Thursday, August 19, 2004

Interview: Andrew Fox

Andrew Fox's novels have been described by reviewers as a cross between Anne Rice and John Kennedy Toole's "A Confederacy of Dunces." It's an odd mix, but it suits Fox just fine.

"I've always been a big fan of vampires in pop culture - vampire comic books, vampire movies," said Fox, who works with the Louisiana Commodity Supplement Food Program. "I also really, really love `A Confederacy of Dunces' by John Kennedy Toole. I think it's probably one of the funniest books ever written in English and does comic dialogue better than just about any book I've ever come across."

Readers of Fox's debut novel "Fat White Vampire Blues" ($13.95, Ballantine) will see a lot of nods to Toole's famous novel. The book follows the story of New Orleans vampire Jules Duchon, who after feeding on the people who enjoy the New Orleans cuisine for 80 years, has ballooned up to 450 pounds and faces some serious problems in trapping his prey.

The premise was inspired by a series of articles Fox read that said New Orleans was America's fattest city.

"I started thinking, vampires live an awfully long time," he said. "What would happen to a vampire that spent 100-150 years drinking the blood of people who eat the typical New Orleans diet - all of that fried, sugar-coated, cream-covered high cholesterol food? After a few decades, they wouldn't look much like Tom Cruise."

But his weight isn't the only challenge Jules is up against. In the first novel, he runs into a younger, stronger black vampire who forbids him to feed on the black citizens of the city. In Fox's latest, "Bride of the Fat White Vampire" ($14.95, Ballantine), Jules is recruited by an aristocratic group of vampires to find out who has been kidnapping and mutilating the group's members. In these ways, he uses the books to make some social commentary, without beating readers over the head with it.

"I definitely wanted to do it in a very light, humorous kind of way," he said. "The same way John Kennedy Toole did in `A Confederacy of Dunces.' He had plenty of social commentary in there, but you hardly notice it because you're laughing so hard."

One of the biggest characters in Fox's novels is not a vampire at all. It's the city itself.

"I think one of the main characters is the city of New Orleans itself," he said. "I have a lot of fun gently satirizing the classs and race relations in the city, and I have a lot of fun with local icons and local institutions."

If you see someone you think you recognize in Fox's books, you may. He said one of the characters in "Bride of Fat White Vampire" is based heavily on Popeye's Fried Chicken founder Al Copeland. He also has characters based on Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor and the city's most famous vampire writer, Rice.

"Certainly you couldn't write a book about vampires in New Orleans without having some kind of Anne Rice figure," he said.

Fox has another Jules Duchon book in the works, called "Ghost of the Fat White Vampire," should his publisher want it. In the meantime, he's currently shopping a book that pays tribute to another literary icon, Ray Bradbury.

It's called "Calorie 3501," and begins with a play on "Fahrenheit 451." Instead of firemen who burn books, Fox's novel features Good Humor men driving around in ice cream trucks and confiscating banned high calorie foods.

"From there, the book spins off in all kinds of wild directions, never foreseen by Ray Bradbury," he said. "I'm a big, big admirer of Ray Bradbury, so I start the book off with a strong nod in his direction."

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Review: "A Hat Full of Sky" by Terry Pratchett

Vanity kills. That's the lesson that witch-in-training Tiffany Aching learns in Terry Pratchett's "A Hat Full of Sky" ($16.99, HarperCollins).

Well ... sort of.

Since she doesn't have a good mirror at home, Tiffany accidentally learns to project herself out of her body so that she can see herself. What she doesn't know is that when she does it, she's leaving her body open for anything to take it over. In this case, it's a mysterious creature called a hiver, which invades Tiffany and begins to abuse her powers by using them to intimidate and threaten people.

With the help of the a band of small, blue "pictsies" called the Nac Mac Feegle, her new teacher Miss Level and the legendary witch Granny Weatherwax, Tiffany has to cast the creature out and make everything right again.

This is Pratchett's third book for young readers set on the Discworld, which has been the site of more than 30 of his adult novels. Pratchett imbues these books with the same whimsy and bits of satire as his adult books, and they're just as entertaining.

Many of the gags are a bit different than Pratchett's usual to make them a little more accessible to younger readers, but there's still plenty for adults to appreciate.

I don't usually miss a new Pratchett book, but somehow I overlooked the first book in this series, "The Wee Free Men." Apparently, in that book, Tiffany casts out the evil Queen who oppressed the Nac Mac Feegle, thus earning their loyalty. The events of that book are important to "A Hat Full of Sky," but Pratchett provides enough detail that readers will have a sense of what happened even if they haven't read the first book. You still might want to pick that one up first, though.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Interview: Ron White

They call him Tater Salad.

