Grandpa Had a Long One: Personal Notes on the Life, Career & Legacy of Benny Bell (BearManor Media, 2009). Part bio, part memoir, this is an account of one of the funniest, oddest, most interesting, resilient and paranoid entertainers ever to come out of vaudeville and the Borscht Belt — and the adoring grandson who was both amazed and confounded by him at the same time.
Tell us something about yourself.
A true tri-stater, I grew up on Long Island, lived for 20 years in New Jersey, and now reside in Connecticut. I have never wanted to do anything but write. So I’ve never done anything but write. Which is why I don’t have a lot of money and can’t find a job. I’ve published hundreds of magazine articles, have three books to my credit, and had the pleasure of seeing a series of my short plays, collectively called “Six Tens from a Fifty,” performed by the Love Creek Theatre Company in Manhattan. I am currently working on my fourth article assignment for Hartford Magazine (the last one was the cover story — an interview with Kathleen Turner; that was a trip!). Freelance rates have dropped significantly, though, and freelancing is no longer a viable option as a profession. Which is why I need ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, HBO or A&E to make me an offer I can’t refuse.
What inspired you to write this book?
The world needs a little more of the infectious humor of Benny Bell, and I wanted to share that with readers. Also, I needed to explore who I became, which I always thought had something to do with him. Now that he’s gone (he would never have let me write a book about him when he was alive, for reasons explained in the book), I did all the sharing and exploring I could.
How did you choose the title?
Benny Bell lived to the age of 93, and spent at least 75 of those years pursuing his dream of being a songwriter and comedian. One of his most celebrated novelty songs, officially called “Noses Run in My Family,” was frequently referred to by its alternate name, “Grandpa Had a Long One.” The title of the book, then, refers all at once to his life, his career, and one of his representative novelty songs.
What obstacles did you encounter in getting this book published? How did you overcome them?
The big publishers rejected the idea because Benny Bell was not nationally known, and they didn’t think they’d be able to sell enough copies to justify their investment, particularly since the market for showbiz biographies can be tough even in the best of times. The publisher I eventually found specializes in showbiz bios, nostalgia, and old-time radio and TV. It was a perfect fit, and the publisher himself was a fan.
How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?
I never did not know. Ever since I was a little boy, nearly everything I heard, saw, imagined, learned in school and simply wondered about I turned — in my head — into a book, a play, a movie, an article… I began writing short stories (and a screenplay, which MGM said showed promise) when I was a teenager. I wrote for my local newspaper, The Westbury Times, when I was a senior in high school. My first job after college was as an assistant editor on a trade magazine. My first freelance was published around that time. My first book was published in 1998.
Do you have any writing rituals?
Usually the rituals pick me instead of the other way around. It just happens.
Did you learn anything from writing and publishing this book? What?
Publicity can appear many months after publication. Patience is necessary. So is a way of staying sane while waiting for it.
If you were doing it all over again, what would you do differently?
I would have started eight years earlier.
What types of books do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?
There are millions of books but life is relatively short. As a result, I stick to those authors who have already proven themselves to me as being able to touch and interest me — at least as far as fiction is concerned. My favorite fiction authors are Pearl Buck, Chaim Potok, Stephen Birmingham and Howard Fast, with a little bit of William Goldman and John Steinbeck thrown in. For nonfiction, I lean toward biographies of people who fascinate me, such as Houdini, Pearl Buck, Ben Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt, Gene Roddenberry and a few others.
Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?
I recently relocated to Connecticut, and it was an awful, disgusting, debilitating, demoralizing, nearly suicidal experience. I am writing a humor book about it.
What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?
If you throw enough stuff against the wall, something’s gotta stick somewhere along the line. Also, you really have to want to do it for the right reason, not simply because you’d like to say you’re a published author.
Who is the perfect reader for your book?
Anyone who ever took a moment to think about not all the famous entertainers out there, but about some of those who tried and tried and tried and tried and tried and never really made it.
Where can readers learn more about you and your book?