If you missed my review of The Totally Gnarly Way Bogus Murder of Muffy McGregor by Teddy Durgin, you’ll have to check that out here.
1. I know you’ve been writing this one for a long time, so how long did it take you to write the first draft and then edit it into the final product?
I actually treated the book like I was making a movie. I had started novels before, gotten halfway or more into them, realized the stories weren’t quite working, and gave up. The old cliche. But with “Muffy,” I really knew I had something. I had pretty much the basics of the entire story in my head for years, and I didn’t want to screw it up. A good story really does seize you. It almost becomes a responsibility to tell!
So, I spent nearly six months before I even started writing the book plotting out each beat of the story, outlining each chapter, jotting down lines of dialogue and character exchanges I knew had to be in the novel in a notebook. So, by the time I was ready to “start production” — i.e., writing the first draft — I was totally ready. That was September 2015, and I finished the book in February, on President’s Day of this year. And then I spent the next three months in “post-production,” revising, tweaking, getting it proof-read (four minor typos still slipped through … aargh … but there’s always the 2nd edition in August).
I liken independent publishing in 2016 to where indie filmmaking was in the late 1980s and ’90s. With all of the consolidation going on in the publishing industry, all of the bricks-and-mortars stores closing, less risk-taking in general, some of the best and most daring work is not coming out of Random House or the other biggies. When I also saw the success some other authors I greatly admire who have gone this route were enjoying, both creatively and financially, it just seemed like the right way for me.
I am friends with Gus Russo, the best-selling, non-fiction crime author. One of his last books, “Boomer Days,” was published via CreateSpace and he raved about the process and the people involved. It was a niche book, very different from his previous titles like “The Outfit” and “Supermob.” But it became really successful, too. Then, when I saw the kind of numbers and the following authors like Patti Davis, mystery author M. Louisa Locke, and the very witty Jennifer Tress were attracting, I was 100-percent convinced.
Now, it has helped that I have been able to build off my own audience via my weekly film reviews that run in Teddy’s Takes, the East County Times in Baltimore, and ScreenIt.com, as well as my monthly column in the Maryland and Washington Beverage Journals. My readers’ support has gotten “Muffy” off to a great start!
As for turning this into a series, if I were to do another, I would pick a similar goofy title; probably keep the action in the ’80s in my hometown of Laurel, Md.; but introduce new characters. Some of the minor ones from “Muffy,” like the gossipy mall geezers Mel and Rodney, would cross over. But that would be about it. If I did a direct sequel, it would be set 20 years later with a grown-up Sam as a dad to a teenager who’s similarly flirting with danger.
3. How many times did you re-watch episodes of “Magnum P.I.” to get that scene just right with Rabinowitz, Sam, and Chip when they enter that office?
HA! No, that was all from memory. I’ve sworn over the years to my wife that somehow, some way I was going to make money on all of this “useless” ”70s and 80s pop culture trivia knowledge I have. Personally, I wish there was a purely ’80s cable TV channel. You really can’t find reruns of shows like “Magnum” or “Riptide” or “Remington Steele” anymore.
Follow-up question: Were you listening to all that 80s music you referenced in the acknowledgments on repeat while writing?
I would listen to those tunes before I would write to get me “in the zone.” I can’t listen to music while I type … not even abstracts.
4. How much of Sam Eckert is you? And are any of these characters based on real people? How do you meld fact and fiction?
It’s an old, OLD saying, but you really are most successful when you “write what you know.” Like Sam, I really did work as a 15-year-old stock boy at the Laurel Centre Mall’s 16 Plus clothing store for plus-sized women during the summer of 1986. Like Sam, I was a Lutheran attending the local Catholic High School. And, like Sam, I would get together with a couple of buddies whenever I could at the mall food court and talk flicks, pop music, bad TV, and we’d lament about our social status (or lack thereof). Unlike Sam, I am not a child of divorce, and I never lived in an apartment. He is also VERY different from me physically.
Most characters in the book have elements of people I knew growing up. But then I would add other quirks to them to make them their own people. Collette was my boss at 16 Plus, but she was not a former BBW supermodel. There really were about a half-dozen senior citizens who would gather at the mall each day and bust each other’s chops. And they knew EVERYTHING that went on in the mall. I condensed them down to Mel and Rodney. Rabinowitz is modeled more after my college journalism professor, Tom Nugent, than anyone. But Bernie Sanders was growing in popularity as I was writing the novel, and so I kept hearing his voice and tenor as I was writing Mervyn.
