From Monk to Mystery: How Hy Conrad’s TV Writing Career Shaped His Literary Success (Silicon Valley Times 3/2/23)

May 24, 2023

Hy Conrad has crafted a thriving career focusd on the realm of murder, earning esteemed recognitions like the 2022 Independent Press Award for Best Mystery for his work on “The Fixer’s Daughter” and the 2022 NYC Big Book Awards for Best Mystery Series, encompassing both “The Fixer’s Daughter” and “Sins of the Family.” Moreover, Conrad’s exceptional novel “Mr. Monk Helps Himself” garnered him the distinguished Scribe Award for Best Novel, while his contributions to the “Monk” TV series granted him three Edgar nominations from the Mystery Writers of America. Along his remarkable journey, Conrad has created captivating games and interactive films, penned a multitude of engaging short stories, and authored twelve books showcasing solvable mysteries, which have been translated into over 15 languages. Noteworthy among his accomplishments is his prominent role as a writer/co-executive producer for the groundbreaking TV series “Monk,” spanning eight seasons. Additionally, Conrad has lent his talents to other notable shows such as “White Collar” and “The Good Cop.” 

In his personal life, he divides his time between Vermont and Key West, where he resides with his husband and beloved miniature schnauzers.

Monk has received critical acclaim and numerous awards. Did you anticipate the level of success the show achieved, and how did it feel to see it resonate with audiences?

When Monk was sold to the network, Andy Breckman needed ideas and writers. He happened to find some books of mine in a bookstore and asked me to come in for a meeting. From the minute he showed me the pilot, I knew he was doing something special. The humor was gentle and sophisticated, and the story was solid. I wound up having the great good luck of being the mystery guy in a room of comedy writers. No matter what else I write, Monk will be a highlight of my career. At one point, during season two, we were on three networks – USA, ABC and NBC, which used some episodes when there were unexpected events, like rain delays for baseball games. Monk was so different for its time and its fans remain loyal. Anyone who has any issues with social anxiety can latch onto the premise and love the show.

What are some of the unique challenges and rewards of writing a book series, particularly one that continues a beloved television series?

The reward is that I’m writing from a template that is proven to work and has a devoted following. The challenge is that I can only take the character so far before betraying the essence of what the reader wants. A writer wants every book to make progress for the characters and lead the reader someplace new. But that’s not what the reader wants, especially a reader who may not be reading them in any particular order. Monk prided itself on having stand-alone stories that can be viewed in any order. That meant having characters that stay the same. Conan Doyle ran into a similar dilemma. People wanted Sherlock Holmes to never change, and every effort that Doyle made to alter the dynamic was met with resistance. Even when he finally killed off Holmes, the public wouldn’t accept it. After years of pressure, Holmes wound up being resurrected and moving back in with Dr. Watson.

Humor plays a significant role in many of your books, adding an entertaining element to the stories. How do you balance humor with the serious elements of a mystery, and what role does comedy play in your writing process?

I don’t know what it is that makes some writers always see the humor in a circumstance, but that’s the way I’m wired. When writing an interrogation scene, for example, it will occur to me that the suspect may be hungry or need to use the bathroom, and soon that will work its way in, perking up the scene and leading it in a different direction. Part of it may come from working with comedy writers for so many years. For me, the trick is to balance the lightness with real stakes, to make the detective, and thereby the audience, get emotionally involved. I’m at the stage where I’ll often take out a comedic moment and just the drama play out. When the comedy does come back in, however, I hope it can make an even bigger impact.

Writing is often a solitary endeavor. How do you stay motivated and overcome challenges during the writing process, and are there any specific strategies or techniques that help you maintain productivity?

Writing is what I do, so that discipline, by itself, is a built-in motivator. I figure that some people have to do a crossword puzzle every morning to get their day going. I have to sit down and kill someone. It’s a habit. On top of that, a few things help. I like having a little spa music in the background, something without lyrics. And strangely, I find myself making notes in the plural. “We need to emphasize X.” or “Let’s re-do this.” I guess it makes me feel that there’s someone else in the room – perhaps the detective. 

In your mystery novels, you create intricate puzzles and plot twists. Can you share some insights into your writing process for crafting compelling mysteries that keep readers engaged and guessing until the end?

I have always started with the twist and worked backwards. What do I need to do to make this twist believable? How do I hide the twist until just the right moment. I work from a very short outline. I know the beginning, and I know the end. Everything else I make up as I go. That keeps things fresh and unpredictable. But it also creates a lot of extra work. I constantly have to go back and rewrite, retrofitting new clues into earlier scenes. This happens dozens of times in a book and it’s difficult to keep it all straight. If I ever start to lose my memory, I don’t know what I’ll do. On the plus side, the reader is usually surprised and delighted, and the story is always more than I could have plotted out in advance. For me, the goal is to make it all seem simple and inevitable, like a swan gliding on a lake, never revealing all the feverish paddling going on below the surface.

Bonus – Are there any writing rituals or habits that you find helpful in maintaining your creativity and discipline?

I like being apart and undisturbed in my writing room, but I also like having the outside world just outside my door, reminding me that I’m not alone. I don’t think I could ever do a real writer’s retreat. It would seem too focused and boring. Too much pressure. I also can’t write when I’m hungry. Ray Romano named his production company “Where’s Lunch?” I get it. 

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