Howard Odentz is a man of many pursuits. Not only is he a novelist but he’s also written two musicals, In Good Spirits and Piecemeal. Odentz’s new book, Dead (a Lot), which released this year from Bell Bridge Books, has garnered praise from fans and reviewers.
Odentz is a native and life-long resident of Western Massachusetts, where he received both undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He’s also a devoted animal lover, and this finds its way into both his writing and the spare time he spends tending a hobby farm, Little Brook Littles.
Recently, I was fortunate enough to be able to talk with Odentz about his writing, inspirations, upcoming plans, and any advice he has for aspiring writers.
Tell us a bit about Tripp Light, the narrator and protagonist of Dead (a Lot).
HO: I don’t have children of my own; however, my two nephews came to live with me nine years ago. Like a fly on a wall, I watched them grow from grade school, through middle school to high school and beyond. If you told me a decade ago that my house would be the teenager hangout of choice I would have laughed at you, but that’s exactly what happened.
So, Tripp Light is an amalgam of both my nephews and their friends, spiced with a unique brand of household sarcasm that comes from taking two city kids from Philly and bringing them to live on a llama and Nigerian Dwarf goat farm up in Western Massachusetts. Needless to say, many of Tripp’s snarky comments I’ve heard behind my own four walls.
Zombies are very popular these days, and it’s always fun to see someone write about it from a different perspective. Tell me about where you came up with the idea for Dead (a Lot) and why you decided to have Tripp narrate the tale.
HO: When I decided to sit down and write Dead (a Lot) I promised myself that I wouldn’t apologize for anything I put on the page. I can’t say I knew that I was going to write about zombies right away. I just began typing, using a framework of the teens that I knew to create the fictional character of Tripp Light.
After the first few paragraphs, my fingers took a weird turn and a zombie appeared in Tripp Light’s kitchen. Okay—if my subconscious served me up the walking dead, then I suppose I had to explore what a teen like Tripp would really do when confronted with such a being.
It’s my personal opinion that our entertainment industry has done such a bang-up job of desensitizing our youth to blood and guts and gore, along with ushering them into a world where vampires can be love prospects and werewolves are hot, that I’m not so sure a kid would run screaming for his life if a zombie appeared in front of him. I figured he might take a more pragmatic approach, like figuring out how to get the zombie’s car keys out of its pocket so he can take its car and get out of Dodge.
As a result, Dead (a Lot) grew into an exploration of how kids would really act if faced with the zombie apocalypse.
As for Tripp narrating Dead (a Lot), I wanted his story to be as real as possible. In order to do this, I figured I had to stick with what a sixteen-year-old would and wouldn’t know about survival when confronted with such overwhelming circumstances. Allowing him to struggle through his experiences right in front of the reader—good, bad or otherwise—seemed like the most authentic way to go.
I have to know, did you name the radio DJ Jimmy James after the station owner on the sitcom Newsradio, or was that just a happy coincidence? Or do I watch too much television?
HO: Way back in the 80’s, I spent my summers working in Provincetown, Massachusetts—the very tip of Cape Cod. Provincetown was, and still is, a very colorful place filled with artists, painters, writers…and loads of drag queens. Jimmy James was the name of a female impersonator who had a nightly variety show in which he masqueraded as famous divas from Marilyn Monroe to Cher. I never got to see Jimmy’s show, but I occasionally saw him walking around town in full regalia. He was pretty spectacular and I never forgot his name. Hence, Jimmy James was reborn in Dead (a Lot).
As for as the DJ in Newsradio—sorry, I never caught the show.
Who are some writers you admire, in or out of your genre? What do you admire about them?
HO: That’s an easy one. I am and will always be a diehard Stephen King fan. As a matter of fact, he recently came to speak in Hartford, Connecticut. Like a groupie, I stalked Ticketmaster online, waiting for the tickets to go on sale. Wouldn’t you know he was sold out five minutes after the tickets went up and I missed my chance to meet my writing idol?
What I admire most about Mr. King’s style is the effortless way he weaves details into his work, making the reader want to hear more about the most mundane of things. Also, I am a fan of quests and adventures. It’s amazing how he can assemble a group of characters and send them across a literary landscape, making the reader come to know and eventually care about each one of them.
There are others in the horror genre that I admire as well. Stephen King partnered with Peter Straub to write The Talisman, a huge favorite of mine. Straub also wrote Ghost Story, which was the first book I ever had to put down until morning because I was that scared. Dean Koontz is another favorite along with Whitley Strieber, before and after he got involved in writing about little gray men—which, by the way, I wholeheartedly believe in—but I suspect that’s a different conversation.
Outside of horror, I feel J.K.Rowling deserves every bit of praise she’s received. She deftly created an entire world then juggled dozens of characters for the reader, fully realizing each one. I miss Harry. I hope the rumors are true that we will be meeting the next generation of wizards and muggles soon.
I could go on, but those are the good ones.
As for Mr. King, if Dead (a Lot) ever comes across his desk, I think I might actually die for real.
