David_Berenbaum_Elf

This week on the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast, a conversation with David Berenbaum, a screenwriter whose credits include the Christmas classic Elf, directed by Jon Favreau and starring Will Ferrell.

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Jonathan-Herman-Straight-Outta-Compton

Now playing on the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast, a conversation with Jonathan Herman , Oscar-nominated screenwriter of the film Straight Outta Compton.

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9780060391683_p0_v1_s260x420-1“You should read Story by Robert McKee,” Nico said.

This was 2010. Nico had agreed to produce the screenplay version of my first novel, Stuck Outside of Phoenix–a screenplay I hadn’t started yet–and he was no doubt concerned about what I might hand over. I’d never written a screenplay, but with more than a decade of daily writing under my belt, I felt I had what it took to crank out a feature-length version of my own novel. Still, I bought a copy of Story as insurance. It lingered in a pile of books for a few months, and after the first draft of the screenplay was finished, I sold it back.

It was around 9:30 P.M., and I was waiting for the bus in Hollywood after being momentarily paroled from my job as a so-called telefundraiser. When I applied for the job, I didn’t think I stood a chance of being hired at that company or any other, having been out of the mainstream work force for the majority of my adult life, which I’ve spent eking out a living as an actor and screenwriter. The entertainment business used to be said to be recession-proof, but if that was ever true in the past, it’s true no longer; the minute the economy went to hell four years ago, I received fewer and fewer offers of acting and screenwriting jobs, until finally I received none at all. Even production-assistant jobs were, in my case anyway, scarce, though I did manage to PA for a couple of days on a teenage space musical financed by NASA, as well as on a Disney Channel spot in which Miley Cyrus was interviewed alongside her achy-breaky father to mark the end of Hannah Montana.

Chapter 24

“Yes,” I said, “I am a member of Joseph DeLucca’s immediate family.”

“And exactly how are you related?”

“He’s my brother.”

“Why is it, then, that you have a different last name?”

“We’re half- brothers.”

“I’m skeptical,” the hospital Nazi said.

Please explain what just happened.

It just leapt through the roof. I swear it did. It was frozen in a block of ice for thousands of years, supposedly dead…then one drill into the block to get a tissue sample and…boom! The thing sprang back to life and escaped. What are we going to do now?

 

What is your earliest memory?

5:20am. We have a toddler with sleep issues.

I first posted this on Thursday night. I apologize to everyone who read the first version, because with all the typos it looked like the ramblings of a drunk. The reality is someone edited the story without my consent. I’ve contacted the editors at TNB about the issue and I’m assured it will be handled properly.

In any case, this is the second part of a story I posted on June 15th. I intended to follow up much sooner, but unfortunately I had to take a little break from the Internet.

If you don’t feel like going back to it, I’ll give you the Hollywood pitch of the previous post: A college kid (me) meets the girl of his dreams,  but there’s a problem: She has a boyfriend already. So the natural question of part two is if the erstwhile lovers can overcome this obstacle, and if so, how3?

The last post ended when Sophia invited me to a fraternity party she was officially attending with her boyfriend, Jack. At the party, which was also a concert, Jack spent most of his time wandering around talking to his friends, while Sophia and me listened to the band together. At one point we wandered off the fraternity grounds and found an old playground across the street. We sat in a couple of old swings and looked at the sky. The stars were too bright, like someone had turned the power up too high, and neither of us said anything for a while. When I finally looked  Sophia again, she was staring into my eyes, leaning close to me, and I knew the moment called for me to kiss her.

But when I moved toward her, she pulled away. I remember this like it was yesterday.

“1 have to go,” she said.

“Why?”

“Jack’s waiting.”

“You mean wasted?”

Sophia stood up and glared at me.

“Don’t do that.”

I was angry with her but I tried to pretend like my comment was a joke.

“Don’t do what?”

After she walked away, I 4resolved not to see her again. I felt like an fool for being so drawn to a girl who couldn’t or wouldn’t return those feelings. I still spent time in the computer lab every day, but luckily the summer schedule changed and she didn’t come by anymore. But then one day, maybe two weeks later, she showed up in my ICQ chat list and wrote me soon after.

“I installed ICQ on the computer in my apartment!” she wrote. “We can talk on the Internet now. 1sn’t this cool?”

And pretty soon we were talking every day again, about everything and nothing. She told me about her family, about her classes, about a boyfriend in high school who once hit her after dropping a touchdown pass in the waning moments of a playoff game. I 5told her about my mother, how her bullying had affected my early relationships with girls, that I staggered through four years of high school without asking a single girl on a date. Or we just chatted about whatever was going on at that moment in the day. This was a dumb thing to do, obviously, because the only way she was ever going to see what we meant to each other was if I took it away from her. But I couldn’t bring myself to play games. I wanted to know what she was doing, what she was thinking, and I wanted her to know the same things about me.

I was also still learning to play the guitar.

You see, I’d never let go of this idea, the one I had back at the concert. If Sophia liked men who played guitar, why couldn’t I be one of them? And what could p9ossibly be more romantic than singing to the woman you loved, in front of the world, and declaring your love for her?

After working my way through a book about guitar chords, called CAGED, I started practicing a particular song—“Only You” by Yaz. I know it’s a sappy song. It’s embarrassing . But you have to consider my mental state at the time. I felt like I was living in a fairy tale. I felt like I had to prove my love to her, like a prince longing for a faraway princess. I just had no idea the fair maiden I was after was Rapunzel.

