Art In Fiction

The Kings & Queens of Comedy Go On Vacation: An Interview with Fred Van Lente, Author of Ten Dead Comedians

August 20, 2020 Carol Cram & Fred Van Lente Season 1 Episode 11
Art In Fiction
The Kings & Queens of Comedy Go On Vacation: An Interview with Fred Van Lente, Author of Ten Dead Comedians
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Welcome to Episode 11 of the Art In Fiction Podcast!

If you love comedy and comics, you won't want to miss my chat with Fred Van Lente, author of Ten Dead Comedians--a smart and funny take on Agatha Christie's classic mystery And Then There Were None.

 Fred talks about his love of comedy, shares writing advice, and reads from Ten Dead Comedians.

Highlights:

  • Overview of Ten Dead Comedians
  • Types of comics chosen as characters
  • Inclusion of comedy "bits" in the narrative
  • Background writing comic books
  • Development of the concept for Ten Dead Comedians
  • Favorite comedians
  • Reading from Ten Dead Comedians
  • Writing process and advice
  • Empathy and writing
  • New novel: Never Sleep

Fred Van Lente is the #1 New York Times bestselling writer of the comics Odd Is on Our Side, Archer & Armstrong, and Action Philosophers! He also co-wrote the graphic novel Cowboys and Aliens, which was made into a film starring Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig. Ten Dead Comedians is Fred's debut novel.

Press Play right now and don't forget to check out Fred Van Lente's novel Ten Dead Comedians listed in the Film category on Art In Fiction.

Link to 20% Off ProWritingAid

Fred Van Lente's website:
http://www.fredvanlente.com/

Music Credits
The intro music is from Symbolist Waltz  from the album Alive in Seattle and the ad music is from The Fever  from the album Full Moon. Both pieces are composed by Gregg Simpson and performed by Lunar Adventures. Follow the links to download the full tracks.

This website contains affiliate links. If you use these links to make a purchase, I may earn a commission. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Thank you. 

Carol Cram:

Hello and welcome. I’m Carol Cram, your host for the Art In Fiction podcast. This episode is called The Kings & Queens of Comedy Go On Vacation and features my interview with Fred Van Lente, author of Ten Dead Comedians, his debut novel. Fred Van Lente is also the #1 New York Times bestselling writer of the comics Odd Is on Our Side, Archer & Armstrong, and Action Philosophers! He also co-wrote the graphic novel Cowboys and Aliens, which was made into a film starring Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig.  

I’m happy to welcome Fred to the Art in Fiction Podcast.

I'm really excited to have you here to talk about your novel Ten Dead Comedians, which is, like, such a great title.

Fred Van Lente:

Thank you.

Carol Cram:

You know, as soon as you see it, you go, ooh, I want to read that, which is why when I saw it, I thought, oh, got to put that into Art In Fiction. So Ten Dead Comedians is inspired by And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. So maybe just tell us what the novel's about.

Fred Van Lente:

Like in And Then There Were None, you have a bunch, a wide, diverse amount of people are trapped on an island, a remote island, and someone's knocking them off one by one, murdering them and it eventually becomes pretty obvious that one of the people who will appear to be trapped there is in fact the killer. And so the question is, will the survivors figure out who it is that's killing them off, which one of them is killing them off before, you know, there's only one left.

Carol Cram:

And then there were none.

Fred Van Lente:

Exactly. And so that's uh, you know, Christie came up with that. Uh, it's one of her, you know, it's one of her books that's stand-alone, doesn't involve Poirot or Miss Marple or any of the other, you know, series characters she's known for. It's, it's a really, uh, terrific, very dark book.

Carol Cram:

Yes. I read it many years ago, actually. It was wonderful.

Fred Van Lente:

It's a lovely book and my book, uh, retains its basic structure. Um, but instead of sort of stiff-upper-lipped Englishmen and women like Agatha Christie, we have a variety of stand-up comedians. You know, there's a, there's a late night talk show host. There's a prop comedian. There's kind of a left wing, radical feminist comedian. There's a guy who's kind of a failed comedian who doesn't quite understand why he's there. And they've all been summoned to this island by this beloved figure, comedy figure, who sort of disappeared into obscurity. And they think they're being summoned there to do some sort of Netflix special or some sort of, you know, it's a business opportunity that none of them could refuse for various reasons. Uh, but it turns out they've all been tricked there to be horribly murdered.

Carol Cram:

One by one.

Fred Van Lente:

One by one. Exactly. So it's much less fun than they were kind of hoping it would be.

