Wednesday, December 26, 2012

David Abrams talks about Fobbit, screwball comedy, being paid to read the Bible, and so much more

David Abrams debut, Fobbit, a harrowingly funny novel about the Iraq War, was not only a New York Times notable book of 2012, but it zoomed onto the Best Books Lists from Barnes & Noble, Paste, Amazon, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Publishers Weekly--and my own personal list, too. He's also the genius behind the blog, The Quivering Pen, and truthfully, one of the warmest, most hilarious human beings on the planet. I'll thrilled to finally have him on the blog! Thank you, David!

So, every writer's least favorite question, sometimes, but the one readers always want to know: Tell us what sparked the writing of Fobbit?

What sparks any novel?  A word?  An image?  An off-hand comment from a co-worker, a spouse, or a stranger?  In the case of Fobbit, it was a little of all of that.  Maybe it was the fact that I read Catch-22, Don Quixote, and Jarhead on my first deployment into a war zone (Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2005).  Maybe it was the time when I was sitting at my desk in the U.S. Army’s Task Force Baghdad Headquarters and someone in the next cubicle was complaining about a paper cut they’d just gotten after a printer jam while, at the same time, we were hearing a report through the overhead speakers of another casualty in the war—a soldier blown apart into five different pieces from a roadside bomb.  Or maybe it was my agent emailing me—after unsuccessfully shopping around my “Iraq War memoir” manuscript to New York publishers—to advise that maybe what this war really needed was a novel—a work of fiction that would hit home to a reading public who’d grown numb to a nation at war.  It was all of those things—a culmination of factors that led me to turn away from truthfully recounting my year-long deployment to Iraq as a much-despised “fobbit” and focus on the medium of lies instead.  Near the end of my tour of duty, I realized fiction would be the most effective megaphone I could use to tell people about my war experience.  And so, I set to work writing a comedy about my days in Baghdad with the 3rd Infantry Division.

Fobbit's been compared to Catch-22 in its wild, black humor and its raw look at the War. You even include a funny homage to Heller's book in your novel, by having a character reading Catch-22. Does this fantastic comparison make you more nervous about writing your next book or does it save you, or a little of both? 

The debt I owe Joseph Heller for artistic inspiration is incalculable—as is the debt I owe Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, Charles Dickens, Richard Ford, Flannery O’Connor, Victor Hugo, and any number of other literary lampposts which have lit my path.  In the case of Catch-22, it obviously had a direct impact in the way Fobbit turned out and since I knew the comparisons would be inevitable, I decided to give the book its own little cameo in my novel.  I read Heller’s novel for the first time when I was on my way to war—literally on my way: I started on page 1 after I’d boarded the plane at Fort Stewart, Georgia and had reached the midway point by the time we touched down in Kuwait, the 3rd ID’s staging ground before we moved north to Iraq.  Catch-22 was unlike anything I’d ever read.  There’s slapstick on one page and horror on the next.  It’s not an easy book to read; it’s illogical and irrational in structure; there are as many characters as an Osmond Family Thanksgiving guest list; and you have to work your way toward its pleasures….but when you get there, those rewards are immeasurable.  I should add that Catch-22 is not the only influence behind Fobbit.  I was raised on a diet of TV shows that poked fun at the military: Hogan’s Heroes, Gomer Pyle, and M*A*S*H.  Those shows were subversive and, though I didn’t realize it at the time, they set the stage for the way I always root for the underdog.  The little guys (the privates) always got their way while the higher echelons (the officers) came off looking like fools.  Discipline was turned upside down, creating chaos.  And out of that chaos came comedy.  So Fobbit is as much Gomer Pyle as it is Yossarian.

I loved that you focused on the noncombat units of the Iraq War. As a former army public affairs specialist, you have an insider's unique perspective, so how much is exaggerated and how much is dead-on true?

If comedy is truth stretched out on a wad of Silly-Putty, then there’s probably a lot of truth at the heart of Fobbit.  I don’t think I want to get into naming the specific elements of the novel which really happened or are daily practices of the Army at war because nearly everything in the novel is a hybrid—a fictual faction—but I can tell you there are two sections of the book which stick pretty close to the truth: the tragic scene at the on Al-Aaimmah bridge where nearly a thousand Iraqis were killed in a stampede; and Captain Abe Shrinkle’s flashback to a disastrous date in high school.  The bridge stampede happened while I was in Iraq, and that date was pretty close to my own romantic fumble in junior high.  For the rest of the book, I tried to filter the essence of truth through comedy.  While I was writing Fobbit, I kept circling back to one of my favorite quotes from Flannery O’Connor: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”  In order to get readers’ attention, I did a lot of shouting and billboard-painting in this book.

What's your writing life like?

