Friday, March 27, 2009

The Jersey Devil Unmasked -- Jeffrey Cohen Interview with Rob Walker

An Interview at the Point of a Dog –

I virtually traveled to a place of which I had skewed images of from the Sopranos TV episodes. A somewhat stark insular place just across the river from New York—another of those “new” places up in “Newland” called New Jersey where I was told I could find Jeffrey Cohen, the mystery comic novelist who had been likened to a male Janet Evanovich and a Donald Westlake and sometimes as sick as Joe Konrath and myself. I had to sit down with this guy, but it was not easy in this crowded corner of the globe to find the Edison Generator until I spotted the upside down car and the huge sign overhead reading: Does Your Car Turn Over in the Morning?

Next to the generator shop was a place that looked like a roadside diner, which meant the food inside must be great. Maybe I’d call for a beer and a Philly steak or a Jersey steak or whatever they served. I was starving. Two days on the road to get here and a bit nervous (okay giddy as a schoolgirl) over the impending moment I’d meet Jeff Cohen, author of the Double Feature Series and creator of Aaron Tucker and so many other lively and funny characters.

I pushed through the door and I immediately recognized Cohen in a corner so dark that it cut his features in half like a curtain had fallen, but his keen eyes in light and in dark were unmistakably focused on the door as if he were expecting trouble to walk in at any moment (and I did). I knew it was Cohen because he wore the only shirt I ever saw him in—and orange pullover, and he had a dog with him. It was like looking at his website all over again—his smiling picture. I immediately shook hands and asked, “They let dogs in here?”

Cohen looked as if he were slapped, then he said, “I’ll thank you not to talk about me in those terms, Walker. Oh, you mean Copper, here! They let him in, because I tell them he’s not a dog, he’s a bagel.”

“Beagle/basset,” he said.

“Great place and I love the sign outside—and the overturned car! Do all New Jersey folk have a sense of humor?”

“We have to. We’re stuck between New York City and Philadelphia. We have sports teams that play in our state and call themselves ‘The New York Giants’ and ‘The New York Jets’ We’re the Rodney Dangerfield of states.”

Jeff was having a Rolling Rock, so I joined him and ordered the house steak and salad, asking Jeff if it’d be okay that we do the interview while I stuffed my face.

“You know, Rob,” he slyly began, “there was once this guy who went into a talent agent’s office with a dog just like Copper, here. Said the dog could talk. Agent says okay, let’s hear him. The guy says to the dog, ‘who was the greatest baseball player of all time?’ Dog goes, ‘Roof!’ Guy asks, ‘what do you call the top of a house?’ Dog goes, ‘Roof!’ The talent agent throws them out of the office, and they sit dejectedly on the steps outside. A long moment goes by. Finally, the dog looks at the guy and says, ‘What’d you want me to say—DiMaggio?’”

Even the dog did a little barky laugh, and this broke the ice. So I got down to Cohen’s level and asked, “Do you know why dogs never choke on their food?”

“Heard that somewhere,” he replied, “but no, dunno. Why don’t they?”

“Because they never speak while eating.”

Neither Cohen nor his dog laughed, and the silence as thick as the rare steak plunked before me. I thank God when someone plays the jukebox and the Boss comes on! His music inspires me to push on even though Jeff Cohen looks me in the eye with cold certainty and says, “Walker, you should stay away from jokes and do characters; that’s what you do best.”

So I decided between cuts and bites of my steak to get to the questions I had hoarded away for the moment. Questions I’d held in check since my first introduction to Jeffrey Cohen’s Some Like It Hot-Buttered, the first book in the Double Feature series. It was followed by It Happened One Knife, and the third, A Night at the Operation, is just about to hit the shelves.

“Jeff, do you believe as I do that Frank Sinatra was totally miscast in Some Like it Hot? And in fact that he was totally miscast in any role he ever played in? That he was a lousy actor and should’ve stayed with the singing and lounge act?”

“The only reason I think Sinatra was miscast in Some Like It Hot is that he wasn’t in it at all. It was Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. But he was miscast in Guys and Dolls. You hire Frank Sinatra, and give all the big songs to Marlon Brando. Hollywood.”

“Hmmm…thoughtful reply. Tell you what, let’s get down to brass tacks. You have a fascinating background in film and TV work. Did your background suggest or help you to decide to write the Double Feature series?

“My background in film and TV consisted mostly of getting turned down, so yes, it was terrific practice for being a novelist. Luckily, Hot-Buttered wasn’t my first novel; it was my fourth. So I knew quite a bit about what I could do—but I wrote it anyway.”

