Thursday, May 12, 2011

Thelma Adams talks about writing and Playdate

Thelma Adams has been the film critic at US Weekly since 2000, following six years at the New York Post. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, O: The Oprah magazine, The Huffington Post, Marie Claire, the New York Times, and more. Her debut novel, Playdate, is an Oprah pick, and I'm honored to have her hear on my blog. Thanks, Thelma!

As a former tortoise owner myself, I was in love with the box turtle in the book. Why a turtle in the book?

When we first lived together in Chelsea, my husband always had turtles. He is a turtle-lover, and we have a very turtle-and-the-hare relationship. (I’m the rabbit, always leaping.) What this means is that I spent a lot of time with turtles – red-eared sliders, box, but nothing bigger than a breadbox. We had an Asian Box Turtle that we named Buckethead. And, amazingly, if we played Stevie Winwood’s “Higher Love” the turtle would actually dance, moving his bucket head back and forth to the music. Because of that, we played “Higher Love” a lot. Now, we live in the country, and there’s an ancient one-eyed snapping turtle that lives in our stream. We’ve named her Cyclops. She doesn’t dance that we know of, but she does lay eggs. We’re very protective of her without getting very close.

But why a turtle in the book? Because, as clever as they are, you can’t get affection from a turtle the way you can from a cat or a dog; they don’t hop onto the bed and curl up beside you. Belle, the daughter in the book, wants that connection from a pet, the uncritical affection. And it just wasn’t going to come from “Boxy,” or even from the mother that allowed her to get a turtle, but said “no” to a puppy.

The wildly comic ride of your novel’s been compared to Little Children, but where would you say your inspiration lies? 

My inspiration lies in P. G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh (think Scoop), in creating a surface lightness in dialog that belies the darkness, or the complications, beneath. Or acknowledges the darkness playfully, with a sting, like the Jewish humor I grew up with – The Marx Brothers, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks (think his wonderful song and dance “The Inquisition”). The fiction writer Paula Bomer compared Playdate to Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, and I liked that, and felt honored by the comparison, because Roth’s early writing was sexy, funny, and painfully honest. He broke new ground.

I loved the whole backdrop of the wildfire, which gave your novel this incredible cinematic quality, which brings me to your job as film critic for Us Weekly. Does being a novelist inform being a film critic and vice versa?

It runs both ways. As a critic, I think I always look at story first. Does the script deliver? Does the dialog pop? Are we moved to laughter or tears? Does it have narrative drive? And, as a creative writer myself, I also recognize that the movie is an artistic collaboration, and even the worst movie was somebody’s baby at one point.

On the other hand, the first kernel of this project started as a script idea: a cross between “Shampoo” and “Mr. Mom.” But then I realized that I knew nothing about writing scripts, and it was an entirely different skill set. So I fell back to what I knew and wrote a book. In “Shampoo,” the movie is set against the backdrop of an election. I wanted this book to be set against the backdrop of a larger event. Enter the fires. But it wasn’t until a much later revise, after the Witch Creek Fires, that the Santa Ana winds became a much larger determining force in the book.

In the final draft of my novel, my editor Katie Gilligan at St. Martins/Thomas Dunne Books pointed out all my cinematic transitions that began chapters – meanwhile, over at the playground – and suggested (only suggested) I try another way in. I hadn’t realized that I was doing that, that I was wasting an opportunity to go deeper at the beginning of chapters, and I appreciated her fresh eyes. And dug deeper.

From the “playground fabulousness” to the kiddie diner with gourmet food, you skewer the pretentions of upper class suburbia with gleeful aplomb. Do you think there’s a solution for this kind of living?

Yes. Love your children and don’t turn them into status objects. In my book, I call it the Disneyland Syndrome – the misconception that if you take the kids to a theme park, and buy them every thing they want, and go on every ride, they will remember that as their childhood. Childhood is also in the rest between beats. It doesn’t take any money to have a real connection with your kid, just an open heart and a willingness to listen to them, really listen.

Tell us what your daily writing life is like?
Because I’m a film critic, and movies get scheduled on a very short lead time that the studios control, every day is different. Two or three days a week, I take Metro North to NYC to see movies. Seeing new movies remains a pleasure for me, and I think always will be. I love that moment when the lights come down in the theater, and the screen lights up. But my schedule’s unpredictability makes it hard to get a fiction-writing routine together. And I love a writing rut. I’m a morning writer, and write best in a few compact hours of very high concentration, without internet if I can control myself. What I’m trying to do now is string together three or four or five days running – including weekends – when I can get my head in the novel and keep it there. Writing for Us Weekly always comes first, and interviews for Marie Claire. That’s how I pay my way, and it’s a lovely way to do it.

The biggest break for my writing life (after publishing my first novel) just happened: after years of putting my kids on the school bus and getting them ready, my son is now at boarding school and my daughter suddenly this week began to get up and dressed and out the door by herself. That means when I wake up, I can just caffeinate and go without the distractions of lost homework, missing socks, sleepy children and scraping ice off the windshield.

What’s obsessing you now? 

My next book. I’m writing a novel about Upstate New York mothers. I have an outline, and a string of incidents, and I’m trying to get it to cohere. Really, I’m just trying to write from beginning to end to see what I have without judging it along the way.

When you’ve completed a book, there’s a tendency to see it as a finished product, and forget all the many, many drafts that got it there. So, it can be a challenge to start afresh, and write through the crap, and the indecision, so that later you can cut back and dive deeper and play with the prose. It’s a marathon – and it helps to have marathon buddies to remind you that the large overwhelming project is put together in a string of days spent with your butt in the chair and your fingers racing. And that every day you get your butt in that desk chair, every 500 words chipped away, is a small triumph.

What do you wish you knew five years ago? 

That I would get a novel published. Whew! If I had known that five years ago, I could have discarded all the time spent and wasted worrying that I was writing fiction into the void, rather than taking the kids to sports activities or getting my house in order or just plain chillaxing.

And, secondly, that even though my wish would come true, that I would publish a novel, life would go on with all its ups and downs, births and deaths. Becoming a published novelist wouldn’t change every thing like a magic pill, and it would even create some new problems. But nothing could knock the giddy happy feeling to see my hard work realized: my book in print and lined up with its gorgeous blue cover beside my desk; and strangers across the country (Ok, mostly in NY and LA) laughing at my jokes, and seeing the world through my eyes.

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