Thursday 28 Jul 2016

Ann Lewis Hamilton
dr george pollard

Introduction

Depression Era babies lived difficult, yet cheerful lives, full of hope; pop and rock music lyrics evince this well. Parenting style let Baby Boomers think themselves existentially cool, each a Steve McQueen; yet, apathy ran wild. Generation X aches from emotional paralysis.

The tempo of life changed. Boomers replaced the vitality of their parents with indulgence of self. Generation X rebuffed existential cool, preferring anxiety and a sullen-bad-time drinking cheap bitters in clammy pubs.

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Then, as the spider, along comes “Expecting,” by Ann Lewis Hamilton (above). Her story is of three people indivisibly tied by a vengeful act. As they cope with their new roles, they learn much of life.

“Expecting” is a book for the Z generation. The protagonist, Laurie, is independent, optimistic and positive. All the characters are mature, motivated and open to change, seeking to grow.

“Expecting” is uplifting, funny and enlightening. From the suffocating remnants of infertility and miscarriage, Hamilton finds joy, hope and happiness. Affirmative energy coats every word.

“Expecting” doesn’t overburden humour. The characters are never too chatty or wooden. Each paragraph is genuine and amusing.

The leitmotif of many wits, say an early Woody Allen or the late satirist, Bill Hicks, is to remind us of our mortality. Hamilton reminds us of the joys of life, without blind optimism. Her impetus, her leitmotif, is a candid zest for life.

Hamilton takes readers to those thrilling days past, when energy and eagerness, hope and positivity ruled. A reader might roll on the floor laughing, when reading “Expecting,” but not everybody will. What everybody gets, in full measure, is the promise a good future.

As a drama student, at the University of Virginia (UVA), Hamilton wanted to portray Iago, in “Othello.” There was little chance. Hamilton added journalism courses to her schedule, thinking, “That trained to write, I might recast Iago as a woman.”

She has yet to recast Iago, but practices in her script for a low-budget movie, “Neon City,” a story of post-apocalyptic Las Vegas. She recasts the macho John Wayne role in “Stagecoach,” as a woman. The Ringo Kid becomes Reno, in “Neon City.”

After UVA, Hamilton applied to the legendary graduate programme in theatre, film and television at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Hamilton won entry on her first try. The programme turned down Steven Spielberg, twice, before he moved on to the University of California, Long Beach (USCLB).

Her first writing job was for the television show, “Matt Houston.” “I wrote action, action and more action,” says Hamilton. “When ‘Thirtysomething’ hired me, I knew how to blow up cars, not write the more delicate dialogue of personal relations. The transition was difficult, but made.”

Hamilton likes to treat writing as a business. Yet, she admits to Nano-writing “Expecting,” in a month. She prefers writing “10 am to 6 pm, in my office, with no distracts, and not in the evenings.”

In this interview, Ann Lewis Hamilton talks of writing “Expecting,” writing television and film, writing and reading as a way of life.

Grub Street (GS) How did you think your first novel, “Expecting,” would turn out and did it. That’s two questions in one, I know, and a pun avoided.

Ann Lewis Hamilton (ALH) I think it funny to write a book called “Expecting.” A part of me figured readers and reviewers would say, “Not what I was expecting.” Some did, most did not.

GS A title, such as “Expecting,” sets the author up for punning, naysaying and smart comments.

ALH Yes doesn't it. I wanted to write about my experience with infertility. Most people under-represent and misunderstand miscarriage; it’s devastating. At the same time, I wanted to write about becoming a parent.

I used my personal experience, with miscarriage, with wanting desperately to have a child and giving birth. I had a son, Max, then I couldn’t get pregnant, again, and we adopted a second child. Last, I wanted the book to celebrate having a child, even though the book might be cuckoo and strange.

GS “Expecting” is exhilarating and eccentric, but not strange, at all.

ALH The story might have been depressing. I tried hard to keep it humorous. I didn't want “Expecting” to be a slog through miscarriage and infertility. I wanted it to be funny and fun.

GS Do you think you succeeded? I do.

ALH Yes, I think I succeeded. I wanted women to read “Expecting.” I wanted women to identify with the topic and my experience.

GS It seems women did read and identify.

ALH Yes, but, after hearing some criticism, of the book, there are parts I wish I'd explored more thoroughly. Why did Laurie and Alan not sue the clinic, for example? Many reviewers and readers thought the litigation angle was important. I’d love to go back and do it all again; still, litigation would not be part of a reworked novel.

GS You wanted women to identify with “Expecting,” what about men?

ALH I'm looking at a copy of the book, right now. The cover is remarkably pink. I like the cover, but I wondered if it would help to get men to read the book; a man might be off put by the pink.

GS Maybe alternative covers for women and men, say, pink and blue.

ALH The story is about sperm. Two, of the three, central characters are men. I don't think it's a girly girl book.

“Expecting” aims more at women than at men. Yet, I think the story surprises men. I get responses, from men, that say, “I don't think I like the pink cover, but the story is great.”

GS I admit to being one of those who didn't think he would like “Expecting,” but enjoyed it a great deal. It's an easy read. There's nothing to trip over for man.

ALH Thank you.

GS “Expecting” was interesting throughout. Did your experience writing for television influence you?

ALH The chapters are episodic, I guess, as are twelve-minute parts of a television drama, set between commercials. Each chapter could be a weekly episode of a half-season television sitcom qua drama. I wish it would be.

