Behind The Words with J.D. Griffo
Welcome J.D., we are very excited to have you on Reader’s Entertainment. Let’s start with sharing a bit about yourself. Where you’re from, where you live? Is writing your full-time job?
I am a self-described Jersey boy. I was born in Hoboken, New Jersey and my family ‘upgraded’ to Secaucus, a nearby suburb, when I was eleven. At the time, Hoboken wasn’t the gentrified hotspot it is now so my family hightailed it out of there to live the suburb an dream. After college, I moved to New York City and lived there for several years until finally returning to my roots about 15 years ago when I moved back to Secaucus to be closer to my mom, who was a widow at the time. She passed away a few years later, but I stayed. Once you get used to having a backyard, a car, and your own laundry in the basement, it’s hard to give up!
Writing isn’t my full-time job – it only seems like it is! I’m an agent for theatrical designers – the folks who design the sets, costumes, lighting, sound, and projections for Broadway and beyond. One interesting side-effect of the pandemic is that I’ve been working from home since March, which means my two-hour daily commute is a thing of the past, and since theatres have been shut down, my evenings aren’t spent seeing plays and musicals either. All of this has left me with a lot more time on my hands and I’ve been doing my best to use this extra time wisely by writing more. Besides finishing my latest book – MURDER AT ST. WINIFRED’S ACADEMY, which is the fifth book in the Ferrara Family Mystery series – I’ve written three Hallmark screenplays, two short stories, and six one-act plays. Whew! I’m tired just writing that sentence!
How long have you been writing?
It seems like I’ve been writing stories in one form or another all my life, but professionally, since 2010 when my first book – BETWEEN BOYFRIENDS – was published by Kensington Books. Since then, I’ve had at least one book published a year so I’m making up for having a bit of a late start.
My one regret is that I didn’t keep the plays and short stories that I wrote in grammar and high school. I literally wrote the bible for my own soap opera – SECRETS, which I know isn’t the most original of titles – when I was a sophomore. A script bible is a long-form treatment that plots out an entire year of a soap opera. I remember many of the character names – Nerissa, Dade, and Karalee are my three faves – as well as some of plots – but it would be so wonderful if I had the original manuscript. It would be more than just as a piece of nostalgia, but a tangible example of the kind of writer I was back then. So my advice to every writer is to keep everything that you write and never throw anything away!
Could you give readers a look at a typical writing day?
Before I do that, you need to know that I’m a Planner. Writers can generally be separated into two categories –Planners and Pantsers. Planners are writers who plan out their story in great detail, often creating an outline of their book before sitting down at the laptop to write the first chapter. Pantsers, on the other hand, might have a kernel of an idea, but start writing their book without an outline and, often, not knowing where their story is going to lead them. When it comes to writing novels and short stories, I am, and probably always will be, a planner. The reason is twofold: First, since I do have a full-time job, I don’t have the luxury of time to stare at a blank screen and hope it will lead me to creative inspiration. Second, I’m a bit of a control freak and I want to know where my story is going to end before I begin. So before I start writing a book, I’ve already written a 50-60 page outline that I subsequently break down into chapters. This means that when I get up at six a.m. on Saturday, I know exactly what I need to write. I know how the chapter needs to begin and end, which allows me the freedom to explore character, dialogue, and literary style. The planning makes me more creative and, ultimately, a better storyteller, which is what we’re all after.
I don’t stop until I finish the chapter. Whether it takes me two hours or five, I sit at the computer until I’m done. For me, discipline is as important as imagination when writing a book. Once I’m done, I walk away from my computer and go about my day to effectively clear my head. Later in the day, I’ll reread the chapter and do a soft edit, nothing drastic, unless I’ve gone wildly off track, which doesn’t happen a lot because I have the outline to keep me in check. I also find it important not to judge my work immediately – I leave that for the real editing phase that comes after I’ve written the book or sometimes after the first 100 pages.
Now that I’m working remotely, time has taken on a whole new meaning and with the book I just finished I wrote during the week as well as the weekend. Without having to commute – or even having to shower before logging into my work laptop – I was able to get up early on a Tuesday and write a chapter before starting my job. In a very weird way, this ‘pause’ we’ve all been forced to take, has been beneficial for my writing.
Tell us about your latest release. MURDER AT VERONICA’S DINER? Where the idea came from? Perhaps some fun moments, or not so fun moments?
