Trivia question: what do Aretha Franklin, Peter Criss (Kiss drummer), Chris Noth (of Law and Order fame), and Bill Cosby all have in common?
Answer: they've all collaborated and co-written with this week's interviewee, Charles Kipps.
You may not think you know Charles Kipps, but trust me, you know Charles Kipps, because he’s left his mark on so many genres. In the 1970s, he had seven Gold records, working with such artists as Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, and David Ruffin. He was one half of the acclaimed songwriting duo of McCoy/Kipps. In 1980, disillusioned with the corporate direction that the music industry was beginning to take, he began writing for television and the movies. His TV credits include Little Bill (Nickelodeon), Fatherhood (Nickelodeon), The Cosby Mysteries (NBC), Columbo (ABC), and Law & Order: Criminal Intent (NBC). With Noth, he co-wrote the only Law and Order movie, entited Exiled: A Law and Order Movie. In addition, Kipps co-wrote with Bill Cosby the movie Fat Albert.
For that work, Kipps has won and Emmy, a Peabody, and an Edgar award. But he has since turned his attention to books. He is the author of two nonfiction books, Out of Focus and Cop Without a Badge. His new novel, out in September, is Crystal Death, the second in a series based on police officer Conor Bard (the first was Hell’s Kitchen Homicide). Kipps counts law enforcement officers among his friends, and he hangs around them a lot. As a result, his books have been lauded for their accurate portrayal of law enforcement, most notably their dialogue.
I talked with Kipps recently about his long and varied career across so many genres. Before you read the interview, watch Kipps discuss how he develops his characters:
How did you start out as a writer?
According to my mother, I was writing poems when I was nine. I was a basketball player in high school, but I was also the editor of Inkslinger magazine as we called it. I wrote short stories and poems there. Even in high school, I knew that I wanted to write books and write for television. But I wound up majoring in chemistry, and I’ve found that a lot of songwriters I know were chemistry or math majors.
Why do you think that is?
Music is mathematic, even if it’s inherent and you aren’t actually calculating anything, with things like time signatures. It’s always a mathematical process, and to be a good musician you must have a good sense of time, which is essentially an equation written in note form.
But your first foray into professional writing was as a songwriter, correct?
Yes, and the way that happened was by accident. I had begun writing articles for the local paper, the Salem (Va.) Times Register. There was not much going on there, but we did have the Roanoke Civic Center, where a lot of artists played, artists like Herman’s Hermits and Mitch Ryder and Otis Redding. I would interview them for the paper. Then I would talk to the managers and the agents.
One day I was in DC, and I heard a song coming through a window. I thought it sounded interesting. So I walked in and saw three African-American guys singing a song called "5-10-15-20 (25-30 Years of Love)." I told them that I wanted take a demo tape of it to New York. Now keep in mind that I was in my early twenties, and I told them I could do something with it. I called a couple of people and ended up being directed to a guy named Ron Moseley at Sussex Records. He loved it, and it went on to be a top ten hit and have a Grammy nomination that year. The group was called The Presidents.
That’s what you could do then. You could actually get in to see people. People in A & R were actively looking for talent at places like Sussex Records and Buddha Records. Artists could actually get in to see people and play their stuff. The Presidents’ song was on a mono tape, the kind of recorder you take dictation on, and the guy at Sussex Records was still able to see it was a hit. The producer hired for the song was Van McCoy, who wrote and sang “The Hustle.” He and I started writing songs under McCoy/Kipps production for almost ten years, working with artists like Aretha Franklin, Gladys Night, and Melba Moore (note: that’s Kipps with McCoy and Franklin in the picture). I wrote “Walk Away from Love,” David Ruffin’s only post-Temptation hit.
I loved writing songs. I was in my 20s and having a great time. But around 1980, it started to become very corporate. I don’t know what to tell people now. I’ve heard some very talented songwriters, but what can I tell them? Go to Sony? BMG? You can’t get in the door.
You write in so many different genres. Talk about the difference in the writing process.
Let’s start with songwriting. I love lyrics. People often ask me where a song comes from, and I have no idea. I’ll sit down with a guitar, maybe a bottle of wine, and a song just comes out of nowhere. There’s nothing like songwriting. I still love it. As a matter of fact, I just co-wrote a song with Peter Criss, the original drummer for Kiss.
So with songwriting, how do you compose?
I just start strumming, maybe starting with a dummy melody to get me going. Then the lyrics start to come. I think the lyrics come first, then the melody starts to flow. I generally write them both at the same time. My songwriting is usually a solo project; I rarely collaborate.
But even if you don’t collaborate, when you write a song, you are writing for someone else, the songwriter and the audience. Do you think about that when you write?
