We mourn the passing of Sherwood Schwartz, who helped define a generation with his enduringly popular if very undeniably silly television series, especially “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Brady Bunch.” He named the sinking ship on “Gilligan’s Island,” the S.S. Minnow, after my dad, Newton Minow, then the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and the first in that job to suggest the broadcasters should try to provide more choice. They later had a cordial exchange of letters and the association is still a great source of pride for everyone in our family.
The shows continue not just as emblems of their era, where they were a comforting counterpart to some of the strife of the late 60’s and early 70’s, but as genuinely fond memories for those who knew they were cheesy and formulaic but could not help responding to the genuine warmth inside them. Both shows were about different people learning to get along and create a family, and the very smallness of the issues that were so neatly resolved in 22 minutes (Marcia made two dates for the school dance! Jan got braces! Mary Ann or Ginger?) was somehow as reassuring as the constancy of the combined aggravation and affection between the characters. There is frequent talk of updates, but the makers of the “Brady Bunch Movies” were wise to keep the characters in the 70’s even though times had changed.
May his memory be a blessing.
Many thanks to the wonderful folks at Gel for inviting me!
And for much more fun, check out the guys who came after me, the fabulous Fisticuffs gang, all New Yorker cartoonists.
The actors and techies don’t speak to each other in your book, but one character says that in her other school, they are on friendlier terms. What is the more typical relationship, and why?
There are a lot of variations on the theme. In my novel, techies and actors are at war. That’s definitely the extreme. In a perfect world, techies and actors work together as part of the same team. It’s synergistic and there’s mutual respect. Think about Spiderman on Broadway. The actors’ survival literally depended on the tech crew! In many theater programs, actors are required to do some tech work, and techies will do at least a little acting. It’s much easier to respect someone when you’ve walked a mile in his shoes, right? In the real world, my experience is that there’s often a divide between the two cultures. I’ve been on both sides of it as actor and as stage manager. There’s tension, even if it’s unspoken. In My Life, the Theater, and Other Tragedies, I took that tension and magnified it.
The perspective of a lighting tech, hidden from the audience and looking down on the show, is something like the perspective of a writer and his characters and story. How did your experiences as a tech help your observation skills and insights as a writer?
My real observation skills come from being an overweight kid, a subject I wrote about in my first novel Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have. As a heavy kid, I was a loner and I spent a lot of time watching the world go by and fantasizing about what it would be like to join it. It made for a painful adolescence, but in hindsight, what better training to become a novelist? I drew on that experience as well as my theater background to create the characters in Life/Theater.
Adam and his best friend Reach have to renegotiate their relationship in the story. Is that an inevitable part of growing up?
I think when you’re a kid, relationships are on autopilot. (Wait, that’s true for a lot of adults, too!) You don’t examine the relationship; you just have it. Then something happens that shakes you up. Your friend falls in love. You have a fight. You lie. You get betrayed. Suddenly you wake up to the relationship, what it means in your life, and what you want from it. That moment of waking up could be called maturity.
What do you like about writing for a YA audience?
The YA audience is passionate in a way no other audience is. It’s not just the teens. It’s the librarians, the parents, the bloggers, the booksellers. They’re not YA readers. They’re YA fans and aficionados. I can’t think of a better audience with whom to share my books. I feel lucky to be a YA author.
What were the books and movies you most enjoyed as a teenager?
The films of John Hughes were very influential for me when I was a kid. “Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club,” Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, even Uncle Buck. (Oh, I miss John Candy.) Although I was a voluminous reader and could tell you all the novels I read and loved, these films were my YA. Funny, real, and heartbreaking. I try to capture those same dynamics in my novels.
You and Adam share initials — did any of the experiences in the book happen to you?
Here’s a little secret. I share initials with all my heroes. So I’ll just say this in response to your question. My first kiss happened in the theater. To everything else, I plead the Fifth.
Why did you choose “Midsummer Night’s Dream” for the play?
Actually, Midsummer chose me. It’s always mysterious where these things come from, and I was in the early stages of planning Life/Theater, trying out different plays, when Shakespeare popped into my head. I had the image of the lovers in Midsummer running through the forest in the dark, confused by shifting passions, shocked by sudden loss, unsure whether they were awake or dreaming. Those same themes were the ones I wanted to explore in the book. Here’s a little inside scoop for readers: Check out the chapter titles in the novel. Every one is a line (or phrase, or partial line) from Midsummer. I’ve used Shakespeare’s text in a very modern way, something like sampling in hip hop.
In my opinion, Viola Davis is the finest actress in movies today. In “Doubt,” she gave the best performance of the year in one short but very powerful scene as the mother of a boy who may have been abused. She has made an indelible impression in brief appearances in movies as sympathetic therapists in “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” and “Trust,” best friends in “Eat Pray Love” and “Nights in Rodanthe,” as a mayor in “Law Abiding Citizen” and as a space ship captain in “Solaris.” It was truly a thrill to speak to her about playing the strong, quiet, principled maid Aibileen in “The Help.”
Like the other people working on the movie, she was very aware of the about the influence of the setting. “It’s easier to do this because you’re in Mississippi. It’s a different world. A different energy that informs everything you do. Going into Baptist Town [the primarily black neighborhood] you feel the spirits of the past.”
We asked about developing a Mississippi accent. “The accent is a work in progress. I was born in South Carolina and raised in Rhode Island. It’s my mother’s voice I hear in my head. I don’t want the accent to be as strong as it is in the book. I’ve read the criticism about the dialect online. I don’t want anything to distract from the character. I want to make it accessible.” Her research about the era included books, the Eyes on The Prize PBS series, “a documentary about maids, my mother, relatives, everybody.” She also remembered a teacher in college who was part of Freedom summer and came back to campus to talk about it.
Asked about the challenges of the story, she frankly acknowledged, “There’s a lot of pressure. There are two stories going on. It’s the experience of a lot of Caucasians with substitute mothers and the story of these maids, my mother’s story, who these women were when they went home. That’s the part that makes it a dirty secret, not palatable. That’s the story of those who worked for other people. Abeline was born in 1911. By [the setting of the movie] she has has 53 years of incredible history. You feel an incredible responsibility not to make it sanitized. That’s what Hollywood always does.”
And she spoke of the challenges of playing a character who by nature and culture seldom says what she is thinking. “Your internal dialog has got to be different from what you say….[that is what] makes it so rich.” It was sometimes very difficult to do. “You feel the rage, the frustration, the repression, the intense level of sadness, of going to your grave without ever realizing your dreams and hopes. Now we can speak our minds more. To be silent so much – it’s hard not to carry that rage when you leave the set.”