Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Interrogation Room #11: Chris Grabenstein

Today award-winning author Chris Grabenstein faces the (admittedly very soft) glare of The Interrogation Room spotlight, whose newest middle-grade mystery/adventure RILEY MACK AND THE OTHER KNOWN TROUBLEMAKERS hits shelves today. A fun-filled classic crime caper, RILEY MACK is the first of Chris' new action-adventure series for kids ages 8 -12.

From ChrisGrabenstein.com:
Seventh-grade mastermind Riley Mack and his best buds always come to the rescue when family or friends are in trouble, even if it takes some high-octane subterfuge and fifty pounds of dog food. Kids ages 8-12 will root for Riley and his "Gnat Pack": tech-savvy Jake, dramatic Brianna, big-guy Mongo, and brainy Jamal. They'll hiss for the bad guys, too—the bully Gavin Brown; his father, Fairview's crooked police chief; his conniving grandmother, who runs a filthy puppy mill; and Fairview's gambling-addicted bank manager, who tries to frame Riley's mom. Throw in one stolen goldendoodle, two bumbling bank robbers, and plenty of duct tape, and the action never flags.

A former improv comic who worked alongside Bruce Willis and was hired by James Patterson to write ad copy, Chris has written 17 books for both adults and children. His first middle-grade mystery, THE CROSSROADS, won both an Agatha and Anthony award in 2008 and topped several "best of" lists that year. He followed that up with another Agatha-award winner, THE HANGING HILL, as well two more books in the series, THE SMOKY CORRIDOR and THE BLACK HEART CRYPT. We're glad to see him launch this latest series!

We wish we could say our interrogators treat all our suspects the same, regardless of their celebrity status, but we'd be lying: we've let Chris' Broadway star dog, Fred, off the hook. Chris, however, isn't quite as lucky...

Kristen Kittscher: Riley Mack and the Other Known Troublemakers is such a fun, mad-cap caper with a lot of heart. You’ve described it as a middle-grade Ocean’s Eleven. Why did you want to write this story and how did you develop the idea?

Chris Grabenstein: I have always loved the comic Dortmunder capers by Donald Westlake – The Hot Rock and all the rest.   I thought it would be fun to do that kind of story for kids, where one caper leads to another, which leads to another, which usually leads to two or three more.

Also, when I was eleven and twelve, I spent a lot of Saturday nights watching Mission Impossible on TV.  Riley’s crew lines up pretty well with Mr. Phelp’s gang.  There’s Jake, who’s great with electronics and technology; Briana who is a terrific actress and make-up artist; Jamal, the new kid on the team, who’s great with his hands (especially when picking locks;  and Hubert Montgomery who is, basically, big and strong.  In fact, he’s so huge, everybody calls him Humongo or Mongo for short. 

Kristen: You worked for a long time in advertising, as have well known mystery and thriller authors such as Clive Cussler, Ted Bell, and Stuart Wood.  In fact, James Patterson discovered your writing talent and was your boss for a time at J. Walter Thompson. Do you see a connection between writing ads and suspense writing?

Chris: Definitely!   My first publisher at Carroll & Graf, who did my adult mystery TILT A WHIRL, put it best I think:  “I like you advertising writers; you don’t waste people’s time.”   I guess that comes from having 50-70 words in a television commercial to convince people to buy your Double Whopper instead of their usual Big Mac.

When I was a trainee copywriter, James Patterson gave us a talk about how to write advertising.   While he was speaking, some guy ran in the door and threw a cream pie in his face.We were all in shock. Mr. Patterson was THE Creative Director in the New York Office of JWT.  He was Chairman of the Board.  Well, he wiped the cream off his face and said – “That’s how you write advertising.  You throw a pie in their face and, once you have their attention, you say something smart.”

You might notice that my books all open with a bang.  Or, as I like to call it, a cream pie.

Kristen: One of the most delightful aspects of Riley Mack is its pitch-perfect humor, which is not surprising giving your background as a stand-up comedian who did a good deal of improv. Does your improv background figure into your craft in any other ways?

Chris: First, thanks for the compliment!   Yes, I use improv every day as I write.   As a former actor/comedian, I basically get into character and play all the parts in the book.  After I plan out the three or four major plot turns in a storyline, I use the rules of improv to make up the rest as I go.  That way, I am telling myself the story the whole time I am writing the story.

Kristen: Your first book came out in 2005, and since then you’ve published 17 more (am I counting correctly? Feel free to set me straight!) What tips can you share for writers hoping to be more productive?