It wasn’t easy to work out how to play that song on the guitar, considering the synth-oriented sound of the original. I think I practiced in front of the mirror about 5000 times. I know for sure my fingers bled. But finally I decided I was good enough to make it through the whole thing without screwing it up too badly, and that’s when I wrote to Sophia on ICQ and invited her to join me for a drink at a bar called Ike’s.

I knew her boyfriend, Jackass, would be out of town that weekend, and I knew on a Saturday the bar would be packed. But that was the entire point, to make the scenes as dramatic as possible. My biggest fears was that Sophia would turn me down, but to my surprise she accepted readily. In fact I remember precisely what she wrote after we decided on a time for that Saturday night:

“This is gonna be a night to remember.”

After Sophia agreed to meet me (this was Thursday), I  drove to Ike’s and spoke to the bar manager. He was a surly bald fellow who listened to my story and looked at me Ike I didn’t have a Y chromosome in my body. But eventually I convinced him this would be a story he would tell for years afterwards, and he agreed to let me set up in a corner of the bar. He even arranged for a spotlight, and told me he’d turn down the other lights when I got ready to play.

On Friday I practiced until my fingers would no longer obey my commands. I played the song over and over and over until I was sure I could play it left-handed if it came to that. On Saturday Sophia wrote me on ICQ and confirmed the time we were to meet, which was 8 P.M.

I arrived about two hours early and spoke first with the bar manager. Then I had a few drinks. While I waited for Sophia to show up I struck up a conversation with some strangers and told them my story. They seemed to enjoy it and helped me watch the door. I kept watching along with them, first hoping she would arrive on time, then laughing to my new friends about how women never arrived on time for anything, and finally agonizing over if she would ever show up at all.

I’m sure you can guess what happened. That’s the whole point of telling this, right? By the time 9:00 rolled around, most everyone around me was watching the door for Sophia. The embarrassment was intense, severe, crippling. Here I was, terrified of getting up in front of a crowd of drunken strangers, ready to declare my love for a woman who was bound to another, and she never bothered to show up at all.

Turns out that Jack, ostensibly out of town, had actually staged an elaborate proposal for the girl of my dreams. While I waited in the bar for her, ready to play the guitar with bruised fingers, ready to sing to her, she was with Jack. Probably having sex with him. Isn’t that what people do after getting engaged?

So yeah. I’m not a fan of true love. I mean, it exists, I have firsthand knowledge that it does, but in the end I think it’s too rare to ever hope it might happen to you. When it does, chances are the timing is going to be off in some way or another. And they’re probably not even that happy. Did you ever notice how the person texting you, the one calling you, is never the one you wish were calling you?

It was a long time ago. I should probably get over it. I mean I am over it.

Yeah, I’m totally over it.

I met her in at a fraternity house before my senior year of college, which is surprising considering how much I disliked most Greeks.

But in this case it was summer, the university mostly a ghost town, and just about anyone left on campus was invited to a big fraternity party. The place was packed. Booze was everywhere. Ice chests packed with beer, kegs standing in lines like soldiers, more vodka and whiskey than an entire liquor store. And the food. Tables stacked with pizza boxes, chips, cookies, even several boxes of Twinkies. It was somewhere around ten o’clock and I’d already gorged myself on pizza, but since I was drunk I thought I was still hungry. The Twinkies were almost florescent under the warm lights in the dining room, so I unwrapped two of the little yellow cakes and smashed them together to make one big one. This seemed like a great idea at the time. But just as I opened my mouth to take the first giant bite, someone cleared her throat behind me.

I turned and saw a girl, miraculously gorgeous, and felt my face flush red. She was one of those blonde coeds so attractive that it was impossible to say anything witty to her. If you tried to approach someone like that you wouldn’t even be able to make your mouth move. And yet she was definitely standing there, seemingly materialized from nothing, watching as I prepared to inhale a ball of fake yellow cake. I waited for her to cut me to the quick. I winced at what she might say.

What she said was, “That’s a big Twinkie.”

And that’s how it started.

* * *

For the rest of the party, the two of us were inseparable. We took Jell-O shots together in the kitchen, played pool in the game room, and spent hours sitting on a sofa, just talking. I remember we turned all the lights off because of a huge saltwater fish tank that stood against the far wall. The tank was lit from inside and cast the entire room in a flickering blue light, almost ethereal, and which somehow added magic to our drunken conversations. Or so I believed at the time. By the time she was ready to leave, I felt like I’d known her for my entire life. Which I realize sounds trite and not very creatively expressed, but anyway that’s how it felt.

Her apartment was nearly two miles away, and mine a bit further, but neither of us were sober enough to drive. So we walked. After a few minutes of “accidentally” brushing our hands against each other’s, I finally laced my fingers between hers, and she let me. I didn’t feel awkward or nervous like I normally would in a situation like that, where I might be trying to gauge the feelings of someone else, wondering if she felt the same, if I was moving too fast or not fast enough. It was all completely natural. And when we finally arrived at her apartment, I didn’t hesitate to ask for her phone number. I assumed we’d be seeing a lot of each other in the coming days and weeks, so logistically this was the next step.

But her answer was, “I can’t, Thomas. I have a boyfriend.”

It probably seems profoundly egotistical to say so, but I couldn’t believe she was serious, boyfriend or not. We were in college. How close could they be? Of course it was lost on me at the time how I could apply the same logic to myself.

“Don’t you want to talk to me again?” I asked her.

