Author Nick Kolakowski talks to Sean Tuohy about his new book Boise Longpig Hunting Club.
By Sean Tuohy
One of the most difficult parts of writing is sharing your work with someone. Screenwriter Andrew Hilton has made a career of reading other people’s scripts while also creating his own. A former story editor and screenplay reader, Hilton runs The Screenplay Mechanic, a fantastic service where he provides his clients with great feedback to better their screenplays. I’ve consulted with Andrew twice and his feedback is always pitch perfect.
In between writing his own screenplays and saving someone else’s, Andrew sat down to talk to me about how he got into the business.
Sean Tuohy: How did you get into screenwriting?
Andrew Hilton: I attended film school in the U.K. and New York, then finished my final year of university in Los Angeles so I could start interning at the studios. I have a photography background so my goal was always to become a camera operator and work my way up to cinematographer, but my first studio gig was working for a producer at Universal and I spent six months reading scripts for him. From there out, my path kept me in the development world and one of the execs I worked for encouraged me to start writing myself. My first script landed me an agent, almost sold for big bucks in the late ‘90s, and I was hooked.
In the meantime, I began working in the story department of one of my favorite producers, Joel Silver (“Die Hard,” “Lethal Weapon,” etc.). After six months with Joel, I jumped to Paramount to become a story editor for Mario Kassar (“First Blood,” “Terminator,” etc.). It was there I began teaching others to write coverage and really honed my story skills. Throughout this time, I was writing on the side and every script I wrote was optioned. I was getting just enough success (and came close to huge success) to keep that carrot dangling in front of me.
ST: Which screenwriters did you admire?
AH: When I was starting out, like many other action writers, I was inspired primarily by Shane Black. Today, some of my favorite writers include Martin McDonagh, Scott Rosenberg, Charlie Kaufman, and, of course, the greats like Aaron Sorkin. He can write a dialogue exchange as exciting as any car chase and I’m in awe of that ability.
ST: What are the most common mistakes you see in first time screenwriters?
AH: Overwriting is a common pitfall. Screenwriting is somewhat unique in that one of the best traits a scribe can have is efficiency of language. Don’t use 20 words to describe something when 10 will do. Don’t try and impress anyone with your vocabulary or your grasp of metaphors and similes. Just write the most compelling and vivid movie using the fewest words.
A poorly kept secret in Hollywood is that few execs and producers like to actually read. That’s work for them. So when they sit down to read a script, they crave a fast-paced, page-turning experience. If the first few pages of a spec are dense and verbose, they’ll skim-read or toss the script and move onto the next one.
Another common mistake is failing to create a character we can become emotionally invested in. We don’t always have to like the protagonist, but it’s essential they evoke our interest. If we feel nothing but apathy for the characters, that screenplay is DOA.
ST: What makes a stand out spec script?
AH: A spec’s potential really comes down to two things: Can this story entertain an audience for a couple of hours? Is that audience going to be big enough to turn a profit? It’s that Goldilocks balance of art and business, and reconciling that reality is one of the first goals every new writer should work towards. You could argue that there are good scripts which won’t be profitable at the box-office, but who is that script “good” for? It might make a solid writing sample, but a genuinely good script is one that’s well written and will make some serious coin in the marketplace once it’s produced.
Obviously, a script that offers something I’ve never seen or read before is going to stand out, e.g. look at something like “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” However, that level of originality isn’t essential. One of my favorite films of 2017 was “Logan,” yet I would hardly say it reinvented the conceptual wheel. I also loved “Wind River,” but that script worked because of the execution and character work, not because the murder-mystery setup was mind-blowingly fresh and inventive.
ST: What are agents/managers looking for in a script and in a screenwriter?
AH: This may sound cynical but that’s an easy question. Reps want a script they can sell, and a client who will crank out promising material consistently and have a long career ahead of them. Most reps live for the deals more than the end product. Hell, some agents don’t even read the scripts they send out but I bet they read the checks that come in.
ST: How has market changed since you started?
AH: Globalization, flat-screen televisions, and Streaming or Subscription Video on demand have changed the market completely.
The domestic box office used to be king. Now, the international box office is worth two to three times domestic, so America is really just another distribution territory to be sold off. Consequently, producers and financiers want projects that will work worldwide, not only in America. So, for instance, no more baseball movies and rom-coms because they won’t translate well in, say, China or Germany. It’s for this reason action and horror are perennial favorites.
