If I were to literally start at the beginning when the very first seeds for my novel, Celluloid Strangers, were planted, it was fourteen years in the making. Naturally, during that time I was doing other things; going to graduate school, completing my first book, The Temporary Life, which was a collection of short stories, working on another novel I abandoned, getting married. But this project literally began well over a decade ago. I just didn’t know it at the time.
In the fall of 1997 a college friend of mine thought it might be fun for us to go see a screening of a new documentary called Red Hollywood at the Northwest Film Center in Portland, Oregon that would be followed by a discussion with the film’s director, Thom Andersen. My friend was a history major; I was a film buff. It seemed like a nice evening could come from it. The documentary was not my first exposure to the Hollywood Blacklist and the HUAC hearings, but I was completely engrossed by it and this led to a hobby of reading up on the era and devouring the films of the time. It really all started off as an innocent personal interest. It was also around this time that I began having a fascination with my family’s history in Los Angeles since we’ve been residents of the City of Angels in some capacity since the 1920s, if I am correct.
In the fall of 2001 I was earning my MFA in creative writing at Emerson College in Boston. I was still a movie junkie and my usual companion to the theater was John Zamparelli, who remains one of my dearest friends and is among the very few people whose critical eye I trust when it comes to my writing. I had acquired a bootleg VHS copy of the film Murder Incorporated, which is actually now available on DVD. It’s a classic 1960 noir with Peter Falk and its opening scene is actually paid tribute to in Godfather II. Jewish gangsters; you can’t beat it. Anyway, that night John told me this haunting story about his father, who was the son of Italian immigrants. John’s father essentially had a very similar experience to that depicted in the opening chapter of Celluloid Strangers where Benny comes to Mori’s house and insists that he quit the crime commission or face dire consequences. At the time I was having trouble with another novel I was trying to write that I knew was falling apart. I thought taking a break to write a short story would be fun so I asked John if I could use that story about his father as a loose plot and he told me it was mine to take. I moved the situation from Boston to Los Angeles, changed it from the 1950s to the 1940s, made the characters Jewish instead of Italian, and so forth. I wrote very rough drafts of the first three chapter over a few weeks and then put them away. But the idea for the novel was securely in place. I knew I wanted to write about these characters, I knew I wanted to explore postwar Los Angeles in the late 1940s, and I knew I wanted to have the HUAC hearings and the Old Hollywood Blacklist play a part.
I wrote and published my short story collection, finished a draft of that other novel, then from about 2005 until 2010 I dedicated myself to realizing Celluloid Strangers. In the past year I did a very strong edit on my own and my editor, Mike Simpson, then provided the suggestive polish points to bring it home to what the public now sees.
What inspired you to write this particular story? What do you want people to take with them after they finish reading it?
I try to tell my aspiring fiction writing students that the reason you begin writing a story and the reasons you see it through to the end may very well change over the course of the writing process, especially when it comes to writing a novel, which can often take years to get right. The initial reasons I had are arbitrary at this point, especially that movies have always been America’s unspoken national religion, although I think an element of that remains in the narrative. What I do know is that I hope Celluloid Strangers is a novel that shows that Los Angeles is a real place where real people live and work. Yes, there is, I like to believe, an exciting story of crime and Old Hollywood intrigue and political history that we should never forget. But the story is in the end about a family, about siblings. I hope it shows that good people often fall in love with terrible ideas, in this case communism. I hope people come away from reading it with the view that the Blacklist and the HUAC hearings were complicated and not entirely black and white. And I really hope postwar California comes off the page as a real place, maybe not one that exists any longer but one worth remembering nonetheless.
How much of yourself is hidden in the characters in the book?
I used to be pretty dogmatic that I am the writer and the characters are the characters and that there is a clear separation between us. As I get older I’ve come to realize that that was a youthful defense as a young writer to deflect the accusation of crafting autobiographical fiction. None of the characters in Celluloid Strangers are representational of me. But they are all emotionally autobiographical in some capacity. All four of the Gandelman brothers have a bit of me in them. I can identify with Joe’s deep sense of responsibility, Mori’s aspiration to change his destiny only to have it compromised, Benny’s unflinching loyalty, and Simon’s failings as the result of initial good intentions. What’s so funny is that Simon, who is a writer and the central figure of the novel, is probably the least like me.
