The Butcher of Beverly Hills
by Jennifer Colt
Published by Broadway Books
368 pages, 2005
Jennifer Colt is a screenwriter in Santa Monica, California. She has written for Dimension Films and Playboy Enterprises and has worked in the non-theatrical division of MGM/United Artists in LA. Publishers Weekly described Colt's debut PI novel, The Butcher of Beverly Hills, as a "vivacious debut, the first in a planned trilogy," and "a fast-paced, gum-snapping, snarky chick-lit mystery with sparkle to spare."
Jennifer Colt was a finalist for the St. Martin's Press/PWA Best First Private Eye Novel Contest. She made me laugh right from the start.
Stacey Cochran: How does it feel to finally see the publication of your first novel after so many long years of writing? Are you in the moment, just enjoying it, anticipating what will happen? How does it feel?
Jennifer Colt: It's true I've been writing a long time, but I've only been writing novels in earnest since late 2001. It feels great to be paid to write my own stuff as opposed to being a hired gun, but it's totally unnerving at the same time -- uncharted territory. I'm trying to be Zen about the whole thing, but as you can probably tell from my writing, that's not my normal state. It's a real effort to keep my erratic nature in check and have faith that everything will work out.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where were you born? Where did you grow up? When (and maybe how) did you make the move to California?
I was born in Dallas, Texas, oh ... not so very long ago. I was an artsy-fartsy type -- classical piano, ballet, theater -- which wasn't a great fit with the prevailing football culture. When I went to college, I majored in foreign languages with the idea of getting out of Texas and seeing the world. I did a semester in Paris and spent some time in Europe after graduation, but I had always wanted to be a writer so eventually I headed out to LA to try my hand at screenwriting.
The first of many jobs I had was in MGM/UA's non-theatrical division, renting films to colleges and other institutions. The highlight of my tenure was when one of my salesmen booked Yentl into Chino State Prison and caused an inmate riot. I went from there into children's video sales, then moved into marketing and finally into production/acquisition of children's programming, always writing scripts on the side.
How did you get into screenwriting?
My writing partner and I won a competition at the American Film Institute aimed at "discovering new talent," after which we were signed by a big-deal agency and a big-time manager. The agent was very nervous and fidgety, couldn't sit still (this was the late 1980s, if you catch my drift), and when we'd ask why we weren't getting any meetings, he'd sort of screech at us, "Feel good about it!" That was his by-word: "Feel good about it!"
We'd say, "Okay, we feel good. Not as good as you, apparently, but...where's the work?" We never got any and, after a year, we were unceremoniously dumped by both the agent and the manager. We didn't even get a phone call. Typical of the movie business. My partner and I split up after that fiasco, and I continued writing on my own. I had scripts optioned, various directors and actors attached, deals that were supposed to happen, but nothing got produced.
Meanwhile, I was always working those pesky day jobs, which involved a lot of travel. On the plus side I learned to do marathons on the weekends when I was home, writing nonstop. Now I have the habit of working very fast.
The day finally came when I was done with being an executive, or it was done with me, and I was working as a D-girl for a film company owned by some friends. I got a chance to write a treatment for a movie they were producing for Dimension Films, who liked it and subsequently hired me to work on four features. Two were straight-to-video, two theatrical.
Do you enjoy writing for film?
Yes and no. You have to understand that my experience is limited to cheap horror flicks (and some adult television, but the less said about that the better, now that my in-laws are online).
The money was nice, and ultimately it funded my novelistic ambitions, but ... I'll give you an idea of how quaint notions like "motivation" and "plot" were dealt with on this type of movie. The executive in charge of production would call and say, "Hey, we need to see some skin! Have her take her shirt off on page 15!" or "You don't have a dead body until page five! Gimme a body on page two!"
They were always admonishing me to get "the cutesy stuff" out of the script, which I took to mean the wit. I was supposed to keep in mind that the audience was fourteen-year-old boys. I couldn't help wondering what the fourteen-year-olds would think if they knew these slasher movies were written by a woman their mothers' age wearing leopard-print fuzzy slippers, a cat napping on top of her computer. That would be the real horror.
