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Interview: November 2009

Actor, screenwriter and novelist Chris Grabenstein recently spoke with's Amy Alessio about his latest release, THE HANGING HILL --- the sequel to his award-winning mystery/thriller for middle-grade readers, THE CROSSROADS.

In this interview, Grabenstein describes what inspired him to try his hand at writing for a younger audience and explains the unusual angle of his books that sets them apart from typical ghost stories. He also discusses how his early training as an improvisational actor has enhanced his skills as a storyteller, reveals some of the real-life counterparts for his colorful characters, and shares details about upcoming projects, including a fantasy adventure novel and a third installment in the series called THE SMOKY CORRIDOR. You’ve written two award-winning mystery series for adults featuring cop John Ceepak and FBI agent Christopher Miller. Now you’ve won awards for THE CROSSROADS. Why did you want to write for middle grades?

Chris Grabenstein: I have nearly 20 nephews and nieces and none of them could read my adult books because, well, they contain what the movies call "adult language" and "adult situations." THE CROSSROADS actually started as a 120,000-word ghost story for adults that received a lot of nice rejection letters because my last name wasn't King or Koontz. Then, one editor asked the brilliant question: Did you ever think about turning this into a book for middle-grade readers? I cut out 70,000 words (including all the dirty ones) and found the story's essence. It's much, much better now.

KRC: What has surprised you about writing for younger readers? Which is more fun: writing for adults or kids, and why?

CG: I am very fortunate to have one of the best editors in the business, R. Schuyler Hooke at Random House, who used to manage The Books Of Wonder store in L.A. and knows an awful lot about what kids really want to read. I guess the most surprising discovery was how much middle-grade readers can handle. I never "write down" to the audience. As for more fun, I think writing for kids is a blast. I get to be a kid again and remember what it was like to be 10 and a nerd. I get to use more of my imagination. And when an 11-year-old tells you "your book is the best one I ever read" or a parent sends you an e-mail saying "thank you, thank you, thank you, my son hadn't read a book in years but couldn't put yours down," it gives you goosebumps.

KRC: What drew you to write mysteries?

CG: Mysteries and thrillers are what I like to read. I think because they move so quickly and actively involve the reader as a participant in the story (well, mysteries more than thrillers). I think all ghost stories are mysteries, the central mystery being: Why are these spirits haunting this place?

KRC: In THE HANGING HILL, 12-year-old Zack returns to solve crimes with the help --- and hindrance --- of ghosts he interacts with. Have you ever seen a ghost? Where did you get the idea for a hero who talks with ghosts?

CG: I have not seen a traditional ghost. Except maybe Willow, our cat, who I swear I saw sitting on the back of the sofa in her usual sunning spot one month after she passed away. This year, I plan on spending a night in a haunted hotel somewhere. Stay tuned.

My "what if?" for THE CROSSROADS came when I was jogging on a country road and passed a farm with a tree someone had decorated with a cross and a bucket of plastic flowers. I said "what if" this lonely road is haunted by the ghost of whoever crashed into that tree? And what if the farm became one of those quickly built suburbs? And what if a boy with a very vivid imagination moved into the house with the haunted tree in his backyard?

Of course, the real story of THE CROSSROADS is about the other ghosts stranded in the spot because of the unfinished business of a human (most ghost stories deal with spirits who can't leave because they have unfinished business) who has not passed through the stages of grief "properly." The other ghosts want to leave but they can't. And none of the adults they try to contact are any help. They need a kid...a brave boy with a vivid imagination and a willingness to help!

KRC: Zack meets someone else who can see ghosts. Why add more people (kids) with this talent?

CG: In THE HANGING HILL (and in all my books, I guess), I like for the characters to grow a little. THE HANGING HILL, set in a theatre, is really all about being given special talents and using them wisely. If you dig through the book, you'll see all sorts of characters who have been given special abilities. Some are arrogant about it. Some act entitled. I needed Zack to meet a kindred spirit who accepted her gifts/talents and used them to do good. It's also fun for him to have a friend his own age who understands what he's going through.

KRC: Zack also gets a nasty surprise when a ghost of a family member comes to find him in Hanging Hill. What is next in store for her? Will any of the other ghosts from either book come back to see him?

CG: Well, that particular ghost is the crux of Zack's character flaw/problem if you will. Dealing with that death and the guilt that comes with being a survivor will probably haunt him throughout the entire series. We are having a lot of fun, however, bringing back ghosts from book to book. For instance, I was talking to a YA book group at a library and the kids told me that Davy Wilcox was their favorite character (other than Zack and Zippper) in THE CROSSROADS. So, when I started the third book, THE SMOKY CORRIDOR, I knew Davy had to be in it. As an author, I had a blast turning an obscure member of THE CROSSROADS, a nightclub singer named Kathleen Williams (her name and occupation appear only as one of many on the list of dead bus passengers), into a major player in THE HANGING HILL. And, she'll be back in THE SMOKY CORRIDOR, too!

