Monday, April 13, 2009

Interview with Richard Kaempfer

I’m excited to announce my first author interview! Richard Kaempfer,  author of $everance—a novel I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed—agreed to answer a few question for me about what led him to writing $everance, what he thinks about the state of the media business today, and his beloved Cubs.

What gave you the idea to write a novel? Was it one article too many on the consolidation of the media industry or had the idea been milling about in your head for a while and you decided it was time to put pen to paper?

RK: There were actually three moments in my radio career that inspired me to write this book. The first occurred in 1996. Five or six media companies, including the one I worked for, were pushing for deregulation, but nobody else was. My boss at the time called each employee into his office one at a time and said: “Write a letter to the FCC telling them that you’re in favor of deregulation.” I told him that I wouldn’t write the letter because I thought it was a terrible idea, to which he replied, “If you don’t, you’re fired.” I never wrote the letter. The day that legislation passed and was signed by President Clinton, I started researching the subject because I couldn’t believe it would pass with absolutely zero support from the public.

The second moment occurred in early 2003, during the lead up to the Iraq War. I was already putting my notes together for the novel at the time, but I had no intention of making it political. At the time, we were playing the National Anthem to start our show every morning—a beautiful three-part harmony version sung by the Dixie Chicks. But then one day, the lead singer from the Dixie Chicks made a remark about being embarrassed to be from the same state as George Bush, and suddenly playing that song was considered a huge problem.

I couldn’t understand why. No one had complained about it. We got zero complaints. We thought that if we stopped playing it, we would be making a political statement. (We did a wacky morning show, by the way, not a political show.) We explained this to our boss in his office, but he said, “If you play it again, you’re fired.” That’s right; he was threatening to fire us for playing the National Anthem. (You can read more about this here.) That’s when I started researching the relationship between the political parties and the media.

The third moment occurred later that year. We were in a meeting discussing a promotion for our show that had been arranged by the sales department. It was a ridiculous idea, I can’t even remember where they wanted to send us, but it made absolutely no sense at all...I think it was a Jiffy Lube or something like that...at 5:30 in the morning.

I raised my hand and pointed out that in addition to the slight problems of no one being there, and the store not even being open for the first two hours of the show, there was no benefit at all to the listeners. My boss stared at me like I was from outer space. We weren’t broadcasting for the listeners, we were broadcasting for the sponsors. Jiffy Lube was giving us money to do this. End of story.

How did you come up with your main characters? Are there pieces of your personality in Zagorski? And where did you come up with the last name, Zagorski?

RK: Zagorski is every morning radio guy I’ve ever known—all of them are troublemakers at heart. His passive-aggressive tendencies, however, are totally me. I was never as overt as the morning guys were. They had more power and were able to openly dis the bosses. I had to be creative about it because as I’ve already mentioned, the threat of being fired was very real, and I have three kids.

The name Zagorski is an inside joke from my radio days. At one point we were looking to hire someone to do technical work for us, so we asked people to send in tapes. Some poor guy named Zagorski sent in such a half-assed effort, a crappy little cassette labeled only with his last name and nothing else, that we started giving out “Zagorski Awards” whenever somebody screwed up. From there it morphed into a compliment. “Way to pull a Zagorski out of your ass.”

I used the name in the book because it already rolled off my tongue, and Zagorski is such a great Chicago name. We’ve got the largest population of Polish people here outside of Warsaw.

To me, some of the funniest parts of your novel were the scenes that described the ways in which Zagorski was going to torment Siegel, like the decorating of the offices and the way Zagorski was (basically) just giving money away. I also loved Deepak, the cabbie. Did you have any favorite scenes or parts of your own novel?

RK: You just named my favorite parts too. Writing about tormenting the boss was unbelievably therapeutic. Anyone who has ever worked for a boss they couldn’t stand should try it sometime. I was giggling with glee as I came up with that stuff.

The guys that run radio, in particular, are pretty despicable guys. They aren’t radio guys, they’re Wall Street guys. They’re so easy to caricature, and that caricature resonates so much, because they’re all the same. They’re incredibly vain, incredibly thin-skinned, and they only care about one thing—money. They would sell their own mothers for a 5-cent increase in the daily stock price.

As for Deepak, he was based on a cabbie I knew in Chicago. When I was doing the morning show, he picked me up every morning at 3:30 a.m. I feared for my life every day as he careened through the streets of Chicago, but he was the only guy who would wait outside my door at that hour.

My favorite chapter of the book, however, is the one that takes place at Wrigley Field. That’s my summertime home. I love that place.

I found the NASCARization of the news desk hysterical, but scary when I started to think about it. I recently read an article on Intel becoming the latest sponsor for PBS' The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and I have to say that I hadn't realized that big business was sponsoring shows on PBS. Was this something you saw coming?

