What happens when Tony Vanderwarker, the founder of one of Chicago’s largest ad agencies, decides he wants to write fiction? He connects with author John Grisham and learns to do-in his ugly babies. Here is a wonderful story of mentorship and the trials and errors of being a writer. Thanks to Beth Terrell for conducting this interview.
Enjoy…and be inspired!
KN: Please welcome Tony Vanderwarker to the Killer Nashville blog. Tony, could you tell us about your path to becoming a professional writer? When did you know you wanted to be one? How did you get started?
I’ve always wanted to write novels, I think as far back as a teenager. When I was in the Peace Corps in Africa in my late teens, I wrote oodles of ersatz Rimbaud poetry and three or four meandering novels – all of which I burned when I came upon the disasters some years later. But I did get interested in film through working with the government’s film unit and went to film school at NYU. I ended up making a major motion picture, which got minor attention, so I decided to write shorter films. I then went into advertising and cashed out of the business in my late forties. I’ve been writing novels ever since.
KN: Did you always write thrillers? What drew you to the genre?
I began writing comic novels, but they didn’t sell, so I tried thrillers figuring I’d imitate my friend (author) John Grisham. Wrote a couple and got lucky. John offered to take me under his wing and teach me the secrets of thriller writing. So the novel I have coming out, Sleeping Dogs is the one I wrote with him over a period of about five years.
KN: John Grisham was instrumental in helping you come up with the idea for that novel, wasn’t he? Could you tell us about that?
At our lunch when Grisham offered to mentor me, he said, “Okay, we need a plot. You said you had a couple ideas, let’s hear them.” I pitched the first, swing and a miss. The second he shot down also. So I pitched the third as I began to sweat.
“So there are actually seven unrecovered nukes scattered around the U.S. as a result of mid-air accidents and collisions during the Cold War,” I told him.
“You’re kidding,” he said.
“No, all over the place, Georgia, North Carolina, Oregon – the Pentagon claims they are harmless.”
“Whoever heard of a harmless nuke? What if the bad guys got a hold of one?”
So with Grisham engaged, we began a long and arduous process of crafting a novel together.
And the interesting part is, when Sleeping Dogs ran into a glut of similar thrillers on the market, I pulled it and wrote a book about writing with John called Writing With The Master. It got picked up and the publisher also decided to publish Sleeping Dogs. So both came out on Feb 4.
KN: Two books on the same day? That’s pretty impressive. What does your writing schedule look like?
I write from 9-12 in the morning, that’s usually when I run out of gas and my dogs get tired of lying around in the studio. They are lousy on plots and terrible spellers, but they contributed the title of my novel.
I take off weekends and holidays. Otherwise, it’s rigorous. I’m lazy and have a dread of the blank page so if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t get any work done. I do two to three pages a day, many of my ideas come to me when I’m half-asleep in the middle of the night. In the morning, my bedside table ends up looking like a bunch of stickies were shot at it.
KN: But you’ve worked hard to make the technical details authentic. How much and what kind of research do you do?
Lots, Siri is with me constantly. I’m always asking her crazy questions like, “What did Mussolini have to do with the Mafia?” or, “What’s the difference between an mk mod 47 nuke and some other one?” She’s a tireless co-worker. But it really depends on what kind of book you’re working on and how familiar you are with the territory. Bubonic plague is something I know nothing about (fortunately) so Siri and I are spending a lot of time on that. Reading up on nukes took months. But the ad agency stuff comes flying out of my head faster than I can get it down.
KN: And how about your personal experiences? How do they inform your work?
My life seeps into everything I do. I was having lunch with my publicist a couple weeks ago and she asked about my kids. I described my daughter, who is a theatre director, as a tough and resolute person who is not afraid to tell anyone to go jump. And Sharon said, “Could she have been the model for the lead female characters in Ads For God and Sleeping Dogs?” I hadn’t realized it, but she was right on. Probably included a bit of my wife also since she comes in the same size.
KN: What do you hope readers will take away from Sleeping Dogs?
That nuclear weapons are scary as hell and we ought to pay more attention to how they are stored and handled before we create a catastrophe. Sleeping Dogs brings to life the possibility of terrorists recovering one close to a major population center and coming close to detonating it, immolating millions and making the Eastern Seaboard uninhabitable for centuries.
KN: That does sound scary—and is a message a lot of people probably ought to hear. So how do you get the message out? What sort of marketing and promotion do you do?
The whole nine yards: social media, website, writing websites, email lists I’m on, Kickstarter, plus I have two publicists, one at my publishing house, the other a freelancer I’ve hired. I began marketing this book back in June 2013 and I’ll continue until I’ve bored everyone to tears and is begging me to stop.
KN: What’s next for you?
Two directions: First, I’ve resurrected two comic novels I wrote years ago and am bringing them out later in the year, probably from a publishing house I’ve started with a friend. So Ads For God and Say Something Funny will be coming back to life. I’m also writing new comic novels as well as another thriller. The comic novel is titled Client From Hell and is about the Mafia taking over an ad agency. The thriller is a sequel to Sleeping Dogs.
KN: You have some pretty eclectic interests as a writer. What authors have inspired you?
The list is endless, but particularly Ford, Franzen, Updike, Kesey, Grisham (for his stories), Hiassen (for his humor) and above all, Cormac McCarthy.
KN: Any advice for aspiring authors?
Be patient. Words are tricky characters and don’t always do what you want. And slow down, speed kills good writing. And about your work, ask yourself the question one of Fellini’s characters posed in 8 ½, something like: “Is this really remarkable or just the foot of another cripple in the sand.” Ruthlessness is as much a part of writing as imagination. You have to be able to do-in your ugly babies.
Tony Vanderwarker is the founder of one of Chicago’s largest ad agencies, and is the author of the memoir Writing With the Master: How a Bestselling Author Fixed My Book And Changed My Life about his experience being mentored by John Grisham while writing the thriller Sleeping Dogs (both released by Skyhorse in 2014). He has also penned the forthcoming novels Ads for God and Say Something Funny.