Theatrical is dying because most folks have a 42”+ widescreen TV at home now, so the appeal of the multiplex has declined. Add to that the sheer glut of original product now available at home thanks to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. I wish those entities would support more theatrical releases of their projects or else I fear the cinema will go the way of the dinosaurs. Big spectacle projects, i.e. all those comic book pictures and IP tent-poles, are currently keeping the domestic theatrical market on life-support. But we’re in a weird evolutionary stage that is tough to predict. My only hope is that we can still go see original features on the big screen in 10-20 years.
ST: As a screenwriter, what is your writing process like? Do you outline or write a vomit draft?
AH: I write in my head for months, and then transfer that story onto the page. I once read about a famous screenwriter, it might have been Billy Wilder, who was caught sleeping in their office. Their boss angrily asked, “Why aren’t you writing? You’re supposed to be writing!” The screenwriter replied, “I was writing. And later I’ll type it on paper.” (If I butchered that quote and anyone has the accurate anecdote, please get in touch.)
That said, sometimes I’ll simply sit down with a glass of wine, a legal pad and a pen, then see where that takes me.
ST: What is new projects do you have in the future?
AH: I have a sci-fi thriller and another action picture I’m writing. Right now, however, I’m focused on my project “The Guns Of Christmas Past.” I’m a producer on the project too, we’re fully financed, we have a director, and we’re currently making offers to lead actors.
ST: What is one random fact about yourself?
AH: I’m a pathological chocoholic and won’t hesitate to steal it from children.
By Daniel Ford
Boston’s Museum of African American History recently announced its new national award honoring non-fiction literature that celebrates African American history and culture.
The first Museum of African American History Stone Book Award will be presented in 2018 at the African Meeting House in Boston, and will include a $25,000 prize for the winning title.
Marita Rivero, Executive Director at the Museum of African American History, graciously answered some of my questions about the museum itself and about the new book award.
Daniel Ford: For those who may not be familiar with the museum, can you give us a brief history and share some of the museum’s featured exhibits?
Marita Rivero: The Museum of African American History was founded in 1967, and centers on two preeminent historic sites: the African Meeting House (1806) and the Abiel Smith School (1835), both in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood; and the African Meeting House (c. 1820) and the Seneca Boston-Florence Higginbotham House (c. 1774), with its outbuildings on Nantucket Island. Both of these locations also anchor MAAH’s two Black Heritage Trails, which span the Colonial Period through Reconstruction. So if you visit Boston and/or Nantucket, you can tour the museum or the Boston-Higginbotham House where you can also pick up maps to walk the historic trails.
The buildings at both sites are closely linked to key leaders, institutions, and campaigns during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The museum recovers the voices, agency, networking and community building skills of black men and women who worked to end slavery. Joined by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, these men and women formed the New England Anti-Slavery Society. Frederick Douglass used the Boston buildings as recruiting sites for the famed black 54th Civil War Regiment.
Aside from the historic buildings, MAAH holds more than 3,000 objects, representing more than 250 years of American history, including documents and letters, newspapers, photographs, books, fine art, archeological artifacts, and other objects ranging from household goods to weaponry. If you were to visit our Boston site right now (at the Abiel Smith School), you'd see our current exhibition: Frederick Douglass, the Most Photographed American of the Nineteenth Century, which is co-curated by museum staff and guest scholars Professors John Stauffer, Harvard University and Zoe Trodd, University of Nottingham, England. The exhibit, which is drawn from their book, Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century's Most Photographed American, features objects from our collection, other institutions and private donors.
DF: How did the idea for a book award originate?
MR: The idea for the Museum of African American History Stone Book Award originated in partnership with the James M. and Cathleen D. Stone Foundation. Cathy Stone is a member of our Board of Directors and currently serves as Chair. She and her husband, Jim Stone, felt it was important to have an award that recognizes exceptional nonfiction books that celebrate African American history and culture. Both the Stones and I felt strongly that the museum should present the award at the African Meeting House which was built in 1806, largely by the labor of free blacks, and which served as the center of the free black community in the 19th century. The building is the oldest surviving black church structure in the United States and a National Historic Landmark.
The book award is a natural fit for the museum’s programming as well as an important means of highlighting the museum’s long emphasis on scholarship and research. We are able to add new stories and an enlarged understanding about the contributions of black people to the creation of what we recognize as our American democracy. This award was designed to encourage writers and promote the importance of reading—two American rights fought for and won by the supporters and activists of the anti-slavery movement in 19th century America.
