Monday, December 3, 2012

Meg Pokrass interviews J. P. Smith, the author of 25 novels on writing, discipline, screenwriting and so much more

The author of 25 books and a screenwriter--what could make a more fascinating interview? Thank you, Meg Pokrass and J.P. Smith for this lively conversation!

JP, is it true that you have written 25 or so novels?  How many have been published? please discuss the  discipline of writing here, your own way...
I wrote twelve novels before my first, The Man from Marseille, was published in the UK in 1985 and in the US a year later. So I was writing a novel a year, and pretty much stuck to that regime for the years to come. I’ve published six, with my latest just out in November 2012, so that’s not a bad ratio. Many of those novels were written when I was living in England, and as they were left in a box with some old neighbors, they’re now as lost as the neighbors are. Some were, as I remember, pretty good, some not so terrific. 

As for the discipline involved, I began writing in 1973, when I took a teaching job at my old school in Westchester County, NY, thinly disguised as the protagonist’s children’s school in Airtight. I taught there for four years, and every day I’d come home and write twenty-five pages. By doing that I learned how to create a flow (which some readers still find a bit confounding) in my fiction, so that I could move fluidly between past and present, between memory and life. 

I suppose it was like a musician practicing for hours every day, simply learning the craft, working the scales, seeking just the right tone and touch. During those years before I moved to London it was impossible to get an agent without having been published, and vice-versa, but I kept querying agents and publishers, and eventually an editor at Little, Brown took an interest in my work. Until she disappeared, too. 

But it was when I moved to England, that I really began to learn the craft. I worked hard there, producing teleplays and novels, and in the afternoons walking the fossil-strewn beach (or strand, as it’s called). It was a pretty healthy regime. Writing teleplays in England gives you a sense of language can be a balm as well as a weapon. Many English dramas could be hugely successful just featuring two men and a bottle of Scotch in a drawing room. And then the woman enters, and the war begins over her. It gave me a sense of how to use dialogue in a natural and effective way.

As for discipline, I still can’t go a day without writing. Right now I’m working on a screenplay and have been writing a new novel, as well..

Discuss the process of taking your own work from a screenplay to a novel... what an adventure. And anything related to this process.

One of the great things about a screenplay is that it has to possess structure, whether in the traditional three-act form or in a variation of it. When turning that story into a novel—not a “novelization,” which is a whole other thing—you have at the very least an armature on which to apply all the important elements: the subtleties of character, the extended flashbacks, the sheer texture of a long work of fiction to create what the novelist Henry Green called the “long intimacy between strangers,” something that’s really not possible with a screenplay. So the screenplay becomes the skeleton of a much larger, wider and deeper work. And the great thing is that you have that structure to work with.

How do you  come to terms with what DOESN'T happen in screenwriting as we all know that is most of the business, the target audience being 14-year-old boys... and  so forth? What keeps an artist going in this tough environment?

The sheer craft of it. I love writing screenplays. It’s like beginning with a picture and turning it into a jigsaw puzzle for the audience to piece together. It’s full of rules—the traditional 120-page limit is now closer to 103 pages, especially for thrillers, even less for comedies—and though some young writers try to walk away from them, it’s not hard to see, when watching a movie, that certain things happen at certain times: the inciting incident ten minutes into the movie; the act one turn at around the 25-minute mark; the second act reversals; the third act denouement. 

It’s like when I asked my students to write a sonnet. They far preferred that to when I asked to write something in free verse. The sonnet is loaded with rules, and that makes the process somehow more compelling and engaging. It’s the difference between working with a recipe and throwing a handful of disparate ingredients at someone and simply saying, “Cook."

As for the business end of it, just as publishing has become far more difficult to break into these days, especially with the industry in a spiral of uncertainty, what with the popularity of e-books and the advent of companies such as Amazon getting into the business, selling screenplays (or even having them optioned) is very, very difficult. It costs comparatively very little to publish a book; it costs a great deal more, several millions, to make a movie. 

