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Interview: April 14, 2006

April 14, 2006

Harley Jane Kozak --- perhaps best known for her acting roles in films such as Arachnophobia, Necessary Roughness, Parenthood and All I Want for Christmas --- is the author of the award-winning comic mystery DATING DEAD MEN and its acclaimed sequel, DATING IS MURDER.'s Carol Fitzgerald and contributing writer Andi Shechter interviewed Kozak about the initial inspiration behind her protagonist, Wollie Shelley, and the ways in which her background as an actor has aided her writing. She also discusses the blog she has with three other authors and shares details concerning Wollie's next adventure. Wollie Shelley's antics give these books a lot of their spirit. In fact, they cross so many genres --- there's mystery, romance, chick lit, suspense, and comedy all woven into them. While your writing is hard to define, it's definitely fun reading. I've read that you do not outline, but rather just start writing the story. When you started to write Wollie, did you "see" her immediately, or did she evolve as you wrote?

Harley Jane Kozak: Wollie began in my head so long ago. I have to think back 10 years, but I did in fact "see" her right away. There were some biographical details that evolved later, and my way of describing her evolved too, but I knew certain things about her from the start: her name, her career, her mother, her physical attributes, her emotional qualities.... This is not true, by the way, for all my characters, but it was certainly the case with Wollie.

BRC: Wollie Shelley is a greeting card designer. What was your inspiration for her to have that career?

HJK: My best friend from 4th grade in Lincoln, Nebraska, who kept in touch with me over the years, had a dream in life (which she fulfilled) of having a Sharon's Hallmark Store. I was so intrigued by that as a life goal that I began to think what fun it would be to have that character with that aspiration plunked down in a seedy section of L.A., and then throw a lot of unsavory characters in her path. It soon became clear to me that I wanted Wollie not simply to have her card shop as her raison d'etre, but to have a corresponding artistic passion that would also provide her with a distinctive way to view the world --- i.e., as a series of greeting cards.

BRC: I've read that you designed your own greeting cards in the past. Is there any design that you can describe or quotable line that you can share with us?

HJK: Actually, what I design are Christmas cards, which I then send to 700 of my nearest and dearest. They're generally odd, offbeat, and involve some sort of family photo (much easier now that I have 3 children and 2 dogs who are not, by the way, thrilled to model for me). The one that springs to mind is the Christmas that my firstborn was 9 months old and our first dog adopted us, and I persuaded them both to wear angel haloes, with the caption that read, "Angels: some are born, some are recruited." That's a pretty Wollie-esque sentiment.

BRC: I was enchanted with Wollie Shelley's name and that of her brother, PB, when I "got" them early on. Where did their names come from? Did you know what their names would be when you started writing about them, or did that come later?

HJK: I knew their names immediately, but I can't tell you how. They just "came" to me in that mysterious way that aspects of character sometimes do.

I knew their mother was an oddball who married a guy with the last name of "Shelley" and then saddled her children with these distinctive first names, perhaps in the hope that they would become dashing literary figures. They did not.

BRC: Wollie has a wonderful, caring, rather matter-of-fact manner of dealing with her brother, who has a serious mental illness. Where did your knowledge of his illness come from, and how is it that Wollie is able to cope?

HJK: In my 20s, I watched a close friend go through a psychotic break, and I ended up dealing with doctors, cops, and the process of committing someone to a locked ward at Bellevue, then visiting everyday. It was a life-altering experience for him that opened my eyes to the culture of mental illness and the effect it has on the families that live with it.

BRC: When we meet Wollie in DATING DEAD MEN, her fondest dream is to make it big with a greeting card shop. In DATING IS MURDER, she's part of a rather tacky "reality" show. Maybe I'm confusing her with her creator, but Wollie seems smarter than that. However, she also seems to do things because her friends, like the rather unique Fredreeq, think she should. Is this a fair assessment of her?

HJK: I think Wollie, with all her talents, lacks a Master Plan. She lives an almost hand-to-mouth existence because she's constantly sidetracked by relatives, friends, circumstances, and the uncertainties of life as a graphic artist without a college degree. She's like a lot of people who are smart and hardworking, but never seem to have a car that runs well, let alone a 401K and health insurance. Thus, she's at the mercy of odd jobs that pay well.

BRC: The comedy in your writing gives it a voice and tone of its own. Does this wit come to you naturally, or is it something you work to achieve? Are you as witty and funny in person?

HJK: I'm glad you find it witty! I think humor is the most personal of tastes, and no two people respond exactly the same, so it's very gratifying when someone finds my writing funny. Whatever wit you perceive in the book comes fairly naturally, although sometimes my personal favorite moments come with the second or third (or 6th) draft. What I struggle with as a writer is pacing and plot. As for my "real life," my husband, upon reading my first book, looked up in surprise and said, "This is funny. You're not this funny in person." Go figure.

BRC: DATING DEAD MEN won many awards, and both books have gotten excellent reviews. Has the response to your work (awards as well as reader reactions in general) surprised you at all?

HJK: It makes me feel lucky, lucky, lucky. And relieved. I wish I could "bank" all those nice comments, but now, writing Book #3, I'm just as nervous as I was with the first.

