Grumpy Old Men as Inspiration
Greetings from a glorious Northeast! A bit of magic has been sprinkled upon us: for the past two weeks, we have had nothing but blue skies, sunshine, and a layer of golden pollen whose goal is to take us out one-by-one (I haven’t stopped coughing in 21 days; I’ve begun a tally chart). And then later today, I will disturb the ground and its poison dust when I drop a bunch of perennials into the dirt in hopes they attract butterflies and bumblebees—let them soak up the pollen.
When I was a kid, any time beautiful weather coincided with a Jewish holiday, my grandfather would joke, “That’s because we’re the chosen people.” The weather was always gorgeous during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but that had more to do with its September placement than because some higher power wanted to gift us a 75-degree day and zero precipitation. My grandpa was amusing like that, and I think of him often when I’m writing Gramps’ character in my Billie Levine series.
Gramps, a.k.a William Levine, is Billie’s grandfather and her role model. It’s his private investigation business that Billie revamps in order to make money and time for her ailing mother. I knew I wanted Gramps to be a big part of the story, in part because he is so much fun to write but also because he came to me fully-formed: an old man, pushing 80, blue collar with street smarts, cynicism, and infinite amounts of wisdom. He is Billie’s support system, her boss and also her namesake. He is a little like my own grandpa, but he’s an amalgamation of other iconic, mostly Jewish, wizened, old dudes.
The OG: my grandpa, Sidney Kasner. Sidney was born in the tenements on the Lower East Side in 1927. He was the youngest of four and a bit of a trouble-maker. He used to gamble…as a child! He was too young to serve actively in World War II, although his older brothers did, but enlisted later and worked as an air traffic controller. My grandfather was incredibly smart, but hated school and only lasted a semester or two at city college before dropping out and working blue collar jobs his whole life. Like most Jews, he worked in the garment industry, and part-time at the post office. When Gramps is at his most New York Jew, it’s because he’s invoking Sidney Kasner.
Another inspiration is Ed Asner. Yup, part of Gramps’ grumpiness is taken straight from the man who voiced Carl Fredricksen in Up; Abe Rifkin in Dead to Me; and Lou Grant in the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Asner always portrayed tough, cynical men with marshmallow centers, and that is exactly how I paint Gramps. Years of police work and private investigation have taught him that the world is cruel, so he is super protective of his granddaughter, even as he attempts to support her PI career. It’s a tough line to walk.
Carl Reiner, but as Saul Bloom from Ocean’s 11. Saul is a con artist, something Gramps would never support as he is a man of the law, even though it takes a bit of con artistry to be a private investigator. According to Gramps: “Number one rule of the business is to always look like you belong.” If that doesn’t espouse a bit of deception, I don’t know what does.
Norman Lear also comes to mind when I think of Gramps, mostly because Lear is almost 101 years old, and I liked to think we’ll have Gramps around as long. Ever listen to an interview with Lear? He’s sharper than I am on my best day.
Statler and Waldorf from the Muppets were my favorite characters as a kid. Yeah, Miss Piggy was cool, but she wasn’t relatable to me as a kid with her pearls and fashion sense and empowered feminist spirit. But two old men who like to complain about the talent? That, I could appreciate. I could envision Gramps in a crowded theater, taking in a show for work, only to kvetch about the theatrics of it all (scribbles that down for future books).
Some say that authors selecting a favorite character or book is like choosing a favorite child, but Gramps is my favorite. I’d like to think it isn’t just me to adores him, but readers too. It takes a life of interesting experiences to get us to old age. As for Gramps, his story is just beginning.
Readers, who has been an inspiration in your life?
Kimberly Giarratano is an author of mysteries for teens and adults. Her debut novel, Grunge Gods and Graveyards, won the 2015 Silver Falchion Award for Best YA at Killer Nashville. A former librarian, she is currently an instructor at a SUNY Orange County Community College and a reviewer for BookPage. She is also the chapter liaison for Sisters in Crime. Born in New York and raised in New Jersey, Kim and her husband moved to the Poconos to raise their three kids amid black bears and wild turkeys. While she doesn’t miss the Jersey traffic, she does miss a good bagel and lox.
Saddled with bills and her mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Billie Levine runs a private investigation firm out of the corner booth of her favorite North Jersey deli, hoping the pickles and flexible hours will keep her family afloat. So when a rich kid with a nasty drug habit offers her a stack of cash to find his missing girlfriend, how can Billie refuse?
But dollar signs become death threats when the missing person’s case embroils Billie in the intense stand-off between a Jewish mobster and a skinhead group. Toss in the unsolved murder of a cabaret dancer and the reappearance of Billie’s ex-boyfriend with his own rap sheet, and she is regretting every decision that got her to this point.
Becoming a P.I. was supposed to solve her problems. But if Billie doesn’t crack this case, the next body the police dredge out of the Hudson River will be hers.