The next book to be released in the Ferrara Family Mystery Series is book #4 – MURDER AT VERONICA’S DINER. I believe it comes out on my birthday, November 25th, so that’ll be a fun way to spend my birthday this year. I knew that when I introduced the Diner in the second book that I would eventually want a murder to take place there. The one thing I love about writing a mystery series that takes place in the same location with largely the same characters is that it becomes like a soap opera. You may not see every citizen of Tranquility, New Jersey, which is where my series takes place, in every book, nor will we visit all the local hotspots but the readers know they’re there. They know at some point we’ll be going to the morgue at St. Clare’s hospital, having lunch at China Chef, or visiting the Tranquility Library. So I knew it would be fun to turn Veronica’s Diner into a crime scene. However, I can’t recall where I got the idea to kill off one of the waitresses. But by the third chapter Teri Jo falls to the ground with a knife sticking out of her back before the breakfast rush is over.
I knew I wanted this one to be a bit more spread out as far as where the mystery takes the Ferraras. In the third book, MURDER AT ICICLE LODGE, once they get to the lodge, they stay there and it becomes like Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None in that no one can leave thanks to a perfectly timed blizzard. Since the third book was confined to a specific space, I deliberately made this one bigger so you’ll find the ladies in Brooklyn, Texas, and even Riker’s Island!
As with all of the books there are a lot of fun moments since the Ferraras are quite a wild family. I had the idea for the ending of the book before I crafted all the beats to the mystery and I, honestly, wasn’t sure I could pull it off because it definitely falls into the “larger than life” column, but I think I made it work and feel natural within the world of the series. Since it’s a continuing series, I always like to reveal a family secret that gives insight into the characters and in this book we finally learn why Helen left the convent after 40 years. I think it’s a poignant moment in the series that fleshes out Helen’s character and strengthens her relationships with others as well.
How about sharing one detail from your current release with readers that they might not find in the book? Perhaps a juicy bit of back-story, or something only you know about a character.
MURDER AT VERONICA’S DINER is the fourth book in the series and has possibly the craziest ending of all. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to top the ending from MURDER AT ICICLE LODGE, the third book in the series, but I’m proud to reveal that I have! It’s outrageous, but plausible and I found a way to incorporate almost all the characters without making it seem too crowded.
About three-quarters of the way through the book we also learn the reason why Helen left the convent after 40 years. I knew from the beginning that the reason had to be significant, but until I started writing this book I didn’t know what the reason was. I did what all writers do when they aren’t sure where a story is going to go, I listened to my characters and let them react to situations and circumstances around them. When Helen’s secret is revealed, I think the readers will feel like they know Helen even better. And I think they’re going to fall in love with her even more.
Who has been the most difficult character for you to write? Why?
I can’t say it’s been necessarily difficult, but it was a struggle to figure out who Vinny and Father Sal were. I had a completely different type of backstory for Vinny when I first started the series. He was going to be a family man and then I scratched that when I made Wyck, the editor of The Herald, a happily married man with kids, and for some reason I felt they would be too similar. I also toyed with the idea of making him a love interest for Alberta, but once it was established that Alberta used to be his babysitter, I thought it would be icky to explore a romantic relationship. I’m glad I never went that route because I feel that Alberta’s relationship with Sloan is incredibly sweet and has greater emotional depth because Sloan isn’t Italian or like any of the men from Alberta’s past. Her relationship with Sloan is symbolic to her independence.
For those readers with a good memory for details, you’ll remember that I mention in the first book – MURDER ON MEMORY LAKE – that Father Sal is getting ready for retirement. Well that was two years ago in terms of the series’ timetable. Clearly, Sal – and I – have had a change of mind about his status in Tranquility. He’s become a perfect foible to Helen and has blossomed into the quirky, supporting character every series should have.
If you could be one of your characters for a day which character would it be? Why?
I don’t know if I can choose only one, I want to be all of my characters! But if I’m being forced, I can narrow it done to a small list. I’d love to be Alberta for a day because I ‘m not a very good cook and Alberta’s culinary concoctions are legendary. I think if I were her I’d spend all day cooking all my favorite dishes – chicken parmigiana, eggplant rollatini, fettucine alfredo, bracciole, fried meatballs, rigatoni and broccoli – and anything else I could make and freeze them to enjoy the rest of the month when I’m back to being myself!
The next day I’d like to be Helen because she has no filter and is hysterically funny – at least to me! It would be liberating to walk around saying exactly what you think and be able to get away it! It would also be comforting to feel the deeply spiritual and unwavering bond that she has with God.
