Tuesday 26 Jul 2016

Richard Kramer
Streeter Click

In the early 1970s, as a senior at Yale College, Richard Kramer sent an unsolicited manuscript, “Late Bloomers,” to “New Yorker” magazine. One of the top literary magazines to this day; Kramer hoped to get a job at the magazine. Going through the slush pile, a warehouse of uninvited manuscripts sent to the “New Yorker,” John Updike, the American writer, found “Late Bloomers.”

Updike liked the essay. He rescued it. He championed “Late Bloomers” with William Shawn, legendary editor of “The New Yorker.”

Weeks later, Kramer received a call from Shawn, on his dorm phone. “I’ll buy this manuscript,” said Shawn. “Late Bloomers” appeared in the 28 October 1978 edition of the magazine. Kramer was the third youngest person to publish fiction in the “New Yorker.” He says, “Only Truman Capote and John Updike were younger when they first published in the ‘New Yorker.’”

Kramer graduated from Yale in 1974, before “Late Bloomers” appeared. He says, “I thought I was embarking on a long career as a writer of novels and short stories.” He thought he’d be on his tenth novel by now. “I imagined critics slighting me for not stopping after my third best-selling novel or fourth Pulitzer Prize.

“I thought I’d be a solid part of the literary world by 2014,” he says. That’s not how it turned out. He sent seven more articles to “The New Yorker,” all rejected. In the late 1970s, on a whim, Kramer wrote a spec script for “Family,” a top television show at the time; a year later, the show hired him.

“I wound up in California, writing television,” says Kramer. In Hollywood, he moved farther and farther away from his goal of writing a novel. It wasn't in an atmosphere where anyone understood fiction writers or admired their work.

Fiction writers, novelists, are in a category of their own. “Hollywood is a different place. In New York City,” says Kramer, “everybody is writing a novel. In Los Angeles, everybody is writing a screenplay.”

Instead, Kramer published his first novel, “These Things Happen,” in 2012, loosely based on a stage play he wrote and had produced in Chicago. “Yes, ‘These Things Happen’ began as a stage play.” That was the early form of the book.

The play was different, in some ways, but mostly the same circumstances, as the book. The Steppenwolf Company, in Chicago, staged it.” As play “These Things Happen” won the Chicago Critics Award for best new play.

After that, Kramer thought the story ended, but clearly not. “It kept coming back,” he says. “I never knew. That’s part of the fun.”

Told in many voices, “These Things Happen” is the story of two fifteen year old boys, Wesley and Theo; they are best friends. Wesley lives with his openly gay father, a lawyer and activist, with a colourful partner. Theo, winner of a school election, let’s slip, at the end of his acceptance speech, that he’s gay.63

Is “These Things Happen” Young-adult fiction? “Roughly thirty per cent of the voice in the book is from a teenage perspective,” says Kramer. “This does not make it Young-adult fiction.”

Laura Backes edits “Children’s Book Insider,” a monthly newsletter for writers of Young-adult fiction. “The central characters, of ‘These Things Happen,’ are teenagers,” she says. “They’re going through a real-life experience for the first time. Also for the first time, they may realise how what they do affects others, that is, how it ripples through their family and friends. This is the definition Young-adult fiction.”

Matthew Ratz teaches Young-adult literature. He, too, thinks “These Things Happen” fits the category. “When carefully casting the main characters as teenagers, most readers are usually young adults. Such books are easily understood by youth, grammatically and linguistically.”

Christopher Ferguson writes Young-adult fiction. “Since at least two of the main characters are fifteen years old,” he says, “the appeal, of ‘These Things Happen,’ is to young adults. I am sure of this.

“It’s good to keep in mind,” says Ferguson, “retailers classify books to sort inventory and make buying books easy. If I went into a bookstore, looking for this book, I’d know exactly where to find it, Young-adult Literature. Categories make it easy to find and buy a book I want.”

Still, booksellers and authors may have different ideas about how to classify a novel. Laura Backes thinks “These Things Happen” may be a crossover title. “A bookseller might shelf this book in Young Adult Fiction, Adult Fiction or an emerging hybrid category, New Adult Literature.