GS Was the mildly episodic nature of the story intentional.

ALH It wasn’t a conscious decision, on my part, to build the story that way. I didn’t intend to do that deliberately. I guess it came out that way because of the time I spent writing television shows. It’s hard to toss away old habits. In part, we are all what we know.

GS How was your transition to fiction from television drama?

ALH I’m comfortable writing dialogue, but a fiction storyline was something else. It terrified me. It seemed impossible.

I took a fiction writing class at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) extension; the course was difficult, to say the least. Fiction, for me, was learning a new language. I think the self-discipline of sitting down at a computer and writing every day helped, a great deal.

Knowing how to write dialogue helped me create characters. I was in agony, when I tried to fill a page with prose. I’m better now, but, at first, to write short fiction, say fifteen pages, I struggled.

GS That’s interesting.

ALH Yes, I was trying discover my voice for writing fiction and one day it appeared. The voices of the characters, in “Expecting,” took over. I always thought it was weird when authors told me characters write themselves, but it happened to me. Now, I’m a believer.

GS If you wrote another book, would you stick with the semi-episodic style.

ALH I am writing another book. When I write television, I outline, loosely. I like to know the beginning, middle and end of the storyline. I find outlining keeps from becoming boring.

With fiction, I don't use an outline, which is crazy. A book is many times longer than a television script. A book is much more complex. I should use an outline.

For “Expecting,” I didn't have an outline. I only knew the story would end with the birth of the baby. The story, from Laurie becoming pregnant to having baby Lee, was an adventure in the dark for me.

I had no clue from page to page. When I wrote “Expecting,” the prologue didn’t exist. After reading an early draft of the book, a writer friend said, “You know what it needs is a prologue, to see how the three characters come together.”

I thought it a good idea. The final draft, of “Expecting,” had a prologue. That’s as close to a story outline as I had, which I wrote later.

In the book I'm writing now, I don't have an outline, but I could use one. The new book is not as episodic as “Expecting.” It's more of a hot mess, right now.

GS I think that’s typical.

ALH I wrote a bad first draft, of this book, my third. I'm going through that now, thinking, “Wow this part is horrible or this part is good.” I’m trying to figure out how it all comes together.

GS It's remarkable what a draft can do.

ALH Yes and how, it surprised me. I have no memory of writing some parts of the draft, mostly the bad parts. I wonder where this or that part came from; I don’t recall writing it.

GS I interviewed a woman who wrote mystery novels, baby boom age mystery novels. She said when she went back on a draft she found the characters were speaking. She said, “I never wrote that, did I?” With each draft, the characters developed, almost independent of her. It’s rather eerie.

ALH That’s remarkable. I can identify with her.

GS Do you think you achieved your goals with “Expecting”?

ALH I think I achieved the goals I set out to write. What I wish I could do differently is the promotion. It's interesting because Ken Lezebnik, a fellow author and a neighbour, said the same; there are many lessons learned, for writers, while promoting a book.

GS You're going to get a chance, with your third novel.

ALH Well, hopefully, Ken and I both will, with our next books.

GS What city could you lose yourself in, for hours, to explore?

ALH London, England; I read so much British fiction I’m ready to spend days or weeks exploring the city.

GS You’re from Staunton, Virginia, making your name in the big city.

ALH Yes, the population, today, in Staunton is less than twenty-five thousand, today. My dad taught high school and, before that, was a reporter on a newspaper for which my grandfather was Managing Editor. My father and mother met when both were reporters on that newspaper.

GS What occupation, other than writing, would you like to try?

ALH Opera singer, I’d love to try it.

GS Did you always dream of becoming a writer.

ALH Yes, I always dreamt of being a writer.

GS Do you think the writing bug came from grandfather, he owned a newspaper.

ALH Without a doubt, as a little girl, I was always at the newspaper office. I remember the smell. I remember the sound of the teletype. I remember how there were typewriters, everywhere.

The photographer, from the newspaper, would let me into the dark room, while he developed. I saw all the photographs before the newspaper published. For me, it was a remarkable experience, every day; the newspaper was important work.

I remember my dad writing, all the paper he typed on and the big editing pencils. I’d draw with those pencils.

My parents subscribed to four newspapers. I thought everyone in the world had four newspapers come to the house every day. Today, hardly anybody reads a newspaper, every day.

When I was a child, everybody read newspapers. It was all about reading and writing. Eventually, I thought there was nothing else for me to do, with my life, but write.

My father would get calls, in the middle of the night. There was a major fire or accident. He’d dress and go to cover the story for the next edition of the newspaper.

GS That’s exciting.

ALH Yes, sometimes my mother and I would go with my father to cover the story. Reporting and writing provided immediate excitement. The immediacy hooked me.

I always loved books, too. Going to the library, when I was a child, looking in a card catalogue, finding a book and pulling it off-the-shelf was always a special event. Writing a book went beyond my wildest dreams; too wonderful to consider. That I wrote a book someone could find in a library is Christmas to me.

I think, “It happens, now”; someone, probably an adult, given the topic of “Expecting,” can find it in a library. I look at my little book, right there on my desk, with my name on it and think, “Wow.” I feel the joy I did as a child, which is great.

Becoming a successful television writer was a dream come true. Still, writing a book is the real deal; another dream comes true. For now, a book carries more prestige than does writing for television and is more difficult.

