Apple-Obsessed Author Fella

Andrew Shaffer: The Terribleminds Interview

He’s Andrew Shaffer. And he’s EvilWylie. And Emperor Franzen, and Fanny Merkin, and Keyser Soze, and also, a sentient cloud of hilarious nano-particles. Under the pen name “Fanny Merkin,” Shaffer’s the dude behind the smash 50 Shades of Grey parody, Fifty Shames of Earl Grey. Here he sits for an interview at Jolly Old Terribleminds. Find him at his website,, or at Twitter as @andrewtshaffer.

Why do you tell stories?

To entertain. I’ve always been more of a court jester than a troubadour.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

I wrote for about ten years solid before I found my own voice. If I could go back in time, I might tell myself to stop pretending to be something I clearly wasn’t (a serious literary novelist), and write the kind of books I enjoyed reading (genre and nonfiction).

What’s the worst piece of writing/storytelling advice you’ve ever received?

“Write what you know.” I think this advice works on some levels—it’s difficult to write convincingly about a breakup or a family death if you’ve never gone through those situations—but I’ve too often heard it used to steer a writer into writing something “personal” to them. “If you’re a truck driver, write fiction about truck drivers! Look at what Grisham did with his experience as a lawyer!” I think that’s kind of shit advice, at least for me. I like to write about things I have no clue about, because I enjoy the research. Writing is a wonderful way to expand your own worldview and experience life through other sets of eyes.

What goes into writing a strong character?

For a long time, I was stuck on the idea that a “strong character” meant a “flawed character.” Thus, I wrote several novels (all unpublished) with protagonists who were fucking crippled by their vices, criminal behavior, self-loathing, etc. My writing was weak, because the “heroes” were weak. Now, I’m more inclined to say that a strong character is simply one who acts. I could care less about how three-dimensional a character is these days. God, I sound like a television producer…

Bonus round: give an example of a strong character.

Buck Schatz in Daniel Friedman’s “Don’t Ever Get Old.” Buck is a foul-mouthed, 87-year-old ex-detective. Would I want to spend time with him in real life? No. Do I want Dan to write another Buck Schatz book? Absolutely.

The Fifty Shames Of Earl Grey has a… rather curious (and quick) path into existence. Tell us about it, or I will break your legs.

While I was live-tweeting a review of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” I joked I would write a fanfic of the series. That turned into a parody that mashed up “Fifty Shades” and “Twilight.” At the time, “Fifty Shades” had only sold 100k copies–a nice number, but no one knew it would blow up to become the biggest book in the world. Still, after “Fifty Shades” sold to Random House, my agent asked if I could quickly finish the manuscript so she could shop it. I told her it was half finished, but I think I maybe only had 5k out of a proposed 40k words at that time. I told her I would have the entire thing in her inbox in a week. It was an ambitious schedule, but I was in the midst of a nonfiction book I’d been working on for over a year, so it was like a vacation of sorts. Fueled by Red Bull and angst, I wrote the book. My agent sold it. And then I spent two months editing it.

What’s the trick to writing satire/parody? (And, is there a difference between parody and satire as you see it?)

A parody (or spoof) usually lampoons a specific thing. The “Scary Movie” films mocking “Scream” and horror films are a great example. Satire, I think, uses humor to make constructive criticism of some aspect of society. Although “Fifty Shames of Earl Grey” is billed as a parody, it’s more like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Underneath the “Fifty Shades” and “Twilight” gags is a very serious critique of the culture that gave birth to a bestselling fanfic starring a rich CEO and a submissive virgin.

The “trick” to writing a parody is to have some level of respect or interest in the underlying material. Although I didn’t like “Fifty Shades of Grey,” I read a lot of romance and erotica, which is what drew me to “Fifty Shades” in the first place. There are some other “Fifty Shades” parodies out there that seem to come from a very negative place that indicts all “dirty books” in a very mean-spirited way, and (at least according to Amazon and Goodreads reviews), those other parodies miss the mark badly. Likewise, a satire is best written by someone who is optimistic that society can improve.

Any thoughts on the existence and success of Fifty Shades of Grey? Good? Bad? Indifferent? Eff that ess in the bee?

As a critic, I was not impressed with “Fifty Shades of Grey” — if only because there are some fantastic erotica writers out there that’s been ignored by the mainstream for years. Having said that, it’s been great for erotica so far. There are some filthy books trickling into places like Walmart and Target, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. People who haven’t read books in years have also been picking the “Fifty Shades” books up, so who am I to tell them they’re picking up the “wrong” ones? I was very cautious not to mock “Fifty Shades” fans or readers in my parody. In fact, one of the central questions in the book is, “Why be ashamed of what we like?”

Speaking of satire/parody, you are a many with a couple-few parody Twitter accounts. EvilWylie, Emperor Franzen. Any we’re missing? Where’d these come from? And why?

Eh, there’s a few more (@ZombieFreeMom), but I tend to stop using an account if it doesn’t take off. Parody Twitter accounts are just a way to flex my writing muscles. The @EvilWylie account as a parody of agent Andrew Wylie, but now it’s just a place for me to say all the terrible things I want and pass them off as jokes. I think of Evil Wylie as the Loki of the publishing world: an agent of mischief.

Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!

Tiffany Reisz’s Original Sinners books (“The Siren” is out now) are ridiculously great. And I’m not just saying that because we’re dating. I recently finished reading the second book in her series, “The Angel,” and the way that she manipulates the reader is simply sadistic.

Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

I recently came across the word, “la foutromanie,” a French word coined in the 18th century that translates as, “fuckomania.” I don’t know if it’s my “favorite” word, but it’s one I made a mental note of and return to from time-to-time. As for curse words, “fuck” is probably still my favorite. I use it sparingly in my writing, though — in “Fifty Shames of Earl Grey,” for instance, I use it just twice. I like to treat it as a sacred word.

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

This would have been an easy question if you had asked me a couple of years ago! I would have told you about the latest beer I’d fallen in love with (always a microbrew; usually a stout). Sadly, I’ve had to scale back my alcoholic consumption immensely. I still enjoy a glass of fine absinthe now and then, mostly as an aesthetic pretension.

What skills do you bring to help the humans win the inevitable war against the robots?

I don’t know if I would necessarily side with humanity. My choice would depend on a number of factors. What’s the likelihood of robots winning this war? Does supporting the robot faction help avoid greater losses of life in the longrun? And how advanced and good-looking are female robots?

Regarding the Robot War, let’s assume that all robots hate all meatbags, and you are, unfortunately, a meatbag. Now what?

In the previous question about choosing sides, I was, of course, planning to defect to the side of humanity the entire time. My answer was part of a long con, but if you’re making me choose sides right now, you’ve ruined my status as a double-agent. If I was fighting on the sides of the meatbags, I could provide some comic relief in the trenches. “Q: Why did the robot cross the road? A: Because that’s how it was programmed.” Give me some time, I’ll come up with something better though.

What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?

My next project is a nonfiction book called “Literary Rogues: A Scandalous History of Wayward Authors” ( It traces the drunken, drugged-out author myth from Lord Byron to Hemingway to Hunter S. Thompson. I started working on the book nearly two years ago, and it will be published in February 2013 by Harper Perennial. I have a few more projects in progress, both fiction and nonfiction. They’re all at the single-cell stage right now.