“Avoiding the Young Adult label,” says Backes, “keeps the book from reaching those most interested in reading it, those for whom the book might be most useful, too. Shelving the book only in Adult Fiction or even New Adult Literature hides it from a huge audience. A book can’t shelve in every category; pick the ones where interested buyers are most likely browsing.

“Young-adult Fiction is the hottest category in publishing,” says Backes. “Young adult readers, say, twelve years old and older, seek out new books on speciality blogs; publishers send Advance Review Copies (ARC) to reviewers on these blogs. A good blog review can send sales soaring.”

“As the book begins in the voice of a fifteen-year-old boy,” says Richard Kramer, “it’s easy to assume the book is for young adults. I considered changing the beginning, but I had finished the book. I decided not to change the beginning. I wasn’t sure I wanted to rewrite the manuscript.

Richard Kramer wrote hit television shows, such as “thirtysomething,” “My So-called Life,” “Tales of the City” and the first season of “Queer as Folk.” On these shows, he says, “We heard from women and men all ages, all the time.” This set the target for the shows.

“When someone says ‘These Things Happen’ is Young-adult Fiction, it implies a target,” says Kramer. “The subject of this book is adult, yes. It’s something a teenager may not have experienced.” Still, Kramer didn’t aim for a teenage audience or any audience, in particular.

“Young adult implies a lack of maturity, at least to a degree,” says Kramer. “I don't think ‘These Things Happen’ lacks maturity. The subject matter is adult, handled in a mature way.

“The book is for everyone,” says Kramer. His goal is a story, driven by two fifteen year olds, which everybody can enjoy.

To make his point about the general appeal of “These Things Happen,” Kramer tells of an e-mail he received. “It was from a reader that was seventy-five years old,” says Kramer. “He thanked me for the book.” He said, “I wished I could have read this book twenty-five years ago.” The book was useful for this reader, who is not a young adult.

Must books be useful? Kramer thinks so. “There's a wonderful book by Bruno Bettelheim,” he says, “called, ‘The Uses of Enchantment.’

That book is about fairy tales. Fairy tales help children through life stages by providing experiences, vicariously. "This is a useful book," says Kramer.

Although first meant for adult readers, fairy tales, today, help children build and test emotional responses. “These stories move children from one stage of life,” says Kramer, “childhood to adolescent, say, as smoothly as possible.” He wants his book to do much the same for any possible reader.

Does Kramer see a psychiatric theme in “These Things Happen”? “Psychiatric is the wrong word," he says. He wants to stress the idea of a useful book for everybody. “Psychiatric implies judgement. I believe fiction helps the reader grow and is thus of use, without excessively specifying why or how.

“I wrote ‘These Things Happen,’” says Kramer, “hoping everybody could find something helpful in it. I hoped there was something to help everybody through one life challenge or another, whether they realise it or not, regardless of age, gender and so forth.”

Is it possible to write a book for everybody? “I’m not sure,” says Matthew Ratz. “My grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, wrote, ‘Endless Survival,’ which recorded his wartime experiences. He faithfully described the torture, sexual assaults, shootings and torment, as suffered in a concentration camp. He believed his book was useful for everyone.

“After speaking at the boys division of Washington Yeshiva School, my grandfather offered each member of the graduating class a free book. Menahel, the head of the school, thanked my grandfather, asking for time to review the book.”

Menahel declined the generous offer. “Endless Survival” was not for the high school graduating class. “Few books are for everybody,” says Ratz.

J Scott Fuqua writes fiction for young adults. Yet, he says, “Just because the story revolves around teenagers doesn’t mean it won’t have a wider appeal, a secondary appeal. As long as the author doesn’t write down to the reader, potentially anybody can enjoy a book about teen experiences.”

Christopher Ferguson says books can have a larger appeal than categories created for retail convenience. “A novel is a window on to a life most readers can’t or won’t experience. The more specifics about a world, unknown to the reader, the more enjoyable the read and, likely, the more readers the book attracts.”

What motivated Kramer to write “These Things Happen”? “I made a lifelong promise, to me, to write a novel,” says Kramer. “I wasn't sure I could keep my promise.

“My first love is books, mostly fiction. Books and reading are still my first love. I thought I should write a book, that is, contribute as well as read.”

Do you think books as sacred? “Yes, of course,” says Kramer, “but only some parts of the public, the readers, agree.

