Tuesday, August 12, 2008

It's Not the Final Curtain for R.T. Jordan - or Polly Pepper

Today, I have a real treat, Richard T. Jordan, author of the Polly Pepper mystery series talks about his latest book, "Final Curtain." Read about Richard's life as a staff writer for Walt Disney Studios and how that has affected his book writing, his former life as a writer under another name, and even why he attended Karen Carpenter's funeral. Richard says he's shy in public, but this is one of the best interviews of the summer! Ask Richard a question before 5 p.m. CST today, by clicking on comments, and if I randomly draw your question, Richard will answer it and you will win a copy of his book!

Tell us about yourself.
Talking about myself isn’t exactly what I do best. However, I suspect that when one first meets me in person they naturally assume that I’m gregarious and that I enjoy being the center of attention. False! It’s a role I play: the “it’s time to be social” role. I actually don’t enjoy being the center of attention at all. I turn beet red in staff meetings whenever I’m called upon to discuss a project. If I can come home from the office on Friday night and not have to leave my home or see anyone until Monday morning, I’m a very happy man. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy entertaining and being invited to others’ homes for intimate dinners. I do, enjoy those things. But with my career at Disney and my second career as a novelist, “free” time is something that I value almost above all else. I especially enjoy time to be with myself.

But for the sake of a bit of background information, I was born in Chicago, Illinois, and raised in Peabody, Massachusetts. “A good place to be from,” I always say. I guess I had a relatively happy childhood in New England. In fact, I suppose it was a darn good childhood. But I was in a hurry to grow up and get out. Everyone who ever knew me back then, was aware that I had my sites set on California. I always knew that’s where I belonged. I left home right after high school and moved to Los Angeles. I didn’t know a soul in this city. I didn’t have a job or a place to live. In retrospect (and it sounds easy for me to say this from my current position), I sincerely knew that I’d land in clover. I arrived in L.A., found a room to rent in an old, cockroach-infested house, found a job as a gopher at an insurance company (the worst job!), and started to live the life that I had dreamed of all those cold winter mornings in Massachusetts.

I enrolled part-time at UCLA and then ended up as an assistant at The Walt Disney Studios. I started moving up the proverbial ladder and I’ve been there ever since - Twenty-five years in September 2009!

Along the way I fell in love with the old Roz Russell movie, “Auntie Mame.” That film actually started my career as a writer because I decided to write a book chronically the history of the fictional Auntie Mame. I had learned that Patrick Dennis had written a novel called AUNTIE MAME, and that it was adapted for Broadway by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Then it became the movie that I first loved. Then it was turned into a Broadway musical by Jerry Herman, starring Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur. However, when Hollywood came calling again, it flopped as a movie musical. Still, I wanted to write this book. I remember that I wrote a proposal and shopped it to every agent and editor in the world. Nobody wanted it. Finally, my first agent, the now deceased and much missed Dorris Halsey, read the proposal and found a small publishing house to accept it. The book, BUT DARLING, I’M YOUR AUNTIE MAME! became the biggest seller in the 30-year history of the now-defunct (it wasn’t my fault!) Capra Press. Then, the book went on to have another wonderful life when my fantastic editor at Kensington, John Scognamiglio, reprinted a revised edition.

Other trivia. I’m not leaving this planet until I’ve done everything that I’ve ever wanted to do. With that in mind, ever since I was a kid, I had wanted to learn to figure skate. So, about four years ago, I started taking lessons. It was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. I recently had to curtail that activity because of too many injuries, but I had a blast while it lasted. What else? I love to travel. The UK, especially Scotland, is my favorite places to visit. I’ve taken a baby step toward actually living there by purchasing a timeshare in Edinburgh. However, the U.S. dollar sucks so badly that I don’t know when I’ll actually be in a position to become an ex-pat. I enjoy wine, classical music, ROAD RUNNER cartoons, the old FRASIER television series. Also, any movie that stars Angela Bassett or Meryl Street. And I’ll never get over the death of Karen Carpenter. I even went to her funeral. That’s me in a nutshell.