Carol Cram:

Oh, I know, it's so clever. And what I love is the fact that they're all comedians and you incorporate—obviously you love comedy— into a, you know, all the characters that you present. So each comedian is like an archetype, which you've just kind of mentioned, but they're also individuals. That's why I think, why the Ten Dead Comedians works so well is that these people are not just archetypes. You actually, you know, kind of care about them, even though they're not really all that nice, some of them.

Fred Van Lente:

Sure.

Carol Cram:

Yeah, you know, you did a really good job with that. So how did you decide which types of comics to choose?

Fred Van Lente:

I really love comedy, all different kinds of comedy, and you know, immediately there's like a checklist of like, we'll have a sort of a blue collar kind of red-necky comedian, you know, except the joke with him, Bill the Contractor, is that he's actually this sort of tweedy Frazier type.

Carol Cram:

I know, that's great. I liked him.

Fred Van Lente:

His whole affect is, yeah, he was definitely a favorite of the editors and they were kind of like, maybe he should stick around a little bit longer and maybe he does. I don't know, no spoilers.

Carol Cram:

Oh no, no spoilers. No, no.

Fred Van Lente:

So, so yeah, there's certain boxes and I definitely wanted to have somebody in there, like Gordo, who's sort of arguably the main character. Who's this guy who had, he had his shot, but kind of fell from grace and then his career didn't go the way he wanted to. So I wouldn't call him washed up so much as never was.

Carol Cram:

Yes.

Fred Van Lente:

And there's kind of this foul mouthed kind of Amy Schumer lady comedian, who, part of her appeal is that she does locker room talk better than the boys.

Carol Cram:

And you've got your Joan Rivers type character.

Fred Van Lente:

Exactly. Joan Rivers, who's one of my favorites.

Carol Cram:

Of course.

Fred Van Lente:

One of my favorite aspects of research in this book was I watched a million of her monologues when she was guest hosting The Tonight Show, which she did quite a bit in the eighties, to host Johnny Carson. So, and there's a Johnny Carson type.

Carol Cram:

And there is a Johnny Carson as well.

Fred Van Lente:

Late night host. Yeah.

Carol Cram:

Or is he a Jay Leno? I don't know. I couldn't decide.

Fred Van Lente:

He's more of a George Lopez meets Jay Leno type.

Carol Cram:

Okay. Okay. Yeah. And the thing I really loved about the novel, that I think is unique, is that throughout the novel you had each comedian do a bit, a monologue. And when I read the first one I went, is this real? I don't know. But then I realized, oh yeah, this is part of it. And it was very well done because you could see, you know, you're familiar with those kinds of comics, just having lived in the world.

Fred Van Lente:

That's right.

Carol Cram:

And it was so well done, as I said, that I did actually think they were real.

Fred Van Lente:

Yeah. I appreciate that. You mean, you thought I had taken them from actual, like, comics?

Carol Cram:

Yes. I mean, I knew you probably hadn't.

Fred Van Lente:

High praise. I appreciate it. Well, you know, to be honest, Carol, as a writer yourself, you know, you're contractually obligated sometimes to submit manuscripts to a certain length. And I realized I wasn't going to make my word count with just the plot of the murder mystery. So I was like, I've got to, well, what can I do that is going to actually enhance the book and not feel like padding, but will get me over my contractually mandated—I can't remember, I think it was 75,000 words, I can't remember how many it was—and so I hit upon the idea of, like, am I going to have to write ten different monologues in ten different comedic voices, and I just kind of threw up my hands and I was like, guess, guess I got to commit to this.

Carol Cram:

Well, I'm glad you did, because I think that is a highlight of the novel, as I said, that's what makes it unique.

Fred Van Lente:

Thank you. Yeah. That aspect of it really turned out really well. And I liked how in the physical version of the book Quirk did a great job of offsetting that in a way, so you know that immediately you're sort of moving into a different section so I think it's really easy for, for the reader to follow.

Carol Cram:

So, you have a background writing comics. This is your debut novel.

Fred Van Lente:

This is true.

Carol Cram:

Comics or graphic novels?

Fred Van Lente:

Definitely, uh, I don't care. I mean, it's, you know, graphic novel is something someone came up with, someone namely, uh, Will Eisner, who's a very well known comic book artist in the States who's venturing out into doing more adult material, was tired of them being called comic books because obviously the root word of comic book is comic, ha ha ha, you know, and so if you're doing serious, you know, really serious work about really serious topics, you know, you don't want to call them comic books. Uh, and so he came up with graphic novel, which is kind of funny because the book that Will Eisner helped draft, the novel was called A Contract with God, was actually collection of short stories. So it wasn't a novel, you know,

Carol Cram:

Huh, really....

