Earlier this month, Book Con 2018 arrived at the Javits Center in NYC. This book lover’s dream convention was not only filled with thousands of books from pretty much every publisher ever, but authors were present for panels, signings, photos, and my favorite… interviews.
Fred Van Lente, author of Ten Dead Comedians was there for Quirk Books, signing for his latest, The Con Artist. The Con Artist is set at a convention (of all places) where the lead character, Mike Mason, is suspect number 1 for his rival’s murder.
Check out my interview with the author here below.
Geeks of Doom: What inspired Ten Dead Comedians? (I was surprised by the ending – also, Murder on the Orient Express was the first book I ever taught as an English teacher, so LOVED it!)
Fred Van Lente: Ah, excellent — there’s nothing a mystery likes to hear less than the ending was predictable. The obvious inspiration here is Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which has such a perfect structure — a mystery in which all the potential victims are also potential suspects, trapped on an isolated island where one of them is trying to kill the rest off … but who? And why? You could plug a number of different sorts of people into that paradigm, but I’d been a fan of stand-up comedy for so long and so many kinds of it, that I was surprised no one had ever done a stand-up mystery before. And comedy lends itself to that, as a character says in the book, since all their metaphors for performing are so murder-y — if you do well on stage you “kill” the audience, if you don’t do well you “bomb,”, etc.!
Geeks of Doom: Which character is loosely (or tightly) based on yourself (if any)?
Fred Van Lente: I imagine this is a bit cliche, but every character is some exaggerated aspect of me — Gordo the improv instructor is the cynic and skeptic; Zoe the up-and-comer is my insecurity; Dante the “urban” comic is my bravado; TJ the late-nite host is my entitlement; Ruby the alt-comic is the angry leftist; Janet the insult comic is when I’m really, really mean … You get the idea!
Geeks of Doom: Tell me a little bit about The Con Artist.
Fred Van Lente: The Con Artist is my next mystery novel from Quirk, out this July 10, and it’s what I like to call a “geek noir” — it’s a murder mystery set at a huge comic con in San Diego, where a famous comics artist is falsely accused of murdering his editor. He’s got to find the real killer before Sunday when the con ends or he’s going away to jail forever! I’ve worked in comics for well over ten years, writing titles like Amazing Spider-Man and Deadpool, and have done a dozen cons a year in that time, so it was great to really “write what you know.” Also, what’s terrific is that my frequent collaborator, Tom Fowler, who’s a real comics artist, provides illustrations from the hero’s sketchbook in the novel that provide clues that will help you solve the mystery.
Geeks of Doom: Who were your influences as a kid? Doesn’t have to be limited to authors.
Fred Van Lente: I was a huge superhero nut when I was kid — I devoured anything in a cape. So it was a huge dream come true when I got to work for Marvel, DC, and other big comics companies. But I also was a huge Raymond Chandler addict — I’ve read every Philip Marlowe novel several times. So the journey artist Mike Mason goes through in The Con Artist involves a fun mash-up of the two — there’s a first-person narrator, a lot of corruption, and, of course, the all-important Southern California setting. That’s where my “geek noir” descriptor comes from…!
Geeks of Doom: Why did you begin writing Action Presidents and who is next?
Fred Van Lente: My cartoonist partner-in-crime Ryan Dunlavey has been doing funny non-fiction comics for a long time — like Action Philosophers and The Comic Book History of Comics — but we wanted to do American history for some time. HarperCollins took us aboard, and Action Presidents was the result. Our books on Lincoln and Washington are out now, and we’re working on finishing Teddy Roosevelt and JFK at the moment, with hopefully more to come.
Geeks of Doom: How did you get your start in this business and in particular, Quirk?
Fred Van Lente: I went to Syracuse University to study film, but wound up hanging around with guys like Ryan in the Comic Book Club and got way more interested in doing funnybooks instead. Ryan and I and a couple of the rest of us moved to NYC after school and broke into the industry after years of bitter struggle [cue violin theme]. One of the projects Ryan did outside of our work was the comics cookbook Dirt Candy, written by master chef Amanda Cohen, whose husband is Quirk horror superstar Grady Hendrix (Paperbacks From Hell). (You got that so far? There will be a quiz.) I knew Grady through Ryan and he put me in touch with Quirk; the rest is literary history!
Geeks of Doom: What do you love about living in Brooklyn? I’m a native.
Fred Van Lente: What’s not to love? I’ve lived here for 22 years, so though I’m not a native, my time in Brooklyn is old enough to drink. I like being a 10-minute subway ride into the city and having all these friends and businesses in walking distance, but still I have all the suburban pleasures of a quiet street, I have a garden I can putter around in, and so forth. Brooklyn: The best of all worlds!
Geeks of Doom: Any writing rituals? For example, I have to throw my ungrateful cat out of the room or she will sprawl across my keyboard.
Fred Van Lente: My youngest cat, Newt, would claw the door off if I tried that. He’s seen lying on my keyboard as a right, not a privilege, his whole life.
Below is him at 5 months:
And the same cat at 17 months:
So I have to account for him jumping onto it or into my lap and wanting petties at various points during my day. Does that count as a writing ritual? [I think so.]
Geeks of Doom: What is your next project?
Fred Van Lente: I have a couple things going on, but I’m about to embark on a standalone graphic novel about the history of basketball that I am very excited about.
Geeks of Doom: Tell me a “quirky” thing about you.
Fred Van Lente: My self is little more than an amalgamation of various quirks, some endearing, some considerably less so. For example, I always eat one whole dish on my plate, then the next thing, then the next thing. Like, first the vegetable, then the potato, then the meat. I never mix it all up. Drives my mother crazy. I have no idea why I do it, I just always have. It is, you might say … a mystery!
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