Kaufman Shares His Crime Story
Award-winning cinematographer and author speaks at Duncan Library
Thomas Kaufman, award-winning cinematographer and author, spoke at Duncan Library on Thursday evening as part of the monthly author talks put on by the Friends of Duncan Library. His appearance rounded out a book tour which began in March in support of his first novel, "Drink the Tea."
As a cinematographer, Kaufman has worked on campaign films for Barack Obama, FBI training productions as well as the "The FBI Files," "The Prosecutors" and "New Detectives" for Discovery. Kaufman has also worked on hundreds of documentaries, including the Academy Award-nominated "Promises to Keep," a film centered around a man's four-year struggle to help the homeless.
"Drink the Tea" is a crime novel set in Kaufman's hometown of Washington, D.C. It follows a man named Willis Gidney who grew up homeless and without parents, making his rounds through the juvenile justice system before being taken in by a captain of the D.C. police. Rising to become a private investigator, Gidney takes an assignment from a good friend asking him to find his missing daughter.
Kaufman pulled inspiration for his novel from several different sources. As a college student, he was given a copy of "Farewell, My Lovely" by Raymond Chandler, which started his love for private-eye novels. The back story of his main character was inspired by his work on "Promises to Keep." He also interviewed friends who covered the juvenile justice system for the Washington Post to supplement Gidney's past.
One of Kaufman's biggest inspirations, however, came while eating dinner at a Mexican restaurant in the 1980s with a successful Mexican-American woman. Kaufman's friend was very rude and sarcastic toward their Mexican-American waitress, and her behavior got him thinking about "Drink the Tea."
"I started to think about what would make a person do that," Kaufman said. "When people act this way, something is out of whack for them… that was her way of correcting some sort of imbalance… and that was kind of the genesis of it all."
During his talk, Kaufman read an excerpt of his novel and fielded questions from the audience about the book as well as his work as a cinematographer.
Andrew Sulavik, who ended up buying a copy of the book, was very impressed by Kaufman's talk.
"I thought he was very, very good," Sulavik said. "I'm a Raymond Chandler fan, big time."
In 2008, "Drink the Tea" won first place in a competition put on by New York publishing company St. Martin's Press for Best Private Eye Novel. The competition is held every year for unpublished writers in four categories. Winners receive a $10,000 advance and the opportunity to have their book published.
Kaufman heard about the contest from a fellow student at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, Md. He researched the contest but was hesitant to submit his novel.
"I thought 'Boy, you know, it's going to cost me six dollars to mail this manuscript,'" Kaufman joked. "'I'm not sure it's worth it. '"
He ended up mailing it in and promptly forgot about it. Months later, he discovered he had won.
"I needed to make sure they had the right Thomas Kaufman," he joked.
While working as a cinematographer, Kaufman found time to write on the road, completing the majority of the novel in airplanes and hotel rooms. He even wrote a chapter in a Chuck E. Cheese, where a friend of his son's was having a birthday party.
"When you write, it's kind of like meditating," Kaufman said. "When you get in the habit of doing it, then you can be almost anywhere."
The Friends of Duncan Library have been running the author talks for the last four years, and in most cases, the local authors will contact them about being scheduled. However, Thomas Kaufman's appearance came about a little differently.
"Someone had just left Tom's information on my desk with a little bookmark," said Renee Dipilato, branch manager at Duncan. "We actually contacted him to see if was interested."
"Drink the Tea" is the first book in a series of three that St. Martin's Press will be publishing, all featuring Kaufman's protagonist. The sequel—entitled "Steal the Show"—will be released next summer and Kaufman has already completed the majority of the third book.
"There has been two parts of this that have been really fun," Kaufman said. "One of them is getting to know my lead character… and the other is getting comments from people have read the book. It's been really great."
Kaufman's talk was the feature event of Duncan Library's annual Holiday Open House, which also featured a performance by Project Natale, a local jazz band.