Writing a book is wonderful; it’s great to feel the excitement, as I did when I was a child. Yesterday, two e-mails I received contained invitations to speak at book clubs. Of course, there’s not much else I would rather do than speak to these book clubs. As a child, I would not have imaged such a dream coming true.

It’s exciting that women and men are reading my book. It’s not the money. I didn’t write “Expecting” for money, it is personal satisfaction.

GS What occupation would you not like to try?

ALH I could never work in accounting or a related job.

GS As you wrote “Expecting,” did you imagine certain actors portraying your characters.

ALH At book clubs and signings, readers ask, “Who do you want to play you [Laurie] in the movie?” “Who were you thinking of when you wrote the main character, maybe Reese Witherspoon?” While writing “Expecting,” I never thought of actors, movies or a television series. I was writing a book.

GS Now that “Expecting” is a successful, have you thought about what actor might play the main character, Laurie.

ALH Maybe Catherine Keener, but I haven’t thought much about casting a movie based on my book. Keener plays cute, smart and sassy parts well; that’s how I think of myself. She may be a bit mature to play the part, I don’t know.

I love Paul Rudd. He's every man. Rudd would be the perfect husband, Alan, I would want for a movie based on “Expecting.”

Rudd should do some serious roles. I guess the romantic comedies pay the bills. I think he’s up to roles for a younger Tom Hanks; he’s that good.

GS I was thinking Jennifer Lawrence would portray Laurie, convincingly.

ALH Yes, that'd be great.

GS Ryan Gosling would portray, Alan.

ALH Oh, that's good, too.

GS A comedian named Dan Nainan, he’s maybe a little old maybe, could play Donor 296.

ALH Yes, that character must be a comedian. The audience has to believe that he's a slacker, with a serious and sensible side. Jack, Donor 296, has a tiny piece of my son, but not much, but he's the big imagination character.

GS What’s your favourite ice cream?

ALH Chocolate is my favourite.

GS I wonder, when you write, let's say, “Expecting,” do you sit down every day, at a certain time and start writing to a target?

ALH I wrote “Expecting” during two Nano session that lasted a month or so. I wrote like crazy, every day, one November. The next November I did the same. In sixty days, over a year or so, I had a full draft. I wrote roughly fifty thousand words in one month, each time. Then I worked the manuscript for another year so

GS That’s remarkable.

ALH Jack, Donor 296, was the most difficult to write. I had no idea what I’d make of him. I didn’t have a clue.

I felt Jack was a slacker and Indian, a student at UCLA. Other than those early ideas, the character emerged, fully, as I wrote. His two girlfriends complicate his life. I knew, in a way, he stole money from his fraternity and had to get it back.

This is why is he applied to the sperm bank. What it paid allowed him to return the money he stole. Although he repaid his fraternity, he was kicked out.

Then, suddenly, it was boom, Jack was writing himself, in a way. I wondered, “Where is all this information and story coming from?”

GS Did you research Indian families or culture to develop the parents of Jack.

ALH I talked with friends that are of Indian descent. They thought I got the parents right. The pressure is on children is to achieve lofty goals. Even if they don’t achieve what the parents wish, the parents are proud of them.

GS When you wrote “Expecting,” were you writing each character, separately, say, Laurie one day and Jack the next.

ALH In that month of nano writing, I wrote each character separately, but it blurred with the speed I was working. I’d write, write, write Laurie. Then I’d write, write, write Jack and then write, write, write Alan.

“Expecting” began as a short story from the view of Laurie. In that version, she got the phone call about the sperm mix up and told Jack. That was it for that story.

Then I thought the view of the husband might be interesting. How would Alan, the husband, deal with the mix up? For a time, I seriously considered following the baby, Lee, until she was twenty-one, say.

GS You were writing the characters, as much as you could, in separate passes.

ALH Yes, trying to write all three, simultaneously, might get confusing. In the first draft, the characters didn’t match up, at all. As I worked through successive drafts, the characters and action fell into place.

GS That’s the joy of drafts.

ALH Yes, it's all about rewriting.

GS I wondered why Laurie didn’t sue the sperm bank.

ALH As I mentioned, my interest was not in writing of litigation. I didn’t want to write a “Law & Order” story. My interests were in the emotional decisions the characters made.

GS You wanted to write more of a “Thirtysomething” story.

ALH Yes, I guess. Still, I took a few short cuts. It's not realistic when Laurie goes to the physician, at the sperm bank, and says, “Give me the information about Donor 296,” and he does. I’m surprised that short cut didn’t turn off more readers.

GS Right.

ALH The physician gives up the information, with little resistance. That’s an unlikely scenario. Yet, I preferred that short cut to extended scenes of manipulation as well as ethical extortion or litigation to get the information.

GS We ran an interview with Steve Berry a couple of years ago. He said he starts writing at 6:00 am finishes at 9:00 am; that's the way he's been writing since he was in his twenties. When 9 am arrives, he stops writing, cold, I guess. David Rich, a screenwriter for years, now writes novels; he writes until he runs out of steam. Others write so many pages or words. Do you do anything like that?

ALH I go back to Dan Pyne. He told me writing was a nine-to-five job. The only difference was my nine-to-five might be in the middle of the night.

I write on the schedule Pyne suggested, mostly 10 am to 6 pm, Monday through Friday. Sometimes, I write on the weekends. I try not to write at night.

I try hard to treat writing as a job. I don't set a daily goal, of words or pages. I try to write for eight hours, with periodic breaks to renew my creativity.

GS Writing is art, writing 10 am to 6 pm, weekends, seems a business approach.

