Who did you think was funny when you were growing up? Who do you think is funny now?

My mother, Mona, was an actor and writer and told great jokes, did voices and had a profound effect on my artistic development. I watched way too much TV as a child. I watched stuff that even bored me. But there were no computers then. I loved certain animated series, including Rocky and Bullwinkle, which had jokes for kids and adults combined. An early TV series I enjoyed was My Favorite Martian with Bill Bixby and the great Ray Walston. I don´t think the show would have worked so well if Walston´s humorous intensity, his commitment to the role, wasn´t so focused. The two antennae protruding from his head also helped.

 

I recall seeing Bob Hope early on TV and loving the quality of his material. Of course, he also had tremendous writers, including the great Larry Gelbart, who I was fortunate enough to get to know a bit. One of the great honors of my life was getting a blurb from Larry on my humor book, saying, “Finally, a how-to by somebody who actually knows how to.” Prior to the great Johnny Carson, Jack Paar exhibited not only a brilliant wit but an exceptional intelligence for a talk show host. I could go on and on. Generally speaking, I want humor writers and performers to have a unique approach to the world as they see it: I don´t want something warmly familiar. I want something that feels like it builds on the history of humor.

Tell us about your book, what topics it covers and what inspired you to write it? What’s the takeaway value you want readers to have when they’re finished?

It´s the only book I know of that looks at all forms of humor writing, both in script and prose form. It´s also the only book to have an out-of-focus, closeup of a laughing pig on the cover. You see, there´s a lesson right on the cover: As you laugh at the pig, it laughs at you too.

The book not only has over 75 excerpts from great humor writers but also writing exercises I have created. I used to teach Humor Writing at UCLA Extension and the book built upon my course materials. I also have insinuated some principles that apply not only to humor but to dramatic writing as well.

What are some of the common mistakes that people make when they’re trying to write humorous dialogue and silly scenarios?

Vulgarity for shock value. Cultural references that will become dated. Sketches that do not have a beginning, middle and end but repeat a situation or character flaw over and over. Using exclamation points and all capital letters to make unfunny dialog somehow funnier. DO YOU THINK THAT´S ALL IT TAKES!!

What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you about comedy?

I can tell you the worst advice I have ever heard and I have heard it more than once: Analyzing comedy kills it. Wrong. Understanding the flow of words, how juxtaposition creates humor, why shock and surprise work, all these things are important to know. I have a section in “What Are You” called Yiddish Sound Theory, explaining why certain words sound funnier than others that have the same meaning. You require talent to write humor but understanding principles will aid all writers of comedy.

What are some movies and television programs that you think lend themselves well to the study of comedic delivery?

I don´t believe in citing my favorite movies and TV shows and comedians too often because everyone´s taste is different. But I do believe you as a writer and/or performer should be able to tell anyone why you like one person over another. Is it about material or intonation or appearance or facial expressions or topics? If you force me against my will- which you are, damn you, Christina – here are some faves: Verbal dexterity in standup: Robin Williams. Uniqueness as a female standup: Phyllis Diller. TV ensemble acting: The Carol Burnett Show. Uniqueness of sketch writing: MadTV. The last American comedy film that I thought broke new ground was The Hangover. If you disagree with any of this, then I didn´t mean any of it.

What’s the most recent thing you laughed about and why was it funny?

I´m a playwright member of the Actors Studio in Los Angeles. After a recent reading of a darkly comedic play of mine, some folks, including Mark Rydell, who runs things, gathered at a deli. He told me how he knew the meekly humorous actor Wally Cox, who came over Rydell´s mother´s house for dinner once. Mama Rydell kept giving him more food and Cox kept politely saying he was full. Finally, when she ignored him for the fifth time, in his typically timid voice, Cox said, “Shove it up your ass, Mrs. Rydell.” Mark said his father laughed so hard that he cried. Now I ask you, if Cox was anything but mousy, would this line have elicited laughter?

If you could go to lunch with any comedian from the past or the present, who would it be and what question would you most like to ask him or her?

Even though I knew him, I would bring Larry Gelbart back to life and have a nice, long lunch with him, shot on video, to keep for posterity. While he was not a comedian, he was one of the most remarkable comedy writers in history. His career spanned radio, TV, theatre and film. He infused his characters, no matter how flawed, with great humanity. He broke comedic ground with the TV series M*A*S*H, films like Tootsie, his remarkable theatre work, including Mastergate and films like Barbarians at the Gate. His adaptability, his perspective on the changing nature of humor and his brilliance with both comedy and drama in writing made him very special. He was also a mensch and I loved him.

What are you working on now?

I got the rights back to my first book, Weird Wonders and Bizarre Blunders: The Official Book of Ridiculous Records and I published it as a Kindle book on Amazon. My book about Jimi Hendrix is under option with me to write the screenplay. I am also adapting Becoming Jimi Hendrix as a musical and I am attached as screenwriter to a project about Formula One car racing that will be a big, international co-production.

Where can readers learn more about you?

http://www.BradSchreiber.com and also they can enter my name at http://www.RedRoom.com for more video, audio and reviews. THANKS, CHRISTINA! I mean, thanks, Christina.