Over the years at Ain’t it Cool News I’ve had the great opportunity to talk to different writers about the process of writing and what it’s like to make something from nothing. A long time ago David Benioff and I connected through my column at AICN and he’s been kind enough to take a few minutes and answer some questions. His new novel, City of Thieves will be released by Viking in a week or so. It’s about the Siege of Leningrad, but more precisely a coming of age story set during the horrors of that historical event.
Jason Rice: I want to start off by mentioning I reviewed your new novel City of Thieves in my column over at Ain’t It Cool News. I found the story extremely compelling and exciting but at its heart it felt like a small independent film with dueling characters on a great journey. In many ways it seemed a lot like your first novel The 25th Hour which is how I discovered your writing. With City of Thieves it’s like I had found another side to your writing, an in depth examination of a specific part of world history, and after reading it I realized you’ve come a long way from The 25th Hour. Not that there is anything wobbly with your first novel, somehow you spread your wings with City of Thieves. Your narrative style in general from The 25th Hour to City of Thieves maintains a vibrant and urgent immediacy which makes your work very compelling. What was the research process like for City of Thieves? It’s almost seamless, done with a first hand knowledge of what was happening. Can you explain the process?
David Benioff: I had a wonderful teacher once, the novelist Ann Patchett. I asked her about the research she did for The Magician’s Assistant, and she told me to choose the single best book on the given subject and study it obsessively. Writers are always tempted to track down dozens of books to help give our make-believe stories that tang of authenticity, but often the problem with too much research is a writing style that seems too researched, dry and musty and eager for a history teacher’s gold star of approval.
Unfortunately, my will was not strong enough to follow Ann’s advice (I did end up reading dozens of books on the Siege of Leningrad), but I picked one that became my Bible: The Nine Hundred Days by Harrison Salisbury. He was the first Western journalist to have access to Leningrad once the siege was lifted; he spoke first-hand with hundreds of Russians who survived the siege; and he collected as many diaries, journals and letters as he could. The second most important book for me was Kaputt, by Curzio Malaparte. A former Fascist, Malaparte was essentially an embedded journalist before the term existed. He rode along with the German and Finn forces during the early months of Barbarossa, and his accounts provided me a necessary glimpse of the invaders’ mindset, tactics, and appearance.
JR: The 25th Hour was written prior to 9-11, it’s a story about New York City, in the book it’s a secondary character to Monty Brogan, but in the movie it’s a central figure as 9-11 had happened since it was published and Spike Lee made an incredible movie from you book. Did your feelings about the city change from the time you wrote the book to when you sat down and wrote the screenplay?
DB: The decision to include the post-9-11 details was Spike’s, and when I first heard about it, I have to admit, I was worried. As you say, the book was written before the attack, as were the first two drafts of the screenplay. Ultimately, Spike was right: to shoot that movie in New York— only months after the towers went down— and ignore the fact of their fall would have been cowardice. Say what you want about Spike, the man is not afraid.
JR: Richard Price told me that Spike Lee changed his script for Clockers, which Price adapted from his own novel, that left Price out of the picture so to speak, and I have to say that I didn’t see a word out of place from your book The 25th Hour to the movie version. I think by staying true to your story you really create a type of landmark book to movie experience for those who’ve seen and read both. What was that process like? And was there any conflict over keeping certain things in the movie that were so successful in the book?
DB: My first meeting with Spike, he had the novel sitting on his desk, and it was falling apart. He’d clearly read it several times, pages were dog-eared, passages were underlined, notes written in the margins. Now, at that point I had probably been on a dozen 25th Hour meetings, with directors and producers and studio executives, and I had never once seen the book in anyone’s office. Many people were not aware the book existed; they thought it was an original script. One of the first things Spike said to me was, “I loved your book. Why’d you cut so much good stuff from the script?” The fuck monologue, for instance, a long passage from the novel, had never made it into the first drafts of the screenplay, mostly because I thought it was the kind of thing that only worked on paper, not on screen. He asked me to put it back in, I did, and now it’s probably the most memorable scene in the movie.
For me, the collaboration was a beautiful thing. On that movie we had the right director, the right actors, the right composer. Norton, Hoffman, Paquin… Barry Pepper is exactly the way I pictured Frank Slattery. I mean, down to the accent (and Pepper’s Canadian, making it doubly impressive). The only bad casting in the movie is the dog. That dog is not Doyle.
JR: I’ve always wanted to ask you about the genesis of The 25th Hour, how you came to write it, and how much of yourself you see in Monty Brogan, if any anything at all. I know the central theme to his character is that he’s a drug dealer but essentially a good kid who has fallen in with bad people. Was Monty based on anyone you knew growing up? I also remember hearing that you were rejected countless times before you wrote The 25th Hour, what was it that got you going on that novel and do you feel now that so much rejection helped you write the book and finally break through and get published? I remember how unique the feeling I had when I read the book, each page turned into something else and Monty was so magnetic to me, and I wonder how you developed him into something so indelible that would eventually lead to a cinematic adaptation?
