In this episode, we spoke with John Gaspard, author of The Popcorn Principles: A Novelist’s Guide to Learning from the Movies, an indispensable guide to implementing tips and tricks learned from film directors and film in general into your fiction writing. John is also the author of several mystery novels across two series, and multiple standalone novels and non-fiction titles. He also hosts two podcasts and has directed six low-budget feature films! He had so much advice to offer this episode, and we had an elucidating and interesting conversation.
We chatted with John about his new non-fiction title, his filmmaking experience, the times he spent interviewing well-known film directors, crafting a compelling mystery, what writers can learn from filmmakers, and so much more. Be sure to check out the “sequel” to The Popcorn Principles; John’s latest, More Popcorn Principles: Further Cinematic Storytelling Strategies for Novelists is out now!
In this episode:
- We hear about John’s background in television and stage show writing, as well as learn more about his filmmaking experience
- He also tells us about how he started writing, his fiction writing journey, and his foray into non-fiction writing
- John gets into writing dialogue, the difference between writing dialogue for novels vs. films, and more
- We also hear more about how he crafts his mysteries, and what techniques he likes to employ when structuring a mystery
- John gets into why he chose to go ahead with indie publishing, and how his choices were shaped by both the film and television and publishing industry
- John gives us the details on his latest non-fiction title, The Popcorn Principles, and how it came to be – and how he got the opportunities to speak with numerous film directors from across the industry
- We get to hear some amazing writing advice – much of which John learned from the movies, of course!
- John gives us some advice on marketing and distributing that are transferable from the film industry to your publishing business
- We also get to hear about the two podcasts that John produces and hosts – be sure to give them a listen: Behind the Page: The Eli Marks Podcast and The Occasional Film Podcast
- And much more!
John is author of the Eli Marks mystery series and the Como Lake Players mystery series. He also has four other stand-alone novels, including two greyhound inspired pastiches: “The Greyhound of the Baskervilles” and “A Christmas Carl.”
John has directed six low-budget features and was a writer/story editor on the European TV series, “Lucky Luke.” He’s also written multiple books on the subject of low-budget filmmaking. Those books include “Fast, Cheap and Under Control” and “Fast, Cheap and Written That Way.” When not writing, John hosts two podcasts: “Behind the Page: The Eli Marks Podcast,” and “The Occasional Film Podcast.”
John lives in Minnesota and shares his home with his lovely wife, two greyhounds, a few cats and a handful of pet allergies.
Transcription by www.speechpad.com
Laura: Hey, writers, you’re listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast” where we bring you insights and inspiration for growing your self-publishing business. We’re your hosts. I’m Laura Granger, author engagement manager at Kobo Writing Life.
Rachel: And I’m Rachel, promotion specialist at Kobo Writing Life.
Laura: Today we spoke to author and filmmaker John Gaspard. John is the author of the Eli Marks Mystery Series as well as four other standalone novels and several nonfiction books. John is also the host of two podcasts and has directed six low-budget feature films.
Rachel: We had such an interesting and fun conversation with John, a lot about how filmmaking has influenced his writing career. John’s latest book, “The Popcorn Principles,” takes a lot of what he learned from being an indie filmmaker and what he’s learned from talking to other filmmakers about the industry and, kind of, how authors can utilize those ideas in writing fiction. It was a really interesting conversation. As I’m sure you’ll be able to tell by this interview, I’m a huge film buff and just had an absolute blast talking about movies and books with John. And we hope you guys enjoy.
Okay, we are joined today by author and filmmaker John Gaspard. John, thank you so much for joining us.
John: It’s a delight to be here. I’m a first-time caller, long-time listener.
Rachel: We very much appreciate it. So, because you’ve listened before, you know I’m going to ask you to kick things off by telling our listeners a little bit about yourself.
John: Sure. I am a retired former corporate writer. I write video scripts and stage shows and things for corporations for 30 years. At the same time, I was also making low-budget movies that I often wrote, usually directed, often produced about a half dozen movies, a couple of them are now on Amazon Prime, Tubi, and Roku and places like that. So, I know a lot about the filmmaking and the video making process.
About 10, 15 years ago, I decided to move into novel writing because it requires less lifting of heavy equipment, which is getting harder to do because when you’re making a low-budget or a budget movie, you don’t have much of a crew, and you spend a lot of your time moving things from point A to point B, which you don’t need to do in novel writing.
So, I started a series called the Eli Marks Mystery Series. That’s now an eight-book series. It’s about a magician in Minneapolis who stumbles into crimes. And because he has an odd way of looking at things as often as magicians do, he’s able to come up with solutions that police would not have thought of otherwise. I also have a second series called The Como Lake Players Mystery Series, which takes place in St. Paul, and it’s about a woman who runs a community theater where a surprising number of murders also take place.
Rachel: Community theater, just notoriously dangerous.
John: Well, yes, but also, and I think mystery writers out there will appreciate this, when you have a continuing series, it’s hard to find ways to bring in a bunch of new people because you have to have victim or two, and you have to have a lot of suspects. And if you have a series in which you’ve sort of built a family, as I have in the Eli Mark series, we already know everybody. And there’s already a half dozen or more recurring characters. None of them can be the murderer. We don’t want any of them to be killed. You’re not really going to believe them as a suspect. So, you have to find a situation where you can put Eli somewhere reasonable where there’s a bunch of new people like at a magic convention or something like that. With community theater, every show, different cast, different director, different crew. So, it proved to be a fertile ground for bringing in characters like that plus I’ve directed a lot of community theater plays and just as the magic world is full of quirky people, so is the community theater world.
Rachel: I was just about to make that point that community theater is always full of just the most excellent characters.
John: Yep, it’s really, really fun. Then on the non-fiction side, because of my background in filmmaking, I had written… After making the first two larger budget low-budget movies I made, each one was about $30,000, which is a lot in that area, I wrote a book for a publisher who does just filmmaking books about how to do that, and then wrote two more books just interviewing people who have made low-budget movies, in many cases, very famous low-budget movies or smaller budget movies about how do they make that happen, what special techniques do you have to use to write, and produce, and create a low-budget movie.
Laura: Because you’ve written in so many different mediums, your screenplays, your fiction, your nonfiction, does your approach, kind of, change depending on what the project is?
John: No. Usually if I can figure out the theme or the first sentence of something, whether that’s a 5-minute corporate video or a 90-minute screenplay or 6-minute teleplay or a novel, that kind of opening DNA, if I can get that, then I’m off to the races. Now, sometimes it’s going to take longer to figure out the whole thing, but once I get that opening thing regardless of what it is, I’m usually pretty good at facing a mostly blank page.
Rachel: And did you have any difficulty making the shift, especially from writing dialogue-heavy screenplays into having to write all of the exposition for novels?