BRC: You have a husband and three small kids who require from you all the usual things that children require --- chauffeuring, cupcake baking, school meetings, play date planning, etc. How do you find the time to write, along with doing interviews and blogging, attending panels and teaching workshops?

HJK: I tell myself that sleep is overrated. I wake up at 5. I never watch TV or have lunch with friends. I sneak in my writing in 10-minute increments. My mind is always elsewhere (not a very Zen-like existence) and I'm learning, finally, that store-bought cupcakes are just as good and look a lot better than homemade. Naturally, my children will one day be in therapy over being raised by a mother who always had a laptop in her lap.

BRC: What's the thing that has surprised you most about being an author?

HJK: That I'd have no time to read for pleasure, the very thing that got me through hard times and made me want to write in the first place. Of course, having small children exacerbates the problem, but between reading for research and reading to keep up with my friends' work, "impulse reading" is a thing of the past. Another surprising thing is that people now assume I'm smarter than I am, whereas when I was an actor, they assumed I was dumber than I am.

BRC: Is there a link between acting and writing? Was there anything from your years as an actress that you think has helped you in your writing?

HJK: Yes, dialogue definitely is what comes to me most easily, along with first-person narration; I credit my acting for that. It's plot and structure that I have to work at, because an actor doesn't usually have the Big Picture in mind --- that's the director's job. The actor looks at the world through one pair of eyes.

There are other parallels: the lifestyle itself, emotional risk, financial uncertainty, frequent rejection, and creative excitement --- these are very similar. Living so much of your life in your imagination. And having an enormous amount of fun. Except, of course, when it's not working, in which case it's torturous.

BRC: How do people who knew you best as an actress respond to your books?

HJK: It's been very happy. People who come to book signings or pick up my book because they recognize my name or remember me from some film or TV show are always kind. With reviewers, it's a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they're prepared to roll their eyes --- "Oh, please, not another actor-turned-writer" --- but on the other hand, it brought me to their attention, whereas a previous career in, say, dental hygiene would not have.

BRC: You're a woman whose acting career encompasses theater, feature films and television (including soap operas and TV movies). Did you surprise yourself that you ended up writing a comic mystery?

HJK: My parents were also devotees of mysteries and, in my mother's case, the romantic suspense novels of Mary Stewart and the very humorous ones of Georgette Heyer; I inherited her love of those. I think we write what we love to read, so while it still surprises me, I wonder why it took me so long to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up.

BRC: What do your seven brothers and sisters think of the youngest Kozak?

HJK: My siblings and I have always been close and very supportive of one another, partly because our father died when I was a baby, which made us depend on one another more than we otherwise might have. While I'm arguably the most notorious Kozak, I'm not the smartest, funniest nor most talented... I rarely win at Scrabble and never at Trivial Pursuit. That said, they're all very proud of me, as my mother would have been had she lived to see my novels published.

BRC: You have a blog with three other authors at Can you tell us how the three of you decided to start writing this? How do you each contribute to it and what do you like about reaching out to readers like this?

HJK: If memory serves, about a year ago at the Romantic Times Festival or one of the conventions, Nancy Martin, Susan McBride, and/or Sarah Strohmeyer --- but I think it was Nancy --- explained to me what a blog was, and then we all brainstormed about how to start one. Nancy did the technical start-up work, assisted by Susan, and we all contribute one day a week with miscellaneous stuff, guest blogs, etc. on the other 3 days. My day's always been Monday. What I love is feeling a little like I expect a weekly columnist does --- finding something I want to talk about for 600 words (my own word-count limit, not the blog's) and then discovering other people's reaction to the same topic. Sometimes it's something in the news --- Tom Cruise and Scientology's Silent Birth, for example --- and sometimes it's personal --- wearing the wrong outfit to my niece's Karaoke Wedding reception, e.g. This past week I actually announced I was going to blog less in the interest of finishing my current novel, so now I'll contribute once or twice a month, and we'll have more guest bloggers. We became more popular than we expected and have a steady stream of interested bloggers, so there won't be any disruption of service, as it were.

BRC: Who's that cute little monster on your website?

HJK: That's The Beast, Inc. Years ago, my lawyer called me up and told me I had half an hour to come up with a name for my about-to-be-formed corporation. So I named it after my best friend's cat, who was sitting in my living room. That led to an email address and, ultimately, a logo. Yes --- I designed it myself, being, after all, a frustrated graphic artist. I tried to make it scary, but it's less Edvard Munch than Dr. Seuss.

BRC: We've read that you are working on your third book, called DEAD EX. What can you tell us about it and when can readers expect to see it?

HJK: The third in the series finds Wollie dating again, this time on a soap opera network talk show called "SoapDirt," as the "dating correspondent"--- meaning she dates soap stars, then dishes about them on TV. Meanwhile, an old boyfriend who she and her best friend Joey had in common (meaning they both dated him) is shot to death while dying of cancer. Joey becomes the favorite suspect, getting Wollie sucked into the mystery of who really killed him. My deadline is August 1, so however long it takes after that to hit the shelves is when you'll see it. Sometime in 2007, I expect.