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Interview with Novelist/Screenwriter
Legendary novelist and Hollywood screenwriter/director, Heywood Gould, is the author of the bestselling novels, FORT APACHE THE BRONX and COCKTAIL, both filmed as wide-release movies starring Paul Newman and Tom Cruise, respectively. We are honored to be publishing his seventh novel in April, THE SERIAL KILLER'S DAUGHTER, a high-octane thriller that rumbles through the darkness like a runaway freight train. To read more about the book, and for the impressive bibliography of Heywood Gould's novel and screenwriting/directing credits, go to the bottom of our Home page.
The Man Behind the Dark Genius — An Interview with Heywood Gould
On Books and Writing . . .
THE SERIAL KILLER’S DAUGHTER. What actors do you envision playing the leads, Peter Vogel and Hannah Seeley, in the movie version, should there be one?
I’d like Montgomery Clift and Donna Reed, but don’t think they’re available.
Do you write every day? What does a typical writing day look like for you?
I try to write five days during the week and a half day on Sunday, if there are no good football games.
Of your overall writing time, what percentage is new writing and what percentage is rewriting and editing?
I start the day by rereading what I wrote the day before. Sometimes I hate the stuff. It’s either incoherent or glib, clumsy, or cheaply facile. A repeated word or a grammatical mistake can throw me into a panic. A flaw in logic or a key omission makes me Google “Symptoms of Dementia,” all of which I discover I’ve had since childhood. Then I begin to rewrite—what choice do I have? That can sometimes take a whole day and can affect the new stuff I had planned, so I go back even further to clip off any loose ends. A different story begins to emerge. The story that was meant to be.
As all other Gods have failed I’ve gotten mystical about the writing process. I no longer see myself as a creator, bringing something new into the world, but as an explorer on a voyage of discovery. Rewriting is a course correction to get to my El Dorado. It’s out there shimmering in the sun—the perfect noir best seller with a huge movie sale.
The face of publishing appears to be changing. Where do you see it going over the next 5-10 years?
E-books, obviously. But I think younger readers will discover the joy of the printed book; I see more people reading on the NYC subway than ever. The big houses will follow the big movie studios and aim for the mass audience. Small publishers who can operate on low overhead will become more influential. I think you’ll see most of the NBA, Pulitzer, Edgar, Hugo, etc. winners coming from the independent publishers.
How do you build strong characters in a novel, and which is your favorite character that you created? Any characters of your creation that upset you and made them difficult to keep writing about?
The fun of writing is when you start to “read” your characters. When they acquire a life of their own and you become a stenographer taking down their stories. I’ve found most of my characters—even the bad guys—interesting and fun to write. But I was appalled by Arnold Seeley, the murderer in THE SERIAL KILLER’S DAUGHTER. He’s the first totally evil character I’ve ever written and I wondered in what depths of my brain he had been lurking. His scenes were the most difficult I’ve ever written. I felt like Dr. Frankenstein: why was I dredging this monster up? But in the same book, I found two innocent young lovers who create an Eden in the back seat of a Volkswagen Bug traveling up and down the 101 Freeway. I finished the book with a darker view of humanity, but, paradoxically, with a greater appreciation of the redemptive power of love.
What do you like to read?
I read to become a better writer. To quote Norman Mailer: “To see how the other guys pull their jobs.” I read the Bible every day before writing as a constant lesson in how to tell a vivid story in simple language. Also, the Bible is uncanny in the way a name mentioned in Genesis, pops up in later books; how a story in one book lays the groundwork for an event in another. Some people would say that God, the author, used divine logic. I’d rather think that some human redactor (with God-given talent, of course) went through all the writings, paying off characters, resolving stories and tying up loose ends. I try to read writers who are better than me; you can easily pick up bad habits from the hacks. The great novelists can teach you how to tell a story. The great noir writers—Chandler, Simenon, Hammett and a few lesser known masters like Kenneth Fearing, Jonathan Latimer, Steve Fisher and many others to teach how to create atmosphere and suspense. History and biography show how lives seem to meander, but are really driven by the logic of events. To make the coincidental and the unlikely seem inevitable is the great challenge of fiction writing.
Many of your novels are noir and depict the seedy underbelly of society. How did you decide to write this genre?
I grew up a few blocks away from the mother of famed bank robber and perpetual prison escapee Willie Sutton. She was a trembly old lady prowling the streets with a market basket, but she walked in an aura all her own. People pointed her out, told stories about her, but left her alone. I was eleven and consumed with curiosity. One day in the butcher store I asked her: “Are you Willy Sutton’s mother?” She smiled. “That’s me.” She seemed to want to talk, but when I got outside the butcher came after me in his blood spattered white coat and gave me a hard shove with his cold, beefy hand. “You bother that lady again, you’ll get a smack.” That was my first inkling that there was a secret world in my neighborhood that the butcher and Willy Sutton’s mom were part of, and I was not. From then on, I’ve been fascinated with life in the alternate universe of crime.
