Florida author Jeff Strand is known for his quirky and demented blend of horror and comedy.
Romance, not so much.
At least not until July 1, when Strand unleashed a surprisingly poignant romantic comedy titled ‘Kumquat.’
Yes, that hardy fruit native to Asia, which looks like an olive-sized orange, is the title of one of the feel-good novels of 2014.
Strand writing a romantic comedy is not exactly a sign of the Apocalypse.
After all, readers of his Bram Stoker Award-nominated monster bromance ‘Dweller’ know Strand can write emotionally engaging relationship stories.
But ‘Dweller’ is about the decades-long friendship between a boy and a sharp-clawed Bigfoot-like creature with scenes of gory death.
‘Kumquat’ is about two affable strangers who connect at a film festival and find themselves on a zany road trip from Florida to Rhode Island to get a hot dog.
No creatures with sharp claws. No gory death.
‘Kumquat’ does feature Strand’s trademark wicked sense of humor, cutting the story with a sharper edge of reality than many mainstream rom-coms you see at your local Cineplex.
‘Kumquat’ also features two endearing characters named Todd and Amy. The fact one of them could die at any moment is just a minor obstacle to overcome.
With the release of ‘Kumquat’ and two young adult comedies, ‘A Bad Day for Voodoo’ and ‘I Have a Bad Feeling About This,’ readers may wonder: Is Strand shifting gears?
In an exclusive interview with the Huntsville Books Examiner, Strand answers that question and also discusses romance, the kumquat and addictive TV shows.
EXAMINER: Are you starting a new phase in your writing career?
STRAND: My next books after ‘Kumquat’ are ‘Wolf Hunt 2’ and a really deranged horror/comedy called ‘Facial,’ so it’s not a case of ‘I’m never looking back!’ With the young adult novels, it really was as simple as an editor saying, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about writing YA?’ The characters are teenagers, and I made my own decision to leave out the sex and cursing (nobody forced me to), but I really think that ‘A Bad Day for Voodoo’ and ‘I Have a Bad Feeling About This’ fit right in with the rest of my work. ‘Kumquat,’ meanwhile, just came from an urge I’d had for quite a while to do a mainstream novel. I don’t finish everything I start, and what tends to happen is that the horror/comedy stuff is contracted before it’s written, so I HAVE to finish it, while the others get ‘temporarily’ pushed aside. ‘Kumquat’ beat the odds and made it to the end. I can’t see myself giving up the funny horror stuff, but I really, really enjoyed writing this book and hope it sells well enough to justify doing more in this vein.
EXAMINER: ‘Kumquat’ is about two people who meet and decide to go on a road trip from Florida to Rhode Island for the sole purpose of eating a hot dog. What have you ever done that rivals their spontaneous trip?
STRAND: I drove from Arizona to Florida to be with the woman who has now been my wife for 17 years. We met at a convention but barely interacted there, so the relationship was almost exclusively online. This was in the mid-90s, long before you could have an online romance and not have it considered freakish. I included this fact in the author bio of my first published story, and my family said that it made me sound like an insane person.
EXAMINER: Todd and Amy have romantic scenes in ‘Kumquat,’ but their sometimes-awkward behavior or reactions in awkward moments keep the story from entering cheesy rom-com territory. Are relationships more romantic and real to you if you add a certain level of awkwardness to the mix?
STRAND: More romantic? Not necessarily. More real? Definitely. Being able to speak in eloquent, passionate monologues would be a handy tool in life, but I think that most readers can better relate to the occasional verbal gaffe. Todd and Amy are not larger than life romantic figures. Their love will not destroy kingdoms. I wanted to write about two people who have had an immediate and deep connection, but I wanted to leave out the parts where the reader rolls his or her eyes. And I try to do that for the tragic elements, too. In real life, funerals are sad, but there are also moments like being a pallbearer and thinking, ‘Wow, this casket is freakin' heavy!’ Amy is dying, so there's a cloud of doom over ‘Kumquat,’ but much of the book is about Todd and Amy being able to forget about this fact for a while.
EXAMINER: You seem surprised by the initial reaction of readers to ‘Kumquat.’ Many are genuinely moved by Todd and Amy's story, but you initially promoted ‘Kumquat’ as a wacky comedy.
STRAND: No, no, not surprised ... relieved! The book’s poignant elements were all intentional, and I wanted readers to be moved by it ... but it’s hard to predict! When I write a book like ‘Wolf Hunt’ that has lots of action and laughs, I can say pretty confidently that my fan base is going to enjoy it. But then I’ve got ‘Dweller,’ which is about a 50-year friendship between a man and a monster that lives in the woods behind his house. Will readers have any emotional investment in that? I put a lot of effort into making it work, but I really didn’t know until people started reading the book if I’d succeeded. Twenty-odd books in, it’s easy to say ‘Kumquat’ is a funny, wacky novel without worrying that everybody is going to shout, ‘You fool, that book is neither funny nor wacky!’ It’s much more difficult to say, ‘You’re going to fall in love with these characters, and you might even cry.’ Promotion-wise, I usually try to promise the baseline (‘It’s funny!’) and hope to deliver much more (‘It’s touching, too!’).
EXAMINER: ‘Kumquat’ is an odd name for a book, but it’s an odd fruit, too. How did that fruit become so important that you titled a book after it?
STRAND: I had my first kumquat in January 2013. It was pretty good, although it’s weird that you’re supposed to eat the peel, too. I didn’t think, ‘Now I must write a book about this!’ I just thought ‘Kumquat’ would be a funny name for a book, so I used it as the working title, planning to change it later. But then I did a non-scientific Facebook poll and found that most readers loved the title. I’m not saying that there aren’t people who go ‘Huh? WTF?’ but it’s a fun word to say, it’s thematically relevant, and it’s a quirky title that fits the tone of the book.
EXAMINER: The couple in ‘Kumquat’ share an affinity for a fictional TV show called ‘Exit Red.’ Do you share a passion for a TV show with anyone on a similar level?
STRAND: ‘Exit Red’ is a not-to-subtle nod to ‘Lost,’ but it can represent any serialized program with an intense following. For me, it was ‘Breaking Bad.’ A predictable answer, I know, but jeez, that show was good. I am a shameless ‘Survivor’ fanatic who devotes far more thought to which player might get voted out next than to current events. ‘Game of Thrones’ is incredible. In all three of those cases, my wife is a huge fan, too, which is convenient.