Fred Van Lente:

So all these terms are terribly inaccurate in various ways, but you know, basically the term graphic novel is just a synonym for long comic book.

Carol Cram:

Yeah. Right. Well, my niece is a graphic novelist, so I know a little bit about it, but ...

Fred Van Lente:

Oh, fantastic!

Carol Cram:

But not, yeah, no, she's, she's, uh, she's starting to break out, which is wonderful. So that was your background. And so why did you decide to go into novel writing?

Fred Van Lente:

Well, you know, I out started as a kid wanting primarily to be a novelist and it wasn't really until college, I ended up falling in with a bunch of guys who were starting to be comic book artists and I started writing for them. And then we ended up coming to New York City and breaking into the industry and working for the Marvels and DCs of the world.

And so really the novel writing was the original dream, but, you know, and I did publish some short stories, like, I was not completely out of prose during the time when I became a professional comics writer, but definitely, Quirk had the idea to sort of merge Agatha Christie and comedians was theirs. 

So it was a concept they developed in house and they were looking, they were having a tough time finding somebody who could nail both the mystery and the comedy aspect of it. And a good buddy of mine is Grady Hendrix, uh, great horror novelist, New York Times bestseller who has done a lot of stuff for Quirk. And he recommended me to Jason Rekulak who's the head of Quirk at the time. And he gave me basically this two page sort of pitch. 

And I was like, I can do this. And so I banged out what is essentially the first chapter that you read and that everyone's read the novel in about, you know, three weeks or something like that. And then I realized I was an idiot because I basically gave this publisher, like, the 10 characters. As you know, you know, coming up with characters, real characters is, is hard. So I did the hardest part first for free.

Carol Cram:

Yes.

Fred Van Lente:

Even before I had the job. And fortunately, I got the job, you know, so if I hadn't gotten the job. I remember when I turned it in, I was like, if I don't get this job, I'm going to be furious!

Carol Cram:

Yeah, really. What are you going to do? You got, what are you going to do with these characters?

Fred Van Lente:

Yeah, exactly.

Carol Cram:

You know, one thing I really enjoyed about the novel was this sort of sense of glee of you behind the writer, behind it.

Fred Van Lente:

Oh, yeah, absolutely.

Carol Cram:

That you're obviously having a really good time and particularly coming up with all the ways of killing each person. I mean, that's not a spoiler to say people do get killed—it's a murder mystery— but you matched how they were killed with who they were. It was, it was really well done. So I really enjoyed that.

Fred Van Lente:

It's The Mikado, right? It's let the punishment fit the crime.

Carol Cram:

Yes. Right. You also had a lot of references to Canada. I'm Canadian.

Fred Van Lente:

That's right. Well, Canada obviously has a long and proud comedic history.

Carol Cram:

So the other thing I got a big kick out of, or one of the many things, is the "Dave's not here" all the way through.

Fred Van Lente:

Yes.

Carol Cram:

Now, I'm sort of interested, will younger people even get that reference? I mean, I certainly got it, but then I'm a little older, right.

Fred Van Lente:

You know, I just do things and I hope people get them. You know, if they don't, it's their loss, you know, it's like, it's all this stuff to me is like the special sauce, right? I mean, if, if the plot doesn't work, if the characters doesn't work, no one's going to care about your references. 

And honestly, that Cheech and Chong album that has "Dave's not here", I was probably five when it came out. So the references even dated for me, you know, like I'm surprised I know it, you know, 'cause it's kind of predates my consciousness, but it's, it's sort of an iconic fit. 

You know, I grew up listening to, like, the later George Carlin albums. I love Bobcat Goldthwait, I had all these cassettes. I think maybe it was HBO, like, my parents were very early technology adopters. So we got cable before anyone else in the neighborhood and HBO, obviously it had all those comedy specials. It was George Carlin that really kind of stuck with me. And I saw him live, like, at least three times before he died.

Carol Cram:

That would be amazing.

Fred Van Lente:

And yeah, no, it was terrific. And so I got to, I've gotten to see a lot of my favorites live.

Carol Cram:

So who's your all-time favorite comedian?

Fred Van Lente:

Carlin. Definitely.

Carol Cram:

Yeah. George Carlin. 

