Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Of Pirates and Poets, Pawns and Kings

Paul here...

What’s the best background for a writer?” asked a young woman at a book signing.

“Everything,” I replied.

I wasn’t being flippant. At least, no more than usual.

Arthur Conan Doyle (above) practiced medicine before creating Sherlock Holmes. Dashiell Hammett worked as a Pinkerton before inventing Sam Spade. William Faulkner famously toiled in a post office, creating some sound and fury by losing much of the mail. Elmore Leonard (above, right) was an advertising copywriter who longed to write western novels. Joseph Wambaugh was a Los Angeles cop before he started making up stories about them. And in her first career, Danielle Steele was a plumber.

Okay, I made the last one up. But my point is that writers come from incredibly diverse backgrounds. ALL jobs, ALL studies, ALL travel, ALL relationships (even bad ones) are lethal ammo for the writer.

Here at Naked Authors, we have all worked at REAL jobs before sitting down to sweat blood onto blank pages. I’ve been a newspaper reporter, a trial lawyer, a law school instructor, and a television writer, as well as a novelist. Yes, I know. I can’t hold a job. (I have it on good authority that James Grippando has been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king).

So what do we have in common? The love of the written word. An innate desire to tell stories. An aversion to offices, meetings, and power-point presentations with flow charts and profit projections.

One difference between novelists and screenwriters – and sure I’m generalizing here – is that a lot of the latter go directly from college to film school to spewing out spec scripts at Starbucks on Sunset Boulevard. In other words...no real life experiences.

I admire people who’ve actually done things, who take risks and switch careers. People who follow their bliss, to borrow Joseph Campbell’s expression.

I was thinking these thoughts the other day at a book signing at The Mystery Bookstore in Westwood. (One of the great independently owned stores in the country). A law school classmate of mine stopped by. Tom Derek (below) was born in Czechoslovakia shortly after World War II, his parents having survived German concentration camps. In his late 40's, Tom quit a cushy job as general counsel of the Miami International Free Trade Zone to come to Hollywood to act. For the past 10 years, he’s worked at his craft, pounded the pavement and has built his resúme. Like all the creative arts, acting is hard and filled with frustration, disappointment, and seemingly impossible odds.

I asked Tom why he does it.

“I have this passion to create unique characters that jump off the page,” he said, “that move people to a deeper understanding of their humanity and connection to others. Somehow, because of my background, surely I’d also like to make the world just a little bit better for having been here.”

Tom has a part as a P.I. in an upcoming independent feature. With his lived-in face and lifetime of experience, I’ll bet he knocks ‘em dead.

By Paul


  1. Yup, I've been all those things that Frank sings about, though no reviewer has ever accused me of being a poet. I hear you loud and clear on the need for life experiences. With some writers, you get the impression that the only thing that informs their writing is the work of other writers. . . . And Tom's an inspiration. Maybe someday he'll make one of the naked authors' characters jump off the page!

  2. Expanding one's field can be meaningful to anyone, not just those who become authors or actors.As Thoreau pointed out, quite some time ago, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Bravo to those risk takers who branch out and enrich their lives, and, in so doing, perhaps enrich other people's lives too........

  3. I totally agree with you, Paul. I've worked in what seems like a gazillion jobs and have used those experiences over and over in my writing. I actually decided to write crime novels while I was in graduate school getting my MBA. I once worked as an Easter bunny at a children's party, so stay tuned for Tucker to go undercover in rabbit ears.

  4. Odd jobs. As a teenager, I sold Berkshire stockings door-to-door. I know I should have a "Desperate Housewives" story to tell along the lines of the gardener/bored wife...but alas, I don't.

  5. "The love of the written word. An innate desire to tell stories. An aversion to offices, meetings, and power-point presentations with flow charts and profit projections."

    I read that last line and thought, "Yeah, that about sums it up."

    In my case, BSc in microbiology & public health and 18 years working in clinical genetics before turning to writing fulltime (and thank God for it). I like to think those experiences were useful (I might have been happier with a few years less experience), but it's true I think that if you live long enough you've got plenty of fodder for novels.

    Anybody, for instance, who's got the stomach flu, spouse has the stomach flu and then their 7 month old comes down with the stomach flu, has experienced something--suicidal and homicidal impulses simultaneously--that will educate them in the mystery/thriller arena. Egad, glad the kids finally got old enough to make it to the john on their own (most of the time) when they're ill.

    Oh brother, how did I get off on that tangent? Spinach anyone?

    Mark Terry

  6. Mark,
    As Tom Hanks says to Geena Davis in A League of Their Own, "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. It's the hard that makes it great."

  7. Here's one of my favorite quotes by Anna Quindlen:

    "No man ever said on his deathbed, 'I wish I had spent more time at the office.'"

  8. Oh, Patty: we've gotta see Tucker in Bunny ears! If it worked for the redeemed demon lady in 'Buffy-The Vampire Slayer', I'm sure it will work for you. :-D
    Paul: What do you mean you don't have any 'Desperate Housewives' stories from your Berkshire Stockings sorties? Invent some!! It's all in the imagination and a couple of glasses of wine. But remember, you have to stop laughing long enough to use the word processor. :-D
    I'm actualy rather partial to the 'League of Their Own' movie. :-D And that's a great quote.
    I always think that I've lived a boring life, airforce and all, and crossing the ocean to marry and live in the USA, but I often surprise myself that I have interesting stories to tell - and that people are willing to listen. Gobsmacks me some days.


  9. Ooh, ooh, ooh! Yours truly got an - ahem - letter published in the Letters column in the current issue of Mystery Scene Magazine.
    Sorry, just thought I'd share that...couldn't resist.

  10. Marianne, I saw your letter! Congrats. And it was about one of my favorite people, too.