Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Dana Fredsti Interview, by Jess Lourey

thelmalouiseIn May, I'm planning a pacifistic Thelma and Louise-type road trip from San Francisco up to Seattle with up-and-coming mystery author Dana Fredsti. The only problem is that we both wanna be the Susan Sarandon character, which is okay because even though we won't get laid, we won't get our money stolen by a sexy drifter, either.

Check out this recent interview with Dana, where you'll learn which movie this former actress is most proud of, and who in Hollywood is really an ass. Oh, and we'll cover her writing.

You've been an actress, an essayist, a fiction writer, and an exotic feline caretaker. Which has been your most rewarding pursuit?

DANA: Hmmm…that's a toughie because things can be rewarding in very different ways. As far as life-changing experiences that humbled me and didn't require me to show my hooters on film, I'd have to say working at the Exotic Feline Breeding Facility/Feline Conservation Center (EFBC/FCC) probably tops the list. The first time I held a baby Amur leopard (less than 200 left in the world), I cried, it was just so unbelievably amazing.
That being said, all of the things you listed have had an undeniable impact on my life. Not always good, mind you, but I don't regret any of them. Not even PRINCESS WARRIOR!

The Peruvian Pigeon, the first in your Murder for Hire series, features Connie Garrett, the director of an acting troupe that specializes in parodying various genres in the mystery field. She is a great protagonist, funny enough that your audience wants to hang with her and smart enough that we never have to roll our eyes at her. How much of her, and her job, did you pull from real life?

DANA: Phew! I'm so glad you didn't want to roll your eyes at Connie 'cause in the original draft, she was pretty much based entirely on me. Daphne, her partner in MFH, was based on my writing partner and best friend Maureen Anderson. She and I started a theatrical mystery troupe called (who would have thunk it) Murder for Hire, and our premiere show was, in fact, The Peruvian Pigeon, a not-too-subtle parody of Dashiel Hammet's famous The Maltese Falcon. By the time MFH was published, Connie and Daphne had both achieved a much greater separation of character and creator, but there's still a lot of both of us there. As far as the job goes, I did some stunt work while in Los Angeles, but Murder for Hire was never a full time job for Maureen or me. We didn't have a really cool landlady or a Victorian rental in 'Emerald Cove' (La Jolla) either. But we did do walking tours and perform for both the Raymond Chandler and Erle Stanley Gardner festivals for the Florence Riford Library in La Jolla.

So, you originally started the Murder for Hire series with Maureen as your cowriter but ended up revising and completing it alone. What was the evolution of that process?

Maureen and I wrote the first draft of MURDER FOR HIRE: The Peruvian Pigeon in a month. We alternated chapters and character POVs and wrote the entire thing longhand. There were a few gaping holes in the story; places where we’d scribble "need action here!" or "This doesn’t make sense. Fix!" But we pretty much had what we thought was a smokin’ first draft. In fact, we thought it was so good, we sent out a slew of query letters before we’d even typed the thing up. We figured we’d have a few months before hearing back from any of the publishers (this was back in the days when you could still send manuscripts directly to publishers and have a shot at it being read), which gave us plenty of time for typing and tweaking. Imagine our surprise -- and panic -- when we got a reply with a request to see the entire book from an editor with St. Martin’s Press less than a week after sending out the first batch of queries.

This prompted a three day and night marathon of revisions and filling in those holes as we typed it up. We were hopped up on chocolate and/or Beringer white zinfandel for most of the marathon. The sugar/caffeine/alcohol cocktail combined with sleep deprivation made us very loopy by the last night (and all of this no doubt account for some of the things that made their way into the finished first draft). I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise to anyone that St. Martin’s Press politely declined to publish the first incarnation of MFH. Maureen and I are still both a bit mortified we thought it was even close to publication-ready when we sent it in. But talk about a wasted opportunity. The mystery market wasn’t glutted at the time, we’d gotten a crack at a major publishing house without even trying…and we blew it because we didn’t have the common sense to make sure our finished product was a: finished and b: well written before sending off query letters. Points for hubris, same points taken away for stupidity.

It took me approximately 16 years from the time the first draft was written to get MFH published. During that time span the manuscript was: stuffed in a drawer (or the electronic equivalent) for a few years; underwent massive rewrites at least 5 times; waited patiently while query letters and the first three chapters went out to agents and publishers; collected many rejection letters, and was occasionally sent out in its entirety to interested parties. My break finally came because of a writer friend, Brad Linaweaver, who’d read every draft of MFH (except for the first one, which is buried in a secret crypt never to again see the light of day) and thought it deserved to be published. He championed it to James Rock with James Rock Publishing Inc. and after a long wait during which James Rock read two incarnations of MFH, it was accepted for publication in February 2007. It was a long road to publication, but so worth it to finally hold the finished bound copy!

