Friday, May 1, 2015

Dwight Kemper, Author, Actor & More

Original Artwork by Dwight Kemper (c)

Author, actor, and much more, Dwight Kemper enjoys a writer’s life. His thrilling new fiction novel The Vampire’s Tomb Mystery will leave you on the edge of your seat!

Welcome Dwight!

What research did you do for The Vampire's Tomb Mystery? Did you visit funeral homes? (ugh…)
Although I have friends who are morticians, and I have a nursing background and actual have dealt with death in nursing homes, my main source of funeral home information is a book called “The American Way of Death” that goes into great detail in all the products and procedures used to prepare a body for burial. Also, while writing the book, I had been to a few funerals and made note of things like how the body is presented during viewings, and so forth. And, believe it or not, morticians are very eager to talk to you about what it is they do because so few people want to hear the details that go on behind the scenes of a funeral.

Describe the aesthetics and background for your book...
Well, I basically wanted to capture the feeling of the times of 1950s Hollywood. It was in decline. Bela Lugosi (or Armond Tesla) was at the tail end of his career and was in the midst of drug abuse and divorce and a new marriage. And I wanted to portray the outskirts of Hollywood society. We’re all familiar with those who have made it in Hollywood and all the glamour, but few know the tragic stories of careers in decline and dreams unrealized. There was certainly no better example of that than Edward D. Wood Jr., who was a very enthusiastic filmmaker, but had little in the way of talent. He often exploited actors in decline, not just Lugosi. But he did have a special relationship with Hollywood Dracula’s and Wood was a big part of those final days of the Hungarian actor. I also wanted the book to feel like a mystery story had it been directed by Edward D. Wood Jr., with all the tropes he often put in his films and books (he had written several). Cross dressing, of course. Wood was a notorious transvestite. His magnum opus to cross dressing was “Glenn or Glenda” and you had to include that, and cross dressing and that culture became part of the mystery. I wanted very much to make my book an extension of “Hollywood Babylon,” a comic nourish look at the dirty little secrets of Tinsel Town. 

How do you develop character traits and scenarios?
Well, I did a lot of research, read a lot of biographies and looked at a lot of newsreel footage. I also had the opportunity to speak to at least one of Ed Wood’s actors, Conrad Brooks. It was very enlightening; particularly in the way I portrayed him. He had a habit of saying “You know” about every other word when we spoke on the phone. So, I altered his dialogue in my book to reflect that. It’s just something you wouldn’t know unless you had some contact with the man. He also gave me some vital information about the funeral and where Ed Wood’s house was in relation to the funeral home. He also said he left the funeral early, but couldn’t remember why or where he went afterward, so I made sure to exploit that as a plot in the book. He was really very helpful and even called ME to participate in my research. Kudos to him. As for the scenarios, they’re all part of Hollywood legend. It’s just a matter of taking a lot of first-hand accounts and weaving them all together to tell a very weird mystery story in the style that Edward D. Wood Jr. might direct. That was the whole point of the story, to give the reader the feeling that this was Hollywood seen through the eyes of my protagonists. I also had an opportunity to interview Joe Moe, a good friend of Forrest J Ackerman, who was the “Watson” in my mystery story to Criswell’s Sherlock Holmes. He gave me a lot of background about Forry and how he dealt with people like Ed Wood. He also told me what Forry’s favorite sayings were, such as “See you on the merry-go-round” and “I must have been to the House of Pies” when asked about why he hadn’t been in touch. It’s research like this that lends greater depth to character portrayal. For example, in a scene where Wood is confronting Forry about what he thought of Wood’s manuscript (in the early days Forrest Ackerman was a literary agent) I originally had Ackerman being very blunt about how bad Wood’s science fiction manuscript was. Joe was Ackerman’s caretaker later in the publisher’s life, so he knew Forry very well and told me Forry would never be that direct. He would couch his insults as a passive aggressive back handed compliment that the victim would think was a real compliment, which is why I had him say, “You’re as great a writer as you are a director.” And when you’re dealing with Lugosi (who for legal reasons had his named changed to Armand Tesla, a character he portrayed that was basically Dracula, but was called Armand Tesla to avoid legal battles with Universal Studios) you have to deal with his marriage, his death, his films with Ed Wood, his drug addiction and recovery, and his funeral, so it pretty much writes itself about where your story has to take place. Lugosi’s apartment, the funeral home, Wood’s place, the office of Criswell and his home, and so forth. I just had to be clever with how to weave my absurdest plot into those locations. It was also important to exploit all those locations for all they were worth. I had to rewrite the funeral home scene about a dozen times because I was basically presenting a magic trick regarding bodies and how they got where they did. And to exploit all the chaos to full comic effect.

