Miss Demeanors is pleased to welcome reviewer, columnist, interviewer and author John Valeri, who hosts the YouTube show CENTRAL BOOKING, and who will share his tips with us being the perfect podcast guest:
Marni Graff: John, start us off and share your background and what made you a consummate reader. How did you get hooked on reading, and why and when did you zero in on crime?
John Valeri: Hi Marni! First, let me say a big thanks to the Miss Demeanors for braving a virtual visit from me. I’m thrilled to be in your presence.
I’ll admit that I was a bit of a reluctant reader (and an atrocious speller!) when I was very young. But I always loved having stories read to me, mostly by my mom, and spent many hours at the library—often bowed under the weight of a stack of books. As my confidence grew, so did my abilities. My love of mysteries came with the discovery of Nancy Drew; I remember receiving a boxed set of paperbacks one Christmas and then collecting them obsessively for years after, from those old blue hardcovers with the orange silhouettes on the cover that I would hunt down at antique shops, flea markets, and used bookstores to the new releases from our local Kmart (this was the early 90s, and there were multiple series—the Nancy Drew Files, the Nancy Drew Mysteries, Nancy Drew on Campus, those crossovers with the Hardy Boys—with a new release each month). Then, as a middle schooler, I progressed to the more adult stylings of America’s “Queen of Suspense,” Mary Higgins Clark. I still remember my first, which was procured at a tag sale: All Around the Town. There was no turning back after that. I always tell people that Nancy Drew was my “gateway” book, and that MHC made me a lifer. (I was also obsessed with Murder, She Wrote and Clue, which I still think is one of the campiest, cleverest films ever.). I think I’ve always been taken with the puzzle of it all—and not just the whodunit but the how and the why. Just call me Citizen Sleuth!
MG: We first met in your home state of Connecticut at a Louise Penny event you were covering for your Hartford Books Examiner column, one James Patterson called “a haven for finding great new books” that you wrote for eight years. What worlds did that expose you to?
JV: Writing that column was life-changing! I literally earned pennies doing it—sometimes partial pennies—and yet found myself rich in experience. When I first proposed the topic of books, I didn’t know if there would be enough interest to sustain it. (Everybody else was writing about “sexy” things like celebrity gossip, movies, music, sports, television, and video games.) To my surprise, I was soon being queried! It was a complete reversal from when I started. From first-time authors to blockbuster bestsellers like Louise Penny and James Patterson, I was constantly awed and humbled by the people who were willing to talk with me (or email with me) about their books. The community at large—and crime writers specifically—is incredibly generous. I learned that it never hurts to ask a question or extend an invitation.
This led to other opportunities, such as moderating authors/panels, appearing on local television, facilitating library discussions, and helping to organize events. And when Examiner.com went defunct, I realized there were other forums I might be able to contribute to (like Mystery Scene Magazine, The Strand, Criminal Element, etc.). It’s now been nearly fifteen years and I’ve met many wonderful people—not just readers and writers, but booksellers, librarians, and publicists—some of whom have become dear friends … like you!
And a quick story about that Louise Penny event. The year prior, I had met her at the same bookstore (Madison’s famed R.J. Julia), a big stack of her Three Pines/Gamache books in my arms for signing. I’m still not sure what possessed me, but I admitted to not yet having read any of them. A year later, she somehow remembered that and asked me—in front of an audience (and entirely good-naturedly)—if I’d rectified the error of my ways. Thankfully, I had.
MG: I call you the “Mystery Man” as that’s the role you have as a recurring guest on the popular podcast “Book Cougars,” with Chris Wolak and Emily Fine. Do they allow you to choose who you’ll be talking about on each show?
JV: Chris and Emily are totally bookalicious! Warm, wise, witty, well-read. (Can you tell I love alliteration?) It’s such an honor to be their “Mystery Man,” not to mention a real good time. We laugh a lot when we record. Which probably makes editing a real bi— … well, you know. They’re wonderful about letting me select the books I discuss on the show. These are usually recently published or forthcoming titles to keep things timely, and occasionally we try to tie my appearances in with an occasion or event, but otherwise anything goes. I’ve talked about everything from cozies and historicals to true crime and YA. If you haven’t yet checked out their podcast, I highly recommend it. They read broadly, aren’t afraid to share their opinions, and are as entertaining and enthusiastic as they are informative. It’s infectious. MEOWWW! I’m such a fanboy. (And no, they didn’t pay me to say that.)