John: No, I didn’t. It was a minor speed bump. The thing that I’d learned that is a very common misconception that you just said was dialogue-heavy movies. Granted a script is, if you glance at it, mostly dialogue because they try to keep the scene description stuff as short as possible so that people will read it, but it’s all structured. It’s all clothesline. That’s all it is, it’s clothesline. But there is not as much dialogue in the standard screenplay as there is in the standard novel. I think a screenplay is generally about 12,000 words. I think that’s about right, 12,000, 15,000 words. So, if you’re writing a novel, you have a much greater opportunity to write lots and lots of dialogue.
The trick that I used was, with Eli Marks, it’s all first person. So, he’s not a very descriptive person. He’s never seen a sunset that looked like a bruise. He doesn’t talk like that. So, everything we hear or see is what he hears or sees. And he’s a guy in his 30s. He’s not loquacious in that sense. So, the novels are heavily dialogue-driven, and the trick there is to make it so that everybody sounds different and you can just kind of tell by the sentence as to who’s talking.
Rachel: And how do you go about then ensuring that you’re capturing different sounding voices for a novel that is dialogue-heavy?
John: Well, it has to do with rereading it and rereading it again and again. I have an advantage that after the third or fourth novel, the friend who had, sort of, inspired the whole magician theme in the novels, who’s also professional narrator, said, “Let’s do audiobooks of your books.” And so he created a different voice for each of the characters, which makes it much easier for me now because I can hear that as I’m writing, and I know immediately if I’m writing Eli, if I’m writing his wife Megan, if I’m writing his Uncle Harry. That really helped to have that already cemented in. I know some people will take different actors and movie stars and put them in places they’re writing so they can get that cadence. I don’t have to do that anymore because thankfully my narrator’s kind of already done that for me.
Laura: And how do you go about plotting the different mysteries?
John: Plotting for me is the hardest part. I do not have a puzzle brain. I’m not that kind of guy. So, that’s, for me, the biggest hurdle in writing an Eli Marks Mystery or The Como Lake Players Mystery is figuring out who did it and why and how. And once I get that in place… And that can take a while. That can be the biggest chunk of the thinking time before the writing time. Once I get that figured out to my satisfaction, then you sort of back out of it into, all right, well, if this is happening, then at some point earlier in the story that has to happen in order to set it up. Like, who would do that and why would they do that? And you begin to create the signposts you’re going to need to make that mystery work.
And then once you’ve done all that backwards work, then you go forward and write it and try to hide things as best you can, which is having done a first-person series and a third-person series, a lot harder to hide clues in a third-person series. Much easier in a first-person series because he’s just throwing all kinds of stuff at you that he’s seeing or hearing. Whereas in third-person, if the narrator in a third-person says something about something, that’s a pretty good indicator that that’s an important thing. I’ve noticed that in watching, like, serialized TV shows now, the streaming shows where if something happens that seems arbitrary, like, “Boy, my phone never works when I cross this bridge,” which was famously in that Harrison Ford movie with Michelle Pfeifer—what was that called—where he ended up being the killer.
Anyway, these little things they throw in, they’re there for a reason because a movie doesn’t have a lot of time for frivolous stuff, and they’re there for a reason. In a third-person mystery, the narrator is only saying it because it’s important. And so it’s harder in that sense to put in red herrings, things to steer people away. Whereas the first-person, what Eli sees is what we see and what he feels is what we feel. And it isn’t until the end where he goes, “Oh, remember that thing when he did that?” “Oh, yes. That person was always saying, ‘Do you want to bet me?’ Do you think they’re the ones who…” You know, that’s how you put it together. So, once you get the mystery in place, then it’s just a question of getting the characters interacting.
Rachel: I’m going to be keeping this hint in mind during my criminal minds watching of when somebody says something that seems arbitrary and try to put the mystery together myself. So, thank you for that tip.
John: It’s very rarely, particularly in an hour-long mystery thing. I think “Poker Face” is a very good example of that, although because they show us the killer and the crime upfront like Columbo did, it isn’t as obvious. But if somebody says something offhandedly, for example, in the pilot of “Poker Face,” someone offhandedly mentions that photos are going up to the cloud. The photos that she doesn’t want going to the cloud, that becomes a big clue later on. Well, why are they…? They found a good way to bury it, but all that stuff is there for a reason and having something that isn’t there for a reason, it’s going to get cut because they just don’t have time. It’s really hard to bury clues in an hour-long mystery.
Rachel: I mean, I find it impressive to be able to bury clues in any length of mystery because you need to have the misdirect, but you also actually need to plant those little seeds. And especially in cozies, because you want your readers to be solving along with you, right?
John: Yeah. You know, I think I’ve gotten pretty good at the end when Eli breaks it down and says, “Here’s what happened.” I don’t have a lot of… Right before that where he says, “I went to the library and did some research,” I think I’m pretty good at giving everyone all the clues and then it’s just a question of stringing them together in the right order. I just don’t like mysteries where you… And I’m sorry, Agatha Christie, I’m talking to you. You sometimes hide a very key thing, which Ms. Marple points out right before she reveals the killer. It’s like, well, you never told me she was able to do that with those… I mean, it’s really annoying when they do that, so I try to keep it as fair as possible but it’s hard.
Rachel: I can imagine. I have a hard time solving the, like, two-minute mystery books.
John: Oh, yes, I know. Yes. Encyclopedia Brown. Okay, what did Bugs Meany do that gave him away? I know. Those are hard.
Rachel: I want to switch gears a little bit before we dive into your latest book. And I’m curious about your publishing history. So, in both film and in publishing, you have published indie, and I’m curious if that was always your intention.
John: No, my intention changed as both industries changed. On the film side, the two biggest features I did, we did in the early ’90s. And that was just as VHS was kind of starting to wane a little bit. It was very easy to distribute via VHS if you had some sort of genre film, these world genre films. Much harder to get theatrical distribution, almost impossible for a film like that. And there weren’t a lot of venues to show films. You know, flash forward to today or even 10 years ago, I finished a movie called “Ghost Light,” which was a delightful little ghost comedy that takes place in the community theater of all places and finished it, went to a site online called Filmhub, uploaded it, clicked a button, and they took care of distributing it to Amazon Prime and Roku and Tubi. So, so much easier now to get your stuff out. Plus you can also throw it up on YouTube or Vimeo, and you can really get your movies out there quite easily. It was not at all that easy years and years ago.
Well, same thing with publishing. You know, I had the Eli Marks Series, the first book, shopped it around, tried to get an agent, couldn’t get an agent, got an agent, she liked it. She decided to give up agenting. The rest of the agents didn’t want it. Kept banging around. Found a small publisher in Texas who did like it. They published the first four books but weren’t having a lot of luck with them, and we kind of disagreed as to how they should be marketed. So, I bought them back, and I’ve done the next four on my own, and all The Como Lake Player Series on my own.
Same sort of thing in the film industry. I can finish a book, boom, upload it right then and there to Amazon, to Kobo, everywhere. I can produce the audiobook. Boom. It’s up on Kobo before you know it. That wasn’t possible before. So, the journey I took was the journey the industry took, which was I went from traditional to, “I’m going to do it all myself.” And I really prefer doing it all myself.