Congratulations on your perseverance! Okay, I laughed out loud at some of the intentionally over-the-top gangster dialogue the actors in the Murder for Hire theater troupe have to use, like this part from Chapter 2: "The goon dropped his roscoe when I crunched my grinders into his mitt. I cold-cocked him with a right to his smeller. The other baboon lunged for me and my legs turned to limp pasta as he sank a fist in my belly." What is your inspiration for that classic noir patter?

Both Maureen and I were huge fans of old movies. THE BAND WAGON, with the wonderful Manhunt Ballet segment (Fred Astaire as the gumshoe, Cyd Charise as both the leggy brunette siren and equally leggy blonde ingĂ©nue) was a huge inspiration. "She had more curves than a scenic railroad. I wouldn't trust her as far as I could throw her…but…there was something about her." There's a wonderful book that celebrates the worst of hard-boiled mystery writing, Gun in Cheek by Bill Pronzini, and we SO used it as inspiration when we started putting on our shows. Hell, paraphrasing (and sometimes snippets of plagiarism) was our best friend when we were writing our first scripts.

What are you currently working on?

Murder for Hire: The Big Snooze, the sequel to MFH: The Peruvian Pigeon, and A BAD RAP, which is an urban horror/fantasy I hope to parlay into a series.

That leads directly to my next question. Where would you like to be in five years in terms of your writing career?

I'd like to have at least three more MFH books in the series out there, along with my other WIP (work-in-progress) series. Ultimately I want to be writing full time. Doesn't mean I expect to make tons of money, but I would dearly love to make enough to give up the day job and devote a lot more time to writing. I love working in my pajamas.

Your book jacket says you are fan of bad movies, especially ones with zombies. What are your three favorite "bad" movies, and why?

Oh dear…that's a tough one. There are just so many out there to choose from. I'll stick with the zombie genre for now. The original DAWN OF THE DEAD doesn't qualify as a bad movie, but it IS one of my top three favorite movies of all times. And it spawned some delightfully bad zombie flicks, such as:

  • ZOMBIE, an Italian offering directed by Lucio Fulci and starring the lesser Farrow girl, Tisa. I love it because it has: wonderfully bad camera work at times, zooming in on peoples' nostrils (Tisa has some BIG dang nostrils!) and bald patches; zombiekittypeople on the run from zombies who stop and make out in a GRAVEYARD, fer crissake!; bad dubbing; a couple of truly brilliant atmospheric shots; and a fight between a shark and a zombie. What's not to love?
  • NIGHT OF THE ZOMBIES. Another Italian film set in New Guinea that intersperses the action with stock footage of animals not indigenous to that part of the world. African elephants, anyone? A SWAT team member stops in the midst of exploring a zombie-infested house (the resident is a dead white woman with pearls…what she's doing in the middle of New Guinea is anyone's guess) to put on a tutu and top hat and do a little soft shoe before his totally deserved demise as zombie chow. REALLY bad dubbing and people who stand stock-still screaming, necks bared, when zombies approach, rather than running for the nearest exit. Oh, and SO much more.
  • THE DEAD LIVE, written and directed by Darrin Brent Patterson. I call this movie Man Boobs and Mullets. A must see only if you have a high tolerance for really bad sound quality and some hysterically bad acting.
  • No, wait…I must list another. FEMALE MERCENARIES ON ZOMBIE ISLAND. Truly the funniest, worst, most pathetic excuse for a zombie move ever made. It starts with the end of the world as we know it – a giant tinfoil meteor hits the earth with devastating results: causing men to crave human flesh; women to wear nothing but long T-shirts belted at the waist, knee socks, granny panties, and whatever shoes the actresses had in their closet; and the ability to act is evidently eradicated.

Yes…I own all of these movies. Pity me…or come over to my place, bring a bottle of wine and settle in for movie night!

princess warriorSpeaking of movie night with Dana Fredsti, I have your star vehicle, The Princess Warrior, sitting on my table and crying out to be watched (I had to buy the DVD because I missed it on Rhonda Shearer's UP All Night.) Is there anything I should read up on before I watch it to prepare me, and what's your favorite scene in the movie?

I can't think of anything you could possibly read to prepare yourself, other than a label that says 'DRINK ME' on your favorite bottle of alcohol. Don't ignore that label. My favorite scene…urm…well, it's a toss up between the one where the director is talking on a pay phone and the hero is supposed to go take the phone away from him and while the director is having his one-sided phone conversation, he stops, looks around and says, 'Are we filming? Are we rolling?' And they USED this take in the finished film! But my favorite favorite scene is the infamous 'white hot spoon' torture scene just 'cause it's so dang silly. I'm like a cross between Calista in XENA and Tim Curry in ROCKY HORROR. (interviewer's note: That is Dana on the cover of the movie case. When I opened up the DVD from Amazon, my six-year-old son said, "I want to see that!" I don't know if it was the two women in battle-ready swimsuits, the lightsabers, or a combination of both.)

