by Cynthia Chow
KRL tries to feature LGBTQ+ mystery authors throughout the year (we also have a monthly Queer Mystery Coming Attractions column), but especially during Pride month. This is the second of several coming up this month. We are thrilled to be reviewing Frank’s first mystery novel, and we have a fun interview with him as well. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of the book, and a link to purchase it from Amazon.
Renovated to Death: A Domestic Partners in Crime Mystery by Frank A. Polito
Review by Cynthia Chow
Young Adult mystery author Pete “PJ” Penwell and his partner, television actor John Paul “JP” Broadway, are both having a bit of a lull in their careers as they hit their mid-thirties. It’s led to their being the hosts of HDTV’s Domestic Partners on Home Design where they work together to renovate and restore (not remodel) historic homes. The demand for an earlier season has them scrambling for a new property which is why they have so eagerly taken on a home in the Detroit suburb of Pleasant Woods. This not only allows them to move closer to PJ’s Michigan family, the reality show should give them both a publicity boost to help them in their respective careers.
It turns out that, although Tom Cash is more than happy to have his family’s home renovated and sold for a profit, his twin brother Terry is staunchly opposed. While their appearances are identical, their personalities are different in almost every way. That doesn’t mean that Terry isn’t still devastated when Tom’s body is found at the bottom of the Tudor’s staircase, especially the more it begins to look like it was anything but an accident. Falling back on his experience as the YA author of the Murder High mystery series, PJ begins a rather informal investigation of their neighbor’s death.
This first in the series is a fun romp through the diverse and welcoming small town of Pleasant Woods. PJ and JP are an adorable and admirable couple, even though they are still dragging their feet towards making it official. Both are already feeling like an old married couple, despite their shared trauma of hitting their mid-thirties. A rather disdainful example of another struggle against ageism is Tom Cash, a forty-something eternal bachelor who is renowned for breaking up with his boyfriends once they turn thirty. It shouldn’t be surprising that the candidates for wanting to give him a last push down the stairs consist of a few over-thirty exes and the current twenty-nine-year-old boyfriend, one who is all too aware of his looming expiration date. Also in contention as suspects are the local restaurant owners who wanted the Cash property for a parking lot, as well as an infuriated realtor who lost out on the deal.
PJ conducts his investigations through the pretense of socializing at a local club and dinner parties which mostly just hammer in just how much he is over the gay dating scene. This is such a fun introduction to the Domestic Partners as they navigate renovating a project together while also attempting to track down a killer. A welcome distraction comes through their hopes of becoming the forever home through Home FurEver where they have already fallen in love with the perfect Mr. Clyde Barker. Pleasant Woods and its collection of hilarious characters make this a winning new series, perfectly blending the best elements of Reality TV, home renovations, and the Entertainment Business.
Interview with Frank Anthony Polito:
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Frank: I’ve been a “professional” writer since 2006 when I signed a contract with Kensington Books to write my first novel. I started writing in 2001 when I began working on my first play that I later adapted into my first novel. Truthfully, I’ve been writing stories since I was 9. In junior high school, I took Creative Writing and wrote super long stories that I would type up on half sheets of paper, front and back, glue together on the left side, slap on a cover and call it a book.
KRL: When did your first novel come out, what was it called, and would you tell us a little about it?
Frank: My first novel Band Fags! was released in June 2008. The book is loosely based on my experiences growing up gay with my gay best friend back in the 1980s. In the story, Jack and Brad meet in band class at age 12. At age 14, they begin to open up to each other, sharing intimate thoughts about the boys they would find cute – “if they were girls.”
At 16, Brad comes out as gay, but Jack isn’t ready to follow, even though he’s fallen in love with another boy named Joey. Jack’s choosing to stay closeted soon puts a strain on his and Brad’s friendship and they go their separate ways for a bit…until Jack is finally ready to accept his true self. The book is chock full of ‘80s pop culture references, and each chapter is titled after a popular song from the period.
