Thursday, 2 December 2010

Round robin: crime fiction and screenwriting.

First, thanks to David for asking questions I had answers to -- or at least questions I could make up answers to. Now, on with it.

David I: Acts of Violence is certainly as noir as the books by your Californian predecessors (Chandler, Hammett, MacDonald, et al), but it employs a very different literary toolkit (and isn't a detective novel anyway). Did you always want to write crime novels, or were you drawn to other genres as well? Have you written or started novels in other genres? How do you think writers in other genres, or literary fiction, have influenced your approach?

RDJ: I think if I’d discovered crime fiction sooner as a reader, I’d have knowingly written in the genre sooner. As it was, I stumbled upon it. The first novel I wrote, back in '94 or '95, I think, was called The Dreaming, and was a horror-crime novel about a sixteen-year-old kid stuck in prison for killing his abusive father. The kid dreams of vengeance and his dreams come true, one by one people who wronged him die, and police detectives are trying to uncover the nature of his crimes ... and then must stop him before his dreams catch up with them, as one of them testified against him in trial, which is how he ended up in prison to begin with. (I wouldn’t write that story now, but when I was a teenager writing it I thought it was genius.)

Aside from the one supernatural element, it’s clearly a crime story. But when I wrote it, I’d yet to read even Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, forget David Goodis or Dorothy B. Hughes.

I loved science, was heavily into Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins and Isaac Asimov’s non-fiction. I was reading Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg and mostly trying to write that kind of fiction. Until I discovered Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo … and started trying to write pretentious literary science fiction, employing as many large words as I could manage. (Not the fault Pynchon or DeLillo, both of whom I still enjoy.)

But as I continued to write, it became clear that, while I could occasionally come up with a decent horror-type premise, I was no science fiction writer. My mind just didn’t work that way. And more, the genre wasn’t really ideal for exploring my obsessions, which were already emerging, despite my best efforts to write other things.

I continued reading literary fiction, as well as capital-L literature (Faulkner, Hemingway, lots of Dostoevsky), which meant, of course, that I started trying to write capital-L literature. Books for the ages! But what I ended up with, once more, was crime fiction. I didn’t know it at the time. I hadn’t yet discovered crime fiction. But guns appeared, bodies ended up in trunks, revenge was had.

Finally I stumbled upon crime novels as a reader -- Lawrence Block and Donald Westlake at first, and then I moved out from there in ever widening circles -- and knew I’d found something. Here was a genre which made a habit of exploring exactly the things I was interested in.

But in truth, I don’t care all that much about genre trappings. I’m happy to be called a crime writer. I enjoy reading crime fiction, and think that’s what my stuff is. But it’s an after-the-fact labeling of what I’d be doing anyway, as I think my description of The Dreaming makes clear. It’s simply where my mind goes. But I’m happy to borrow techniques and tricks from anywhere, so long as they’ll improve the story, or reveal character, which, to me, is the same thing.

David I: [W]hy do people read and write crime fiction in the first place?

RDJ: I have next to no idea. I can’t even tell you why I read and write crime fiction, much less other people. Proper mysteries -- which I don’t write -- offer puzzles that a reader can try to figure out, but I think that’s only a small part of the appeal of crime fiction for most people. There’s also inherent melodrama -- in the best sense of the word -- a chance to see human behavior at its most extreme. As well as many ethical shades of gray. We live in a world where there isn’t always a white hat, and a lot of recent crime fiction reflects that. Then there’s the social aspect. Crime novels are good ways to explore society from many angles, and look at everything from blue collar life and the death of unions to white collar crime and government corruption. But really there are probably as many reasons as there are readers and writers.

David I: [Y]ou’re a screenwriter as well as a novelist, which shows in your attention to economy. But Acts of Violence is very internal, with character thoughts spilling directly onto the page and adding a third (and very literary rather than cinematic) dimension to the narrative. What would you care to share about the differences between the two forms—and, in particular, which feels more rewarding and natural to you?