ALH Writing is my job. If I’m passionate with what I’m writing, I keep going, after 6 pm. Still, I think my outer shell, as a writer, is artsy; plodding is the interior.

Pace means a lot; plodding along is part of writing. I don’t wait for inspiration, I write, even if I toss out tomorrow what I wrote today.

Waiting for inspiration is not smart; nothing will happen if you wait. The screen will remain empty. A schedule for writing limits how long I must look at the blank screen.

Also, being a mom, I wanted to be around my children, Max and Lucy, especial when they were younger. This meant I had to find limits to when I wrote. Wanting to be around my children is not business or art, it is parenting.

GS Yes, I agree.

ALH It's better to say, “Yuck, I had such a crappy writing day,” than to say I didn't write anything today. Often, a writer only needs to get going. Once moving, even if she or he is typing a story from the newspaper, creativity flows.

GS What’s your favourite piece of clothing?

ALH I love my camouflage sweatpants.

GS That seems like good writing wear.

ALH Right, it is.

Third book

GS What's the storyline of your next book, your third, or can you tell?

ALH As I don’t use an outline, thus it’s hard to provide a succinct statement of the story. It’s about a woman that loses her mother. A grown woman losing her mother, as did I a few years ago, can evoke a wider range of emotions than one might think.

GS That can be a surreal experience.

ALH Yes, I think so. I wanted to write about death, but I wanted the tone of the story to follow the tone of “Expecting.” Some of the next book is funny; some of it is sad.

Mostly, I think, my next book is honest, not that “Expecting” wasn’t honest. My mother was in her eighties. She had a good life, but her passing was sad, although not a huge surprise.

Children grow up knowing their parents will die before they do. Still, it’s hard. I wanted a story of a grown woman that loses her mother, as did I, how it affects her.

Some questions go unanswered. The child seldom knows everything about the life of a parent. There are mysteries.

“Oh my gawd, did my mother have another child I didn’t know.” There’s no way to answer the question. The woman must look at her relations, with her mother, to find an answer to such questions; answers with which she can live.

As I have a brother, I didn’t want to give the protagonist, of my next book, a brother; that would be too close to home. I gave her sister. Now, the story is about two sisters dealing with how each one deals with the death of their mother.

How do they divide the house and its contents, for example? How do they go on with their lives? How does the fallen wall, the mother, between them and their own deaths play out?

GS Do the sisters get along.

ALH There are problems. One sister lives much closer to the mother. She’s more directly involved with the care of the mother, which leads to some issues.

GS What turns you on?

ALH Reading

GS What turns you off?

ALH Insincerity and falseness turn me off.

GS You have a unique writing style.

ALH Thank you. It might be a mix of journalism, in my home, as I grew up, and writing dialogue for television. Dana Pyne, author of “Fifty Mice” and “Twenty-nine Palms,” was an inspiration, too.

Pyne is a wonderful writer, one of my mentors when I was starting. He writes the shortest, most succinct sentences, to great effect. In this way, he’s akin to Ernest Hemingway.

Both my parents were reporters. I have a journalism degree from the University of Virginia (UVA). These facts also contribute to my fondness for short, pithy sentences.

I also find Nick Hornby, author of “A Long Way Down” and “High Fidelity,” inspirational. His writing is simple, easy to read, funny and he always manages to get the reader in the gut. I love his stream of consciousness, which you can do in fiction.

GS Hornby gets to the point.

ALH Yes, I can’t write long, tedious sentences, with many adverbs. I do not like doing that. I find it easier, more satisfying, to write short, effective sentences.

GS Stephen King and the late Elmore Leonard both advise against adverbs.

ALH I like get to the point, but I also enjoy a tangent that squeals to go off on its own. I try to write as I speak, which involves tangents. I don't know if that's a good style for a writer or not.

GS It’s good, given “Expecting.”

ALH Readers often say, of my writing, “It’s as if I’m in the same room as you.”

GS Someone said that to me, a long-time ago. I glowed for weeks.

ALH I understand.

GS Do you think a fondness for sentences is comes from your experience of writing dialogue.

ALH Maybe, I advise beginning writers to listen, to eavesdrop, on conversations. I don’t think dialogue is a teachable. A writer either has an ear for how people converse, that is, dialogue, or not.

GS I agree, but many do not.

ALH Go into any coffee shop and listen. In conversation, everyone says, “um” and “like” or “you know.” That’s how women and men talk; dialogue must reflect this pattern.

GS I take such words out for this interview.

ALH Right, but this interview is for reading, not hearing. A fiction or television drama writer builds characters through dialogue. If all dialogue is the same, all the characters sound the same.

GS Sound-alike-characters seem a trait of newer writers.

ALH Maybe, there needs to be more focus on different dialogue styles for different characters. People are different, fictional characters, regardless of medium, need to vary and will if the writer allows them the space.

A forty-year-old male character must speak differently than a twenty-year-old male. If they speak the same, the viewer or reader likely moves on. This example would not seem realistic enough, unless the older character had a defect or was try to put something past the reader or other characters.

GS Right, Woody Allen likes to let his actors say what they wish. They actors can say whatever they want, in a scene, as long as they get his point across. Allen movies often irritate viewers, in part, because every character has almost idiosyncratic dialogue, which I think is what every set of characters should try to do. What do you think?

ALH I think that's great. I was lucky that my first big job television job was writing “Thirtysomething.” I went to film school and “Thirtysomething” was like film school, in many ways.