KRL: Have you always written mysteries/suspense and if not, what else have you written?
Frank: Renovated to Death is actually my first mystery, and the first book I’ve written about adults. All of my other books feature teen and college-aged characters and could be classified as “coming of age” stories.
KRL: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series? And why a cozy?
Frank: Wherever I write a story, I choose a location that I know well, and I base my characters on people from my personal life – it’s just easier. For Renovated to Death, though, instead of going with the actual town where my partner and I live, Pleasant Ridge, I changed it to Pleasant Woods because a) I thought it would be more fun for readers who know the Metro Detroit area, and b) I wanted to have the freedom to make up stuff that better fits the story if need be. If you go with an actual place that exists and you write anything that is remotely fictional, someone somewhere is going to call you out for getting it wrong.
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to experience from your work?
Frank: First and foremost, I want my stories to entertain people. Books – especially novels – are an escape from daily life. However, I do try to infuse everything I write with some sort of deeper meaning, usually the importance and significance of love (in whatever form – romantic, platonic, family or friend) in one’s life.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just work whenever you can?
Frank: I don’t keep to a schedule when I write, but more of a routine that I follow. Firstly, I’ll write a chapter, usually on a weekend when I have free time from my day job as a mobile story game director and having to do other things like go to the gym or shopping at Costco. Then I will read through the entire chapter using the “read aloud” feature because I like to hear the words that I’ve written. I have a master’s degree in playwriting and since drama is meant to be spoken, the way things sound is just as important to me as the actual words that I’ve written. Especially when it comes to repetition. This is something that I try to avoid, unless it’s intentional or there isn’t another word that I can choose instead.
KRL: What is your ideal time to write?
Frank: I can write pretty much any time of day. For me it’s more about having a significant chunk of time for writing. Once I get going with an idea or I’m in the middle of writing a chapter, I like to be able to complete it. My fear is that I’ll get hit by a bus crossing the street, someone will find the unfinished thing that I wrote and think “Is that it?!”
KRL: Do you outline? If not, do you have some other interesting way that you keep track of what’s going on, or what needs to happen in your book when you are writing it?
Frank: I do outline, which is something I started doing in grad school at Carnegie Mellon and have continued to do ever since. For me it helps to have a clear idea where the story is going. It can always – and usually will – change along the way, at which point I will just revise the outline and continue from there.
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning? Do you feel the fact that you are an LGBTQ author with a series featuring an LGBTQ main character made it any harder?
Frank: I’m embarrassed to say that, for me, it was super easy to get published in the beginning. I never set out to be a published author (as a kid, I daydreamed about it, but never pursued it as a career), but I worked in publishing as a survival job while living in New York City. I met a book editor who took an interest in a play that I’d written. He thought it would make for a good novel and offered me the opportunity to publish my first book after I got out of grad school.
It was only after I’d published 3 books, won a Lambda Literary Award, and signed with an agent that I had a difficult time getting a publishing deal. I tried to publish a non-LGBTQ-themed Young Adult novel called Lost in the ’90s, about a teen boy from 2012 who travels back in time to 1994 where he meets his teenage parents and helps them fall in love. My current publisher didn’t publish YA novels, so my agent sent Lost in the ‘90s to every other publisher in NYC…and they all passed. The tough part was that they said the book was good – they just didn’t feel that teen readers would have an interest in a story set in the 1990s.
As for being an LGBTQ writer of a book with an LGBTQ main character, thankfully my editor at Kensington specifically asked me to write a cozy mystery that featured a gay couple, so it did not make things difficult in my case.
KRL: What an interesting journey. Do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
Frank: Another YA novel that I tried getting published called Mega Star, about an 18-year-old girl who wins $777 million dollars in a lottery, I also couldn’t find a publisher who was interested. One editor who rejected me said that the book was *too* well written for the types of books she was looking for.