In the final analysis, it was fun and challenging, and I'll always be grateful ... for the opportunity. But following my own (whacked) muse is much more satisfying than writing by committee. I had some pretty rough nights as the money was flying out the window and I was sitting there trying to bang out a novel, but I believe you're rewarded in that cosmic, feel-good-about-it sense for taking risks and throwing yourself into something you really want to do. Wish I'd had the nerve to do it sooner, but everything in its time.
Is the road to first novel publication one of the most grueling you've ever traveled?
No. Grueling is a word I reserve for jobs that involve answering phones, doing budgets and/or having endless meetings, with nothing creative going on. Even though this was hard at times, it was far and away the most fun I've ever had.
You've commented before that finding the right literary agent was difficult yet extremely important for you. What was different about the agent who finally said "yes" that made her see the potential in Butcher of Beverly Hills where others did not? Did you vary your approach when you queried her?
My query letter was more polished, with the result that four agents asked to see the material at once. I think it also made a difference that I had three books to sell by that time, not just one. The agent I ended up with asked to see the full manuscripts immediately and responded within the week. I knew she'd handled humor and women's fiction, and since this was a bit of both, she was perfect. When she called to say she wanted to represent me, I told her, "Good. You're the one I want." Then I quickly contacted the other agents to say, Thank you for your interest, suckers. I admit it felt good to be the one turning the agents down for a change. Bad me!
Another thing she did to endear herself to me -- she never once mentioned a SASE. Every time agents talked about SASEs, I wanted to blow my brains out. Insisting on "self-addressed stamped envelopes" in the digital age seemed almost perverse to me. I associated SASEs with getting a prize from the back of a cereal box, and half-expected to find a decoder ring or a colony of Sea Monkeys enclosed with my rejection notices.
Now that I'm done griping, here's some honest advice: The best agent to represent you is the one who wants to represent you (yes, even one who uses SASEs). Someone who will treat you like a professional whose time is valuable, and who likes your writing enough to go to bat for you.
So according to my circular logic, if an agent turns you down, you should wipe your brow and say: Whew! Glad you turned me down, you obviously weren't the right one. Now kindly move out of the way so the right person can present him or herself.
The job of an agent is to say no, 99 times out of a hundred. You have to appreciate everything that's set in motion if they say yes. The agent is then on the line for convincing editors that this book will make them money, that they should take a chance on you. Once the editor is interested, she has to get support inside the publishing company in order to make an offer, hoping that this support won't flag through a year's worth of meetings with the marketing department, the art department, the sales force, the buyers and the publicity department. I know this from my time acquiring video product, the marketing of which was very similar (even down to distributing through Ingrams and Wal-Mart).
It helps to know that the people on the other end are viewing you as sort of a marriage prospect. Does this person share my sensibilities? Can I spend years with him, promoting his interests as though they were my own? Will he provide for me in my old age?
Try to be the kind of writer they'll want to extend that level of commitment to. Someone who's professional, who's proven he/she can produce, who writes commercially viable books -- preferably a series so the publisher can amortize their marketing costs across a number of titles. Put as much honest energy into it as you would trying to find the perfect mate.
The good news about agents is that, like a mate, you only need one. Just keep writing and sending, writing and sending and one day someone will look into your eyes dreamily and say, "Yes, I think I can sell your work." Bells will ring.
Who is your audience for Butcher of Beverly Hills?
You tell me. I wouldn't have counted heterosexual males among my audience, but you seem to have liked it. So did my police detective friend, so did a Playboy director I had worked with. He called to say he thought it was extremely funny, and that reading it helped him through his chemo (which made me cry). The publisher is positioning it as "chick lit crime" because chick lit is currently dominating the market, but it departs from that genre in a lot of ways (primarily in the sense that the people who are obsessed with designer labels are the ones who get killed). I think young women will like it, but I also think older women will like it. I wouldn't want to slam the door on any segment of humanity.
They say you should write what you want to read, and I'd read this book simply because it's funny. Anyone who wants to laugh is the target audience. It's a crime novel, but lighthearted -- perfect for mystery readers who want to cleanse their palates between serial killers.
Butcher of Beverly Hills was a finalist for the St. Martin's Press/PWA Best Private Eye Novel Contest. Now that the whole series is getting published, do you have any lingering regret or wish that it would have won and earned you a contract right from the start?