Fred Van Lente:

Carlin is definitely number one. And I, you know, and I kind of waver about number two. I mean, you know, Chris Rock is pretty terrific and I just saw his last tour at Madison Square Garden. Like, I don't think it was that last year, but the year before that. And he's just so terrific. And it's a shame he doesn't tour as much as he used to, but he's pretty awesome.

Carol Cram:

Yes. Yeah. Well, there's a lot of really good ones. 

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Carol Cram

So we talked earlier about you doing a reading.

Fred Van Lente:

Yes.

Carol Cram:

So let's, let's hear it.

Fred Van Lente:

All right. This is, as I emailed you, about 10 pages from the beginning of the book. It's the paperback version. So hopefully won't take too long, but, uh, this is right as the various  comedians have all arrived together at the island and they have been met by this woman, uh, Meredith Ladipo, who is of Afro British descent and she is Dustin Walker's assistant, Dustin Walker being the aforementioned comedy god that they all worship who's lived on this island. But they have arrived to find out that Dustin isn't there and neither is anyone else, but they expect them soon. And they're gathering together for the first time in the writers' room where supposedly they're going to hash out this alleged, um, special.

Fred Van Lente:

“There's no Wi-Fi ,” William said to Meredith when she walked into the writers’ room. He was the first one there, seated at the conference table. 

“What?” she said, distracted. 

The room was basically a solarium, with floor to ceiling windows, commanding wide views of the robin's-egg blue Caribbean. The French doors at the far end of the table listed open against the sea wind, which had blown seven or eight stray palm fronds and brown balls of dead Spanish moss into the far corners of the room. The breeze scattered pens and yellow legal pads across the long table.

 “There's no Wi-Fi  or at the very least, the password you gave us isn't working. There are no knives this entire house either, though I have to presume that fact is unrelated.”

“Chizzum,” Meredith said under her breath. “Was this room in this gammy state when you came in here?”

William looked around a bit. “Yes, but then I assumed we were supposed to be—he made finger quotes—"roughing it.” 

“No, we are most certainly not supposed to be roughing it,” Meredith said as she used her feet to push as much of the detritus as possible onto the balcony beyond the French doors. “Dustin despises roughing it, and Dave knows it. How could you let this place go so utterly buttars?”

“And who is this Dave?”

“The caretaker of the estate. He's the only person who lives here year round.”

“And would he know the Wi-Fi password?”

“The what?”

“The Wi-Fi  doesn't work,” Ruby said as she walked into the room. Meredith finished getting most of the debris off the floor and closed the French doors. 

“Use the password I gave you,” she said. 

“I stand corrected,” Ruby said, taking a seat and putting up her feet on a long table. “The Wi-Fi  appears to be working fine. It's your password that doesn't work.”

“No, this is the one,” Meredith said. And from memory, she scrawled 15 characters’ worth of nonsense under the nearest legal pad.

“That the Wi-Fi password?” Zoe snatched the pad from Meredith as she walked into the room and sat down, pulling out an Android phone bigger than her head.

“It does not work,” William said slowly and distinctly. 

“You’re sure?” Meredith said. “I mean, you tried it more than once.”

“I—”

Ollie walked into the room with a bright orange binder in the crook of his arm and pulled her aside.

“Miss…”

“Ladipo. But you can call me—”

“I was wondering if you could help me out with something?”

“Of course, Mr. Rees, how can I be of assistance?”

“I was wondering if you could get me access to the Wi-Fi network. I need to check my emails as I had a number of in-process business dealings involving the world-famous Sandals resort company right before I left the U. S. that I need to check the status of—”

“Of course, Mr. Rees. If you would please just use the password I gave you.”

“You gave us a password?”

“Damn password doesn't work!” Zoe cried throwing up her hands. 

“I know, I tried that shit like seven times already,” Dante said as he entered the room and dropped into a chair.

“Tried what?” Janet asked as she followed him in.

“Wi-Fi password,” Ruby said. “We're living like animals here.”

Meredith admitted a despairing little sigh. “The password really doesn't work? Maybe Dave changed it…though I don't know he would have access.”

“David Letterman?” Ollie cried out, rapidly clapping his hands. “He's going to be here?”

“No, different Dave.”

“He is the caretaker,” William said.

“Yes,” Meredith said.

“Well, where is he?” Janet said.

“I'm not sure,” Meredith said. “I can't find him anywhere.”

“Dusty! What up, my brother! How's it hang—” TJ walked into the room with his arms spread wide.

