Chris Knopf is a very busy man. Not only is he the CEO and CCD of Mintz & Hoke, he’s also the author of eight murder mysteries. His latest is Black Swan.
I wish I knew. As long as I can write them and Marty and Judy Shepard at Permanent Press will publish them. In advertising, agencies and clients get tired of their campaigns before consumers do. Do you think you’ll get tired of Sam before your readers?
Permanent Press endorsed the notion that Sam Acquillo would evolve in the series, not be a relatively static protagonist, like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, Parker’s Spenser or Lee Child’s Jack Reacher – my three favorite series, as it turns out (never practice what you preach). Consequently, I never tire of Sam, because I’m always many steps ahead, in my mind, of where he’s going as a person. Anyway, do you tire of your favorite crazy uncle?
Also, I have Jackie Swaitkowski to pick on with her series, and a character from a new standalone I’m working on, to give Sam a respite. I also moved him to a somewhat different locale in Black Swan, so that kept things fresh for me.
If I get tired of him, of course, I could always put the whole series up for review. Steal some creative ideas.
You’re a creative director. Most creative directors don’t have to run their work by anyone. Does it suck having to run your work by an agent and an editor?
I’m paraphrasing from a dumb homily about fathers. No one needs a bad editor, a good editor is priceless. You know as a copywriter that great creative direction often saves the baby, sometimes your baby. Humility is an important trait to learn in the creative game. Know when you’re getting good advice. Shut up and take it. It’s also important to know when the advice is not so good. That you can ignore, and the good editor will let you without complaint. Don’t forget, CD’s still have the client to contend with. Clients aren’t always swayed by, “I just don’t think I want to change the campaign direction. Sorry.”
Don’t they know you’re a creative director?
They do. They could care less. “Oh, you’re in advertising. Interesting. Now let’s talk about your book…”
If you had to run Black Swan by a terrible client for approval, would it have turned out differently?
Yes. I wouldn’t have had a good review in the New York Times. And I would go into another line of artistic work. Probably ballet or painting miniature portraits of 19th century French Symbolists.
Banksy was quoted as saying, “The thing I hate the most about advertising is that it attracts all the bright, creative and ambitious young people, leaving us mainly with the slow and self-obsessed to become our artists. Modern art is a disaster area. Never in the field of human history has so much been used by so many to say so little.” How true or false does this ring in your opinion?
I think every era has its legitimate artists and self-appointed phonies. The former are in museums, the latter forgotten. Advertising attracts very talented people, but also people who aspire to no more than a nice life doing something that’s fun and not entirely mainstream. Publishing and Hollywood are filled with the same kind of folk. I think it’s fine and I’m glad for them. But there are also artists out there who really want to do something bigger than their selfish interest would require, and I’m grateful for them, and appreciate their sacrifice.
You can’t forget that everyone thought Van Gogh was both crazy (he was) and full of crap (he wasn’t). One of those seeming nutbags out there is the next Van Gogh. We just don’t know who he or she is, and sadly for them, they’ll probably die before they find out themselves.
How did publishing your first book compare to producing your first TV spot?
Since producing a TV spot, or driving a big campaign, is such a team sport, you can feel great when it hits the market, without necessarily feeling it was your own achievement. With a book, it’s really only you, with the help of your readers, mentors and editors. For me, publishing a book was a lifetime dream, preceding my work in advertising, so there’s that. Second to the birth of my son, no one thing has felt as rewarding.
What’s tougher––running an ad agency or writing a book?
Running an agency. Agencies are full of people with mortgages, kids to feed, tuitions to borrow, beer tabs to pay. If you fail as a novelist, you’re the only one who usually goes down.
Agencies also have millions of moving parts – parts with brains and emotions, often tempestuous ones. I like it, but real people will exhaust you far faster than the imaginary friends novelists play with inside theirs heads.
Do you think having a background in advertising makes it easier to kick out a book or is there no advantage?
A significant advantage. Copywriters totally get deadlines, we write under enormous pressure, we make stuff up out of nothing, our egos have been thoroughly pulverized, we can spend countless hours on our ass in front of a computer screen and are irredeemably insecure, paranoid and slaves to meager praise. Perfect profile for a novelist.
I also sincerely believe my career as a lousy student was perfect preparation for both jobs. It’s the night before the paper is due, you haven’t read the book yet and you slept through most of class, so you know nothing about the material, and at the moment you’re probably slightly drunk. Okay, start typing
Were you at all encouraged by the success of other ad peeps turned author when first starting out?
There haven’t been as many as you’d think, is what I’ve learned. Novelists seem to mostly come from academia or journalism. Some are the products of creative writing programs, like me, sort of. James Patterson is famously from the ad world, no surprise. You might know that Kurt Vonnegut was a PR man, Joseph Heller a creative director, F. Scott Fitzgerald a terrible copywriter. Hemingway dabbled in it as well, but also stunk. Better to be a former Pinkerton man, like Dashiell Hammet, or night clerk in a seedy hotel like Nathaniel West.
What feels better? Seeing people react to an ad you did or seeing them react to a book you wrote?
It’s equally pleasing. I don’t apply a hierarchy to the stuff I do. I never have. For better or worse, I feel as good about a bumper sticker as a 12-page brochure, as a :60 radio spot or a $500k TV commercial. You know as a copywriter these things all have their unique challenges. Fiction writing is the same. My joy is in the play of the language, for whatever purpose.
That said, the reward structure in advertising, mostly in the form of creative awards, is very similar to publishing, which has its own Cleos and One Shows. But authors also get reviews, and when they’re good, it feels like a million bucks. When they’re bad, it feels truly awful. What do you mean you don’t like my book? What’s wrong with you?