Rachel: Doing it all yourself does also mean a lot more work, but you also have a lot more control, like you said, especially when it comes to the marketing side of it. Have you found any of this really challenging? Has there been anything that surprised you?
John: Marketing is always challenging, whether you’re working through a big traditional publisher or a small trad publisher or yourself. The hardest part is just realizing, “Okay, this isn’t my baby. This is just a product, and I need to make my product look as good as possible,” which I was very lucky I found a great book designer in London who did a great job on both series. So, the books look very attractive. Do a lot of work on the blurb to try to get that right, and then try to get it to the right audience because you just don’t want to spend money getting it to people who don’t care about that sort of thing.
But the Eli Marks Series, the publisher originally said, “Oh, this is fantastic. We have a built-in audience of magicians.” And I disagree then and I disagree now. And the proof is that I know magicians who like the books but they also like mysteries. Magicians who don’t care for mysteries aren’t going to pick up the book, because who wants to read about work if you don’t care about mysteries? So, figuring out who that audience is, is really, really tricky. And I’m not sure I really fully understand who my audience is. With Eli, it’s a goofy male protagonist and a semi-cozy mystery. There’s no violence on screen. There’s no sex, but it’s a guy in a stable relationship who spends most of his time with an 80-year-old magician who’s his uncle. That’s not really standard cozy. He doesn’t have a hobby where you have recipes in the back, or he doesn’t have a cat. I mean, all the tropes you expect to see, they’re not there.
But I have found that, if you find that niche, they’re passionate about it. And the people who love Eli love the books and want more and more and write me threatening emails to say, “If you ever kill off Uncle Harry, I will come and kill you.” And I don’t think they’re kidding. I really don’t think they’re kidding. So, the marketing is always tough, and it’s ongoing. As a independent publisher, there is never one day, one moment in the day that I couldn’t be doing something to make the books get out there better. The key is just go, all right, well, let’s try to keep it to an eight-hour day and have a life, because I did retire with the idea of not working an eight-hour day, but it’s a fun eight-hour day, so it’s not as bad.
Laura: Can you tell us a little bit about your newest nonfiction title, which is “The Popcorn Principles”?
John: Yes, I didn’t intend on writing it but I do get asked a lot to be on podcasts to talk about the collision between independent filmmaking and independent publishing. because they’re so very, very, very similar. The big difference is that independent publishing, you can do for a lot cheaper than independent filmmaking, although you can make a movie for pretty cheaply. So, I’d been gathering notes so I can talk intelligently on the topic.
For the filmmaking books, I’d interviewed over 100 filmmakers, 50 or 60 of them pretty well-known like Jon Favreau, who did Iron Man and all that, and Roger Corman who’s done a million movies, and a couple Academy Award nominees, and at least one Academy Award winner. And they had two books full of information on how to make movies and how to make them better. And as I’ve been writing my book, I realized I’m using a bunch of those same techniques, but I’m just adapting them to novel writing. Now not everything in the filmmaking world, but there is a bunch of stuff that they do, that I found that if I did, things were better. Things were smarter.
One of them is and I found it in my very first novel when I was writing Eli Marks’ first book, “The Ambitious Card.” The opening scene is Eli’s dropping his uncle off at their magic store on Halloween. Eli’s about to go drive the eight miles to St. Paul to do a Halloween show in a big cave there. And so I finished the scene with Harry, and I start writing the drive to St. Paul. And I remembered a friend of mine who’s an editor. He edits “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and he edited “Veep” for years. And he has an expression about eliminate the shoe leather. And he always does that when he said, walking from point A to point B. If it isn’t affecting the plot, get rid of the shoe leather, get rid of the walking. Get rid of the walking. And once you realize that people are doing that, you look back at older things like for example, Columbo, I mentioned. There’s a lot of walking in Columbo where nothing’s happening, where he’s walking from the car to the house, to the house to the garden. Well, in screen writing, you try not to write that. In movie editing, you cut that out. You don’t need it. And so as I was writing the scene, I went, “Well, I don’t need this. This is shoe leather and he needs to be in Minneapolis. He needs to be in St. Paul.” Boom. It’s a cut and you’re there.
And if you have that sort of mindset, then you begin to eliminate things that William Faulkner called… What did he say? Get rid of the things that people skip over. And you use that mindset of, “I’m just getting rid of shoe leather. If there’s no point for this, we’ll go from here to here. We’ll make it a hard cut.” And in in novel writing, that just means a couple returns and it’s a different section of the chapter and you’ve made the hard cut.
It was that sort of thing that I found that I was doing a lot, and I thought, “well, I’ll write down some notes for the other podcasts I’m on to talk about it.” And I realized I had about 25 pretty good ideas that I can make into a small book. It’s not a huge book. It’s not the only book you’d ever want for writing, but it does have some nice craft ideas in it that you may not realize you’re doing and you can do them better, or you might go, “Oh, why do I not do that? I should do that.” So, that’s the point of it, it’s just to go, when you see that in a movie, think what’s my version of that? How can I make that work in my novel writing? So, that’s where it came from.
Rachel: Like you mentioned, you came to “The Popcorn Principles” with a lot of this information, including interviews with fellow filmmakers, and I’m curious what this process was like interviewing folks who are very well-established in the film industry.
John: It was a little daunting sometimes. I don’t know if you two are familiar with Roger Corman. Roger Corman, as a film producer, much more active in the ’60s and ’70s who made hundreds of movies and he made them very cheaply. And he started the careers of a lot of big directors. Martin Scorsese started with him. Jonathan Demme started with him. Francis Ford Coppola started with him. Peter Bogdanovich. They all did low-budget movies with him.
And it was intimidating talking to him, but he got on the phone and I said, “Good afternoon, Mr. Corman.” He said, “Call me Roger.” And we had the best conversation, and he had great memories about the techniques he had used or had told his directors to use on how to get a movie done in 12 days for $200,000. And he also spoke in complete sentences, which is really nice when you’re transcribing for interviews in a book, people who speak in complete sentences with punctuation. God help anyone to transcribe this particular conversation.
So, he was great. And then I talked to Jon Favreau. This was right before Iron Man, and he’s driving through LA, and he’s talking to me on his car phone. And we’re just chatting about the movie “Swingers.” The people were, to a person, really intelligent and really articulate and really covered the spectrum of people from movies from the late ’50s, early ’60s, all the way into the ’90s.
What helped is that I had very specific things I wanted to get out of them, which is how did you do it better? How did you make it better? How did you make it cheaper? What were the obstacles you ran into? And because of that, I filled two books with really… I’ve pretty darn good interviews. So, the books are, I don’t know, 15 years old now, and they still…I sell a handful of copies every day of either one of them because they’re just nice, solid, information-packed books. And I try to make “The Popcorn Principles” that way as well and also not go on and on and on with it where I didn’t… I gave you some examples. Here’s how they did it, and the whole premise of the book is, what’s your version of that? How would that work for you?