But Ron White, one of the stars of "The Blue Collar Comedy Tour: The Movie," has no problem with being confused with his most popular joke. In fact, he revels in it. His Web site is and his concert T-shirts proudly proclaim, "I caught the Tater."

"I embrace any kind of notoriety," he said. "That's not the way I wanted it to happen. I didn't see myself being known for that particular joke, but however it happens, that's fine with me."

Like Lynyrd Skynyrd fans who begin yelling out "Freebird" as soon as the band takes the stage, many of White's fans begin to yell "Tater Salad," wanting the joke that tells the story of his being thrown out of a bar in New York and his subsequent arrest for being drunk in public. But White said fans only think they want to hear the seven-minute joke again. Still he performs it every night.

"Anyone who knows my career well enough to buy a ticket, they know that joke inside and out," he said. "That's really one of the only things I do off the `Blue Collar' thing because it's not like a song you love; it's a joke you know. There's a big difference right there."

White's career has taken off in the past couple of years with "The Blue Collar Comedy Tour" and his specials on Comedy Central, but it's been a long haul for the comedian. He's been doing standup for more than 18 years and said he has performed more than 10,000 live shows.

"I was a prominent headliner in comedy clubs forever - the best comedy clubs in the country," he said. "But that really doesn't make you famous. It doesn't really matter what you do in Omaha, even if you kill every night, because not enough people see you for it to matter."

The movie and television specials changed that. White's new DVD, "They Call Me Tater Salad," is the No. 1 comedy DVD in the country. His album "Drunk in Public," released in November 2003, is usually No. 2, behind fellow "Blue Collar" alum Larry, the Cable Guy. ("I've never passed him, but I don't care. He's my buddy," White said.) Is the newfound notoriety gratifying for White?

"You have no idea, my friend," he said. "It's (Jeff) Foxworthy that really believed in it, and it was Foxworthy's goal a long time ago to make me a star. He's not very good at it, I'll tell you that, because it took him forever to do it."

Jokes aside, White is thankful for the help of Foxworthy and his management company Parallel Entertainment, for getting him to this point. He brags about selling out an 1,800 seat theater in Green Bay, Wis., in one day and then selling 1,000 tickets for a second performance on the next day. ("It's a little bitty town," he said. "I know they have a sports franchise, but their phone book is not an inch thick.") A Ticketmaster search on Wednesday morning showed that his Monroe date was almost sold out. Only a few scattered seats remain.

"I never thought this would happen; Foxworthy did and my management company did, but I never saw it coming," White said. "Foxworthy's generosity, and his undying belief that I'm as funny as it gets is what did it. Actually, I've been the one trying to sabotage it for all these years. I'm famous despite me."

While some of his stories are pretty wild, White said they all have a grain of truth to them. He said to be a successful comedian, you have to be true to your nature. He said he's not a very good writer, which is why he takes stories from real life.

"What I'm good at is, I can watch a car wreck and tell you about it, and you'll laugh," he said. "If I have a gift, that's what it is. Most of it's just dead-on truth, and that's why it's funny."

Aside from his touring, there's a lot going on in White's life right now. He was recently married to his girlfriend of three years, Barbara, who was also the designer of Foxworthy's home. ("Our whole thing is real incestuous," White jokes.) The comedy group, which includes Foxworthy, Bill Engvall and Larry the Cable Guy, also filmed a second "Blue Collar" movie last week. White expects it will be out by the end of the year. He will also be making some appearances on the WB's "Blue Collar TV."

For his part, White's sitting back and enjoying the ride.

"It's a party every night with me on stage," he said. "Right before I go on, I always pour myself a nice Scotch, pick myself a nice cigar and go out and play with the people. It's fun."

Interview: Bill Engvall

Even if you're not familiar with Bill Engvall, you may think of him every time someone asks a stupid question. If you've ever heard the phrase "Here's your sign," you've heard Engvall's most famous joke.

"That was amazing," Engvall said of the success of his "here's your sign" jokes. "It literally became the `Where's the beef?' of the '90s. It's a neat thing to think that you added a little piece to Americana."

Even Engvall himself isn't immune to the catchphrase, as he relates on his album "Dorkfish." In one of the jokes, he says he came out of the mall to see the guy parked next to him with a coat hanger in his window.

"I couldn't stop myself," Engvall says. "I said, `Did you lock your keys in your car?' He goes, `No, just washed it, gonna hang it up to dry. Here's your sign.'"