I balance my writing routine with the demands of a full-time day job, and the pleasures of a very rich, happy married life (my wife and I are empty-nesters now, but we like to spend most of our time together).  These things squeeze the rest of my day into small compartments.  So, in my quest for better time management, I’ve started getting up at 3:30 every morning to work on my creative writing.  The house is dark and quiet.  It’s just me, the keyboard, a mug of coffee, and my classical music iTunes playlist.  It’s an ungodly hour, but I find these are my most fertile hours.  Sadly, I don’t spend all of those hours writing fiction.  Lack of self-discipline is the biggest monster on my back.  That’s why you’ll usually find me checking email, Tweeting, blogging, and any number of other distractions when I should be writing fiction.  When I do write, it’s usually in these big bursts—lung-burning sprints to a finish line—where I write an entire short story in one sitting, or spend three days in isolation trying to get through 50 pages of my novel.

What's obsessing you now and why?

Apart from my blog, The Quivering Pen, which is always an obsession, I’ve been consumed with revising my next novel.  It’s a screwball comedy set in the Golden Age of Hollywood—something pretty far removed from the bloody grit of the Iraq War.  In a nutshell, it’s about a popular child actor and his adult stunt double and the trouble they get into when the kid kills a rival studio’s mascot—a scrappy little dog who always opened the studio’s films with a “Yip-yip-a-rooo!” similar to the MGM lion’s roar.  On a larger level, it’s about identity, loyalty, and the conflict of protecting someone you’ve grown to dislike.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

You didn’t ask me about the time my father, a Baptist minister, paid me to read the Bible (I made it as far as Leviticus that year and earned $35); the name of my first dog (Shane, a chocolate Labrador Retriever); three things I love about my wife (her sense of fairness, the depth of her voice, and the way she collapses with laughter when I’m on a really good roll with snappy one-liners); my favorite non-writing, non-reading passion (cooking); the two TV shows which didn’t deserve to die early deaths (Southland and Better Off Ted); which type of chocolate I prefer (milk); and the moment I really, truly grew up (September 22, 1984 when my first child was born: For nine months, he’d been this mystery--identity unknown, a shifting shape behind the barrier of my wife's skin--but now here he was, pink and wet and complete, coming out of my wife's body with his arms springing open wide, as if he was at the end of a dream about falling from heaven).  But then again, how could you have known those were the questions you should have asked?

The Quivering Pen, a blog about books
Follow David on Facebook
Follow David on Twitter: @ImDavidAbrams

The divine Meg Pokrass interviews the sublime Bill Roorbach about why books are alive, Life Among Giants and so much more

Life Among Giants is one of my favorite books of the year and I'm so thrilled that Meg Pokrass in interviewing the author, Bill Roorbach. He's penned eight books, including the Flannery O'Connor Prize and O. Henry Prize winner Big Bend, Into Woods and Temple Stream, and his craft book, Writing Life Stories, is used in writing programs around the world. Recently Bill was even a judge on Food Network All Star Challenge, evaluating incredible life stories cakes. . His work has been published in Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, The New York Times Magazine, Granta, New York, and dozens of other magazines and journals. A comic video memoir about his tragic music career, "I Used to Play in Bands," and all kinds of other work, including a current blog on writers and writing and just about everything else (with author David Gessner) is online at  Thank you so, so much, Bill and Meg!

MP: Please talk about character development in writing Life Among Giants. Where do your very real characters spring from? How do we find characters both within ourselves and outside of ourselves as writers? How much happens IN the process of writing?  Anything here relating to process of character development?

BR: It still really amazes me how people emerge as soon as I start writing about them.   In this case, I got a kid named David “Lizard” Hochmeyer talking, telling a story I had no idea what it would be.  He was smart, personable, huge, a great athlete, nothing like me, except in his interest in dance.  Which in his case has to do with a world-famous ballerina who lives in a mansion across the way.  He goes over there to rescue her and fate is unleashed.  So then I have to find out who she is.  It all happens in the process of writing, since I count the daydreaming before and during the making of the book part of the process.  And Life Among Giants has a lot of characters from all kinds of backgrounds.  I built them from scraps in my head, bits and pieces of all the people I’ve met, my own emotions, my own experiences, experiences I’ve heard about, read about, mused.  Much comes from research, though never immediately.  Lizard ends up in the NFL—I had to study to get some sense of what that life would be like.  He’s a chef in the end.  I worked in restaurants and love to cook, so I had some clues, but really Lizard had to tell me what it was really like, and he was glad to.

MP: So, maybe your brain is full of people you know, or have met, or have seen glimpses of.  Maybe some people are real and others are absorbed over your lifetime from books or movies?

BR: No, once they’re in my brain, they’re not real.  Right? 

