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Monday, February 11, 2013

Interview: writer Richard Kramer Q & A

Richard Kramer is a Yale educated writer, producer and director. I met him on thirtysomething, where he was a head writer. He has also written on Judging Amy, Once and Again, Queer as Folk, My So-Called Life, and Tales of the City. He has a new book out, These Things Happen. I asked him if he'd send a contribution to this blog and he has. I am very grateful to Richard, and to his dogs, they are wonderful. What follows is a Question and Answer that the publisher provided to him for the release of the book. It looks like the book may become a tv show, but those talks are under wraps.

Consulted jan 27 2013

1.    You were writing fiction for the New Yorker as an undergrad at Yale.  Many people would have gone straight from there to writing books.  How and why did you end up writing for television.

I see at sixty that my life has been the usual accretion of right choices, wrong ones, happy accidents and unhappy ones; in short, what's usually defined as experience.

When I was in college I wanted to be part Neil Young, part Bernardo Bertolucci, part Charles Dickens, and part John Updike, only Jewish. And sometimes I wanted to be Joni Mitchell and Elaine May, too. I could have been spun, like a bottle, in any direction. I was lucky enough to take a class with the great Italian director Roberto Rossellini, who used to quote to us from his film about Saint Francis. "When you don't know where to go, spin and spin in the middle of the road until you fall. Then, whatever direction you're pointing in, go there." At Yale I was always spinning; the NEW YORKER coming along nudged my fall in a certain direction.

I thought, or hoped, that I was on my way to a writer's New York life. Then the magazine had the bad taste to reject my next six efforts. Had they not done that, maybe I'd be on my fifteenth novel by now, having Michiko Kakutanikaki, my class and dining hall mate, rap my knuckles in print and tell the world I should have quit after my Nobel.

But here's what happened. I got a job as a singles director on a cruise ship and went to sea for nearly a year. While I was gone I read everything ever written by Graham Greene and wrote an episode for a tv show I liked called family. I had taken a screenwriting class my senior year, as that had been recently ushered in to the academy; I sent the script in cold, forgot about it, and six months later received a check in the mail with the news that they were going to do it. They brought me out to California. And somehow I never stopped working, except for the times I got fired.

And then I wound up writing movies. None got made, but all of them sold. I worked for a lot of stars. And J.D. Salinger, after a family friend sent him an unmade script of mine,  wanted me to adapt CATCHER IN THE RYE as a film. After ten years of doing this I was writing a movie I loved for a director I revered. We had a start date, stars, and got cancelled two weeks before we were due to start official preproduction.  My journals show me that I started playing around with a novel then, as I'd had it with the movie business's endless variation on Charlie Brown and the football.

Then Ed Zwick, whom I'd met my second day in Los Angeles and had become a close friend, called me and asked if I wanted to be part of a pilot he and his partner were thinking of doing with the unlikely title of THIRTYSOMETHING. After Googling myself, it seems I said yes.

 And there I was. And now here I am, all over again, as these things happen.

2. Given the way Hollywood operates--here today gone tomorrow--how risky is it for you to devote yourself to writing books?  Can you do both? 

Well, remember that, in Hollywood terms, sixty is whatever comes after on golden pond.   So being a young and hopefully promising first novelist is a real gift, as I don't have to color my hair and learn about apps in order to just barely keep up.

I hope to do both and suspect I can't, only because to write a script requires complete surrender of one's time to the Man, or as is mostly the case in Hollywood, the Woman. When a conference call's time is rescheduled fourteen times in the course of six hour it is close to impossible to navigate a productive way through those fractured minutes.   Because it's not your time. It's theirs. I wrote a pilot last year, but TTH was done, more or less. And I don't see how I could have done both.

And writing the book was so much more fun. Scary, but joyous, too.

3. How has television informed your work as a novelist and what were some of the biggest differences you found in writing a novel versus a script?

TV gave me a great gift, or I should say the work I was lucky enough to do with Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (THIRTYSOMETHING, MY SO CALLED LIFE, ONCE AND AGAIN) did. Unlike nearly everyone else in the tv world, they wanted  you to bring your own authentic voice and not an imitation of theirs; "be more you" was always their note. And that encouragement gave me the belief that my own thoughts, words, and life made a worthy subject. So I've dedicated the book to Ed, who pushed me for three decades to write one.