“I do,” she answered. “Very much so.”

“Then let me call you.”

But she wouldn’t. When I asked why she’d spent the whole night talking to me, why she let me hold her hand, she blamed it on the alcohol.

“Sophia, come on. I’m sure you’ve been drunk a hundred times, but did you have a night like this?”

She didn’t answer. She just hugged me and told me it wasn’t meant to be and walked away, and I felt like I had just reached for and missed the most important opportunity of my life.

* * *

Today we take things Facebook and instant messaging for granted, but back then social networking was still theoretical because the Internet didn’t exist in its present form. However, installed on all the machines in the computer lab was a chat program called ICQ, and then, just as now, people used computers more for wasting time than doing actual work.

I was in the lab one day during the summer session, scrolling through the user names on ICQ instead of studying, when I saw one that said “SophiaP.” I’d never had a reason to ask Sophia for her last name, but I also couldn’t imagine there were many people on campus with that first name. So I sent an unsolicited message, and to my delight it turned out be her. She was sitting in the back corner of the computer lab and smiled when I stood up.

We chatted online for more than an hour. About movies we liked and songs we couldn’t live without and why both of us were taking classes in the summer instead of spending it at the beach like her boyfriend. She told me about another summer party the following weekend, where a new indie band called The Flaming Lips would be playing. Her boyfriend was driving into town for the concert, but she invited me to join as well, so I did.

I never saw the boyfriend at the party. He spent most of his time in the bar and I spent most of mine outside watching the band. I’d never heard of the Lips back then but their live show was already fantastic, lit beautifully in hues of blue. Sophia joined me for a while. We moved in rhythm to the music without making much eye contact, dancing together even if neither of us was willing to acknowledge it.

At one point she leaned over to me and said something like, “This music is so spacey, as if it came from another world” and it made me think of our first night together, talking on the sofa, bathed in that ethereal blue light from the fish tank. I was young and surely impressionable, but the whole situation seemed preordained to me, too perfect, almost as if someone had scripted it that way. It just didn’t seem real, how easy and natural it felt to be with her, and it was in that moment I decided I couldn’t give it all away, boyfriend or no boyfriend.

After all, I was a budding screenwriter who felt like he was living in one of his own stories. If someone was going to write us an ending, it might as well be me.

“You just like men who play guitar,” I replied to Sophia.

“I do. You should learn to play.”

And that’s when I had the first inkling of an idea, how I could push this story toward a happy ending. The only thing left was to find a way to make it happen.


I drink too much.

The way I know this is because I often spend Sunday in my living room with the shades drawn, unable to do much more than watch movies and play around on the Internet. Also, my insides hurt.

The problem with stopping is I don’t feel like it. Well, on Sunday I tell myself I’ve had enough, and I abstain until Thursday or Friday, but then one of my buddies calls and says Let’s go, man and by then I’m feeling well enough to start the cycle over again.

I’ve never felt a craving for alcohol, or a thirst, not the way I’ve heard it described. I’m just bored. I didn’t even start drinking until my 30s. When I read literature on alcoholism, it explains how alcoholics have difficulty feeling pleasure because they’re addicted to the dopamine high they get from drinking. Regular activities that normally induce pleasure don’t cut it anymore, not compared to alcohol. But the thing is, I was already bored before I started drinking.

In college I tinkered with screenplays and finished a few, and several years ago I found an agent. He took my newest script and convinced a well-known producer to buy an option on it. I remember the joy I felt when my agent called with the news. Alcohol never made me feel like that. Ever. So I do know I’m at least capable of strong emotions. But it’s not like I get a call like that every week, you know?

One of the things I hate most in the world is fishing. Because of all the waiting you have to do. My screenwriting career is like a fishing trip where I got a bite on the first cast and then spent the next four years staring at a cork. A cork that doesn’t move. That doesn’t even wiggle.

And what do fisherman usually do while they’re waiting for a bite? Why, they drink, of course. Ask any angler and he’ll tell you…drinking is half the point of fishing.

This is my first post on this site and I feel funny writing about something so personal. I tinkered with other ideas but I kept coming back to this. I know it’s a very whiny essay about a problem for which the solution is obvious: stop drinking. But what I wonder is why I should stop. Why should anyone stop doing something they enjoy?

Recently I had been out drinking, and at the end of the night I was far too drunk to drive my car home. I called a cab, but after thirty minutes it still hadn’t showed up, and I fell asleep in my car. Sometime later I heard a knock on my window and saw a cop standing there. I had no idea there was a law where being drunk in your car and having possession of your keys carries the same penalty as actually driving your car under the influence. This seems pretty harsh to me, since the whole idea of DUI laws is to keep drunk drivers off the road. Anyway, my license was suspended, and I ended having to go to a class with a bunch of alcohol and drug offenders. The terrible experience of being in that class is the subject of another essay, but the reason I bring it up now is because one part of the course involved a series of questions the student should ask himself.

Is my work suffering because of my alcohol consumption? Has anyone besides me been adversely affected by my drinking? My family? My friends? What sort of penalties have I faced as a result of my arrest? Et cetera.

In my case, other than the sheer embarrassment of being taken to jail and having to sit in that class, the only penalties were monetary. My family doesn’t know anything about it. I was married once but I’m not anymore, and I don’t have any children, so the only person affected was me.

You could make the argument that my quality of life would be higher if I didn’t drink, or that I would live longer, but I guess what I’m asking is why those things are necessarily better. Almost everyone would agree they are better, but everyone used to believe the Sun orbited the Earth, too. Just because it’s the prevailing opinion doesn’t necessarily make it the right one.