MP… and all of this mixes with who you are and the way you see. I love the idea that you are coaxing your characters out in the process of writing them. This leads me to think we are all far more multifaceted than we know we are, and only as writers when we sit down to write does this actually become clear.  Your brain is like a big world.

BR: : It’s a big multi-media machine, and we are the original cloud.

MP: Have you had mentors in your writing life at different points? Can you talk about the importance of mentors here a bit?

BR: I don't know what it is with me and mentors.  I have always resisted them and so never really have had a long-term mentor.  Great teachers, though.  One in college told me I’d never be a writer, and that’s what made me a writer.  Philip Lopate was a big influence in grad school, got me writing personal essays, oddly in a fiction class he taught.

MP: Who are your heroes? 

BR: Van Morrison.  Alice Munro.  The secular Jesus.  Nureyev.  Tom Brady.  Bernie Sanders.  Bobby Flay.  Etc.
MP: Who are your favorite filmmakers?

BR: Sofia Coppola.

MP: What makes us love (not just identify with) a character/ a voice?

BR: I don’t know, of course.  But I think it’s similar to what makes friendship possible: vulnerability, and something in return.  

MP: Giants on the Road: How has your book tour been? Please give us highlights and terrify us with stories about the first leg of this journey. 
BR: This tour is nuts and great, so old-fashioned.  i feel so lucky and exhausted.  Highlights have been Big Hat Books in Indianapolis, so fun and cozy, with bottles of wine and good talk beforehand, and a low-key talk.  
Plus, my second cousin Gay Burkhart turned up.  She said my late mother was the funniest woman she ever met.  She is the granddaughter of my grandfather's older brother.  And looks a little like my mom.  
Low point was probably Dayton, Ohio, where I don't know anyone and where I had the wrong address for the store I was supposed to talk at, ending up at a mall with no bookstore at all!  Scramble, scramble and I barely made it to the right address on time.  And no one there.  But then turn up a couple, the female of which is the sister of a FB friend of mine, all the connection we needed to go out and have a drink after, lifesaving.  The next morning to Miami, which was great.  Then, two days offish and time with my old guitar friend Jonny Z, plus swimming and biking and general debauchery.  
Next up to Atlanta, where lots of my family lives.  Fun!  And a great talk at the Georgia Center for the Book, great crowd, given all the family, but also a big glowing full-page review in the Atlanta paper.  Boston a couple of nights ago, or Andover, actually, Boston area, really nice store in a really nice town.  Then home, with a couple of stops to sign books informally at stores I'm happy to say had books to sign!  Home to 12 hours sleep, which I haven't done since I was 12 months old. 

MP: Well, all of this sounds terribly lively. Bill, books are DEAD, aren’t they?

BR: Books are alive.  They are just hiding.  Though they recognize their allies and emerge just when we need them. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Is This Tomorrow now on NetGalley

I'm thrilled and honored to have Is This Tomorrow now on NetGalley. If you're a reviewer, librarian, blogger or educator, you may be able to read my novel for free on your e-reader. Click here for details. Plus, check out the other Algonquin titles!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Meg Pokrass interviews Jonathan Evison, who talks about why he's the last person on earth you'd want health tips from, social networking, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving and so much more


Fellow Algonquin author. The most generous writer you'll ever meet. Smart. Funny and deeply talented. All adjectives to describe Jonathan Evison, bestselling, rapturously praised author of West of here and The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving. I'm thrilled that Meg Pokrass (who is also, smart, funny, generous, and deeply talented) is doing these honors. Thank you both!

MP: My background was in theater, I acted for many years. When the run of a show ends, it was very sad. Not only are you saying goodbye to real people (your fellow actors) you are also saying goodbye to your character, both internally and externally. Closing nights were sad as hell for me...This leads me to a question about completion in novel-writing.  When a novel has been completed, is there a feeling that may be akin to an actor's closing night performance? Do you continue to experience your character's perspectives for a while?

JE: Well, see, they're never quite done, as with a theater production. Not until my editor pries them from my hand. I just keep working them and working them until that day. The truth is, by the time they're actually "done"--if I've done my job right-- I should be sick of them. But the characters really do live with me forever, like dead people. Even closer than dead people, really, because their hopes and fears were my hopes and fears. Long after I put them on the shelf, I still see things as my characters would have seen them. In this way, the whole act of novel writing makes me more expansive person.

