Last week I published my interview of my favorite college professor Bob Gross, acclaimed author of The Minutemen and Their World. That book was published in 1976, received the prestigious Bancroft Prize, and became a perennial bestseller. His next book, The Transcendentalists and Their World, will be published this fall – a full 43 years after Bob initially signed the contract for it! It’s an inspiring and moving story of four decades of perseverance.
This week I’m publishing Bob’s interview of me.
You’ve gone from playwriting to crime/mystery novels to TV and movie scripts. In all of them you tell stories. How and when did you develop your interest in narrative?
Like everyone else, I’ve always loved stories. The first stories I remember hearing were from my father, when I was a kid. He used to tell tall tales about times when he was in great danger, about to be destroyed by some horrible enemy, and he would cry out, in desperation, “Davy Jones!” His agonized plea would resonate down through the sewers and rivers to the bottom of the ocean, where Davy Jones was hanging out at his locker with his friend the octopus. Davy would hear my father’s call and immediately race upward through the ocean, burst on the scene, and save my father just in the nick of time.
My father told another story, which I remember vividly to this day, about the time he was captured by cannibals and they were going to turn him into soup. But when they threw him into the pot of water, he kept eating all the vegetables in the pot, and since cannibals don’t like soup with no vegetables in it, they were unable to eat my father, so they let him go. This, by the way, is yet another reason to eat your vegetables!
I knew when I was in first grade that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I don’t recall how I came to that conclusion. I wrote my first full-length play when I was in college. It was called Alaska Fire, and it was based on a scary campfire story I’d heard about a man in Alaska who comes home from fishing one day and finds his entire family has burned up in a fire. He begins to wonder if he set the fire himself before he left the house in the morning.
Do you see a continuity of interests amid these various genres?
No matter the genre, my work is often “political,” though you can make an argument that all work is political – you’re either fighting injustices or, by ignoring them, you’re supporting them. I like to put my characters in moral quandaries. I like writing stuff that’s meaty, but also has plenty of humor.
Having said that, writing in different genres does bring out different parts of me. My novels sometimes have a character who’s very much my alter ego. For instance, the main character in my four Jacob Burns mysteries is a Jewish aspiring writer with a wife who’s an English professor and two young sons. When I wrote these novels, all of this was true of me. But with writing for the stage, my most successful plays have main characters who are ostensibly very different from me. The hero of Sacred Journey is a homeless Native American man; the main characters in Washington Square Moves are Black ex-cons who hustle chess in Washington Square; and two of the three main characters of The Ties That Bind are lesbians.
With screenplays and TV pilots, I generally gravitate toward crime stories with heart. With characters we care about.
You tell stories about American life. How much did your major in American Studies at Amherst College influence your approaches to our culture and society?
Majoring in American Studies, and being interested in politics and history from a very young age, and the ethical teachings I received from my Jewish upbringing, have been the backdrop for all my work. I try to think deeply about our country and all the different forces, both personal and societal, that affect my characters.
I believe that a great novel, movie, TV show or play has three types of conflict for the main characters: internal, within each character; interpersonal; and societal, where the characters are wrestling with larger social forces. Whenever I write, I try to keep these three different types of conflict in the forefront of my mind.
I still remember the play you wrote for your senior thesis, Alaska Fire. Did that work anticipate your future interests?
The main character in Alaska Fire is a middle-aged man, and the theme is the inevitable discontents of marriage and choosing one path over another in life. What the heck was I thinking, writing that? I was twenty. I’d never had a relationship that lasted more than a year. I had never chosen a path that would be extremely hard to reverse. And yet I stretched my mind and wrote this play.
I’ve continued to reach and explore and stretch throughout my writing life.
Have you worked on any projects for a long time that you have eventually jettisoned? How do you decide what will work and what won’t?
Unfortunately, yes, I have had that experience. I’ve spent six months apiece on two screenplays that never got produced. I’ve spent months writing pilots that never got produced.
And then there was the screenplay I wrote in 1995 and then got paid $86,000 for in 2018 and may get made one day! Not quite 43 years, but still a pretty long journey.
Nowadays, I really try to be sure a project is viable before I start it. I’ll pitch a one or two-paragraph version to my wife and/or friends and/or members of my writing group. We’ll talk things through, and if the project seems promising, I’ll write up a two-page version (single spaced). If it still seems good, then I’ll write up a five to eight-page version. If it passes that test, I start writing the actual novel or script.
This strategy has worked well for me. I used to sometimes write 20 pages of something and then realize it wasn’t a good idea. That doesn’t happen for me anymore. The keys for me, when choosing a project, are: Is this a book/TV series/movie I’d enjoy reading or seeing? Would I be good at writing it? Do I have something special to contribute? Does this seem likely to be something other people would care about? If the answers to all these questions is yes, then I’m good to go!