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Interview: Sholly Fisch

Sholly Fisch has what you’d call varying interests. His credits include books for adults and children, from comics to educational texts. His children’s book Get in Gear was named as a finalist for the Royal Society’s Aventis Prize for best children’s science book of 2003. In addition, Sholly has written over one hundred stories and features for comic books, as well as television scripts, short stories, magazine articles, and material for the World Wide Web. He’s always writing. It is his gift. It is his curse.

And if that wasn’t enough, he’s a developmental psychologist and former vice president at Sesame Workshop (a.k.a. Children’s Television Workshop) – you know, Muppets. Muppets!

Sholly was kind enough to take some time out to talk about his work on his upcoming Ghostbusters novel for iBooks Publishing, Ghostbusters: The Return.

Proton Charging: So. Where are you from… originally?

Sholly Fisch: I am an NJ native – all jokes about toxic spills and the Sopranos aside. I was born about six blocks from where I live now, which just goes to show that you never know where you’ll wind up.

PC: You’re what I like to call “busy”.

SF: I usually do way too many things at the same time. At the moment, my current writing projects include lots of comic book stuff for the kids’ line at DC Comics – Looney Tunes, Scooby-Doo, Powerpuff Girls, and the about-to-be-relaunched Cartoon Network Block Party – as well as dialogue for a Disney-based video game, and a recently-published academic book, “Children’s Learning from Educational Television: Sesame Street and Beyond.” I also work as an educational consultant for various companies that produce educational media for kids; currently, the list includes places like WNET/Thirteen, Scholastic, and Noggin, among others.

PC: I guess the first question I just have to ask would be, how did you get involved in the GB novel?

SF: It was the darnedest thing. In the middle of night, I was visited by a spectral apparition draped in slime and marshmallow goop. It hovered at the foot of my bed and intoned, “You! You shall write a novel! A novel about the Ghostbusters!”

To which my wife replied, “He’s downstairs writing” and went back to sleep.

Actually, iBooks approached me. The book’s editor, Steve Roman, and I have been friends for more decades than I care to remember. I’d written a novel and some stories for iBooks previously. So when the GB project came up, and he needed someone who could blend horror and humor, he thought of me. I guess there aren’t a lot of people out there who’ve written stories for both Clive Barker’s Hellraiser and Looney Tunes.

PC: Early rumblings are that the first book deals with urban legends. Are we talking New York classics like mole people, albino alligators, and so on, or urban legends in general like Spring Heeled Jack or The Jersey Devil?

SF: The folks at iBooks suggested that it might be fun to do “something with urban legends,” although they gave me complete freedom to decide what that “something” would be. Since I’ve long had an interest in that sort of thing, I readily agreed. The other major plotline, in which Venkman runs for mayor of New York, was my idea. When you see it in context, it’ll be a lot less far-fetched than it sounds… especially in the wake of Governor Schwarznegger.

Mostly, the legends in the book are the classic sorts of urban legends that have been compiled by researchers like Jan Harold Brunvand – I tried to hit most of the biggies, plus a few that are a little more obscure. But as the threat grows over the course of the book, you’ll see that I branched out a bit too.

PC: When you took on the project, were you a fan of the movies?

SF: I absolutely loved the first movie when it came out. I enjoyed the second one too, although I continue to think the first one’s better. In fact, when I was in my late twenties, my co-workers used to chuckle endlessly at the fact that I wore a gaudy plastic Slimer watch to work every day – on the days when I wasn’t wearing my Dick Tracy two-way wrist communicator watch, of course.

PC: Did you find yourself turning to the films for reference?

SF: Fortunately, Steve Roman is a big fan of the movies too. So he reached into his personal collection of GB stuff and lent me DVDs of the two films, plus a copy of the annotated script for the first movie. Sony supplied the novelizations of the two movies, which fleshed out bits of detail here and there. Since the terms of our license from Sony put the book in continuity with the two movies and novelizations (as opposed to the cartoons, comics, etc.), that gave me what I needed to get started.