MP: Please talk about the crucial ingredient/ingredients toward developing real characters,  creating fictional people who you make become real, and who we care about… 

JE: If I have one native skill, or gift, it is that I am empathic, and always have been. I relish perspectives outside of my own. I want to see the world through as many eyes as I possibly can, and my characters allow me to do that--or at least approximate doing that. It is a privilege and a joy to inhabit my characters-- to suffer and rejoice with them, to feel their aches, to learn from their experience, to taste their victories and defeats. I get to climb mountains, and buried loved ones, and feel in full measure, the gratitude and regret of my characters. Ultimately, I get to redeem them. And all without getting out of my pajamas.

MP: A strong natural sense of empathy seems an essential trait for a novelist.  I remember an interview/discussion between Daniel Handler and Richard Ford here at City Arts and Lectures. Handler asked Ford "How do we create loveable characters? Any thoughts on this subject of developing likeable and/or lovable characters?

JE: Well, love them. Be fair to them. Make them suffer, but don't forsake them. Do not condemn them, or judge them, with your mighty authorial voice. Don't be disgusted by them when they're at their very worst, which is often. Inhabit you characters, body and soul, and you will love them no matter how flawed they are.

MP: And, what is important to you when writing characters which are not particularly …er… lovable?

JE: The people you described sound like my heroes. I want my people to be as flawed as possible. All I ask of them is that they are making some small effort--and likely failing-- to get better, to improve themselves. Otherwise, I'm not interested in them. In this respect, I don't write characters I don't like, at least on some level. Except, say, for a few irredeemable villains, like John Tobin, in West of Here, who serves more as an instrument to the story than a character.

MP: What do you love the most about readings, and public appearances? What are some of the most special events you've experienced? Conversely, what is hard about being totally out there, on the road... Do you get tired and depleted?  Are there tricks to keeping yourself healthy and ways to combat some of this hectic-ness?

JE: After twenty years of having no readers at all, I really appreciate having them now. It is a pleasure to interact with people who want to talk about this thing that I love to do more than anything else, this thing I live to do. I love it most when I'm on the road, and I get kidnapped, by say, Jenny Shank and her merry band of pranksters in Denver, or the staff of Boswell Books in Milwaukee, and we go out and drink beer as a group have wonderful drunken discourse, and I get to know a town a little bit, bar by bar. Sometimes I'll get to take in a museum, or somebody will give me a driving tour of a city. As far as tips for staying healthy on the road, I'm the last person on earth you'd want tips from. I routinely fill my hotel bathtub with ice and load it up with a case of beer. I eat French Dips and pizza as much as anything else. I sleep about five hours a night, and unless I'm lucky enough to have an off-day, I never exercise. I miss my family dearly, but I manage to keep myself busy, and mostly out of trouble. Of course, I get very little writing done, aside from notes, though the notes help so much in the gestation stage, which is usually where I'm at come tour time. So by the time I get back to my writing routine, I'm working with some pretty well developed material.

MP: How has Facebook and other social media been for you?  

JE: I love social networking. I like to hear as many voices as possible at all times. I love the great cacophony of humanity--and never before have I been able to sit on a great big virtual street corner like FB, and hear so many voices. I have an ungodly number of Facebook friends, but honestly, I've personally met probably 70% of them, if only briefly. Thus, being a FB friend is generally my second point of connectivity with a person. Not that I don't befriend people who reach out. In my opinion, social networking is only a good idea for those writers who really enjoy and embrace it. If you don't enjoy it, you're not bringing anything to the conversation, and people are gonna' get that. So, why bother? Also, FB and Twitter and and the like are an amazing resource, not only for topical stuff like news links, bet for stuff like: "Hey, we're looking for midwife in Kitsap County. Any recs?" Or, "Hey, know any great bars in Baltimore?"

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Want to read a preview of Is It Tomorrow? (May, Algonquin Books)

The Baby is taking a first step! If you'd like to read an excerpt (the novel will be published by Algonquin Books in May 2013), here's the link.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

And introducing...Is This Tomorrow cover

The baby is here! Delivery date is May7, 2013 

What does it mean to be an outsider in a community? How do we keep the ones we love safe? in 1950s suburbia, everything is meant to be perfect, even as paranoia about Communism and nuclear bombs winds its way through the supposed paradise. But when divorced, sensual-without-meaning-to-be, Jewish single mother Ava rents a house with her 12-year-old son, Lewis, she struggles to fit in and find her place in the neighborhood. Lewis finds solace with the only other two fatherless kids on the block, his best friends Jimmy and Rose, but when Jimmy vanishes one day, Ava is suddenly suspect and Lewis and Rose's life will be changed forever. A novel about people trying desperately to uncover secrets about the past--and about themselves. 