RDJ: The biggest difference, for me, is also the most obvious: length. As short as Acts of Violence is (59,000 words -- short for a novel), it’s about three times the length of a feature-film screenplay. After writing scripts for seven years, working on a novel was very liberating. All that elbow room. All that space to explore characters’ thoughts and feelings and relationships. In a script you have to reveal character through action and dialogue alone, and while that’s a good skill to have, it means ignoring what’s going on inside, which, to me, is the most interesting stuff. It’s a little like the difference between walking through a city verses merely looking at a picture. With the former you get the sounds and scents, the feel of the air on your skin and its taste. With the latter, you might be able to guess at some of those things, but a guess isn’t experience.

Added to all that is the fact that when an editor gives you notes, they’re doing it in order to make your book a better version of what it already is, while, when you get script notes, they often have nothing to do with improving the script, making it a better version of itself. Maybe they want the changes to attract a specific actor, or a director who’s said in interview that he’s always wanted to do a scene with a giant mechanical spider -- or whatever.

And added to that is how few scripts actually become movies. I know a writer who's sold, or worked on, well over a dozen feature-length scripts over a period of a decade who has never had a film made. He lives well, has a house, leases a new car every two years -- but for ten years he’s tried to write movies and hasn’t written one yet. Instead, he’s stuck writing scripts that sit on shelves in producers’ offices. I heard somewhere that maybe one in ten scripts bought in Hollywood actually gets produced. That’s one out of ten that have been paid for. Forget all those thousands of scripts floating around that will never get more than a passing glance.

Well, what’s the point of telling stories if no one is listening? If money is the only thing you’re getting for your storytelling work, you’re not getting enough. The best thing about money is that it buys you time to tell more stories -- stories that people will hear.

Also, it buys food. Eating, last I heard, is necessary.


Now, my questions for Eliza. Feel free to answer one or the other or both. I just want to give you a choice.

1. Each of your novels, unless I’m mistaken, is written from a first-person point of view, or else a combination of first and third -- what is it about first-person narration that appeals to you as a writer?

2. You’ve now written a couple books while under contract with Macmillan. Do you think that’s affected how you approach the writing process in any way? Or what stories you choose to tell?


C. N. Nevets said...

Ryan, what I loved about Acts of Violence was precisely that, despite all the blood and dramatic action, it really was a book about inner character being exposed and poked at more than anything else. It's crime fiction for easy bookstore categorization, but it really is a "literary thriller."

What you describe about screenplays is precisely why my abortive flirtation with screenwriting was aborted. Making a living at writing would be nice in any form, but I think it would eat away at me to have sold a script and have it sitting on a shelf for eternity. I didn't mind the long-ends at ever selling a script. But selling it and never having anyone see it? My psychology could not bear that.

David Isaak said...

Outstanding replies, amigo.

I have to say the idea of Ellison or Silverberg run through a Pynchon/DeLillo filter is appealing, even though you've abandoned the concept as juvenilia. If you ever decide to go back to that sort of thing (under a pen name, of course), sign me up for a copy.

(Block and Westlake? I'm with you. For me, "Eight Million Ways to Die" or "The Ax" are as valuable as anything on my shelves. When I heard Westlake died, I wept.)

RDJ said...

Thanks, C.N. I'm glad you dug Acts of Violence. I'd still write scripts for money, but I think it'd have to be an infrequent thing between books. Focusing only on screenplays and dealing only with that fucked-up business would be soul-destroying, I think.

RDJ said...

Thanks, David. I can't say some of the early stuff wasn't interesting; I can say it wasn't any good. But I have no idea what I'd be able to do -- or unable to do -- with a similar approach today. Maybe something.

Westlake's death was a serious loss, lessened only by the fact that he wasn't a young man.

As for Block: I'm rereading Telling Lies for Fun and Profit right now to get myself out of a bit of slump and back to cracking on a novel. It's going to be big, which I find intimidating, but I wrote seven pages today between chapters of the Block.

David Isaak said...

True, Westlake was quite old. But I thought his stuff in recent years was as good as anything he had written, so I was hoping he'd have a few more years of novels in him.

Dave said...

You basically need the 510+ stage hero's journey at and associated videos at