Frankly, it was rather depressing writing most of the book, so I offset the depressing parts with wild slapstick where applicable. It’s the kind of weird balance that you’d find in an Edward D. Wood Jr. production. I had a lot of fun writing Criswell, the psychic who says he really isn’t a psychic. His life was so bizarre. His friendship with Mae West, which is a part of the novel, is 100 percent true. Descriptions of West’s apartment are taken from biography sources and actual photographs. That’s another thing. I illustrated the book myself, and I used actual photo references whenever possible. There’s a scene that takes place at the Brown Derby and in the illustration, all those caricatures on the wall are taken from REAL caricatures from the restaurant, some from eBay photos. Nothing is made up. I searched for photos taken at the time, streets, cars, clothing, everything. All done down to the last detail. I also tried to do a photo realistic effect using heavy velum paper and shades of grey India ink felt pens. I have most of the original art framed and hanging in my house.

Describe your writing/editing style and routine...
For this book my routine would be to work on it when I didn’t think I had more to do with the other two books I was writing at the time. My other books, “Who Framed Boris Karloff?” and “Bela Lugosi and the House of Doom,” were each written in a two year period, while “The Vampire’s Tomb Mystery” was written on and off during that four year stretch. Basically, I would go to my local Barnes and Noble, order a large coffee, sit down and write at least 10 pages a day. I write my books all the way through before editing. I need to slap on the clay on the wire frame of my story before I can start shaping it into the final piece. How do I know what to cut and what to develop if I don’t have an overall view of the work? So, I plunge ahead straight through and only edit after the first draft is all done.

It involves a lot of typing and a lot of coffee. For “Vampire’s Tomb,” it also involved a lot of transcribing. I bought every DVD I could find that had interviews with all the interested parties regarding Edward D. Wood Jr. or Bela Lugosi. As a result, I have not one, but FOUR copies of “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” Whenever possible, I took things people actually said in the documentaries and put the words in their mouth in the book, taking things slightly out of context to make the mystery work. But essentially, the wildest parts of the book are things that really happened or were really said. Very little of the dialogue is made up. Particularly where Lugosi’s wife is concerned. Almost everything she says in the book is taken verbatim from documentary sources, which are listed at the end of the novel. I write subconsciously, and by that, I mean I tell my creative processes I need to finish this book in this much time and to give me a good plot. I’ll feel the need to do research, and after things cook in my subconscious, when things are ready to hit the page, my fingers get itchy and I have to type. It all spills out in my mind’s eye like a movie, complete with music and sound effects. I just have to transcribe it. The editing comes afterward, that’s when it switches from right brained to left brained and you try to get down to the nitty-gritty of prose and get rid of repetitive phrases, or explain a plot point better, or expand on a scene that was just getting going and you cut things off too quickly, or you’ve over-written something and need to prune it back. You also get people to read your stuff and see if you’re getting things across properly. In my case, there’s a mystery book club at the Barnes and Noble that has members more than willing to read a book in progress. They read a LOT of mysteries and are very analytical about plot and structure, so they’re a good test audience.

What other books have you written?
My other books are “Who Framed Boris Karloff?” which takes place on the set of “Son of Frankenstein.” Boris Karloff is framed for the murder of a Universal Studios executive and asks Basil Rathbone to find the real killer. This book was greatly helped by having contact with Karloff’s daughter Sara Jane, who was more than eager to give me notes about how her dad would have reacted in certain situations. I also wrote “Bela Lugosi and the House of Doom,” that takes place on the set of “Bud Abbott and Lou Costello meet Frankenstein.” This book was aided by Bob Furminek and Ron Palumbo who wrote “Abbott and Costello in Hollywood,” and more than willing to share their many files and notes about the production. Bob even invited me to his house to see actual outtakes from the movie, including slate numbers, so I knew what take belonged to what mistake. I also learned things like who was late, how long they were late, who was on set that day, what they wore, what scenes were shot, what props were used, and a host of other details that made the book come alive. I can safely say that it wouldn’t have been nearly as good a novel had it not been for Bob and Ron’s help.

What do you like to do in your spare time?
Believe it or not, I like to go to the gym. Writing is a very sedentary occupation and you have to offset that with a rigorous exercise program. I go four days a week, sometimes more. I weight lift, box, swim laps, do freehand exercises. I’m 57 years old, but I’m a formidable 57 years old. I’m also an actor. I do murder mystery theater for hotels and private events. In fact, all three of my books began as murder mystery shows. “The Vampire’s Tomb Mystery” was fun to do because I actually recreated Lugosi’s funeral down to having a dummy with Lugosi’s actual face. The body was laid out in a coffin and wearing his Dracula costume, just as Lugosi had been in real life (or death). I even went to the trouble of making photographic masks of all the suspects with their testimony printed on the back so people I took out of the audience as actors could hold up the masks and look like the real people as they read their alibis out loud. It’s also good as a writer to actually set up a real scene so you can get as in depth a feel for the crime scene as possible. In past shows, I’ve even gone so far as to dig shallow graves in actual woods for people to happen upon for a private party. You know why shallow graves are shallow? Because it’s hard to dig up the ground near trees because of the root systems. You wouldn’t know that unless you actually tried to dig a grave in the woods.