What is the most famous person you've ever met, living out in California, and were they an ass?

Most famous would probably be William Shatner and no, he was not an ass. I met him on the set of STAR TREK V (and yes, I LIKE this movie – it's like a season three episode, so lay off, people!) when my then boyfriend was working as his driver. It was after a full night of shooting and Shatner was very gracious even though you could tell he was wiped. I also met DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy for you youngens') and he was a sweetheart. He let me hang out in his trailer while they were filming – it was butt-ass cold outside and I was miserable and freezing until he took pity on me.

I was a swordfighting Deadite in ARMY OF DARKNESS. Someday I'm gonna write an essay about the experience, but in the meantime I'll just say Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert were great to work with and Bruce Campbell is much like his character Ash. I went to the 20th Anniversary screening of ALIEN and met Sigourney Weaver, James Cameron, and Jeanette Goldstein (Vasquez, the coolest character in the movie aside from Ripley). Again, they were all very gracious and took the time to talk to people.

Biggest thrill for me was meeting and working with Ken Foree (DAWN OF THE DEAD), Josef Pilato (DAY OF THE DEAD) and Brinke Stevens, scream queen extraordinaire. They're not famous unless you're a zombie or horror movie fan, but I was far more danajazzed at meeting them than I would have been at meeting someone like Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt. I am a total geek when it comes to my beloved zombie and horror genres…

The biggest asses I met while working in the film industry were generally actors who hadn't made it yet, had a few low budget films under their belt and had started developing a sense of entitlement. Not to say there aren't a lot of high level asses on both sides of the camera in Hollywood. I just never ran into them. Maybe if I'd stuck it out in the Industry (note that capital 'I' please!) I'd have encountered a few. Damn. Guess I picked the wrong day to give up acting. And sniffing glue.

Haha! Don't even TRY to sneak an AIRPLANE reference past me, sister. OK, back to mysteries. I've heard you jazz up your signings a little bit, using your theatrical training. What did your last signing event look like?

My last signing event was for the Sacramento Sisters in Crime (a great group!) and it started with noir music playing and my friend Dave doing a monologue from the original Peruvian Pigeon script that segued into my introduction. I talked about the origins of MFH, both the theatrical group and the book, then answered a lot of questions. I love Q&A! I'm totally up for adding more theatricality whenever appropriate.

Where can our readers find your books and meet you in person?

I'm glad you asked that question! I'll be going on a signing tour up the northwest coast, starting in San Mateo on May 21 and culminating in Seattle with the fabulously talented and funny author of the Murder by Month Series, Jess Lourey (interviewer's note: awww!). We're planning a Thelma and Louise-style tour (sans guns, sexy albeit amoral drifters optional) at the end of May. Go here to see our schedule so far!

To win a free copy of Dana's first book, be the first to email her through her website with the name of Fred Astaire's character in THE BAND WAGON. Make sure to tell her Inkspot sent you!



Mark Terry said...

I was just wondering.

You describe her as an exotic feline caretaker.

Are the felines exotic, or is she exotic? (And what, exactly, do you mean by exotic? Is that like, you know, an exotic dancer?)

Just wonderin'.

Jess Lourey said...

Haha! The answer isn't nearly as good as the question, so I'll leave it to your worthy imagination.

Keith Raffel said...

Enjoyed the interview.

Guess who has an original movie poster of The Band Wagon in his family room? Fred Astaire's Tony Hunter -- a once great, now past his prime hoofer -- seems to be based on.... Fred Astaire.

zhadi said...

Mark, I was an exotic dancer in a bikini bar for four days (nights) back in my youth. I actually wrote an essay about it called HELL ON HEELS. THe exotic felines are much cooler than exotic dancers. www.cathouse-fcc.org

An original poster, Keith? I'm jealous!!!!

G.M. Malliet said...

Interesting, isn't it, how much actors who haven't made it yet *sometimes* have so much in common with authors who haven't made it yet.

The "big" authors are unfailingly gracious. Maybe that's part of how they got to be big authors.

Jess Lourey said...

I agree, GM. Hmm. Does that mean I have to stop being such an ahole to crack the cement ceiling?

zhadi said...

Heh. Yeah, Jess, you're such an a-hole... NOT.

I have yet to meet a nasty author, unless screenwriters count. Met a few of those! But the mystery and horror writers I've met have all been really nice. Guess I've been lucky so far... or paid my dues in the film industry!

Julia Buckley said...

Cool interview, girls. I've never seen Thelma and Louise, but I think I'd enjoy seeing a movie about Jess and Dana.