I can discuss the differences in terms of rules. Screen and tv writing is all rules, and everyone thinks they know them. Screenwriters unwittingly learn to collaborate with the enemy. No interior life! No more than two and a half pages! Nothing that the average person might not "get"! (again, very different from the renegade Zwick/Herskovitz dictum, which was more or less fuck em if they don't get it.)

But writing a book? No rules. In fact, the writer makes up his own. (to quote Somerset Maugham: " there are three hard and fast rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are." At first I was sure I was doing everything wrong, that
the internalized Studio Executives would be displeased, even angry. But then I realized that writing a book is, at least through the first few drafts, only you. And the real skill, I found, in writing a novel? You have to be be able to face yourself. Because a book is a merciless mirror, that will not let you look away.

4. In THESE THINGS HAPPEN the characters dance around subjects that are for some confusing and for others painful.  Do you feel that George, Wesley, Theo, Ken, and the others mirror how people act in society in real life?  How do you think we do as a culture when it comes to issues of bias or prejudice?  Are we as enlightened as we seem?

I can't speak for society. In CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS Woody Allen asks his father why there was a Hitler. "how the hell do I know why there was a Hitler?" the dad asks. " I can't figure out the goddamn can opener!" I'm with dad.

Now, keep in mind that the only subject dancers are Kenny and Lola, Wesley's parents, who consider themselves, correctly, to be honest and good people. But there are certain danger zones for them, and a big one is whether Wesley is or isn't gay. Of course they'd have no "problem" with it. But of course they would, because despite their eminence and progressiveness they are just like anyone else, which in the course of the book their son helps them not only realize but accept.

What I wanted to write about (and really only discovered after finishing the first draft) was the ways in which all of us internalize accepted beliefs in the culture without even being aware that we're doing it. This, I think, is true no matter how advanced we think we may be. I don't want to give anything away, so let's just say a number of our characters crash right into this and are left pretty bloodied by it.

So are we as enlightened as we seem? I don't pretend I'm the one who gets to decide this. All I can do is present my feelings about it in terms of a story. The reader can take it from there, I hope. I do know that what happens in the book happened, in certain ways, to me. I can also say that everyone in it, pretty much, represents a part of me and my experience. And that's all I'll say. Except that I think the answer to the original question must be no. And that maybe full enlightenment is a goal no one can ever achieve.

5. THESE THINGS HAPPEN is about many things including the friendship between two boys, non-traditional families, familial dysfunctions, self-realization, and more.  What do you hope readers take away from the story and the characters?  Is there a lesson to be learned here or are you more concerned with starting a discourse?

Samuel Goldwyn memorably said if you want to send a message, call Western Union (if anyone still knows what that is). I wanted to see if I could start a book. Then I wanted to see could I get a little past the starting point. Each increment, in terms of my goals, was small. It was only when I reached the point where I knew I couldn't hop off the train that I began to see at all how the story was adding up and what I wanted "people" to get from it. And it wasn't until the very end that I allowed myself to think of the possibility of people. Ed zwick said during THIRTYSOMETHING that whatever we wrote should be like a letter to our three closest friends (sometimes I think that's why people fondly remember the show. I have wonderful experiences with that a couple of times a week, tiny details people remember from long ago that I've long since forgotten). I used Ed's mantra to get through the writing, and it didn't fail me.

But, now that there will be people, what do I want them to take away? Well, the characters, of course. I hope a reader will find at least someone whose email address he might like, or whom he'd like to friend on Facebook, in a non annoying way.

I hope readers will see how bullying cuts across social barriers. Without giving anything away, when I was thinking of a bully related incident in the book I did some research. Everyone I talked to laughed when I asked did these incidents occur in fancy new York private schools; yes, yes, I was told just as much as anywhere else.

I hope the members of modern families, which aside from being the title of a wonderful tv show is also what all families are, will see that staying in the moment is the only way to deal with the thousand small torpedoes that come at you in a day, that in this era of multitasking parents and children have to take on double shifts as parent and child both, that the role of Head of the Family can and should shift from person to person within it. 

And I want people to take away the knowledge that the hardest thing in life is to let yourself be known,  and to learn how to trust that you will still be loved even when you show the things you wish you didn't have in your self.

6.  You have said that you want to write more books.  Can you share anything about the direction you think your second novel will take?

I'm thinking about a young adult novel. I think it's about a brother and a sister. And I think it's set a little bit in the future, at a time when I hope Barack Obama will still be our president.


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