Since then, I’ve re-watched the films several times – first to refresh myself on everything, and then to pick out details like different characters’ speech patterns, the layout of the offices, the color of the ion streams, etc., etc. When I was in the tail end of writing the manuscript, Steve also sent me a very helpful document compiled by some Ghostbusters fans, which laid out a lot of the technicalities in copious detail. That helped me make sure that I had the readings on the gauges right, and that I knew the difference between a Class III and Class IV manifestation.

In the course of it all, I discovered something that you guys probably already know, but I hadn’t realized before: There’s some inconsistency in what things are called or how they work, depending on which version of Ghostbusters you’re looking at. So, for example, even though their car is called Ecto-1 a lot of the time, the script for the first movie refers to it consistently as the Ectomobile – and I decided to go with that as the definitive source. (Besides, I thought “Ectomobile” sounded snazzier anyway.)

PC: Cars called the something-mobile is a very exclusive club. Besides the Ectomobile, I can only think of three others.

SF: And you’re probably not counting my old Toyota Corolla, which some friends of mine dubbed the “Shollymobile.”

PC: For a movie that’s equal parts horror, comedy, and science-fiction, was it tough to get the same tone in novel form? Were there elements you favoured more?

SF: Nah. As I said earlier, I write in all those genres anyhow. Besides, in real life, I tend to be kind of tongue-in-cheek and sarcastic/sardonic anyway – or at least that’s what you’d call it in polite company – so that attitude often bleeds into my writing, no matter what I’m doing.

I did threaten Steve repeatedly with the idea of titling the book “My Dinner with Slimer” and featuring a 300-page conversation in gibberish between Slimer and the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. But in the end, my better judgment got the best of me. Still, maybe if the novel franchise continues long enough…

PC: Wallace Shawn has to make an appearance – even if he just shows up at the end and yells, “Inconceivable!”

SF: Funny – Steve thought the idea was pretty inconceivable, too…

PC: Was there a particular character you really enjoyed writing?

SF: Not really – I actually enjoyed all of them. Unfortunately, though, I recently found out that you’ll never see a bunch of new characters that I loved, even though they only appeared for a moment. As an in-joke, I included a brief cameo by a few characters who were parodies of other ghostbusting teams, ranging from Buffy to Kolchak the Night Stalker. But even though they were parodies, Sony cut just about all of them for fear of getting sued. Alas.

PC: Truely alas – it would have inspired fanfic authors for years.

How have you approached the franchise, time-wise? For example, the Extreme Ghostbusters cartoon had the original Ghostbusters come back as if the story had started in 1984 and just kept going. The recent comic series has dialed the clock forward, picking up just after the first movie, but it’s the present.

SF: The nice thing about doing this in books or comics is that you don’t have to worry about how much your actors have aged. So I have indeed dialed the clock forward, to set it in the present without having to worry about middle-aged (or even borderline senior citizen) Ghostbusters. It’s present-day, but a year or two after GB2.

PC: I once got to talk to Diane Carey about working on Star Trek novels. Her biggest complaint was that when you wrote a novel based on a franchise, you had to clean up the loose ends the TV writers never had to worry about, especially when it came to technology – what just worked and sounded good on TV later had to be explained in print, usually by some other poor soul. We all know Dan Ayrkoyd is a bit of a tech-head, but certainly no time was spent explaining a backpack sized particle collider – did you find yourself having to scientifically explain the tech magic from the movies?

SF: Not really, because I focused more on characters, action, and humor than on the tech itself. Basically, I just stuck to the already-established tech without explaining it a whole lot.

On the other hand, my ever-helpful wife and I did do a bunch of research on landmarks and the workings of New York City government, so that everything would feel authentic.

PC: Currently it appears that the book series is going for at least three novels, we hope. We know a bit about what the first one is about. Where will the next two head?

SF: Good question. Someone else is writing the second one, so I have no idea what it’ll be about. But there are some events in my novel that have repercussions beyond just this one book, so I suspect they’ll influence whatever happens next.

As to how many books there will be, well, I gather there are various business considerations that will determine the final word on that one. But I do have another GB idea or two, so I’ve got my fingers crossed — you never know what might happen down the line.