But looking around and not seeing his friend anywhere, he turned to walk back out. “Screw this, I thought I was late. I'm always the last one to the writers' meeting.”

“No, no, no, please, Mr. Martinez, we really should get started.” Meredith Ladipo managed to steer a grumbling TJ around the table and toward a chair. Instinctively, he took the one at the head of the table on the far end beneath a large wall-mounted plasma screen. 

“Sorry I’m late, everybody,” Steve said when he walked into the room and took the last seat on the other end, beneath a gold-framed mirror as big as the TV on the opposite wall. 

“Hey, can I ask a question?” Steve said. “Does anyone have the Wi-Fi password?” 

“No,” came the in-unison reply. 

Steve blinked. 

“Well, alrighty then,” he said. 

Meredith Ladipo took a remote in hand and walked to the head of the room, on one side of the plasma screen. 

“I’m not sure what’s delaying Mr. Walker, but I have no doubt he will be joining us shortly. He left instructions that I was supposed to play this video regardless. It should give you all the background you require on this particular project.” 

She pointed the remote at the screen and pressed a button, and soon they were looking at an empty chair and a table. 

After a second or two Dustin Walker walked into the frame and sat down. He wore a red track suit with luminescent white piping, the same outfit worn by his inflatable doppelgänger over the bouncy house outside. His hair remained in its iconic widow’s peak, though it was thinning and grayer than they had last seen it on television. His eyes were still wide, the lenses of his glasses still Coke-bottle thick, his demeanor still the nervous slouch of a middle-class accountant lost in the bad part of town. 

“What the hell is that on his head?” Janet said. 

Strapped to Walker’s forehead was a small square camera, its unblinking eye pointing directly at them. 

“It’s a GoPro,” Ruby said. 

“Ssh!” Ollie put a finger to his lips. 

“Eat me, Props Boy,” she said. 

On the screen, Walker gazed around the room, eliciting chuckles simply for his wide-eyed expression. Walker was one of those rare lucky people who just looked funny; that was part of his brilliance. The anticipation of the joke was as funny as, if not funnier than, the joke itself, once it arrived. Everyone felt the corners of their mouths turning upward through no conscious effort of their own. The quiet moment, that was what Dustin Walker excelled at: he was wiping the chalkboard clean before scrawling whatever he wanted across its virgin surface. An impression, maybe? His impressions were the best. As a mimic, at not breaking character, at never breaking character, he was legendary, like an anti–Carol Burnett Show. What made it all the more astounding was that he was able to convincingly impersonate Cher, Nelson Mandela, or Darth Vader without ever removing his trademark magnifying-glass spectacles. The performance just made you forget the glasses were there—or, more accurately, he made you think the people he mimicked wore those glasses all the time. 

“He really is the best,” Zoe said. 

“Ssssshhh!” Ollie put a finger to his lips. 

“I swear to God, you shush anybody one more time and I will come over there and beat you red-assed with your own sledgehammer.” 

“It’s a mallet!” Ollie said, jutting his nose into the air. 

“If we could, um, just sit and…listen to this prerecorded message, I am sure it would be, uh, important and useful to our work,” Meredith murmured from her post by the door. 

Suddenly Walker started slightly in his chair, a wide grin spread across his face as he appeared to notice the camera for the first time. 

“Why, hello there,” Walker said. 

He waited. 

“I said, hello there,” he repeated, leaning forward. 

“Hello there,” the live audience said in unison, chuckling. 

Walker cocked his head and in a soothingly paternal PBS-kids-show-host lilt said, “It’s so special that many mostly rich and mostly famous people came all the way out here just on my say-so. You are such good neighbors. And the fact that, as many of you have said to me personally and in public, I was such a huge influence on you is very flattering. Also, completely horrifying.” 

Slight, nervous laughter, except from TJ, who just sat frowning in puzzled silence. 

“I bet all of you funny people started out in this business just like me—in school, right? Making a class full of kids laugh with a fake fart in the armpit or a funny drawing of the teacher or mimicking the principal’s voice—remember the classic fart in the armpit? Adorable. Look, I modified it just a bit.” 

Walker lifted his left arm, revealing a hole cut in the armpit of his red track suit that exposed his hairy underarm. He stuck his right hand into the crook of his arm and rapidly pumped his bicep, roiling out juicy fart noises that made the entire room, including TJ, explode with laughter. 