So development executives and producers are also very wary of taking on something new. If it failed it could lose their company millions of dollars and potentially cost them their jobs. It’s why one tends to see the same movie over and over again—the same comedies about 40-year-old guys acting as if they were nine, the same thrillers with the same old tropes. Then there are the vampire and zombie pictures, which I was long over when I was ten years old. I mean, what more can one say about these creatures? Though I still do love Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, even just for the mood and atmosphere of it.

Please talk about the value of mentors in your own life

When I’d just finished my first work of fiction, six months or so after completing grad school, I dropped a note to a former professor and mentor, John Morressy,  asking if he’d please read it. When I studied with him he’d already published two novels with Doubleday, campus satires similar to Lucky Jim, had been the youngest fiction writer to get published in Esquire magazine, and was branching out in his career to writing science fiction and fantasy, where he really made his name. He very kindly read my deathless prose and wrote me an important letter. He wrote that the book shouldn’t be shown to publishers, as it was probably unpublishable, but that it showed enough promise that if I worked hard at it for five years he’d bet I’d find a publisher. He was off by seven, but the letter kept me going. He also wrote that now that the only thing he wanted to read by me next would be between hard covers. I was on my own. We remained close friends until his death a few years ago. 

But he gave me great advice about the publishing business, and he also said this, which I’ve passed along to younger writers: “One day you’ll fall to your knees and thank God no one ever published your earliest efforts.” How right he was.

A theme in your work is memory and the invincibility of youth.. Can you talk about this recurring theme/themes.

I’m of Russian ancestry, which immediately means that I came from a family laden with secrets, and, because we’re Jewish, tons of angst and guilt. I have only a choppy, unchronological memory of my youth, so memory is a constant theme in my work. When I discovered Proust, reading him first in English, when living in England, and later in French, I found my touchstone. Another author who deals almost exclusively with the phantasms and lost threads of memory is the French writer Patrick Modiano, a particular favorite of mine whose work I’ve been following for well over thirty years.

But I’ve always resisted writing out of my own life. The Man from Marseille, my first novel, once again available from Thomas & Mercer, is about a Russian-born writer living first in the South of France in the ‘30s, in Occupied Paris, and finally, where the novel begins and ends, in London in the late ‘70s. His parents were crooks and thieves (and possibly murderers), and the story he tells alternates between his attempts to make a living as a writer, and tales of his parents and the life he led with them. It’s only when you reach the end that you realize that you have no idea whether the story you’ve just read is his truth, or a smokescreen. He may be the same kind of con man his parents were. In any event, he’s a man in search of plot, a genuine memory, something I can definitely identify with. 

My new novel, Airtight, is drawn from my experiences in the ‘60s. Though I’m not the main character (nor any of the others), many of his experiences are mine, and it was great fun dipping into the past for the book. 

I’m interested enough in the notion of memory that my next novel is to be built upon a screenplay I wrote (and that’s still sometimes read), THE MEMORY THIEF, a kind of dystopian, slightly futuristic noir set at a time when the federal government owns our memories after death, and when memories have become a commodity to buy, to sell, to erase, and to protect. Yeah, it’s science fiction in a way (and I read virtually no SF), but I’m enjoying this immensely. 

Talk here a bit about the writing of "Airtight" - How this book was born. 

Airtight began when my wife and I were watching Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. I’d seen it before, but this time it rang a bell. I turned to my wife and said, “We never dug it up.” Back in the ‘60s, when I was attending a college so tremendously unsuited to my background and sensibility (having to wear a freshman beanie is nothing like having to wear a yarmulke, believe me) that I reveled in illicit substances as a horse rolls around in dirt on a hot day: with immense enjoyment as I indulged in grass, hash, opium, lots of acid, and an addiction to speed. Nick’s acid trip, comprising the first chapter of Airtight is exactly the one I experienced. It was also the day I gave up drugs. I’d been to the edge and perhaps a bit over, I’d seen everything one could possibly see on drugs, and there was no more need for it. I was clean. 

