|Jerrilyn Farmer: Mystery Does Hollywood|
Hollywood and mystery writers belong together, or so Raymond Chandler, Ellery Queen and many others could testify. Southern California's outrageous and over-the-top characters provide authors unlimited plot twists and turns. Can you think of a better background in which to toss a hardened private eye -- or a professional party planner?
Neither could Jerrilyn Farmer. The author of three other Madeline Bean books -- Sympathy For the Devil, Immaculate Reception, and the Agatha Award-nominated Killer Wedding -- Farmer obviously found the recipe to cook up masterful concoctions of insider tidbits, marvelous munchings and mysterious murders. Just like her chef and party planner extraordinaire, Maddie Bean, Farmer deftly pulls together all of the above to provide readers with not only a satisfying but entertaining mystery. Crescent Blues decided to track down the very busy Farmer and find out how a gameshow and comedy scriptwriter segued into cozy mysteries.
Crescent Blues: Your latest Madeline Bean novel, Dim Sum Dead, revolves around the game of mah-jongg (and some really yummy Chinese food). Where did the inspiration for this medley of Mu Shu Pork, mah-jongg and murder spring?
Jerrilyn Farmer: Did you know...mah-jongg has begun to get very hot again -- on the Internet, with computer game software, and in Hollywood where the young and the restless are always up for a new thrill. The gambling aspects and the mystery of the Chinese characters on the tiles are part of the attraction, I'm sure. But the game is just fun. As I thought about it, Madeline Bean, my event-planner protagonist, would naturally be involved with the sort of people who were getting into mah-jongg, and it made me smile. I loved the irony of the old ladies who play mah-jongg, and the young hipsters getting into the action. And I wanted to do a book that had its back story in China. Voila! It all gelled and became Dim Sum Dead.
In addition, I always wanted to write a mystery revolving around a McGuffin -- a classic mystery device that features an object everyone is hunting for -- like the Maltese Falcon. In Dim Sum Dead, Wesley finds a mysterious antique behind the wall of a home he was renovating. This antique mah-jongg case is quickly stolen, and off goes the chase of the story!
Crescent Blues: One of the characters in Dim Sum Dead tells fortunes by reading mah-jongg tiles. Is this something you'd heard of before writing the Book -- and, if real, how does one go about finding a mah-jongg fortune teller?
Jerrilyn Farmer: LOL! I don't know. I do know that fortunetelling is a theme I come back to time and again in this series. A mysterious gypsy-costumed fortune-teller appears in Sympathy For the Devil, and for an actress hired for the part, she does a remarkably accurate job in her fortunes.
I love the idea of fate and predictions. I'm not saying I believe in them, you understand. But I like to think about it all, and so I put that element into the books. When I was doing research on mah-jongg for Dim Sum Dead, I stumbled across a listing for an out-of-print book with instructions on telling fortunes with mah-jongg tiles. That's the sort of discovery that makes my research, which I take very seriously, completely worthwhile. I knew I had to have that out-of-print book and put the fortune telling into the plot.
Crescent Blues: I'm sure people are going to have a grand time second-guessing on who you based your aging super-star divas. Could you give our readers a little hint regarding Catherine, Rosalie, Helen or Eva? Please? Pretty please?
Jerrilyn Farmer: Oh, man. You make it so hard on a poor writer. Come very close to your computer monitor, and I'll whisper... Mphhhsshhmmmm Nneffffmmm!
Actually, I think it's fun guessing, don't you? (I cringe, expecting several wadded up tissues tossed at the screen!)
Crescent Blues: While Maddie rocks solo, a lot of folks really love her cohorts, Wesley and Holly. How important do you think a good supporting cast is for a successful mystery sleuth?
Jerrilyn Farmer: I love the supporting casts in my favorite mysteries, so I hope readers really enjoy seeing Mad's friends in each new outing. The great thing about Holly and Wes and Arlo, et al., is that they are allowed to have more, shall we say, extreme personalities.
