But imagine my surprise! Here’s an author that I’ve adored since 1997, an author that was continually in the same grouping as Christopher Moore, Kinky Friedman, and Joe Lansdale, an author that was noted for humor, satire, and general funny commentary on life…and now, they’re going to mix vinyl?
Well, sad as I am that I’ll have to wait a Georgia minute (shorter than an Arkansas minute but nearly three times as long as a New York minute) for another Fitzhugh yarn, I’ve got to tell you, tune in to the Hand Mixed Vinyl broadcast. I come out of it feeling a little smarter. Plus I get to hear music I’ve not heard in a long time (if ever) and I’m one of the few that still subscribes vinyl sounds better than digital.
Bill Fitzhugh emerged onto the scene in 1997 with his debut novel Pest Control. The comedy of errors, involving one New York exterminator named Bob Dillon, was even selected as one of Amazon’s top 50 mysteries of that year. If you’ve read it, it’s no surprise that this guy was going to have a future.
He followed his success with Organ Grinders, an oftentimes funnier and darker novel that revolved around the world of eco-terrorism and the “business” of the organ trade. Another theme here was a (not-so-subtle) nod to the music profession by naming the protagonist Paul Symon.
Next up, Bill turned his attention to the Catholic church, and wrote the first book to feature product placement. Cross Dressing dealt with mistaken identities, insurance fraud, and offered plenty of belly-laughs. It was rapidly followed by Fender Benders which reads like a caricaturized country tune – man makes the big time, loses big time, and comes back around, all battered and deep fried. Bill even says that the book, once named “Gashville”, owed its “Fender Benders” title to author Tim Sandlin. “Fender Benders” was a chance for Bill to indulge his musical love. And he does.
After Rick Shannon, Bill contributed to a Young Adult Poker anthology called “Full House” (not to be mistaken with the Olsen twins sitcom from the 80’s and early 90’s) and co-wrote a book with country legends Brooks & Dunn, The Adventures of Slim & Howdy: A Novel
In 2008 it all came back to Bill’s first effort – “Pest Control”. “Pest Control” was turned into a musical in the L.A. theatre scene. Stage Scene L.A. said of the production: "Pest Control: The Musical may well be the most visually and technically spectacular musical ever staged in a 99-seat L.A. area theater.” The show closed its run in June 2008.
I had the pleasure to pick the brain of Bill Fitzhugh about the musical adaptation of his work, as well as the music he loves so dear. I also had the chance to get his take on both the publishing and music industries, since he’s got a foot in both worlds. Too, we addressed if my longing for a new Fitzhugh book would be sated.
Bill Fitzhugh: Actually, I’m more of a music fan than a book fan. I've listened to music all my life with far greater interest. The right music tends to have a much stronger emotional appeal to me than the right book. That's not to say I don't like books, both reading and writing them. But the right chord changes coupled with the right words can carry me places no book ever has. And I'm far more verbal than mathematical (which is how I think of music) so whereas I can write with some facility, I can't play an instrument any more complicated than the cowbell. So I go with my strength, words. And since I have this fairly vast store of musical/lyrical info, I tend to draw on it.
EM: I love the Rick Shannon mysteries (“Radio Activity” and “Highway 61”) and wish there were more of them. One thing that stands out in those books is the way Rick Shannon DJ’s. He links songs together that share a common back history. Did you do a lot of research on these musical factoids, or have you long been engrained to this knowledge?
BF: Some of both. The easy ones are the 'theme' sets. Songs about rain or sun or people, etc. There are other kinds of sets I call six-degrees-of separation sets where you have an artist being produced by a guy who played in another band with a different artist who wrote a song made famous by another artist who is the former lover of another artist, etc. Some of that I know, some I research. The hardest ones (and I'm talking about the sets I do on Deep Tracks) are the very complicated segue sets where I take, for example, an eight minute track by McKenzee Spring that has several movements and tempo changes but that revolves around the lead instrument -- in this case the electric violin. Then I have to find a batch of songs that I can segue in and out of, all of which have to use electric violin. Now I know where to look for the electric violin in the rock music library (Papa John Creech playing with Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna; David LaFlame with It's a Beautiful Day, Jean Luc Ponty by himself or with Zappa, etc), but I still have to find the right songs that make the best transitions.
EM: Is that partly what prompted your all hand-mixed vinyl on XM and Sirius?
BF: The show happened after the late, great George Taylor Morris (former PD of Deep Tracks) read Radio Activity and thought it was the best book he'd ever read about FM rock radio. We got to talking. I had an idea about a show. He asked for a sample. I sent it to him. Next thing I knew I was on the air. Been doing it for five years now...
BF: It was great, though there really wasn't much working 'with' them. They read Fender Benders and figured I knew what I was doing. I wrote a proposal. They loved it. So I just wrote the book and sent it to them chapter by chapter and they just wrote back to say, "What happens next?" One of the best 'co-writing' experiences I've had.