Additionally, we hope that this book award—at $25,000 it will be one of the largest in the field—will help increase MAAH's visibility on the local and national stage. We're trying to draw more attention to the museum's historic buildings, collections, and programs, and spark conversations about African American history and culture among and between communities, within families, and across generations. By showcasing and promoting an accessible yet edifying, exciting new work of literature that bears the museum's "stamp of approval," we hope we can do just that.
DF: Who are some of the African American nonfiction authors that should be on our radar?
MR: With our public programs, the museum has presented writers, scholars, poets, and public readings of historical documents. In the past year, MAAH hosted Manisha Sinha, who spoke at our African Meeting House as well as our Nantucket Meeting House about her most recent book, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition. The book was awarded the 2017 Frederick Douglass Book Prize.
Our scholar lecture series is one way in which we focus on the history of African American life and culture. We also embrace and receive the support of faculty and scholars in our exhibitions and programs—John Stauffer, David Blight, as well as the late James O. Horton, author of Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North, are just a few historians, past and present, closely associated with the museum.
We also just hosted "AM Joy" host and MSNBC correspondent Joy Reid and author and Columbia University Professor Dr. Jelani Cobb for the first in a series entitled “Race in the Public Dialogue.” Public historian, scholar and author Dr. Lois Brown presented and participated in our education programs in 2017. These are a few of the many authors and scholars of African American and American history and culture that have partnered with us over the past 50 years—all should be on your radar.
DF: What are your plans for the award going forward?
MR: Right now we are focused on a successful launch in year one, but after that, we hope to expand the award by considering other genres, e.g., fiction, poetry, and children's literature.
DF: Do you have any idea who will be on your panel of judges yet?
MR: In addition to recruiting the jury, we are currently enlisting Honorary Committee members, and are thrilled to announce that noted sociologist and author Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, the Emily Hargroves Fisher Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has agreed to serve as our inaugural Honorary Committee Chair. Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot is the award-winning author of 10 books and a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Prize, as well as a 2017 honoree at the museum’s annual Living Legends Gala.
DF: What has the response from your community been like since you announced the news?
MR: When the creation of the award was announced at the museum's annual Living Legends Gala on Dec. 4, the response in the room was overwhelmingly positive. We've also received positive feedback and lots of support from other organizations that present book awards, including friends at PENAmerica and the Massachusetts Center for the Book. And we've already received inquiries from interested authors and publishing houses.
DF: What's your advice for aspiring authors who want to write about African American issues?
MR: There are yet many stories to be explored, problems to be examined, and books to be written about African American history and culture. We ask writers and scholars to be diligent in their research, curious in their endeavors, and to stay the course. Their work will be greatly appreciated in the future. We look forward to reading about their discoveries and viewpoints.
By Sean Tuohy
Combining teenage angst with the ability to talk to a dead author, A.M. Wheeler’s Zebulon Harris: Teen Medium is a wildly entertaining novel.
The hardworking author and screenwriter swung by Writer’s Bone to talk about her writing process, who she based her teenage medium off of, and what’s next for her.
Sean Tuohy: When did you know you wanted to be a storyteller?
A.M. Wheeler: I started telling stories to my family around the dinner table when I was about 3 years old. I just have always been fascinated with stories and making up characters or scenarios that would make people laugh. So, I’d say around middle school, I kind of knew I wanted to work as a writer and possibly even direct film one day.
ST: What is your writing process? Do outline?
AW: My writing process is interesting. I don’t write everyday. I actually like to take some months off and experience different events, people, cultures, and then after think about my next story. I find allowing my thoughts to manifest for a while, makes my stories feel unforced and it’s my way of avoiding writer’s block.
I always outline! Before I begin writing a story, I always know the ending of the story before I even know how it begins! I find this technique best for me because if I know where a character ends up, I can then feel like a detective as I write backwards and leave little foreshadowing moments on how the characters ended up where they did.
ST: Where did the idea for Zebulon Harris: Teen Medium come from?
AW: Growing up I’ve always been interested in the supernatural world and the ultimate question of what happens after one dies. I knew I wanted to have a teen protagonist because high school was such a pivotal moment in my life. High school can be such a rough transition and once I knew I wanted to combine the world of high school with a supernatural twist, Zebulon Harris: Teen Medium, was born! I always find coming of age stories to be timeless and the ultimate of message really is universal to everyone.
ST: Zebulon “Zeb” Harris is a great main character. Unlike most characters he rejects his special abilities and sees them as a burden. Where did he come from?