I suppose living a good and honest life should get me to Heaven, but I got sick of listening to my priest and the Pope condemn homosexuality, so I stopped going to Mass. And besides, if you’re looking for examples of healthy living, the Bible isn’t really the place to turn.

Substance abuse of any sort carries consequences. I know this. The thing is, I see abuse around me everywhere. I see people taking painkillers recreationally. I see them addicted to prescription sleeping pills. And if it isn’t drugs, it’s food. If it isn’t food, it’s television. In fact I wonder if television isn’t the most destructive substance of all.

These problems are particularly bad in the United States. Here we are, the land of opportunity, wealthy like few populations on earth, and yet we act as though we’re miserable. More than 70 percent of us are overweight. In 2008 the World Health Organization surveyed legal and illegal drug use in 17 countries and found Americans led the world in marijuana, tobacco, and cocaine use. Interestingly, countries with far less stringent drug laws also experience far less use. Although it turns out our alcohol consumption is fairly mundane compared to plenty of nations in Western Europe.

Quoting statistics about substance abuse doesn’t excuse my own. But it does make me wonder what it is about the United States that makes her citizens so desperate to alter their own perceptions. Why isn’t the real world good enough? What exactly are we looking for?

The drugs are only going to get stronger. One day, reality television and video games are going to overlap, and I have a feeling what emerges will be the strongest drug of all.

Maybe then I won’t be so bored anymore.


Over the last bunch of years Craig Nova has been faithfully publishing one novel after the other, each a little different than the last, and every book taking on a different topic. I discovered Mr. Nova with Incandescence, a truly great novel about a man realizing his limitations, and that life is short. Mr. Nova’s writing has expressed wonderful ideas about the human experience and how what we do everyday shapes us as much as it defines us to other people. I was thrilled when Craig agreed to answer a few questions.

JR: I’ve heard that you do a lot of research for each novel, what was involved with a book about Weimar Germany, set in 1930 Berlin? I know you spent time with State Troopers for Cruisers, and some of that novel actually happened. Can you give us a little insight into both books, how you prepared to write them?

CN: When I wrote Cruisers I spent some time with a Vermont State Trooper, that is I rode at night with him. He had been involved in a very bad circumstance as described in the book. One of the most fascinating things for me was to be with someone who had to do it right the first time. Writers, of course, have time for a many drafts, but this man’s work was more intense and immediate than that. He had to go up to a car in the dark. No one knows what is in the car. In fact, I read some martial arts books when I was watching him do this, and he had a wonderful way, almost (almost) spiritual in the way he approached the discipline of being out there and being alone. He was a tremendous inspiration, both for the book and for my own life. He taught me a particular kind of dignity.

For Berlin, well, I went to the city to see what the landscape was like and to look around at was left of the architecture, although most of it had been bombed in the war. But some places were still left. And, of course, the shadows of the dark era were there. For instance, I went to the Lustgarten, which is a sort of grassy green in the city, and then went to a book store where I found a photographic history of Berlin. There, in the middle, was a picture of the Lustgarten filled with a Nazi demonstration. I could feel the shadow.

JR: The Informer tells the story of a several people, but remains in one place, which you and I have talked about, setting and location, how important that is not only for the writer but for the reader. What kind of discipline was needed to keep this story from growing out past your ideas of where you wanted it to go? You’ve talked to me about the Graham Greene novel Brighton Rock as being an important novel for you, and a good example of staying in one place.

CN: I think the key to staying in one place is to remember that the most important things in a novel are story, story, and story. This means that you are stuck with not explaining the action by referring to other places or other times, but seeing what the characters can do, right where they are, to advance a story. For instance, in the Informer, a character has been told to kill a woman, but when he sees her, he falls in love with her, or thinks he does, and so the method of storytelling is to see how this plays out between the two of them. Is he going to kill her, or is she going to sleep with him. She knows he is coming for her, and has always used sex as a weapon. What happens?

JR: Information during the war was very important, and a tool for your heroine Gaelle, what kind of writing and rewriting did you have to do to give that character weight and importance. Nick Laird, an British novelist talks about dialogue being about what’s not said, in a lot of ways Gaelle is telling us a lot, by not telling us anything. Is that accurate?

CN: Yes. I often refer to an essay written by Robert Towne about screen writing in which he says the screenwriter’s job is to stay out of the actor’s way. I think that a writer’s job is to stay out of the reader’s way, that is to let the reader see what is happening. It is what I like to call transparent writing. The reader knows. The character knows what is happening. The writer knows, too, but it is never mentioned.

For instance, in The Great Gatsby, no one ever says, “This is a novel about the brutality of the American class system and how, in a marriage, differences in power can be brutalizing.” But it’s there. Although unsaid.

JR: This isn’t a police procedural in the truest sense, did you fear at times when you were writing this story that people would want that? Did you ever think about the reader while you were working on this book? Do you ever?

CN: No, it isn’t a straight procedural, but it is about people who worked in Inspectorate A, the serious crimes section of the Berlin Police force, and so I always had that to fall back on. Mostly, I was concerned about and am often concerned about in novels the attempt of a character to do the right thing. Usually, I try to find a way to make this difficult, since, of course, in ordinary life, this is what human beings are often up against. How do we know what the right thing is and how do we do it, particularly when it may cost as a lot or everything?