Rachel: Just to continue to tie in back to the book, the book is divided into four sections, which are kind of the four parts of making a movie—pre-production, production, post, and distribution. How does this align with the writing and publishing process?
John: You know, it’s completely analogous. In fact, I think someone could look at those part headings and not even realize… If you’re a novelist, you’re going to immediately go, “Oh, pre-production, that’s getting ready to write. What am I doing to get ready to write? How am I…” And that particular section talks about one of my bugaboos is people who spend all their time getting ready to write, and I used to do that when I was a screenwriter. I would have to take another seminar, read another book, do another thing. I need a little bit more, a little bit more, a little bit more. And the people I talk to in that section just talk about, “Stop doing that. Just sit down and write. You’re not going to get anywhere until you sit down and write. And, no, it’s not going to be perfect. But if you don’t stop getting ready and actually write, you’re never going to get anything done.”
The other big message in that section is… And it came from Stephen King and also a director named Amy Holden Jones. Amy Holden Jones wrote “Mystic Pizza” and “Indecent Proposal.” And she said, “If I’m going to write a comedy, I go to the film library and I get out comedy scripts and read scripts. If I’m going to write a mystery, I go to the film library and I look at mystery scripts.” She said, “You tell that to writers and they look at you glassy eyed like, ‘What are you talking about?’ ” And she said, “I just don’t think you can write a thing until you’ve read a thing.”
So, for example, when I started Eli Marks, before I started writing, and yes, I probably took a little too long getting ready to write, but I had a lot to learn. I had to learn how to write a mystery. I also had to learn to speak like a magician, and I’m not a magician. So, I did do a lot of research on that. But that whole first section of pre-production is getting ready and then starting, making sure that you’ve created a lane for yourself, which can be a genre or a style and you know you’re going to be able to take that all the way through to the end.
Then you get into the second section, which is production, which is the actual writing, and that’s probably the biggest section of the book. There’s just tons of great little ideas I think that would help you as you’re writing or when you’re done and going back looking at it. One of the things that I ran into was callbacks. And in movies, callbacks are…for me, the most famous one is from “Casablanca,” “Round up the usual suspects,” and that said casually a couple times early in the movie when they’re referring to picking up dissidents concerning a crime. It becomes very important at the end of the movie when Claude Rains has to decide, is he going to turn Humphrey Bogart in for killing the Nazi or not? And he says, “Round up the usual suspects.” So, it’s a great callback. You’re saying something early on and reusing it at the end.
And what I found inspiring about that particular story was they were in production on “Casablanca.” They were shooting “Casablanca,” and they were two writers who were brought in, the Epstein brothers who were brought in mostly just to clean up the ending. And they couldn’t figure out the ending, and they couldn’t figure out the ending. How do we make this happen? These five things have to happen all at once. And how does Humphrey Bogart not get arrested? And they were driving to work one day. They’re used to driving together. And out of the blue, they turned to each other and said, “Round up the usual suspects.” And they knew that that thing from earlier they could reuse it.
And that’s been a huge help for me not just in novel writing. In screenwriting, back when I was writing screenplays, you get to the end and go, “How do I get out of this? How do I…? What do I…?” And I had a great screenwriting teacher who said, “Tendency is to try to add something.” Don’t do that. If you can help it, go back. You planted a seed. You planted something earlier. It’s in there. Go back and find it. And so that the use of callbacks is something that you love it when you see it, and you got to think to yourself, “How can I do that? How can I put that into what I’m writing?”
Another great tip that I learned was these two guys made a movie called “The Last Broadcast,” which was a fake documentary. It was about the… The story is very similar to Blair Witch, and it came out a year before Blair Witch and didn’t have the same impact, but they got a lot of great reviews on their fake documentary because people thought it looked real. They spent $900 making the whole movie. And in talking to them, I said, “How’d you make it look real?” And he said, “Well, we didn’t have money to make everything look real. So, we did what we call the theater of the minimal. You just had the right details that make it seem real.”
Well, I’ve been doing that with Eli Marks all along. I don’t know a ton about magic, but I know enough details to plant them in so that when a magician reads it, they nod and say, “Yes, that’s absolutely right.” And when a non-magician reads it, they go, “Oh, that’s interesting.” But I didn’t overload it with detail, and there’s a tendency sometimes I think when you’ve done a lot of research to just put it all in. And it’s more effective the theater of the minimal if you just put in the right details. Anyway, that’s the second section. It’s just a ton of stuff like that in production.
And then you have the post-production, which is the editing process and the getting ready to get it out there process. And one thing I found talking to a lot of filmmakers was their willingness to put their movie together, look at it with a crowd, do a preview, in our case, show it to beta readers, and then go back and reshoot, because they could make it better. And I think there’s a hesitancy sometimes when you’ve written a whole novel and someone gives you some notes. You want a couple tweaks, but you don’t want to go back and rewrite that. But if you plan that ahead of time, if you know the schedule in your mind, I’m going to give myself some time at the end. After a couple beta readers have read it and I’ve gone through the preview process, I’m going to go back and actually reshoot, rewrite things.
This was driven home to me when Jon Favreau talked about making “Swingers,” and “Swingers” was an 18-day shoot, very low-budget movie, really super low budget. And the director of it, Doug Liman, said, “Okay, here’s the schedule. I’m scheduling 16 days of shooting.” And Favreau said, “We have 18 days.” He said, “No, we’re shooting 16 days. I’m saving two days because I’m going to take some wild swings during those 16 days. And if something doesn’t hit, I need those two days to go back and fix it.”
And I think that works for us as well. Get to the end and then just save a couple days at the end to go back and fix stuff. But there’s this tendency to go, “Well, it’s done.” I mean, I’ll make a couple oopsies. I see there’s a misspelled word there, and that little fact is wrong, but you got to be willing to really go back and do some serious reshooting, rewriting if the story needs it and be willing to do that.
Finally, there is distribution. There’s a filmmaker named Tom Noonan, probably best known as an actor playing the villain in the movie “Manhunter,” but he’s a great filmmaker as well. And his quote was “Distribution’s the creepiest part of the process.” And it’s kind of true in book publishing as well. It’s much better now that we can handle things ourselves so that you know that your publishers actually… In the old days you weren’t quite sure, “Is the publisher really giving me the exact numbers?” and there’s no way to check. Now I can go online and I can look at my Kobo account and go, “Yep, that’s exactly right. Those numbers are correct.”
But there are still things you need to worry about that the filmmakers worry about. One is be careful what you sign. I know that seems like a cliché but you are actually, as an independent writer, making contracts of sorts with a lot of people. If you’re putting your audiobooks, in addition to, up on Kobo, putting it up on ACX, be sure to make sure that you aren’t hitting the exclusive button and you hit the non-exclusive button because it takes a bit of wailing and gnashing your teeth to undo that. If you’ve done that when you work with your cover designer, you have the rights to not only be cover but all the pieces of the cover, because you sometimes need those pieces. And if you don’t have rights to them, a lot of times if you look at your contract or your agreement with your book designer, they’re just giving you the finished work, and you don’t have the background. You don’t have the pieces. So, it’s important to find out when you’re signing these things who owns what and at what point is it yours.