Does it go back to the fact you believe books must be of use? “Yes or can the book be useful,” he says. “That's it, in a way. It's not prescriptive statement. There are a million great books, each one of use to someone.”

F Scott Fitzgerald, the great American writer, said fun is finding something you know has little meaning and will produce nothing of importance, if you immerse yourself in it. Books allow us to have fun. Different books are fun for different readers. All books are thus useful.

How does fun fit with usefulness when it comes to books? “The books I enjoy, most, after a lifetime worth of reading, I've been reading since I was a boy. I try to read three books a week. The books I like now are those that might be of use to somebody; I also found them fun to read.”

How did you find time to read three books a week as a film and television writer? “It depends on what matters,” says Kramer. “My friends, in Hollywood, read a great deal. I had much support in my reading. We talked about books; recommended books to each other and so forth."

Is reading an important time of your day? “Yes,” says Kramer. “It’s the most important time for me, next to writing. I try to spend at least an hour a day reading, hopefully two, if I can.

Kramer says J D Salinger, Christopher Isherwood and Saul Bellow are his favourite writers. “I tire of Salinger, a bit,” he says. “Yet, I can’t escape the fact the two well-spoken teenage boys in 'These Things Happen' are not unlike Holden Caulfield, the main character in ‘Catcher in the Rye.’ Caulfield is a different character from Wesley. Yet, he is not unlike Wesley.

“Christopher Isherwood, the British novelist, has a simple, compelling, style. His clarity of insight, in 'The Story Continues,' for example, is exceptional. It’s difficult not to set his style as a goal for my own writing.

“Saul Bellow, the Canadian-born writer, intoxicates the reader with his use of language,” says Kramer. Martin Amis said sentences written by Bellow weigh more than do those written by anyone else. Referring to ‘Ravelstein,’ the final book by Bellow, Amis said, “The world has never heard this prose.”

Kramer confesses to reading from all categories. “Last year, I read many Dickens. I’ve been reading him all my life. Yet, I had not read ‘The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit,’ which Dickens thought his best work, and ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’

“Not long ago, I read “At Large and At Small: familiar essays,” by Anne Fadiman. She changed the way I viewed essay writing. When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”


Anyone can write a movie.

“Screenwriters are not writers. Anyone that wants to write a film or television script can do it. If someone wants to film your idea, you’re a scriptwriter, for a while, at least. If no one buys your idea or script, you have nothing.”

Why can anybody write a screenplay? “Having written a million screenplays and a million television shows, I have some perspective on it,” says Kramer.

“A screenwriter makes a document. She or he pitches it. If the pitch is eventually successful, that is, if someone agrees to pay for the document, one-way or another, it becomes a producible script.”

Is that cynicism? “No,” says Kramer, “it's the truth. Cynicism inclines to untruth.”

When a producer, director and actors agree to buy the manuscript, it becomes a script. “Yes, if no one agrees to buy the manuscript, it’s not a script.” There’s so much money in the film and television industries, in Hollywood. “Money is the defining part.”

The movie business is much like an auction or home renovation. Contractors offer bids, on a specific plan, to a homeowner. She or he agrees or doesn’t agree to buy the plan.

“In Hollywood,” says Kramer, “replace contractor with writer and homeowner with producers, directors and actors. The more people that agree to the plan, the script, the more likely the script finds its way to a screen.

“There are good screenwriters, just as there are many good contractors. The quality of the writing or the writer is a small part of the equation. The bigger part, of the equation, is willingness to pay to produce the script.”

This doesn't mean there can't be good writing in script. A script needs group approval. Thus, it's difficult for the writer to have an individual voice. Maybe Woody Allen or Ridley Scott exercises an individual voice. Usually, Hollywood designs camels, not horses.

“A novelist,” Kramer says, “has no one to create for except him or herself. If a book goes unpublished, it remains a written document, if on a shelf, gathering dust.” The author has expressed her or himself; that’s the point of a novel.

How does the Kramer describe “These Things Happen”? “My answer, to that question, changes weekly,” he says. “The book is behind me now. Once I finished the book, I started wondering about what I did.”

Kramer echoes Ian Fleming. “I have a rule,” said Fleming, “of never looking back. Otherwise, I’d wonder, ‘How could I write such piffle?’” Kramer is not Fleming, but neither wrote nonsense.