MG: I know you moderate author events and book discussions throughout Connecticut. You also help to plan CrimeCONN, co-sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America New York Chapter. Do these events lead you to find your show guests for CENTRAL BOOKING,or do you invite authors whose books you’ve read for review and enjoyed?
JV: When I began the show—much like when I first began writing the Hartford Books Examiner column—it was with authors I was familiar with from my own pleasure reading and/or previous work. You need that comfort level as you endeavor to try something new. (Or at least I do.) But, as with the column, I soon found myself discovering, and being pitched, new-to-me authors and books. I’ve tried to incorporate as many of these as circumstances allow. Doing so keeps things fresh and affords me the opportunity to expand my areas of knowledge and interest. Alas, it’s never quite as much as I’d like. (And now for that familiar refrain: So many books, so little time!) While the show is crime centric, I’ve also interviewed children’s authors, doctors, historians, journalists, lawyers, poets, therapists, you name it. My reading is far more eclectic than most people would probably expect, and I try to be at least somewhat representative of that. But there will always be a preponderance of mayhem, mystery, and murder!
MG: Let’s zero in on Central Booking. What makes someone a good guest for the show? Do you have any tips for writers who might be invited on your show or similar ones?
JV: If you love talking about books and the people who write them (whether yourself or others), you’d probably make for a good guest.
Central Booking came about from a desire to stay engaged with the writing community during times of Covid (and caretaking). My ability to do in-person events had already begun to decline when the pandemic hit, and I found myself really missing that sense of connectedness and camaraderie. Technology such as Zoom made it possible to reconnect despite social distancing. Though I’ve barely left my house since 2020, I’ve found myself in homes across the country and beyond … Africa, Canada, the UK. Who woulda thunk it?
Here are a few commonsense tips for authors venturing into the virtual realm:
- If you’re unfamiliar with the technology, experiment with it prior to recording.
- Remember that you are representing your book/brand and dress accordingly (if video recording vs. voice-only). Business casual is usually fine. (I typically wear a button-down shirt. And pajama pants—because nobody sees lower than my shoulders!)
- Have good lighting—preferably artificial, as nature plays by its own rulebook. (I failed to realize that one of my early guests was backlit by sunlight only. As the night progressed, he gradually began to fade into darkness until all that was left to be seen was the whites of his eyes. Oops!)
- Mute/silence your phone(s) and other devices (including open computer tabs, such as email) so that you’re not bombarded with blips, dings, and rings.
- Find a comfortable, clean (or minimally cluttered) space in which to record. (True confession: I record in what I refer to as “Studio B”—which is really my bathroom, with a bookish shower curtain as a backdrop.)
- Be mindful of animals, children, spouses, etc. Interruptions can be inevitable (and who doesn’t love a fur baby cameo?) but proactivity goes a long way toward minimizing major upheaval.
- Have your book on display, or readily avail to brandish, if possible.
- Establish any time constraints/parameters prior to recording.
- Feel free to ask for questions/discussion topics in advance. While most people welcome spontaneity, there are those who prefer to do their own prep. prior to recording and your host will happily accommodate when able.
- Always offer more than a “yes” or “no” response (unless specifically asked for a “yes” or “no” response) to keep the conversation flowing freely—even if it means building upon what was asked.
- If you say or do something you think better of, feel free to ask for a do over and/or for it to be edited out (assuming the interview is pre-recorded).
- Expect that you’ll be asked for reading recommendations and/or advice re: craft. (You’d be surprised at how many people are taken aback when one, or both, of these topics comes up. Just goes to show that the obvious, like common sense, isn’t always that.)
- Do your part to promote the interview (provided you’re happy with how it turned out). It’s become increasingly difficult to get traction, so any help is appreciated—and benefits you as much as it does your host. While self-promotion can be awkward, it’s also necessary. Unless you’re Stephen King. And if you’re talking to me, you’re probably not Stephen King (yet!). 😉
But the most important thing is to be genuine. Show enthusiasm. Engage wholeheartedly. These things translate, and viewers (aka potential readers) will form opinions based on them. If they like you and/or find you interesting, they’ll be more likely to explore your books and recommend them to others. Cliched as it may be, you are not simply selling your book(s). You are selling yourself. Apologies if this makes it sound like pimping.
