People often ask me what it's like to write a novel after 30 years of writing screenplays. But even more often they ask, "Why?" Why leave a job being paid, and paid well, for writing 100 pages in three months? Sometimes you're even paid a ridiculous sum by the week, hanging around the set until someone needs a quickie rewrite. And how about the thrill of seeing your name writ huge on the screen; of knowing that hundreds of people and beaucoup bucks were employed to manifest your crazy ideas?
Let's be frank. Business is slow now in movieland. An aging writer, and a woman at that, is routinely passed over for any genre except romantic comedy. There's plenty of work in indies - better quality and infinitely more rewarding than studio projects, and even at the low pay scale you can make a good living by saying yes to everything and stacking your plate with assignments.
But there's also a very disturbing new trend right now: a lot of producers ask you to write for free (on spec), and your reps actually encourage you to do it. So if you're going to work for nothing, why not write what you really want to?
And I really wanted to write a novel. The last one I wrote (Dry Hustle) was published in 1977, before I got sidetracked into scriptwriting and documentaries. During all those 35 years, I waited to get the one book idea that would seize me so hard I couldn't not write it, because writing long-form fiction requires not just stamina but mania. Instead, over and over the ideas that sprang to my head were for films. I despaired that I was irreversibly condemned to the movie rut with my one good trick. No matter that people envied me for it. All I had ever wanted since the age of 14 was to write books.
My husband and I routinely spend summers at a family home in Martha's Vineyard. We are not on vacation: there is always a lot of writing to be done. Summer of 2006 was the first time I happened not to have a script job. If I have nothing to write, I have no idea what to do with myself. I'm gloomy, snarky, and captious. I develop weird unconscious habits like squeezing my face.
And then I got the Idea, and the idea was Jane. A crime is committed and remains hidden for 150 years. All those involved have long since died - and been reincarnated in the present. They remember nothing of their past lives. They are all lured as if by cosmic appointment to the town where the crime occurred. In walks the victim, Jane, with a fragmentary memory of what happened in 1853. And karma settles the rest.
I experienced such forward thrust when I got the idea that I couldn't even wait to outline the story. I simply began. The characters coalesced faster than I could write. The plot thickened so rapidly that I myself was rooted to the page, wondering what would happen next. Script jobs interfered. Ordinarily grateful for work, I bristled at being taken away from the book. After three years of only being able to work on Jane Was Here in my spare time, I announced to my reps that I was taking a leave, a dangerous thing to do in the film business because everyone forgets about you. But I finished the book, then went back and rewrote most of it. Blood, sweat and tears? Nah. Pure joy, all the way, every day.
So when people ask "Why?" I say that, like Jane, I'm coming home again.