"From the lockstep '50s into the do-your-own-thing '60s, Caroline Leavitt follows her cast of lonely characters as they grapple with the sorrowful mystery of a missing child. 'Are any of our children safe?' one asks, and of course the answer is no, no one is. Like Mona Simpson's Off Keck Road, Is This Tomorrow is an intimate meditation on time, loss and destiny."
Stewart O'Nan, author of Emily, Alone and The Odds

“A beautiful free-spirited divorcee is shunned by her neighbors. A boy from that neighborhood goes missing. This is the engine that drives Leavitt’s latest story, a page turner from first to last. I loved the way Leavitt’s Mad Men-like examination of shifting American values dovetails with her vivid tale of heartbreak and hope. An enthusiastic thumbs-up from this grateful reader."
Wally Lamb, author of The Hour I First Believed, I Know This Much is True, She's Come Undone

"Leavitt’s first historical novel is a grand slam. Her attention to detail and dialogue are remarkable. The ratcheting tension as an Eisenhower era neighorhood searches for a missing boy-gripping. The resolution of the mystery years later, both heartbreaking and hopeful. I so admire Leavitt’s ability to pull you into the story, tie you up, and leave you guessing, until she masterfully guides you through the twists and turns towards, home. ” 
Lesley Kagan, author of Good Graces

"Leavitt asks the big, equivocal questions: What does it mean to be a mother, a family? What is the nature of identity? The answers will provoke you, frustrate you, rearrange your heart." Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of The Deep End of the Ocean and What We Saw At Night

"An expertly rendered novel that poignantly chronicles the aftermath of a family’s worst nightmare and its far-reaching devastation. At once haunting and elegant, Is This Tomorrow will leave the reader shattered and hopeful right up to the shocking end.” Heather Gudenkauf, author of The Weight of Silence

"Is This Tomorrow is the gripping tale of a boy gone missing in 1950s suburbs and of of those whose lives are enveloped, tangled and changed by the mystery: the missing boy’s sister, his best friend, and the divorced working mom who can’t fit into the neighborhood. With wit and a perfect eye into the human heart, Leavitt has given us a truly unique story of love, loyalty, loss, betrayal, secrets, healing—and a resolution you’ll never see coming. It’s everything you want in a novel.” 
Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Secret Life of Bees

"In her dynamic follow-up to Pictures of You, Leavitt has given us that rare and irresistible combination of tenderly crafted, richly layered and utterly believable characters I found myself caring about by page ten--and a crackling suspense story that just about explodes off the page. Call it a literary thriller: Is This Tomorrow reveals a world you will want to linger in, and secrets you’ll stay up late to untangle. Reading this story is a memorable and moving journey and one that (for those who don’t already love her work) reveals Leavitt to be a brave and humane writer who also understands what keeps us turning the pages.”
Joyce Maynard, author of The Good Daughters and Labor Day

Monday, December 3, 2012

Rochelle Jewell Shapiro talks about Kaylee's Ghost, inspiration, being a psychic, and so much more

Critically acclaimed novelist Rochelle Jewell Shapiro is an integral part of my life. I can't imagine the planet without her in it, both as friend, trusted reader, and totally mischievous partner-in-crime. But there's even more interesting about her. Her piece for the New York Times Lives, "The Medium Has A Message" reveals her whole  other life as a psychic. 

Her first novel, Miriam the Medium, published by Simon and Schuster, was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow award and on the list of summer reading at the Hartford Courant, and was highly successful in The U.S., the United Kingdom, Belgium and Holland. Her second novel, Kaylee's Ghost, a sequel, is just out now in paperback, and soon to be out as an ebook, and it already has a rave blurbs. Jillian Medoff, author of I Couldn't Love You More, calls it "whip-smart, funny and all too relatable." Dana Kennedy MSNBC correspondent and New York Times contributing writer, says it's "charming, warm and hilariously funny, filled with characters so memorable you expect them to come to dinner," and Robin Gorman Newman, associate producer of the play Motherhood Out Loud, says, Kaylee's Ghost is "heart-stopping, poignant and wryly comic."

About how far we'll go to protect our children, the nature of identity, and passed-on-through-the-generation gifts which may or may not turn out to be curses, Kaylee's Ghost is  a perfect holiday gift. And even better, Rochelle will happily supply signed, hand-drawn book plates for anyone who would like one. Just message her through her website. Or message me and I'll make sure she gets your address.

Thank you so much, Rochelle, for being here!

What lessons did you learn in the writing of that book that spurred you on with Kaylee's Ghost?

From writing Miriam the Medium, I learned that I didn’t have to know the entire plot beforehand. I could write what came to me and later worry (and I mean worry) over what order to put the scenes in. Where to begin? To end? My mind delivers images that I need to go with, whether they end up edited out of the book or not. There is no such thing as “wasted writing.”

Your New York Times Lives column, The Medium Has A Message was about your life as a phone psychic, and how sometimes, as soon as you say that is what you do, people look at you as if you've dropped IQ points. Do you find that this attitude is changing?

