An interview with the Ashland author of ‘Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives,’ which publishes Tuesday, Feb. 8
By Edwin Battistella, Literary Ashland
Rick Bleiweiss began his career in the music industry as a recording artist, Grammy-nominated producer, recorded songwriter and record label senior executive. He worked with such music industry legends as Clive Davis, Robert Stigwood, Pink, Alicia Keys, Kiss, Donna Summer, U2, The Village People, Young MC, Tone Loc, The BeeGees, Run-DMC, Wu Tang Clan, John Mellencamp, Whitney Houston and scores of other superstars. He was named Music Executive of the Year by the Coalition of Independent Music Stores and at times ran his own record labels.
He has written numerous local and national newspaper and magazine columns and articles (including for the Ashland Sneak Preview), chapters in anthologies and books about music, and an award-winning short political humor book.
Bleiweiss is the Head of New Business Development at Blackstone Publishing & Audio, located on the south end of Siskiyou Boulevard, where he has worked since 2006. For Blackstone he secured works by James Clavell, Leon Uris, Catherine Coulter, Gregory McDonald, PC & Kristin Cast, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pablo Neruda, Andrews & Wilson, Rex Pickett, HP Lovecraft and scores of other well-known and debut authors. He served on the boards of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for eight years and the Ashland Independent Film Festival for two years and on Southern Oregon University’s President’s Advisory Group for 10 years.
He lives in Ashland with his wife, Deborah Morgan, and a Havanese named Gracie.
Ed Battistella: I really enjoyed “Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives.” What should readers know about the book? Who is Pignon Scorbion?
Rick Bleiweiss: The book is very much in the vein of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. It takes place in England in 1910, when the eccentric Scorbion becomes the new Chief Police Inspector for the countryside town of Haxford. Scorbion is very much cut out of the mold of Poirot and Holmes, but he solves his cases in a very unique environment and manner — he holds his interrogations in Haxford’s barbershop, where he is assisted by a colorful group of amateur sleuths including the three barbers, the shoeshine man, a young reporter, and a beautiful and brilliant female bookshop owner. The book is a combination of historical fiction, a good old-fashioned whodunit and a cozy mystery.
Scorbion is a complex character whose heritage is Egyptian and Haitian (while he was born in Paris and raised in England). He is an immaculate dresser whose distinctive custom-made clothes are not worn by any others of the time period, he holds opinions and attitudes advanced for the era, and he has foibles — of which he is self-aware.
EB: Scorbion is from the same time period as Sherlock Holmes and I think you even mention that Dr. Watson was a friend of his. Was Holmes an inspiration?
RB: I have been an avid reader and fan of both Holmes and Poirot my whole life and wanted to recreate the style of writing that worked so successfully for those characters. In the numerous endorsements and reviews that the advance copies of Scorbion have received, many have mentioned the book as being similar to Poirot and Holmes books, but unique in its own right. And I have set it up so that the reality that Scorbion is in (the “universe” of the book) is one in which Holmes, Poirot and Watson exist as well. In the book, Scorbion does talk about having met Watson and them befriending each other, and also about Scorbion’s planning to travel to meet Poirot at some time.
EB: When you think of Scorbion, whose face do you see? Who would play him in a movie?
RB: If this was 60 years ago, I would have said Anthony Quinn, but I’m withholding comment about this in the present as we are approaching actors to play him in a TV series or film, and I’d rather wait until we see who is most interested before I fully comment on that.
EB: What’s the fascination of detective — or detecting — fiction in your opinion?
RB: To me, people like detective fiction because it challenges them as they try to figure out who did it before the detective does, and also because, in most cases, the characters in a mystery book are interesting and people want to know what happens to them. In the case of my book, I have written Scorbion and the supporting characters as colorful individuals who, hopefully, become a reader’s friends during the course of the book. Also, as opposed to hard-core bloody thrillers, Scorbion’s kind of mystery is lighter fare that won’t make you cringe. Hopefully it will make people smile. In fact, Nancy Pickard, one of mystery writing’s most decorated authors, talks about how much she laughed out loud while reading the book. To be clear though, the book is not a comedy, it’s a full-on mystery with humorous elements.
I find it gratifying that the book has appealed to authors who write in many different genres, all of whom have endorsed it. People just plain like a fun whodunit with interesting cases and good characters.
EB: Scorbion has a whole ensemble of helpers — the Barbershop detectives — what’s their function in the story?
RB: They serve as his foils and assistants and lend color, humor and interest to the book. They help him solve cases, and together become an ensemble that hopefully readers enjoy meeting and knowing. The female bookshop owner serves in that role as well, but also becomes a love interest for Scorbion. She is beautiful and brilliant — a match for Scorbion — and provides a voice for the modern woman of 1910 as she engages in the women’s suffragette movement and other causes. The young reporter serves as Scorbion’s chronicler, somewhat in the way that Watson was for Homes, but also contributes a different perspective at times for Scorbion to consider.