And then, I would just throw in last names and first names here and there of people I knew and grew up with to delight those who I hoped would one day read the book. In fact, I’ve actually had a few people e-mail me from my past who have asked, “Hey, why didn’t I make it in the book in some way?!” So, yeah, I am definitely going to have to do some kind of sequel or follow-up!
5. Now that you’ve moved out of Maryland into another state, did you find that you could finish the book more easily because you missed your former home?
Writing this book was actually a way to deal with whatever residual “homesickness” I was feeling for Maryland (and, uh, my lost youth). The Laurel of 2016 is VERY different from the Laurel of 1986. It’s silly to say, but I actually got to a point when I was still living in Maryland where I would kind of mourn all that had been lost and was no longer there in my hometown. The mall? Gone. Woolworth’s and its legendary lunch counter? Long gone. The Laurel Twin Cinema? It’s almost impossible for a two-screen theater to survive today. But it was wonderful to remember and “rebuild” each of these places again on the page.
6. Readers always want to know about writing routines, so did you have a specific time set aside to write this novel, as I know you have a full-time writing job and do other projects as well? How do you fit it all in?
I am one of those writers that absolutely has to compartmentalize pretty much all aspects of my life in order to be productive. I can’t mix and match. I never pen movie reviews during my day-job hours. I don’t write news articles immediately after coming back from a film premiere, when I really need to write about the movie I just saw while it’s fresh in my head.
But tackling a novel?! There was only one way that I could do it. Because I had plotted out the chapters and story beats so specifically for months, I would clock out of my day job on Friday afternoons, my family and I would go to a nice dinner (I never feel like cooking on a Friday), and then I would come home and write the novel until about 11 p.m. or midnight and then throughout the day on Saturday and parts of Sunday whenever I had a free hour or two.
My goal was one chapter a week. If I maintained that pace, I would have the planned 16 chapters done in 16 weeks. Well, it took me about 22 weeks with the holidays and various life happenings. But on the weekends, I would just bang it out. Rather than being tired from a week of writing and editing, it would energize me. I would look forward to writing “Muffy!” It actually became the most fun I’ve ever had writing anything!
One other thing that I don’t recommend, but I did it. I didn’t tell ANYONE! Not even my wife. It’s not uncommon to find me pounding away at the keyboard, writing at all hours of the day and evening. So, I never attracted any suspicion. I thought I would tell her at some point. But it was so much fun having a little secret, and I was really moving at a good pace. She was remarkably understanding when I finally told her I had finished it on President’s Day. Just to be safe, though, I told her in a crowded public restaurant!
7. I ask this question of all interviewees: Do you read poetry? If not, why? If so, Who or what collections would you recommend?
I don’t read as much poetry now as when I was young. I was an English major in college. And, I tell you, one of the most fun times I have EVER had was taking a 200-level summer Poetry course as an elective. Summer classes were a couple of times a week for six weeks, I recall. So, each of the classes was three hours long. And it was just bliss. We would read poetry, write poetry, read each other’s poetry, act out poems. It was the summer of 1989, and “Dead Poets Society” was a big movie that summer. It felt almost fourth-dimensional.
I did find I was not very good at writing poetry. But it was still so much fun. There was a real “intimacy” to that class and a few other summer writing courses I took over the years at UMBC that I still miss to this day. My favorite poet, by the way, will probably always be Dylan Thomas. “Do not go gentle into that good night!”
8. Did you read a lot of mysteries before writing this one, and do you have favorite mystery authors?
I read a LOT of Sherlock Holmes mysteries growing up. I had seen the 1939 Basil Rathbone-starring film “The Hound of the Baskervilles” when I was maybe 10 or 11 on Saturday morning TV (one of the DC-area UHF channels ran it) and then started checking out volumes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle whenever it was “library day” at school. There was about a two- or three-year span where my teachers were, like, “Read someone else!”
Then, years later, Data on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” did several Holmes-holodeck episodes, and I had a whole second “Sherlock” era.
First, I have to say, Dylan Thomas is awesome. And Second, I cannot believe he didn’t tell his wife he was writing a novel until it was nearly done!
Thanks, Teddy, for this fantastic interview, and I wish you great success!