John welcomed an interview for Suspense Magazine, and I thoroughly enjoyed our Q&A session!
Letís start with your screenwriting. Your first screenplay was an adaptation of your own novel, Nathanís Run. Apparently you knew nothing about screenwriting before taking on the job. Yet you wrote the screenplay in, what, less than a week? What did you do to get up-to-speed on that project?
Two years after Iíd sold the movie rights to Nathanís Run, my film agent at CAA called with the bad news that Warner Bros was putting Nathanís Run in turn-aroundóthe first in a complex series of steps that generally lead to a movieís death. All because of script problems. I told my agent that the previous script writers were missing the point of the story; that I could do better, if only given the chance. Important Hollywood Lesson: Be careful what you say.
ďHmm,Ē my agent said. ďDo you think you could do it by next week?Ē The word ďsureĒ escaped my lips before the filter in my brain had a chance to stop it. Sure I could write a screenplay in a week. Why should I let a little detail like never having seen a screenplayólet alone write oneóstand in my way? Bravado, baby.
So, with so little time to deal with the deadline, what did you do?
I dashed out to my local bookstore and picked up a copy of William Goldmanís book, Adventures in the Screen Trade, and read it cover to cover in a day. In it, heís got the complete script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and when I finished it, I thought I had a handle on this screenwriting thing, so I started writing. Three days later, I had a completed script for Nathanís Run.
Wow, three days? How did it go over?
My agent loved it. The executives at Warner Bros. loved itóenough to pull it out of turn-around and back into active development. But best of all, I had a decent writing sample for my agent to shop around Hollywood, in search of additional screenwriting work. And, of course, Nathanís Run is back in turn-around, where it has languished for 20 years now.
Youíve also adapted the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean, and Thomas Harris. I canít imagine taking a 800-page DeMille novel and squeezing it into a two-hour movie. Can you share a little bit about your adaptation process?
The first thing a screenwriter needs to rememberóand it wouldnít hurt for authors to remember this, tooóis that a film adaptation of a book is an entirely different work of art than the book from which it is adapted. As a screenwriter, my job is to tell an engaging story on the screen that captures the feel and the through line of story Iím adapting. Itís much easier to do with an author like Thomas Harris because Red Dragon, the book I adapted, is written very cinematically. That is to say itís written with a scene structure that lends itself to direct adaptation.
With an author like DeMille, whose stories are less structured with lots of flashbacks and character developmentóall of which add page countótougher decisions have to be made. The book of his that I adapted, Word of Honor, was very long, and while very rich in detail (DeMille is one of my favorite authors), there were a number of plot lines, mostly dealing with protesting the Vietnam War, that had lost their social relevance, so those were fairly simple to excise.
I guess what Iím saying is, itís a balancing act.
Joe Lansdaleís novel, Savage Seasons, was recently produced as a TV series, Hap and Leonard, for Sundance TV. Would you consider writing a short-run series of one of your books for television?
If asked, I would be delighted to.
Is it difficult to switch gears between writing a novel and writing a screenplay? Or is the process pretty much the same for youócreatively speaking?
Itís not so much a matter of shifting gears as it is driving entirely different vehicles that share the same shift pattern. Story is story, character is character, and pacing is pacing. The major difference for me is that the specific detail that makes novels complete drag a screenplay down. In a Jonathan Grave novel, for example, readers will find detailed descriptions of Jonathanís office and home and the locations where he plies his trade. In a screenplay, itís perfectly acceptable (some would say preferred) to write merely, ďINT.óOFFICEóDAYĒ then add something like, ďItís opulent, more gentlemanís club than business office.Ē The production designer takes it from there.
The other big difference between novels and screenplays is the inability to convey thoughts and inner-monologue in film. Those thoughts need to come through, but itís done in an entirely different way.
Do you outline, do you just wing it, or do you have a different approach when beginning a novel?
Before I start a novel, I know the premise, the ending, and a couple of set pieces in the middle. After that, I work it out on the fly. When I first started, I was an obsessive outliner, but not anymore. Maybe again in the future?
Do you have any rituals/habits you must do when you sit down to write?
I donít have rituals in the OCD sense, no. My typical day starts with a two-mile walk that ends at my local Starbucks, where I read the paper and catch up on local gossip with the other gentlemen of a certain age. Iím generally in my office by 11 a.m., and I take care of email and social media stuff. Around 1:00, Iím ready to move on to the writing. I start every writing session by rewriting what I wrote during the previous session, and then move on with the goal of finishing a scene. Itís mid-March as I write this, and with a mid-September deadline, I feel no immediate pressure to drive myself too hard, but when mid-August comes, I'll be pretty crazed.
Do you have annual production goals? Say, one novel and one screenplay each year?
With the exception of an occasional short story, I only write fiction when it is under contract. That applies for novels, novellas, and screen projects. 2015 was a two-book year, so this year will be less hectic than lastóunless the phone rings with an offer I canít refuse.
We first met at the Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity conference a few years ago. You often speak at such literary events. What is the value of these events for you? And, perhaps more important, what is the value for writers new to the industry?
Iím very much a Type-A extrovert. I draw energy from being around other people. Since writing is by definition a pretty solitary endeavor, I welcome the opportunity to step out and hang with other writers. As a group, I find writers to an engaging, unusually intelligent lot.
Iíve always found the networking at conferences to be perhaps the most valuable aspect. Iím always surprised at how approachable most writers are.
As for the value of conferences to new writers, well, letís come at it from a different angle: Among the biggest mistakes Iíve seen made by new writers, the most devastating is to forget that publishing is first and foremost a business. Like any business, it has key players, it has mentors and it has rules. Without going to conferences, I donít know how anyone would even know what they donít know.
Youíve also taught in writing seminars and workshops. What have you learned from teaching other writers?
When I teach writing workshops, I do learn a great deal, if only because teaching forces me to articulate things that have evolved unnoticed over the years. While Iím more a pantser than a plotter, Iíve come to realize that there is method to what feels like merely winging it.
Also, my sessions almost always include writing exercises for students, and Iím am continually amazed by the quality and quantity that they can put out in just five-minute bursts of creativity.
What are you reading now?
At the moment, I am reading the page proofs for my next Grave book, Friendly Fire, as well as two manuscripts sent to me by publishers in search of cover blurbs.
Two more questions, just for fun. Who is your favorite superhero and why?
No question here. Itís Captain Underpants. I donít think thereís a novelist on the planet who canít identify with a man whose superpowers are largely imaginary, yet heís protected by others who donít want to shatter the dream.
Magnum, P.I. or McGyver?
This oneís tougher. Magnumís got the car and the girls and the ístache, but McGyverís technical expertise make up for the crazy mullet. Iíve got to go with McGyver, just as a hedge against the time I find myself held hostage in a submarine with access only to a pocketknife and dental floss.
Iíd probably have to agree with you. Thanks, John, for a great interview!
If youíd like to learn more about John and his work, visit his website at www.johngilstrap.com, or his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/johngilstrapauthor.