And that’s the thing that filmmakers are running into for years and years and years. I’ll just go back to Tom Noonan. He made a little movie called “What Happened Was,” which he started it is as a play and made it into a movie. It’s a two-person thing. It’s very small. I think $150,000. He signed a deal with a distributor, and there was one little tiny clause that didn’t get added, and that clause said, when the distributor makes money on this movie, the money to give residual to the actors comes from the distributor, not from the producer. That wasn’t signed. So, anytime the distributor made money on the movie, the producer out of his own pocket had to pay the actors. Very small detail. Very, very big deal. So, it’s just a question of looking at everything and going, “What am I signing? What am I signing? What am I signing?” That’s the book in brief.
Rachel: I think there’s like… The parallels between publishing and filmmaking are so interesting, and obviously there’s a wealth of information there. And personally I will be taking that Casablanca tidbit away from this interview to share with my dad because that is his favorite film of all time. So, thank you for that.
John: Well, it is also one of my favorite, favorite movies, and it is… Screenplays are so tightly constructed. There’s so much to learn from the way particularly that story is put together because it does break some rules in that it starts with narration and the narration goes away. And we’re shifting the character point of view. “Singin’ in the Rain” does the same thing. “Singin’ in the Rain” breaks all kinds of rules. But if you break it down and you just look at the skeleton of it and you see that every single thing is there to move the next thing forward, or it’s there to move something forward, that’s two steps ahead. It’s just so tightly constructed. It’s hard to see that structure because it’s a movie. It’s hard to see how they’re doing that. It’s sometimes easier to see it in the written form but also as readers, we have the same problem. You read a book and you go, “How’d they do that? How did they… That was… Wait a second.” And the structure is still there. It’s just as well hidden in the book as it is in the movie. But if you can see it in the movie, it’s sometimes easier to then go, “Oh, I see how I could do that in a book.”
Laura: In your book, you emphasize the importance of reading and watching media in your genre and how important it is to understand, kind of, the expectations of the audience. Why do you think that is?
John: Audiences get mad when you promise them one thing and don’t give it to them. I’ve learned this from a friend of mine, who edits “Veep” and edits “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” made a movie called “Suckers,” which is a very funny movie. It’s about a car salesman, and it takes place in a car sales environment. And it’s kind of a dramedy comedy of what it’s like to do that work. And then at about the two-thirds mark, it becomes a thriller, gangster thing. And the movie didn’t do very well, although it’s a great little movie. Because of that, it didn’t let the audience know where they were headed. It took them somewhere they didn’t want to go.
Another good example is “From Dusk Till Dawn,” which is an early collaboration between Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. It starts out as a heist kidnapping film, turns into a vampire movie, a very gory vampire movie. The readers and the audiences, you make a contract. This is what we’re going to do unless you’re like a Charlie Kaufman and you’re doing “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” or something like that and you, kind of, know going in that he’s going to take whatever route he wants.
But if you don’t do that, and I know people talk about tropes and tropes are important, but it’s just the general this is what this is and we’re going to stick to it, committing to that. For me, one of the best examples is the original movie of “Night of the Living Dead.” George Romero made that in ’67, ’68, something like that. George Romero ran a video production company, a film production company in Pittsburgh, and they did big commercials and they were very successful. And they decided to do a low-budget movie, and they figured they had enough money to do a horror film. And they decided to do what became “Night of the Living Dead.” They were a pretty highfalutin group. Very intelligent, very intellectual, but they knew that their best bet for making a second movie was to make this first movie. And so they committed to it.
And I think that’s important for writers as well. They never winked. They never said, “We’re above this.” They said, “This is what we’re doing. We’re doing ‘Night of the Living Dead.’ ” And they do it all the way to the end. And I think it’s important for writers to do that same thing, to commit and go, “This is it. This is what I’m doing.” And that’s what readers appreciate is you’ve said you’re going to do this. You promised me this, you gave me that, and maybe a little extra, a little more fun, but you fulfilled the promise.
With Eli Marks, I know the promise is Uncle Harry’s not going to die. So, we know that’s going to happen. But Eli is going to, through his neuroses and through his understanding of magical illusions, figure out how this crime happened and who did it and bring them to justice. And I’m going to laugh along the way. If I change that, and Eli got into a messy divorce and had an affair with a client, and if it just got more icky, readers are going to get upset, and that’s because I broke the contract. So, I think it’s really important to make that commitment and stick to it.
Rachel: How do you, as a writer, balance playing within the rules and tropes of a certain genre but also kind of surprising your audience?
John: Well, that is one of the trickiest parts because, like I said, we’ve established a family. You always have to put him in a new environment. For me, the key is usually the thing that’s going on in the book for Eli is not the mystery. The thing that’s going on for Eli is he feels guilty about… In the very first book, he has a student, an adult student whose wife… The student and his wife are getting divorced and Eli’s attracted to what will be the ex-wife. So, the whole book is about that guilt. In the second book, Eli’s suffering from panic attacks. So, the whole book is about that. The third book is about jealousy. So, that’s the thing that is kind of about, then you weave the mystery into that. So, each one is different because in each of the books, Eli is getting a little different. The last couple books, Eli’s getting tired of being a magician. He’s getting tired of doing the same tricks for what essentially are the same audiences, and he’s starting to move into becoming a magic consultant because that allows him to be more of a teacher. Because of that, mysteries have come out of that because he’s now in a different position, but it really all starts with what’s going on with Eli.
Rachel: I think that’s a very interesting way to approach, especially a mystery that I had not thought of before like what the book is about versus the mystery that’s happening throughout the book. I think that’s… I don’t know, I just think it’s interesting.
John: It’s nice when you can tie them together, and that’s what I try to do, but like I said, writing a mystery is hard. The mystery part is hard. The part of having a middle-aged guy who’s neurotic talking to his crazy uncle, I can write that all day long. That’s easy because I know those characters, and I can have fun with that, and I know enough about their world now that I have them make jokes that make magicians smile and maybe make readers scratch their head if they don’t know them. But that’s the fun part. The mystery is always hard, and I always spend the most amount of time on that. And then everything else is sort of a joy.
Laura: When it comes to marketing and distribution, what can authors learn from the film industry?
John: Well, yeah, it’s hard because the movies that you think of immediately, they spent millions of dollars on for you to know about them. If you look back at what they did with Blair Witch, there was some money behind that but not a ton of money. But what they did was they made it an early internet sensation. When people first read about Blair Witch on the internet, it was presented as, “This is a true thing that happened. It’s a documentary. These three college students went into the woods. They were never found. They found the footage, they put it together. Something’s going on,” and people actually believed for quite a while that it was real, and they were able to do that sort of grassroots thing. This was before Facebook. This was before Instagram. This was before TikTok.
