Author Interviews

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Saturday, 20 April 2013

Author interview with Melissa Jo Peltier (revisited)

Back in February 2013, I interviewed author Melissa Jo Peltier for my interview-only WordPress blog. I hope you enjoy it...
Welcome to my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, scriptwriters, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with novelist, scriptwriter and non-fiction author Melissa Jo Peltier. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Melissa. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
MelissaMelissa: I was born in Boston, Massachusetts and grew up in a suburb called Wellesley.  I spent 20 years living in Los Angeles, then met the love of my life, a Brooklyn boy, and moved to New York, where I live now. We divide our time between a small apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and a home in Nyack, a small town on the Hudson.
Morgen: What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Melissa: As a professional writer (and a television writer) I’ve primarily written non-fiction, but fiction and drama were always my dream. Reality Boulevard www.// is in the genre of “The Hollywood Novel,” though some say it’s satire (it’s actually truer than it should be for satire, but if it reads that way, I’ll take it!), and I’d also say it’s in the tradition of the social novel.  Right now I am experimenting with the thriller genre.  Two other novels I’m planning are somewhat different, though both have elements of the social novel in them.  As a novelist, I haven’t found a “niche” yet, nor am I certain I truly want to, although I know that publishers and readers prefer to follow one writer in one genre.
Morgen: I started off by writing short stories (which will also be my first love) and have since written six novels (one available, the others in varying stages). I’ve not stuck to one genre and I think if you start that way you don’t get known just in one field so gives you more freedom. What have you had published to-date?
Melissa: I published 7 non-fiction novels as a co-writer.  I co-wrote (credited ghost) Cesar Millan’s five NYT best-selling novels for Random House and co-wrote a wonderful pregnancy guide with television’s “Mommy Docs” for Capo.  I also wrote a guide to the Dog Whisperer’s first three seasons with my business partner, Jim Milio, for Simon and Schuster.
Morgen: I loved Dog Whisper on TV. I have a Jack Russell cross who was very well-behaved already but you can always pick up something. Are your books available as eBooks? How involved were you in that process? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
bookrealityboulevardMelissa: My novel Reality Boulevard is only in eBook form at the moment; I believe all the non-fiction hardcover titles are also on eBook now as well.  As the daughter of two librarians, I was suspicious of e-books at first, but I received an iPad for my birthday in 2010 and now use it to read eBooks all the time.  Through Twitter I’ve discovered several indie authors who publish only on eBook and are terrific.  I also like the electronic reader for reading in bed and not waking the spouse.  However, I still love the feel of a new hardcover in my hand.  I don’t think I’ll ever give that up.
Morgen: I read via my iPad too and it’s great. Few authors I’ve spoken to have said they only read eBooks. There is something warming about a ‘real’ book. Do you have a favourite of your books or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Melissa: In Reality Boulevard, I always thought of the characters in terms of casting.  It’s just what I do, since I’m a filmmaker as well as a writer (in fact I always approached Reality Boulevard sort of as a high-end series– that’s how it unfolded in my head as I wrote it, in sort of a serial, episodic fashion like The Sopranos or Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire) I wish Tina Fey would play Hunter.  She is my hero and my idol and I see her in the role absolutely. I can’t really see many other people more perfect for that role. The role of Marty Maltzman is the hardest part to cast.  Our friend Peter Riegert who was in my husband’s and my film White Irish Drinkers – though he’s some years older than Marty – has got the right combination of humor, nerdiness and endearing lovability.  He’d be wonderful.  I’d cast Bob Balaban for sure if he were ten years younger.  Paul Giamatti comes to mind, and I also like the idea of Garry Shandling, whose quote opens the novel and whose Larry Sanders Show was in some ways inspiration (or at least, validation) of the kind of satire-but-mostly-true humor I try to employ in the novel.  If we’re going to go “A” list, I like Michael Douglas for Jerry Stone, Owen Wilson (or Damien Lewis) for Ian Rand, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman for Garret Shaw.  The most fun is casting Brett Windsor, the aging 80’s heartthrob.  You could cast a real 80’s heartthrob – like Don Johnson, Tom Selleck, David Hasselhoff, Mark Harmon etc.  It’s a great role with which I think so many wonderful actors of a certain age could have a ball.  It’s a novel with a lot of really creative possibilities for casting the colourful characters.