After choking on my steak, I asked, “How did your nominations and accolades for first and second books in the series affect you both personally and professionally?

“Well personally, my wife was impressed for at least four minutes. But that’s collectively for the two nominations. Professionally, the cliché is true—it really is an honor to be nominated. Shows that people really do like what you do. I don’t discount that; it amazes me that anyone outside my immediate family reads what I write.”

“Do your characters come full-blown on the page, what I call fully realized as you write, or do you “live” with them for a time and do a lot of rewrites?
And contingent to that, are your characters based on real people or are they composites? And I promise the questions are only going to get tougher as we go.”

He actually blushed a little. “I don’t rewrite that much,” he said. “And when I do, it’s because my editor has found plot holes that I would have missed after the thirty-fourth reading. The characters just sort of emerge as I’m writing. I like to play against the expectation of the reader, so I wrote a Jewish grandfather mobster and a huge British upper-class hit man in one book. But no, outside of the circumstances of the characters in the Aaron Tucker series (Aaron had a job, a house, and a family like mine), the characters aren’t based on anybody in particular. They’re meant to fit the story and above all, not to be boring. Screenwriting taught me that. Thank you, screenwriting.”

How much of your own personality and experiences and circumstances inform your sense of humor and how do you balance humor and murder so deftly?

“Living in New Jersey creates a sense of humor, a shorthand of sarcasm that I don’t think you get anywhere else. We like to send out little test signals to people to see if they’ll pick up. One time I was making a reservation for dinner on the phone, and the young woman at the restaurant asked, ‘Can I have your name?’ Without thinking, I said, ‘I think it’s awfully unlikely,” and without a beat, she answered, ‘If I do, can I join the group for dinner?’ Jerseyans listen when people talk, and I don’t think that’s the case everywhere. Mostly, we’re trying to hear over the car engines.”

I called for another Rolling Rock to wash down the last of the steak, then asked Jeff, “You’re a frequent contributor on DorothyL readers and writer’s forum, and you maintain a website and a blog. How much time do you spend online? And how important is computer networking?”

“I do a lot of online time. For one thing, it’s a great way to avoid writing. For another, it’s the absolutely best way to publicize your work without having to pay for it. I’m lucky that I started writing novels when so much Internet mystery interest was already in place. But I only blog the one day a week; there are six (actually eight, in case someone takes a day off) other people who blog at HEY THERE’S A DEAD GUY IN THE LIVING ROOM, so we can offer perspectives from editors, publicists, agents, reviewers, booksellers, and publishers as well as from me. It’s not my blog; I’m just one day’s worth of it. The website ( is another story—that has more information about me than anyone, including myself, could possibly want. I love the Internet.”

“Who’re some strong influences on you and your writing, and whose books do you never miss reading currently?”

He grinned. “The strongest influences on my writing are actually screenwriters. Ernest Lehman. Larry Gelbart. Mel Brooks. Everybody who wrote for the Marx Brothers. In mystery, I read Robert B. Parker, Chris Grabenstein, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Lisa Lutz and many others I’ll be getting emails from asking why I didn’t mention them (the answer is I should have, but have a terrible memory on the spot). I just read Harlan Coben’s latest Myron Bolitar novel, which I enjoyed a lot. But when I’m writing, I read mostly non-fiction, because I’m afraid of writing in someone else’s voice unintentionally.”

Jeff’s dog has to be restrained as he has taken a morbid liking to my leg. “Whataya think of the current publishing downturn and how, in your opinion, can the publishing industry survive? Told you the questions were going up the tough scale. I stole this one from Jean Henry.”

“If I understood business, would I be a mystery author? I think the publishing industry has to survive. It may not survive in its present form, but it’ll survive as something. People will still want to read. The thing I’m most afraid of is that newspapers will die before I do. I love newspapers. And no, reading a website is NOT the same thing.”

“What has been the absolute best writing or marketing experience you’ve had in this publishing game?”

“The best writing experience never involves writing. It’s getting feedback from readers, even the ones who hate your book. It’s so gratifying to know that someone is actually responding to what you did, even if it’s in a negative way. Of course, the ones who love your books are more gratifying, but you take what you can get. Marketing? You mean besides doing this interview? I love meeting booksellers. I wish I could afford to travel more and meet the people on the front lines of the publishing biz. But I have a kid in college, and another one less than two years away. Thank dog for the Internet.”

“What has been the absolute worst writing or marketing experience you’ve had in this business (aside from being interviewed by me)?