What we have now that they didn’t have then are those things and ways of getting information about what we’ve written out to people in fun ways. TikTok could probably be the best example of that. I did try it for a while. The problem is I’m essentially a lazy person and didn’t want to put that much effort into creating videos, which is just my fault. But I’ve never been a great marketer to begin with anyway. My problem is I enjoy writing the books for just that process, and I’m not someone who is, “I have to do two books a year,” or I’m not trying to get on a chart, or I just want to write the best book I can get it out and move onto the next one.
I have had the advantage of starting a podcast that focuses specifically on that series, on the Eli Marks series that has had quite an impact on sales surprisingly, particularly in audiobook sales because each season allows some listener to listen to an entire audiobook over 24 episodes, and then have interviews about stuff in that chapter. For me, there’s no cost involved in that. It’s just my time. But it has been a remarkable marketing tool inadvertently. It was really more just sort of a fun thing to do when lockdown happened, and I had a lot of time, and people were willing to get on Zoom. It was at a time when you could email Dick Cavett’s PR person and he’d say, “Sure, I’d love to spend an afternoon talking to you about magicians,” because he was a magician for years. You could get people.
So, there are avenues available to us that are sort of rejected by people when it comes to big movie companies pushing movies on them. Those feel like ads. Whereas when we’re talking about our books, people don’t get the sense that it’s a big company behind it. It’s just a person putting on a Facebook ad or doing a promotion at Kobo. They get the sense of this is much more grassroots, and that’s so much easier to do now with all these different outlets.
Rachel: I actually wanted to touch on your podcast because, correct me if I’m wrong, you have two podcasts.
John: I do. First one’s called “Behind the Page: The Eli Marks Podcast.” And as I said, each season does a different book. This season, our third season, we’ve jumped ahead to the eighth book in the series, which has a dozen short stories in it. And so they’re much longer episodes but also still focused with a… We get a guest who can talk about something specific in that.
The other one is an occasional podcast that I cleverly call “The Occasional Film Podcast,” and that’s just me either revisiting people I’ve talked to in the past. I did a nice long one with Roger Nygard who made “Suckers.” I’ve got one just came out with a guy from the Netherlands who took Brian De Palma’s movie, “Raising Cain.” I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it, but it’s a Brian De Palma horror film, a thriller. And he recut it because the way that it was cut didn’t make sense but had made the most sense for an audience, I guess. And that’s what they ended up with. But the director, Brian De Palma, was unhappy. And this guy took it and recut it in the right way, and the director was so happy with it that he stopped production on the Blu-ray and said, “This has to be included as a special feature.” So, it’s just me talking to people involved in film or filmmaking occasionally whenever I feel like it. And I know the thing about podcasts is you have to be regular with them. I’m not. In that case, I’m not. It’s just it’s whenever I feel like it.
Laura: Well, you’ve let the audience know what to expect with your name.
John: That’s right. That’s right there. I’ve made the commitment, and I’ve made the promise.
Laura: What’s one piece of advice that you’ve learned from either the podcast or from researching for your books that’s really stuck with you?
John: There’s two that have really stuck with me. One really only applies in the filmmaking world, but it is the best piece of advice in filmmaking I’d ever heard in 40 years, which was if you’re filming on a location and you have to unplug a noisy machine like a refrigerator or a freezer, put your car keys inside the machine. Open the door and put the car keys in because you will not leave until you recognize, “Oh, I’ve got to plug that back in.” It seems like a small thing, but when Richard Linklater made his movie “Slacker,” which was a very, very low-budget movie, they shot a scene in an ice cream shop and they unplugged the ice cream freezer because it’s noisy. Those things are noisy. He forgot to plug it in, and everything melted and it cost them thousands of dollars to replace it. So, there’s not a lot of use for that bit of knowledge elsewhere.
The other piece that really stuck with me, I was talking to Bob Odenkirk. Now, Bob Odenkirk is probably best known now for “Better Call Saul” and “Breaking Bad,” but when I talked to him, he had kind of just finished doing Mr. Show with David Cross and was doing some low-budget movies. And he’d done a great little movie called “Melvin Goes to Dinner,” which I highly recommend. It was a play called “Phyro-Giants.” It played in LA Late Night for years. It’s about four people sitting around who meet in a restaurant for dinner. Some of them are a couple of friends, a couple that don’t know each other. And it’s a conversation they have for 90 minutes.
And in talking to him about how he made that movie happen, I said, “What’s the one thing you want to tell people?” And he said, “Don’t hesitate to hesitate.” And I said, “What does that mean?” He said, “Well, in my world, the example is I’m shooting a scene. I have shot everything I need that was in the script, but I’m on the set. The actors are there. The cameras are there. The lights are there. Don’t hesitate to hesitate. Take a moment. Stop. Look around. Everything is here today that won’t be here tomorrow. What can I do now that might be helpful later? What can I shoot? What can I add to this? What can I…?”
And I think that is true in all parts of life, but I’ve also found that in being your own publisher of a book, when you are so driven to get it out, it is important at a certain point to don’t hesitate to hesitate. Just stop for a second and go, “All right, I’m about to hit send and publish this book. But before I do that, what else can I do? This is the last chance I have to do that. Let me think about it. Let’s take a moment.” And the corollary to that is in low-budget filmmaking, as in independent publishing, time is on your side. You’re not locked into a scheduling schedule you have in your head and you can take time to make things right. In fact, in low-budget filmmaking, that’s the one advantage they have over multimillion dollar movies is they can take time because they’re not spending money constantly trying to keep a casting crew together.
There’s a movie called “Open Water,” a horror film about a couple who are diving out at the sea and the ship leaves without them. There’s a miscounted how many people are on the boat and they’re left in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the water. And the guy who shot that, Chris Kentis shot it over a series of I think a couple years, and it is 85%, 90% the man and woman in the water as the sharks are coming. And he said, “I couldn’t have done it if I’d been on a schedule. It just wouldn’t have worked. We just couldn’t do it. But the fact that I could shoot for a while, go home, earn some more money, edit what we have, figure out what I need.”
And that’s the advantage we have in publishing our own books is unless one of those people who has to put out two books a year, in my case, if Eli’s done this year, if Book #9 is done, it goes out this year. If I want to put it out beginning of next year, that’s when it goes. I have that advantage, and I can stop, and I can hesitate, and just take a breath and make sure I’ve covered all the bases.
Laura: I think that’s such a good point, especially when in indie publishing, there’s kind of that pressure sometimes to rapid release. Yeah, it’s such a good point to kind of hesitate and make sure everything is done with your book, and it looks how you want it to look. Because like you said, it’s the first thing that readers are going to see as your cover, your synopsis. You want to make sure it’s ready for that reader because after it’s out there, you can’t really take it back. So, that’s a good point.