What new projects are you currently working on?
I’m working on a thriller about a poetry-writing, pot-smoking detective in Santa Monica. Also, a musical version of a movie I wrote called COCKTAIL.
What do you like the best about writing, and what do you like the least?
I hate writing. Oh yeah and I guess I love it, too. One moment I am elated at my genius. The next I’m disgusted at my idiocy. I was once haggling with a producer about a screenplay fee. “I’m doin’ you a favor payin’ you at all,” he said. “You’d do this thing for nothing and you know it…” That about sums it up.
Do you have a personal favorite of the books you have written? How about a favorite Heywood Gould screenplay/movie?
There’s good and bad in all of them. The good stuff seems like it was written by someone else. As if I went into a trance and it was dictated to me. The bad stuff is all too recognizable as mine and mine alone.
What kind of research do you do for your crime novels? FORT APACHE, THE BRONX is especially gritty and real. Have you participated in ride-alongs with cops on their beats to get that sense of reality?
I covered police for the NY Post in the ’60s. With the anti-war demos, the drug busts, the Mob hits and the street crime there was enough action in one night for a hundred scripts. Ride-alongs were inconceivable. The cops didn’t want any reporter to see how they really did their jobs. Anyway, there’s something voyeuristic about ride-alongs—like watching the animals from a Land Rover. And they’re unproductive. You get the official version, but people in the street won’t give you the straight story with two cops standing behind you. If you want to write about a neighborhood you shouldn’t be afraid to venture into it alone. Go to the scene, nose around. People are brimming with the great unarticulated drama of their lives. You’ll find somebody who wants to talk. The characters for FORT APACHE, THE BRONX were loosely based on two Bronx cops, who had a wealth of great stories and great humor about the job. They made writers undergo an initiation, taking them on a tour of the Bronx bars and if they were still conscious, dropping them in “hooker central” outside the Bronx Zoo. Two guys had washed out before me. But I was working as a bartender, drinking a quart of Martell a night. I was in training. We went shot for shot for hours. When the cops started to fade I saw my chance. I bypassed my mouth and threw the last four rounds over my shoulder. They were too drunk to notice. When we pulled up outside the zoo and the hookers rushed the car, I asked: “Is this on you guys?” Cops are famously cheap. They sped away. I got the job.
Tell us about your early days as a writer. Was it difficult for you to get published? Do you have a few “trunk” or “apprenticeship” novels that never saw print?
I have scores of short stories and half-finished novels that were rejected, and several plays and at least twenty screenplays that will never be produced. It’s like being a baseball player: a .300 batting average is pretty good. My first published books were non-fiction and were like longer, more detailed versions of the stories I had done as a reporter. Fiction was harder to write. There was no template. Every story demanded its own kind of telling. A dull reporter can write a competent story if the subject is interesting. A dull novelist will write a dull novel because in the end, the subject of every novelist is him/herself.
Your memoir, CORPORATION FREAK, about your experiences working as a consultant for IBM, is hilarious and insightful. The corporate mindset is a frightening thing, right? Tell us about those days at Big Blue . . . the highs and the lows.
Random thoughts of an office worker staring out of the window of a suburban industrial park on a spring day. All economic life in the so-called “developed world” is based on the production of useless artifacts. All we really need to do is eat, sleep, stay warm and have sex, but a race of aliens have enslaved us to their vanity—the bosses. We have no share in the wealth we produce for them. They use faith, patriotism and fear to keep us in line. What if we tore everything down and gave everyone a plot of land? We could raise our own food, sing songs and stay out of the rain. Life would be simple. We would be happier. But the bosses wouldn’t. Those crummy bastards. This whole capitalist/corporate/consumer culture has been created to serve their urge to dominate their fellow human beings. You can see it in the parking lot. The gleaming SUVs of the bosses, the modest, crumpled sedans of the drones. The big houses, the manicured lawns of the bosses, the crumbling bungalows and brown patches of the workers. What is jewelry? Why do I have to languish in a thankless job so some power-mad pervert can buy his wife a diamond necklace? I’m like a stoker, sweaty and grimy, shoveling madly to fuel the furnace of their greed. How come their kids are so sleek and talky when mine are sulky and always have running noses? Let’s rise up. Overthrow the whole rotten system. Burn their cars, rip the diamonds off their wives’ necks, give their snotty kids a timeout. Let’s put ’em against the wall, the dirty sonsabitches. Nobody’ll miss ’em—not even their own families. …Oh, look at the time…It’s almost lunch…The day’s half over…And tomorrow’s casual Friday…
On Hollywood . . .