Take Holly. Long and lean, with her deep bangs bleached white, Maddie's assistant Holly allows me to reflect the amazing fashion-extremities worn in Los Angeles. She's also one of those people who seem scattered on the outside, but can pull it all together when she needs to get serious. But Holly tends to be too trusting, especially for L.A., and quick to fall hard for the wrong guy. She loves not wisely, but too well. I wouldn't be at all surprised if Holly woke up in Vegas one morning, and found herself married, before she remembered to inquire if her new husband possibly had a former wife and family.
Crescent Blues: That sounds like a plot in the making -- and so L.A.! In every respect, you display a phenomenal knowledge of Hollywood and the L.A. scene. Where do you get all your insider information?
Jerrilyn Farmer: Easy. All of my sweet, smart, outsider friends from the old days have somehow, miraculously become Hollywood insiders now! See what a good hairstylist, a good agent and perseverance will get you? What a cool thing. And we all gossip like crazy.
For better or worse, this is my town now. I live here. I've worked as a comedy writer and television writer, and it's not hard to observe what's going on all around me. In fact, one of the nicest affirmations of the authenticity of Maddie Bean's Hollywood was the reaction I got from the head of prime time programming at CBS. He totally loved the hateful Bruno Huntley, the producer character in Sympathy For the Devil. He thought Bruno was just like all the producers he himself works with. The programming guy delighted, then, when Bruno bit the dust on the dance floor in Chapter 5 -- a vicarious thrill for a man who must get along with such difficult personalities on a daily basis.
But thank you for your very kind compliment. I am so pleased when I hear people are entertained by my view of Hollywood, because it's actually the main reason I chose to write this series. I am fascinated by all the people I meet here. The people who come to Hollywood to make it big are often larger-than-life, high-risk types. Put too many of them in any room, and it's like you're at a party where everyone was once voted class clown, homecoming queen, or best actor of their senior class. It's hilarious. All that natural outgoingness tends to combust in confined spaces, and I love to write about those tensions and explosions as the background to my mystery plots.
Crescent Blues: We understand congratulations are in order too. Your previous book, Killer Wedding, has been nominated for an Agatha. What do these kind of awards mean to you -- not only as nods from your peers, but in terms of additional sales, etc.?
Jerrilyn Farmer: I am so excited about this new Agatha nomination for Killer Wedding! I feel incredibly honored to be nominated along side Sujata Massey, Elizabeth George, Margaret Maron and Taffy Cannon. I mean, come on! Those are authors whose books I've loved for years. It's awesome.
I have never been terribly lucky in any other thing I've tried, but I've been extremely fortunate in the mystery awards department. From the very first book in my series, Sympathy For the Devil, which came out in 1998, I have had the great blessing of the positive reaction of readers. In fact, all three of my books have been recognized with Agatha Award nominations. I'm just so grateful to those who bought and read my books and have supported the series.
As for what an award means in terms of sales, it is hard to say exactly. Awards certainly help an author get noticed by fans and by mystery booksellers. It is a lovely thing to put a nomination or award on the cover of a book, which might help a reader pick it up and consider trying it. It also helps an author get additional attention from her own publishing house. That notice may translate into more support and promotion.
But most of the big publishers are only looking at an author's sales numbers, and even award winners can see their numbers drop. It's a hard cold commercial world, so I try not to worry about what I cannot control. Instead, I just treasure the great memories of Malice Domestics and Bouchercons past, where I have had the privilege of meeting fans and waiting for my name to be announced. And then I wonder about whatever I should do with my hair for the Agatha Award Banquet in May!
Crescent Blues: How did a gal from Illinois who majored in Theater and English wind up writing mysteries in Los Angeles?
Jerrilyn Farmer: Just lucky I guess. [Smiles.] Well, we gals from Illinois have to end up somewhere. And I have done many things over the years, from writing Jeopardy! questions to designing the Athlete Transportation System for the 1984 Olympics to waiting tables at the raunchiest Country & Western bar in North Hollywood. With so much "experience," what else to do but write mysteries?
Crescent Blues: You have a very interesting day-job -- as the head writer for Supermarket Sweep (supposedly one of Madonna's favorite television shows). How do you script a game show?
Jerrilyn Farmer: In game shows, the script refers to all the language spoken by the host, like introductions and explanations of rules, and recap of scores and lead up to commercials, etc. That's a skeleton script. The questions for each individual episode are plugged in, and that's your basic game show. I've written all elements and find it most fun. Research is the key to writing great questions, and I love to research.