John: I remember being at Malice Domestic a few years ago, being on a panel. And before it started, I had writers on either side of me, and they both just… They were bubbly. They had both just signed multi-book deals with their respective publishers, and I got… The reason the movie, “The Big Chill” is called “The Big Chill” is because you get that chill of, “Oh, my God, I’m glad that’s not me.” Because the idea of being locked into someone else’s schedule, nothing could be more horrifying to me.
When I first signed with publisher with Eli Marks, they said, “Okay, now you’re going to sign this, and then you have the next three books.” I said, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. We can take this one book at a time.” And they said, “Well, that’s fine, but that means you’re last on the schedule, and it’ll be a long time before your book is published.” They have all these rules and all that. And I said, “Fine.” And I took my time. And now that I don’t have to deal with them, when I’m done with an Eli Marks book and I feel like I’m done with it or when I’m done with The Como Lake Players Mystery, and I’d taken a breath and I looked at it, I can release it the next day if I want. I don’t have to wait on them. And the idea of working entirely on my schedule is so much more pleasant than working on anyone else’s schedule.
Laura: So, you’ve mentioned all the different things you have going on. How do you have the time to balance everything because it’s a lot of different things that you’re juggling?
John: Well, it might seem like it, but I’m not a person who writes every day. I think about it every day and I make notes, but when I feel I have enough notes, I’ll sit down and write the next book. But I don’t do that every day. But, yeah, like I said, there’s eight hours a day. I could be doing all this morning eight hours. I could be doing stuff. I just don’t. I do the stuff that’s right in front of me that needs to be done. I have a plan for what… I plan for the next couple months but not much beyond that because you just never know and then just try to enjoy life as well.
I have the advantage as a person who’s not making their living doing this. The advantage is I’m not making my living doing it. So, I don’t live and die on book sales. I don’t live and die on ranking. I care about it. If I look and see, “Oh, look, somebody bought… Someone today clearly bought all eight books in the Eli Marks series,” or, “Oh, look, someone must be teaching a film class using my book because all of a sudden, 20 copies of that book were sold today.” You know, that’s delightful, but tomorrow that won’t happen and it’s fine. It doesn’t happen every day, and it doesn’t have to happen. I really enjoy the process, and I’m just not going to worry about the end product. I mean, obviously we’re about the product, but it’s the process that’s fun.
Rachel: Now, before we started recording, I did mention that I am a huge film buff. So, I am going to be asking you a question about films, and it’s a two-parter. One, is there a film that you think has inspired your approach to writing?
John: What has inspired my approach to writing? What’s the second part of the question? That might help me with the first one.
Rachel: Well, it’s even harder. What’s your favorite film of all time?
John: Well, that changes from time to time depending on the day. I’m a huge fan of “Harold and Maude,” which ran for over two years here in Minneapolis in the early ’70s. It ran a long, long time here and a long, long time in Paris and nowhere else. It then attained cult status. And what film have I learned the most from? Probably “Body Heat.” And why “Body Heat”? Well, for a sure while, I taught screenwriting in a community ed situation. And one of the things I did to sort of demystify the screenwriting process, because if you look at a screenplay, it’s a little intimidating. It’s like, “What is this? I don’t know understand. Ext. Night. Exterior… I mean, the dialogue is spaced weird. I don’t understand this.” So, I would show the class “Body Heat,” but I would have the script in front of them, and they would read along. It really demystified it. It’s like, “Oh, all right, that scene was just Ext. Beach Night. Ned walks along. Looks at a building in the distance. Oh, okay, I get that.” And they understand what the words in the page mean when it comes to putting something on the screen.
And I was telling that story to Carol Littleton. Carol Littleton was the editor of “The Big Chill” and also the editor of “Body Heat,” and she said, “Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. You put the script in front of them and they watched the movie.” And I said yes. And she said, “How did you do that? The script, there’s no resemblance to the movie.” And I said I had to cut it up and repaste it because when they made “Body Heat,” they shot the script and they brought it into the editing room and they moved everything around to a baffling degree. I mean, it makes sense as a movie now, that’s why they did it. But what made sense on the page and when they shot it suddenly didn’t make sense when they ran it as a movie. And she was just amazed that I could’ve reconfigured it. It took a long time to reconfigure it so that there’s essentially a continuity script as opposed to a shooting script. But I’d learned then that you can move things. It’s much easier now with cut and paste. When I started writing screenplays, if you made a mistake, you left it in. If you called someone by the wrong name, the next character said, why’d you call me that? Because it was much easier than retyping the whole page.
But that idea that it isn’t in stone and you can cut and move and shift and do that… And I really learned that because Lawrence Kasdan’s a very good writer and “Body Heat” is a very good script, but in order to make it into a movie, they really had to put it into a blender and hit puree.
Rachel: That’s so interesting and also such great advice for writing of any medium, that what comes out on the page initially does not have to be the structure of your finished product.
John: Yeah. The other big thing that Carol Littleton told me, and she was a delight, she’d been editing for years. I don’t know if you’ve both seen “The Big Chill,” but “The Big Chill” is famous or infamous for having shot a flashback scene where all six or seven of the characters are seen in college, dressed as if they were in college with their friend Alex, who’s the guy who dies at the beginning movie. Alex was played by Kevin Costner. It was his first big role, and he was cut out. because the only scene in the movie that he’s seen is this big flashback scene. So, I was asking Carol Littleton about that because it was so infamous that they had the scene and it wasn’t in the movie. And why wasn’t it in the movie? And she said, “It didn’t make sense. When I read the script, it looked ridiculous when they shot it. And I said to the director, ‘I know you like this scene, but it doesn’t work.’ ” And he said, “Carol, that scene is why I wrote the movie.” And she said, “Fine, you needed that scene to write the movie. You don’t need that scene in the movie.”
And the expression people use is kill your darlings, and that’s a great example of them, because she said, “We tried to put that everywhere in the movie. We opened a movie. We put it at the end. We cut it up.” She said, “We finally just did two screenings. One with it at the end and one without it in there at all. And audiences loved it when it wasn’t in there.” And to recognize that thing that you love is ruining your story and taking people out of it is very hard to do. That’s why they say kill your darlings. It’s very hard to recognize. And in the case of “The Big Chill,” it took them a while to get to that point because it was, in his mind, this is why I wrote it and I can’t take it out. This is why I wrote it.
I had a chance to talk to Nicholas Meyer, who directed “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” but also did the Sherlock Holmes “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” and a bunch of other movies and things and asked him about that very thing. And he said, “You just have to look at it and go, is it making it better or worse?” You just have to step back and go, “I know I loved it. I don’t need it. It’s got to go.” The beauty of being an independent publisher is if it’s something of some length, let’s say it’s a chapter, cut it out and use that as a giveaway to get people into the story. But get it out of your story if it’s not moving things along. Hard to do. Very hard to do.