It’s definitely changing. Today, everyone wants to be a psychic. If they find out I’m a psychic, I’m treated to long stories of how psychic they are. And I mean “treated.” It’s exciting to live in an era where a psychic can be proud.

How does being a psychic inform your writing?

When I’m working as a psychic, I receive images and associations, scents and sounds. I feel sensations in my body that turn out to be a hint at what’s wrong with someone else. If I see a wedding ring cut in half, I know the marriage will end or has already ended. If I smell lavender, I know my Russian grandmother, my bubbie, from whom I inherited my gift, is somewhere around me, because she always puffed lavender talc on her creased neck. Sometimes I hear messages, a faraway voice telling me, “She owes me plenty.” When I’m writing, I also use all my senses and when I get that aha moment of insight where I see how things fit together, I know my sixth sense is at work too. All insight comes from ESP, the awakened dreamer, like Newton getting the formula for gravity by being bonked on the head with an apple while sleeping under a tree.  

What's your daily writing life like?

Gosh, I have to admit that I mostly write from 10:00 pm to 2:00 am. because all day I’m getting calls from clients or potential clients and or teaching a writing class at UCLA Extension. Late night is the bewitching hour for me.

What's obsessing you now and why?

The people left homeless from the storm, global warming that’s causing “the storm of the century” to occur twice in two years, the soldiers coming back with wounded bodies and psyches, whole countries subjected to tyrants and lawlessness, and my next novel which has been half-finished for way too long.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

You didn’t ask where my material comes from. Like myself, Miriam Kaminsky, the heroine of both Miriam the Medium and Kaylee’s Ghost is a phone psychic who lives in Great Neck, NY and has a pharmacist husband. But there’s more to it than that. I am driven to write about the immigrant experience and the shifting bonds between family members--how each one fights to hold onto an identity, even one as ill-fitting as the before-you-gained-twenty pounds-sweater. And most of all, I’m driven by the relationship between ourselves and our ghosts.    

Meg Pokrass interviews J. P. Smith, the author of 25 novels on writing, discipline, screenwriting and so much more

The author of 25 books and a screenwriter--what could make a more fascinating interview? Thank you, Meg Pokrass and J.P. Smith for this lively conversation!

JP, is it true that you have written 25 or so novels?  How many have been published? please discuss the  discipline of writing here, your own way...
I wrote twelve novels before my first, The Man from Marseille, was published in the UK in 1985 and in the US a year later. So I was writing a novel a year, and pretty much stuck to that regime for the years to come. I’ve published six, with my latest just out in November 2012, so that’s not a bad ratio. Many of those novels were written when I was living in England, and as they were left in a box with some old neighbors, they’re now as lost as the neighbors are. Some were, as I remember, pretty good, some not so terrific. 

As for the discipline involved, I began writing in 1973, when I took a teaching job at my old school in Westchester County, NY, thinly disguised as the protagonist’s children’s school in Airtight. I taught there for four years, and every day I’d come home and write twenty-five pages. By doing that I learned how to create a flow (which some readers still find a bit confounding) in my fiction, so that I could move fluidly between past and present, between memory and life. 

I suppose it was like a musician practicing for hours every day, simply learning the craft, working the scales, seeking just the right tone and touch. During those years before I moved to London it was impossible to get an agent without having been published, and vice-versa, but I kept querying agents and publishers, and eventually an editor at Little, Brown took an interest in my work. Until she disappeared, too. 

But it was when I moved to England, that I really began to learn the craft. I worked hard there, producing teleplays and novels, and in the afternoons walking the fossil-strewn beach (or strand, as it’s called). It was a pretty healthy regime. Writing teleplays in England gives you a sense of language can be a balm as well as a weapon. Many English dramas could be hugely successful just featuring two men and a bottle of Scotch in a drawing room. And then the woman enters, and the war begins over her. It gave me a sense of how to use dialogue in a natural and effective way.

As for discipline, I still can’t go a day without writing. Right now I’m working on a screenplay and have been writing a new novel, as well..

Discuss the process of taking your own work from a screenplay to a novel... what an adventure. And anything related to this process.

One of the great things about a screenplay is that it has to possess structure, whether in the traditional three-act form or in a variation of it. When turning that story into a novel—not a “novelization,” which is a whole other thing—you have at the very least an armature on which to apply all the important elements: the subtleties of character, the extended flashbacks, the sheer texture of a long work of fiction to create what the novelist Henry Green called the “long intimacy between strangers,” something that’s really not possible with a screenplay. So the screenplay becomes the skeleton of a much larger, wider and deeper work. And the great thing is that you have that structure to work with.