I know I sound like Pollyanna if she was born on an ashram, but I always took the attitude that everything works out for the best, and never dwelt on failure or near-misses. I would celebrate any little triumph -- a good review, a fan letter from a total stranger -- viewing them as signs that I was on the right track. I would have been beyond ecstatic if I had won that competition, but it turned out better this way because I managed to write three books without the pressure of being a "published author," thus overcoming the fear I had each time that I'd never be able to do it again. If I'd been selected as the winner, I would have been subjected to a lot of expectations before I was even sure I knew how to write a second book. Now I will have written five before the first one is even published. (Also, I made more money this way.)
Was Pollyanna right, or was she right?
Have you experienced any remarkable difficulty in being a woman writing and publishing a P.I. novel?
Well, I haven't personally, but Laura Lippman, Ruth Rendell, S. J. Rozan, Denise Hamilton, Julia Spenser-Fleming, Tess Gerritsen, Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Nevada Barr, Linda Barnes, M. C. Beaton, Rhys Bowen, Edna Buchanan, Lillian Jackson Brown, Patricia Cornwell, Linda Fairstein, Janet Evanovich, Elizabeth George, Minette Walters, Martha Grimes, P.D. James, Donna Leon, Val McDermid, P. J. Tracy and Kathy Reichs definitely seem to be struggling.
So, everything's equal? That is, it's no harder for a woman to get published than a man in your opinion? This, of course, was an issue just 10 or 20 years ago...
I know, I was just razzing ya. I think it's easier for women now, precisely because of the trendsetters mentioned above and others like them. These days most books are bought by women, so it only makes sense for publishers to cater to them. Perhaps they buy more books because they've been so thoroughly ignored by the movie business in recent years. How many gals do you know that ran out to see The Lord of the Rings?
It seems to me that things are pretty good now for women writers in all genres (except in the film business, still).
What's your favorite thing to do in Santa Monica?
Eating. Followed closely by drinking.
When you started writing The Butcher of Beverly Hills did you know how the story would end?
I thought I did, but I was dead wrong. The right ending was hinted at in the previous chapters, but I didn't see it at first. It was only after several rewrites that I recognized what I had set up. Once I did, writing it was easy.
What is Tessera Productions?
Just a name for my S-corporation. My husband, a SF aficionado, had suggested I call it Tesseract after a four-dimensional cube written about by Robert Heinlein. I didn't find that word in the dictionary, but I did see "Tessera," which was a token used by the Romans to get into the Coliseum to see gladiators maim each other or Christians fed to the lions. I thought that was kind of a cool idea -- the first ticket concession -- and because I'm also in the business of blood lust as entertainment, I used it.
So, if you had to share a tight below-decks room on a four day Carnival Cruise with one or the other, who would it be? Terry or Kerry?
God forbid I should have less luxurious accommodations than Kathy Lee Gifford, but if I had to be confined with one of the sisters, I would definitely choose Terry. She'd find a way to scam us a better cabin, even if she had to seduce the captain to do it. (She may be a lesbian, but she's a pragmatic one.)
Okay, Lenore's funeral service scene may be the single funniest scene I've ever read. Where does a scene like that come from?
You never know what insanity you're capable of until you set your fingers free on the keyboard. I knew that was a pivotal scene -- I knew it had to be funny -- but I had no idea what to do with it. Then all at once I heard that song in my head (I won't say which one), and the music suggested everything else. I just let 'er rip.
When I asked my older sister what she thought of the funeral, she said, "Well, it's a little over the top," so I cut it back. But I ended up restoring the scene to its former glory because I decided I had to please myself, even if that meant going to extremes.
Fortunately, I now have an editor I trust to keep me in line. If there's a lame joke, she just draws a fine line through it, with no explanation. There's no "stupid!" or "dopey!" written in the margin -- only a very ladylike line that tells me I've gone too far. She's also cut some of the gorier stuff. Why edit myself when there's a very discerning person in New York who gets paid to do it? I think you should let things come, without holding back. You can always delete them later, but if you don't let yourself go, you won't know what might have been.
What do you feel most comfortable writing? Plot, character or pacing?
Definitely character. I love seeing people take shape, hearing them speak. Pacing is more a matter of taking things out, rather than putting them in. You have to be ruthless about cutting extraneous things if you want the story to move. Plot is a bitch for me, but I hope it doesn't show.