And then finally I would have to spend the day as Miss Gina Lollobrigida aka Lola, Alberta’s cat. How much fun would it be to lounge around all day, eavesdrop onto conversations, curl up into a ball to take a nap, and be waited on hand and foot by all those around me? Come to think of it, turning into Lola might be the perfect way to spend every day.
Are there any particular authors that have influenced how you write and, if so, how have they influenced you?
Three very diverse writers have influenced how I tell a story and even what stories I tell.
Even though Jane Austen’s novels were written two centuries ago, they feel as if they were written yesterday. Her characters, their personal relationships, their inner dramas, even her dialogue have withstood the test of time because she writes about universal truths. Of course, she writes about them within her time period, but her tales aren’t bound to early 19th century England because she doesn’t write with a narrow perspective. She has mastered the art of creating specific and detailed characters that any reader can relate to. What I find marvelous about her is that her sentence structure isn’t stilted or dated like some of her contemporaries and her dialogue – while foreign to modern readers – still flows easily from her characters’ mouths to our ears. As a writer, I try to make my dialogue as natural as possible, even when tossing in pop culture references, so readers will believe the characters are saying what they’re saying. I also try to emulate Austen when delving into a character’s psychological make-up: keep it simple and you’ll connect with every reader who picks up your book.
A master of everyday horror, Shirley Jackson has haunted millions. That’s because in her skilled hands, terror is found in the most boring of places and committed by normal, unassuming people. You never know what any of her characters are going to do because her credo is that anyone is capable of anything. I found it to be a revelatory idea when I first read her. She isn’t a flowery writer, she doesn’t use a lot of adjectives – which I think is also a trait of Stephen King – and since I have a tendency to overuse adjectives, I try to follow in Jackson’s footsteps. Writing a mystery series that features one or murders in every book, I find that I rely on her ability to make horrific circumstances just another part of everyday life.
Henry Slesar is not as well known as Austen or Jackson, but he’s the writer I owe the most as he’s literally the reason I’m writing my mystery series. When I was first approached by my editor to work on a cozy mystery series, I said no out of fear. I didn’t think I could write a mystery, plot out a murder, drop clues, sprinkle the pages with red herrings, until I realized that a cozy mystery series is a soap opera and I absolutely love the soaps. My favorite will always be The Edge of Night, which was known as the mystery soap. One murder storyline begat another, each one twistier and harder to solve than the other. If you were a fan of the show you may remember when Denise Cavanaugh framed her sister-in-law April for her own murder or when it was revealed Geraldine Saxon accidentally shot and killed her surrogate son, Logan Swift. It’s because of Slesar that I’m such a meticulous planner and do my best to plot out my books to include every detail of the mystery. Slesar mainly wrote short stories as well as some novels and they’re definitely worth checking out.
Psst…..Do you have a secret talent readers would be surprised by?
I am proud to reveal that I am a level 6 adult figure skater! Now before you get visions of me doing triple axels and flying sit spins, I need to spoil that fantasy. For the moment, my skate blades are firmly planted on the ice and won’t be hurtling through the air any time soon.
I’ve been watching figure skating since I was a kid and not just the Olympics. National and World Championships, Ice Capades, professional competitions – everything I could find. You may call me obsessed and you’d be right! Even though I loved the sport other than taking some trips to the local skating rink when I was a teenager, I never learned how to skate properly. That changed when I heard Johnny Weir talk about the Ice House – a skating rink in Hackensack, New Jersey that’s twenty minutes from where I live – during the 2018 Olympics. It sparked something within me, and I decided that I needed to fulfill my lifelong dream of learning how to skate properly. I went online, enrolled in their adult skating class, and two weeks later I was on the ice for my first lesson.
From the first moment I stepped onto the ice I loved it. Not that it was easy. When you’re first learning the foundation of good technique you have to let your mind go and let your body take over. For an adult that isn’t the easies thing to do, but it was liberating. Once you start feeling more confident and your body learns how to hold itself as you move across the ice, it’s a truly joyful experience. The pandemic temporarily put the kibosh on my lessons, but now that things are starting to open up, I’m hopeful to be back on the ice with a coach to improve my skills. My goal is to be able to spin on one foot with ease – right now it’s still a frightening endeavor – and do a single axle. I promise than when I accomplish my goals, I will be uploading the videos as proof!
Your favorite go to drink or food when the world goes crazy!
