Thursday, March 11, 2010

Interview with Thomas Kaufman

It’s a pleasure to welcome Thomas Kaufman today, and have the chance to ask him a few questions. He’s the author of Drink the Tea, winner of the PWA Best First Private Eye Novel competition. I’m not going to introduce him. He has a fascinating background, and I’d like to have him introduce himself.

Thomas - Hey, everyone, thanks for tuning in.

Lesa - Welcome, Thomas. I mentioned that you have a fascinating background. Would you tell us about yourself, and your career?

Thomas - I'm an Emmy award-winning director/cameraman, based in the DC area. I've made documentaries for Discovery, BBC, and NatGeo, many of them about cops, FBI, and DEA agents. All the time I was shooting, I was hearing great stories. This has really helped me as a fiction writer.

Lesa - Thomas is too modest here. According to his website, he is a two-time winner of the Gordon Parks Award for Cinematography, and has contributed his work to three Academy Award-nominated films. Thomas has shot hundreds of documentary, commercial, and fiction films. His clients include National Geographic, Discovery Channels, British Broadcasting Corporation, WGBH, WNET, and independent producers such as Charles Guggenheim, Barbara Kopple, and Michael Moore. Recent projects include a film about Gertrude Berg, programs for the new Smithsonian Channel, and HBO Behind-the Scenes "John Adams." And, for those of us interested in crime fiction and nonfiction, he has spent a lot of time with cops, filming "The FBI Files," "The Prosecutors," and "New Detectives" for Discovery. So, Thomas, I’m going to ask you to summarize Drink the Tea, but, first, what can you tell us about the title?

Thomas - A few years back some friends of mine married, and they hosted a Japanese tea ceremony. This fascinated me, so I read about tea and the Zen aspects of conducting a tea ceremony. I also read the poetry of Rikyu. I used some of this in DRINK THE TEA.

Lesa - Tell us about Drink the Tea, please.

Thomas - I'll tell you a little about the kind of book I like to read: the PI is a person I can relate to, someone I can understand. A recent example is Reed Farrell Coleman's Moe Praeger series. So in Willis I've tried to create that kind of character.
Willis Gidney grew up without parents or a home, on the streets of Washington. So he reacts to things a bit differently than I would. Willis is a great guy, but let's face it – he does have some issues.
His best friend is sax giant Steps Jackson. When Steps discovers he may have a 25-year-old adult daughter he never knew existed, he asks Willis to find her. Given his background, Willis is compelled to help.

Lesa - Willis Gidney had a terrible childhood, both on the streets, and in the juvenile justice system. Where did he come from, or, is he strictly out of your imagination?

Thomas - Willis is a lot like me, of course. I have a friend who went through the DC juvie justice system. She told me some frightening stories. She also put me in touch with a cop who she said busted her twelve times. ("It was only 3 or four times, " he told me later.) This retired cop now works for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and he had some great stories.
Two Washington Post reporters, Sari Horwitz and Scott Higham, also gave me great background material.

Lesa - I loved the Washington, D.C. setting. Why D.C. for the book?

Thomas - Washington is a city of contrasts. You only need to look around you to see that. It makes it a great place to write about.
I could load you up with a lot of factoids about DC, but you have to go into the neighborhoods to understand. Near the Capitol, for instance. In the trailer for DRINK THE TEA we shot on Pennsylvania Avenue a shot of the Capitol dome as a time lapse shot, it's kind of a beauty shot. Then the next shot is on North Capitol Street. It's funky. You're still in spitting distance from the Capitol, but around you are enormous KFCs with blue sodium lights set high on outer space stalks, Big Ben's Liquor, and enormous Exxon stations. It's not a tourist hang-out. The image in the trailer is now a hand-held, long-lens shot of a lone man (Willis?) crossing a bridge with the Capitol behind him. Those two shots, to me, illustrate the juxtaposition I'm talking about.

Lesa - Your background is in movies and television. What surprised you about writing a book? How is it different?

Thomas - The thing I love about writing is that there's so little equipment involved. On a shoot I take maybe eleven pieces of heavy gear, and that's if I'm traveling light. Maybe 900 pounds of stuff I'm taking around. It's a lot. When I write, it's just me, the laptop, and a cup of joe. I love that.
Also, I tend to visualize the scenes when I write them. I think about body language, how the characters move around the set. The blocking.
But I can't write in my house. Too distracting. Usually a coffee shop works best, but I have been known to write in airplanes, hotel rooms, and on the backs of water buffaloes.

Lesa - Now, there's an unusual picture, writing on the backs of water buffaloes. Thomas, you won the PWA Best First Private Eye Novel competition. How did you find out about your win?

Thomas - I was filming a commercial in Wisconsin, there was a big storm front closing in and we had very little time to do all the shots we needed before the rain came and we lost our light. So when my cell phone started buzzing I clicked to voicemail. Later I heard Ruth Cavin's voice telling me I needed to call her. I had totally forgotten entering DRINK THE TEA in the competition, but put two and two together to guess the reason for her call. Had to wait all weekend to get it confirmed. That Saturday and Sunday I didn't think about much else.

Lesa - Well, congratulations on winning the competition. I know it led to the publication of Drink the Tea. Would you tell us what you’re working on now?

Thomas - Trying hard not to catch my thirteen-year-old son's cold as I go out on the book tour. This week it's New York; Oakmont, PA; and Washington, DC. I've written the second Gidney book, SON OF AN ELEPHANT, and the folks at St. Martin's will let me know about its publication soon. And I'm halfway through the third book, SLOW CONSUMPTION. So there's more Gidney coming down the pike.

I'm also producing a documentary film, Indian Hill Summer.

Lesa - Thomas, I enjoyed Drink the Tea. Good luck with it, and I hope Willis will be back. Now, my final question is one I always ask. I’m a public librarian. Do you have a story to tell about libraries or librarians?

Thomas - Since I was a child I've loved libraries. The one closest to my was in this amazing building, probably dated back to the twenties. As I got older I'd explore more and more rooms there, it seemed endless.

My wife's family has more librarians than Borders has bookmarks. Her grandfather fell in love with one, her father married one, was one himself. Plus various aunts uncles, cousins -- all librarians. They had so many they would make jokes about librarians, like – what’s the difference between a librarian and a grapefruit?
Answer: what difference?

Lesa - Thank you, Thomas. And, let me think about that joke.

Thomas Kaufman's website is

Drink the Tea by Thomas Kaufman. St. Martin's Minotaur, ©2010. ISBN 9780312607302 (hardcover), 304p.


Term Paper said...

Very nice write up. Easy to understand and straight to the point.
I never thought of it like that, but it really is true.

Lesa said...

Thank you, Term Paper.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

What a fantastic background...he's had so many accomplishments! Thanks for the introduction to Thomas and his book, Lesa.

Congrats on the PWA 1st Private Eye Novel!

Mystery Writing is Murder

Lesa said...

Always fun to introduce a debut author and his book, Elizabeth!

Beth Hoffman said...

Oh, Lesa, I so enjoyed reading this and watching the video! Thank you.

Lesa said...

You're welcome, Beth. There's something about those book trailers that do add to a website, isn't there?

Rob said...

I'm treating myself to this book for my birthday on Saturday...and a few others!

Lesa said...

I hope you enjoy it, Rob. And, enjoy the others. Happy Birthday!