EM: I’m sure, with your love of music, it had to be a dream come true to follow in the footsteps of Victor Hugo, T.S. Eliot, and Gregory Maguire and have your book, “Pest Control” turned into a musical! How was that experience for you as a writer?
BF: Well, first of all I dare say mine was the only one to win the Los Angeles area theater Ovation Award for Best Costume for the great cockroach costumes (there's a photo somewhere on my website...) I loved the show. It had many of the basic elements of the book's plot but several major deviations, not the least of which were the 28 or so songs (a list of which is somewhere on my website...). I wish it was still running. But the producer did renew the option so I assume he's still developing it for NY which is his goal.
EM: Are we going to see “The Organ Grinders: the Musical” next?
BF: Funny you mention that...The late, great Leonard Gershe (author of "Butterflies Are Free" among other things) was a friend of mine in his later years and he read Organ Grinders and one day we exchanged a series of emails about making it into a musical, featuring songs like "Love is just around the cornea" and "I left my heart, and several other organs, in San Francisco..." I recently wrote a one hour tv drama pilot for the story, but it's wildly different from the book's story. In fact the only thing that's the same is that it's set in the world of organ transplants.
EM: It’s interesting, did you ever think that “Pest Control” would see stage lights? Film, sure. It just seems that “Fender Benders” lends itself more to the musical slant.
BF: NEVER in my life did it cross my mind that any of my books would end up on stage in any form, let alone a musical, double let alone Pest Control. Still, it makes as much sense as Little Shop of Horrors. After seeing the show six times, the director asked if any of my other books would adapt to musical. So I took a shot at doing it with Highway 61 Resurfaced. I've got a good start on it but it needs to be cut a LOT and I need more songs than the few written by my friend J. Fred Knobloch. And I'm too busy on other things to work on it now. Plus the development of a musical sounds like a monster I don't want to fight.
BF: The screenplay was optioned once for $4,000. It went nowhere. Every studio in Hollywood read it and rejected it. It really wasn't a particularly well written script. What was good was the underlying idea. Adapting it to a novel was fun and relatively easy. But then there was plenty of discouragement to follow. 127 agents declined to represent me. All the publishers who read it passed. Then a NY book scout with Warner Brothers read it, loved it, sent it to her boss in L.A. and the deal was done. The book really read like a movie (whereas the original screenplay obviously didn't).
EM: Looking ahead, it seems that the music industry and the book business are facing interesting crossroads, what with the Kindle and Nook, and iTunes and digital downloading. As a writer and a DJ, what’s your take on where we’re headed? Is there still a future for aspiring writers and musicians?
BF: Well the music business is in total flux. I'd say the publishing business is in half flux. Whereas the old model of the music business is already dead for the most part (the big record companies that once controlled distribution no longer do so, that's been defeated by digitization; and radio, which used to help sell records, was so whored out to Clear Channel, et al, that it can no longer be counted on to break records or artists because nobody listens to it any more). But digitization is having a different impact on the publishing business. People can still buy physical books; there are still book stores and I believe there will be for the foreseeable future. (Compare that to music's physical equivalent: the CD. Most of the record stores are gone. You can still get a CD here and there, but mostly online, and it's just a matter of time before it will be extremely hard to find them). Kindle etc., simply offers a different way to consume a book, in much the same way that audio books was just another way for people to consume what writers produce. One of the things that bothers me about what's going on in publishing has nothing to do with digitization. The 'branding' of authors that allows eight other people to write books under the brand name, I think, is not a good thing. Though at the same time, at least those eight writers are working.
EM: Finally, some years back you submitted an “audition” script for the Monty Python and the Holy Grail PC Game, correct? Eric Idle was the one who produced and wrote it (bastard that he is). I’ve read your script and find it hilarious. I’d love to know more of the story as to how a comedic, bestselling mystery writer was asked to write for a British comedy game.
BF: That was so long ago I'm not sure I remember. I think what happened was that my wife was working for a company that was doing game testing. We went to a convention and I came across some Monty Python computer game and got talking with the rep of the company that produced it. When he found out who I was he asked if I'd be interested in writing the Holy Grail game. I jumped at the chance but alas.
EM: So what’s next for Mr. Fitzhugh?
BF: Looks like I'll finally be digitized as Harper Collins recently started negotiations to put the books on Kindle etc. (I guess etc., I don't know how many platforms they put books on). Hoping to get The Organ Grinders into development as a TV series, a la Dexter. Working on deal to publish the sequel to Pest Control. A book called The Exterminators. And I'm still producing All Hand Mixed Vinyl. Plus yard work.
If you’re interested in learning more about Bill’s books visit his website: http://www.billfitzhugh.com/
Next week, we keep the funny rolling. Author Kevin Shamel will join us. His book Rotten Little Animals has been taking the bizarro scene by storm! He’ll join us to talk the true intentions of animals, E.B. White’s dark side, and inappropriate things to do with puppets. Stay tuned.