Has becoming an author/writer changed your life/lifestyle?
\Not really. I’ve been writing since I was a kid when I thought it would be a smart thing to write children’s books when I was an actual child. As a result, I started collecting rejection slips as early as 12 years old.

Where is your favorite venue for booksignings/book events?
I rather like horror conventions. I can get a table as a guest author and start hawking my books as aggressively as I like. I do the same thing at bookstores. I did signings at a few Barnes and Nobles in upstate New York, and basically I would set up near the front doors and say things like, “Come see the author in his natural habitat, a book signing.” I sold about 20 copies of “The Vampire’s Tomb Mystery” doing things that way. I’m like a carnival barker, inviting people to roll up and sample my wares. It’s where my experience as an actor comes in and I can play the role of author to the hilt. One other author at one of the conventions complained to me that I was being too much a fool and I should be more like him, selling his books with dignity. I asked him how many he had sold so far. He said, “Five books.” I said, “Well, I just sold 15, so if you don’t mind, I’ll just continue to play the fool.”

What is the key to writing a successful novel?
That depends what you mean by “successful.” I think my books are successful because they’re the kind of books I myself would want to read. If I can sit down and read my own book and not wince because a sentence is clunky or there’s a plot hole I didn’t see, I would say it was successful. They’ve been critically well received and all three books were nominated for a Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Award. But today’s readers rather perplex me. The daughter of a friend of mine wanted to do a book report on “Who Framed Boris Karloff?” for her junior high English class. She gave me her paper after it was graded and some of her comments were very interesting, particularly one where she said she had trouble following the story at first until her dad told her to imagine what was going on while she was reading the book, seeing it like a movie in her head. Now, to me, this is sort of what one would expect to do when reading a book. It’s what I do. Always have. But the idea someone has to be told to do this while reading a book just floored me. It’s like texting has robbed kids today of their ability to take the printed word and make them into mental pictures. To them, words are just that, words. Text. Nothing more. It was like all my efforts to paint pictures with words was going to waste on an audience that had no idea that’s what I was doing. It was quite a revelation. It also might explain why some books that are popular come across to me as badly written trash. The text tells a story in a way that younger audiences can relate to, not as prose that makes you see pictures, but just as a text message on your iPhone. I’m still trying to come to terms with that.

Who is your favorite author?
You mean besides me? I don’t have a single favorite author. I have authors for every mood and interest. I like Science Fiction writer Robert Sheckley. His stories have a darkly humorous edge. I remember one story of his where a planet of lizard people had the custom of killing their wives. In fact, when a spaceship from Earth lands on their planet, two of the lizard men are watching the ship land, one wants to investigate, but says he can’t because he has to go home and kill his wife. The other offers to do it for him. “That’s awful nice of you,” the other lizard man says. Things go downhill fast when the lizard men think they’re doing the visiting astronauts a favor by killing the female member of their crew. It’s a very funny and dark story. Particularly, when it looks like the custom of killing wives may be abandoned because the astronauts say its wrong and the lizard wives demand the custom continues. All his work is like that.

I also like H.P. Lovecraft. He really knows how to take science fiction and turn it into horror about dark alien things that want to reclaim our planet. He also wrote a very interesting strait SF story about an astronaut trapped in an invisible maze. Imagine that. You’re able to see your ship, the horizon and freedom, but you can’t escape because you’re trapped in a constantly changing invisible building with a maze designed to hold you prisoner until you die. A fantastic idea! I also like “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” I’ve read that book about a dozen times and no movie version has really captured the story or the characters. Also, anything by Charles Addams. I know he isn’t an author, but his work is nevertheless brilliant. I also love the works of Truman Capote. He wrote about an afternoon he spent with Marilyn Monroe and he attributed one of the most interesting descriptive phrases to her. She said of a producer who wanted to take her to bed for a part, “His glasses were as thick as jellyfish.” My God, what a brilliant turn of phrase! I also like the works of Jules Verne. I spent hours as a kid making drawings from his description of the Nautilus submarine from “20,000 Leagues under the Sea.” I even learned to read French just so I could enjoy the book in its original language.