I learned so much writing “Thirtysomething.” Everyone working on the show respected everyone else. On some television shows, no cares about the actors. “Actors do what we want,” executive producers might say.

Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovits, they created “Thirtysomething,” were respectful of everyone on the show. The writers had their craft. The actors had their craft.

The goal was for everyone to listen to everybody. Across-craft decisions resulted. This led to a better quality show.

When I joined “Thirtysomething,” Melanie Mayron, she portrayed Melissa Steadman, sat down with my scripts and me. She liked my less-is-more writing style. She said, “I don’t need to say, as I can play, what you write.”

GS You nailed what she needed from the script.

ALH The point is a good actor will know his or her character as well as does the writer or better. When producers promote exchange among crafts, the show tops off. If there’s no exchange, the crafts, say, writers and actors, are likely working toward different goals.

GS Are you an actor when you write.

ALH Yes, I had this exact conversation with my daughter, Lucy. As an undergraduate at UVA, I was in drama; I wanted to act. I was also in journalism; I wanted to write.

The lack of challenging roles for women actors frustrated me. I wanted to portray Iago, the antagonist in “Othello.” Iago is the greatest part for an actor.

I thought writing, not acting, was the way for me to go. What would a female Iago be like? I wanted to know. Then, I realised, if I were a writer, I could portray Iago and any character I wished.

GS Do writers thrive on multiple personalities.

ALH Fiction writers do, of that I am sure. I don’t know characters more interesting than am I to me.

GS What is your favourite indulgence?

ALH All that is chocolate.

GS You went to UCLA Graduate School of Theater, Film and Television.

ALH Yes, I did. I also studied screenwriting.

GS UCLA Theater is a well-respective programme.

ALH Yes, Francis Ford Coppola graduated in 1967 and made “The Godfather” four years later. When I was at UCLA, years later, it was “Frances this and “Frances that,” constantly. I think “The Godfather” movies were among the best movies ever made.

GS Yes, I agree, but only after “The Battleship Potemkin” and “Citizen Kane.”

ALH I am a huge “Citizen Kane.” I worked for the Director's Guild, at one point. My job was to transcribe interviews the Guild conducted with older, lesser-known directors; it was an oral history project.

GS What a great job you had.

ALH I worked for David Shepard, the film historian and preservationist. Important film people always dropped in to see David. One day, Shepard says to me, “I’d like you to meet Robert Wise.”

Wise did “The Sound of Music,”, a fact that impressed me greatly. He also edited “Citizen Kane” for which he received an Oscar™ nomination for it. You’d never guess of his success; he was normal, as were most of the famous film people that came by when I worked for the Director’s Guild.

Now I'm just going to think of “Citizen Kane” for the rest of the day.

GS The movie is an act of genius.

ALH Yes, it is genius.

GS I’m sure Orson Welles let no one forget “Citizen Kane” was an act of genius.

ALH I was at UCLA in the time before VCRs, let alone DVDs. We watched films, movies, all day. It was great.

The school had access to many films that weren't otherwise available. I think “Vertigo,” the Hitchcock thriller, hadn't shown in decades. Somehow, UCLA had a copy of “Vertigo.”

UCLA was a great experience. Often, we’d go to class and watch a movie the public hadn’t seen in twenty-five years.

GS I always heard admission to UCLA Theater was difficult.

ALH It was difficult to get into the theater programme at UCLA. First try, luckily, UCLA admitted me. I think it’s much harder, today. The programme, I think, now wants students with relevant experience, not anyone straight out of college.

My son, Max, recently graduated from California State University Northridge. He thought, seriously, of graduate school. My suggestion is he work, first; gain life experience before he applies.

As we age and if we are observant, we gain more and more varied experience. This is crucial for any educated occupation. Experience and education are great combination.

What do you do with a degree in film? If you have a breadth of experience, what you write or shoot takes on added appeal. I don’t know if Spielberg went to college.

GS Yes, Spielberg graduated from California State University at Long Beach. Twice he applied to the University of Southern California (USC) School of Theater, Film and Television; turned down both times.

ALH There’s an irony in that, I think. Life experience makes one a better writer, if one takes note of what one experiences. Consciously taking note is most important.

If you read books or only watch television, you gain a certain breadth and depth of world view. If you experience the world, good or bad, your world view is widest. A wider world view makes for a much better writer.

If you meet various people and so forth, it makes a huge difference. There’s a wealth of material to call on for characters and circumstances. A few writers can hide away, in the basement, and produce masterful work, but it’s probably dark and cynical.

GS Yes, once, someone could put out their thumb and travel the country, gaining experience. Now, it may be too dangerous.

ALH Yes, that's true.

GS What sound or noise do you love?

ALH I think I love must most of all.

GS “Expecting” is in the present tense. This is unusual, as most novels are in the past tense. Present tense takes time to settle into the mind, time to find the flow of the story.

ALH The same friend that gave me the advice about adding a prologue also thought the story should be in the past tense. I don’t know why it’s in the present tense, other than it seemed immediate to me. The past tense is history, in a way; present tend is now.

GS Yes, the present tense made the story seems as a reality show or as a newscast. That is, happening now, in real-time.

ALH That's interesting.

GS I can identify, to an extent, with the story. I think, if you used past tense, I would have found the story less compelling. Present tense made me want to turn the page to see what would happen, next.

ALH That's good. I like that.