Even a character like Doris has a bit of emotional autobiography. I understand what it’s like to achieve a morsel of your dreams and not reach the finish line in the end. If I can’t emotionally understand a character the writing is typically flat. I don’t have to relate to what the character is going through on a factual or literal level. I’ve never killed another man to save one of my brothers’ lives, as Mori does in the book, but I have felt incredible regret in my life. Haven’t we all? I’d like to think that if I am emotionally autobiographical with the characters, such as infusing a character with great regret, readers will also feel that closeness because everyone regrets something. That’s just one example of course, but I stick to it.
Who was your favorite character in the novel to write for?
Every time I got to a section with May Park, Simon’s love interest in the novel, I was completely in my element. “Wounded Birds” is one of the most horrific chapters in the novel but it was one of the easiest to put to the page. So many of my important readers who saw early drafts of the manuscript found May to be an unsympathetic character and completely unlikable. Those views are fair but we’ll see what the general readership thinks of her. She is not based on any real person, but she was somewhat inspired by two people I have known in my life. Both of those people were very angry at the times I knew them. However, they were also wonderfully thoughtful and caring people. I never particularly asked these people what had happened in their lives to make them so angry at the world but I am certain they each had their reasons. I do provide May a reason for her anger, something in her background that I think even the most hardened reader can have empathy for. I truly see my job as the writer being to never pass judgment on my characters. My job is to present them, admirable attributes and flaws combined. After all, we are not all angels nor are we all demons. We’re combinations because we’re human and I want my characters to be that way. I do not judge their decisions and actions. To do so is to disrespect my reader. If the reader chooses to not care for May I have no problem with that, but when I was writing for her I had so much joy because she was and remains the hardest character for me to figure out.
How much of a story do you have in mind before you start writing it?
I always start with situation. I’ve been at this a long time now and I’ve just accepted that that’s how my process begins as a writer, whether it’s a short story or a novel. As I said before, with Celluloid Strangers my friend John told me about a situation his father found himself in decades before and that was the spark. I know a lot of writers who begin with character or environment but I land on a situation and then start thinking about what kind of person we might find in that situation. That said, Los Angeles in the late 1940s was a goldmine for setting.
I am cursed with always having two projects going at the same time. I am not necessarily simultaneously working on them but they are both in mind. When I was dedicated to completing my short story collection I was always scribbling notes or collecting items of interest for when I would be able to dive head first into Celluloid Strangers. When I was writing Celluloid Strangers I was taking notes and outlining for the novel I am currently involved in. Right now I am working on that novel but have already begun a folder for the project after that which has recently started to germinate.
Did you do any research for the book? If so, how did you do it?
Is water wet? Yeah, research was a huge part of the process of writing Celluloid Strangers. And incorporating research into a fictional narrative is something I have actually written about and have lectured on. For the novel, the research took on a variety of endeavors. My generation was the last to enter college before the Internet, so those old fashioned academic skills are ingrained in me. I love libraries; I love getting out in the field. Yeah, I probably watched as many movies as I read books, particularly because I wanted the dialogue in Celluloid Strangers to often have that terse tit-for-tat rhythm of the films of the era. But I was also living in Los Angeles when the first complete drafts of the novel were written. When I was getting stuck with the story my future wife encouraged us to go about the city and visit some of the locations in the book. We took hikes up to the Hollywood sign; we went to the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax; we went to Angels Flight. Heck, Taylor’s Steak House was the inspiration for The Copeland Club where Benny and the Moskowitz crime organization are based in the novel. I was combing through old editions of the Los Angeles Times and finding out just how conservative that newspaper was back then. I was looking through old fashion magazines to decide what Morris’ wife, Helen, would wear. I was listening to the music of the time as well. Anything to get me into that world I was creating. You name it. But to be honest, old family photographs were the best help because, again, I wanted to portray Los Angeles as a place where real people lived. Old photographs have those little details I was looking for.