I had a lot to overcome in learning to write narrative. I thought: Why do I have to describe the person's clothes? That's the costume department's job. Why do I have to describe the room? The production designer will figure that out. It took me a while to realize that I had to fill in the blank spaces that are normally part of a screenplay. Just getting people from point A to point B was a real challenge, you can't always CUT TO: another scene, the way you do in a script. You need transitions that make it flow, whereas a screenplay can be more disjointed.
I'm hoping you will comment on the differences between writing comedy and writing suspense. Are laughter and fear closely related? For you, what causes the mind to go one way or the other between laughing at something or reacting with panic? Is that something that as a writer you can easily control?
Absolutely you control it, the way you do everything in your manuscript.
Fear and laughter are two sides of the same coin, both being reactions to something unexpected or threatening. A surprise can make you laugh or make you scream, depending on context. Both are ways of releasing the tension that comes from being uncomfortable.
This is not as obvious as it sounds, but in order to write comedy, you have to intend to write comedy. Some people think it's just telling a regular story with some snappy dialog thrown in, but real comedy is structurally more akin to suspense. It's about putting people in extreme circumstances and watching them react according to character. If you want the audience to cringe in fear, you put the character in actual physical danger. If you want the audience to laugh, you put him in an excruciatingly embarrassing situation. In either case, the stakes have to be raised continually. Put the character in a pot and set it to boiling.
With suspense, you want the reader to be aware that he's in suspense. You deliberately draw things out so he's saying, "Come on! Come on! Get the hell out of there!" Biting his nails, turning pages at a clip to find out what's going to happen. With comedy, you usually don't want the reader to see it coming. You set up the funny situation early on, then pay it off when it's least expected.
Slapstick is something that comes out of the blue, like a big scare. A great example is when Inspector Clouseau jumps up on the parallel bars to show off, then accidentally vaults himself over the balcony. But in this instance it's hysterical because it's happening to the clueless, self-important character that Peter Sellers has created, not just for the physicality of it.
Which brings us back to character, the most vital ingredient of both comedy and suspense. You have to identify with the character enough to sweat when he's threatened, or laugh when he does something funny. Otherwise it's a meaningless series of pratfalls, or a yawn of a suspense scene.
Comedy is the hardest thing to write, but for some reason it gets the least respect. People even denigrate it, saying, "The book was funny, yes -- but it didn't make me any smarter." Well, guess what? The physical act of laughter has been shown to increase intellectual performance. So there, smarty-pants.
I have actually looked for books on the technique of writing comedy and haven't found them. You can find tons of material on other kinds of writing, but no one seems to be able to define "funny" or tell you how to write it.
For me it comes down to this: If you laugh before you have time to think about it, then it's comedy. If you're reading along, thinking, "Oh, how deliciously droll," but there's no involuntary laughter, it's something else.
Are you a dog person or a cat person?
I adore our cat, but I really want a dog too. Lately I've been ogling Pug puppies -- they slay me. How could you be unhappy around someone who wakes you up in the morning, wagging his tail as if to say, "Hey, it's today! Isn't that great?"
That said, cats are the most MAGNIFICENT, BEAUTIFUL CREATURES ON THE FACE OF THE EARTH. (Don't want my eyes scratched out in my sleep.)
How do you feel about creative writing programs?
Other than a play-writing course in college and a weekend screenwriting class, I'm self-taught. Sometimes I wish I'd had more formal instruction, but I read an interview once with Susan Isaacs wherein she cautioned against it. She said you'd be surrounded by people with very fine sensibilities who would recoil in horror if you strayed from what they considered literary. Still, I think it would be valuable as long as you were careful not to let anyone squelch your natural voice. There are a lot of tricks of the trade that can be taught, and it's worth learning them in the beginning. I may still do it, actually. I always want to keep stretching. | October 2005
Stacey Cochran's collection The Kiribati Test was published in September 2004. A literary novel, The Band, was published in May. In 1998, Cochran was a finalist for the Isaac Asimov Award. In 2001, at the age of 27, he finished graduate school, then packed everything he owned into a pickup truck and a U-Haul trailer and drove 2,370 miles across the country to Oracle, Arizona in order to write fiction full time. In 2004, he was twice cited as a quarterfinalist for the Writers of the Future Contest, and in October, his novel Culpepper: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Shotgun was nominated as a finalist for the St. Martin's Press/PWA Best First Private Eye Novel Contest.
You can visit Jennifer Colt on the Web at JenniferColt.com.