KRL: Oh wow, crazy! Most interesting book signing story-in a bookstore or other venue?
Frank: How about most depressing instead? For my first book, Band Fags!, I did an event at A Different Light, an iconic gay bookstore in San Francisco. 4 people were there: the store manager, my partner, a female friend of ours, and one other guy who said he was only there because he had to attend and write a paper for a college course and his professor made him attend. He had no idea who I was, or anything about my book, and he didn’t even buy a copy!
KRL: What are your future writing goals?
Frank: Almost 6 years ago I began writing a screenplay that is a modern day take on the John Hughes movie Pretty in Pink, but with a trans female in the Molly Ringwald main character role. My ultimate goal is to see the movie produced, but I’ve been having the toughest time moving the project forward, even with the help of an Oscar-nominated producer and a screenwriting manager in LA. So, right now, I’m working with an illustrator to adapt the script into a graphic novel that I hope we’ll be able to publish sooner than later. If the book does well, maybe a movie deal could follow?
KRL: Ooh let us know what happens with that I love it! Who are your writing heroes?
Frank: I love Judy Blume! I read her Fudge series and related books while growing up. I also enjoyed the work of Maurice Sendak, who I had the fortunate pleasure of speaking to on the telephone before he died, back when I was working as a temp at his publisher HarperCollins. More recently I’ve been a fan of Michael Cunningham, particularly The Hours.
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
Frank: I didn’t do a lot of research when writing my earlier books. I have a bit of an elephant memory when it comes to the 1980s and 1990s. For Renovated to Death, I did some minimal online research, like looking at pictures of old houses in need of renovation so that I could have a clearer picture in my mind as to what I was going to write about. For me, it helps to see the details. Again, it’s easier than trying to make up something in my own mind.
KRL: What do you like to read?
Frank: I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t read much, especially when I’m writing. Otherwise, I will either start to steal from the author/book that I’m reading, or I will start comparing myself to the author and doubting that my writing is just as good. When I do read, I like to re-read books from my childhood like Judy Blume or Charlotte’s Web or the Sebastian Barth mystery books by James Howe.
KRL: What are your favorite TV shows or movies?
Frank: I tend to watch a lot of teen TV shows, like the amazing Heartstopper series based on the YA graphic novel by Alice Oseman that recently premiered on Netflix, or every version of Degrassi, dating back to TNG: The Next Generation. My favorite movies go even further back, like Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles, but again they are stories about young people.
KRL: Have you any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Frank: The standard “write what you know” is a good one. Writing is hard work, so why make it any more difficult trying to make up stuff? That being said, you need to keep in mind that just because something may have happened to you or someone you know, it doesn’t automatically make it compelling to someone else. You need to create a good story, and if that means changing your own experience to make it more interesting, feel free.
Also, rejection sucks and no matter what anyone says, it’s very personal, but remember – it’s only one person’s opinion. Get over it and move on. Easier said than done, I know.
KRL: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Frank: I’m not as young as I look or act. There’s a line in Renovated to Death where the main character, Peter, says his name is fitting since he suffers from Peter Pan Syndrome. This totally describes me. I refuse to grow up.
Frank: Yes! My partner and I have 2 rescue dogs. Clyde is a Beagle Pit-Bull mix and Jack is a Parson Russell. Clyde and the story of his adoption is included in Renovated to Death, and Jack’s story will be told in my next book Rehearsed to Death, to be published in June 2023.
KRL: Is there anything you would like to add?
Frank: Thanks so much for giving me this opportunity. If anyone happens to read my new book – or any of my previous books – I’d love to hear from you!
KRL: Thanks so much for joining us! Website? Twitter? Facebook? Instagram?
To enter to win a copy of Renovated to Death, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “renovated,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen June 18, 2022. U.S. residents only, and you must be 18 or older to enter. If you are entering via email please include you mailing address in case you win, it will be deleted after the contest. You can read our privacy statement here if you like.
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