JR: On the other side of things Armina Treffen holds a kind of sensitive power on the story; it was really interesting to watch her progress. Can you tell me how you got to her?

CN: Well, I was interested in an attractive and smart woman who had come into a new job. That is, in the 20s, like today, women came into jobs that they hadn’t had before, and so this is a young woman who was working with a bunch of hardnosed German detectives. So the tension there is that while she is educated and even elegant she still has to deal with these guys. Not easy. And then she is alone and she believes that she is alone because the man that was meant for her was killed in the first World War. Finally, of course, she meets a man, and I wanted to do something that isn’t done much these days in novels.

That is, in novels in the modern era, men and women don’t get along. They have sex, but no romance, and so I thought I would try to be daring and to include romance, too.

And then I wanted to bring a whiff of the erotic to Armina’s work as a cop. She thinks about sex when she is practicing on the pistol range. Or she thinks about being in bed with a man she loves when she is in danger, just to calm down. The idea was to combine the erotic with the dangerous to see what effect could be obtained.

JR: Over the last few years you’ve talked about Cruisers being adapted into a movie, and even The Good Son, (If I’m wrong, please correct me). What’s the status of those projects?

CN: After I did 18 drafts of a script for The Good Son for some Canadian producers, their company merged with one in Los Angeles and that, as far as I know, was the end of that. Still, I learned a lot doing the 18 drafts, and that is very valuable information to have.

Cruisers is being worked on now. One screenwriter has done three drafts and a new one has just been brought in. A young guy in Los Angeles, Jordan Bloch, who seems to have enormous amounts of energy, is behind this, and I am acting as an executive producer. I hope this doesn’t mean that when someone gets hurt on the set, I will be the one to get sued.

Time, as always, will tell. The question is what will it say?

JR: There are scenes of pure beauty in The Informers, and recently I can point to similar moments inCruisers where Russell Boyd, your hero cop, doubles as a kind of wild animal spreading a scent for hunters to follow, can you tell me where you got that idea? I was particularly moved by that and also noticed similar passages in The Universal Donor, and Wetware. Are you consciously trying to build scenes around a profound moment, or does it work the other way around?

CN: I like to bring the natural world into books, if only because in the modern age we seem to forget that it exists, until, of course, we have a hurricane or an earthquake. In Cruisers, I knew a woman who had organized a hunt, and rather than a fox, they used someone to spread a scent over the land where the hunters were allowed to ride. I was instantly fascinated by this person, who has called a fox, and in fact I had planned to write a sort of DH Lawrence novel about the fox, a working class guy, who gets involved with a member of the hunt. Somehow, I didn’t do that, although I might yet, and so I had this notion of writing about the fox, that is the one who spreads the scent, and so it seemed to fit (since pursuit is a part of Cruisers). So I used it. Of course, I also tried to use many, many other things like this (things I had heard or made up) that didn’t fit and so they ended up in the “Previous Drafts Pile.”

Here’s a picture of some of these drafts on the shelf outside my office when I lived in Vermont.

JR: Peter Straub for the Washington Post said “Cruisers demonstrates that the boundary between literature and genre fiction, once fiercely maintained, has grown tissue-thin.” Are you trying to write something within a genre, or would you rather function in a literary world?

CN: I think that the writers are in a dog fight for readers. And if the use of some suspense, which writers having been using, by the way, since the beginning of writing, why then I am glad to do it. And, of course, when I look at my favorite writers, Graham Greene, JM Coetzee, Albert Camus, they all use it (what is more suspenseful than the onslaught of a plague, as in The Plague?) I think writers need to remember the reader a little more, just as it is pleasurable to have the feeling the story is going forward and that the chances are pretty good that the reader might come along. Actually, this is one of the most profound pleasures of writing a novel.

JR: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me Craig. As always, it’s been a pleasure. (The Informergoes on sale March 16th)

CN: Well, it is my pleasure. Thanks for the chance. And keep me posted on your own work.



Dan Chaon is enjoying more success than ever with his new novel, “Await Your Reply” (see our coverage here), and we at Three Guys couldn’t be happier about it, because, well, the dude deserves it. Great book, great guy. And for those of you who don’t know how to pronounce his name, it’s pronounced /Shawn./ Last week, JC and I threw some questions at Mr. Chaon, who was so gracious as to field them. The results, the first batch, anyway, are after the jump. Look for a second round with Dan Chaon soon. In the meantime, go out and read Await Your Reply.

JE: Okay, so this is something I’ve been dying to ask you about, given the narrative structure of AYR,which required so much finesse in order not to tip your hand: how did you approach this trio of stories? It has the polished feel of a narrative which has been scrupulously plotted and outlined, and yet I sense there must have been a learning curve, and a lot of discovery along the way, resulting in a lot of reverse engineering, and editing, and shuffling, and re-plotting, and re-allocating of information.

DC: This started out as three separate short stories. I often write groups of stories that are connected by theme and certain narrative tropes, but in this case I had a presentiment that they were somehow part of the same (longer) story.

For most of the first draft, I didn’t know how they were connected. I was just writing forward with each of the three narratives, nervously feeling my way into blank space. A lot of the time during the first draft I was anxious because I thought I might have to throw the book away, and when it started to come together toward the end, I was surprised to discover that a number of the characters weren’t who I thought they were. It’s cool when you can manage to fool yourself.