Will we be seeing another Heywood Gould project on the big screen soon?
Hope springs eternal. There’s been some early interest in THE SERIAL KILLER’S DAUGHTER.
Do you miss Hollywood and the director’s chair?
Yes. The best thing about directing is you’re not writing, but you have a good excuse. Also, a driver picks you up and takes you home. You have your own trailer where you can nap undisturbed. You’re allowed to cut the lunch line. The crew guys call you “Sir,” and pretend to be impressed with everything you say. As a writer you’re an object of disdain. As a director you have the illusion of being in control. I can’t say enough terrible things about the movie business. How harshly you’re exploited. How your work is cheapened by illiterates who take credit for your success and blame you for their failure. The way the valet parker somehow knows you’ve had a flop… But I would drop everything to make another movie. Any movie. Anywhere…
Who were some of your favorite actors you have worked with on your films?
The ones who knew their lines and did what they were told, which means the day players and character actors. It was fun watching the big stars at work. Peck, Olivier, Newman, Cruise, they really are larger than life. There were some who understood the script—Bill Devane, Elisabeth Shue, Bryan Brown, Jon Seda, Rachel Ticotin, Richard Portnow, John Capodice, among others—and said the lines exactly the way I heard them in my head. In the beginning, I would become frustrated when an actor’s portrayal didn’t match my conception. But after a while, I realized that the character changes from page to screen and an actor can rightfully claim ownership of the person he/she is playing. You hope for the best.
How does the process of writing a screenplay differ from the process of writing a novel?
A screenplay is the characters and the story. A novel is authorial presence, ideas, language. A novelist agonizes over every word. The screenwriter has a few automatics—Interior, Exterior, Fade In, Dissolve To—and all-purpose phrases—“the car explodes,” “she moans with pleasure,” “the wizard turns into a hissing dragon,” “Will Ferrell drops his pants,” etc. A screenplay doesn’t require elaborate, eloquent scene setting, back story, insight, but that doesn’t make it easier to write. A screenplay that someone has labored months over will usually be read in one sitting over a Starbucks Frappuccino, by a frazzled assistant who has to write reader’s reports on five more scripts by the end of the week. Most people in the movie business don’t know how to read a script so it has to be as novelistic as possible. The scene and character descriptions have to be vivid and concise. Some idea of the “attitude” of the movie is necessary, along with simple explanations of motivation and action. The entire script has to have a hypnotic pace that keeps the reader’s jaded attention. The novelist can learn from the brevity and focus of film dialogue. The screenwriter can learn from the logical plotting of a good novel. Screenwriters should notice that most great movies were made from novels.
On Personal Stuff . . .
You’ve lived on both east and west coasts, what do you like best about each?
In California, you can go skiing in the morning and surfing in the afternoon. I did neither. In NYC, you can hear great jazz and get mugged outside the club. I did both. In Cali, some guy can decide you cut him off on the freeway and blow your brains out. In NYC, the train you were taking to Brooklyn can end up in Queens, leaving you freezing in a crack war zone waiting for the shuttle that never comes. The weather’s not so great in Cali. New Yorkers aren’t half as smart as they think they are. I lived in Cali for nineteen years and never went to the beach. I was born in NYC and have never been to the Statue of Liberty or the top of the Empire State Building. The Mexican food is better in Cali. The Italian food is better in NYC. In NYC, the literati can decide you’re just a hack. In LA, the whole town can suddenly decide—as if someone sent out an e-mail blast—that you’re not bankable. You pick your poison.
Who inspires you?
James Joyce, who went days without eating. It took him years to find a publisher for “Dubliners,” and then the printer refused to print it because it had a few “bloodys” in it. Fitzgerald who died broke in Hollywood convinced he was a failure. The Russian writers—censored, exiled, murdered. The contemporary Chinese writers—muzzled. The Cuban poet who was imprisoned for twenty years. All I have to whine about is some editor/producer/critic/reader who doesn’t understand how great I am. And boy do I whine.
Tell us about your military experiences. It’s well known you were a reluctant warrior during the Vietnam conflict. How did you end up being drafted? What kind of action did you see? Did that experience shape your storytelling in any way?
I’m working on a short book of comic (I hope) memoirs about being drafted. The world will have to wait with bated breath.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Sit around and beat myself up for not writing.
If you weren’t an author, what would you be?
A very bitter person in a job I hated. Although lately I’ve been thinking I might like to raise goats.
Yes, goat ranching has a particular allure to it, especially considering the direction in which this planet is headed. Thank you for your time, Heywood. We at Nightbird Publishing are looking forward to making a big splash with THE SERIAL KILLER'S DAUGHTER in April.