DB: I see almost nothing of myself in Monty. If anything, I’m probably a cross between Jakob and Slattery. Unless I’m lying to myself or forgetful, Monty isn’t based on anyone I ever knew. The first year I moved to LA, my roommate was driving through South Central and she saw a mangy, stray pit bull running across the street. Because my roommate was insane/courageous, she decided to rescue the bitch. So this 5’2” white girl got out of her car and chased the little fucker all over the neighborhood (a neighborhood in which most white Angelenos lock their doors, roll up their windows, and drive fast). Eventually a couple of kids helped her corner the pit bull, and because she’s got some sort of weird dog whisperer powers, she managed to calm the bitch down. She brought her home, named her Olive, and nursed her back to health. (Olive had been burned with cigarettes and beaten pretty badly—for years she flinched whenever a stranger put his hand close to her.) Anyway, this event inspired the opening scene of The 25th Hour, but in all other respects my ex-roommate is about as far from Monty as you can get.
I wrote a short story in college that was kind of a dumber, abbreviated version of the climactic scene in 25th Hour where Monty asks Slattery to make him ugly. So I had that seed idea in my mind for years, and finally I sat down to write it. What prompted me to get going was the receipt of
about thirty rejection letters for my previous novel, the unpublished Wag. Most were form notices, but I got about eight or ten actual letters from editors explaining why they were passing. And there was a common theme: we like the writing, the characters, the dialogue. We don’t like the meandering storyline (this book was well over five hundred pages).
I decided to write something shorter, with a compressed time frame, as a way of forcing me to focus on story. Left to my own devices, I’m happy to let two of my characters blather on the stoop steps for sixty pages, about girls and politics and handguns, whatever, endlessly. The 25th Hour, because of the ticking clock built into the narrative, didn’t give me time for all the chatter. I mean, some of it’s there. That discussion of percentiles, where Slattery accuses Jakob of residing in the 62nd percentile of eligible bachelors—that didn’t have to be there for any plot purposes. I just liked the conversation (which I apparently had one drunken night in Dublin—the next day my friend told me I had put him in the 62nd percentile of bachelors following a long disquisition on competition for women. I didn’t remember a word of this conversation but I liked the sounds of it and threw it into the novel).
JR: Since you’ve been working in Hollywood you’ve had great opportunities to be a gun for hire, writing scripts, adaptations and working twice with Marc Forster; first with the incredibly underrated Stay, and then adapting the mega bestselling novel The Kite Runner. Is there something about his arresting and unusually beautiful directing style that draws you to him or is there something else going on? With The Kite Runner, were there huge expectations thrust on you to get the story to a place where it could become something that would have mass appeal?
DB: I just like Marc a lot, and have from the first day I met him. Working with him is good fun and I hope we have another go-round someday. He also runs the calmest set on Earth. Usually everything is chaos on set, people running around in a panic that they’re losing the light, actors refusing to leave their trailers, DPs bickering with ADs about how long the next set-up will take, all that shit. Everyone on a Marc Forster set seems to have taken some sort of pill that leaves them calm and happy. It’s like they’re in a cult. But they get the work done, they always make their days, and the movies are excellent.
As for The Kite Runner, to the contrary, we made a decision early on to shoot in Dari and cast unknowns. If anything, that seems like a decision calculated to minimize mass appeal.
JR: To go back to Richard Price for a second, who I think in a way is like a forefather for you, at least for me I feel like you two share a type of kinetic voice that is very smooth but at the same time a little bit nervous and paranoid. You both have a talent for writing screenplays and he made a point to me when I interviewed him about writing for a flat surface, the screen, and writing a novel, where you have basically all the room in the world to tell people more than they ever would want to know about a character. Can you explain what your point of view is when adapting a novel and when you’re trying to write a novel? Is there a specific cut off for you when you’re flushing out characters that are prevalent in a novels narrative and somehow truncated in a screenplay? And the reverse, where do you draw the line on character development in a novel?
DB: I’m not sure you ever draw the line on character development. Perhaps, as I write above, there is a temptation to follow your characters on all their daily wanderings. Here’s Peter Protagonist, walking through the supermarket, checking prices on laundry detergent and thinking about the war in Iraq. Someone like Nicholson Baker can write a whole book off that supermarket visit, and it will be a fiercely intelligent, well-written book, and I’ll read the first twenty pages, admire his chops, set it aside and never open it again. I need a story. There is a contemporary prejudice against plot, in more literary circles. Look at that New Yorker profile on Richard Price from a month ago. An incredibly flattering review of Lush Life, on one level, but snotty as hell, on another. “He’s a great writer,” is the implication, “too bad his talents are squandered on crime fiction.” Well, this is bullshit. Is Dirty Snow any less a masterpiece because it is a crime novel, written by the creator of Inspector Maigret? That we each end up corpsed generates all conflict. If we had endless time our choices wouldn’t be final, and wouldn’t have any drama. The best crime writers deal with this sorry truth in their novels, as do the best horror writers, as do the best writers period. Only snobbery or ignorance would make us ghettoize our most talented creators. What is Macbeth if not a crime story? What is The Inferno if not a horror story?