Tell us about your new Polly Pepper book, “Final Curtain.”
FINAL CURTAIN is the second volume in my Polly Pepper “cozy” mystery series. After writing a bunch of “summer beach books” under the pseudonym Ben Tyler, I switched to mysteries because I definitely needed a change of pace. Polly Pepper is your typical, run-of-the-mill international celebrity icon. She earned her status as a living legend during the years that she hosted one of the most successful television musical/comedy shows of the 1980s. However, after a receiving a ton of Emmy Awards, Peoples Choice Awards, and every other honor that could be bestowed upon her, Polly’s show, THE POLLY PEPPER PLAYHOUSE, was eventually cancelled. Now, she picks up work wherever she can find it. And, curiously, wherever Polly goes, dead people follow.

In FINAL CURTAIN, Polly has finally won one of the most coveted rolls in musical theatre for an actress of a certain age. She’s starring as Mame in a low-rent production of the musical in Glendale, California. It’s not Broadway, but she’s been promised that if the reviews are any good, the show might transfer to The Great White Way. Polly can only hope. Alas, the production gets off to a rotten start when the director is murdered. Now it’s up to Polly, her adult but still-living-at-home son Tim, and their maid, Placenta, to figure out who did the terrible deed. Of all the books I’ve written (I think this is my 10th), FINAL CURTAIN is without question my favorite. Sure, we love all our children, but there’s always one that we’re most proud of. For me, it’s this book. The novel is funny, and suspenseful, and fast paced. I think I hit my stride with this one. This is the first time that I’m not shy telling friends to buy the book!

Why did you write under a different name before and why did you decide to change and use your real name now?
I wrote four novels and three novellas under the name Ben Tyler because I wanted to distance myself from Disney, where I work as a senior publicist. Those books were the antithesis of what The Walt Disney Company stands for so, as a courtesy to this great company I decided it would be best use a nom de plume. However, it didn’t take long for word to spread, at least here at the studio, that I was the guy behind the the title TRICKS OF THE TRADE. Most of my colleagues thought it was great. Others, not so much. But I’m still here.

What other ways has being a staff writer for The Walt Disney Studios affected your writing?
For about sixteen years I was the staff writer in the feature film publicity department at Disney. (The job was eliminated a few years ago, so I became a photo editor.) They were the best of years, they were the worst of years. Frankly, I don’t know how I survived the pressure. There was a period in which we were releasing forty films a year. I was the guy who created all of the press kits, and wrote hundreds of feature articles, thousands and thousands of bios, production information notes, which are essentially a history of the making of each film, and so much more. The deadlines were outrageous. The pressure nearly took me to the breaking point. On the one hand, it was hell. On the other, I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. I wrote and wrote and re-wrote, sometimes working eighteen hours a day for twenty days straight without a day off. I had one boss who was never satisfied with my first and sometimes second or third drafts of material, and made me start over. But the job forced me to hone my skills, and I’m actually now grateful to that nefarious boss because she made me realize that things improve with rewriting. I never thought I’d do this, but I’m going to dedicate my next novel, A TALENT FOR MURDER, to this particular Boss Lady.

How did you conceive the Polly Pepper character?
Polly Pepper first appeared in a novella that was published a few years ago in a Christmas anthology. At the time, she wasn’t an amateur sleuth. Polly was just an aged out legend who wanted to find a boyfriend for her gay son as a Christmas present. I loved the characters, and when I wanted to stop writing as Ben Tyler, my absolutely wonderful and brilliant editor suggested that I write a mystery. That novella was my favorite published work at the time, and I thought that Polly, Tim, and Placenta were strong enough to carry a full-length novel. I confess that I was scared to death of writing in the mystery genre, but now I can’t imagine anything else. I get a real kick out of the Hollywood world in which Polly and her troupe live. Readers (and a few critics) have said that I modeled Polly after Carol Burnett. Actually, I didn’t, or at least I didn’t mean to. However, I can see some similarities. If these books are ever made into a movie, Carol would be great in the role. Michele Lee is attached for TV or film, and she’ll be wonderful. She has all of Polly’s positive traits. And she’s very glamorous. The producer who optioned the books is pitching the idea to Lifetime and a few other places. I’d love for Polly to have a wider audience. I’d especially like the dollars that go with it! Remember, I need to live in Scotland. Preferably in a castle!

