Saturday, September 24, 2011

His Story: Todd Ritter

One of the qualities I admire most in a writer is the ability to find a compelling story in the smallest thing, a throwaway detail, a otherwise unremarkable event. I met TODD RITTER at Thrillerfest this year. We were both part of the debut author class presenting to an auditorium of 700 thriller writers, readers, editors and agents, under pressure to use our precious allotted minutes to try to quickly hook the audience with our story.

TODD RITTER hooked everybody. A newspaper reporter by day, Todd told how two real-life events--a coffin turning up on the side of the road, and a typo in an obituary--gave him the idea for this first novel, DEATH NOTICE. (Imagine the possibilities of a story springboarding from these two points, then multiply by ten.)

Todd's second novel, BAD MOON, is coming out on October 11, and it comes from an equally enigmatic and tantalizing premise. Read about it below, along with how he initially resisted but finally answered the siren call of storytelling to become a novelist and how he is like a superhero.

How did you come to writing? Did you start writing shortly after emerging from the womb or did you come to it later in life?

I was lucky enough to grow up in a household that valued reading. My mother was never without a book. She read all the time. Even while watching TV. (To this day, I’m not sure how that’s possible, but she still does it.) So I was always a huge reader. There was something magical about falling completely into a world of words that someone else created, emerging hours later as if no time had passed.

With that reading experience under my belt, I guess the idea was always in the back of my head that I wanted to tell stories. I wanted to create a world that other people fell into. But it seemed like so much work! So over the years I dabbled in acting and playwrighting and screenwriting. Basically anything that didn’t require me to write hundreds and hundreds of pages. But I eventually came to terms with the fact that I needed to at least try to write a book.

Were you influenced to begin writing by any writers/books in particular?

As a child, I loved THE WESTING GAME and CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. I also loved Judy Blume and the Bunnicula books, and I devoured my mother’s set of Trixie Belden paperbacks. Then it was on to Agatha Christie, who for some odd reason was hugely popular with kids when I was in sixth and seventh grade.

Whose works do you most enjoy reading?

Louise Penny, Laura Lippman, Dennis Lehane, Stephen King. But I’m also a big fan of more literary works. Jeffrey Eugenides is amazing, as is Donna Tartt. One of my favorite books is SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS by Marisha Pessl, which, to my knowledge, is the only thing she’s ever written.

Tell us about your book.

My second book, BAD MOON, is about the present-day search for Charlie Olmstead, a boy who vanished during the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969. Police found his bike at the base of a waterfall behind his house and assumed he had drowned and been washed away.

Fast-forward 42 years and the boy’s brother, Eric, now a famous mystery writer, is back in town. His mother recently died and her final wish for him was to find out what happened to Charlie. For help, he enlists police chief Kat Campbell, his high school sweetheart, and Nick Donnelly, a former cop turned private investigator. Kat and Nick were two of the protagonists from my first book, DEATH NOTICE. And while much of the characters and setting are the same, BAD MOON isn’t really a sequel. It’s just another crazy case that falls in their lap. Needless to say, there’s more to Charlie’s disappearance than anyone ever suspected. Much more.

How the heck did you come up with the central idea/plot?

It came to me while I was watching a Discovery Channel documentary about the moon landings. There was a shot of a cute blonde kid waving a flag while watching the launch of Apollo 11. As soon as I saw it, a morbid question popped into my head: What would happen if that kid vanished? The story eventually grew from there.

At what point in the writing process did you think you might give up on it? Were you most inspired? What kept you going through the long dark nights?

Um, would it be bad if I said the entire time? Probably, but I’m just being honest. BAD MOON was tough to write, for several reasons. First was the fact that I was contractually obliged to finish it by a certain date. I had never, ever written something so large and unwieldy under pressure of a deadline. So that was hard for me to get accustomed to.

Second was the way I structured the story. It starts in 1969 before jumping to 2011. The rest of the book is the characters digging up what happened during those intervening 42 years. That’s a large chunk of time, and the characters uncover a lot of secrets and lies and deceptions. It was a challenge, which is what kept me going. I’m nothing if not stubborn, so I decided I was going to finish that book or die trying.

What have you read lately that you love and think everyone on the planet should read?

I already mentioned SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS by Marisha Pessl. It’s brilliant in every respect.

What have you read that, surprisingly, didn’t grab you?

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. Everyone in the world has read it and loved it, so I know I’m alone in this. But it didn’t grab me. I think I gave up around page 75. Maybe I’ll try again at some point.

What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about yourself since getting published? The most unexpected?

I’ve learned that being a published writer is strange. A good kind of strange. But it’s still odd to receive e-mails from people who read and loved my work. Or sign copies of a book with my name and picture on it. And at readings and panels, it still floors me that people actually want to hear what I have to say.
My life hasn’t changed much since being published. I’m still just a working stiff, commuting to my job every day. I still do dishes and take out the trash and crash on the couch to watch Modern Family and 30 Rock. The only difference is that now I have far less free time than I used to.

In a way, I feel like a superhero with a secret life. Todd Ritter, Average Joe by day, crime writer at night.

Todd Ritter was born and raised in rural Pennsylvania. An editor and journalist for more than 15 years, Todd began his career as a film critic while attending Penn State University. Currently, he works for The Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s largest daily newspaper and a three-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. His first mystery, DEATH NOTICE, was released last year by Minotaur Books. His second, BAD MOON, will be published on October 11. Visit his website at

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