AW: I think most teens in high school reject their situation or identity at one point or another. You know, if you’re tall you wish you were short; if you have curly hair, you wish it were straight. The concept of wanting what you can’t have is a struggle I really related to in high school. So, once I knew I wanted to write about the supernatural world and was trying to create this relatable protagonist, Zeb, I realized making him reject who he is would be what can connect teens to this book. You don’t have to have powers to understand Zeb’s struggle. I think readers can appreciate the concept of trying to discover yourself and accept yourself for who you are.
ST: Is there any of you in Zeb?
AW: I think Zeb is a lot cooler than myself! However, definitely his closeness to his family is something I think is similar to own life. I also think his sometimes sarcastic nature was exactly how I was in high school. He tended to not really care about school that much, and for a while I was the same way! It wasn’t until my junior year of high school that I started taking school more seriously. Otherwise, Zeb is actually more like my best friend from high school. A lot of Zeb’s mannerisms mimic his, and I think that’s why Zeb feels authentic. He’s actually partially based on a real person.
ST: What's next for you?
AW: I currently teach screenwriting and creative writing courses at a university. I have taken some time off from writing. However, I do have a few ideas for some scripts in the future, and I definitely think I’ll get back into the film festival scene starting after the 2018 New Year. I’m hoping to eventually get involved in some film shorts and possibly even end up behind the camera.
ST: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
AW: The best advice I can give other writers is to stop overthinking before you write. Just write the story. It’s okay if the plot has inconsistencies, or the story doesn’t make total sense when you reread it. Editing will always be there, and rewriting. But, you can’t do anything if you stop yourself from getting anything on the page. Lastly, don’t take criticism personally. You may hear “no” way more times than you hear “yes," but don’t stop writing. Your writing can make a difference.
ST: Can you please tell us one random fact about yourself?
AW: One random fact about me would be that when I get to a part of a story where the character is going through an extreme emotion of anger, or being in love, or sad, I listen to music that correlates that emotional state. Music helps relax my mind and makes me feel what the character may be going through. So, usually I’ll have my headphones on and I just allow the music to make me feel certain emotions before I begin writing. I find this is the closest way to be as authentic in the moment as possible, especially when writing a piece from a first person narrative.
To learn more about A.M. Wheeler, follow her on Twitter @amwheeler90.
By Caitlin Malcuit
Andy Weir shoots from Mars to the Moon in his latest novel Artemis, introducing us to a wealthy and exclusive lunar colony where Jasmine Bashara works as a porter, struggling to get by. There's not much money to be made in that gig, so Jasmine—“Jazz”—must survive and earn her keep as a smuggler. When a heist too good to pass up unearths a larger conspiracy, Jazz is thrown into the seedy underbelly of the glitzy Artemis.
Weir talked to me about the new and exciting setting for his story, his influences, and imparted some valuable advice for writers navigating the publishing world in the digital age.
Caitlin Malcuit: What is your process for writing a novel, especially the research that goes into science fiction?
Andy Weir: I start with a bunch of research. For me, the science and setting have to be right before I’m willing to work on the story. Once I’m into the actual writing, I set myself a daily word count to shoot for.
CM: Which authors influenced you?
AW: I’m a Gen-Xer, but I grew up reading my father’s sci-fi collection. So, despite my generation, my main influences are the Baby Boomer era authors. My holy trinity are Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke.
CM: What drew you to setting Artemis on a lunar colony?
AW: I wanted to write a story about the first human settlement off of Earth. And I just really think that’ll be on the Moon. It’s so much close to Earth than any other celestial body. Most importantly, it’s close enough for trade and tourism.
CM: Jazz is certainly driven to survive, as Mark Watney was when he was stranded on Mars, but, given the wealth disparity on Artemis, what inspired you to tackle Jazz’s unique situation?
AW: Well I’ve always had a love of heist stories and crime novels. So I figured why not do a sci-fi heist story?
CM: Are you excited to see where Phil Lord and Chris Miller will take Artemis as they bring it to the screen?
AW: Absolutely! Though it’s still early days yet. I try not to get myself too worked up about it. A lot of things have to go right for a film project to be greenlighted.
CM: What advice do you have for aspiring writers, especially now that NaNoWriMo is in full swing?
- You have to actually write. Daydreaming about the book you’re going to write someday isn’t writing. It’s daydreaming. Open your word processor and start writing.
- Resist the urge to tell friends and family your story. I know it’s hard because you want to talk about it and they’re (sometimes) interested in hearing about it. But it satisfies your need for an audience, which diminishes your motivation to actually write it. Make a rule: The only way for anyone to ever hear about your stories is to read them.
