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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Interview with Author Dwight Kemper about "Who Framed Boris Karloff"

We had a chance to talk with Dwight Kemper author of the book "Who Framed Boris Karloff" about his influences and book. Dwight gave us a ton of great answers. You can purchase the book from

Interview Questions

1. Dwight can you tell us a little about yourself?

I was born on Long Island, New York. My great, great aunt is Gertrude Stein on my father’s side. On my mother’s side I have a 2nd Degree Mason, as well as an engineer who floated a bridge down New York harbor in one piece and apparently on that very bridge that spans the river to Harlem, there’s a plaque dedicated to this illustrious relative. I also have character actor Charles Kemper as a great Uncle, which means that in contrast, I’m a huge disappointment to everyone.

2. How did you get interested in writing?

I began as a child who thought that being a child and writing children’s books was a good marketing idea. Unfortunately, children’s book publishers didn’t see it that way, so I learned what a rejection slip was way before I ought to have done. I dabbled in other arts growing up including sculpture, painting, sketching and so forth. I became a hairdresser at the urging on my mother, who is also a hairdresser. I soon discovered being a straight hairdresser is rather an unpopular thing, and never really made a go of it. I was a nurse for quite a few years, which would serve me well when I later attempted to make a living as a mystery writer. I eventually became a magician and mystery theater entertainer, and have been presenting crime scene shows for over twenty years now. Since I decided that as I am now turning fifty, and I can’t lug speakers and dead bodies around forever, it might be advisable to find a way to make money sitting down, so I decided to become a writer of mystery novels. Although, I do still go to the gym regularly and can bench 185 lbs.

3. Now obviously you’re a huge Universal Monster film fan, what was the genesis of that?

The genesis? I suppose my exodus from reality was the genesis of my interest in Universal films. I was a boy during the second Monster Boom in the sixties. As a result, I made the Aurora model kits, I watched the WOR afternoon movie that would show the same film over and over for a whole week, so when they showed House of Dracula, for instance, I would watch it every single day. My mother made certain to wake me up on a school night to see Boris Karloff’s Thriller, and she was the one who first introduced me to my first viewing of Frankenstein. In fact, I seem to recall that I would often forget that I’d seen Frankenstein and think the second or third time was my first. I also have very vivid memories of seeing Son of Frankenstein on television, and in particular of the artwork the station used between commercials. It was a silhouette of the Monster with a sad, ominous bass playing in the background. I also recall that I was a tad confused and thought the Monster wearing the shaggy coat was the son of the Frankenstein Monster. I suppose because the hair and costume were a little different than I remembered the “real” Frankenstein Monster looking. It wasn’t until years later that I realized the title was for Basil Rathbone’s character!

4. What were your favorite Universal films and actors?

Well, as for favorite actors, obviously Boris Karloff is number one. At the time of my childhood he was still alive and well and on prime time TV, not only on Thriller, but on The Wild, Wild West, The Girl from Uncle, and so forth. But I have to say, Bela Lugosi has really grown on me as a character. As I wrote him for my story, he got all the good lines. My favorite film, Bride of Frankenstein is number one. Even as a boy I recognized there was something special about this picture. And the Monster talked! Of course, Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein was my second favorite. I’m probably one of the few kids on my block that saw that film after seeing the serious Universal films. The later 1950’s horror films like Creature from the Black Lagoon were also fun for me, and it didn’t hurt any that I could make the model kit of the Gill Man.

5. Now the idea to pair real life actors with a fictional murder mystery is something is very unique, how did the idea first enter your head?

It’s not unlike some of my mystery shows. I did a show called Murder at the Vampire Play that was inspired by a theater program I bought from a 1920’s road show of production of Dracula. I took the real cast, the real crew, and information gleaned from David J. Skal’s book Hollywood Gothic, as well as a phone call to Mr. Skal to clarify a few details. I even created a tableau using dummies and a smoke machine to represent the crime scene frozen in time. I put testimony on the back of blown up faces of the real people so audience members playing the suspects could pretend to be the actors. I sent Mr. Skal a copy of the dummy program and souvenir Vampire mask that was a reproduction of the masks given out to audiences for the original Vampire Play. I even did a stage version of Who Framed Boris Karloff, although the plot was entirely different from the novel. The play ignored time frames, used a life mask of Boris as a clue that the killer impersonated Boris using a rubber mask to frame him, and so forth. The novel took a great deal of rethinking to make it workable as a book. For a 90 minute show, you don’t have to be too overly concerned for things like historical accuracy, as long as the audience is having fun. But a book requires a great deal more work.

