Thursday, December 18, 2008
Author Interview - Alan Brennert Talks About "Moloka'i" and His Upcoming Novel "Honolulu" - An LCC Exclusive
Literary Corner Café is proud to publish this exclusive interview with writer, Alan Brennert, the author of the best selling novel Moloka’i. His latest novel, Honolulu will be released on March 3, 2009, and it promises to be just as good as Moloka’i.
Alan was born in Englewood, New Jersey, however since 1973 he’s lived and worked in Southern California. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in English from California State University at Long Beach, and did graduate work in screenwriting at UCLA.
Alan’s written short stories, teleplays, screenplays, and even the libretto of a stage musical, Weird Romance, which was produced in 1992 by the WPA Theatre in New York, and has since been licensed for more than a hundred regional, high school, and college productions, both in the United Stated and abroad.
Alan earned an Emmy in 1991 for his work as a writer/producer for the TV series, LA Law. He’s been nominated for an Emmy on two other occasions, a Golden Globe, and three times for the Writers’ Guild of America Award for Outstanding Teleplay of the Year. He received a People’s Choice Award for LA Law, and his short story “Ma Qui” won a Nebula in 1992.
Moloka’i was not only a best selling novel; it was a runaway hit with book clubs and reading groups. Honolulu lends itself equally well to book club discussion.
We know you’ll find this interview as enlightening and fascinating as we did.
I know your father was an aviation writer, and you have a degree in English, but when did you realize that you wanted to write for a living? What was the catalyst?
This sounds like canned ham, I know, but I honestly can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to write. The closest thing to a catalyst I can recall is receiving a toy typewriter, around age ten, from my parents—which I then used to type up the plot of an animated Oz cartoon I’d seen the night before. But the impulse to write must have been there before, or why else would my parents have given me the typewriter?My father wrote the bulk of his aviation articles in the 1940s, and by the time I came along in ’54, he had stopped writing—I think he’d told all the stories he had to tell, having been a pilot flying out of Teterboro Airport in the 1930s—and was working as a sheet metal operator for the Alcoa Company in Edgewater, New Jersey. So I didn’t grow up, strange to say, with a real awareness of him as a writer. I only discovered his work after I had already started writing, which I guess says something about genetic inheritance. But having been a writer himself, my dad never discouraged me from pursuing it as a vocation, and he and my mom certainly never hesitated to buy me any bizarro comic book I expressed an interest in, including one that would spark another passion of mine: Dennis the Menace in Hawaii, published around the time of Hawaiian statehood in 1959. It took me twenty years to follow in Dennis’s footsteps, but I made it and it’s changed my life in so many ways.
You've written screenplays, teleplays, developed miniseries and pilots, written short stories and novels. You've won an Emmy, a Nebula, and other awards. How did it feel to win such prestigious awards? Did it change your outlook on writing at all?
I can’t pretend it’s not a great feeling, walking onto the stage of the Pasadena Civic Auditorium as the orchestra plays the theme to L.A. Law. But I’d also written scripts for China Beach, which was also nominated for best dramatic series that year, and honestly that series deserved to win as much as we did that season. So I was happy to get the Emmy, but I think I had enough perspective to know that what separated me from my friends Carol Flint and John Wells on China Beach was less talent than luck.
You've written both short stories and novels as well as screenplays, teleplays, and even the libretto of a musical. Do you find one form more difficult than the others, or "just different, requiring different skills?" Al Zuckerman of Writers House once told me that screenwriters very rarely become successful novelists. Of course, this isn't true in your case – you've won awards for your teleplays – you've been very successful, and Moloka'i was a very successful book, very well received by those who read it. Do you agree with Al Zuckerman's statement, do you think a screenwriter has a different mindset, or do you think novel writing skills can be learned if screenwriters simply apply themselves?
Well, I must take some exception to Mr. Zuckerman’s statement. Sue Grafton, Robert Crais, and April Smith all began their careers writing for television and have enjoyed considerable success as novelists. Stephen J. Cannell created TV series like Wiseguy and The Rockford Files and now has a thriving career writing mystery/suspense novels. Going back a generation or two, Frank De Felitta was a television writer/director who became a bestselling novelist with Audrey Rose, and—questions of literary merit aside—Sidney Sheldon was an Oscar-winning screenwriter long before he turned to books.
If there are perhaps more novelists who have become screenwriters than the other way around, I think this is partly attributable to the fact that there’s a greater financial impetus for novelists to become screenwriters than for screenwriters to become novelists. Unless an author hits the bestseller list first time out of the gate, a career in books is often a very slow build (as I can attest, having written novels off-and-on for 25 years before I had my first bestseller in Moloka’i) and unless a screenwriter has, like me, a longstanding desire to also write prose, it’s a hard road to travel, and far less remunerative than scriptwriting. That said, there are different skill sets involved. Screenwriters rely on action, dialog, and cinematic imagery to tell a story; novelists have to engage readers on other levels as well. David E. Kelley, who I worked with on L.A. Law, once told me that he could never write a novel because “I hate writing narrative”—what mattered to him was what the characters said to each other, the drama. And he’s fantastically good at it—that’s his gift, why should he try writing a book? Similarly, novelists often feel constrained by the restrictions of the screenplay form—such as the necessity of keeping scenes 2 to 3 pages, max, when in books they’re accustomed to nearly unlimited space to develop characters and plot. Not everybody can master both forms, and not everybody wants or needs to.