Chris: (Math – Six Ceepaks with #7 coming out in May, Two Holiday thrillers, four Haunted Mystery books, one play, two short story anthologies…drum roll…yep…17!) Wow.  I hadn’t realized that I had published 17 stories in six and a half years.   (And, I could tell you about the 2-3 that still get rejected every year). 

I think being prolific also comes from my 17 years of training, toiling in the advertising vineyards.  We used to go to work at 8 a.m. and write until 7 p.m.   For every commercial you see on the air, at least 2-300 scripts were written and killed.  So, as a copy writer, you get used to sitting down and writing.  A lot.   As some of my author friends say, “there is no author’s block in advertising, there is only unemployment.”

My advice, I guess, is to sit down and write every day.  The muse will show up after you’ve been clacking keys for about 20 minutes.

Kristen: You started your career writing for adults, even winning an Anthony for Best First Mystery with the first in your John Ceepak mystery series, Tilt-a-Whirl. How does writing for kids compare with writing for adults? What would you say are the particular rewards and challenges of writing for children?

Chris: I love writing for adults but I LOVE writing for kids and am happy that my children’s books have won Anthony and Agatha awards, too. Young readers come to signing events hugging your book.  They treat authors like rock stars when we come to their schools. They have such wild imaginations.  On the whole, they read a much broader spectrum of “genres” (even though they may not know that word) than adults, mainly because they have to, I guess.

The greatest rewards are, when I visit schools, I meet the kids who look and act just like I did in the fifth and sixth grade. You should see them light up when I tell them how bad I was at sports and how I discovered that writing was something I could do well; that they all have talents they’ll soon discover, too.

The other huge reward comes when I get an e-mail from a mom or dad saying “thank you, thank you, thank you” because their son (or, sometimes, daughter) hasn’t read anything for years and couldn’t put my book down.   I guess that advertising background helps me write for reluctant readers because almost all commercial viewers do so reluctantly.  You have to win their attention and stop them from changing the channel. 

With books, I see my number one job to be keeping the reader flipping pages.

Kristen: Riley and the “other known troublemakers” make for a very entertaining cast. Where did you get your inspiration for the characters?

Chris: Well, Riley Mack, I think, is the kid I wish I could’ve been.  Super cool.  Never flustered.  To me, he is a lot like Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox  or the classic Reynard The Fox character in literature.   He has doubts, but only when he thinks he is letting others down.  And, I named him Riley Mack after my web maven’s awesome son, who I first met when he was about twelve years old.   (I also like the fact that Riley Mack scans with Robin Hood – the two have a lot in common.)

Briana, the actress, Jake the techno-wiz, and Mongo the strong man are all based on the Mission Impossible archetypes.

Jamal is based on a young man I overheard on an uptown bus ride in New York City who had so much swagger and panache I had to try to recreate him in a book.

Kristen: Puppies figure prominently in Riley Mack’s plot line. You so happen to live with canine Broadway star, Fred the Dog from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. To what extent did you consult with him for research:-)?

Chris: Heavily!  Fred and I usually go for four walks every day.   When we walk, I daydream about what’s going on in my stories.   He is very patient when I stop to jot down a note or, these days, thumb something into my iPhone.   So, a couple years ago, Fred said it was time I did a story about rescuing dogs.   He had been found on the streets and locked up in a kill shelter where he would’ve been put to sleep if Broadway animal trainer Bill Berloni hadn’t rescued him. So, Fred and I are big believers in “Pet Adoption Is The Best Option.”  Once you save a dog’s life, you won’t believe how often they’ll show you their gratitude. They know what you did and they love (and lick) you for it.

Kristen: Lastly, are there any upcoming events or new writing projects you’d like to tell us about?

Chris: Well, we’re already working on the sequel to RILEY MACK called RILEY MACK STIRS UP MORE TROUBLE, which is slated for 2013.   The seventh John Ceepak mystery for adults, FUN HOUSE, will be out this May.  And, true to form, I am currently working on about six other books!   Maybe four of them will get published.

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us, Chris! We really enjoyed reading RILEY MACK AND THE OTHER KNOWN TROUBLEMAKERS and hope our interrogation encourages our readers to head out and buy their own copies. Congratulations on today's launch -- and another congrats to 
to Laura Pauling, who won her own signed ARC of RILEY along with some "Troublemaker" swag last week!


  1. Can't wait to meet Riley Mack! A Grabenstein book is always a lot of fun.

  2. Chris' productivity is a little scary... ;-) Great interview--I can't wait to read RILEY MACK!

  3. I love capers; I can't wait to read this! Also inspiring to hear about Chris's work habits and productivity. And Fred seems like a great muse. We'll have to have him in the Interrogation Room someday, as I suspect he has more to say . . .


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