MG: Was there a learning curve on how to tape and edit for that show? How do you regulate the flow of information?
JV: Honestly? I’m pretty much a Luddite when it comes to technology. So … it’s been a constant learning curve! Everything about the show is very basic and straightforward. I tend not to do heavy editing or fancy effects. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that I don’t like having to see, or listen, to myself. (Or maybe I’m just lazy?) I want the conversation to be the focal point, and my goal is to go in-depth with my guests. I don’t just want to hear about your new book, but about you and your background and everything that led up to it. I want the story behind the story. While I do prepare in advance—reading the book, researching the author, developing questions—I’m always striving for a casual, comfortable conversation in which I am simply a conduit through which others share their message. I tend to have an affinity for books written by people I “know,” and I want my audience to have that same experience of feeling like a story is enhanced by virtue of their familiarity with its author—if only through a lens or screen.
MG: It sounds like you put an lot of prep time into each show. Who were some of your favorite guests?
JV: I’d rather pick a favorite child! (I can say that because I don’t have any. Just don’t ask about the cats.) Each guest has provided unique insights and brought me unmitigated joy. I feel like I’m a sponge—or a bobble head, given the amount of time I spend nodding—trying to absorb all the gems of wisdom that have been proffered. (This might explain the urge people have to squeeze me.) But I will say that, in retrospect, it was pinch-worthy to interview Maureen Johnson. She writes the Stevie Bell mysteries, ostensibly for teens—but also for the young at heart (like me!). The first book of hers I read, The Box in the Woods, was her fourth to feature the character but a standalone novel whereas the earlier entries comprised the Truly Devious trilogy. It reminded me of why I fell in love with reading to begin with; it was like discovering a new generation’s Nancy Drew, albeit a more realistic and progressive version (in terms of diversity/inclusivity). I fell so hard and fast that I then read the first three books back-to-back-to-back, deadlines be damned. I can’t remember the last time that happened, if ever. So having the opportunity to share the Zoom-iverse with her was a bit surreal. (Thank you, Megan Beatie, publicist extraordinaire, for the opportunity!)
Oh! I’ve also twice interviewed Sharon Hampson and her daughter, Randi—Sharon of the iconic singing trio Sharon, Lois & Bram. If you watched Nickelodeon during the late 80s/early 90s, you know them from The Elephant Show. They were basically the Beatles for kids, and I still listen to their holiday album every year. Though Lois passed away in 2015, Randi has ensured that the group’s legacy lives on through a variety of projects which appeal to generations of families, from children to grandparents. These now include two children’s books based on Sharon, Lois & Bram’s most beloved songs (“Skinnamarink,” anyone?), with more to come. I cannot tell you how instrumental they were throughout my formative years, so to have those moments of real time, face-to-face interaction—albeit through a computer—left the little kid inside me jumping up and down. I mean, it was Sharon!
MG: You’re a published author in so many areas and publications, from columns, interviews, and articles, but you also have a fiction story under your belt. Share how you came to turn to your own writing, and do you have more stories in your pipeline?
JV: I sure hope so! I published two short stories—“Just Cause” and “Blood Relations”—in an anthology, Tricks and Treats: A Collection of Spooky Stories by Connecticut Authors, that was published in 2016. The first was a (not so) subtle ode to Marcia Clark—more on that soon!—and the second an homage to teen slasher films like Scream. But I am a reader first. And a lot has happened since I wrote those stories. I became a full-time caretaker to my mom. My brother died. We’re living through a pandemic. Books have always been my escape, my safe space—and perhaps more so now than ever. If I have to choose between reading and writing, reading wins. Every time. The majority of my writing time, then, is spent reviewing books or profiling authors. Each piece is intended as an expression of gratitude in acknowledgment of the immense gift that stories, and the people who tell them, have been to me. Having said all that: Stay tuned …
MG: Finally, can you recommend some crime authors you think readers might not be aware of and would enjoy? And along with that, whose books are on your own Top Ten list that you automatically know you’re going to read when they have a new one out?
