Q. An Uninvited Ghost, the second book in your Haunted Guesthouse series, has just come out. What are some of the challenges of writing a series and keeping it fresh?
A. Yes, it’s been out for about three months. Keeping a series fresh is, like most things in fiction (I think) a matter of character. If the characters are interesting people the reader wants to follow, you can keep things happening and see how they react. If they’re not interesting, you can have the greatest plot idea in history and it won’t be that good. It’s all a question of deciding what’s going to drive your main character most crazy, and making sure that happens.
Q. Writing as a female protagonist and adding paranormal elements to a mystery are both different approaches for you. What inspired this new direction?
A. The idea for the series just seemed to fit a female character better. And it’s no secret that cozy mysteries are generally better received by readers with a female main character. As for the paranormal elements—first, I see the books as comedies, so the paranormal is a device to find more laughs. I looked to the “Topper” series and not books or movies about scary ghosts, because I thought that any woman who let her 9-year-old daughter live in a house with dangerous monsters would be a completely irresponsible character and audiences wouldn’t relate. I know I wouldn’t. It’s interesting that people think writing for the opposite gender is so amazing. Spencer Quinn writes from the perspective of a dog, and nobody blinks an eye.
Q. It used to be that mystery readers disliked “real” paranormal situations in their stories because they wanted everything to have a logical explanation. How do you keep a ghost story believable enough to satisfy the typical mystery fan?
A. I have never considered that, to be honest. I write to amuse myself and assume there must be other nuts like me out there who will find these things interesting. I don’t write while keeping demographics and reader preferences in mind, because then you end up writing Generic Mystery #468, and that’s not going to make anybody happy. And if anybody reads my ghosts (or any of my novels) and considers them believable, they have much larger problems than what book to read.
Q. For the first book in the series, Night of the Living Deed, did you research the paranormal aspects, as in talking to or reading about people who claim to have lived in haunted houses?
A. I have never done extensive research for any of my books. I think the fact that they’re in the “Fiction” section of the bookstore should be warning to those who read that this is not the truth. So no, I haven’t sought out people who say they live in haunted houses or met vampires or discussed politics with Abe Lincoln recently. I haven’t had to seek them out; they tend to find me these days.
Q. Do people at parties now want to tell you their ghost stories?
A. People at the dry cleaners want to tell me their ghost stories. And everybody seems to have one, which is interesting. I don’t have an experience I can relate, so I make them up. Maybe everybody else does have one, and that’s why they don’t need to write silly books.
Q. Your heroine runs a guesthouse at the Jersey shore. Do you know anyone in that line of work or did you have to research those details?
A. Once again, virtually no research. Although my wife and I are thinking of taking a vacation down the shore (that’s how we say it here in New Jersey) and writing it off as a business trip.
Q. What extra dimension do you think comedy can bring to a mystery?
A. I think I write comedies that have mystery plots, so I don’t layer it on that way. You can’t slather comedy onto a plot like so much frosting and have it remain believable; it has to be—to borrow a Hollywood word—organic. Life can be tragic or it can be funny; sometimes I think we have the choice. It’s how you react to things. I want to make people laugh. That’s my mission. If you read my book, enjoy the mystery plot and relate to the characters, I’m very glad, but if you don’t think it’s funny, I believe I have failed you.
Q. You’ve said that writing clearly is an author’s first responsibility. Do you feel your journalism background helped hone your skills along that line?
A. I was a newspaper reporter for only about a year and a half, but in that experience and writing for a daily paper in college, I learned how to write to the point and how to write on deadline. That was invaluable experience that has helped in every aspect of my work since then, including writing mystery novels. I don’t think I could have written anything but for the Rutgers Daily Targum and the Passaic Herald-News. I was a writer before; I became a good writer at those jobs.
Q. Have you ever based a victim, or a villain, on someone you disliked? If so, did he or she ever catch on?
A. Once, and I don’t know.
Q. Since you have a family and also nonfiction writing assignments, how much time do you spend on promotion? Are you able to travel much to conferences, or do you find some other marketing method more productive?
A. I spend as much time on promotion, honestly, as I can when I have a promotional idea. Unfortunately, those tend to come in spurts, usually about a week before the book comes out, when it’s practically impossible to implement them well. I do a lot of promotion online, because that’s usually free. I go to one or maybe two conferences a year, and that blows the travel budget I probably should spend on visiting booksellers. It’s a question of finances, especially with two children now in college.
Q. Where will you be appearing to promote your new book?
A. Anyplace within driving distance of my house.
Q. What do you know now about being a professional novelist that you wish you’d known when you were starting out?
A. That you’d better have a day job.
E.J. Copperman, author of the Haunted Guesthouse Mystery series (Night of the Living Deed; An Uninvited Ghost; coming in February 2012–Old Haunts) is the pseudonym of Jeffrey Cohen, who also writes the Double Feature Mystery series (Some Like It Hot-Buttered; It Happened One Knife; A Night at the Operation) and the Aaron Tucker series (For Whom the Minivan Rolls; A Farewell to Legs; As Dog is My Witness). He writes non-fiction books on raising a child with an autism-spectrum disorder. And his books are intended to do anything but depress you. You can find him at http://jeffcohenbooks.com or www.ejcopperman.com, and on Twitter as @jeffcohenwriter and @ejcop. Or you can follow him on Facebook. Or just call and invite him over to read you one of his books. He’s probably available.