Yes and no. For example, when I worked with Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, and David Ruffin, I didn’t write with them in mind. I’d write a bunch of songs and figure which ones would work for which person.
As a songwriter, I sat back in awe when I listened to what these artists did with what I wrote. Like when David Ruffin hits the high note in “Walk Away From Love,” that was never what I intended, but what he did was amazing.
So after songwriting, you moved into television, right?
Yes, and I have a closet full of scripts and notes to prove it! I wrote a spec script that got me work, and I ultimately wound up writing for the Cosby Mysteries on NBC.
Then your first full length book came out in the late 1980s.
That was Out of Focus in 1988. But what I did around 1980, when the record business became too corporate, I went back to my roots and started freelancing as a journalist to get the writing chops back. I wrote for the New York Times then served as the features editor at Variety magazine. Journalism is a great way to get your writing chops going.
Do you get more satisfaction writing books since you are writing directly for an audience, whereas as a songwriter you have to write for the singer?
Definitely. I’ve written two non-fiction books, and Crystal Death is my second novel. I love writing novels. Non-fiction books require an enormous amount of research. So do fiction books, of course, but it’s a difference kind of research. With screenplays, there are so many people involved: you need someone to pay for it, you need actors, directors, wardrobe, props, so many people. And then when it gets on its feet, you don’t know how it’s going to look. There are times when I think a scene I’ve written is the greatest scene in the world, it just didn’t play. And then sometimes the opposite happens. A book has to play on the page, whereas the screenplay can be completely morphed. With books, I am in control of how my writing is going to play out.
Talk about the physical part of writing process
I have horrible writing habits. I am a binge writer. The muse has to be there. I don’t have a lot of problems with block because I get so excited when I write. I’ll get an idea, and that first day I’ll write for fourteen hours no problem because I have to get it down. I may write crazy hours for four or five or six days, then get exhausted and not write at all for two or three days. It’s a terrible schedule. I’ve never been able to keep a regular routine.
When I wrote Hell’s Kitchen, the first Conor Bard story, it was during the writer’s strike because I couldn’t write scripts. Instead of relaxing, I had to write something. For five days, I wrote non-stop.
What do your first drafts look like?
I am afraid that if I don’t get it down, I will lose it. With books and screenplays, plot is important. So my first drafts tend to be like framework, with not too much around it. I get the sequence going with a lot of dialogue, but my first drafts are disjointed, like pieces of things. There are times when I’ll be writing one chapter and realize what I want to write in the second chapter, so I’ll drop what I am doing in the first chapter and begin on the second.
The only way get anything done is to take it all the way through, then go back and revise. When I first started writing, I wouldn’t start working on the second scene, for example, until the first one was completely polished. Two weeks later, I’d only have fifteen pages. That was not a good way to work.
How do you know when your writing is done?
With a song, I can just feel it. It was an easily definable moment for me. But for a book, it’s never finished. I look at my past books and see that I could always do something more.
Is there anything you must have with you when you write?
No, but the one thing that’s interesting is that I don’t need silence. There can be total chaos around me. But if someone asks me a direct question, I crash.
I don’t require direct silence. In fact, I don’t like it. We live near Times Square, and sometimes I’ll be writing at one or two in the morning, look out my window, and realize I am not alone. I like that.
Who are your literary inspirations?
Hemingway definitely comes to mind. I am always amazed that he can paint such a vivid picture with such an economy of words.
Was Crystal Death easier for you to write than Hell’s Kitchen Homicide, because you were already familiar with the protagonist Conor Bard?
As a second book, I wouldn't call it super-difficult, because I had the character who was familiar to me. But it was difficult because I had to immerse myself in the character again.
My TV writing helped in a lot of ways. One, it helped with the structure. I know how to keep things moving. The other is the character development. All those scripts revolve around a character, so when I created Conor Bard I knew what to do. I had to think like the character, almost become the character.
Did you have to reread the first book before beginning this one?
More or less. Not the whole thing, but some chapters. I had to get back into Conor’s mindset. Conor Bard brings me full circle: I’ve written Law and Order and I’ve written songs, and this book is about a cop who would rather be a musician.
One of the things that struck me about this book was the amount of dialogue. I have to think that comes from your experience as a screenwriter.
What I tried to do is write these novels for consumption, and long stretches of prose can drag a reader down. I do believe that you can tell a story mainly through dialogue. For example, the Hemingway short story “Hills Like White Elephants” is almost completely dialogue, almost like a one-act play. Not that I am trying to make any comparison between my storytelling ability and Hemingway’s, but he is proof that you can advance a plot largely through conversation among characters.