In addition to his latest album "Here's Your Sign … Reloaded," released late last year, and his new DVD "Here's Your Sign Live," released this week, Engvall is excited about a new project with fellow "Blue Collar Comedy Tour" members Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy. It's called "Blue Collar TV," and it debuted last week on the WB. The show, which airs on Thursday nights, is by the producers of "Mad TV," and Engvall thinks fans will be pleasantly surprised.

"They really tapped into who we were and who our audience was," he said. "I compare it a lot to the old `Carol Burnett Show.' There are a couple of sketches, and then at the end we come out and do some stuff together, kind of like we did on the `Blue Collar' movie."

"Blue Collar" alum Ron White will also make a few guest appearances on the show.

Engvall and Foxworthy have both done TV before, but their counterparts, White and Larry, are a little rougher around the collar. Is TV really ready for those guys?

"That's a good question," Engvall said. "Larry - I'd love to tell you that's just a character, but it ain't."

Like it or not, Engvall is now connected with the three other guys through the "Blue Collar Comedy Tour," and its sequel which was just filmed last week. Fortunately for him, he enjoys it.

"The four of us together are just a blast," he said. "You couldn't ask for anything better. It's four friends working together. How much better does it get than that?"

Engvall was once well on his way to becoming a teacher when he and a friend went to a new comedy club that had just opened in Dallas.

"A buddy of mine and I went up there to watch amateur night one night," he said. "I ended up going up there, and the next thing I knew, I was doing this for a living."

Engvall said being funny was a necessity for a kid whose family moved around a lot.

"I've always had the ability to make people laugh," he said. "We moved around quite a bit, and that was the way you made friends quick. You could either make them laugh or you end up hanging out by yourself. It helped me out a lot in life as far as being able to move into new situations and excel in those situations."

Though, like his "Blue Collar" counterparts, he's known as a country comedian, Engvall has actually lived in the city for a while now. Though, he said, if you walked into his Los Angeles home, you wouldn't know you were in the city.

"I've still got my country roots," he said. "That's the way I want to keep it."

Though he lives in the city, he's never bought into the Hollywood star attitude.

"Noooo," he said. "As soon as you do, you're dead. It just doesn't fit me, and I don't think it ever will."

One thing the four "Blue Collar" comedians share is that they're close with their fans - sometimes too close.

"People will walk up to you and tell you crazy things," he said. "You look at them like, why are you telling me this. I don't want to know that."

Still, Engvall said he is appreciative of the people who buy his albums and come to his shows, and he often hangs around after the show to sign autographs.

"They've supported me at this level for 10 years," he said. "I've got the best fans in the world."

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Review: "Dead to the World" by Charlaine Harris

After a rough year, Sookie Stackhouse, a waitress in the small town of Bon Temps, just wants to rest. In the past year, she's hooked up and broken up with a vampire boyfriend, her brother has been accused of murder, she's been sent to Dallas to investigate a vampire kidnapped by a group of humans and she's had to rescue her vampire boyfriend from torture at the hands of his maker.

As the new year turns, she resolves not to get beaten up. Now, only a couple of days into the new year, she's about to break that resolution - big time.

"Dead to the World" ($19.95, Ace) is Charlaine Harris' fourth book about the supernatural community of Bon Temps, a fictional small town somewhere between Monroe and Shreveport, and it's about time she got a hardcover title.

The latest installment brings back a lot of familiar characters: telepathic Sookie, her shapeshifter boss who turns into a collie, her ne'er-do-well brother Jason, her vampire ex-boyfriend Bill, werewolf Alcide Hervaux and the vampires of the Shreveport bar Fangtasia. She also introduces new characters, including a strange group of folks from an outlying area named Hotshot.

The adventures begin when Eric, the sheriff of the local vampire community, shows up on Sookie's drive home with a serious case of amnesia. When she calls the other Shreveport vamps, she somehow ends up as his protector.

Meanwhile, her brother goes missing, leaving only a blood stain and a strange print on his pier. Then there's the coven of shape-shifting, vampire blood-addicted witches that seem to be moving in on the vampires' territory, and their leader has a vendetta against Shreveport's supernatural community.

As with the other three books in the series, "Dead to the World" is great fun. It's light and fast-paced - no long, woe-is-me philosophical passages for Harris' vampires, just action from start to finish.

Harris strikes a style that's much more fun than Anne Rice and less sexually charged than Laurell K. Hamilton. She tells the story with a down-home flavor that's not often found in the horror or fantasy sections of the bookstore.

I was a little disappointed that I was able to figure out the mystery of her brother's disappearance so early, but it didn't spoil the book. If you haven't checked out Harris' Southern vampire series yet, you should. It's great fun, particularly for folks who live in this neck of the woods.