I want to be clear that I fully admit that the HUAC elements of the novel are portrayed with a leftist leaning. However, I don’t believe I am preaching a political agenda. The characters simply warrant that angle. I made sure to really examine both sides of the concern about potential communist subversion in Hollywood at the time and really encourage others to do the same. You can read a great book like Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner’s A Very Dangerous Citizen: Abraham Lincoln Polonsky and the Hollywood Left and get a lot out of it. But you can also read a book like Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley’s Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s and get just as much.
I know this sounds crazy, but at one point the manuscript for Celluloid Strangers almost reached 1,000 pages. The published version is a few pages over 400. While I did eliminate subplots I liked that did not exactly advance the story, junked some of the testimony chapters and eliminated three-fourths of the original interview sections, I can tell you that a lot of what I had to get rid of was related to my research. In certain places of the original manuscript I was clearly either so fascinated with my research that I made the mistake of thinking readers would be too instead of keeping in mind that they come to a novel first and foremost for a great story, or I was simply showing off everything I was learning.
Research is often necessary, especially when working in the historical literary novel realm, but it can also get you bogged down. In my first book I have a short story in which a young man needs a bone marrow transplant. After immersing myself into the science of that process I realized that I only needed a few strong details to establish story logic believability and my credibility as the author, that the reader could trust me. I’d say about only twenty percent of my overall research found its way into the final version of Celluloid Strangers you have in your hands. And that’s how it should be. Serve the story first is always the rule to go by when researching as a fiction writer.
Finally, it should also be warned that falling in love with researching is often an excuse not to get down to the serious work of crafting the story itself. I have seen research used as an excuse to not actually write on more than one occasion, present company absolutely included.
How do you develop and differentiate your characters and is that connected to how you develop the plot and stay on track?
I work with an outline but I don’t really stick to it entirely. It’s typically very loose, general stuff. Occasionally I know what I am specifically going to do in a chapter as I initially set it down, but usually not. Again, I begin with situation. My characters develop as an outcome of those situations. There are four brothers in Celluloid Strangers. I am the third of four brothers in my own life but that’s about it. I never developed one of the Gandelman brothers thinking I wanted him to represent one of my own brothers.
I differentiate characters the same way I go about writing in general. I think it’s dangerous to go about writing something as laborious as a novel prematurely declaring what you are championing. If you already know what you want the novel to be, you are killing the joy of discovery in the writing process and are putting up walls for yourself as a creative force. When writing Celluloid Strangers I knew a few things I did not want the book to be but never declared what I wanted. I went about developing the characters in a similar way. I knew I did not want Benny and Mori to have the same speech patterns. I knew I did not want to completely destroy Meyer Moskowitz, the Jewish gangster, nor Louis B. Katz, the film studio mogul, at the end of the book. I did not want to reward Simon with what he thought he wanted in life but instead I wanted to reward him with what he needed. I knew I did not want the novel to end in Los Angeles for a variety of reasons. And I absolutely knew I did not want the union issues raised in the novel to be solely political, that they had to be about real working people. Had I decided what I wanted the novel probably never would have been written.
That said, capturing the voice of even a relatively serviceable and supporting character like Remy Dirsk is very important to me as a writer. I often spend hours just scribbling by hand fictitious letters a particular character might write to another character just to get a hold on the beats and rhythms of his or her voice. I especially did this a lot when working on Benny’s character, which is so ironic because Benny is the least likely letter writer in the novel.
What has changed for you personally since you wrote your first book?
My first book, The Temporary Life, was a collection of short stories that was released in 2005 and was reissued with a new foreword and reading group guide in early 2010. I could talk for hours about how my life has changed since then. When my first book came out I was living in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles with no job security and no health insurance. The economy was still doing well but I was struggling. But don’t get me wrong, I was very happy and in some ways miss those times, especially living in Los Angeles, the city that allowed me to truly discover who I am and who I am not, which is why I partially dedicate Celluloid Strangers to the city itself.
Today I’m an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Akron where I serve as the campus coordinator for the NEOMFA, our graduate program in creative writing. I’m now a homeowner restoring a ninety year-old house room-by-room. I have health insurance. The economy is struggling but I have job security for the first time in my life. And most importantly I finally quit smoking cigarettes for good, exercise at the Jewish Community Center gym regularly, and married the woman I am going to share the rest of my life with and grow old with. I live a quieter life than the one when my first book was released, but it’s also one that is far more fulfilling and gratifying. And I think I’m a better writer as a result of it. I think Celluloid Strangers became a better novel because of it.