Laura: Yeah, that’s such a good point that you could use it for a giveaway or like a newsletter magnet or something. There’s so many little things you can do as an idea writer with stuff like that. So, it doesn’t have to die forever, but it can be separated so you can make your story better.
John: Yep, exactly.
Laura: So, what films have you been watching lately and have they inspired any new ideas for you?
John: I was really looking forward to “Glass Onion” because I really like “Knives Out.” And I was disappointed in “Glass Onion,” and I don’t think it’s as good a mystery as “Knives Out.” I like the halfway through the story twist, I won’t give that away. And there’s a scene with Benoit at dinner where he solves the mystery, that was very good. The characters were not that interesting. They weren’t as well-drawn. The mystery wasn’t as propulsive as they had done in “Knives Out” in which you had a character that you really cared about. And when you found out that she was “the murderer,” you actually wanted her to get away with it, which is a pretty good trick. That’s one of the things I talk about in the book is creating an emotional connection even with a character you’re surprised you’re doing that with; in that case, a murderer. The example I use in the book is at the end of “Silence of the Lambs,” wherein Dr. Lecter’s on the phone with Clarise and he says, “I’m having an old friend for dinner,” and you see Dr. Chilton get off the boat, who are you rooting for? You’re rooting for Hannibal Lecter at that point. You want him to kill Dr. Chilton because Ted Tally’s screenplay and Jonathan Demme’s direction and Anthony Hopkins’ performance made you emotionally connected to Hannibal Lecter much the same way as the main character in “Knives Out.” So, I enjoyed that.
I’m really enjoying “Poker Face,” because it is such a lovely throwback to “Columbo.” They’re even using the same font, a very similar font for the title, which is really fun. And they’re doing in an hour what “Columbo” used to do in 90 minutes or 2 hours, and that brings us back to that whole cut out the shoe leather. There’s not any shoe leather in “Poker Face.” There’s not any shoe leather. Most things you see in TV nowadays are so… The hour-long ones are very well-cut. The streaming series maybe a little less so because someone somewhere is saying this has to be eight episodes when in fact it should be six, but someone said it’s got to be eight. And that’s like trying to hit a word count in a novel. It’s like, well, it has to be 130,000. Well, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it really wants to be 90,000. So, I’m watching mysteries and enjoying them.
Rachel: I know we have taken up a lot of your time, so we’ll not get into a debate about the merits of “Glass Onion,” but…
John: No, tell me. Tell me please.
Rachel: What I really liked about that film was that I hated almost all of the characters.
John: Oh, yeah.
Rachel: And so I think it’s like the opposite emotional connection where I wanted none of them to get away with anything, and that was my driving factor. I also love a lot of the cast, so that also helps.
John: I said that exact same thing with “Knives Out” where everybody was so horrible that I wanted… And I had less interest in this cast than I did in the “Knives Out” cast.
Rachel: That’s fair.
Rachel: Like I said before we started recording, I can talk about movies for hours. So, instead I’m going to ask you, what are you working on next, and where can listeners find you online?
John: They can find me online at elimarksmysteries.com for Eli and the podcast, or you can go to Albert’s Bridge Books, that’s albertsbridgebooks.com. That has all the books and all the stuff. Right now I’m working on Season 3 of “Behind the Page: The Eli Marks Podcast” doing interviews for that. And then at least one of the episodes when we play the short story, it’s going to be, kind of, an enhanced experience where instead of just hearing the narrator talk, you’re going to hear sound effects and music, and it’ll be kind of a radio play sort of thing. So, that’s sort of a fun thing to do, and something that’s very easy to do and also quite free. So, that’s why I’m doing that.
Rachel: I love radio plays and radio dramas, so that’s really cool. And we’ll include links to all of this, all of your projects online or in our show notes, I should say. And one last thing before we go, because when we were researching this podcast, I obviously ended up on your Facebook page and your upcoming podcast episode has to do with playing Groucho Marx. And I am just so curious about this because I’m a huge Marx brothers fan. So, can you just kind of give us a teaser of what people can expect from this?
John: I can. During the pandemic, I was looking for things that made me less tense, and so on Facebook, I found I was signing onto pages like 1930s Universal Aurora Monster Kits. People are fans of that sort of thing. And I came across this Marx brothers page, and it’s a really smart page. People who do it really know their stuff, and they have great people adding things, and they have their own podcast called “The Marx Brothers Council” in which they talk intelligently about Groucho Marx. My narrator for Eli Marks, Jim Cunningham, who is an actor here in town, has played Groucho Marx. In fact, at least in one corporate event, I made him play Groucho Marx.
And the host of the Marx Brothers podcast has played Groucho Marx and has, as a researcher, written a book that brings back their kind of missing… Well, they did three Broadway shows, “Coconuts,” “Animal Crackers,” and “I’ll Say She Is.” “Coconuts” and “Animal Crackers” were made into movies. “I’ll Say She Is” came first in 1924 and didn’t get made into a movie and has sort of been lost when it comes to what all the pieces were. So, he put together a book that reconstructed it, and then restaged it, remounted it, and did two productions of “I’ll Say She Is” in which he played Groucho. And I thought, “I wonder what are the similarities and differences for people who played Groucho?”
And since I know both these guys… Now, I just had them on the show. And that’s what the discussion was, was, what are the pleasures and pains of playing Groucho? And as it turned out, it was fairly interesting because the guy who’s written the book has been playing Groucho since he was seven years old, and loves Groucho, knows everything about him, and he’s very meticulous about getting all the movements right and doing all this stuff right. My friend Jim, who’s played it half dozen times, is terrified of it because he said it is so hard to do it right. It is so hard. And he said, “I never want to play it again. And if someone offered me a chance to do ‘Coconuts’ tomorrow, I would do it,” because he’s conflicted. He loves doing it, but it’s so hard. And that’s what the conversation was, was, what is it that we love about these guys? What makes it hard to do Groucho? What makes it easy to do Groucho? And because of “My Occasional Film Podcast,” it’s something I was interested in. So, that’s what we did.
Rachel: That sounds incredible, and I cannot wait to listen. John, thank you so much for joining us today. Really appreciate you taking the time.
John: I love listening to this podcast. I don’t know if I’ll listen to this particular episode, but I will listen to the one after that.
Laura: Thank you for joining us, John.
Rachel: Thank you for listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast.” If you’re interested in picking up John’s books or listening to his podcasts, we will include links to them all in our show notes. If you’re enjoying our podcast, please be sure to rate, review, and subscribe. And if you’re looking for more tips on growing your self-publishing business, you can find us at kobowritinglife.com and be sure you’re following us on socials. We are @kobowritinglife on Facebook and Twitter and @kobo.writing.life on Instagram.
Laura: This episode was hosted by Laura Granger and Rachel Warden with production by Terrence Abrahams. Editing is done by Kelly Robotham. Our theme music is composed by Tear Jerker, and thanks to John for being a guest. If you’re ready to start your publishing journey, sign up today at kobo.com/writinglife. Until next time, happy writing.