Joe Biden’s bid for the presidency threw a wrench into Cedar Rapids native Andrew Shaffer’s series of Obama/Biden mysteries. But Shaffer’s oeuvre has always been varied, and he was ready for a new challenge that was actually quite close to his heart: writing a horror novel.
In “Secret Santa,” we meet Lussi, a young woman from Cedar Rapids trying to make her way in publishing who lands a job at perhaps the creepiest publishing house ever. Shaffer delivers chills and laughs — he is fundamentally a comedic writer — in a story that leads into Halloween and Christmas like a good Tim Burton film.
Shaffer attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and studied comedy writing at The Second City, Chicago’s famed improv school. An Iowa native, Shaffer lives in Louisville, Kentucky, with his wife, novelist Tiffany Reisz.
Shaffer, who wrote “Hope Never Dies: An Obama Biden Mystery,” and the parody “Fifty Shames of Earl Grey,” answered questions via email about “Secret Santa,” the future of the Obama/Biden mysteries and his next project.
Q: You dedicate “Secret Santa” to a former College Community teacher who encouraged your writing by saying you could be the next Stephen King. Is there more to that story?
A: Every writer I know remembers the teachers who encouraged them along the way. One of mine happened to be Kathleen “Kate” Finn, my eighth-grade English teacher at what is now Prairie Point Middle School. I told her I’d dedicate my first book to her. She passed away at a very young age just a couple of years later. She was only 36 — just a devastating loss. My first book happened to be a book about the love lives of philosophers, which I decided was not really the appropriate book one dedicates to their former middle school teacher.
Q: The thread that binds your disparate work is comedy rather than horror, but it sounds like you’ve had a love for the horror genre for a long time. What appeals to you about the genre and who, besides Stephen King, would you cite as influences?
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A: Like most readers of my generation, I was scarred early on by the middle-grade series “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.” I moved on pretty quickly to harder fare, like Stephen King, Clive Barker and John Saul. I found horror exhilarating, like going on a roller coaster. It could get your adrenaline going. It was even better than a roller coaster, though, because I didn’t have to leave my house (except to go to the Fairfax library for more books, which was only a few blocks away at the time). So perfect for a thrill-seeking agoraphobe.
Q: Most horror novels — at least those I have read — have an understandably grim tone. What were the challenges of blending humor and horror? How did you find the best balance?
A: I’m not a huge fan of grim horror. There’s enough grimness in the world, isn’t there? We all read for different reasons, but for me reading is an escape. My favorite horror films and novels always have had flashes of humor. It’s the author winking at the reader, letting you know everything’s going to be all right — until they pull the rug out from under you. It’s not an easy trick to pull off without coming off as corny. I lean into it a little in “Secret Santa,” because the book is set in the ’80s, which were an absolutely corny decade on many levels.
Q: What were the origins of this particular story? What was the impetus for a holiday themed comedy/horror novel and how did Lussi emerge as your protagonist?
A: My editor at Quirk Books was toying with doing a Christmas horror novel, but hadn’t found the right author for it. I mentioned that I’m a huge Christmas nerd, and “write a horror novel” was on my bucket list. The book didn’t click until I found Lussi’s voice, however — my books might have wild plots, but at their core they’re all character-driven. Lussi is a fish out of water — she’s from Cedar Rapids, and living her dream of working in New York publishing, which turns out to be less glamorous than she’d imagined. Lussi is the most Midwestern protagonist I’ve ever written. She boasts about her accomplishments at one point, and is immediately overcome with remorse and humility. This is really the story of someone learning that if they want something, they have to come out and ask for it. I find that it goes against everything we’re taught, as Iowans. New Yorkers are very direct.
Q: If Joe Biden is elected president, does that make it more or less likely we will see new entries in your Obama/Biden mystery series? Can Joe keep solving crimes from the Oval Office?
A: My original plot for the third book was for it to be set in Tombstone, Ariz. A Wild West third act, a nod to “Back to the Future.” At the end, Obama and Biden were going to ride off on horseback into the sunset together, to enjoy their retirement. Joe Biden threw a wrench into those plans, obviously. A mystery set in the White House — or on the campaign trail in a coronavirus-ravaged country — doesn’t have the same appeal to me. We’ll see what happens, though. This is 2020, so I’ve learned to stop trying to make plans. Or wear pants.
Q: What is your next project?
A: I’m publishing a full-length collection of humorous poetry in June of next year — “Look Mom I’m a Poet (and So is My Cat).” My poems are more like SNL’s Deep Thoughts than Dylan Thomas or whoever. I’ve been writing poetry for decades, but only recently started sharing it. Actually, that’s not entirely true — I did read a few of my poems at an open mic at the Collins Road Barnes & Noble once. They went over like a fart in church. I was politely asked to leave.
Q: No touring for the new book, I’m guessing?
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A: I won’t be going on a traditional book tour for this book, but I hope to return to Iowa once we’re on the other side of the pandemic. I haven’t been back to Iowa since before March, so I haven’t seen the derecho’s path of destruction. Every single friend and family member had some sort of house or yard damage. Unimaginable, even though I’ve seen the photos. When you add the surge in coronavirus cases and the general election — which may be in November, but I expect it to be dragged out with court cases and disputes — the next few months aren’t going to be easy. The holidays will be different. I hope everyone stays safe. Maybe Santa can take the year off. Can you imagine a worse superspreader than a guy slipping into every home in the world in one night?