How do you  come to terms with what DOESN'T happen in screenwriting as we all know that is most of the business, the target audience being 14-year-old boys... and  so forth? What keeps an artist going in this tough environment?

The sheer craft of it. I love writing screenplays. It’s like beginning with a picture and turning it into a jigsaw puzzle for the audience to piece together. It’s full of rules—the traditional 120-page limit is now closer to 103 pages, especially for thrillers, even less for comedies—and though some young writers try to walk away from them, it’s not hard to see, when watching a movie, that certain things happen at certain times: the inciting incident ten minutes into the movie; the act one turn at around the 25-minute mark; the second act reversals; the third act denouement. 

It’s like when I asked my students to write a sonnet. They far preferred that to when I asked to write something in free verse. The sonnet is loaded with rules, and that makes the process somehow more compelling and engaging. It’s the difference between working with a recipe and throwing a handful of disparate ingredients at someone and simply saying, “Cook."

As for the business end of it, just as publishing has become far more difficult to break into these days, especially with the industry in a spiral of uncertainty, what with the popularity of e-books and the advent of companies such as Amazon getting into the business, selling screenplays (or even having them optioned) is very, very difficult. It costs comparatively very little to publish a book; it costs a great deal more, several millions, to make a movie. 

So development executives and producers are also very wary of taking on something new. If it failed it could lose their company millions of dollars and potentially cost them their jobs. It’s why one tends to see the same movie over and over again—the same comedies about 40-year-old guys acting as if they were nine, the same thrillers with the same old tropes. Then there are the vampire and zombie pictures, which I was long over when I was ten years old. I mean, what more can one say about these creatures? Though I still do love Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, even just for the mood and atmosphere of it.

Please talk about the value of mentors in your own life

When I’d just finished my first work of fiction, six months or so after completing grad school, I dropped a note to a former professor and mentor, John Morressy,  asking if he’d please read it. When I studied with him he’d already published two novels with Doubleday, campus satires similar to Lucky Jim, had been the youngest fiction writer to get published in Esquire magazine, and was branching out in his career to writing science fiction and fantasy, where he really made his name. He very kindly read my deathless prose and wrote me an important letter. He wrote that the book shouldn’t be shown to publishers, as it was probably unpublishable, but that it showed enough promise that if I worked hard at it for five years he’d bet I’d find a publisher. He was off by seven, but the letter kept me going. He also wrote that now that the only thing he wanted to read by me next would be between hard covers. I was on my own. We remained close friends until his death a few years ago. 

But he gave me great advice about the publishing business, and he also said this, which I’ve passed along to younger writers: “One day you’ll fall to your knees and thank God no one ever published your earliest efforts.” How right he was.

A theme in your work is memory and the invincibility of youth.. Can you talk about this recurring theme/themes.

I’m of Russian ancestry, which immediately means that I came from a family laden with secrets, and, because we’re Jewish, tons of angst and guilt. I have only a choppy, unchronological memory of my youth, so memory is a constant theme in my work. When I discovered Proust, reading him first in English, when living in England, and later in French, I found my touchstone. Another author who deals almost exclusively with the phantasms and lost threads of memory is the French writer Patrick Modiano, a particular favorite of mine whose work I’ve been following for well over thirty years.

But I’ve always resisted writing out of my own life. The Man from Marseille, my first novel, once again available from Thomas & Mercer, is about a Russian-born writer living first in the South of France in the ‘30s, in Occupied Paris, and finally, where the novel begins and ends, in London in the late ‘70s. His parents were crooks and thieves (and possibly murderers), and the story he tells alternates between his attempts to make a living as a writer, and tales of his parents and the life he led with them. It’s only when you reach the end that you realize that you have no idea whether the story you’ve just read is his truth, or a smokescreen. He may be the same kind of con man his parents were. In any event, he’s a man in search of plot, a genuine memory, something I can definitely identify with. 

My new novel, Airtight, is drawn from my experiences in the ‘60s. Though I’m not the main character (nor any of the others), many of his experiences are mine, and it was great fun dipping into the past for the book. 

I’m interested enough in the notion of memory that my next novel is to be built upon a screenplay I wrote (and that’s still sometimes read), THE MEMORY THIEF, a kind of dystopian, slightly futuristic noir set at a time when the federal government owns our memories after death, and when memories have become a commodity to buy, to sell, to erase, and to protect. Yeah, it’s science fiction in a way (and I read virtually no SF), but I’m enjoying this immensely. 

Talk here a bit about the writing of "Airtight" - How this book was born. 