JV: Anybody who knows me can see where this is going. I’ve been recommending Marcia Clark—yes, that Marcia Clark (prosecutor in the “Trial of the (last) Century”)—since her very first crime novel, Guilt by Association, was published in 2011. (She has a new standalone, The Fall Girl, out this year—the perfect entry point for the uninitiated!) Not only does her experience as a trial attorney and media personality give the books authenticity and gravitas, but she is a master of jaw-dropping plot twists, sharp dialog, and gut-busting humor. Funnily enough, you can see the roots of her crime fiction in her trial memoir, Without a Doubt, which may very well be my favorite book of all-time. As a twelve-year-old, I had unrepentant hero worship for Marcia Clark. Then, I met her when she launched Guilt by Association in Connecticut seventeen years later. We’ve been friends ever since. It’s been one of the greatest, most unexpected delights of my life. And it never would have happened without books!
I do have many “must read” authors whose books go straight to the top of my TBR pile(s). I’ve already mentioned Mary Higgins Clark (whose tradition continues via co-author Alafair Burke), but I’ve also been reading the likes of Patricia Cornwell, Tess Gerritsen, Lisa Gardner, and Wendy Corsi Stab for decades now. (I must have started really young!) And the Queen of Crime, Dame Agatha Christie, of course! I’ve also been getting into Sherlock Holmes recently.
But that list expands all the time, Other favorites, many of whom have appeared on Central Booking (or been otherwise harassed by me), include: the aforementioned Maureen Johnson, Anthony Horowitz, Chevy Stevens, Caroline Kepnes, Alison Gaylin, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Liz Mugavero/Cate Conte, Lisa Unger, Jon Land, Cleo Coyle, Karen Katchur, Emily Arsenault, C.J. Tudor, Sophie Hannah, Leslie Meier, Edwin Hill, Richard Chizmar, James Patterson, M.K. Graff(!) …
A few new(er) names to crime fiction: Yasmin Angoe, Zac Bissonnette, Oyinkan Braithwaite, Aaron Philip Clark, Heather Harper Ellett, Joey Hartstone, Meghan Holloway, Wanda M. Morris …
And can I brag on Connecticut for a moment? Here are just some of our literary luminaries, in no particular order (and not all mystery): The late Donald & Renee Paley-Bain, Luanne Rice, Chris Knopf, Jill Fletcher, Michelle Clark, Marjorie Drake, James Benn, Tom Straw, David Handler, Roberta Isleib/Lucy Burdette, Ang Pompano, Christine Falcone, Karen E. Olson, Megan Collins, Shari Randall/Meri Allen, Deborah Goodrich Royce, Wendy Walker, Penny Goetjen, Chandra Prasad, David Rich, Tessa Wegert, Liv Constantine, Mark Dressler, Lynn Sheft, Susan Israel, Dan Pope, Steve Liskow, William Curatolo, Lori Avocato, Kathy Orzech, Susan Strecker, Nan Rossiter, Kristan Higgins, Sari Rosenblatt, Wally Lamb, Susan Kietzman, Jamie Beck, Matthew Dicks, Korina Moss, Jamie K. Schmidt, Laura Thoma, R.C. Goodwin, Jane Green, Suzanne Palmieri/Suzanne Hayes, Stacey Longo, Dan Foley, Kristi Petersen Schoonover, Ryanne Strong/Teresa George, G. Elmer Munson, Walter Quinn, Heather Webb, Gabi Coatsworth, Phil Hall, Taryn Balchunas, Sarah Prager, Benjamin Thomas, Rhonda Lane, Marian Lanouette, Rosemary Harris, Lisa Saunders, Judy Mandel, Courtney Maum, Dani Shapiro, V.P. Morris, Mark Rubinstein, P. Jo Anne Burgh, Lorien Lawrence …Special shout out to former Nutmegger and my “Sanity Sessions” friend, the immensely talented Melissa Crandall (our loss is Ohio’s gain).
I should just stop there. I’m sure I forgot somebody. Or, more likely, several somebodies. Which means if I go missing—or, God forbid, something worse—you now have a possible motive and a state’s worth of suspects.
MG: John, thank you for your sound advice and concrete tips for podcast guests, plus those grand author recommendations! You can find Central Booking on You Tube~