Of course, you’re absolutely right that the “plot,” as it is now, is a work of reverse engineering–once I figured things out in the first draft, I had to go back and make a lot of the earlier chapters fit into a jiggered timeline, and a reorganized concept of who was who. But it was surprising to me how much was already there, too, as if I had left clues for myself without even knowing.

One of my personal favorite stories that I’ve written is a piece called “Thirteen Windows” (in Fitting Ends, my first collection.) That story came out of an exercise that one of my teachers gave me. She pointed out that I repeatedly wrote scenes in which characters looked out of windows, and she gave me an assignment in which I had to write a story where every single scene featured a window. I think she thought she was going to break me of a bad habit. Ha!

In any case, I think this novel is a little bit like that. Ultimately,a lot of the architecture is not so much “scrupulous,” as it is simply obsessive-compulsive. I run along the same tracks in my mind over and over, and I do the same thing here: versions upon versions of the same idea, which luckily ended up suiting the plot and theme.

JC: You spend a great deal of time dealing with the concept of identity in this novel — not just identity theft, but identity abandonment, as well. One of the great lines is “who would you be if you were not yourself?” which opens a whole boatload of interesting philosophical questions. How did that theme come about in the writing of the book, and what do you make of this identity shell game?

DC: Tonight my younger brother and I happened to be driving through Twinsburg, OH, and I made note of the fact that Twinsburg annually hosts a“Twins Days!” Festival. Twins from all over the country come to celebrate their special connection.

“Ugh,” said my brother. “Twins are creepy.”

And I was silent for a moment. “Hmm,” I said.

“I would never want to have a twin,” my brother said. “I would always be nervous that he would try to kill me. “

I laughed at this–it’s kind of non sequitur, right? But actually there is something serious at the bottom of it, which is the idea that we have that we are unique. But what do we mean when we conceptualize a “self,” a “me?” Why is it so important to believe that a person exists as a single continuous unbroken narrative through time, as an “individual? ” I pointed out to my brother that most of the twins I have known began to distinguish themselves from one another from an early age. By adulthood, even the identical twins that I have known look remarkably different from one another.

We like the idea that the individual self is a snowflake, inimitable, and that having a twin could be somehow unnatural and even dangerous.

But wait! Why shouldn’t you have more than one life, more than one self– why not dozens? hundreds? With the internet, we now have at our fingertips the ability to try out any number of avatars, to play act any number of different personas. And yet we still like to hold on to the idea that there is some essential, true core that exists.

At the end of *Await Your Reply, *one of the main characters thinks: “You could be anyone.” And it might be the ultimate freedom, but it also might be a terrible negation: if you are anyone, then you are also no one.

It strikes me that the central theme in this book is actually quite conservative. The characters are all at loose ends, adrift, and it would be harder for them to transform if they had other people who knew them, who held them in a stable grasp. It occurs to me that we are us because of the people we love–our family, our friends, our community–who hold us to a consistency.

JE: Identity being the major theme of AYR, I’m curious if (or how) the fact that you were adopted has impacted your own sense of identity, and how this might possibly color your fiction.

DC: the simple answer is that adoption has deeply affected my sense of self from a very early age. I remember, for example, a picture book for adopted children that my parents used to read me, which explained that my parents had “chosen” me because I was “special.” And I remember fantasizing about the lives of my biological parents, in a way very similar to the way that Ryan and Lucy fantasize about the Other Lives they want for themselves.

For me, the adoption stuff has continued to complicate my life in a whole variety of ways well into adulthood. I met my biological father when I was in my late twenties, and I’ve had a very close relationship with him and his family ever since. (In fact, my biological half-brother, Jed, who is 24, has been living with me here in Cleveland since my wife died last year–so I have truly, for all intents and purposes, moved into a different life.) At the same time, I have a separate, and complicated, relationship with my adoptive family (my adoptive parents both died in 1996;) and there’s also my biological mother, who I have only spoken to a couple of times, and who has kept my existence a secret from her own family.

Whew. Did that even make any sense??

All that being said, adoption wasn’t at the forefront of my mind when I was writing this. More pertinent, I think, was the fact that my wife was gravely ill when I trying to finish the book. Her impending death ultimately colored the emotions of the book a lot. That last chapter, and that Carlyle quote that Hayden uses,and just the general sense of loss and finding oneself alone. The longing for that one person and the certainty that they will disappear.

chaonJC: In your acknowledgements you give a hat tip to a number of writers who have influenced you, including, surprisingly to me, a number of horror and fantasy writers like King, Bloch, Lovecraft. What is it about those genres, or those authors, that you’ve found so influential in you’re own writing.

DC: I’m kind of surprised that you’re surprised, JC. As an avid consumer of fantasy and horror, the connections seem really apparent to me; but of course that’s looking at it from the inside.

On the one hand, I rarely work in a mode that is overtly supernatural, but I feel like a lot of the moods that I’m most attached to–dread, and a sense of uncertainty about reality, and the difficulty and dangers of trust–are all tropes that find their most vivid roots in horror. I’m friendly with the horror writer Peter Straub, and he once told me that he thought that most of my stories struck him as like ghost stories, even if the ghost never appears. I think that’s a good assessment.

In **Await Your Reply**, I found that I was being drawn into a world that was peppered with iconic dark fantasy stuff–evil twins,hypnotists and magicians,mysterious disappearances,past lives and dismemberment.