Morgen: A great cast. Which author(s) would you compare your writing to?
Melissa: It always feels arrogant and presumptuous to compare my writing to that of others, because those others are invariably already established and therefore have achieved an accepted level of craft.  In fiction, I don’t feel I’ve earned that yet. In the case of Reality Boulevard, the novel flowed out of me in a voice I was only just discovering, but I will say that my influences were many – from my original hero, Charles Dickens (the King of the Social Novel), to Tolstoy, to Tom Wolfe, Carl Hiaasen, Jennifer Egan, to name a view).
Morgen: Did you have any say in the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Melissa: Apostrophe Books is an exceptionally author-friendly boutique publishing house and they let me have a lot of say in the cover design. They presented me with four amazing choices off the bat – Jamie Downham, the designer; hit it right out of the park. My working title for the novel for it’s first year or so was Soft Scripted, which no one liked, including me.  Dancing on Death Row was my first choice for title, but I have to admit that it didn’t tell you anything about the novel’s world (Reality TV.)  So my book agent and I settled on Reality Boulevard and it works.
Morgen: I’ve interviewed a few Apostrophe Books authors and Martyn, the boss, (thank you, Louise!) and do get a feel of a great rapport. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Melissa: I’m doing some “pay the mortgage” television writing but I’m also into my first experiment in the thriller genre – more psychological than crime thriller, although there is a crime involved.
Morgen: Do you manage to write every day?
Melissa: When I’m committed to a project and deep into it, yes, I write every day, and I am passionate about it.  I don’t get to that point easily, however.  My husband is amazing – he’s up and the morning writing three hours every day (except weekends) rain or shine, whether he is working on a project or not.  I wish I could be that disciplined, but then I’m still transitioning from not being a ‘pure’ writer (being a producer, director and other things as well).
Morgen: Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Melissa: In script work and non-fiction work, I am strict about having a full outline or structure before I begin.  In fiction, so far, I have been a little more flexible.  Reality Boulevard had a rough outline that changed constantly as the characters took me on their individual journeys.  It made me more insecure, but it gave the process a real feeling of adventure and surprise that made writing the novel such an enriching experience.  Now that I’m experimenting with thriller, I have to go back to the file cards on the bulletin board again.  It’s a little more of a mathematical process, and I greatly admire those who are masters of the craft, like Lisa Gardner (whose book Hide my husband made into a TNT movie.)
Morgen: Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Melissa: Creating characters is one of my favourite things to do; and has always been, even just as a kid daydreaming.  I love to watch and observe people and I’ve always been hypersensitive to other people’s wants, needs, motivations and emotions, so I relish the opportunity to explore those on the page and simultaneously work through my personal layers of issues, which invariably happens with every character, just like in dreaming.
My characters come to me in a very organic way.  Sometimes they come to me full-formed, with a full history, a physical appearance and a name (Crimson Fennel from Reality Boulevard appeared fully formed in that way.)  The character of Jerry Stone was originally introduced into Reality Boulevard primarily as a “window character,” as insight into the main character, Marty.  But from his first appearance on the page, Jerry was having none of it!  He burst out of the computer blustery and colourful in his own right, so much so that he may be demanding his own sequel soon.
Morgen: Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Melissa: Editing and rewriting is my forte, and I admit, I like it more than first-draft writing.  I have relentlessly nasty and demeaning inner critical voices that would like nothing more for me to never write anything.  I am too much of a perfectionist so it is very difficult for me to write that first draft.  My first drafts are awful, at least craft-wise. For much of my career I edited and rewrote other people’s work, so I feel very safe and comfortable treating my own work that way.  That’s when the critical voices can be tamed into actually being helpful.
Morgen: :) Do you have to do much research?
Melissa: As a documentarian, I love the process of research.  In fact, I have a tendency to over-research.  In Reality Boulevard, I knew the world I was writing about inside out, so there wasn’t much I needed to do there.  I did relish researching the little details of the novel, such as finding a model for the rare antique chessboard Davis Barron gives to Sophie Warner, describing the lobby of an actual hotel, down to asking a stand-up comedian friend of mine to help me with a particularly nasty joke that a comedian in the novel tells at an award’s ceremony. The small stuff is what brings the world of a novel, a screenplay, or any work of fiction alive.