Emily Crowe, a reviewer on Good Reads, thinks the book is funny, “with a few moments of gravitas.” For her, “Kramer addresses gayness in a way that is new.” What is new for Crowe, is how the “liberal, NPR-listening, Democratic-voting, organic food-eating, sophisticated denizens of New York support gay rights.” Then they discover they're not that accepting. This is especially when it comes to ways gayness might rub off on their impressionable children.

“When writing, a novel, script or e-mail,” says Kramer, “thinking too much about what you’re doing is not a good idea. A writer goes at writing blind. A writer has an idea about what he or she wants to write and lets the idea find its way.”

Steve Watkins, of the “Washington Independent Review of Books,” thinks Kramer had an award-winning idea that got lost in the telling. If he had stayed with Wesley, says Watkins, “Whose funny, wry and resonant voice is featured in the opening chapter…, he would likely have picked up a few literary prizes … to go along with his Emmys and Peabodys.” Too many of the adult voices, used to tell the story of ‘These Things Happen,’ “sound too much like grown-up Wesleys; wistful, smart, earnest, painfully self-conscious and clever.”

Kramer is at his best, says Michael Adelberg, “When exploring the subtle disaffection … between teens and parents. Passages devoted to parents grumbling about teen vocabulary, fondness for texting, practised sullenness and persistent smells are among the most genuine. Kramer writes convincing … banter [for Wesley and Theo] as they hopscotch from their major school project … to discussions about other students, family and sexual preference.”

Do characters write themselves? “Yes, I believe they do,” says Kramer. “My characters are all me. So, yes, they write themselves.”

“I go in blind,” says Kramer. “I sit down to write after I've been thinking about the story, mulling it about for a long-time. When I feel prompted to write, it's time to start.”

“Although the first pages [suggest] a light story and a quick read,” says Nancy Fontaine, “‘These Things Happen’ is neither.” The characters, she says, are introspective, which “sometimes hinder the story for me and made reading more difficult Still, [it’s] a touching coming-of-age story and moving portrait of where our society is in its acceptance and lack thereof, of homosexuality.”

“When I’m enthralled, with writing, nothing else matters,” says Kramer. “It’s the most cherished time any writer has with him or herself, exploring her or his own mysteries and secrets. This is the source of the ecstasy of writing.”

Janet Walker, of The Culture Concept Circle, says, “Kramer writes in an intimate style; thoughts and conversations recounted as if the reader is either present or privy to a character’s innermost feelings.” She says, “The conclusion to this real, poignant and often laugh-out-loud story does not provide all the answers for modern living. [I]t does give the characters an insight into their own failings and the hope that more understanding and intimacy will prevail for the group in the future. For a first novel, ‘These Things Happen,’ is a grand achievement.”

“It’s hard to have an everyday life when writing,” says Kramer. He wants to follow the many distractions in his day. He wants to write, but sometimes it’s difficult to avoid distractions.

“When I finished “These Things Happen,” I wanted to run in the other direction. I felt wasted, wrung out. It’s an unusual feeling.”

Do you have a writing routine? “I wish I did,” says Kramer. “Every day is different. I tried a routine for “These Things Happen” but it didn’t work, well.

“The urge to write is not constant for me,” says Kramer. He claims not to know if he’ll feel the urge to write, again. “This is the scariest part of writing.” The urge to write is ecstatic, yet uncomfortable feeling and, perhaps, fleeting.

“One of the great parts of writing a television series,” he says, “is that you have to show up to work every day. Awaking at a certain time, driving to the studio, settling into a desk, is great. This frames the day and ensures I write every day.

“Something I learned over the years is a writer needs to forgive himself. Every minute a writer is not writing, she or he is kicking himself or herself for not writing. I now let some days go without writing.

“The key to surviving as a writer,” Kramer says, “is to find a way to let go. I learned to forgive myself for not writing every day. It took time to learn that lesson, but I did.”

You write when the mood strikes. “I write when the fewest obstacles are coming at me,” says Kramer. “That’s when the mood strikes me to write. Unfortunately, obstacles are many, in Hollywood, and my mood is not always right to write.”

There's no particular time of the day, say, when he tries to write. “My dream is to write when I wake up. I wake up relatively early. My world is quiet, early in the morning,” says Kramer. “That would be the ideal time for me to write.”