Airtight began when my wife and I were watching Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. I’d seen it before, but this time it rang a bell. I turned to my wife and said, “We never dug it up.” Back in the ‘60s, when I was attending a college so tremendously unsuited to my background and sensibility (having to wear a freshman beanie is nothing like having to wear a yarmulke, believe me) that I reveled in illicit substances as a horse rolls around in dirt on a hot day: with immense enjoyment as I indulged in grass, hash, opium, lots of acid, and an addiction to speed. Nick’s acid trip, comprising the first chapter of Airtight is exactly the one I experienced. It was also the day I gave up drugs. I’d been to the edge and perhaps a bit over, I’d seen everything one could possibly see on drugs, and there was no more need for it. I was clean. 

Back to the plot of Airtight, few guys and I did a deal in Cincinnati for around $450 worth of grass and hash. It turned out to be crap. As I write in the book, when the usual euphemisms for grass were “tea,” “boo” and “reefer,” the other old standby, “shit” (as in “let’s go smoke some shit) this time almost literally applied. It was like travelling a few hundred miles to buy food and being handed a bag full of manure. Sure, you could eat it, but why would you want to?

It was tough to sell on this Midwestern Baptist campus, and so someone had the bright idea to bury it in Mason jars near one of the playing fields. In the novel, I switched it to heroin. 

I had more fun writing this book than any other. It’s a darkly comic crime story, but also a deeply moral one. As the main character, ex-ad-man Nick Copeland, returns to his past not only to retrieve the drugs but also to run into some painful memories, he realizes there things he had done in his life which should not have been done, and there were things he should have done. By a simple gesture or word, by being in the irresistible breeze of youth, he had initiated things that turned out tragic for others. And so, at the end of Airtight he makes a decision which has already confounded some readers, but which, to me, seems exactly right. For those looking for a shootout in the mean streets of Scarsdale, it’s not going to happen. This is a novel that has to ring true, not become someone else’s movie. 

What do you do to get unblocked creatively? Do you get writer's block? any tricks or tips to making things flow?

Touch wood, I don’t get writers’ block. I always try to keep a few projects percolating at once. There have been times when I simply couldn’t come up with an idea. I found that wandering through a bookshop, leafing through books I hadn’t read, could get things going. First lines, in particular, always helped. 

My mentor used to say at such times that I should read Yeats’s “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” which is about this very thing, the loss of inspiration. The circus has left the town in your head, you think you’ll never have another idea worth writing about, and he counsels that we should go perhaps to where we’ve never gone before: “Now that my ladder's gone,/ I must lie down where all the ladders start/ In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” Take those old experiences, brutish and humiliating as they may have been, and raise them to the level of art. 

It was how Airtight began, in fact. The foul rag and bone shop. Open all hours. 

Please tell us your favorite films which have been adapted from novels…

Ah, interesting question. Ever since I first read and taught him, Pinter has been an influence, and I’ve always loved many of his screenplays, nearly all of them adaptations of others’ works. He was an astute and sensitive reader who could locate the cinematic essence of a work in a brilliant and often unexpected way. His approach to, say, L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (an especially tricky novel to translate visually, with an ingenious solution provided by Pinter), and his unproduced, but eminently readable, Proust Screenplay, based on the entire seven volumes of A la Recherche du temps perdu, is astonishingly successful. In every case he’s faithful to both the poetry and the heart of the each book, and with his actor’s sensitivity to how a scene can be played to maximum effect, he has achieved something in these screenplays and others which is hard to equal.

As for others, I have a particular favorite in The Vanishing, the original Dutch-French version based on the Tim KrabbĂ© novel, one of the most unsettling and disturbing films ever made, and one I watch at least once a year. I read very little contemporary fiction, unless it’s by an author I follow, and I’m afraid many of them are French. Modiano. RenĂ© Belletto. Jean Echenoz. Jean-Patrick Toussaint. I’ve been disappointed in so much of contemporary writing. I was asked to review Tom McCarthy’s C, and was amazed at how in artful it all was, how poorly written. This by an author whose Remainder was published to great acclaim. I’m afraid I think Jonathan Franzen vastly overrated. I enjoyed parts of The Corrections, but found Freedom to be a great deal less successful. A good editor would have tapped him on his earmuff and lifted his blindfold (who the hell writes like this anyway? And on a bare floor in Brooklyn?) to say that the ex-cheerleader whose memoir takes up a good chunk of the book shouldn’t really be writing like clever young Jonathan Franzen. She had the same voice as the narrator’s. 

To get back to film adaptations, I think it’s a matter of being faithful not so much to the story as to the heart of the original. I mean, were I to adapt The Blue Hour, I would update and move the action to Los Angeles (the city where people go to become someone else), and write it from the point of view of the detective, not the forlorn husband whose wife has gone missing. I’d basically turn the whole thing inside-out and start afresh. Just as Pinter did with The French Lieutenant’s Woman.