About a year ago I sat down with Owen Egerton, author of The Book of Harold, co-writer of the 2008 Black List screenplay Bobbie Sue, and Austin’s favorite author in 2007, 2008, and 2010. It was a great interview, but I got caught up in trying to transcribe the whole thing before uploading it, which was just a terrible idea. So here, a year late, is that most excellent interview about the life and art of being a writer.
For those that would prefer to read the abridged version, below are some highlights from the interview.
One of my writing instructors, Debra Monroe had said that as humans we want to often avoid conflict, but as writers we need to make conflict happen. Take two people that you’d never wanted them to meet, you’d never put them in the same room, you’d never invite them to the same dinner party, and force them together and see what happens. I find when I do that in writing, eventually they form some kind of family. Or they kill each other. But more often than not, they form some kind of family which of course slowly kills each other.
On the Role of Fiction
I find that the role of fiction is to expand the questions and to expand the mystery, not to pat ourselves on the back for our own opinions. There’s fiction out there that does that, that says, “Gosh, I think that was injust as well, I’m so glad that I got to see this movie that made me feel good about my own opinion. Racism is bad! I agree with the hero of the movie!” Sometimes what we need more is something that troubles us, something that takes us a place we don’t necessarily expect to go and leaves us there with some questions.
Working in comedy, there was always the need to collaborate, and always collaboration led to something better and grander than I could have come up with on my own. The analogy I used to use is like children playing blocks in kindergarten and each of the kids is only given so many blocks, and they all want to build a tower, each tower can only be seven blocks tall. But if the kids start working together, stacking each other blocks, then you’ve got a huge tower over twenty blocks tall. It’s a tower none of them could have built on their own. And that’s what I find when it comes to improv, or shows at the Alamo, or working with Chris and Russell, we collaborate in such a way, and we say, “Yes and” to each other’s ideas in such a way, and we’re loose enough with our own ideas that eventually a script comes out that there’s no way I could have written on our own.
There’s an interesting danger that happens in screenwriting where you’ve been working on a comedy script, and sometimes it can be a year that you’re working on it, and there’s some joke that’s still funny but you have to recognize that it’s funny because it doesn’t seem funny anymore. You have to have a craftsman’s eye for comedy, as opposed to a connoisseur’s eye.
On Instant Gratification
I was writing a novel which I knew was years away from being done, and longer away from being in print. At the same time I was writing sketches that I knew I could show my sketch group on Monday, we could rehearse it on Wednesday, perform it on Friday, and I was thinking, “This is immediate gratification.” And improv is even faster. I’ve gotta be careful, because I really want to do the novel, but I’m getting so much gratification immediately if I come up with something funny on stage.
On Job Security
I have some friends who have said, “Well, I don’t want to make the risk of going into being a full time artist,” whether that’s as a performing artist or as a writing artist, or whatever, “because I need the security of a job.” But if anything can be learned from the last few years of recession it’s that those secure jobs are not secure, and that’s a false security.
The advantage, I think, is the way these different genres of expression play off each other. The playfulness with which I approach improv comedy very much affects the way I approach the storyline of a novel or short story. Also my understanding of novel story structure has really helped me when I go to a screenplay. So I find they all bleed into each other and improve each other for the most part.
On Raising Children
There’s a greater gift to give our children than financial stability. There’s an example of striving to live a full life. There is the adventure of taking steps and not knowing where your foot’s going to land.
I’m pretty cheerful, but I don’t know that I’d call myself an optimist. I’m pretty disappointed in a lot of the world around me, and I see life can be a pretty dark, dark experience. But with all of that, I guess maybe you’d describe me as a pessimist with hope. That’s why I smile.