Crescent Blues: You also wrote comedy for Saturday Night Live and other comedians (which explains the wonderful hilarity that occurs regularly in all your Madeline Bean mysteries). Do you ever miss that kind of writing?
Jerrilyn Farmer: I'm still doing it. It's the best. Most recently I'm working on a one-hour comedy special for Martin Short, in which his Ed Grimley character has a little melt-down. It's great exercise to work on comedy.
Crescent Blues: When did you first realize you wanted to write?
Jerrilyn Farmer: I never realized it. Is that what I want to do? Oh, but why? It's so hard!
Crescent Blues: Who inspired you the most?
Jerrilyn Farmer: Madame Curie and Sue Grafton.
Crescent Blues: How did you get into the scriptwriting business?
Jerrilyn Farmer: I moved to L.A. to act. To make a little money on the way, I tried out for a game show. The production company invited me to do office run-throughs of in-the-works games they were developing. That led to doing a pilot, and getting hired to help select contestants for the new series. Pretty quickly, they discovered I could write questions and the rest is game show history. Once I began hanging with TV writers (a weirder and more brilliant group you cannot imagine), more opportunities opened up in comedy and other shows.
Crescent Blues: What got you writing mysteries? How does it relate to your day job?
Jerrilyn Farmer: I had been wondering what it might be like to tackle a writing project that involved a little more than just 72 characters (the length limit on a Jeopardy! question graphic) and a pinnable answer. After years of collaboration in writing for television, I was interested in a solo project. I am a huge mystery fan, so that was the great draw to try it. Even now, I'm a little giggly at the idea that my early obsession with Agatha Christie could come in handy to me now, professionally.
Crescent Blues: Do you have any other writing ambitions -- perhaps scripting a movie or television show or writing a different genre of fiction?
Jerrilyn Farmer: Of course. They all sound marvelous. Note to self: try to trick someone into giving me a chance to do any of the above.
Crescent Blues: Not only do you work full-time and write best-selling novels, but you have a husband and children. Where do you find time for everything?
Jerrilyn Farmer: This question is the biggest mystery. I'm also teaching writing at UCLA Extension, and touring and doing book signings, and picking kids up at school, and working on the board of SoCal Mystery Writers of America. I simply make it all happen, and there is no explanation. I don't sleep very much. How's that?
Crescent Blues: Rumor has it that you've been approached about making Maddie and her crew into a television series. Any truth to these rumors?
Jerrilyn Farmer: Yes. There may be a new television series. Stay tuned for more details.
Crescent Blues: If you were able to personally choose your dream cast for a Madeline Bean television show (or movie) who would you cast for your principals?
Jerrilyn Farmer: LOL! I don't know. I hope I could find the perfect cast of unknowns and give them all their big breaks. But I wouldn't mind taking a few private meetings with Antonio Banderas (What? You don't see Wesley with a Spanish accent?) or Tom Hanks (What? We can't afford to blow two season's budget on Tom H. as Honnett?) I'll set up the meetings and get back to you.
(I should point out, I really do not see either of these two stars in those roles. Just joking. But not joking at all about my desire to have serious talks with them -- at great length and at a marvelous candle-lit restaurant -- about how we might fix the scripts.)
Crescent Blues: Can you give us any idea of Maddie's next adventure?
Jerrilyn Farmer: I have a contract for two more Madeline Bean books, so I'm already working away at book five, which I want to call Shoot The Chef. But I do not work with an outline, so the story is still showing itself to me. It's a lot of fun this way, but I don't like to talk about the story very much until it's completed.
Crescent Blues: As always, we offer the author their very own soapbox, free of charge, on which they can let our readers know what's on their minds. Space Is no problem, so speak out as much as you like!
Jerrilyn Farmer: My goodness! After all these marvelous questions, and my long, rambling answers, I haven't got another thing left to say. Thank you so much for having me as a guest here on Crescent Blues.
Click here to read Teri Smith's review of Killer Wedding.
Click here to read Teri Smith's review of Dim Sum Dead.
Click here to read more about Jerrilyn Farmer.