What is one work of literature that changed your life?
HO: When I was in high school, I went on a camping trip across country. I knew I needed a book to pass the time that first day, because we were driving from New York to Ohio in a straight shot. About an hour into our trip, we stopped for a pee break at a rest stop, and I found a book in the little store there. The cover was really cool. It was a bandaged hand with multiple eyes growing out of the palm and fingers.
That book was Stephen King’s Night Shift, a collection of short stories.
I devoured that book three times while on that camping trip, and have since had to buy a new copy, because I wore out the original one. There are amazing pieces of brilliance between those pages. Short stories like “Trucks,” which was eventually turned into a horrible Emilio Estevez movie called Maximum Overdrive, was one of my particular favorites. The book also included other stories that became movies like Children of the Corn, Sometimes They Come Back and The Lawnmower Man. Still, if you want to really get the willies, read “Gray Matter” or “The Mangler.”
That book and those short stories are like old friends. I’d say Night Shift was the beginning of my love of the horror genre.
Outside of horror, I loved Watership Down and The Hobbit, too, but how could you not?
In addition to writing Dead (a Lot), you’ve also penned two musicals, Piecemeal and In Good Spirits. How do you think your musical and writing interests complement one another?
HO: In Good Spirits is about a haunted community theatre. Piecemeal is the Frankenstein monster’s backstory. Dead (a Lot) is about zombies. Hmm—is there a connection there?
The truth is, whether I mean to or not, I end up writing sarcastic and humorous horror regardless of whether it’s for the stage or for a book. Ghostly lyrics like ‘possession is nine tenths of the law’ or songs about necrophilia are commonplace in my writing.
Although I loved creating the musicals, there were some obvious limitations there. I wrote the book, lyrics and music for both shows, but I didn’t have the skillset to orchestrate my music. I had to rely on a brilliant orchestrator for that.
Furthermore, when you’re done writing a musical, you’re only at the beginning. It immediately is taken out of your hands and given to directors, musical directors, and actors who often have a different vision than what you intended. I’ve seen both of my shows performed numerous times, but each time, the people involved have their own take on the tone of the show and the motivation of the characters.
Writing a novel, besides editing, is done when you put that last period at the end of the last sentence of the last page. It’s all you.
I think I like that better. Still, if any community theatre out there is interested in doing either show, they’re available. You can find links to both of them off of my website at www.howardodentz.com.
This an inevitable question for writers: How much young Howard Odentz is in your protagonist, Tripp Light? How about any of your other characters?
HO: The most obvious answer is that Tripp and everyone else is all me. After all, they came out of my mind. However, Tripp and I are very different. It’s true, he has my humor and he has my sarcasm, but young Howard wasn’t nearly that quick-witted or brave.
I remember once walking through the woods with my friends at night on a dare. For some reason, we started talking about Bigfoot, one of my favorite subjects. Inevitably, a chipmunk stepped on a branch, spooked us all, and my friends took off down the trail, leaving me frightened out of mind and unable to move.
Tripp would have run. Young Howard curled into a ball, fully expecting to end up as a Bigfoot burrito.
Now I know better. Bigfoot’s a vegetarian…duh.
As for all the other characters, they are variations on people I know or would like to know. I also have a soft spot in my heart for the differently abled, especially when they do heroic things. I was thrilled to be able to include people who aren’t quite what society considers the norm within the pages of Dead (a Lot).
What’s the most useful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
HO: I don’t mean to sound pompous, but the most useful piece of writing advice I’ve ever received came from me: Touch what you are writing every day. Don’t stop. Don’t second guess. Don’t apologize.
I have dozens and dozens of fifty-page false starts to novels that I gave up on because I got stuck on a particularly rough paragraph, or because I hit a wall in the plot.
If I had just muscled through, I think there might be a lot more Howard Odentz novels out there.
My mantra, as of late, is ‘touch it every day’. It seems to be working so far. I hope it continues to serve me well in the future.
Another inevitable question: What’s next for Howard Odentz?
HO: What’s next for me? Well I’m on a diet, so hopefully a slimmer me is on the horizon.
The farm is tough, but we raised sixteen beautiful Nigerian Dwarf goat kids this year, and I’m looking forward to having bouncing bundles of cuteness come again next season.
As far as writing, I’ve already completed the sequel to Dead (a Lot), tentatively titled Wicked Dead. Dead (a Lot) was meant to be a series so I’m hoping I’ll get a chance to see that come to fruition.
At the request of my agent, I wrote a third book called Bloody Bloody Apple that has nothing to do with zombies but everything to do with creepy Western Massachusetts. I’m hoping to see that in print, as well.
I’m writing my fourth novel now, trying to ‘touch it every day’. We’ve had some pretty awful weather up in my neck of the woods over the past few years, including a tornado, and an autumn snow storm that crippled the Northeast for over a week. Let’s just say I’m using the weather as my inspiration right now. My working title? Snow Bloody Snow.
I can’t get away from the horror no matter what I do.
I blame my mother.
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