GS I thought use of the present tense was a great innovation on your part, which I guess was serendipity, as are most worthwhile innovations.

ALH I wasn't aware of doing it. It fit. It made me wonder, though, if I made a mistake.

The book I'm doing now, my third manuscript, is mostly past tense. The first book I wrote, “Can’t Keep,” is it past or present tense. I must look, as I'm just like dying to know. Oh, it is present. Who knew? Not me, I assure you.

GS Having a baby is present tense. Had a baby, which doesn’t identify with “Expecting,” is past.

ALH Right, an intuitive decision got me out of a potential mess.

GS “Expecting” is not history. The distinction is too tiny for many readers to notice. For me, it comes from my reading too many books.

ALH Reading too many books is impossible.

GS I agree. When I tell people about my day job, how much I read and for how long I have read, intensely, their eyes go glassy. They remember they have to go to the bathroom or make an appointment. A few people say I’m lying when I say I read more than eight thousand books.

ALH Well not me; those people likely never read a book.

GS That might be true. Stephen King, in “On Writing,” reports he reads at least eighty books a year and writes how many. That’s fifty per cent more than I read, in a year, yet some say I exaggerate.

ALH My husband and I argue all the time about rereading a book. John, that’s my husband, says life is too short to reread books. I say, no, it's different when you reread a book.

When read a book at fifteen-years-old, it’s one read; when you reread at forty-years-old, it’s a different read. I’m a different reader at forty than I was at fifteen. John says, “No, no, you don't have enough time, there are so many books.”

GS As well as your own books, what books do you urge readers to read?

ALH I urge they read any book by Kate Atkinson, a British author; preferably, all here books.

GS What does John do?

ALH He's a low-budget movie producer.

GS He makes movies that people watch.

ALH We met working for Roger Corman. We joke Corman brought us together and gave my husband a career, making low-budget films.

GS There's a name, Roger Corman.

ALH He's a great fellow.

GS He was in “The Godfather.” Most people don't realise. He had a cameo as a senator at the hearing into organised crime; that was “Godfather II.”

ALH I knew.

GS What were you doing for Corman?

ALH I was the assistant to his wife, Julie. For a while, John was the assistant to Roger. John was in law school, at the time, and did legal work for Roger.

GS What does one do as the assistant to Julie Corman?

ALH She was producing movies, too. I did some producing. Mostly, I did regular assistant duties, such as, handling the phones, helping her keep up with her schedule and so forth. I was also taking care of their children, schlepping the children around and so forth.

GS You were a clerical nanny.

ALH Yes, that's what I was, a clerical nanny writing screenplays, on the side. Julie saw one of my scripts for film school. She thought I should focus on writing.

She said, “You’re a better writer than you are an assistant. You should write full-time.” I did.

GS What is something about you that would surprise readers?

ALH If a reader of “Expecting” saw me at a rock concert, singing along, holding a beer, knowing every word of every song, screaming approval, might surprise her or him.

GS You mentioned a first book, what’s the story?

ALH “Can’t Keep” is the title of a song by “Pearl Jam” and my first book. I love the band. The story is of a middle-aged woman that loses what matters in her life.

The protagonist is one of those crease-in-the-jeans executives. She loses her job. Her son decides to live with his father. Her life crumbles.

Mostly, she wants to reconnect with her son. His favourite band is “Pearl Jam.” She becomes obsessed with the band, while listening to its music as way to reconnect with her son.

She takes a road trip, with another fan of the band, from Los Angeles to Seattle, to see “Pearl Jam.” Her obsession grows. Her fervour is that of a twentysomething, not a middle-aged woman.

GS Interesting that you built an uplifting story of rebirth, say, on what some might argue are suicide lyrics.

ALH I found the lyrics of “Can't Keep” had a carpe diem, seize the day, message. Shake off the old; embrace the new. I’m positive and optimistic. That’s how I spun the lyric; leave your complacent life, try something you would never think of doing is good advice.

GS This is what the protagonist of “Can’t Keep” did.

ALH Yes, it set her free. Still, “Can’t Keep,” didn’t publish; it did help me find an agent. Publishers reported liking the writing, of “Can’t Keep,” its tone, pace and style, but not the story.

GS As you describe the story, I thought of an old movie, the “Banger Sisters,” with Goldie Hawn and Susan Sarandon.

ALH “Can’t Keep” was not as “out there,” as was the “Banger Sisters.”

GS What’s your favourite curse word?

ALH Fuck, it`s a most useful word.

GS How did you start writing for television?

ALH As I mentioned, Dan Pyne was in film school with me. He was the first of us to get a writing job. He joined the staff of the television show, “Matt Houston.”

GS That was the early 1980s.

ALH Roughly, 1982 I’d say. Pyne approached five of us in the UCLA programme. He asked us to pitch ideas for his television series. Four of the five people he asked said, “No thank you, I'm a feature writer” and so forth. I said, “Yes, of course.”

I sold a script for an episode of “Matt Houston.” If you recall, it was an action show, starring Lee Horsley. Houston was an oil millionaire that played detective in his spare time.

It was action, action and more action. I had never written action. I wrote low-low-budget action and more action.

That’s what I was doing when I joined “Thirtysomething.” Hiring on to that hit show was bizarre. I blew up cars and buildings for “Matt Houston.” Now, I had to write about how the characters got along, stayed and fell out of love and so forth, on “Thirtysomething.” It was a difficult transition, a great learning experience and thoroughly, well, mostly, enjoyable.

