by Chris Dolan
Dave Terruso is a genuinely funny guy; he hosts at Helium Comedy Club in Center City and performs stand-up frequently around the Philadelphia area.
He is also an inquisitive guy, asking his married interviewer, “Where is your wedding ring?”…and, in doing so, getting a story about the ring’s whereabouts and inscription.
We met at Urban Saloon in Fairmount to discuss his latest project, an office murder-mystery novel he’s written entitled Cube Sleuth. The book draws on elements from Terruso’s own (admittedly hated) former office job, and revolves around the main character’s search for the killer of his best friend/coworker, set against the backdrop of a typical corporate cubicle farm.
Chris Dolan: A book is a big endeavor. How did you decide to write a book, and settle on the subject matter and whatnot?
Dave Terruso: I’ve been writing books since I was 11. I wrote a short story—it was both sides of one page—about vampires. I read it to my parents and they clapped. So I said “This is what I’m gonna do for my whole life.” And then I got my own typewriter and wrote my first 100-page novel. I wrote six more before the one I just published. So it’s always been y’know, what’s the next project? When I started my job, the job that I talk about in the book, I started writing screenplays. I wrote five of those. This novel was the first one I wrote after the screenplays, so I was kind of going back to my original form. And the idea for the book just came from hating my job so much and being bored there and just thinking this would be a really strange place to set a murder mystery. Murder mysteries are usually about exotic things and characters, locations…interesting people with dark secrets. I wanted to write about boring people without anything to hide.
CD: Were any of those books you wrote when you were younger murder mysteries or was this your first?
DT: I wrote a book after Cube Sleuth which is another murder mystery. I’ve written a bunch of different things but this is the one that I feel at home with the most. As a kid I liked murder mysteries and watching all those movies. Presumed Innocent was like a big inspiration for me. It’s partly an inspiration for this book.
CD: Greta Scacchi….whoa.
DT: It’s a good movie. As a kid I recognized it as a good movie and as an adult, I read the book and knew this was something cool. I did write a murder mystery when I was 13 or 14 and I made my mom the main character. So this is kind of the adult version of that. I won’t always write mysteries. I write straight comedy things and I like sci-fi and stuff, but in general I think I’m a mystery writer. Even if I write a sci-fi thing it’ll be a sci-fi mystery. I think that’s the way the human mind works. You’re trying to figure out the puzzle of something. You go on a date with someone, you’re trying to figure them out. And you ask them questions and you listen to their answers and you learn from what they ask you.
CD: Did you solve the Cube Sleuth mystery in your mind and then work your way back? Or did you evolve the story to the point where you ended it the way you wanted?
DT: I’ve heard some mystery writers don’t have the ending when they start writing; I don’t understand that. I know. I do a ton of planning before I sit down. I knew the ending first. I have five main events that I know are going to happen that flesh out the story, and then I outline, and I leave the rest to the moment. The five events remain the same, but there are other little twists and turns. That’s the fun part for me. I’ve got to let the characters go where they want to go.
CD: There’s a line that describes a female character’s voice “like tiny marshmallows melting in hot chocolate.” Do you have turns of phrase that are in your head and you apply them to specific characters? How do you know when you want to use simile or metaphor?
DT: I try to just write the way I speak. And I usually speak in a visual sense…even the stand-up that I do I’m trying to get an idea into your head, so I compare something to something else. I could never explain how that woman’s voice sounded to me…the key or the tone of voice, but I could say it sounds to me like tiny marshmallows melting in hot chocolate. And hopefully the reader’s brain can put that together. But no, I don’t have anything prepared ahead of time.
CD: Do you have an editor?
DT: I’m an editor myself. So I do that myself. I read somewhere that you never finish a book, you just stop revising. For me, I write the rough draft, I revise it to where it’s readable and then I give it to a bunch of people that I trust—I have a lot of English major friends and editors—I let them read it. And [as it relates to the mystery] I see what they figured out and what they didn’t, and then try to scale back. I think I err on the side of giving too many clues. People [reading the draft] are like “I’ve figured it out already”…So then I scale it back.
Then there’s this thing of…like knowing you’re in love or something, you just go, “it’s done.” So I get this settled feeling in my mind.
CD: You’ve mentioned you have another book project or projects in the queue?
DT: I just finished the rough draft of the new book 3 weeks ago. So now I’ll revise it to where it’s readable and give it to my friends. I quit my job and I need to sell the book soon so this will be like a faster thing.
CD: Will you have a launch event?
DT: I will probably do an event. I was thinking about doing a show where people would pay $15 for the show and get the book for coming.
CD: So you do sketch, stand-up, writing…improv too?
DT: I did improv. When I was 24 I joined an improv group for a year. I did sketch for eight years, and then five years in I started doing stand-up ’cause I kinda knew I’d be going off on my own at some point. And now stand-up has been my sole comedy thing for the last four years.
CD: Do you still watch sketch or improv?
DT: I’m still into all forms. I’m probably going to be doing sketch again soon. Kevin Regan and Alli Soowal asked me to do something with them. Sketch is my number one love, comedy-wise. It combines the things that I do the most which is write, act and perform. Stand-up does it, too, but I like to be a character. Sketch gives me that. I’ll always come back to sketch.
CD: Apropos of nothing, I interviewed Sidney Gantt recently about the Captain Action Comedy Show and he just raved about you. Your sketch and improv abilities have definitely helped you in terms of thinking on your feet, in that particular forum.
DT: I feel like every comedian should do improv because it just informs everything you do. If you get heckled you’re like “I got this.” You can’t really throw me on stage. Because for a year I got on stage with nothing in my head except for what the audience yelled out. It’s a different kind of confidence.
CD: Who are the comics that you like and have influenced you, from any genre?
DT: My big five of living comedians right now are Patton Oswalt, Louis CK, Bill Burr, Paul F. Tompkins and Dana Gould. I got to open for Dana Gould and he was amazing. I begged the club to let me open for him. You don’t get to ask who you open for. I said I’d work for free, and I didn’t get it, but the guy who was supposed to do it was in LA and they called me. The manager of the club, Jeff, who likes to give me shit, came back stage and told the [Gould] how much I idolized him. [But] I try never to be starstruck I don’t want to make them uncomfortable.
CD: People say it’s a bummer to meet your heroes. What was that like?
DT: It’s not true. Dana Gould does this huge bit about meeting Bob Hope and how it was terrible and how Hope was a shithead to him, and [Gould] said “Don’t meet your heroes.” When I heard that I laughed, ’cause he was so nice to me, he’s a writer, he [at the time] was writing a pilot for a show…
CD: He wrote for The Simpsons, too.
DT: Yes, he’s amazing. And I was sitting backstage and editing my new book ’cause there’s so much down time. And he saw me and asked what I was writing and he said “that’s a really good idea for a book.” So he was totally cool. I haven’t been disappointed by anybody [who I’ve hosted for].
CD: Any last words about Cube Sleuth?
DT: It’s dirty in a fun way; people should know that if they decide to buy the book.
Chris Dolan is a stand-up comic who lives in the Montco burbs. He’ll be appearing in the Comedy Showcase at Puck Live! (1 Printers Alley, Doylestown) on March 28th.