There are a number of fairly direct citations within the text. The house in Nebraska where Lucy and George stay looks a lot like the house in * Psycho,* for example, and George’s mother has a Hitchcockian quality, though she’s less like Norman Bates’ mom and more like Bruno’s mother from* Strangers on a Train. *Patricia Highsmith’s *Talented Mr. Ripley *stalks around the edges, as does Daphne Du Maurier and Shirley Jackson. To some extent, I conceptualized Lucy as a modernized Du Maurier or Shirley Jackson character.

Miles and Hayden’s relationship draws on all kinds of stuff, from Jekyll and Hyde to Frankenstein to the old 1970’s Thomas Tryon bestseller *The Other, *which features a pair of twins called Niles and Holland. Meanwhile, Peter Straub’s *Ghost Story *features a mysterious woman who appears in the lives of the main characters in various guises, under different names, and Lovecraft’s sense of unspeakable ancient societies and secret worlds underpins a great number of Hayden’s obsessions.

The idea behind this was that the “real” world of the novel would be shot through with a kind of eerie artifice, that real locations would also have the quality of a dream, or a stage set, or a certain deja vu. All the characters are in the process of reimagining themselves, and this is always, it seems to me, an act of confabulation.

I had some fun with this. Hayden, I think, is a true Fortean. He truly does believe in a world full of cryptohistories and conspiracies, asdo his Russian compatriots, who (if you translate the Russian in Chapter 5) are eager to talk about recent breakthroughs in telekinetic research.

But the other characters–Miles, Lucy, Ryan–aren’t so secure about what’s real and what’s not, and I was interested in the way the fantastic intruded in their realist lives.

The “Russian Mobsters” who Ryan encounters in Chapter 14–straight out of central casting–are actually real guys. The conversation Ryan has with them is taken practically verbatim from an encounter I had with a trio of friendly, drunken tourists I met when I was in Las Vegas, and the sense of “threat” comes from the movie cliches that Ryan (and, perhaps, the reader) imposes upon them.

On the other hand, one of the big supposed villains of the novel is a horror movie nerd who freaks out at the sight of real blood and carnage.

In short, I was attracted to the idea that the real and the fantastic would share the same space in the novel, layered upon one another. And–as in all the best ghost stories–we never know how much is just a reflection of the characters’ psychological states.

JE: Okay, everything you just said illustrates one of the reasons why your fiction is great: because there is so much going on beneath the surface, so many ideas, so much intertextuality, and awareness of what came before you, the sum of which could very easily result in work that was convoluted, or heavy-handed, yet your story is so crisp and focused and efficient in its execution, that the effect is a kind of electricity that pulses beneath the work, palpable but invisible—charged, the whole work is charged, like each sentence has the energy of all the sentences which were cut in order to arrive at the one that remains. And yet you’ve stated that you were groping in the early stages of composition. Don’t you get the feeling sometimes that our stories exist somewhere already, fully formed, and that our unconscious mind (or perhaps even something outside ourselves) just leads us to them through a distillation process? Almost like the act of composition—the rough, rough, rough drafts—are just an act of faith? Or am I just too stoned again? Fuck, I think I’m too stoned again. Does that make sense?

DC: Yes, you’re probably too stoned again. But join the club. There’s a big stoner in practically every book I write. I love you guys.

I truly believe in the power of the subconscious. I don’t outline, and I don’t know what is going to happen when I begin a story or a novel. I have images, and characters, and glimmerings of plot, but no real outline.

There is something suicidal about this approach, because it means that you can get to the middle of a book and realize that you have nowhere to go. I’ve had this happen a couple of times, and it is a terrible experience.

But at the same time, I find that I’m not really interested in a narrative in which I already know what is going to happen. The problem with outlining is that it seems to me that the characters become flat, that there’s a kind of determinism at work in which you’re basically reiterating what you already know about the world. The thing I like about fiction is that it offers this chance of discovery.

Have you seen this new TV show, *Flashforward? *It’s not particularly great, but I’m interested in the premise. Basically, there is an Event in which everyone in the world has a Vision of the Future. The big question of the show is whether you can change this vision, or whether is it fated to happen no matter what you do.

To me, that’s my big question. What does free will mean? And that is why I write the way I write. With the hope that the characters will somehow show me the way….that I’ll be able to grope through based on imagery and situation. And I suspect that actually I came to this method based on watching television, rather than on reading novels. I’m embarrassed to say that I probably learned novel structure from the episode arc of shows like **The Soprano*s and *Lost** and *Dexter. *The classic structure of books like *The Great Gatsby *or *To the Lighthouse–*two novels I love–don’t realistically have much influence on how I actually work. * *

As it happens, the next piece that I’m working on might be a television series. I’m working lightly on a possible television pilot about a medical process which allows you to bring the dead back to life, at a cost. It’s sort of ER meets Six Feet Under meets Dead Like Me. The Resurrected are kept in a kind of medical ghetto, in cold storage, where they can be visited by their loved ones. The main character is a guy who tries to commit suicide in the first ep. Only to find that his wealthy wife has had him resurrected…to his dismay.

Ha. Ha. Ha.

-3G1B

I’m a filmmaker.

A multi-hyphenate.

Writer / Director / Producer is usually how it goes.

Except if I were to choose the order, it would be Director / Producer / Writer.

When I write, I prefer punchy, active sentences.

I don’t usually go much further than: Who? What? How?

Let everyone else fill in the blanks.