Back to the plot of Airtight, few guys and I did a deal in Cincinnati for around $450 worth of grass and hash. It turned out to be crap. As I write in the book, when the usual euphemisms for grass were “tea,” “boo” and “reefer,” the other old standby, “shit” (as in “let’s go smoke some shit) this time almost literally applied. It was like travelling a few hundred miles to buy food and being handed a bag full of manure. Sure, you could eat it, but why would you want to?

It was tough to sell on this Midwestern Baptist campus, and so someone had the bright idea to bury it in Mason jars near one of the playing fields. In the novel, I switched it to heroin. 

I had more fun writing this book than any other. It’s a darkly comic crime story, but also a deeply moral one. As the main character, ex-ad-man Nick Copeland, returns to his past not only to retrieve the drugs but also to run into some painful memories, he realizes there things he had done in his life which should not have been done, and there were things he should have done. By a simple gesture or word, by being in the irresistible breeze of youth, he had initiated things that turned out tragic for others. And so, at the end of Airtight he makes a decision which has already confounded some readers, but which, to me, seems exactly right. For those looking for a shootout in the mean streets of Scarsdale, it’s not going to happen. This is a novel that has to ring true, not become someone else’s movie. 

What do you do to get unblocked creatively? Do you get writer's block? any tricks or tips to making things flow?

Touch wood, I don’t get writers’ block. I always try to keep a few projects percolating at once. There have been times when I simply couldn’t come up with an idea. I found that wandering through a bookshop, leafing through books I hadn’t read, could get things going. First lines, in particular, always helped. 

My mentor used to say at such times that I should read Yeats’s “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” which is about this very thing, the loss of inspiration. The circus has left the town in your head, you think you’ll never have another idea worth writing about, and he counsels that we should go perhaps to where we’ve never gone before: “Now that my ladder's gone,/ I must lie down where all the ladders start/ In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” Take those old experiences, brutish and humiliating as they may have been, and raise them to the level of art. 

It was how Airtight began, in fact. The foul rag and bone shop. Open all hours. 

Please tell us your favorite films which have been adapted from novels…

Ah, interesting question. Ever since I first read and taught him, Pinter has been an influence, and I’ve always loved many of his screenplays, nearly all of them adaptations of others’ works. He was an astute and sensitive reader who could locate the cinematic essence of a work in a brilliant and often unexpected way. His approach to, say, L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (an especially tricky novel to translate visually, with an ingenious solution provided by Pinter), and his unproduced, but eminently readable, Proust Screenplay, based on the entire seven volumes of A la Recherche du temps perdu, is astonishingly successful. In every case he’s faithful to both the poetry and the heart of the each book, and with his actor’s sensitivity to how a scene can be played to maximum effect, he has achieved something in these screenplays and others which is hard to equal.

As for others, I have a particular favorite in The Vanishing, the original Dutch-French version based on the Tim Krabbé novel, one of the most unsettling and disturbing films ever made, and one I watch at least once a year. I read very little contemporary fiction, unless it’s by an author I follow, and I’m afraid many of them are French. Modiano. René Belletto. Jean Echenoz. Jean-Patrick Toussaint. I’ve been disappointed in so much of contemporary writing. I was asked to review Tom McCarthy’s C, and was amazed at how in artful it all was, how poorly written. This by an author whose Remainder was published to great acclaim. I’m afraid I think Jonathan Franzen vastly overrated. I enjoyed parts of The Corrections, but found Freedom to be a great deal less successful. A good editor would have tapped him on his earmuff and lifted his blindfold (who the hell writes like this anyway? And on a bare floor in Brooklyn?) to say that the ex-cheerleader whose memoir takes up a good chunk of the book shouldn’t really be writing like clever young Jonathan Franzen. She had the same voice as the narrator’s. 

To get back to film adaptations, I think it’s a matter of being faithful not so much to the story as to the heart of the original. I mean, were I to adapt The Blue Hour, I would update and move the action to Los Angeles (the city where people go to become someone else), and write it from the point of view of the detective, not the forlorn husband whose wife has gone missing. I’d basically turn the whole thing inside-out and start afresh. Just as Pinter did with The French Lieutenant’s Woman.


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