- This is the best time in history to self-publish. There’s no old-boy network between you and your readers. You can self-publish an ebook to major distributors (Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc.) without any financial risk on your part.
CM: Can you please tell us one random fact about yourself?
AW: I like to do woodworking. It’s a hobby that’s helpful to me to clear my mind when I’m stressed out or when I’m stuck on a plot problem in whatever project I’m on.
By Sean Tuohy
Three hunters stumble onto a crashed plane filled with cocaine in the Montana wilderness.
That’s the premise of acclaimed author Mike Bond’s latest thriller, Snow.
Bond recently took a few minutes out of his day to sit and chat with me about the new book and his advice for aspiring writers.
Sean Tuohy: When did you know you wanted to be a storyteller?
Mike Bond: By the time I was 10 I was writing poems and thinking of stories. To the young the world is magical and full of stories. All you have to do is write them down.
ST: What authors did you worship growing up?
MB: I never worshipped anyone, but I read everything, especially Hemingway, Edna Ferber, Jane Austen, the Brontës, Walter Scott, Jack London, Willa Cather, Poe, Camus, Sartre, St. Exupéry, Tolstoy, and many others.
ST: What is your writing process like? Do you outline or just vomit a first draft?
MB: I tend to write each book differently. Most I just pick up at the first sentence and write a lot of it without an outline. Or I outline only the next several chapters as I go along.
ST: What inspired Snow?
MB: I was bowhunting with a friend on a two-week horse trip back into the Montana wilderness. The constant snow and frigid conditions, plus several unpleasant encounters with grizzly bears, started the process.
ST: Snow follows four characters, but the breakout is a former NFL player named Zack. Where did this character come from?
MB: I played a lot of football, tried to make it into the NFL, but like so many football players I got so repeatedly injured that there was no way. I love playing football but have no use for watching it on the idiot box. (That’s the difference between living and being entertained.) I know a lot about the game and have a lot of friends who’ve played it, and I wanted to show it as it really is. Zack is the average football star today—multiple lifelong injuries, traumatic brain damage, constant pain, atavistic impulses, and lots of painkillers and other drugs.
ST: Snow is an edge-of-your-seat thriller but it has a fantastic human element to it as well. When writing, do you focus more on the character or the plot?
MB: I just tell the story as it is told to me. Often I can’t tell it right and have to keep rewriting it till the drama I’m seeing in my head is correctly depicted on the page.
ST: What’s next for Mike Bond?
MB: I’m finishing a 1,000-page epic on the 1960s, due out next year. And finishing the third in my Pono Hawkins series, also due out next year. This one is set in Tahiti and Paris.
ST: What advice do you give to young writers?
- Live deeply or you won’t have much to write about.
- Writing is developed from experience—from many places, lifestyles, experiences, relationships, dangers, fears and great joys. Write about that.
- Don’t write about what you don’t know about or haven’t lived through.
- Avoid creative writing classes, writing clubs, and any other collective self-reassuring groupthink.
- Don’t ever tell people what you’re writing about till it’s done, or you can kill the deep subconscious affinity between yourself and it.
- Expect to write a million words before you begin to get the hang of it.
- It’s very difficult these days to get published. But writing daily is a very good way to “Know Thyself” as they used to say at Delphi.
- Don’t expect too much of yourself. If the writing is fun, keep going. If it’s not, stop. If it’s boring to you it will be boring to the reader too.
ST: Can you please tell us one random fact about yourself?
MB: I love wild animals, wilderness, women, booze, fast cars, mountain climbing, and risk.
By Adam Vitcavage
Jesmyn Ward is the only author I think about on a weekly basis. Her stellar Salvage the Bones is the only novel I recommend to nearly everyone looking for a new book. If I don’t murmur the words, “Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones,” in any given week, then I at least think about how much her bleak and beautiful novel punched me in the stomach while simultaneously uplifting my spirits. Now, there’s a new novel from her I can suggest: Sing, Unburied, Sing.
I recently interviewed Ward, and I felt aspiring writers and readers of Writer’s Bone might find her comments about her writing process both encouraging and educational.
Adam Vitcavage: What excites you in the undergraduate writers you teach at Tulane University?
Jesmyn Ward: The writers who take my courses write across multiple genres. Some are writing YA, fantasy, or surreal literary novels. It just depends on the student. I love it all. What really attracts me to my students work and what makes me appreciate them is the passion that they have. I think that comes out in the work even if the work is not that polished or developed as it could be. That’s what I’m there for. I’m there to help them develop and polish it. Their passion for writing, telling stories, and creating worlds is what attracts me to their work.