His world, of course, is full of distractions. “It’s a hundred million times worse, today, than it was twenty years ago,” he says. “I still find ways write. I wrote ‘These Things Happen.’” Distractions are challenges to overcome.

“Twenty years ago,” says Kramer, “a typewriter didn't have a connection to online shopping or social media. These are much more interesting, amusing and instantaneously satisfying than is writing. A writing schedule I find increasing difficult to keep.” He does try.

How long did it take you to write “These Things Happen”? “Roughly two years,” says Kramer.

Were you going back to edit and rewrite, as you moved along? “Yes and no,” says Kramer. He changed his mind, repeatedly, about how he wanted “These Things Happen" to move forward, faster. He needed a map, he says, but one didn’t appear until later.

“I didn't start using a map, of where the book would go,” says Kramer, “until one mysteriously appeared. I started to write. Suddenly, the voice of Wesley was on the page.

“When I started to write,” Kramer says, “I had a vague idea of the story, the characters and so forth. I didn't know I was going to tell it all in the first person, except for the ending.

“I took a ride, writing the book. Some days, I knew I was paving the next little patch of road and did little writing. I worked the internal map on those days.

Kramer was roughly fifty-nine-years old when he started “These Things Happen.” He was roughly sixty-one when I finished. “As I said, by this age, I thought I’d be a solid part of the literary community, not writing my first novel.

“As I prepared for the ride,” says Kramer, “I felt most despondent; I felt as if I wasn’t doing anything. In fact, it was my most productive time.

“In film and television,” says Kramer, “the writer gets money first, which is the positive, but the producer controls the product." With a novel, some money may come first and usually after publication, but the writer controls the novel.

“I carved out how much time I would have, given my savings. I cut back on my expenses. I thought this is where I wanted to invest myself.

“I knew how long I could devote myself to writing the book. I didn't know, as I wrote, if I would find a publisher. I had to write “These Things Happen,” even if it didn’t publish. I had promised myself I would write a novel.

“I had had a rewarding career, in television, which went into limbo, as I wrote the novel. I didn’t know if that would be retrievable. I was on my own, with the novel.

“I was sure I would be okay if “These Things Happen” never published. I tell authors to accept the fact his or her book might never publish. Remove this burden, release the albatross, and you’re free to write a novel.

“I didn't start to write until I was three months into my time budget. Once I began writing, the anagnorisis moment arrived quickly. I realised I could finish the manuscript and publishing was not impossible."

His investment paid off. “When I do something, I do it all the way, no half effort,” he says. The book was a huge investment, but it was important for Kramer. He went at it, full bore.

GS Do you use the same agent for all your work, novels, film and television projects? “No, I use a different agent for novels, Gail Hochman, of WordSmitten. She also represents Scott Turow and Nancy Zafris, among others.

“I sent her “These Things Happen.” She read it. Within twenty-four hours, she called, saying she wanted to represent me and the book.”

Did other publishers, besides Unbridled, want “These Things Happen”? “Yes; we had some concerns about the bigger publishing houses. On a huge list of titles, sidelining a new book, losing it in the number of titles, is easy and common.

“First books often don’t earn much money. A larger publisher might let 'These Things Happen' slide into oblivion. Unbridled convinced us list demotion would not happen.”

How did you want "These Things Happen" published? “We, Gail Hochman and I, wanted the book published beautifully. We wanted the book to get attention.

“There are major writers at major houses that write books the publisher doesn’t get behind and the title sinks. Unbridled assured us this would not happen. We made the right decision."

Do you mind doing book promotion? “When ‘These Things Happen’ came out in hardcover, it was all new to me,” says Kramer. He learned about promoting a book. “There is no reader too small or too short or too whatever to ignore.” He became an evangelist for “These Things Happen.”

“I acted in ways I don't normally act,” Kramer says. “I was confident and assertive. I would go up to people and say, ‘You have to read this book.’ I never presented that way before. Something told me the book was not me,” even though the book was him.

Promoting the book was something he felt was his responsibility. “These Things Happen” was his child. “Nothing holds me back from taking the best possible care of it,” says Kramer.

“Other authors, with whom I talked, agreed. When she or he realised the book was apart from them, promotion became easier. In a sense, the author is pushy and obnoxious for the book, not him or herself.”