Next, Walker used only his voice and his arms to transform into a Southern tent-revival preacher, throwing out his hands and calling to heaven: 

“Yes! Yes, Lord! That’s when you felt it! The laughter! Do you remember the first time you heard that and knew it came from you? It was in the second grade for me, Lord, long before I knew the demon temptations of women, booze, and money. This was the rush! The most powerful thing in the world! I held the attention of an audience. I felt for the first time the power and the glory of the Church of Comedy! The spirit moved me, Jesus, and I was reborn in the gospel of the Chasing of the Holy Laugh. No other worldly pleasures mattered to me.” 

Then he became a taciturn Midwestern farmer, clutching imaginary overalls straps: 

“Yessir, I chased that laugh, and I did pretty well for myself. Yessir, yes I did. Cut a few albums. People bought ’em. Did a TV show. Did a few movies, and some of ’em I was actually proud of. I made a lot of money for a lot of folks and made a lot of folks happy.” 

He turned and spit invisibly at the earth. 

“Does anyone know when dinner will be?” William Griffith said, and now everyone else sssshed him. 

Out of Walker’s mouth came the Teutonic monotone of Werner Herzog: 

“But somewhere along the way, I became lost. As a child I had childish fantasies of being Lenny Bruce, or Richard Pryor, or George Carlin, telling truth to power. But the dreary cowardice of show business ground out the daring parts of my soul. Telling people what they don’t want to hear and making them laugh while doing it did not perpetuate the lavish lifestyle to which my early successes had made me accustomed. So I stuck with safe, banal subjects. Driving. Airplane food. Relationships. Then, in cinema, I stuck with the dick jokes and the jokes about farts. It’s just so much easier to get the quick laugh, the easy insult, the obvious comparison. Give them what they want instead of what they need. Before you know it, you’re back in that childhood classroom. But the wonder at inspiring laughter is gone. Instead, you fear the void opening before you. You fear that today will be the day the laughter stops, and you’ll have no memory of how to get it back.” 

“No, really, Ms. Ladipo, when is dinner?” William looked to Meredith but she was staring transfixed by the Jack Nicholson twinkle on the screen: 

“This comedy thing we’ve got—it’s a beautiful, delicate canvas. And we just keep dropping trou and squeezing out a Cleveland Steamer right on its chest, you know what I’m saying? 

“Yeah, I said ‘we.’

“Those of you gathered here—you’re as bad as me. Those of you that aren’t worse.”

No one made a sound. Walker rose out of his chair, and the camera tracked him. He pointed a finger at each of them from behind the screen, speaking in the stentorian tones of a syndicated daytime TV judge:

“I accuse each and every one of you of crimes against comedy. I am qualified to pass this judgment because I inspired, by your own admission, and in my own way, each one of you. I consider you all to be my children. Except you, Janet.” 

“Thanks, darling,” Janet said, and blew a kiss at the screen. 

“Is this a bit?” Zoe asked no one in particular. “This whole thing, it’s got to be a bit, right?” 

Walker picked up something off the table in front of him and began widening it with both hands. 

Dante Dupree squinted at the room on the screen, then turned and looked at the mirror on the opposite wall. 

“He shot it in here,” he said. “He shot this in this room.” 

Dustin broke character then and started talking in what they presumed to be his regular voice. “When you’re as rich and forgotten as I am and spend a lot of time sitting around waiting for a phone to ring that never does, you have a lot of time to think. And to…arrange things.” 

He blinked, and they could see a sort of glistening in the eyes beneath the thick glasses. “I’ve decided that because I created you, I am going to un-create you. I am striking the cosmic gong. I am wielding the vaudeville hook of destiny and pulling you off stage. There’s going to be a new dawn in Funnyland, thanks to me. I am delivering my closer. For your acts as well as mine. 

“Am I rambling? I feel like maybe I’m rambling.” 

He put the noose he had been holding around his neck. 

And pulled it tight. 

He said nothing for a second or two. 

He breathed in deeply. Exhaled: 

“Can you blame me for wanting to stay onstage a little longer?” 

“This has got to be a bit,” Zoe whispered. 

“I am sorry for bringing you here under false pretenses,” Walker said, “but I can’t be sorry that none of you are leaving this island alive. 

“Including me.” 

The camera angle shifted abruptly, moving off his reflection in the mirror so that they were no longer looking at him but through his eyes, but to the right side of the writers’ room. 

Together Walker and his audience ran through the French doors, bursting them open. 

Meredith Ladipo started screaming. 