GS You said the actors were helpful.

ALH Yes, they were helpful, but putting a bomb under car and having it explode didn’t happen on “Thirtysomething,” as it did on “Matt Houston.” It took a while for me to access the genuine feelings of the characters. Then I was more comfortable.

GS When you were writing action did you have access to a scientific company that helped you make bombs and such out of nothing, such as on MacGyver?

ALH No, I made it all up borrowed from my favourite old action movies. Yes, old movies were my research for writing “Matt Houston.”

GS What inspires you?

ALH My parents inspired me most.

GS What television show would you like to write for?

ALH Do you mean right now?

GS You pick the show.

ALH I think it would be gas to write for “Game of Thrones.” I read the books; the stories are great. I became obsessed; I read all the books, once I started.

Still, I’m not into the version of science fiction that threads through the books. Still, I could write the television show. It would be great to write that show.

ALH I’d like to write for “Law & Order: SVU.” The shows move along at a good pace and well-developed plots are the rule. I met with the producer, Dick Wolf, a few times, to no end.

GS Well, it’s a template show. I think they hand you a template and you fill in the blanks. I'm only guessing. Everything happens at the same time, minute by minute, across episodes. The structure varies, little, from what I see, but the details do change, weekly.

ALH Honestly, I’m more character based. If there are strong characters, on a show, such as “Thirtysomething,” I can write it.

GS For whom would you like to write?

ALH I’d like to write for Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She’s a great actor; “Veep” is an excellent show. It’s so clever.

I like creative autonomy. I’m not one for a sitcom writing room, where writers toss around ideas and jokes. I prefer a character-driven themed show, such as “Thirtysomething,” where I can go off and write the script, on my own.

“Jewel in the Crown” is another show I would like to write. It’s a 14-hour series from the UK, almost fully character-driven. The acting is A-list, as is the dialogue.

GS You wrote “Party of Five.”

ALH Yes, it was an interesting show. The premise was five children, of varying ages into their teens, fending for each other after a drunk driver killed their parents. The show had an all-star cast, including Lacey Chabert, Neve Campbell, Matthew Fox and Scott Wolf.

“Party of Five” ran from 1994 to 2000. I wrote three episodes and was a co-executive producer for twenty-two episodes during 1994-1995. We worked hard to keep the characters three-dimensional as well as the problems they faced credible.

I also worked on several other series, including “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Providence” and “Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street,” as a producer, of some sort or another. There was a wonderful show, which I worked on, called “Nothing Sacred (about a priest).”

I thought “Nothing Sacred” was great. No one watched and it lasted one season. The show dealt with a progressive priest.

It was interesting to write about religion. I wrote an episode dealing with how a Jewish boy and a Catholic girl wanted to marry. They arranged a wedding, with a Rabbi and a priest.

At first, ABC Television loved “Nothing Sacred.” Then the network buried the show, where no one would see it. Eventually, ABC cancelled “Nothing Sacred,” due to low ratings.

GS That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

ALH Yes, in 1997, I worked a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) show called, “C16” It stared Eric Roberts and Christine Tucci. The show dealt with the Los Angeles office of the FBI; again, a great show that no one watched.

That’s the sadness of television. Great shows don’t find audiences, often due to scheduling. Maybe the lead in show is weak; maybe the show airs when its prime audience is unavailable.

GS Given all the streaming that coming online, now, maybe these great shows will reappear to find an audience.

ALH I hope so.

GS Where do you think television is going?

ALH It’s an interesting question. Streaming seems the immediate, successful future. “Transparent,” on Amazon streaming, has changed the landscape of television. I’m waiting for a cable channel or streaming service aimed at smart women; it won’t be long.

GS Maybe you could serialise “Expecting” for such a service.

ALH I’m optimistic about all the potentially available television choices, in the future. I don’t think I would have said this, say, five or six years ago. It’s not only HBO, AMC or Showtime, any more; choices are multiplying fast: Apple, Amazon and so forth.

GS There’s some thought that cable channels, such as HBO or AMC, probably since the “Sopranos,” raised television to an art form. “Girls” is an example, as is “Game of Thrones”; “Breaking Bad” and “Boardwalk Empire” are other examples of what cable television can create. What do you think?

ALH Yes, I agree. Streaming services may take television as art to an even higher plane. What Amazon did, with “Transparent,” is great. I think “House of Cards,” on Netflix, is a major hit; it’s a remake and, perhaps, better than the original.

This is why so many television writers want to work a cable show. There’s greater creative freedom, higher production values and so forth. Cable works outside the box that is traditional network television.

Cable shows give writers they want to write. For a writer, cable and streaming are Nirvana. The best is yet to come.

GS Why do you think cable and streaming shows have such short runs? “Boardwalk Empire” ran four and one-half seasons and “Breaking Bad” ran for five seasons. Both shows could have gone on for years, given the size of the audience.

ALH For one, budgets increase each year, routinely. Five years may be all the HBO or AMC feel is sustainable, given finance. I understand the budget for “Game of Thrones” is insanely high, Sill, it’s a show that might rerun for generations, without tiring audiences or running out of ideas.

GS “Sopranos” did not do as well in reruns as expected.

ALH There’s that, too. I read that “Law & Order: SVU” will have at least a seventeenth season, which is exceptional. Not many network shows last that long, “Gunsmoke” and a handful of others. This is a big deal, likely driven, at least in part, by the successes of less traditional shows on cable and streaming.