What are you currently reading?
Press releases mostly. I’m an assistant editor at the Chenango American, Whitney Point Reporter and Oxford Review Times and I have to take raw press releases and make them into stories people can actually read and understand. Nobody knows how to write a good press release anymore.

What are you currently writing?
I’m currently writing for the newspaper and for Phantom of the Movies VideoScope. I write movie reviews, I also do a column in the newspaper I call “Tales from the Spam,” which takes some of the more outlandish con artist related spam we get in our e-mail and turn them into a Tales from the Crypt inspired story. I take on the role of DeCay, the Ghostmaster General, and present these spam letters like the Crypt Keeper from Tales from the Crypt. From the feedback we’ve gotten, the column is pretty popular. And educational. We’ve presented a number of outrageous scams to get people’s personal information. I honestly don’t know how any of these schemes have a chance of working, but you never know. And I do my part to expose them to the kind of ridicule only a Post Mortem Postman like DeCay can deliver, and with his mocking laugh (Ha! Ha! Ha!). But as far as other books, like I said, I’m trying to figure out how to write for today’s audience who don’t see words on a page the same way I do. I’m honestly thinking of going the Fahrenheit 451 approach and doing a graphic novel as nothing but pictures, no words.

Do you have advice for novice writers?
I guess my advice is to just sit down and write something. It may be horrible. But you’ll improve when you find your voice. Write what you know. Don’t tackle a subject you have no knowledge of, unless you’re willing to do your homework. Find something you really like and write about it. Keep a diary. Draw a comic book. Learn the mechanics of telling a good story. I had to really study up on plot structure when I was growing up. I didn’t really understand how plot really worked. Then there was a PBS show about writing that was aimed at kids. I think it was produced in Canada and it gave a lot of practical advice on writing a story, particularly on the mechanics of STARTING a story to grab a reader’s attention. Watch your favorite movie or TV show and analyze why it worked for you. How it surprised you, or how it failed to surprise you and figure out how to make it better. You might also take a stab at writing good fan fiction. I used to run a Powerpuff Girls Fanfic Page to teach writing, I even got some people actual jobs in the comic book industry with that project. Hell, “50 Shades of Grey” started out as a “Twilight” fan fiction before the names were changed. You just never know what will spark your creativity. But you will never know until you sit down and write something. I would also advise setting a realistic goal, like writing at least five pages a day until you’ve written a first draft. In time, you’ll have a completed manuscript. And don’t waste time with elaborate outlines. My outlines are on half a page. I work out the details by writing the book. If you work too hard on an outline you’ll waste all your energy on the blueprint for a book, rather than writing the actual book. That happened to me a couple of times. Avoid that at all costs.

List 10 things that your fans may not know about you....
That’s kind of hard to do. All you have to do is write my name into Google and get at least 12 pages of hits. But, here goes...
1. My great, great, great aunt on my father’s side is writer Gertrude Stein.

2. Also on my father’s side, is my great uncle, character actor Charles Kemper, who did Westerns and two reel comedies. In fact, we look a lot alike.

3. In the past three years, I’ve won six powerlifting trophies, five first place, one second place, and have broken state records for my age and weight division or set records. The most I’ve deadlifted is 375 lbs. So far.

4. I’ve built sets and window displays for the Spirit Halloween Superstores here in upstate New York. I’m famous for my spider web hanging technique.

5. I’m in four independent feature films. A bit part in “Outside Winters Bend,” featured roles in Michael Legge films like “Evan Straw,” “Monochromia,” “The Brothers Dim,” and my latest film directed by Joe DeMuro, “Tales of Dracula,” which will be premiered at Monster Bash later this year. I not only play Anton the Innkeeper, I also co-wrote the screenplay.

6. I’m a semi-regular on “The Dungeon of Dr. Dreck” TV show in Mendon, Ma. I play Uncle Mess and I appear on mouse pads, refrigerator magnets, coffee mugs and T-shirts as that character.

7. I’ve had two stage plays produced, “The Wizard of Oz Murders,” a musical comedy, and “The Demise and Fall of Roman M. Pyre.” 

8. I played Benjamin Franklin in a locally produced children’s special that won an Emmy. It was called “Common Cent$.”

9. I was a character actor for two ballet companies and have played Drosselmeyer in “The Nutcracker” for about 10 years straight. To this day, I can’t listen to that music without noting my stage cues. I was also Dr. Coppelius in “Coppelia” and Catalabutte in “Sleeping Beauty.”

10. I appeared on stage at Carnegie Hall in New York City as Sergei Diaghilev in a ballet I wrote the book for called, “Anna Pavlova, Inspiration of the Dance.”

And that’s about it. So, I will leave these parting words that I deliver to my mystery show audiences, “May all your crimes be perfect ones! Goodnight!”

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