AV: Once you get going with a draft for a novel, do you have a set writing process?
JW: I am a very linear writer. I work from the beginning to the end. I start at the first chapter and end at the last chapter. I don’t revise as I’m going because I feel if I stop to revise the things that I’ve written that I will get bogged down and will never complete the book. So I don’t revise and I just write straight through. I try to write for at least two hours a day for five days a week. Sometimes that is easier. I have two children, so when I have child support for them or when they’re in school is when it’s easier for me to do that. Sometimes I have to patch those hours together. I’ll wake up early and work for an hour then work for an hour later in the day when I have time.
I feel like the more disciplined I am about writing for two hours a day five days a week then the easier it is for me to access my creativity. I think it takes less time to sink into the world and to do the writing I need to do when it’s something I do five days a week. That’s how you write a book: it’s something you work at every day pretty regularly for at least a year if not a year and a half or two years. And that’s considered fast. I know some people take a decade on a book. I understand why.
It’s all about hours of dedication and discipline.
AV: Once you get the draft done, what does your revision process look like? What do you look for?
JW: The way that I revise is a little weird. I finish the first draft and then I let it sit for a month. I’ll work on other small things during that time and then I go back. I’ll read through the rough draft. Just read and take notes about things that need to be revised, changes that need to be made, things that can be cut or moved around, or whatever. I make a list and go through that list. I’ll concentrate on one thing on the list while reading through the draft. I devote an entire revision to just one aspect or one correction.
If I need to develop a character, then I’ll go through and develop a character throughout a revision. I’ll cross it off the list and go back again to concentrate on another aspect. My list can have 12 or 13 items on it. That list is just things I’ve noticed. If I went into a revision with the aim of correcting all thirteen of those things I feel I would miss something. It’s easier for me to focus on one thing through a revision. I revise twelve or thirteen times before I feel confident enough to show my work to a group of first readers.
First readers are just people that I’ve gone to school with, other writers I met at Stanford or Michigan. I’ll email them a draft and ask for their help. After a couple of months, they’ll give me suggestions and I’ll go back in and revise based on their feedback. That might take six or eight revisions. Once I’ve done that I feel confident enough that I won’t embarrass myself and I’ll send it to my editor.
And then [laughs] we revise for months. I mean, it is definitely a process. I’m the kind of writer who feels nothing is ever perfect when it’s fresh. The first rough draft is never perfect. I actually enjoy revision because writing that first rough draft is difficult. It’s different work because you’re creating this world and characters from nothing. It takes a different literary muscle than going back in and revising.
Revising is more enjoyable and more fun for me. I already have something, so at least I have the security of knowing I have something to work with on the page. Then it’s all about shaping. I enjoy knowing the security of just having to focus on making something better.
To learn more about Jesmyn Ward, follow her on Twitter @jesmimi. Read more of Adam Vitcavage’s work on his official website, or follow him on Twitter @vitcavage. Also check out Adam's full interview with Jesmyn Ward on The Millions.
By Lindsey Wojcik
The heat is on. By now, most of the country has experienced the familiar stickiness that comes with the summer season. The humidity has undoubtedly driven many to the beach or pool to cool off, and here at Writer’s Bone, no beach bag is complete without a sizzling new novel.
In her new book, Carpenter transports readers from New York City to a small, humid island off the coast of Georgia where Megan Ashley, the daughter of an acclaimed novelist, travels to discover more about her mother’s famous book, Kitten, for a tell-all memoir she has agreed to write. Kitten tells the tale of an island murder that fans believe may have been loosely based on a real crime. As the truth about where Megan’s mother, Frances Ashley, found the story for her infamous novel unravels, Megan must decide what is real and what is fiction.
Carpenter recently spent some time answering questions about transitioning from a career in television to writing novels, what inspired The Weight of Lies, and why it’s important for writers to appreciate their “customers.”
Lindsey Wojcik: You've been writing since a young age. What are your earliest memories with writing? What enticed you about storytelling?
Emily Carpenter: I’ve told this story a few times—the one about how I plagiarized The Pokey Little Puppy when I was 5. It’s my secret shame. I basically copied it word for word and illustrated it with crayons. I am not sure I actually finished it, so maybe I’m off the hook? After that, there were a couple of false starts on a novel about a girl with a horse when I was around 14. I’m not sure I had a handle on a coherent story, but I was definitely enamored by the idea of a girl (me) owning a horse. I absolutely lived for reading. I was an introvert, bookworm, a dreamer, and really imaginative. And while I didn’t really have a reference point for becoming an author, I was drawn to the whole world of storytelling.