Do you find your characters to be extensions of different parts of your own personality?
I’m not so sure that Polly, Tim, or Placenta are extensions of my own character. I guess to the point that Polly likes a lot of the things that I do, and on the other hand, loathes the same things I do, is one way to look at it. But I’m not at all an over-the-top in my personality. I’m the opposite. Polly and her son and maid are probably more like people that I have come in contact with during my years in Hollywood, rather than aspects of me. Polly is all the glitter and glamour of a film premiere. She shines brightest when the spotlight hits her. She craves attention. As I said earlier, I’m just the opposite. Now that I think of it, perhaps Polly does reflect me. Maybe she has the type of personality that I would like to have. Hmm. I’ll have to think about that.

How is writing a series of books different from writing a single-story book? Writing a series of books with the same character is actually a lot more fulfilling for me, than just a stand alone novel. I need a large canvas when I write. That’s why I’m not a screenwriter. I can’t cram a story into 110 pages. I need five hundred manuscript pages! And with a series, such as the Polly Pepper Mystery Series, I can tell her story over the course of an unlimited number of books. Of course, there’s the problem of possibly unintentionally putting Polly into similar situations, from one book to another. I’m terrible at remembering what happened in previous books. Readers sometimes talk about characters from the Ben Tyler books and I swear to God, I don’t remember them. I suppose this is the result of the fact that I finish one book and almost immediately go into writing another. Everything gets smushed together.

Do you ever have a problem with continuation from the previous novel, or do you write each book to stand on its own?
Each of the Polly Pepper Mystery books can stand alone, but I think it’s fun to follow her and her family through her various murder cases. However, one does not need to start with REMAINS TO BE SCENE, to know all one needs to know about Polly in FINAL CURTAIN. Hopefully, when readers discover FINAL CURTAIN, they’ll want to go back and find out what sort of chaos Polly has created in the first book, and the same with the next volumes. The sleuths may be the same, but they have different assignments.

How do you do market the books, as a book or a series?
With regard to marketing my books, I think my publisher, Kensington, cross promotes them as both part of a series, but also as standalone novels. Just as my favorite mystery writer, Laura Levine, has her ongoing “Jaine Austen” series, her hysterically funny novels can be thoroughly enjoyed one by one. And, with Laura’s work, one novel is not enough. Readers are so enamored of her intelligent and laugh-out-loud writing that they want to read everything she writes. In my next lifetime I want to be Laura Levine!

Do you have an idea of how many books will be in the Polly Pepper series? If you ever decide to end it, do you have ideas for a different series? I’m having so much fun with Polly, and Tim, and Placenta that I don’t want the series to end. I’m contracted for four books, but it could go on and on. Cross your fingers for me, because Polly et al have become family to me. I’d miss not visiting with them every day. That’s not to say that there are time when they irritate me. As with every family, we have our good days and out not so good days. There are times when Polly doesn’t want to be cooperative and reveal more of herself to me. That’s frustrating. But I’m a patient guy, and Polly Pepper always comes around for me. I’m blessed to know Polly and her troupe. They add so much to my life.

And now Richard is awaiting your questions!


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Do you find it difficult shifting from one type of book to another? NOw you're doing mysteries--do you plan on trying any other genres?


8:32 AM CDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not a question for Richard so much as a comment for Kerri - yes, the best interview of the summer...and not just in his enlightening answers, but also your thorough questions.

9:34 AM CDT  

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