RK: I definitely saw it coming. It’s the main point of my book.

For years I’ve been hearing all these conspiracy theories about the liberal media and the conservative media, and the people that believe it, believe it with such passion. They will not be convinced otherwise, even when they talk to someone like me who worked in the business for so long. Obviously I’m part of the conspiracy, right?

I love when people tell me how the media works. You know what, pal, let me fly your jet and tell you how to land it. I’ve read about it. I’ve heard the stories of how you do it. I watched Top Gun. I know better than you.

The whole political control of the media is missing the point entirely. It’s true that each party has its favorite outlets to get the word out, but they offset each other. The conservatives control radio. Period. It’s a conservative medium. The liberals have a huge edge in television. The newspapers are 50/50. The workers in every medium have political opinions, because they’re humans and not robots. If you find someone with an opinion, that’s not an Aha! moment, it’s a Duh! moment.

But the people who really run the media, the people that can’t be criticized by the left or the right, are the advertisers. The corporations that advertise are buying more than air time. They’re buying the right to stop any meaningful criticism from the press.

As someone who worked in the media industry for twenty years, what do you think about what's going on today with the media?

RK: The media is in deep doo-doo. I don’t feel sorry for them at all because they brought it on themselves with their short-sighted approach. It was all about raising the stock price and the revenue stream, and the content was ignored. It was just “the stuff between commercials.” Anything that cost money was cut, and companies are now so understaffed that the product is a shell of what it once was.

Now those debt payments are due, and they can’t cut any more staff, AND the content isn’t good enough to draw the audience necessary to attract advertisers. They’ll tell you that the bad economy destroyed the business. I’m here to tell you that these guys are the reason the economy is bad. It was the Wall-Street-ification of America. Some businesses simply can’t be run that way (as it turns out, nearly all businesses shouldn’t be run this way, but who knew?).

I think in the long run, the media will be fine. The big guys will be forced to sell at discount prices, and smaller operators will come in and discover the dirty little secret of the media. That is that most radio stations, television stations, newspapers, etc., are actually quite profitable on an individual basis. They were all bought for waaaaaaaaaaay more money than they were worth, leveraged to the hilt, and now it looks like they’re failures. They aren’t.

Your bio says that you were a radio host for ten years and then an executive producer for a well-known radio talk show; which position did you like better?

RK: I always enjoyed being on the air, but I’m really not a born performer. I was raised by Germans. We’re taught to suppress our flamboyance. That’s probably why I enjoyed producing more. I would give material to these gifted entertainers, and they would make it much, much better than it would have been if I did it myself.

All of these guys have one thing in common—they don’t possess the embarrassment gene. It’s a gift, it really is.

Many writers describe themselves as "character" or "plot" writers. Which are you? What do you find to be the hardest part of writing?

RK: I’m definitely a plot writer. I do full back stories on every character so that I know them inside and out, but much of that doesn’t make it onto the page. It shows up in more subtle ways, like through the dialogue. I love writing dialogue that gives you a sense of the character, and moves the plot along at the same time. An intriguing plot is what gets the reader to turn the page.

The most difficult part of writing for me is setting the scene. I have to physically experience each location, to take notes about all the little things, in order to make it come alive. In the chapters of $everance that take place in imaginary places like the crazy offices or the nightclub, I had to literally map out the rooms on paper, so that I could physically see them, before I could write those chapters.

How did you find the time to write with your three young boys around? Did you work on your novel while they were asleep or at school?

RK: My two oldest boys were in school all day already when I started writing $everance, and my mom watched my youngest son (who is six now) two days a week. It was never that hard to find the time, believe it or not. Plus, I worked on a morning show for many years, and I basically didn’t sleep for a decade. During those years, I learned how to stay creative with very little sleep, and how to write when I wasn’t at full speed. I also discovered that I had the ability to write on demand. I had no choice. We had four and a half hours of air time to fill every day.

So, while the boys were around, I let the ideas gestate. I had little notepads all over the house so that I didn’t forget anything. Then, when the boys left the house, I sat down to write. Just like that. Never a moment wasted. It’s what I love to do, so it’s not like it was drudgery.

You have a very funny and witty website, with lots of information about you, your family, and your Cubs; why did you start blogging? Was it something you started doing for self-promotion, or just because you enjoyed the "social" atmosphere?

RK: For me it’s not about the social atmosphere or the self-promotion. I was going through withdrawal after working on radio shows for twenty years. The ideas didn’t stop coming the day I signed off the air—they built up in my brain and were starting to drive me crazy. I started the blog just to have an outlet to unload them.