LW: Who were your early influences and who continues to influence you?
EC: I read all of the Nancy Drew books, The Bobbsey Twins, The Hardy Boys multiple times over. Beverly Cleary and Laura Ingalls Wilder were early favorites. I loved those biography books with the orange covers, and there was another series where I remember reading about Madame Curie and Helen Keller. I read a lot of suspense books now because that’s the genre I write, but I enjoy all kinds of fiction. I’ve gone through periods when I read YA and literary classics, romance and horror. I’m really inspired by television writers right now. Noah Hawley, who writes “Fargo,” is immensely brilliant and funny. I also admire Ray McKinnon, a fellow Georgian, who wrote “Rectify.” Both those guys really inspire me.
LW: Tell us a little bit about your experience at CBS television’s Daytime Drama division. What did you do in that department? How did it influence your writing?
EC: I was the assistant to the director of daytime drama, so I basically answered phones, did paperwork, that kind of thing. I also read all the scripts for upcoming shows and wrote summaries for the newspapers to publish. I got to take contest winners on tours of the productions and assist with a couple of promo tapings of commercials for the shows. Once I took a bunch of contest winners and some of the actors to lunch because my boss couldn’t do it. I had the company credit card and had to pay for the whole thing, and it made me really nervous. I was, like 24, or something, and I’d never seen a check for a meal that big. In terms of influencing my writing, I think I really soaked up the concept of how to write tension and cliffhangers. “Guiding Light” and “As the World Turns” had some really talented writers on staff who were great at writing really funny, snappy banter, and I picked up on that—the rhythm of dialogue is so important and they were such masters at it.
I remember something my boss told me once when the writers had brought in a secondary character who was a part of this new storyline. So one Friday at the end of the show, they ended the final scene with a close up on his face. She got so mad about it and said, “You don’t end a really important scene—especially a Friday cliffhanger scene—on a day player!” She understood that, bottom line, the audience cared most about the core characters of the show. They loved them, not this random guy they’d brought in to be a temporary part of this new storyline. She knew that the show needed to leave the audience anticipating, thinking about those core characters all weekend long until Monday rolled around—not this day player. That really stuck with me, how important it was to understand who your audience was and what they wanted and giving it to them.
LW: You assisted on the production of “As the World Turns” and “Guiding Light.” Both of those soaps were on daily in my household growing up—three generations of women in my family, including myself, watched both shows, which are no longer on the air, and soap operas in general have been on the decline. What do you think influenced the change in daytime television?
EC: First of all, let me say, thank you for watching. I have a deep admiration and enduring fondness for those two shows. I watched them long after I left New York and moved back down South, and when they were cancelled, I cried. It really was such an end to an era. Although I’m sure there is an answer for why daytime TV changed, I’m not sure I know. I think, in the end, it’s probably to do with money, like everything else. And new technology and our capability to access streaming shows and binge watch really high quality programming. There’s no more appointment TV. We really have gotten out of the habit of showing up at a certain time to watch a show. I suppose the decline started with cable and cheap reality programming and TiVo. But I’m not sure what the deathblow was. And look, we still have four soaps running. I turned on “Days of Our Lives” the other day, and Patch and Kayla have not aged a whit since I watched them in the late ’80s.
LW: Tell us a little bit about your experience with screenwriting. What influenced your decision to change career paths from film production and screenwriting to writing novels?
EC: I was pretty naïve, hoping to break into the screenwriting business with zero entertainment connections or really any knowledge of the business at all. I think I had a good sense of story and structure in a general sense—I had some raw materials—but in terms of writing a kickass commercial feature, I wasn’t there. I didn’t know how to do it. And I think I was really sort of just learning the technique of writing as well. Learning how to write good sentences and evoking emotion with my words. I hadn’t majored in creative writing in school or even taken a single writing course in my life, I was just winging it. So really, it was audacious of me (or plain, old ignorant) to think I was going to write a spec screenplay that would sell to Hollywood.
But I just loved movies so much and writing and kept plugging away at it. I worked really hard and placed in a few contests, but ultimately couldn’t get an agent interested. After working on two indie productions with friends, I finally decided it was not going to happen. I took a break for a few years and hung out with my kids, enjoyed being a mom. Then one day, it suddenly occurred to me that there was this whole world of storytelling that I had overlooked. I started mulling over the idea of writing a book and researching the business side of publishing. It turned out to be much more accessible world. And I’ll say that my screenwriting experience, self-taught though it was, has formed the basis of my novel writing. I use a lot of the outlining and scene structuring tools that screenwriters use in my books.
