Thursday, August 5, 2010

Read This Book: Elizabeth Brundage's A Stranger Like You

Elizabeth Brundage (author of The Doctor's Wife and Somebody Else's Daughter) emailed me to ask if I'd be interested in a book that combined dark character study and the world of film. (That's like asking me if I like Junior Mints!) I knew and admired her previous novels, and this one, A Stranger Like You, which pubs today (order or buy wherever books are sold!) is truly wonderful. I'm pulling out all the best adjectives here: quirky, dark, full of unexpected surprises, and oh yes, a wonderful, thorny portrait of Hollywood. Thanks so much, Elizabeth for offering to do this.

I loved how the story fit together, which I think might owe something to your screenwriting abilities. How hard is it to switch gears from novel to script? Do you prefer one format over the other?

I much prefer writing novels to screenplays and I think that being a novelist is more like being the producer and director of a film in that you have complete control over the eventual product. There are few limitations in fiction – you can create an entire world without having to think about what it’s going to cost to make it “real.” What interests me about writing fiction in particular is how the words take effect on the reader, almost like a drug, and the reader succumbs to the story (we pray) and invents the narrative in his or her own mind, thus taking an active role in its creation. That really interests me, because I don’t believe that reading is necessarily passive. Going to see a film perhaps is more passive than reading a book, because you are being fed the images. In reading a book, one brings one’s mind to it, creating pictures to go along with the story and in some instances mustering a host of important memories to assist in decoding one’s feelings about what is taking place. Therefore, reading a novel is a fairly active experience when compared to watching events unfold in a movie – although movies are marvelous, magical creations, there is something incredibly satisfying about holding a book in your hands, the quiet intimacy that evolves between the writer and the reader.

I also love, as a novelist, the sense of really knowing a character. A character can take up residence in a writer’s mind for months or years – often several years – until the writer can properly translate his or her story. I truly believe that writers are translators….first the story is whispered into our ears. We have to decipher the spirit’s language and translate its emotions. I like researching a character’s life, attempting to create that sense of authenticity on the page.

Before the first page there is one shocking page, all in caps, about what emotions and feelings lead to others. (Greed leads to destruction, decadence leads to ruin). Based on a screenwriting character’s theories about how one thing leads to another, it seems to echo through the novel for me, but I wanted your take on why that page is there, and why in caps.

In life, one thing generally leads to another – the same goes for a script or a novel. Ever since the Brothers Grimm and I suspect before that, consequence has played a role in story-telling. I began my writing career as a screenwriter and studied at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles where the first order of business for all the screenwriting fellows was to understand what a premise was, and why it was so essential to have one in your screenplay. Life is not without consequence. A character confronts a challenge and changes as a result, or, at the very least, meanders toward some resolution. The page of “premise tags” at the beginning of the novel comes from that fundamental construct and sets the tone for the thematic underpinnings of the story. So too, the headings for each part of the novel are screenwriting terms, for example: Suspension of Disbelief, which refers to the viewer’s submission to the unfolding story, setting aside the reality of what might be actually possible, which, in the context of the novel, ties into the idea that, in life, your destiny, to some degree, depends upon your perspective, your trust, and your ability to accept mystery or to rely on fate.

You’ve tunneled so deeply into the character of Hugh Waters, who makes his life a terrifying facsimile of his script, that I’m wondering what it was like for you to inhabit someone so disturbing for so long.

It’s funny sometimes being a writer. Your characters surprise you. They remind you that, on some basic level, we all have the capacity for weirdness and evil. I do believe this is true. Hugh Waters first came to me after I received a nasty review on my first book, The Doctor’s Wife. I was an innocent at that point and I felt so violated by the reviewer that I couldn’t help taking it personally. Those feelings fermented for a while – years passed – and low and behold Hugh Waters was born, hell bent on revenge. In writing Hugh, I wanted to explore how a guy who’s not quite the sum of his parts – not quite in sharp focus or full color – a hue – transparent as water – begins to fill in. And when that happens, when he begins to understand the true dynamics of his power, he becomes a very dangerous individual.

I think nearly every writer takes some tiny aspect of his or her life and uses it, exploits it, challenges it, then shapes it into art. In that first novel, the character of Lydia Haas goes completely mad. We were living in Richmond, Massachusetts at the time, in a wonderful old farm house, and she had pretty much possessed me. When I was inside the house, I looked mad – but then I’d have to go pick up my kids at school and do the marketing and would somehow get her to simmer down while I was in my real life – so that nobody would think I was…well, mad.

I wrote A Stranger Like You in a rented house in Williamstown, MA, that had very little furniture in it and just this tiny TV – there was nothing to do but work and it was a good thing and this book just poured out of me in a kind of frenzy. I’m glad I wrote it quickly because, when it was done, I was very glad to get rid of Hugh Waters.