Like Alberta, I love food. Unlike Alberta, I’m not the best cook so when the world goes crazy I reach for the first thing I can find! I do find comfort in familiar foods – potato chips, the occasional Twinkie, chocolate mousse! For something a bit healthier (or at least more filling) there’s chicken parm with ziti, mac ‘n cheese, or a shrimp cocktail. And, let’s face it, while you’re eating a slice of pizza (thin crust, please!) nothing can go wrong in the world.
As far as a drink goes, if it’s the morning it’s French Vanilla coffee with almost milk, but in the afternoon or evening it’s iced tea with a slice of lemon. If I could transport myself back in time, however, my drink of choice would be Tab – but only over ice! I know it has aspartame, which is not a recommended sweetener, but whenever I’m lucky enough to find it – and it is still being made somewhere – I cannot resist buying a can!
Thank you so much for joining us today. Never saw figure skating coming! That’s awesome.
Here’s a look at J.D’s latest release MURDER AT VERONICA’S DINER
The entire town of Tranquility is anxiously awaiting the arrival of former child star, Missy Michaels, who’s going to perform in Arsenic and Old Lace. Missy hasn’t been seen in public in decades and now she’s going to be the star of the show at St. Winifred’s Academy. Alberta and the entire Ferrara family is ready to celebrate the auspicious occasion – if the star of the hour ever shows up!
AND AN EXCERPT JUST FOR OUR READERS!!!
The day had finally arrived. A little bit of Hollywood was coming to Tranquility and Alberta could feel the magic in the air. It was still hard to believe that a movie star would soon be in their midst. Then again, Missy Michaels was more than a movie star, she was a friend.
Because Missy played the same character for over a decade in movies that chronicled and highlighted a young girl’s growth from child to young women, Alberta, and scores of other filmgoers, felt like they grew up right alongside her. She wasn’t some mysterious, untouchable film creation like Lana Turner or Jean Harlow who came before her, nor did she play other roles like Margaret O’Brien or Hayley Mills, Missy only played Daisy so the two became interchangeable. As a result, Daisy became less of a character and Missy become more of their contemporary.
Only two years younger than Missy, Alberta easily pictured herself in Missy’s Mary Jane’s and imagined she was living in Teddy’s Central Park West luxury apartment instead of the five-room apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, but even as a young girl, Alberta felt sorry for Missy because the girl up on the silver screen didn’t have a family.
It didn’t matter that Missy had a closet overflowing with frilly party dresses or a bedroom overpopulated with stuffed animals, Alberta knew that the poor little rich girl would overturn her situation if it meant she could have her parents back. Missy had more things than Alberta ever dreamed she would possess, but Alberta possessed the one thing Missy would never have – parents.
Unbeknownst to her, grown-up Missy had tons of friends in Tranquility who were anxiously awaiting her arrival. Lost in a daydream where she was giving Missy a tour of the town’s hot spots, Alberta came back to reality just in time to turn down the flame before the water started boiling over the top of the saucepan.
“Ah madon,” Alberta muttered to herself. “I better pay attention or else Missy will have nothing to eat.”
From her vantage point lounging on the kitchen table, Lola watched Alberta quickly pour the box of spaghetti into the bubbling water with her head resting on an outstretched arm. Her body language was easily interpreted, and Alberta knew it was full of judgment.
“Don’t you look at me that way,” Alberta said, pointing a wooden spoon at her beloved cat. “This is a very important day and your mama’s ansiosa. Now be a good girl and get off the table.”
Lola had rarely been a good girl in her entire life, so Alberta was not surprised when she rolled onto her back, lifted her four paws into the air, and played with an imaginary ball. Feline discipline would have to wait for another time, Alberta had more important things to focus on at the moment, like cooking the food that would be served at Nola’s party that evening in honor of Missy’s arrival. Alberta had cooked for hundreds of parties before, but this one was somehow more special, and she wanted to make sure everything was perfect.
The third tray of lasagna, this one with sausage and hard boiled eggs like her great uncle Silvio, one of the best chefs in their family’s village in Sicily, used to make, was still in the oven along with a tray of eggplant that had been cut into long strips which would serve as the main ingredient in a recipe Alberta created to satisfy Jinx’s healthy diet. Vegetarian bracciole consisted of layers of eggplant, green peppers, mozzarella, and portobella mushrooms all rolled together and cooked in Alberta’s homemade gravy – the red kind, not the brown. The mushrooms had a similar texture and, remarkably, a similar taste to flank steak, which was the traditional meat used to make bracciole, so when you took a bite it was almost as if you were eating the same thing.