PC: You, and I mean this in the best possible sense, are a bit of an Egon. You have a doctorate and you’ve written science texts aimed at everyone from academics to kids. Can you talk a bit about your science credentials?

SF: Gee, I’ve always thought of myself as more of a Slimer.

Actually, you’re probably right, although personality-wise, I’m a lot more like Ray. I’ve got a Ph.D. in developmental psychology and a nearly 20-year career in educational media for kids – a former VP at the Children’s Television Workshop (now called Sesame Workshop) and currently a consultant for lots of companies that do that sort of thing.

Over the years, I’ve worked on a lot of science-based stuff and reviewed grant proposals for places like the National Science Foundation. In the UK, one of my children’s books was a finalist for the Royal Society’s prize for best children’s science book of the year. It didn’t win, unfortunately, but it did get me an invitation to a black-tie dinner at the British Science Museum, where the other attendees included a couple of Members of Parliament and Stephen Hawking. So I can’t complain.

PC: You also write about the fantastic a lot, from comics to the busters. What is it you like most about writing about things that fall outside science and into science-fiction? Do you find yourself trying to bring a little more science fact to the mix?

SF: Mostly, I write this stuff because it’s just plain fun. And getting to play with characters whom I loved for years and years – whether it’s Batman or Bugs Bunny or the Ghostbusters – is kind of a hoot. I am constantly grateful to be in the position of having jobs that are essentially hobbies that people pay me money for.

As for science fact vs. fiction, it depends on the project. Some years back, I created and wrote an action-adventure science fiction comics series for 321 Contact Magazine that also taught kids about astronomy. In that case, I used a lot of real science. At other times, I’ve worried less about the science and stuck to a wonderful piece of advice that an old editor friend of mine, Craig Anderson, gave me years ago: “Don’t write about outer space. Write about people in outer space.”

PC: How does one get from academics to writing Gen 13? What advice can you offer to Ghostbusters fans who want to get into comics or writing in general?

SF: As with everything, an awful lot of it comes down to a magical combination of divine intervention and being in the right place at the right time. Naturally, you need to work hard at developing your skills and learning about structure, characterization, pacing, etc., etc. And you need to keep writing and writing and writing, since it’s the only way to really improve. But no matter how good you are, if you approach an editor or publisher at a time when they’re not looking for stuff – or if they’re looking for something else – it’s hard to get through the door.

I wouldn’t be writing today, or at least publishing, if I hadn’t taken a menial file clerk job at Marvel Comics 20 years ago. And I wouldn’t be working in educational media if I hadn’t done an unpaid summer internship at the Children’s Television Workshop a couple of years later. Doing that stuff helped me to meet people, allowed them to see my work, and helped me know when a particular editor was looking for stories for a particular series. So I’m always a big proponent of internships or other opportunities to get some inside experience. It’ll teach you more about how these things work than anything else will.

PC: Part of good writing seems to be good reading. What inspired you over the years as a writer that you’d readily recommend to other readers?

SF: My tastes are pretty wide-ranging and (ahem) eclectic. For example, over the past month or so, I’ve read a couple of mysteries, a book on freelance writing, a several-hundred-year-old Talmudic text, an autobiographical book about the Monty Python troupe, and a couple dozen comic books. All of it becomes grist for the mill and inspires me in various ways. Some because of subject matter, and some because of the writing itself – teaching me something about characterization or dialogue or style or whatever.

A few good books about writing: Any of Lawrence Block’s three books on writing, but especially Telling Lies for Fun and Profit – and I love his dozens of novels too. Or, in the realm of comics, Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art. For anecdotal stuff and insight into the movie biz, William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade. And although it’s a book about a writer rather than writing, John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. But in general, read what you like – and then study it to figure out what you like about it.

PC: What would you say it is about the movie that makes it interesting to audiences year after year?

SF: People love marshmallows. Even giant ones.

If I knew, I’d duplicate it and be rich. But I guess it’s all the obvious stuff – talented cast and crew, good effects, thrills and chills, and funny as – you should pardon the expression – hell.

If people feel half as strongly about the book, I’ll feel very flattered.

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