Many writing instructors say that due to its tight focus the short story is the most difficult form of writing, with the exception of lyric poetry. As someone who's written both short stories and novels, and written them successfully, do you agree with this statement?
Not in my experience. I had the opposite problem when I first started writing. Short stories were easier for me because the structure was simpler: a short story doesn’t always have to be complexly plotted, it can be a simple mood piece, or a small window into someone’s soul, or a defining moment in a character’s life. A novel has to be sustained at much greater length and has to keep a reader’s interest for 200+ pages. My first novel, a paperback thriller that shall go nameless, was a typical first novel—lots of youthful energy but precious little structure. My subsequent years in screenwriting gave me a more solid grasp of structure, and I think I’m a better novelist now because of that.
Do you feel more at home with one form of writing than with others? For example, do you feel more at home with short stories than with novels?
After Moloka’i and Honolulu I’ve come to feel more at home writing novels. I’m actually working on a short story now—the first I’ve written in ten years—and it took me a while to get back into the mindset of doing short fiction. At first, all the ideas I kept coming up with turned out to be better suited to novels!
I know you decided to write Moloka'i when the miniseries you wrote for Kevin Costner's production company was not picked up by the network. The miniseries, if I'm not mistaken, was about the founding of the state of Texas, where Moloka'i takes place at a leper colony on the Hawaiian island of the same name. Why did you choose to set your book in Hawaii, a place so different from Texas? What drew you to the story? It seems a big shift in gears and one requiring much research.
The miniseries was based on a fine novel by David Marion Wilkinson called Not Between Brothers; I had no special affinity for Texas myself, my job was to dramatize David’s vision. But I have had, as noted, a long love affair with Hawai’i—I’d been going there at least once a year for twenty years when I began Moloka’i—and so felt comfortable using the islands as a setting for a novel. At first I imagined it would be a contemporary story set on Moloka’i, but the more I learned about Kalaupapa the more I realized that this was the story I should be telling. The fact that I had just done a historical script in Not Between Brothers did give me the confidence to tackle a historical novel, but I soon discovered that Moloka’i required enormously more research than I’d had to do for Brothers. Still, it was a subject I was passionate about, and I enjoyed every minute of the research and writing (and all those brutal research trips to Hawai’i).
In Moloka'i, your protagonists are a native Hawaiian girl/woman and a Japanese man. In Honolulu, your protagonist is a young Korean woman. Is it difficult for you to write about people from other cultures? And, since you're a man, how difficult is it making a point-of-view character a woman? Did you feel a connection with Rachel and Sister Catherine in Moloka'i, and with Jin in Honolulu? Or did you feel more of a connection with the male characters in the books?
You have to feel a connection with your protagonists, regardless of their gender, or you can’t make the reader feel a connection. I’ve always been a very emotional writer, and since women tend to be freer in expressing their emotions, writing from a female point of view is comfortable for me. Writing from a different cultural viewpoint is much harder. Rachel wasn’t too difficult, because she grew up in a fairly Westernized Hawai’i and I knew a good deal about Hawaiian culture going in. But Jin presented me with challenges. In writing about a character’s childhood, for instance, a writer tends to look to one’s own childhood for touchstones. But time and again I would write something, then find myself thinking, “Would kids have done that in Korea?”—and I’d scurry to my research books, where half the time I would find that, no, they wouldn’t have done that in Korea, and I’d have to go back and revise what I’d written. Just locating some of the necessary historical reference—such as how girls were named, or not named, in that era—required days and days of scouring library databases for a book that might yield one or two useful lines of information. But I do like challenges, and even if Honolulu took a little more time to write than I’d anticipated (and ask my editor: it did) it was important to me to get it as right as I could make it.
Is there anything in particular you want to say to your readers with Moloka'i and Honolulu, and do you feel you've accomplished what you set out to do?
Both books are about the history of a place I love—a history which mainland readers often aren’t familiar with—so if I can help raise awareness that, for example, Native Hawaiians really had no say in whether their homeland was annexed to the United States, I’m proud to do that. And both books are concerned with the ordinary people behind the history—that’s what I’m primarily interested in exploring, and I hope readers are as well.
You've written so much. Is there a particular theme in your writing, something you really want to explore? In your Nebula winning story, "Ma Qui," which everyone should read, by the way, revolves around a ghost. Ghosts fascinate many of us. What about you? Are you fascinated by their possible existence, or is this theme simply an outgrowth from your work on The Twilight Zone?
Ghosts are always an appealing device for writers since they can serve as metaphors for so many things: memories, pain, loss, the human capacity for evil, or for good... Or they can be treated more literally, as in “Ma Qui,” where my creative impulse was the question, “What if every religion is right? What if each belief system makes its own heaven and hell?” I’m not sure I believe in the existence of ghosts, but I don’t disbelieve, either: I like to think I’m a true agnostic, willing to keep an open mind.
(This exclusive interview with Alan Brennert will be continued.)
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