Morgen: It certainly can, and isn’t it great that we have the internet to make research easier (it’s one of my least favourite aspects). What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Melissa: Back when I did a lot of creative writing in college, I over-used the first person. To me it comes easily – perhaps that’s from the training I’ve had in acting – and sometimes I feel that in contemporary literature, it’s over-used in general.  Choosing the point(s) of view in a work of fiction is a crucial and difficult decision that every author has to make, and sometimes, you have to start over if the voice you’ve chosen isn’t working. Reality Boulevard needed a third person voice that could take on the point of view of a wide variety of characters, jumping from character to character when necessary.  There are also set-piece moments in the book where I wanted the point of view to be like camera moving through a room; for instance, at the Lights And Sirens wrap party and at the Veritas Awards dinner, picking up little snippets from different people. I found this much more challenging that the first person narrative I’m using in the thriller I’m writing, particularly when I slipped and jumped into the wrong point of view in the middle of a section (my editor caught a couple of those, even after I thought I’d pruned them all out.)  The drawback to first person, of course, is that you can’t see outside the camera lens.  I love the second person that Hillary Mantel used in Wolfe Hall and Bring the Bodies.  It made me want to try that technique someday, with the right project.
Like any aspect of craft, point of view is best selected when the story being told selects the voice and the style.  I’m a huge believer in substance over style – in other words, the narrative finds its own style. I don’t like style that calls attention to itself at the expense of the characters, the story or the message.  Hilary Mantel’s works above are wonderful examples of style and content being perfectly attuned. The second person voice serves to make the historical come alive in a fresh new way.  I don’t want to foist a first person narrative on a story that would be better told in the third person, just for the sake of showcasing style.
Morgen: I’m a big second person fan too. Do you write any poetry, non-fiction or short stories?
Melissa: I was a prolific poet all through college.  I couldn’t stop writing them – I have a thick book of poems and short stories that were part of my thesis.  Some were really good, too!  My mother died when I was 22 and the last (decent) poem I wrote, I wrote for her funeral. I don’t know what happened to me – it’s like that voice just left me when she did. Sometimes if I am in a particularly difficult descriptive paragraph, I try to imagine it as a poem and it pours right out of me, so maybe the voice is still deep in there, somewhere.
I write a lot of non fiction professionally and it comes easily to me.
Morgen: I write very little poetry but one of my favourites is a poem about my late father (it’s on my ‘my writing’ page). Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Melissa: I have so many projects in various stages in my files; I don’t see that I could live long enough to complete them all.  Sometimes I’ll start in on something but it just isn’t the right time.  I have to feel passionate about a project (like Reality Boulevard) to commit the 1-3 years it will take to get it to the finished stage.
Morgen: Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Melissa: I’ve had lots of rejections professionally (shows and books I’ve pitched that haven’t been bought, series I created that went off the air, etc; a screenplay that generated a lot of excitement and high-level meetings right out of the box and then fizzled) and thought I was used to them.  But you never get used to them.
Morgen: Do you enter competitions?
Melissa: Only professionally (Emmy, Writer’s Guild, etc.).  I haven’t entered a fiction competition since college.
Morgen: Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Melissa: I have a wonderful agent, Scott Miller at Trident Media, who sold all my non-fiction books as well as a couple other books that, for various reasons, never made it all the way.  He’s amazing.  He’s tough – if he doesn’t like something, he’ll tell you, and you know it will be a cold world out there if you take it any further.  When he does like something, he goes to the mattresses.  I’d love to give Scott a big fiction hit (you know you’re co-dependent when you’re trying to make your book agent happy.)  I know a few authors who’ve made it without agents (but who ended up getting agents later.) If you are going to get an agent, don’t settle for less than one who is honest (yes, there are honest agents), one who will tell you the truth even if it hurts, and one who believes in your writing.
Morgen: Writers do need someone tough in their life, to tell you where you can improve, so we can be the best we can. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Melissa: I did a great deal of the promotion for an indie feature film, White Irish Drinkers, that I produced with my husband, John Gray, and learned a lot about self-promoting on social media through that experience.  I thought it was the hardest thing in the world. I was wrong.  The hardest thing in the world is promoting an indie novel.  In doing White Irish Drinkers, I started seeing the value of ‘branding’ myself and that has given me a little bit of a head start on Reality Boulevard. But with a feature, at least your exhibitors (theaters, television networks, DVD companies, distributors, etc.) have a stake in your success as well, so you’re not all alone. With an eBook, it’s really up to you and your publisher.  Apostrophe Books has been helping in guidance and handholding in that regard.