6. Did you do prep research by reading bios of the stars to get their proper behavior, speaking patterns, etc down?

I am also an actor, as well as a writer. For me, I have to prepare to write a character the way an actor approaches a role. I try to immerse myself in the characters I’m writing about, watching their films, reading their biographies, and watching interviews from things like This Is Your Life. It was very helpful having Sara Karloff to give me advice about how her father would react to certain situations and tell me if his dialogue sounded the way he really talks when he’s not playing a role. Recently I had a hell of a time getting into Bud Abbott’s and Lou Costello’s heads for my new novel, Bela Lugosi and the House of Doom. I am a big fan of their comedy films and television shows, and I know Abbott and Costello as their on stage personas. But I had to get to know them as real people. Lou Costello in particular was very hard to portray, not only to balance his stage persona from his real self, but to keep the book funny, and still deal with the real tragedies in Costello’s life. You can’t write about Lou in the time of Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, the backdrop for my mystery, and not deal with the death of his only son Butch. It totally consumed him. In fact, if you look carefully at the scene in the actual movie, at the hotel where Abbott and Costello confront Chaney after his Wolf Man transformation, there’s a moment when Chaney grabs Lou and you can see the copper bracelet Lou had welded to his wrist with BUTCH inscribed on it. So even amid this funny scene, you can see a hint of tragedy. It was a real high wire act for me as a writer. It helps that Ron Palumbo and Bob Furmanek who wrote Abbott and Costello in Hollywood are nice enough to share their knowledge of the film’s production and about Abbott and Costello. They’ve both been very supportive of this project.

7. Is the title “Who Framed Boris Karloff” meant to be a call back to the Roger Rabbit movie or it’s more a situation where title just sounded good?

Admittedly it was a parody of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which itself was a parody of the noir detective genre. When I wrote the story as a dinner theater show, the title seemed marketable and easily identified as something both funny and mysterious. I asked my publisher if they wanted a less pun title, but Gary and Sue said they liked it, and so did Sara Karloff, so the title stayed. I considered keeping the same framework for the title of each succeeding book, questions to be answered by the reader, such as “Who Xed Y?” but the new book didn’t easily lend itself to that, since my publisher specifically wanted Bela Lugosi’s name prominently in the title and he was the detective, not the victim. Thus, the second and third books in the series are titled Bela Lugosi and the House of Doom, and Basil Rathbone and the Curse of Conan Doyle. There’s also another book that might come out before House of Doom that harks back to a pun title. It too is based on a mystery theater show I did for Halloween called Dead Wood, or Murder Can Be a Drag. As you may have guessed, it features Edward D. Wood, Jr. and his entourage of eccentrics. That was also a very hard book to write and required a lot of research. Not only to get the people right, but because it takes place mostly at Bela Lugosi’s funeral, so I needed information about the funeral business in general, and the funeral home that prepared Bela’s body in particular. Frankly, it was a very depressing book to write and I had a hard time getting through it. I suppose that’s why it became such a darkly slapstick romp as Criswell takes on the mantle of detective, with Forrest J Ackermann as his Watson, to compensate for the very depressing subject matter I had to deal with. We’ll see if it sees the light of day. I hope so, because it’s really quite a daring novel. Meanwhile, Bela Lugosi and the House of Doom is turning into quite a wicked little romp.

8. Can you give our readers a description of the book (I’d give one but I’d think I’d spoil the plot lol)?

Who Framed Boris Karloff? takes place on the set of Son of Frankenstein. Boris Karloff is framed for the murder of a Universal Studios executive and the studio wants to cover it up, as studios often did when their stars got in trouble. Boris wants to find the real killer, so he enlists the aid of his co-star, Basil Rathbone, fresh from playing Sherlock Holmes in Hound of the Baskervilles, and Bela Lugosi becomes the loose cannon detective. Together this trio of actors tries to solve a Hollywood murder mystery that just gets them deeper and deeper into more trouble than they ever thought possible.

9. Now Sara Karloff wrote the forward for your book how did you come into contact with her?

The internet, through It’s a friendship that began when I offered to send her a tape of her Dad on the Jack Benny Radio Program and Spike Jones Show, that apparently she didn’t know about. From there we began corresponding. When I decided to write the book, I told her my intensions and asked for her blessing. She was very supportive and I sent her chapters as I was writing them. I suppose taking this approach is what made the book as exciting as it is; I wanted to make sure I didn’t bore Sara. She would send me encouraging replies like “I’m HOOKED!!!” so I knew I was on the right track.

10. How has the book done commercially? You’ve obviously obtained critical success when you were nominated for the Rondo award for Best Book in 2007.

It’s done fairly well commercially. I do a lot of promotion on my own, including local talk shows, and book signings. I also have copies available at my mystery shows. And I try to get the word out through websites like this one.

Regarding the Rondo Award nomination, it was very exciting to be on the ballot this year. Although I didn’t win, and let’s face it, I was the Ron Paul of the Rondos considering I was the only fiction book on a list of really good non-fiction books; it was still very encouraging I got the votes I did. So to all of you who voted for my novel, I thank you.

11. What are your next literary monster related plans for our readers to keep an eye out for?

Look for Bela Lugosi and the House of Doom, coming soon. I’ve finished the first two parts, and getting ready to complete the concluding chapters. It takes place during the making of Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, and is a tale of espionage and strange goings on in the titular haunted house. Lou Costello is Bela Lugosi’s Watson, and then Lon Chaney becomes Costello’s Watson as they investigate what Costello thinks is a Hollywood Communist plot. Things get really wild in this one. Expect the unexpected (although technically, if you’re expecting it, can it be unexpected?)… And seltzer, expect lots of seltzer. And ice cubes, plenty of ice cubes.

Frank Dietz will be doing the cover again, and he’s really looking forward to this one since Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein is his favorite movie! I can’t wait to see what he comes up with.

12. Any final comments for our readers?

Yes, what I say to everyone I meet:

Buy my book.

Buy two, one to keep, one to share.

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