“Being interviewed by you is a highlight. My favorite marketing story involves a “Literacy Day” celebration at a Large Box Store that will remain unnamed (Wal-Mart). I was assigned a store to go visit and read a children’s book (not mine, of course) to show off that I was literate, or something. And I called the store a few days before to make sure they knew I was on the way. Was assured beyond all question that they couldn’t wait for me to show up, and ‘a girl here is working on your publicity.’ Cool. So I show up on the appointed day. Apparently, ‘the girl’ has the day off, and nobody knows about Literacy Day until I find a representative of the distributor for the kids book I’m supposed to read. He asks if I’ve seen all the publicity. I tell him no, all I know is the girl has the day off. He says, ‘Oh, you’ve gotta see the sign.’ And he marches me over to a spot near the entrance of the store, which I must have passed on the way in, and sure enough, there’s a sign announcing that ‘New Jersey Author Jeff Cohen’ (because apparently now I’ve written a whole state) will be appearing today. And there’s a photograph. The rep asks me, “How do you like it?” I say it’s great, I love it, but there’s one slight problem—that’s a picture of someone who is not me. And here’s the scary part—he looks at the picture, looks at me, looks back at the picture, and asks, ‘Are you sure?’ That was a real lesson in humility.”

“Trust me, such stories are more the norm than the abnormal, my friend. I got a million of ‘em. But we must push on. So tell us briefly about your next hilarious novel. What’s on tap? No, no more Rolling Rock for me, but what’s on your horizon?”

“My next hilarious novel? That’s something of a leap for a Jersey self-deprecator like me. Let’s just say that A NIGHT AT THE OPERATION is, in my mind, a raising of the stakes in the Double Feature series. Elliot Freed, who owns Comedy Tonight, New Jersey’s only all-comedy movie theatre, has never gotten over his ex-wife, Dr. Sharon Simon-Freed. So when she vanishes into thin air, at the same time she’s wanted for questioning in the murder of a patient, Elliot’s world goes just a little bit crazy, and he has to rely on a support group he never knew he had.”

The dog is getting antsy, tugging at his leash and crossing his legs. Jeff rights it as I ask the final question: “Got any useful advice to novice writers other than run like hell?”

“I think that’s the best advice: If you can do something other than write for a living, you should do that. Because if you can be talked out of it, if you won’t do it whether you’re making a living or not, then you probably don’t have the tolerance for rejection you’re going to need. Other than that, read a lot, and don’t ever try to write someone else’s book unless your name is going to be under the words, ‘as told to.’”

“Jeff, you’ve been a real Jersey gentleman and terribly patient, unlike your dog who has wet my shoes. “Anything you’d like to add before we must go our separate ways?”

“Just one thing—that’s not my dog.”

“Can you quick list your web and blog sites—where we can all visit you whenever?

“I’m easily findable at and the blog is at . I blog on Mondays. You should read it all the other days of the week, too.”

“Thanks, Jeff, for forsaking good reading and writing time to take the time to talk to ACME Authors Link, man, from all of us at Acme.”
“It’s been a sincere and definite pleasure. Thanks for the opportunity, and no, I’m not buying you a new pair of shoes.”

Happy Reading and Writing folks

Rob Walker


Morgan Mandel said...

Welcome, Jeff. Our first dog was a basset. You've got good taste.

Morgan Mandel

Pat R. said...

Sounds like the meeting of two brilliant minds. I know I'm looking forward to Jeff's new book and have it preordered.

Pat R.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Ah, the Garden State. I have such fond memories of driving down the Jersey turnpike many years ago as an 18-year-old newlywed and being pulled over by a patrolman, who said to my husband, "If you don't have $25, kiss your girlfriend goodbye 'cause you're going to jail. He took him away and left me sitting alongside the turnpike. That was our last $25. :)

Love the interview, btw.

Rob Wallker said...

Wasn't Curly of Moe, Larry, and Curly fame that always said, "Joy-see!"

It was a pleasure to interview Jeffrey Cohen. It was my honor but I had to shoot the dog.


Theresa de Valence said...

You guys are both nuts!

The interview was fun.

Theresa de Valence
Authors deserve Better Software To Write

Jeff Cohen said...

It was a great pleasure to be interviewed, Rob. Thanks. And while you did shoot the dog, he has recovered nicely, and says only complimentary things about you.

What'd you want me to say? DiMaggio?

Rob Wallker said...

Thanks for passing that along, Jeff. will be in touch!

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