People joke about how prolific I am, but I’ve always been this way. I explain it like this: I’m a right-brained creative who was raised by Germans. So, I’m very organized and efficient with my ideas. It seems like I’m writing a lot because I have a column, and a blog, and a website, and a couple of books, and I’m working on several more, but to me this is a piece of cake. I honestly was working much harder coming up with ideas for a radio show. We needed ten, fifteen, twenty quality new ideas every single day.

In fact, I can’t believe I’m actually getting paid to write about my family (I write a weekly column for NWI Parent called “Father Knows Nothing”). I started writing about them just to chronicle their lives, so that they could read about themselves when they grow up. My father died when I was young, and there are a million questions I would love to ask him about being a father, to find out why he did certain things, or didn’t do other things, but I can’t.

To me, the audience for everything I write is three grown-up boys. I don’t even know them, and I may never meet them, but they’ll always be able to get inside their father’s head...even if I’m no longer here. That other people also get a kick out of those stories, or can relate to them, is just icing on the cake.

What are your goals for the future? Do you have other ideas for novels that you'd like to write or do you plan to focus more on your articles? (Personally, I hope you're writing another novel.)


RK: I’m currently working on three new books and three screenplays. I’m writing a humorous parenting book with an author friend (about raising boys), a novel set in 1918 Chicago (a spy thriller, believe it or not), and another novel that’s a bit of an experiment. A buddy of mine is an improv artist who does seminars about collaborating, and he wanted to try to collaborate on a novel to show his students and clients what is possible. It’s been a lot of fun so far.

One of my screenplays is being pitched in Hollywood as we speak (it’s a true story about a bank robbery). The screenplay for $everance is done too—but needs polishing, and the third screenplay is my current favorite idea—I’d rather not even tell you what it is. It’s a comedy. Surprise, surprise.

As a reader, what do you enjoy reading? Any favorite authors?


RK: I do love reading, but I get frustrated because everything I read gives me more ideas, and really—that’s a problem. Now when I read it’s mainly for research. I do appreciate great writing though. I know this is crazy, but my favorite author was always Charles Dickens. I love the way he weaves his characters in and out. My favorite contemporary writer is probably Nick Hornby. No one is wittier, and no one has a darker sense of humor.

Do you read your reviews, and if so, what's the oddest one you've ever received?

RK: Yes, I do read my reviews. A writer’s life is a strange one. You sit in a room by yourself and get absolutely no feedback for days, weeks, months, and years at a time. My wife actually groans now when I ask her to read something, because she knows that sometimes I just need some feedback, and I write so much that it’s a pain in the tush for her. I also know her reviews are going to be tough—and I need that.

I’ve actually been quite pleased with the reviews from the media. I was bracing for a backlash, waiting for someone in the media to say my premise was flawed just to cover their own backsides, but it hasn’t happened. I’ve only done two confrontational interviews, and they were both political in nature. A liberal radio show in Madison, Wisconsin, was outraged by my portrayal of animal rights activists and a conservative show in Chicago thought I was unfair to Republicans. The fact that those happened in the same week made me laugh, and made me think that maybe I had the politics exactly right.

What do you think the Cubs chances are this year? And how many games do you make it to a year?


RK: The first part of that question is easy. They won’t win it all. There, I said it. After 100 straight years, the odds are on my side. Last year I created a website dedicated to finding out why, and that’s been a fun voyage. Their history is really fascinating (and downright hilarious).

The answer to the second part of your question is a little embarrassing. I go to at least ten games a year. I share season tickets with buddies of mine, and we split the games. I only have two seats (the actual seats I mention in $everance, by the way), so I can only bring one son at a time. They never get one-on-one time with Dad otherwise, so it’s really wonderful. It’s a shame the Cubs never win it all, but to be honest, I don’t care. I love baseball, and I love the time with my boys, and I love that ballpark.

And I was serious about this in $everance: Don’t get ketchup on your hot dog at Wrigley Field. Nothing screams “TOURIST!” louder than that.*

Richard Kaempfer has several different blogs, with links to all of them here at his main site. His hysterically funny novel, $everance, can be purchased online through the publisher, ENC Press.

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* On a whim, I Googled “ketchup hot dog Wrigley Field.” Based on the 27,300 results I got back, it’s quite clear to me now. No one, but no one, puts ketchup on a hot dog in Chicago.

2 comments:

bookishnyc said...

Great interview. I'm going to surf my way over to ENC Press and buy a copy of the book. (Because my TBR pile has shrunk and now only has about 60 books on it...)

BTW, I've added a link to bibleeohfile on my own modest effort over at bookishnyc.typepad.com.

Best,
Karen

Hayden said...

Hello Karen,

Really, thanks! I hope you enjoy $everance as much as I did.

And thanks for the linking; I really enjoy your "Seen on the Subway" posts.