Interview with Harley Jane Kozak
Harley Jane Kozak had a successful career in Hollywood, appearing in such feature films as Parenthood and Arachnophobia, before becoming a writer. Her second book featuring series character Wollie Shelley was just published.
Q. What made you decide to start writing mysteries?
A. I never actually decided. I’ve always been a compulsive writer — grocery lists, cartoons, letters, plays, poetry, monologues, country & western song lyrics, musicals, essays, interviews, party invitations…and then one day a piece of a poem by Yeats gave me an idea for a screenplay, which I decided to map out first as a short story, a character study, really, of a woman named Wollie. And one day I realized I didn’t want to write a screenplay, I wanted to write a novel. And when Wollie stumbled over a body, I stumbled upon the thing I really longed to do: mysteries.
Q. Your first book, Dating Dead Men, was more focused on the humor and less on the mystery. Your new book, Dating Is Murder, is the other way around. Was that deliberate or more an outgrowth of the stories?
A. The latter. Dating Dead Men began with this 40-dates-in-60-days premise and then turned into a murder mystery (see question #1) but the voice and the character dominated my writing process. With Dating is Murder, I was more grounded in the genre. The characters were already in place, and what interested me now was plot. In the first book, Wollie encountered a corpse, and events spiraled downward from there, taking her — and me — along for the ride; in the second book, Wollie’s the engine that drives the mystery, which is more personal for her.
Q. My wife is still peeved with you for having Wollie Shelley’s fiancé (whom she fell in love with in Book #1) split the scene before Book #2 begins. Will Wollie ever find love and settle down?
A. Uh-oh. I do not like to peeve anyone. Please reassure your wife that yes, Wollie will find love and settle down. This is not everyone’s idea of living happily ever after, but it’s Wollie’s, and considering what she’s been through, she deserves it. The question is, with whom? I originally intended Book #1 to be a stand-alone, but my editor asked for a sequel, with Wollie dating again, and who dates when they’ve found True Love? I was forced, therefore, to send Fiancé to Southeast Asia and create another love interest (as we called them in the soap operas) and I ended up liking him so much, I stopped missing Fiancé. But I expect Fiancé will turn up again and then Wollie (and I) will have to make a decision.
Q. Dating Is Murder has Wollie appearing on a dreadful reality show called Biological Clock, which features six eligible singles dating each other, with the audience voting on which couple should have a baby together. Will it be part of Fox’s fall schedule? I bet it’d get at least a 15 share!
A. As a matter of fact, while researching reality TV, I got to tag along on a shoot for Blind Date (a long-running reality show that probably needs no explanation) and when the crew asked me about my fictional reality show and I described Biological Clock, their reaction was similar to yours: they advised me to pitch it to their boss. I resisted the impulse. If Biological Clock shows up on any network, I have a clear case of idea theft. Still, I like to think it would do better in the ratings than it does in my book. A 15 share would be very nice.
Q. How many blind dates did you go on before you met your husband and what was your worst one?
A. By my count, I’ve had more than 50 blind dates, but it was over a period of 20 years, so I’m not quite as demented as I sound. The worst was probably the guy whose opening line was, “and what are we dressed as, 1980?” (The year was 1990.) If it sounds familiar, it’s because Wollie went out with the same guy, in Dating Dead Men. I mean, dangerous is one thing, criminal, Evil Incarnate even — those you expect on a blind date. But this guy was…crabby.
Q. You’re probably tired of questions about your acting career, but I’ll ask anyway: Did Steve Martin (your co-star in Parenthood) show you his art collection?
A. No. But I don’t expect he had it in his hotel room in Orlando, Florida, where we shot the film. But who knows? Actors bring strange things on location. For me, it was always bookends. For my endless books. Come to think of it, that should’ve tipped me off to my secret career aspirations. Who but a writer (or Scrabble fiend) travels with a dictionary and a thesaurus?
Q. Do you read reviews of your books?
A. Only the good ones, which my agent and/or publicity person at Doubleday fax me. They hide the bad ones. I have very thin skin. I can quote every unflattering thing ever written about me, as an actress or writer. The good ones fade from memory after a half hour. The bad ones I’ll remember on my deathbed.
Q. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
A. Keep writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting and don’t show your stuff to a prospective agent or editor until it’s as flawless as you can make it. Most of the agents and editors will reject it, and you don’t want it to be for reasons you could’ve fixed, by taking a writing class, or having your mother-in-law proofread it. That said, once you know in your heart it’s good, don’t give up until you find someone who agrees with you. And while you’re looking, start writing the next book.
Q. You know Hollywood better than most authors. What are your thoughts about them adapting your books?
A. Adapt away! I have three preschoolers who will one day be in college (or beauty school or rehab or wherever) and as we’re all more or less sponging off my husband, “selling out” to Hollywood is something I aspire to. Also, my car has 119,000 miles on it.
Q. What excites or distresses you about the mystery genre today?
A. What excites me is how much talent there is out there, and what distresses me is how little time I have to read anything, even the authors I most love.
Q. What’s the last book you read?
A. Concourse by S.J. Rozan. Great book.
Q. What’s next for you?
A. I’m working on my third book.
Q. We end tonight, as we always do, with a question invented by my hero, Bernard Pivot: What is your favorite curse word?
A. The word my children so adore, that I lifted the ban on it last month: poopyhead.