GS Have you thought writing for film?

ALH In 1991, I wrote a movie that filmed, “Neon City”; it was not a good movie. I’m a film school nerd. I tried to set “Stagecoach,” the John Ford film, from 1939, in a post-apocalyptic future.

GS There’s a leap.

ALH Some thought “Neon City” was a “Mad Max” clone, which it was, in way. Honestly, thought, I borrowed heavily from “Stagecoach.” The John Wayne character in “Stagecoach,” I flipped to a woman. Wayne portrayed the Ringo Kid; my hero was Reno.

As I wrote “Neon City,” I watched endless post-apocalyptic films. I found it difficult to write a dysphoric story. When the film shot, all the irony was gone from my script. I was sly and rye, I thought, but the final movie was dead-ahead earnest, which did not work.

GS Did Vanity portray Reno?

ALH Yes and Michael Ironside was the male lead. Monte Markham directed “Neon City.”

GS The lead actors are Canadian. The movie likely shot in Canada, using tax incentives and such. How did you come up with the name, “Neon City”?

ALH It’s Las Vegas after the Apocalypse.

GS That’s fitting. I see it released only in Japan, in 1992. I notice you go uncredited, at least as Ann Lewis Hamilton, for writing “Neon City.”

ALH I used a male name for the credit, Buck Finch. I used Buck Finch because I wanted as masculine a name as I could find. Buck worked well. Finch I borrowed from Atticus Finch, in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

GS Why did you decide to write a low-budget, post-apocalyptic film?

ALH My husband was doing business affairs for film companies. Still, he yearned to produce. As a wedding present, I wrote him a low-budget script, “Neon City.” John sold the script.

GS What is something you like to collect?

ALH I collect souvenirs from Titanic, the ship, not the film.

GS Who are your favourite writers?

ALH I read a great deal; it’s hard to say, exactly, what writers I like best. I love Dickens, so much; that’s probably because I didn't read him until I was older. When I finally read “Great Expectations” and knew it originally serialised, that impressed me, doubly.

Dickens was writing, chapter-by-chapter, week-by-week. Every chapter ends with a cliffhanger. Even if he had a running start at serialisation, a weekly cliffhanger is a major accomplishment.

GS Serialising a book has too many deadlines.

ALH I also love the writing of Ruth Rendell; she’s a British writer of mysteries. I fell in love with “Wolf Hall” and “Bring up the Bodies,” both by Hilary Mantel. I love books that are so good my head wants to explode.

I recently read “Station Eleven,” by Emily St John Mandel. Everybody talked of the book so much; I had to read it. It's the world after a pandemic, more literary fiction than science fiction.

Roughly, five years ago I started keeping lists of books I read. Mostly, I’m too critical of what I read. I'm hard to please.

GS There’s an idea that a hit show begins with an edge. The edge sells the pilot and attracts a large audience. In time, the show loses its edge. Producers decide to play safe to protect profits. The result is the show grows bland and the audience drifts away.

ALH I agree. It’s the nature of the beast, to play safe when you have a hit show. The traditional networks like hit shows to play safe; there’s a belief the audience wants versions of the same storyline repeatedly. Taking chances might drive the audience away.

In a practical sense, if a hit show stays around too long, the writers run out of new or novel ideas. As long as a show can preserve a sense or image of freshness, it likely remains on the air. There’s an endless supply of lurid stories to keep “CSI” or “Law & Order: SVU” going, for example, but this isn’t always the case.

GS Kelsey Grammer kept the same character, Fraser Crane, going for twenty-two years, although the context changed halfway through and resurrecting his father from the grave.

ALH True, have you seen “Babylon”?

GS If you refer to the relatively new show from Britain, yes, once or twice.

ALH It took a while for me to appreciate the show. The actors speak fast and their accents are thick. Once into the show, I found it interesting, as the producers and writers aren’t afraid of taking risks.

I never know what will happen next, on “Babylon.” This pulls me into the show. I can’t wait for the next episode.

Hollywood wants a safe show. The traditional networks buy a great many white bread shows. What the networks consider edgy, say, “Sin City,” in fact, is a safe show.

GS In all the interviews you’ve given, what question did you hope the interviewer might ask, but was not?

ALH Thinking back, over many interviews, I don’t believe anyone asked if and how much I love my work.

GS How much do you love your work?

ALH More than I can express, even though it’s unbelievably difficult. I pinch myself, every day, to believe I earn money writing and selling stories. I feel so lucky. When I was a kid, I wanted to write stories for a living and now I’m doing it.

GS Is there a mistake you made, when you began writing, which you now regret.

ALH I don’t regret because I learn from mistakes. I do wish I had been able to access my emotions better. When I began writing, I wish I could have more fully put my emotions on the page.

I worked the surface and plumbed few depths. I thought I was clever. In truth, I didn’t dig deep enough and missed much detail that would have improved my early writing.

GS Thanks, Ann.

ALH You’re welcome.

Sources

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John Lahr (1984), “Woody Allen,” in “Automatic Vaudeville: essays on star turns,” published by Knopf. Pp. 89-99.

John Lahr (1984), “Noel Coward,” in “Automatic Vaudeville: essays on star turns,” published by Knopf. Pp. 22-40.

John Lahr (1984), “Automatic Vaudeville: essays on star turns,” published by Knopf. Pari passu.

Click here to buy books by Anew Lewis Hamilton

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Interview edited and condensed for publication.
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dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.

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