I’m proud of my first book but I am no longer the man who wrote those short stories. There will always be a wonderful feeling I have about that book. But I can’t tell you how excited I am that Celluloid Strangers is about to enter the world. It’s the book I want people to pick up. It’s the book that truly represents me as a writer at this time in my life and I’d like to think the writer my readers will come to know for a long time to come.
What’s your writing schedule like?
When I was younger I was a total night owl. I lived for all night writing sessions concluded by making coffee as the sun rose. Those days are pretty much over. I do my best work by starting when the sun rises these days instead of when the moon is out. Part of that is related to now being a college professor and having teaching responsibilities as well as advising, administration and committee work. But my writing schedule generally depends on what part of the writing process I am in. I like to write every day but that doesn’t always happen. Life intrudes. Sometimes it’s a family emergency. Sometimes it’s as simple as my St. Bernard mix putting his head on my lap and looking up at me with those big sad eyes and me being unable to resist taking him on a dog walk for an hour even though I was going to write. I used to be much more aggressive about closing myself off from the world and writing forever. I am still incredibly disciplined. But I now don’t feel bad if I take a few days off. My younger brother came to visit me from Seattle last weekend. It was a great time. We went to a baseball game, worked out at the gym together, barbequed in the evening, and watched movies at night. I didn’t write at all while he was here and I was fine with that. In my twenties I would have felt so guilty for that. But not now.
I would like to say that just because I am not sitting with a manuscript does not mean I am not writing. I am constantly thinking about whatever project I have underway. If I am in the car on the way to work and I am working out a sticky problem I am having with my current story in my head, that’s still writing to me. I find that people with the true creative impulse are all like that. Just remember that even when he was almost completely deaf Beethoven was said to be walking around humming to himself. He was writing music even if he wasn’t actually setting ink to the sheet.
That said, I do try to write in the mornings and try to set aside evenings for reading.
What are you working on right now?
Grading midterm papers. But once that’s done, it’s back to my next novel. I don’t like to give too much away, but it is influenced by Jewish folklore. I enjoy having a question to ponder when working on a story. I don’t set out to answer that question but it gives me something to think about. Again, for Celluloid Strangers I was wondering what happens when good people fall in love with bad ideas; hence Simon and May’s romantic inclination towards Marxism. For the new novel I am working on now I keep asking myself what would drive relatively grounded people to commit reckless acts. It’s a far more ambitious undertaking than Celluloid Strangers in many ways. Right now it’s pretty messy. However, the prologue, which is a self-contained short story, is going to be featured in the next issue of Confrontation Magazine. It’s a retelling of Abraham being instructed by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac; only I tell it in first person from Isaac’s perspective. But that really isn’t the focus of the novel itself. To find out about that you’ll have to stay tuned.
What is the most difficult part of the whole writing process? What is the easiest part of the writing process?
I absolutely struggle with first drafts. They come so slow. I know other fiction writers who say that’s the most joyful part of the process but I detest it. I literally can’t do anything until I have a complete first draft on the page and printed out, no matter how bad it is. I wouldn’t say editing is the easiest part of the process but it is what I live for. I am sort of old fashioned. I do work on a computer but I always edit by hand on a printed manuscript. In the case of Celluloid Strangers, I always had a printed draft of the manuscript in a monstrous three-ring binder I could work with. Editing on a computer just doesn’t work for me. Besides, when I go back to the master file on the computer to make the changes I have scribbled on the printed manuscript it becomes almost an additional edit, making the story stronger. I work especially hard as a line editor near a story’s completion. I can’t tell you how many times I have had a graduate student in our creative writing program mention frustration and I’ve suggested they do not edit on a computer. Editing by hand on a printed manuscript is working a totally different part of the creative part of your brain. It might not be for every writer but it’s essential for me. Granted, I began writing fiction before every household had a computer, but I stand by my process.
What do you like to read?
