Author Interview: Jeffrey Cohen
Jeffrey Cohen started out writing a very funny, well tuned series about a family with a son who has Asberger's. By coincidence, Cohen's own son also has Asberger's, something that made that series especially memorable. But his light humorous touch has transferred nicely to his new series with a more mainstream publisher (Berkley) about Elliot Freed, who owns an old fashioned movie theater that only shows comedies - another passion of Cohen's. Here he talks about his first "Elliot" mystery, Some Like it Hot-Buttered.
Q: Most obvious question first - when did you become a movie buff? Who else do you love, along with the Marx
Brothers and Mel Brooks?
A: When I was four, my parents took me to see "Pinocchio". So I guess since then, although the whale did scare me. Friggin' whale...Who else besides Mel and the Bros.? Geez, the list is so long, and it's not all comedy: I went through a very serious Hitchcock phase in my teens and 20's, and still love a lot of those. "North by Northwest" is one of my very favorites, and if I can figure out a way to get Elliot Freed to show it at Comedy Tonight, I'm sure I'll work it in at some point. Also Gene Wilder, Preston Sturges, Indiana Jones, Star Trek (original characters only, sorry), Monty Python, Peter Sellers, Madeleine Kahn, Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, Gilda Radner, Kevin Kline, anything written by Larry Gelbart...I could go on.
Q: What comes first for you, character, setting, or plot? All seem strong - your setting is unique, and even
your sidebar characters are memorable.
A: Thank you for that. Character ALWAYS comes first for me, possibly at the expense of plot, sometimes, I just fall in love with the little devils, and I'm much more interested in how things affect them than what it is doing the affecting. I don't think James Bond is an interesting character, because nothing EVER affects him, and what's the point of that? I mean, I still like to go to watch stuff blow up, but I couldn't tell you the difference between two Bond films.
Q: Is the humor so natural you don't even think about it? It doesn't feel forced - which I think is fatal!
A lot of it is character based, wouldn't you agree?
A: The comedy for me is the easy part. It's instinctive, and I know where to put it. The hard part is always plot. Character driven comedy is exactly what I'm going for, so if it works, that's what you should get. I'm terrified of going too far and putting my characters in wacky situations that scream "LAUGH AT ME!" because then no one ever will. I don't sweat the jokes, except when I can't some up with one in the right spot. The story is what keeps me up nights.
Q: What's most important to you when telling a story?
A: Well, like I said, it's character. You can have a really interesting story with dull characters, and nobody's going to remember it. So I start with who the character is, and where his / her weak spots are, because that's where you're going to be poking. Alan Alda said he came up with ideas for the episodes of M*A*S*H he wrote by asking himself: "what keeps this character sane?" and then taking that away. I think that's a good way to work.
Q: Do you want to include any kind of message?
A: Not consciously. In the Aaron Tucker books, there was always a subtext about my son's Aspberger Syndrome, because I wanted to get information about AS into the hands of people who weren't looking for it. In the Double Feature series, it's more basic, about the power of comedy and how it's so often overlooked.
Q: Cozies are sometimes dismissed as being lightweight and free of thought, but I think a well written book is
a well written book. Most cozies depend on character, and you can certainly illuminate different ideas through
A: When I started writing mystery novels, I had never heard of a "cozy". I still think the distinctions are somewhat silly. What's lightweight and free of thought? Do people think that a great comedy like "Tootsie" happens without thought? The problem is that comedy, for it to work, has to SEEM effortless, so people think it really is. Believe me, there's sweat and tears behind it (not so much blood - we save that for the murder).
Q: Is the movie theater in the book based on a real movie theater, or is this a wonderful fantasy?
A: It's my personal fantasy. I'd love to own and program a theater like Comedy Tonight, just to get people to watch the movies I love so much. But it's not based on any one theater in particular. Since I started the series, I've become aware of some specialty and revival theaters in my area, but none that show only comedy.
Q: Do you think Elliot will be able to make a go of it with his theater, or do you have plans for him to branch
out as an official P.I. for hire? He would certainly be an original one.
A: Well, I'm not giving away any future plot points, but it's never going to be easy for Elliot to make a strong business out of a quirky idea like Comedy Tonight. But to hire out as a P.I.? That's not Elliot. He doesn't WANT to get involved with violent people, not by any stretch of the imagination. Besides, the state of New Jersey would probably not give him a P.I. licence. I like to think there's THAT much sense in state government, even if it's not true.
Q: Anything you'd like to share about Elliot's future relationship with his ex-wife? I really emjoyed that it
felt like, as a reader. I was joining a fully thought out emotional situation and characters in progress.
A: Wow. I need to be interviewed more often - it's such an ego boost! Elliot and Sharon were, in my mind, a reaction to Aaron and Abby in the Aaron Tucker books. I wanted a couple who just hadn't been able to make a marriage work, but weren't in that state of animosity that seems to permeate so many divorced couples. So they manage to maintain a friendly relationship. Will it go into other areas? You're going to have to read the next book to find out. I EARN my $7.99!
Q; I have a theory that women write "micro" and men write "macro" - women (mystery writers at least) seem to
focus on domestic and interpersonal relationships; lots of guys will include a wider world view, focus on politics, etc.
For lots of male writers the personal stuff is just a sidebar. You totally blow my theory! Do you want to comment?
A: Maybe I don't have enough testosterone, or something (although my wife might contradict that idea). I don't think we can be that general: "men write this, women write that." Robert B. Parker writes about human relationships and rarely gets into politics or anything larger than the story at hand. On the other hand, people like Laura Lippman can deliver very insightful ideas and communities, the way government works, and such things that good newspaper reporters (of which I was not one) can understand and illustrate. It bothers me when people categorize writers that way, suggesting that men should write one thing and women another, or that mystery writers are about plot, and not character. Each writer does what they do best.
Q: Who had influenced you, mystery wise?
A: Oof. My Achilles heel question. I have to confess that I don't read tons of mystery, or tons of fiction, to tell the truth. My influences are probably more cinematic - I spent 20 years trying to sell screenplays, with various degrees of no success. I learned about suspense and pacing from Hitchcock, about timing a joke from Blake Edwards and Groucho Marx. I learned about plotting from Hammett and Chandler and Parker and Doyle, of course, but most of what I put into storytelling, I've learned by watching, and then by doing.
Q: And what's up next for Elliot?
A: In July, he'll be back with It Happened One Knife, in which Elliot gets to live his fantasy: he meets two of his heroes, the comedy team of Lillis and Townes, and invites them to a screening of their classic "Cracked Ice." Then he finds out that it's not always great to meet your idols - especially when one of them kills the other.
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