The person reading a screenplay has neither the time nor the patience for long, esoteric descriptions about the Hero’s freakish allergy to shag carpeting. Nor do they care to read extensive passages about the psychosomatic development of said allergy due to the heartache caused by one Love Interest after their first sexual encounter in 1978 in his Aunt Rita’s Airstream, which had not only the floor, but the walls lined with the stuff; and who, years later, coincidentally enough, happens to be standing across the room from Hero at a party. Unfortunately for Hero, he notices her just after having lost his trousers in a round of Strip Twister.  Having fallen on his pants-less ass in shock at the sight of her, his derriere begins to swell three times its normal size. (131 words)

FADE IN:

Hero struggles with his jeans and falls to the floor; his belt tangled around his ankles.

Shag carpet.

He cringes.

Flashback to the inside of the Airstream:  Against a background of warm, plush shag carpet, desperate teenage hands grope any available patch of sweaty virgin flesh.

He opens his eyes.

He sees…

Her.

She looks gorgeous.

Panic.

She walks toward him – easy familiarity in her azure eyes.

His ass begins to swell at an enormous rate.

Shit.

FADE OUT.

(Word count: 77)


Efficiency.

Economy.

Lazy?

Maybe. Maybe not.

“I would have written less, but I didn’t have enough time.”

Film is a collaborative medium. If you do your job right as a director, the actor and the camera can say volumes with the simple flick of an eyelash, an artful manipulation of the lens, and the lighting… oh God, the lighting!

A picture is worth one thousand words.

So what, pray tell, is one word worth?


For reasons unbeknownst to me, last November, I joined the insanity of writing fifty thousand of the little buggers for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo in the inner circles) and tried assembling those words into some sort of coherent order, hopefully with the aim of resembling a story.

Maybe it was because some friends were doing it. Professional novelists, mind you, all.

Perhaps it was because I had a story that I’d been kicking around and I thought it needed a little ‘fleshing out’ before turning it into my next screenplay.

More likely, it was because I had gotten drunk on Halloween and thought it would be something “fun” to do, while killing time at my insanely boring new temp job.

How hard could it be to write fifty thousand words?

It only meant needing to average one thousand, six hundred and sixty-seven words per day.

Piece of cake, right?

If by cake, you are referring to some sort of Red Velvet cake from Hell that used blood, vomit and vodka (not necessarily in that order) as its primary ingredients instead of red food coloring, buttermilk and cream cheese frosting, then, yes. It was a piece of cake.

(Note: cream cheese frosting could be used in either scenario.)

I started with a bang and on the first day wrote one-thousand, eight-hundred and six words. One-hundred and thirty nine above average.

Above average. Whee!

It took me three weeks and several sleepless nights to get myself back ahead of the word-count game. I mined emotional graveyards. I ran a Marathon down Amnesia Lane. I pulled out old letters, photos, journals, yearbooks; trolling for names, memories, events, people, clothing, bad hair; anything to give fodder to the Muse.

I wrote every waking moment that I was coherent. On the subway, at work, on the toilet… I wasn’t necessarily typing all the time, but I couldn’t escape this story that had caught hold of me, filled my pores and was oozing from every orifice. (Ew. Gross.)

I cried. I kicked. I screamed. I drank. I hid. I stamped my feet and held my breath. I wrote long, passionate essays that had absolutely nothing to do with my characters or could contribute in any way towards my word count.

I drank some more.

I turned to the Internet. I struggled to resist the urge to up my word count with Ye Olde Cut-n-Paste Institute of Writing, knowing the Apple-C/Apple-V keys would magically conserve innumerable keystrokes and save me the carpal tunnel physical therapy sessions.

I vowed not to cheat, but in desperation, some of my characters found themselves singing entire stanzas of Van Halen’s classic, “Hot for Teacher” or Duran Duran’s “The Chauffeur” (124 words). There was a wedding announcement ‘published’ by the local newspaper (987 words) and passionate outpourings that had once been scribbled in juvenile journals in turquoise, raspberry-scented ink, complete with open-circle-dotted “i”s found themselves suddenly converted into 12-point Courier (3,706 words).

Anything to get those fucking numbers within spitting distance of my fellow scribes whose little blue word-count-o-meters were blowing mine out of the water. Me, a mere scribbler.

And then, I fell in love.

I took the time to get to know these people. Sat down with them. Shared a few pots of coffee and handfuls of peanut M&Ms. Got under each other’s skin.

And like magic, my characters found their voices. To be certain, many were reminiscent of our favorite American Idol disasters, but a couple had some serious chops. Pav and Callas (R.I.P.) would be proud to share the stage.

Subplots emerged from the ether. Main plots got resolved. Not every ending was happy. Not every ending is.

But the demons; they got exorcized.


Long story short:  I made it.


Fifty-thousand, two-hundred and fifty-four words. In thirty days.

I abandoned my friends, gained three pounds (the M&Ms, maybe?), refused calls from my mother and wrote throughout the entirety of the WGA strike.

All for the sake of fifty-thousand, two-hundred and fifty-four separate assemblages of letters that were strung together into some sort of coherent order, resembling a story.

A novel.

I wrote one.

I’ve learned the value of a word.

If you asked me to define that value, I could write another.

Fifty thousand and more.

But I’ve decided to save my words.


Efficiency.

Economy.


I’ll need them if I decide to finish the damn thing.

 It was great to hear your voice again, Igor.

It was as if we hadn’t missed a beat, or it was as if you deleted my number and didn’t know who was calling you last Tuesday afternoon at 4:32.

Igor, your newest email address doesn’t work now.

Sounds about right.

Par for this course you’ve had me playing on for the last six months.