And onscreen the camera plunged over the railing of the balcony outside and for one endless moment, they were hurtling downward to the rocks and white surf below, and now everyone was screaming. 

But then the drop stopped with a blurry jolt and the camera cocked to one side, swaying with horrific gentleness. 

“Oh my God,” William Griffith said. “Oh my God oh my God oh my God.” 

“Look!” Meredith Ladipo yelled. “Outside!” 

Both Steve Gordon and Dante Dupree had gotten up and crept toward the French doors. At first they couldn’t see what she was pointing at. 

Through tears Meredith said, “The doors were open when I came in, and the wind had scattered the pens and pads everywhere. I didn’t see before but—look! Look!”

“Holy shit,” Steve said, “she’s right.” 

When he pointed, Dante saw through the French doors, on the post of the banister near the base: 

A length of black rope was tied there, the same rope as in the video. 

Dante and Steve stepped forward, each looking at the other, each taking one door and opening it. 

The two men stepped onto the balcony and looked down over the railing: 

Sea winds batted the thinning white hair on top of a head attached to the other end of the rope. 

In unison Dante and Steve crouched down and dug their fingers into the loop around the banister but failed to loosen it. 

So Dante laid on his stomach and grabbed the dangling rope with one hand, then the other, and tried hauling the body up. Eventually there was enough slack that Steve could help as best he could, grabbing a different coil. 

They managed to pull the body high enough that they could see the vivid sunburn atop Dustin Walker’s bare, desiccated scalp, the GoPro still strapped to his forehead. The dull miasma of rot hung close now, making the two men instinctually avert their eyes and nostrils. 

The jostling must have been too much for the state of the neck because the head abruptly tumbled off the noose. Dustin Walker’s head and Dustin Walker’s body dropped separately into the foaming surf below, without a sound. 

“Shit!” Dante cried, releasing the rope. Steve did the same. 

When they looked over the railing, there was no sign of the body, just waves battering cliffs. They walked back inside the writers’ room, where everyone sat stunned. Meredith sniffled and desperately kept her tears at bay with a fraying Kleenex. 

Zoe said, “Is it—” 

Dante cut her off: 

“It’s not a bit.”

Carol Cram:

That's fantastic.

Fred Van Lente:

End of scene!

Carol Cram:

Yes. It's not a bit. That's hilarious. Yeah, you could see there's so much humor in this novel, which is why, you know, it's unusual to have the combination of humor and a murder mystery. Well, at least in my experience. Thank you. That was wonderful. I really enjoyed getting back into the novel again.

Fred Van Lente:

My pleasure.

Carol Cram:

And it's, you know, such a shock when he throws himself over edge. So, let's just talk a little bit about writing itself. What's something about your process or your writing routines?

Fred Van Lente:

You know, what I tell everybody, whether, you know, I teach writing from time to time these days, you know, the number one thing is you got to keep your butt in the seat and produce. A lot of folks get really discouraged. I know I did. I spent a lot of my twenties starting manuscripts I never finished and that kind of stuff. And a lot of that is because you're, you've got a fear of writing something bad. And you, you get very frustrated when you're young because you, when something's not perfect immediately, you get discouraged or at least I did.

Carol Cram:

Yeah. Me too.

Fred Van Lente:

Yeah, and so what I like to tell people is you need to give yourself the freedom to suck.

Carol Cram:

Yes. I always like to say that too, be bad.

Fred Van Lente:

Yeah, exactly. As Ernest Hemingway said, all first drafts are shit. And that's why you need to be able to finish a piece before it can be good because only by finishing it can you really understand what it is. And then you can go back and begin the revision process, which is where the real, you know, maybe not the real work, but, but much of the work actually happens.

Carol Cram:

Exactly. Novels aren't so much written as rewritten, right?

Fred Van Lente:

Yeah, exactly. And so, you know, the, the piece I just finished and has gone out to publishers right now, [knocking] you know, knock on wood, uh, that took me about three or four years and they're just constantly trying to get it right. 

And you feel like it's like, there's this old mathematical slash philosophical premise called Zeno's Paradox about, if you get halfway there and then halfway after that and the half and half, half of the remaining distance, you never actually get anywhere. Right. That's oftentimes what novel-writing feels like to me as you're getting closer, but the goalposts keep moving, you know, in front of you.

Carol Cram:

They do. I'm glad to hear that you've spent a few years on, on your next one because there is this sort of myth that it's like in movies, you know, when they show somebody getting inspired and writing a novel and then they just have a few scenes of them writing furiously. That that's how it happens. But of course it doesn't happen that way. Or at least it doesn't for me.