I loved the three voices, the screenwriter, the studio exec who fights to make the kinds of films she wants (which has a price tag) but I also loved how deeply sympathetic each was in their own worlds. They each want to prove that they can be someone, in particular a hero in their own worlds, but once you buy into a certain life, do you think it’s possible to escape it?

That’s a good question and I’m not sure I have the answer to it. I don’t believe anyone can fully ignore their past. I like that you picked up on the fact that each character has their own idea about what a hero is – I tried to present the question about what a hero is and how there’s always a hero in a Hollywood movie. I think that’s true. I think it’s an American phenomenon. We celebrate heroes, even unlikely ones, and they are somehow essential to who we are as a nation. And yet I suppose most nations rely on heroes (or dictators – or villains) in order to define or characterize themselves as countries. When I first met Sean, the Marine who helped me to shape the character of Denny Rios, I knew within the first five minutes of interviewing him that he was a hero. There was just no doubt in my mind. He’d been to Iraq with the first invasion in 2003 and he’d seen things – he’d done things – that we couldn’t discuss; I knew not to ask. There are some things that you don’t talk about with veterans because what happens during war may be out of the realm of ordinary behavior – it is something else entirely and difficult to put into words. Even if you can imagine it in your own mind, it’s not the same as saying the words out loud to a stranger. I respected that. But still – there is some quality that I saw in each of the vets I spoke to. It was a kind of emotional scalding, I felt, that they had each experienced. It’s hard to explain. In the novel, Denny Rios is in the throes of PTSD when we meet him – he can’t quite shake the images of horror that he carries around inside his head. And it’s not until he meets Daisy, a teenage runaway, that he can challenge his demons and begin to let them go. As heroine, Hedda Chase, grappling with her own ideals, agrees to make a film about an Iraqi woman who is stoned to death, knowing that it will be a risky venture that could, quite possibly, diminish her status in the industry and ultimately change her life. Hugh Waters asserts himself heroically when he, in a gesture of paternal compassion, attempts to help Daisy and, later, when he assumes the role of a terrorist – but his version of heroic behavior could be interpreted as psychopathology – it all depends on your perspective, your values, your religious beliefs – and this is, at least in my mind, the heart and soul of the novel.

I absolutely adored all the insider tidbits about Hollywood and Filmmaking. I’m hoping you are going to say you exaggerated, but did you?

I don’t think I exaggerated. Of course my take on Hollywood is subjective – watch one episode of Entourage and you’ll see sexist – even though it’s a terrific show. They know it’s sexist, but that doesn’t mean the business will change, and I’m not sure that a few key women in powerful roles designates real change either, although it helps – it is certainly a step in the right direction. When you talk about sexism it’s a big subject and you can’t attribute blame to either side because we all contribute to sexism, men and women alike – we are all responsible for the way things are. Partly because of how we were raised, partly because of what we see all around us, the advertisements – the way women are encouraged to dress or act – the way men are pushed to project a kind of resolute strength – the reality that seeing a woman undressed is fairly routine. It’s a huge, multi-layered subject and, again, it has a lot to do with perspective. I wanted to talk about sexism in Hollywood as part of a larger conversation about the global perception of women. I wanted to consider the war in Iraq as a kind of theater – a very expensive production – machinated by a strategic few. I’m not convinced that it is possible to negotiate for peace with a country that condones and even encourages husbands to beat their wives when they “disobey” them – not to mention stoning a woman to death as a practice of law. To even imagine for one moment that our Americanism, our diplomacy – the freedom we so proudly champion – might influence and even change behavior that has prevailed for generations is preposterous and foolish. I don’t believe it is possible to negotiate when there are such profound philosophical differences such as these between nations. I don’t believe that either side can relate on any score to the other. War is, of course, not the answer, because even war can’t influence the core issues that motivate the behavior. But perhaps I am too cynical. In any case, these are some of the ideas I wanted to explore in the novel.

What’s obsessing you now in your work?

I’m obsessed with a murder case that has gone unsolved for over twenty years.

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

What do I want readers to know about my work? I want readers to know that I’m trying to write a different kind of thriller – one that reads like a literary novel, but moves at the pace of drugstore pulp. I don’t like the word “genre” because I think it undermines what I and many writers are trying to do. I don’t ever want to be pushed into a publishing category. I don’t want to limit myself to one kind of writing. I want to write every kind of story – thrillers – love stories – science fiction – great literary epics! Writing is an art, but it is also a craft – it is a practice – it is something that must be done day after day and it never really gets any easier. Starting over is starting over, plain and simple. You must confront the white page and in doing so you are confronting many things at once, many problems, few of them easy. It’s important to experiment, to try new things. Writing is this: words on the page. That’s all it is. You don’t need batteries to turn it on.

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