Fred Van Lente is one of those writers that has me hooked. Up till now, Mr. Van Lente has been churning out top-notch comics with Marvel, Valiant, Dark Horse, and IDW. You might remember that we interviewed him awhile back about his work with Valiant. Now Mr. Van Lente is switching gears with his upcoming debut novel Ten Dead Comedians: A Murder Mystery. After reading a review copy, I reached out to Fred (editor: did you ask if you could call him Fred?) to see if he’d be willing to spend some of his increasingly rare spare time chatting with us about his new book. Spoiler: he agreed.
4LN: Some of our readers may remember that we had a chance to speak with you in February 2015, what have you been up to between now and then?
FVL: Well, quite a lot. Many, many comics, like Deadpool vs the Punisher, Weird Detective and Comic Book History of Comics, and a few other projects, but I have to admit what I’ve been most excited about is my first novel coming out, Ten Dead Comedians, which I stated around November 2015, not so long after we last spoke, and is at long last coming out July 11th!
Digging into your new book, what is it about And Then There Were None that drew you in? Is there something special about that particular story, or the golden era of mystery for you?
Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is a classic of the genre — it’s not just one of the bestselling mysteries, it’s one of the bestselling books, period, of all times. There’s something so elemental about the concept — a bunch of people trapped in a place, being knocked off one by one, with one of the potential victims themselves the likely killer. I had read that Christie thought of the idea years before she wrote the book because she couldn’t believe she was the first person to try it. She was, and justly reaped the rewards of her originality.
What made you decide to tell a classic mystery story using Comedians of all makes and models? (Genre mashup)
I’ve made genre mashup something of a specialty in my career, from Cowboys & Aliens (Western/sci-fi) to Incredible Hercules (Greek mythology/superhero) and more recently in books like Weird Detective, which combines the Cthulhu Mythos with a police procedural. So even though this is in the prose format it something that comes very naturally to me.But you know combining comedy and mystery seems so simple, because so much of the language of comedy is about violence — you “die” on stage or you “slaughter” audience, if you did great you “killed,” if you do badly you “bombed.” So the idea of combining Last Comic Standing with basic set-up of And Then There Were None almost seems like a no-brainer.
Comedy obviously plays a big part of the novel, as you even go so far as to include a comedy routine for every comedian, each with their own style. What kind of work goes into ten unique routines, each in a different voice?
It was not easy, to be honest with you. When I first started writing the book I resisted doing the monologues because I knew doing ten of them in such distinctive voices would be a bitch. But then I a) realized how I could slip clues to the mystery into each and every one and b) uh, I would probably not hit my contractually-mandated word count if I didn’t add them, so, my choice was clear! It was very hard, although I am such a huge comedy nerd I had voices for all of them in my head kind of to begin with, but it was hugely satisfying and it’s one of the things folks say they like the most about the book, so clearly it was the right decision.
When I first started reading Ten Dead Comedians, I thought I could pick out specific real life comedians that inspired your characters, but as the story developed I realized that none of them quite fit. How did you go about developing your ten comedians that might or might not be dead soon?
I mean, there are certainly various archetypes the comics represent — Las Vegas lounge comic, late-night host, “blue collar” comic and so on — but, you know, I am killing (most of? All? Read and find out) these characters in spectacularly gory ways, and I’m not a monster. I don’t want any real people dead. Also, it’s not very interesting to me as a writer to just try and copy somebody else’s schtick completely. So everyone is a gumbo, a mixture of various actual comics. So the insult comic is really a blend of Joan Rivers and Don Rickles. There’s bits and pieces of Amy Schumer and Sarah Silverman and various other “observational” comics in Zoe Schwartz. My wife nearly worked for Blue Man Group at one point so our “Orange Baby Man” is sort of a combo of their philosophy with a prop comic like Gallagher or Carrottop, and so on.
Is it difficult to make the jump from comics to novels? Are there any big differences between the two writing styles.
Sure. I mean, in comics scripting you’re creating a blueprint for another person to follow. But in prose you’re the whole show. There’s no other collaborators to lean on. I’ve been writing prose on and off since I was a high schooler, though, so it’s not like I was a complete neophyte. I’m one of those cliche writers who has a bunch of novels collecting dust in drawer. So to have the first one be published is indescribably exciting.
Was there anything from the comic world that possibly helped you with the writing process?
The comics world is a monthly grind, which translates to a daily, weekly grind on the creative team. The constant deadlines really builds discipline, which is helpful when you’re writing a 70- or 80,000 word novel spread out over many months. It lets you pace yourself properly.
Whenever you’re in a writing slump, do you have a method you use to motivate yourself to get back at it?
Yes: Write. It is the only method. Allow yourself to be in a slump and write shittily. You can always redraft it later. But the only way to get past writer’s block is to write around it.
Lastly, do you have any other big plans on the horizon that we should be on the lookout for?
I am excited to beginning my second novel, The Con Artist, a mystery novel set during the San Diego Comic Con, out next year. And I’m also co-writing a thing with my old pal Greg Pak, can’t wait to see that announced. For the summer I’m doing a lot of promotions for Ten Dead so maybe I’ll take a break afterwards? Ah, who am I kidding, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself…
Summary from Quirk Books:
Fred Van Lente’s brilliant debut is both an homage to the Golden Age of Mystery and a thoroughly contemporary show-business satire. As the story opens, nine comedians of various acclaim are summoned to the island retreat of legendary Hollywood funnyman Dustin Walker. The group includes a former late-night TV host, a washed-up improv instructor, a ridiculously wealthy “blue collar” comic, and a past-her-prime Vegas icon. All nine arrive via boat to find that every building on the island is completely deserted. Marooned without cell phone service or wifi signals, they soon find themselves being murdered one by one. But who is doing the killing, and why?
A darkly clever take on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and other classics of the genre, Ten Dead Comedians is a marvel of literary ventriloquism, with hilarious comic monologues in the voice of every suspect. It’s also an ingeniously plotted puzzler with a twist you’ll never see coming!