EB: The story and the roles of all the characters was really complex, so there was a lot for you to keep track of, it seemed. Any tricks you can share about the plotting a mystery?
RB: I didn’t start with an outline or anything like that. In fact, I started writing Scorbion as a short story in 2015. I, and the Ashland writing group that I was a member of at the time, so fell in love with him and his associates, that I wrote a second short story. Then, I just kept writing and writing until I expanded the stories to become this book.
You are totally correct, it is complex, and during the writing, I had to continually go back and remind myself what had happened previously in the story, so I made sure to have the entire book be consistent. I also regularly returned to the earlier parts of the book and added more red-herrings and plot points to make the story work to its fullest.
All that said, I didn’t know exactly where the book was going at any specific time. I am fortunate that the characters/story plays out in my head almost as though I am watching a movie of it and my job is to write down what I’m seeing in my mind and make sure I describe it in a way that the reader sees what I see and meets the people I meet.
Also, I did a ton of research for the book. I wanted to make sure it was accurate to the time period and the place (even though Haxford is a fictional town). Also, in the book I incorporated real-life people and events that were taking place in both England and in the world at that time so I had to make certain that everything felt and read like it could have really happened.
EB: I think you’ve mentioned that you have a series in mind? What’s Scorbion’s next case?
RB: I am pleased to say that at this time, the next Scorbion book is written, and those who have read the early, unfinished manuscript have said they love it — which of course, I’m very pleased about. The next cases Scorbion and his amateur sleuths take on are a hot-air balloonist who is shot and killed by an arrow while aloft alone in the balloon, a blacksmith who is murdered on his way home from birthing twin calves, a usurious money lender who suddenly dies in one of the barbers’ chairs and a visiting cousin of one of the characters who is attacked and left unconscious.
EB: What else are you working on?
RB: For Scorbion, video game developers FalconInteractive are creating a Scorbion “find the hidden objects” video game, centered around the book, its scenes and the characters. The game is free and already in app stores, but the last two of the six levels are locked, and the unlock code is in the book and audiobook.
I have also written, played and recorded a theme song for Scorbion called — what else(?) — “Scorbion’s Theme.” It will be in the audiobook and the video game, is in the video trailer for the book and will be used other places as well. In addition, Blackstone and I are making Scorbion T-shirts for both promotional purposes and to sell.
There’s a fabulous video trailer for the book on my YouTube channel (and Blackstone’s as well). I had no idea that the video maker was going to use me in it as the voiceover, but he did, and I think it came out really well.
I have just completed having my new website created — rickbleiweiss.com — and one of the unique features in it is a listing of most every independent bookstore in the U.S. so that people can find ones in their area easily. At present the list is over 1,300 bookstores. I am a huge supporter of independent bookstores and libraries. Also on the website is a Cast of Characters for the Scorbion book.
I have created and am hosting a YouTube video show called Rick Bleiweiss’s Chapter & Verse. Each “episode” is a recorded video conversation between me and a best-selling author, literary agent, film/tv executive and others from the literary and entertainment industries talking about their careers, their books, their jobs and giving advice for aspiring authors and tips on writing. I am in the process of repurposing the audio tracks into a podcast. As of this writing the Chapter & Verse sessions I’ve done, or have on tape, include ones with authors Catherine Coulter, PC Cast, Rex Pickett, Heather Graham, Andrews & Wilson, Susan Purvis, and Howard Bloom, as well as literary agent Mark Gottlieb, TV/film executive Brendan Deneen, author/agent Richard Curtis, and agents Nicole Resciniti & Julie Gwinn. Many more to come. I think of it as the “Inside the Actor’s Studio” for authors and writing.
For the past two years I’ve been writing, playing and recording pop/rock songs with singers Jake Howard and William Ray. And lastly, at least for now, I am finishing up a science fiction rock opera that I have co-written with an ex-bandmate of mine (from back when I was a working rock musician) called “The Eye of Jupiter.” It’s something like what “Star Wars” would be like if it was a musical combined with the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” The demo music from the rock opera and my other recordings can be accessed through my second website, rickbleiweissmisc.com.
“Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives” publishes on Feb. 8, 2022, and is available as a hardcover, eBook or audiobook most everywhere (on-line and at brick and mortar locations), including Bloomsbury Books in Ashland, where the author has autographed all 35 available copies. This interview was originally published Jan. 9, 2022, on the Literary Ashland website. The version here has been lightly edited for style and length. Southern Oregon University English Professor Edwin Battistella’s latest book, “Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels,” was released by Oxford University Press in March 2020.