I have a wide, eclectic range of taste and interest. It really depends on what I am in the mood for or feel a need to explore. For a very long time I had not been reading short stories but I have recently gotten back into them and just finished Josh Rolnick’s debut’s collection, Pulp and Paper, and was simply blown away by the workmanship quality of those stories. Matthew Guenette’s new collection of poetry, American Busboy, is also just fantastic. I actually read a lot of poetry when I am having trouble with the language of a story I am working on. I know it sounds strange, but this past summer I decided to reread everything I could get my hands on that Franz Kafka ever wrote. It wasn’t as much of a trial as I thought it would be.
I need to say that, whatever it is I am reading, I do not in general do so to have my worldview, values or sensibility reaffirmed. I read to be challenged. I love authors who take me by the throat, shake me, and force me to think really hard about the world we live in. I’d like to think that even though Celluloid Strangers is set in the past it makes readers pause and consider what the story might also be saying about the times we live in.
What, in your opinion, are the essential qualities of a good story?
Stories are important. They enter our lives early on in life. There’s a reason parents still tell their children the story of the boy who cried wolf. Stories inform us right from the start. Contrary to what some of my students might assume, or even readers, I am not a snob. I want stories that make me think and feel long after they end. I’ve read beautifully written stories that make me think and feel absolutely nothing. It may sound strange, but I am absolutely willing to forgive a poorly written or clumsily constructed story if it makes me think and feel something profound. I am not joking when I say that I choke up every time I see the near-ending seen of the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath Kahn when Spock is dying and Captain Kirk is saying good-bye to him. That story is saying something far more profound about the nature of friendship and selfless sacrifice than many of the prize-winning and critically acclaimed literary novels I have read. It’s making me think and feel something. Those are the most essential qualities of a good story. Yes, a good story should also be entertaining, hopefully well crafted and also, in a perfect world, sincere. But if I am not thinking or feeling anything I don’t care much for it. And keep in mind that some of the funniest stories ever given to the world are the ones that also do just that; they go beyond entertaining humor in masterful ways.
Who gave you the best writing advice you ever received and what was it? What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Frederick Reiken, whose newest novel Day For Night was an L.A. Times Book Prize finalist alongside Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Egan and National Book Award-winner Jonathan Franzen, was instrumental in my early development as a fiction writer. His literature course on the short story was my very first graduate school class. The very first thing he said to all of us was, “If you’re not willing to submerge yourself in the world of reading fiction, give up now on being a serious writer of fiction.” I wrote this down the moment he said it, went back to my dingy Boston studio apartment that evening, and taped it across the screen of my TV. I literally made the decision that evening that I was going to be reading fiction whenever I was not writing it—every chance I got. And that’s really how I remember my mid to late twenties. I was an avid reader before that but I just embraced books, especially fiction, in a new way that has stuck with me ever since.
I’d give the same advice to any aspiring author. It just amazes me how many people I meet who say they want to write but don’t like to read. It’s the same as when a student tells me he or she wants to be an English teacher but doesn’t like to read. I just don’t get it. So, as Stephen King advises in his wonderful memoir, On Writing, “Read a lot; write a lot.” But I would also add that writing, for me, is really about embracing the editing process. If you are unwilling to often not just clean up your spelling and grammar but completely re-approach how you are telling a story you know isn’t working, you aren’t going to get far as a writer. The best fiction writers I know are the ones who are not afraid of editing—they thrive on it. I would also advise aspiring writers who are considering earning an MFA that you better be absolutely sure you want the writing life if you attend a graduate program that might force you to take out thousands of dollars in student loans.
In the end, I could give all the advice in the world to aspiring writers, but I can’t help somebody really want it, and I mean really want it. I can’t force you to spend long hours alone in a room falling into an imagined world. Writing is not a team sport, although many a great editor has left his or her loving mark on a book. If you are an uber-social creature you might consider a different form of artistic expression such as joining a band or something.
Where can people learn more about you and your books?
Check out my web site: http://www.ericwasserman.com
You might also check out the NEOMFA, the graduate program in creative writing that I teach in: http://www.uakron.edu/neomfa/
And of course the publisher for Celluloid Strangers: http://secondwindpublishing.com/CutAbove.html
Thanks so much, Pat! This was a lot of fun.
Click here to read an excerpt from: Celluloid Strangers