Does your favorite novelist have a day job in TV?
Posted October 18, 2012
A bestselling young-adult novelist friend of mine, Ned Vizzini (It's Kind of a Funny Story), has both a new book coming out (The Other Normals) and a new job writing for ABC's military-guys-on-an-island drama Last Resort (which airs tonight on ABC).
We had a recent conversation about why more novelists — and we're talking bestsellers — are moving into the TV biz. (Answer: More work, less talk of your entire industry and purpose in life dying.) Television has long been a "training ground" for novelists, but now the line between the two is much more fluid. Ned's writing partner, Nick Antosca, writes horror novels. Another of my favorites, Sarah Dunn (author of The Big Love and Secrets to Happiness), is writing for ABC Family's Bunheads. Even Jonathan Safran Foer and Salman Rushdie are working on TV scripts.
Here, some of my conversation with Ned about Last Resort, his new book and the relief of fulfilling someone else's vision for a story for once. (And LA readers, he'll be appearing at Mysterious Galaxy Books in Redondo Beach on Saturday.)
JKA: The Other Normals follows a teenage kid who stumbles into a seemingly real dimension that's just like the Dungeons-and-Dragons-like game he likes to play. Why go so geeky after the much more realistic It's Kind of a Funny Story (which follows a boy who checks into a psychiatric ward and was made into a lovely 2010 film starring Keir Gilchrist and Zach Galifianakis).
NV: I always wanted to write a book with fantasy elements. That just comes from being a mimic and loving Redwall when I was a kid. When I was in high school, I was hanging out with some friends in the park and I had this moment when I realized if we were in a fantasy world, my big friend would have the ax and I would have the sword, and I would probably be the leader. I always wanted that to happen. I always fantasized that the doors to the A train (in New York City) would open into a forest and that's where I'd be, but that never happened. But I think I had to get experience writing about emotions before doing set pieces like this.
JKA: After spending your whole adult life so far writing books, how'd you make the switch into TV?
NV: My writing partner, Nick Antosca, writes literary horror novels, and together we thought maybe we could do things in TV. We worked together in New York in 2008, writing original pilots. When it became clear we could do this we moved in 2010. The first time I ever saw a check that I earned through television was in May of 2011. That was a project that my writing partner and I sold to ABC Family that never got made. Like so many things in Hollywood, I was paid for a failure. It was about a teenage girl in Long Island who travels back to the Gatsby era and gets involved in a love triangle with a boy in the past and a boy in the present. It was called The Valeri Project. The main character was Valeri Merett, an anagram for time traveler.
Then we really loved the script for Teen Wolf, so we interviewed to write for that. We didn't get hired for that first season, perhaps because we really had no experience. Then in summer of 2011, I went to Comic-Con and I waited on line to get a Teen Wolf T-shirt signed by the cast. One of the MTV executives was there, and when I got up to the front of the line was like, "Why are you waiting on line?" He also told me they actually wanted us to write for the show. So we wrote for the second season.
JKA: How does writing for TV compare with writing books?
NV: It's very different because the majority of your time is spent breaking story. You report to work and you sit in a room and figure out the episodes. It's like being in a very intense serious conversation that lasts hours. It takes some getting used to. Then when you sit down to write the script, that's a little closer to writing a book, but still far afield. In a way it's a relief, executing someone else's vision.
JKA: Are you surprised to see so many fellow novelists trying their hand at TV?
NV: There is now a small but building wave of novelists writing for television out here. There are a lot of people who are high up in the book world, who it's surprising to see writing pilot scripts. I have a Jonathan Safran Foer pilot script that I'm reading right now. There's the big question in the book world, which is: Is the book world viable? There are a lot of people in literary fiction who think it is not, and they're looking for other things. I don't feel that way. But I do know that in the television world, there really is a lot of dead air that needs filling now, especially with all the cable channels making original programming. No one has to make a movie or a book, but TV needs to fill air. It's definitely good for writers right now.
JKA: Last Resort is also very different territory for you. It's very grown up.
NV: It's the first time in my life that I'm writing something that doesn't center on adolescence. That's probably good since I'm 31 years old. It also has a lot of moving parts, it has a huge cast, it has a huge production in Hawaii. So there's a lot to keep track of. And it's an absolute thrill to be able to write for Andre Braugher and Scott Speedman. All the actors on the show are great.
JKA: How are you making sure you don't get too close to Lost territory, with a submarine crew stuck on an island? Especially since you're shooting in the same place Lost did?
NV: (Creator-executive producer) Shawn Ryan says he's "the Lost police." Whenever something comes too close to Lost, he stops us. I also read, analyzed, and dissected the pilot of Lost when I was learning to write for TV. Anyone who wants to get into television should do that. It's one of those scripts that's a work unto itself. Another pilot I analyzed was (Ryan's) The Shield.
JKA: What's coming up for the show?
NV: In the episode that Nick and I wrote, which is Episode 7, there's a physically visceral scene involving Robert Patrick that gave us a chance to do things similar to what we were really proud of on Teen Wolf. On Teen Wolf, we did the episode where the snake comes out of Jackson's eye. Something like that is coming in Episode 7 (of Last Resort). It really thrilled us to know that really disturbing image was getting out there because of us. We're excited that we get to do it again.
You can find Jennifer Keishin Armstrong on Twitter at @jmkarmstrong or at her website.
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