KRC: Supporting characters are almost as important as Zack in your books, from friends to adults to ghosts. Can you share some tips for writers as to developing fun cast members for their own adventures?

CG: When I was an actor, I never got to play the leading roles. I was chubby and funny and played the character parts. So, I have a great love for those roles who come on for two or three scenes and steal the show. To do that, you have to invest your characters with three dimensions, quickly. In THE HANGING HILL, I love the grizzly old magician, the swashbuckling Shakespearean actor, the ditzy showgirls, the thug Mad Dog Murphy. I try to make these characters as real and memorable as the leads --- just like when I played the traveling anvil salesman in The Music Man!

KRC: Where did the Haunted Hanging Hill Playhouse idea originate?

CG: I spent most of my teens and twenties as an actor doing plays. It is amazing how every theatre you work in has a story of a ghost or two. I think it's because actors never want to leave the stage. We even call that single light that's left on stage when all the other lights are turned off "The Ghost Light." I saw a friend do a play at The Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut and thought it would make a great setting for a story --- in fact, The Hanging Hill is a dead ringer for The Goodspeed.

The more research I did, the more haunted theatres I found --- including several on Broadway. The character of Justus Willowmeier is based on the Broadway impresario David Belasco, who kept an apartment upstairs at his theatre...and still has parties up there years after his death! Playbill magazine ran an interesting article about the ghosts of Broadway that was a great reference source for me...

KRC: In both THE CROSSROADS and THE HANGING HILL, Zack finds some adults who are helpful allies, including fabulous feisty librarians. They must be based on reality! Do you research your books at the library? How do you work with libraries now with your middle-grade novels published? Why do you like libraries?

CG: Jeanette Emerson, the first feisty librarian, is an homage to my late mother-in-law, Jeanette Myers, who was a librarian. Doris Ann Norris is named in honor of a librarian who is a great champion of mystery authors. My librarians are based on those I have met since becoming a published author. Whip-crack smart, they're like human college campuses --- with all sorts of information eager to leap out of their brains. They are some of the smartest, sharpest, no-nonsense folks I've ever met. They even know what they don't know and how to find it!

I visit a lot of libraries now as a Middle Grades author and have fun talking with groups of kids who have fallen in love with reading, usually with the help of a great librarian (like the one in Roald Dahl's MATILDA).

KRC: Where are Zack and his stepmother Judy headed next?

CG: It's time for Zack to go to school. So, THE SMOKY CORRIDOR is set at Horace P. Pettimore Middle School in North Chester, Connecticut. What is interesting to me was re-discovering through Zack that going to school means being on your own. No stepmom. No faithful canine companion. And, of course, Zack's school is not only haunted, there is a zombie roaming around in the tunnels somebody built under the building and the cemetery behind it. Here's the first sketch for the new cover...


KRC: You used to work as an improv actor. How did you get into that, and do you use any improv with your writing?

CG: I was always quick on my feet --- the guy in the back row who'd make a quip to crack up the class and, fortunately, the teacher too. When I came to New York as an actor, I really wanted to be on "Saturday Night Live." I auditioned for a comedy troupe and learned the rules of improv! Well --- there's really only one: Always say yes; never negate. I use my improv and acting every day as a writer. I come to the keyboard in character and act out the scenes in my head as I write them. I have a loose outline but use the improv techniques --- create a character, put them in a situation, keep saying yes, keep moving forward, and see what happens --- to get from point to point.

KRC: Can you give us an example of what you do at programs to inspire young writers?

CG: First and foremost, I make it fun. Too often, reading and writing become the overcooked broccoli of life --- something that's "good for you" but smells bad. So, I have put together an interactive improv program where 400 students and I make up a ghost story on the spot. They painlessly learn about story maps and conflict and protagonists/antagonists.

You can get an idea of how it works watching a fun video on my website...

KRC: What did you read when you were younger?

CG: Mostly MAD magazine! I also read a lot of biographies and the short stories of O. Henry, which I loved.

KRC: What other middle-grade authors do you like to read now?

CG: I'm reading the Black Cauldron series, catching up on my Roald Dahl, learning about INKHEART, envying Rick Riordan (another mystery author first), loving Louis Sachar and Carl Hiaasen --- buying just about every book in the Yearling paperback stable, since so many are award-winning classics.

KRC: Do you have ideas for other books for young readers?

CG: Yes. In fact, my publisher is now looking at a manuscript for a fantasy adventure set in Central Park called THE EXPLORERS' GATE that my nine-year-old neighbor tells me is the best book she's ever read (did I tell you how much I love writing for kids?). I also have an idea that I am going to start working on this week for a story that is just silly and fun. And then Zack and Judy might have some other ghosts to deal with, too!