But it shouldn’t be news to anyone in 2008 that many of our finest writers are not writing what The New Yorker considers literary fiction. I’d include many so-called genre writers in this list (Price, Lehane, Pellicanos for crime, Stephenson for science fiction, George R.R. Martin in fantasy). I’d include many television writers. Those criminally-minded gents mentioned above all contributed to the making of David Simon’s epic The Wire; The Sopranos brought more depth of character to the small screen than we almost ever see between book covers; Mad Men has the elegant insight of a lost Richard Yates novel.
At the risk of sounding like an old codger (or Tom Wolfe), I love a story, and I love those who write with the confidence of true storytellers. There will be a beginning, there will be a middle, there will be an end. Perhaps not in that order. But there is an implicit covenant between a reader and a novelist worth his salt: I’m taking you on a trip with me (says the novelist) and I promise I know where we’re going. Trust me, it’ll be worth the ride. Too often I’m halfway through a book and I realize (and it’s always a sort of queasy realization) that the author has no idea where this thing is going to end. That’s not to say good novelists always know the ending when they begin writing, just that once he figures it out, he’s got to make the whole thing seem inevitable.
JR: I want to talk a little about your literary influences, what you might have to say about the state of popular fiction, as opposed to contemporary American literature. What living writers do you seek out every time they write a book? Over time you and I have talked about writer’s conferences, the good and the bad, taking classes to learn how to write, and writing in general and you’ve been more than generous with your thoughts on getting to a point where you can actually tell a story. I want to know when was it that you decided that you wanted to tell a story in the novel form. Is there an undeniable frequency that you can’t ignore and you just sit down and thrash it out until you come up with something, or are you driven by something else? Do you see any benefit to working with an established writer to hone your craft? Was there anyone in your early days that helped steer you in one direction or another?
DB: To answer the last question first, I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve had some remarkably good novelists as teachers. First and foremost, Ernie Hebert, my college advisor. He took me aside after one writing class and said, “I believe in your talent.” That remains the single most moving thing anyone has ever said about my work. I was nineteen, incredibly insecure, and hearing those words from a writer I respected gave me faith that a life in writing was possible.
What living writer do I seek out every time they write a book? The most honest answer for me would not be a novelist but a screenwriter: when someone sends me a samizdat copy of Charlie Kaufman’s new script, I read it that night.
JR: When I look over your resum
e I see a certain path that reminds me of a writer who can excel in two worlds, popular and literary, a tough trick to pull off but you seem to do it with ease. I know you’ve written the screenplay for X-Men Origins; Wolverine, which I can imagine has to be a big step for you moving a Stan Lee story to the screen. Also a very beloved comic book character for many people. I suppose all of this work makes me wonder if you’re planning a big American novel, an Underworld of sorts, or maybe like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, something along those lines. It seems like your work would be a perfect fit in a large scale structure similar to those two books. You have the ability to write convincingly about the past and present with a prescient eye on what’s happening all around us. At the same time you create characters that nearly leap off the page.
DB: I like the idea of writing a long novel, mainly for the amount of time I’d get to spend with my characters. Well, I half-like the idea. Sadly, I have a short attention span and a deep capacity for boredom. Maybe I’d get part way through the big book and find myself lost in a thicket of my own creation, five hundred pages from home. I don’t know. If I have the right notion of how to get from here to there, I might try to pull it off.
JR: Finally, besides your movie work, what’s next? I remember waiting patiently for you to write something new after your short story collection When The Nines Roll Over. Will the wait be the same?
DB: I have no idea what the next novel will be. I don’t have a story idea. I don’t have the characters. So, seven years sounds about right, inshallah.
Three Guys One Book is an independent blog developed by three friends who work in the book business. Dennis Haritou has bought books for Barnes and Noble for seven years, for warehouse clubs for five, and has led a book club. He is currently senior merchandise manager at Bookazine. Jason Chambers has been in the book business for over 15 years, including tenures as General Manager/Buyer at Book Peddlers in Athens, GA, and 7 years as a Buyer and Merchandise Manager at Bookazine. He recently left Bookazine to work in Boston, as an Independent Bookstore Consultant. Jason Rice has worked at Random House in sales and marketing and Barnes & Noble as a community relations manager. Currently he is an Assistant Sales Manager and Buyer at Bookazine. His fiction has appeared in several literary magazines online and in print. He is also the pseudonymous book reviewer Frank Bascombe who has written a monthly book review column for the film and television website Ain’t It Cool News since 2001.