LW: How did the Atlanta Writers Club guide you as a writer?
EC: They provided amazing access to a whole community of local writers, some of whom have become critique partners and dear friends. I found a critique group through them, which was where I read something I’d written out loud for the first time. And I attended several conferences the club sponsored and pitched my books to agents. I actually met my agent at one of the conferences.
LW: What inspired The Weight of Lies?
EC: I love classic horror books and films—Stephen King is just the master, of course. Carrie is one of my all-time favorites. One time I read that he had based aspects of Carrie on this girl he knew in school who was awkward and bullied by the other kids. That fascinated me, and I wondered if she ever found out what he did, what she would think of it. I mean, can you imagine? I get asked that question a lot, as an author, is my book based on real events or real characters? My books aren’t, but it intrigued me to imagine a writer who had the audacity to base her novel on a real murder and maybe even a real murderer, and so now there’s this eternal question out there among her fans about whether it was real.
LW: When you were writing The Weight of Lies, was there something in particular you were trying to connect with or find?
EC: Well, at the heart of the book, it’s really a story of this young woman who doesn’t feel like her mother has ever loved her or really even wanted her. And she’s so angry because she’s desperate to be affirmed and loved. She’s also a bit lost because she doesn’t have a whole lot going on career-wise, she hasn’t really been successful in the romantic department, and she’s getting older. She’s got a lot of resentment toward her mother to work through, but she’s really blinded by her pain. And her mother really is a monumentally self-centered diva, so there’s plenty of blame on both sides. That whole situation felt really compelling to me, that search to try to understand your mother as more than just the figure you rebelled against or had conflict with. Where you reach a crossroads at which point you have to decide whether you’re going to give your mother the benefit of the doubt and forgive her, or feed your childhood bitterness and hurt and go for the scorched earth option. Needless to say, Meg opts for earth scorching.
LW: How was the process of writing The Weight of Lies different from writing your debut Burying the Honeysuckle Girls?
EC: With Honeysuckle Girls, I had a lot of time. A lot of freedom. I was 100 percent on my own timetable. Then, once I signed with my agent and went on submission, it became a process of listening to my agent’s opinions and the opinions of the marketplace and deciding what to pay attention to and what to bypass. The great thing was that I had a lot of time to tinker with the book, which is a luxury. It wasn’t that much different writing The Weight of Lies because I didn’t sell the book until I had completed it. My next books, though, were sold on pitch, so that’s been an entirely new process, to deliver something you’ve already been paid for.
LW: What’s next for you?
EC: I’m writing my next book, which is about a young woman with a secret she’s kept since her childhood, who agrees to accompany her husband to an exclusive couples therapy retreat up in the mountains of north Georgia so he can get help for the nightmares that have been plaguing him. And then things start to go sideways, and she realizes that nothing at this isolated place is as it seems.
LW: What’s best advice you’ve ever received and what’s your advice for up-and-coming writers?
EC: My agent told me once, “Remember, this is your career…” I can’t even recall what we were talking about exactly—it might’ve been a deadline, or what I was going to write next—but the point was, she wanted me to clear away all the noise from other people’s expectations and do what was best for me. To follow my heart. It was just what I needed to hear at the moment, especially because I have the tendency to go overboard to make other people happy and overlook what’s in my own heart. It really settled me down and gave me the confidence to go forward.
I think one of the things I’d like to remind up-and-coming writers is that they are getting into a business and many of the decisions that editors and publishers make have to do with money. So when new writers encounter perplexing situations, I think they need to understand that financial bottom line motivates many of them. It’s sometimes a bitter pill to swallow, but it’s reality. And as writers, we have to be able to nurture our art in that atmosphere of commercialism.
The other day I heard Harrison Ford say in an interview that he doesn’t like to call people who see his movies “fans,” but “customers.” It was a really pragmatic, non-romantic way for an actor or artist to view what they do, but it did sort of speak to me because I tend to lean toward being really practical. I do see the artistic side of writing, and I can get really swept up in the magic of creating characters and a story. On the flip side, I also do really appreciate my “customers,” and I consider it an honor to have the opportunity to entertain them. And I think what the customers wants and expects should matter to writers. It’s not the end-all, be-all, but it is something to keep in mind.