Morgen: What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Melissa: I love the writing life, though the first draft process to me is a daily barrage of self-hatred to be overcome every time I sit down.  The process of rewriting is transcendent after that. I think the hardest part is feeling like yes, I deserve to be a writer.  I deserve to be devoting four-five hours a day straight to just letting the world in my head out to play. I was a workaholic television / film person for 25 years so it is a transition.  I still keep my hand in both worlds, and haven’t really figured out which I belong in yet.
Morgen: If you enjoy both then maybe you belong to both. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Melissa: Read, read, read.  Never stop reading.  You are never re-inventing the wheel; you are always beholden to the greats who came before you.  Just write the next word and tell the truth.
Morgen: If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Melissa: Tina Fey, Oscar Wilde and Preston Sturges would make for a really fun dinner party.  I think we’d have something fun like fondue, which could add to the humor of the evening.
Morgen: I love fondue! Mmm, I have a set in my loft… If you had to choose a single day from your past to re-live over and over, what day would it be and why?
Melissa: I have a photo of my parents and me dancing on a sandbar on Cape Cod when I was five.  I would give anything to live that day again, and have them both back with me in their prime.  (I recently lost my Dad at 91).
Morgen: Sorry to hear that. 91’s a great age (my father was 72). Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Melissa: A Ghandi quote that I have to look up to get right:  “When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it--always.” Mahatma Gandhi
Morgen: I like that. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Melissa: I write and produce TV for a living, so I am working on a couple Discovery ID shows right now; writing some TV show proposals, and developing some dramatic series and indie films with my husband, the brilliant writer / director John Gray.
Morgen: What do you do when you’re not writing?
Melissa: Enjoying New York City and all it has to offer; traveling with my husband; seeing movies with him – he sees everything!  I am currently editing my late Dad’s memoirs and video editing 20,000 feet of family home movies he left me, from 1939-1980.  I love going to the gym and working out while listening to books on tape – never enough time to read.
Morgen: “20,000 feet of family home movies” – wow, that’s a task and a half but enjoyable, I’d say. My father was a professional still / video photographer so we may have the same. I should ask my mother. Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Morgen: Thank you, Melissa. I’m delighted you could join me today.
I then invited Melissa to include an extract of her writing and this is from Reality Boulevard, Chapter 2 ‘Opus Ludius’…
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”  Jerry asked “What did I tell you about getting serious with actresses?”
“Look,” Marty began, “Crimson’s different – “
“Crimson!” Jerry spluttered.  “Oh, Marty.  The name alone.”
“Jerry. She’s a serious, working actress. “
Jerry sighed.  After all, it had been Jerry himself who, twenty-five years earlier, had schooled Marty on the industry distinction between a working actor and a common wanabee actor:  genus and species Opus Ludius versus the ubiquitous Vacuus Ludius.  According to Jerry and those jaded above-the-liners who subscribed to his philosophy, the second type could be found at any time of day or night: at the gym, sculpting their impossibly flawless physiques; at Starbucks, pecking out star vehicle screenplays on their laptops; at clubs and industry parties, seeking access to the plush lifestyles to which they aspired.  Some of the more industrious among them were waiting tables in Santa Monica and West Hollywood, ushering at the Arclight Hollywood or Sherman Oaks, or guiding tour busses though the Universal Studios back lot, hoping to make an impression in a more productive way. There were many, however, who always seemed to be just scraping by; living off the largess of parents, roommates, lovers, sugar daddies or mommies.  Most of them were extremely good looking, young, and famously flighty.
Working actors, Opus Ludii, were a different species altogether. They had real agents and managers who didn’t work out of their apartments.  They were known by at least a couple of the major casting agents in town. Working actors had the training to prove that they viewed their careers as art and craft rather than as fame vehicle.  They spent more of their free time in classes and workshops than in gyms and plastic surgeon’s offices, haunted the new play section at the Samuel French bookshop, and earned at least enough income from acting in a given year to qualify for the Screen Actor’s Guild health insurance program.  Some of them even had homes, families, and relatively normal lives outside of work.
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