Todd Ritter’s debut mystery, DEATH NOTICE, was released in October by Minotaur Books. It follows a small-town police chief, an obituary writer and a Pennsylvania State Police investigator as they try to stop a killer who sends the local newspaper death notices of his victims before they die. Kirkus Reviews has called DEATH NOTICE “a convincingly blood-soaked debut novel.” Publishers Weekly said “Ritter treats his main characters — sympathetic, believably vulnerable people — with respect.”
The son of a bank teller mother and a father who dabbled in taxidermy, Todd was born and raised in rural Pennsylvania. An editor and journalist for more than 15 years, he began his career as a film critic while attending Penn State University. He has interviewed celebrities, covered police standoffs and, yes, even written an obituary or two. Currently, he is a copyeditor at The Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s largest daily newspaper. He lives outside of Princeton. Visit him online at http://www.toddritteronline.com/ .
Question: DEATH NOTICE is your debut novel. How does it feel to be a published author?
Answer: Surreal. And cool. And overwhelming. And nerve-wracking. The emotions vary from day to day. A lot of times, I walk around feeling very proud of myself. Then other days insecurity hits and I feel a bit like a fraud, like I’m just someone pretending to be a writer and that at any moment people are going to call my bluff. But then I’ll hear from someone who read DEATH NOTICE and loved it. And that’s the best feeling in the world. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
Q: What do you do when you’re not writing?
A: I wish I could say something noble and exciting, like climbing Everest or saving puppies from burning buildings. But I’m a pretty low-key, stay-at-home guy. I like to watch movies. I like to cook. I like to relax on the couch with a glass of wine and an episode of “Modern Family.”
Q: You’ve worked in newspapers for more than 15 years, and a lot of writers have backgrounds in journalism. Is there something about the newspaper industry that helps people become published authors?
A: Yes, and it’s called a deadline. People in newspapers, whether they’re reporters or editors or page designers, know how to work with a deadline hanging over their heads. It teaches us to think on our feet, trust our instincts and get the job done. We’re also accustomed to being clear and concise. Journalists aren’t ones to mince words, which is a good quality to have when you’re writing crime fiction.
Q: You started out as a film critic for your college newspaper. What is your favorite movie?
A: It’s a tie. The first is “Rear Window,” which uses every storytelling technique available to tell a crackerjack, suspenseful plot. You’re so caught up in everything that you don’t realize you’ve been stuck in that apartment the entire time. The other is “The Sound of Music,” which is the first movie my parents saw together when they were dating. I love it for unabashedly sentimental reasons.
Q: You’ve mentioned that your two biggest influences are Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney. Aren’t they kind of polar opposites?
A: Yes, but both of them were geniuses at storytelling. They were masters at it. In their own different ways, they could draw big emotions out of the smallest beats or gestures. And they were very economical from a plot standpoint. Nothing is wasted in a Hitchcock or Disney film. And yet the emotional response, whether it’s fear or suspense or joy, is enormous. So they’re actually more alike than they seem.
Q: Good point. But neither of them are authors. What writers have influenced you?
A: Too many to mention here. I’ll go with the two big, predictable ones: Agatha Christie and Stephen King. But I’ve also learned so much from people like Anne Tyler, Laura Lippman and Harlan Coben. To take it further, I’ve probably learned something from everyone I’ve ever read.
Q: If you couldn’t be a writer, what else would you like to do?
A: I love photography. I’m pretty good at it, but I have so much to learn. I’m jealous of those professional photojournalists who get to travel the world and share their vision. It’s the same way with chefs. I’m a major foodie, and the talent of most chefs leaves me feeling very humbled. I would love to be as creative and skilled as them.
Q: So, your dad was a part-time taxidermist. What was it like growing up with dead animals all over the house?
A: Not as disturbing as you might think. Taxidermy is just something my dad does in his spare time. He has his own little studio in the basement, so it’s not like he was tossing deer pelts onto the kitchen counter. But it wasn’t something that was hidden, either. His work was on display all over the house. And we had this freezer in the basement where he stored all the animals he planned on stuffing later. As a kid, that was pretty cool, especially when friends were around. I’d open the freezer and show them some dead animal inside sitting right next to the popsicles.
Q: If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?
A: That’s a stupid question.
Q: Just answer it.
A: I’d be a weeping willow. Because they’re large and beautiful and tend to grow in bucolic places like ponds and parks.
Q: Finally, tell me about what’s in the pipeline. Are you working on a second book?
A: I am. It’s called BAD MOON and it’s a sequel of sorts to DEATH NOTICE. Same characters, same town, different case. It’s very different from DEATH NOTICE, but in a good way. I’m very excited about it.