Is pitching a novel to potential readers similar to pitching film or television project? “Yes, pitching a script or story idea,” Kramer says “is different from pitching a novel. Besides, Hollywood pitching has changed in my time, too.

“‘These Things Happen’ is personal. Pitching this book wasn't talking about something anyone could write. The book is close to me. Even though it's not autobiographical, it remains personal.

“I sensed all I had to do what to stand behind the book. The story would carry it or it wouldn’t. The book pitched itself.”

The jacket, of “These Things Happen,” has comments from important writers. “It took a year to get those comments,” says Kramer.

His agent, Gail Hochman, also represents Michael Cunningham. “She sent him a copy. Cunningham didn’t have to read ‘These Things Happen.’ He didn’t have to say he a word, but he called us both. ‘I’m honoured to do this,’ he said.”

“Julia Glass is a wonderful novelist,” says Kramer, “and a client of Hochman. There was no pressure for to her agree to review and comment on the book. She did, willingly.

“I know people that know Daniel Mendelsohn. They asked, on my behalf. He read the book and loved it. Kathleen Shine is also a friend of a friend; she read ‘These Things Happen,’ enjoyed it and wrote that she did."

Does Kramer have any advice on getting best-selling authors to comment on a book? “A thick skin is essential,” he says, “in gathering comments from other writers. Everyone is busy. I had to keep pushing, but everyone was gracious.”

You scripted “These Things Happen” for HBO. Does cable offer quality television? “I think it does,” says Kramer.

Might a traditional network, CBS, NBC, ABC or Fox, consider your script of “These Things Happen”? “Yes,” he says, “but it never occurred to me approach a traditional network. The HBO opportunity was serendipitous.”

How did the HBO deal happen? “Oprah Winfrey recommended ‘These Things Happen.’ Then we, with Oprah Winfrey and her people, approached HBO.

“I wrote this book so I’d never have to work in television again. That was silly. It has landed on television, which is the strangest accident in the world, to me.

“I never even thought about ‘These Things “Happen’ as a film. I never thought of it as television. I only thought of it as a novel.”

Does support from Oprah effect sales, as she claims it does? “So far no,” says Kramer, “but if the HBO show goes forward to series, sales will increase.

“Honestly, though, I try not to follow sales," says Kramer. "I'm afraid I would get down, if sales tanked. I stay back from that part."

Will he write a sequel to “These Things Happen”? “No,” says Kramer. “I'll write a different book, maybe a similar book, but not a sequel. That story has finished.

“Still, once an author believes a manuscript is complete, she or he is at the least objective point. This is when an author is most vulnerable. She or he thinks everything they did was a mistake and don’t want to make those mistakes again.

“It gets better as time passes. This was my first novel. What I didn't know was I was going through what every writer goes through, at the end of the manuscript. A sequel may be thus possible, one day, only not now.”

Sources

------

Michael Adelberg (2012) on NY Journal of Books.com.

Kingsley Amis (1965), “The James Bond Dossier,” published by Jonathan Cape.

Martin Amis (2000), “Experience,” published by Jonathan Cape.

Laura Backes edits a monthly newsletter, “Children’s Book Insider,” for writers of Young Adult Literature and other books for children. Her website is WriteForKids.org.

Chris Boneau (2014) on GoodReads.com, 20 May.

Brian Centrone (2014) on GoodReads.com, 28 August.

Emily Crowe (2012) on GoodReads.com, 14 September.

Christopher M Ferguson is a novelist and writer of comics. His first novel, “Jova,” is an example of Young-adult gay fiction. Ferguson currently lives in San Diego, CA.

Nancy Fontaine (2012) on BlogCritics.com 23 October.

Matthew Ratz, M.Ed. is a speaker and educator. He has taught every grade from seven through twelve, college and beyond. His focus, from his first days teaching through today, is on learner engagement through student-centered instruction and authentic assessment.

Janet Walker (2014) on TheCultureConcept.com 18 April.

Steve Watkins (2012) on Washington Independent Review of Books for 6 December.

Click here to buy "These Things Happen," hardcover or Kindle versions.
Click here for a list of all Grub Street Interviews
Interview edited and condensed for publication. Grub Street

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