Fred Van Lente:

Sadly, it's not visually interesting.

Carol Cram:

No. Yeah, no, actually having movies of people looking out the window and drinking coffee or wine.

Fred Van Lente:

I'd say movies of people sleeping.

Carol Cram:

Yeah. Right. Or being frustrated. So the thing about Ten Dead Comedians is, it's very character driven. And so I wonder if you had any advice for authors on ways to delineate character.

Fred Van Lente:

Sure. A lot of what makes a good writer is empathy and a lot of empathy is listening. So what makes characters good is your ability to listen to other people and sort of have sympathy for what, not even what makes them tick, but what makes them unique. You know, I mean, it's funny, I've just finished teaching a class on dialogue writing for comic books in the middle of a pandemic. And one of my assignments was going to be, you know, go eavesdrop on people in public places. And sadly in April, that was not an option.

Carol Cram:

It's still not an option, really.

Fred Van Lente:

I know. And we had people in the US, we had people in Canada, we had people in Malaysia, we had people in India. One guy was serving in Afghanistan. So everybody was kind of spread all over the world. So instead I had them do, like, a Zoom, you know, do a, do a comic that was just a Zoom. 

Kind of like what you and I are doing here, but in comics you can actually get the little right windows, the Zoom windows, it's sort of that interesting, uh, you know visual aspect of that. So, you know, it's the old cliche, the characters are not what they do. The point of the scene is, is for a character to try to do something and fail. And so all character basically comes down to wants, right? We're all this collection of things we don't have yet.

Carol Cram:

Because I was thinking that actually, maybe one of the keys to finding the voice of a character is finding their fear point.

Fred Van Lente:

Sure.

Carol Cram:

Like, what actually scares them. And each of your ten comedians was afraid, or they're afraid, of course, of failure.

Fred Van Lente:

Right.

Carol Cram:

Or of continued failure in the case of many of them.

Fred Van Lente:

Right. That's right. And then the, the murderer basically kills them in the sort of poetic ways.

Carol Cram:

Yes.

Fred Van Lente:

Yeah, one of my first jobs that I actually sold a screenplay, uh, when I first started going pro, this is like 15 years ago, then that's back when, like, those Saw movies were big, right? The sort of serial killer movies where everyone was being appropriately murdered. Yeah.

So I had a lot of experience doing that just because, like, that was so huge in, like, the mid aughts, you know, I sold a screenplay where people killed based on their phobias. So a lot of that kind of elaborate stagecraft ended up informing the Ten Dead Comedians. Also, if you've got a bunch of people trapped, right, in a island environment where you kind of hold all the cards, it makes it easier to lay booby traps and things like that. So you get to be super creative, but I think it worked.

Carol Cram:

Which, oh, absolutely worked. Do you want to just tell us a little bit about your new novel?

Fred Van Lente:

Ah, sure. I hope I'm not jinxing it because it's out to, like, a dozen publishers right now. So we'll see what happens. And obviously we're in the middle of this lockdown right now, but it is a novel, well, calling it a mystery novel is not necessarily that accurate. It's the first ever female private detective. 

The novel's set in 1861. This is based on a true story of the first woman detective foiling the first assassination attempt against Abraham Lincoln as he's trying to make his way from Illinois to Washington, DC, to be inaugurated. She has to infiltrate the sort of white supremacist secessionist elements in Baltimore to kind of thwart this assassination. And on top of that, she also deals with the second ever female detective. They work for the, uh, Allan Pinkerton detective agency. It's called Never Sleep.

Carol Cram:

Thank you so much, Fred. This was a lot of fun to chat with you about your novel Ten Dead Comedians. And I'm so glad I discovered it for Art In Fiction. 

Fred Van Lente:

Thank you, Carol.

Carol Cram

My guest has been Fred Van Lente, the author of Ten Dead Comedians, listed in the Film category on Art In Fiction at www.artinfiction.com. Be sure to check the show notes for the link to a 20% discount on a subscription to ProWritingAid, a fantastic editing tool for writers that I use every day.

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Thanks so much for listening!


Overview of "Ten Dead Comedians"
Types of comics chosen
Inclusion of comedy "bits" in the narrative
Background writing comics
Development of the concept of "Ten Dead Comedians"
Favorite comedians
Advertisment: ProWritingAid
Reading from "Ten Dead Comedians"
Writing process and advice
Empathy and writing
New novel: "Never Sleep"