In the refrigerator were trays of deviled eggs, a cold seafood salad, two large containers of pasta fagioli, bruschetta topped with spinach, goat cheese, and honey, escarole and beans, stuffed clams, stuffed peppers, and one of Alberta’s favorite dishes, stuffed mushrooms wrapped in bacon.
Nola thought Alberta was off her rocker when she volunteered to provide the food for the party since the entire cast and several invited guests would be attending, but when Joyce explained that Alberta was used to feeding the entire Ferrara family, whose total number was closer to the number of seats at the theatre than the number of cast members in the play.
As she entered the theatre something caught her eye that made all the noise fade away and stopped her in her tracks. It was a reminder of why they were all there in the first place.
At the entrance of the theatre just off to the right of the middle aisle was a large poster for the show propped up on a tripod easel. It said, ‘The Tranquility Players presents Arsenic and Old Lace starring Missy Michaels star of the Daisy Greenfield movies.’ In the center of the poster were two photos, one of Missy as the child star she once was and another, presumably, as how she looked today.
“Il tempo vola, ma rimane sempre lo stesso,” Alberta whispered.
It was true, time flew, but at the same time, it remained the same.
The two images were complete opposites, but, oddly, completely the same. Together, they were bookends of an entire life, the before and after, the past and present of a person Alberta never met, but someone she felt she knew incredibly well. It was a silly thought, a holdover from her youth when she considered Missy a friend. But now, a much older woman, Alberta couldn’t let go of the thought and felt a childlike spark ignite within her. She was actually going to be reunited with a long-lost relic from her past.
The photo of Young Missy was the classic headshot Alberta remembered seeing advertised everywhere at the start of the girl’s career. Her black hair in bangs and cut in a short bob adorned with her signature butterfly barrettes. The photo of Old Missy had a different hairstyle, but one Alberta immediately recognized because it was her own. A bob about an inch longer than chin-length, parted on the left, with not a strand of gray among a sea of black. Alberta wondered if Missy used the same hair dye that she did, Clairol’s Shade 2 Blue Black. Wouldn’t that be a coincidence?
Based on the side-by-side photos, Missy still had the round, black eyes, pert nose, and the dimple in her right cheek that helped make her famous. Alberta suspected the current photo had been airbrushed a bit, but not much, because there were wrinkles on Missy’s forehead, lines underneath her eyes, and crow’s feet on their sides. Her neck drooped appropriately for a woman her age and when Alberta looked further down, she gasped. Not because Missy was showing an inappropriate amount of décolletage for a woman her age, but because she was sporting the same gold crucifix around her neck that Alberta always wore.
“Dio mio,” Alberta said. “Would you look at that?”
Since they wore the same hairstyle and the same jewelry, Alberta wondered what else she and the elusive star had in common. Whether or not they shared any other traits or characteristics, didn’t matter to Alberta. All she wanted was for the star to arrive so she could see in living flesh the person she had only seen in celluloid.
She looked up at the banner hanging high above the stage and didn’t care if the words weren’t entirely true, she felt in her heart that the message they conveyed was accurate.
Come on home, Missy, Alberta thought, everyone is waiting for you.
YOU CAN PURCHASE MURDER AT VERONICA’S DINER AT:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Griffo has written 11 novels and over 25 plays and screenplays. His debut novel, Between Boyfriends, was published by Kensington Books in 2010, and was followed by a novella, Missed Connections, in the anthology Remembering Christmas, both written under the pseudonym Michael Salvatore. Under his given name, Griffo has published two young-adult supernatural trilogies within the KTeen imprint of Kensington Books. The Archangel Academy series is comprised of Unnatural, Unwelcome, and Unafraid and tells the love story of gay teenagers Michael Howard and hybrid-vampire Ronan Glynn-Rowley against a backdrop of a colorful array of preternatural creatures. And The Darkborn Legacy consists of Moonglow, Sunblind, and Starfall and explores what happens to Dominy Robineau when she falls victim to a family curse on her 16th birthday, is transformed into a werewolf, and kills her best friend. His essay “Be Honest With Yourself” was a highlight of the anthology Dear Teen Me, published by Zest Books, and he has two novels available on Smashwords.com, Hold Back the Night, a gothic soap opera, and Pen Pals, an epistolary novel inspired by his mother’s 60-year relationship with her own pen pal from Sheffield, England. His latest novel, Murder on Memory Lake, is written under the pseudonym J.D. Griffo and is the first entry in a new cozy mystery series—A Ferrara Family Mystery. It’s The Golden Girls meets Nancy Drew with an Italian twist and will be published by Kensington Books in 2018.
You can learn more about J.D. and his books at: