Between the Words, with J.P. Smith
Described as “Mad Men meets Easy Rider,” J.P Smith’s latest novel, Airtight, marks the end of his 17-year absence from the publishing world. It also marks the first of his novels based loosely on his own life: “Some years ago my wife and I were watching Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown on cable. I’d seen it before, but now something about these middle-aged guys getting involved with crime nicked a memory. I turned to her and said, ‘We never dug it up.’” So was born J.P Smith’s latest wild ride.
Below, he discusses the craft between the words.
[Dale J Rappaneau, Jr]
Let’s begin with a simple exercise: what comes to mind when confronted with a blank page? Some writers find it intimidating and must smear anything across the page before true progress can begin, while others, perhaps yourself included, embrace the possibilities of white nothingness. Or maybe, you are completely indifferent?
I’ve often heard this: “You’re a writer? So what do you do for work?” My standard answer is: “Every day I wake up and have to reinvent the world. Would you like to do that?” They usually say “No, I’d rather be a plumber (or a contractor, or a lawyer, or a proctologist). At least I know what I have to do every day.” But they do end up appreciating the difficulty of writing.
However, I tend to work in a manner which precludes the dreaded blank-page crisis. I do much of my writing in my head, often while doing other things. This is something I’ve more or less instinctively learned over the years, though this method is, of course, not suitable for everyone.
When I have a sense of character (for me, always the starting-point for any project, whether novel or script), when I have an idea for the tone, and the basic direction I want to take, then I begin. With a script it’s a completely different matter.
Writing a screenplay is like devising a jigsaw puzzle. You paint the picture, then you break it down into individual pieces, then you let the audience put it back together. Everything has to be planned out in advance. Writing a script is like writing a sonnet: it’s a thing with rules and limitations, which, for me, makes it a hugely enjoyable experience.
[Dale J Rappaneau, Jr]
In past interviews, you have spoken openly about how moving from the United States to England forced you to get serious about your career – even going so far as saying, to Doug Solter, that the move “was a kind of test,” in which you “took off my parachute.” Do you believe this disconnection from a ‘parachute’ is crucial for writers wanting to take their work to the next level? After all, motivation grows strong when money is tight.
It was a huge risk in many ways. Trying to become a published writer in America in the 1970s was exceptionally difficult. There was a kind of catch-22 to the whole process: in order for one to find a publisher, one had to have an agent; but to get an agent you had to have been published. It was frustrating, and I sent out query letter after query letter to agents, editors, and in a few cases found editors who liked my work: someone at Viking, and an editor at Little, Brown. The irony is that only years later did I become a Viking author with two novels.
Of course I was young then, still in my twenties, and at the time my wife and I were teaching at my old private school (where John Cheever and, earlier, Richard Yates, had lived on the school’s estate) for a pittance. My final year’s salary, in 1977, was $9200. We managed to save enough money to satisfy the authorities in Britain that we could support ourselves for one year, and we ended up staying five years, become full-time residents and returning with a dual-citizenship daughter in 1982. We returned for several months in 1984.
We lived frugally. We had no need of a car in London (or anywhere else, for that matter, as public transportation in the UK, as on the continent, is excellent), we walked everywhere, and opportunities were much more varied there for writers. I knew that many novelists also routinely wrote TV and radio dramas, and that some even wrote for the stage. I interviewed the author Beryl Bainbridge, who encouraged me to get my scripts out.
Knowing the situation there, I wrote my first teleplay two weeks before leaving the States, a fifty-minute Pinteresque piece that helped me find a screen/theatre/TV agent almost immediately, the late Margery Vosper. She’d been in the business since 1931 and knew everyone. She loved my script and sent it to the BBC and ITV (Independent Television), and though we didn’t get a sale out of it, people started noticing my work the more I wrote.
There were only three or four TV channels then, and opportunities to broadcast serious drama were many and varied. Václav Havel’s plays, for instance, were broadcast in English translations while he was still a prisoner in his own country. When my first novel eventually came out, The Man from Marseille, film interest came from two directions: Dino De Laurentiis at Paramount, and an independent London company composed of three TV producers who had read my scripts over the years and who wanted me to adapt it. They were just wrapping a film called Lamb, starring a young Liam Neeson, among other very seasoned actors. My agent poured herself some gin and said, “If we go with Paramount, both you and I will make money, and you may never, ever see a movie made of the book. And the script will be written by someone else. And it may well be dreadful. If you go with this independent company you will write the script, and there’s a good chance we’ll get a picture out of it. In any event, you’ll be part of the process right from the start.”
I met with the producers at the Park Lane Hilton, where they were shooting the final scenes of their movie, and we discussed how to go about adapting an admittedly tricky narrative, as well as casting. They had Jeremy Irons in mind for the lead, and who am I to argue with that? In the end, it took many months to get a script into shape to everyone’s satisfaction, but by then the project would have been far too expensive. After all, it’s set in Russia, the South of France in the 1930s, Occupied Paris, and London of the late seventies, and it would involve the renting of very expensive old cars and elaborate costuming. It’s about a Russian couple who become deeply involved in crime, basically gaming the system of whatever society they moved in. Their son in a way becomes their front, the person who has to protect them by creating a fiction.
Through my agent, I automatically now had an agent for my novels, who was affiliated with Margery. As I was living in Britain, and the language there is different in both overt and subtle ways from American English, I had to become a British author—to the point where when my first novel (which was actually the thirteenth I’d written) was accepted by John Murray Ltd., my editor there believed I was English and was about to put the book up to the Booker Prize people, who then only considered UK or Commonwealth authors. I had to break the news that I was a Jewish kid from Yonkers. He was fine with that.
To get back to the heart of the question, I’m not sure I would recommend taking such a risk, especially in today’s economy. I’ve been a full-time self-employed writer since 1977, and can’t imagine doing anything but writing. That carries all kinds of risks, both economic and psychological, and it’s not for everyone. Also, writing novels is hardly the way to become self-supporting. Writing scripts can be very lucrative, but it’s as hard to get your script optioned or sold as it is to get a novel published. If not harder.
Today’s publishing landscape has gone from lush meadow to swamp, however. With the advent of self-publishing, there’s a loss in discernment, especially in readers, and particularly the majority of those who post comments on Amazon, who seem to prefer their work simple, thrilling and quick. It makes the whole process too simple. Write, and you’re a writer.
So everyone can become a writer and post their work for free. But as I always like to ask: can anyone become a composer? A surgeon? A painter? No, because it takes time and work and inspiration and learning. Honestly, failure isn’t a bad place to begin one’s career. To succeed too early can spoil one for the future. Knowing how to take rejection, understanding how one’s work can be bettered, is always an ongoing education. But if I post everything I write and sell it for $1.99 on Amazon I’ve avoided the editorial stage. No one is there to tell me if it’s any good or not. And having your work judged by professional editors, and then receiving a check from them, is immensely satisfying. It gives your work credibility, which self-publishing doesn’t.
[Dale J Rappaneau, Jr]
In that same interview with Solter, you claim that war photography would make an appealing alternative career. Does this in some way result from your inherent interest in telling stories? And why specifically war as a subject?
Years ago I wrote a novel about a war photographer, and then a script with the same title but a different story entirely, Chasing Daylight, which placed in the Nicholl Fellowships some years ago, but didn’t go anywhere. I did a lot of research for it—reading about Robert Capa and the autobiography of Don McCullin, as well as biographies of other photographers—and saw both the responsibility of the photojournalist and the great psychological distance between photographer and subject. A war photographer is, to his or her subjects, a lens. One can hide behind the camera, capture the battle, the shell-shocked soldier, and remain only a byline. In a way it reflects my own attitude towards being a writer. It’s the work that matters, not the person behind it. As Proust once wrote (and I paraphrase), “The I who writes is different from the same man who goes out in society, who pens letters, who goes to the Ritz.”
When I read a profile of a writer in a newspaper or magazine I lose interest very quickly. I don’t care how you sharpen your pencils or what you like to eat or the kind of car you drive; it’s peripheral, it has no bearing on your work. I remember once reading a profile of Jonathan Franzen (who, to be candid, has always seemed to me to be completely overrated). In order for him to write he has to be earmuffed, sometimes blindfolded, kneeling on a bare floor, etc. Really? And why? And that torture produces what? Freedom?
For me, an author should be transparent. This doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy reading biographies of writers, or especially the old Paris Review interviews. And interviews with screenwriters are more informative and educational than screenwriting manuals, probably because screenwriting is primarily craft, and it’s always interesting to see how others approach that type of work.
For instance, Cameron Crowe’s Conversations with Wilder is immensely entertaining and instructive, as is Truffaut’s book-length conversation with Hitchcock.
Why a war photographer? The risk. The intensity. The same things that appealed to me about drugs back in the sixties. Take a dose of acid. Take two. Take three. Go to the edge, have a peek, maybe even come back from the brink with something new.
[Dale J Rappaneau, Jr]
You once told Caroline Leavitt, “[Writing teleplays] gave me a sense of how to use dialogue in a natural and effective way.” In the realm of fiction, what exactly makes dialogue natural and effective? Do these adjectives stem from how dialogue sharpens a character’s personality, or does it have more to do with how dialogue moves along a novel’s plot?
One thing I learned, both when teaching modern British drama to high school students, and in writing in England for TV (at the time there was virtually no film industry there), is that, in the UK at least, language is primal. Here in the US, it’s about action, it’s about visuals, but in England one could write a compelling play about two men in a room with a bottle of Scotch between them. Pinter did it, as did Simon Gray and many others. Language becomes a battleground, and, as Pinter (and Proust) well knew, language can be a camouflage, it keeps secrets. So even in the crispest dialogue you can reveal character simply by the word choice, placement and rhythm. The pause can be as powerful as the cocking of a pistol.
Writing dialogue, for me, is like writing music (which is why I listen to nothing when I write). It has a rhythm that from character to character can change, and when it comes out naturally it helps to define that character for the audience. For instance, in my latest novel, Airtight, I have two old college friends who meet up after thirty years at a jobs fair in Manhattan. They’ve both been aged out of their high-profile jobs and are in a bind. Until they remember having buried some unsold drugs on their college campus back in 1970. The main character, Nick was an ad man, a kind of Don Draper (though I’d written the book before I’d ever seen a single episode of Mad Men), clever with language, very much a sparring partner with words, whether with his wife or his friend Rob. He’s a bit glib, and writing his dialogue was a joy for me. Rob’s a far more desperate man. He’s not only lost his job, his wife has left him for a much younger man, and his language is always grasping, trying to lift himself up. But he’s no match for Nick.
Here’s an example. Nick has paid a visit early on to his accountant, who delivers the bad news to Nick. Times are tight and are going to be tighter. The first speaker is the accountant.
“So let me lay this all out for you. One,” and he held up a finger. “Joanne needs to get a job—”
“She started work last month. A new daycare opened in the neighborhood. It’s called Li’l Rascals,” and he spelled it out, apostrophe included. He was still a little bewildered by it. “But she really wanted to work for the Dead End Kids.”
His accountant’s body shook like jellied laughter. “That’s good, Nick. You always were a funny guy.”
“She hadn’t had a job since Eric was born.”
“She doesn’t mind?”
“Actually she minds a lot. But for right now it brings in a little money.”
“Puts food on the table.”
“Let me remind you that my wife has a master’s in History from Columbia.”
“Big step down, then.”
A second finger. “The kids need to go to public schools.”
Nick had dreaded that one. “That’s going to be difficult.”
“Everyone has to take a hit. You, Joanne, the kids. You all have to make the sacrifice.”
“Jen got the lead role in ‘Hair’.”
Jeff gazed at him. “They take their clothes off?”
“What do you think, Jeff?”
In this exchange we see how cleverly defensive Nick is. He’s hating his new position in life, he’s trying to make a case anything but what he’s facing, and he’s playing verbal ping-pong with the guy who does his taxes. I see dialogue as very close to jazz. You trade fours. You take extended solos. You join the other instruments in choruses. Look at Pinter. Or Simon Gray, especially in his play Otherwise Engaged. Watching their plays, even reading them, is a great pleasure, and the pleasure lies all in the language.
[Dale J Rappaneau, Jr]
A less serious question: You also told Leavitt about how, in England, you spent “afternoons walking the fossil-strewn beach.” Is this a vital part of your writing process, this detaching from work? Moreover, do you recommend it to all writers?
I only walked the fossil-strewn beach in Lyme Regis, where we lived for four or five months before moving to Cambridge, where there were fens and twisty medieval streets and beautiful colleges. Lyme was unlike London or Cambridge, for that matter, as without a car we were stranded in this little seaside town made famous by our neighbor John Fowles (and, earlier, by Jane Austen). You could catch a bus there to Axminster, just a few miles away in Devon, and thence to Dorchester or Exeter, but mostly we stayed in Lyme, which has a real charm, especially when all the tourists are gone. There was nothing to do there but write and watch great TV (this was the golden age of TV writing in Britain, after all) and each afternoon walk along the strand, which is a pebbly beach, and to the end of the Cobb, the stone pier you see in the opening scenes of The French Lieutenant’s Woman. So in the mornings I’d write. By then I was producing a novel a year, and sometimes three teleplays in as much time. Going down to the edge of the English Channel in this ancient town was refreshing, it cleansed the mind after all those hours writing.
Detaching from work is vital. I do my best writing, really, when I’m doing something other than sitting and tapping these keys. This is where the more foundational stuff takes place, the major plot points, the shifts in character, the climaxes and setpieces. The themes and concepts. They come to me when I’m watching a movie in a theatre, or reading a book, or working out at the gym, or even sleeping. I once woke up and had the title and plot for an entire novel worked out. I actually wrote it, but it was never published.
[Dale J Rappaneau, Jr]
Continuing the game of interview leapfrog: Over at TheNervousBreakdown.com, you denounce the all-too-common romanticized ideals of writing – specifically, the ones in which novelists use writing as “a form of therapy, or battling their demons, or wrestling with their fathers’ legacies.” And you go on to say, “If that were the case, I’d find a different career, pronto.” Why is that? What about these romanticized ideals, if it were true, would drive you away from writing?
As a human being, I’ve had my share of issues, of childhood residuals and the usual clutter of one’s past, but for me, first and foremost, writing is a profession, a craft and, often, an art, and for me to use it as some sort of therapy would be to turn it into something other than that. I think that writing (or playing music, or painting, or acting) is a way of getting away from yourself, of, if you like, becoming someone other. Though I love doing public readings, I tend to stand in the background and let the work speak for itself.
Once, at a reading in Massachusetts, I was three lines into the opening of The Discovery of Light when I noticed a woman in the audience nodding vigorously and shaking her finger, as if she’d caught me out on something. When I opened the floor to questions, she was the first: “Why do you hate your mother?”
Now, the passage in the novel describes a painting by Vermeer, but she already had preconceived ideas that writing reveals a great deal about one’s private life. I asked her what led her to that decision. She said that she couldn’t put it into words, but she sensed it. “You hate your mother.” When I informed her that my mother was dead she sat back in defeat.
[Dale J Rappaneau, Jr]
Besides screenwriting, novel writing, and reading, what does J.P. Smith do for fun?
I love to go to the theatre, to the cinema to watch movies, and I especially enjoy museums. From a very early age I was taken to the Met, to MoMA, to the Guggenheim, and I have an interest in art. I especially enjoy reading books about Picasso, who for me was the ultimate artist in any discipline of the 20th century. I spend time with my wife and, when we get together, especially in L.A., my daughter. I love listening to music, as I always have (for several years in my wayward youth I wanted to be a rock star—not, mind you, a great musician), and I enjoy travel. I used to ride a horse, but my boots-and-breeches days are long over. One hip replacement and shoulder surgery have tamed me. And riding is somehow inherently alien to a Jewish kid, though my grandfather, my namesake, was a member of a Jewish contingent of the Tsar’s cavalry.
[Dale J Rappaneau, Jr]
In this interview series I ask each interviewee for a question that they would like me to ask the following interviewee. The previous interviewee – in this case, Sheila Redling – creates the question without any knowledge as to who will be asked that question. So, now comes the time for you to answer the previous individual’s question: “Ask the next writer, regardless of where they are in their career, is this what you thought it would be? Not so much, did you think you’d do better or worse, but the act of writing, the process – what surprises you about it now?”
Actually, it’s a bit different. I began writing when I was finishing my master’s in English, so of course writing in the hope that one would be taught, debated, parsed, and crammed before the final paper, was always foremost. Now such a thing wouldn’t matter a jot to me. I’m perfectly happy when I’m writing, happier when I’ve written, and anxious to move on when a book appears. I’ve also found that writing scripts brings me great pleasure. I could do it all day long.
As for the process, after over thirty years of doing it daily, writing is like breathing to me. It is what I do, it defines me, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. Except for being a war photographer, though first I’d need a camera. Actually, I’m a lousy photographer. Ah, but the romance of it all!
[Dale J Rappaneau, Jr]
And now it’s your turn: what question, as serious or silly as you desire, would you like me to ask the next interviewee?
We all have influences, especially in the early stages of our careers. Mine was James Joyce, and it was unhealthy to the point of disaster. My first attempt at a novel was set in Dublin in 1940; my second in Dublin of 2025. Between Flann O’Brien and Joyce I was no longer myself. I was also unpublished. Then, especially after moving to England, my influences changed and had a more subtle effect on me. I began to be more influenced by theatre—especially Harold Pinter, who remains something of an influence on me today. Dialogue, especially, was influenced by the rhythms and silences and pauses of not only Pinter but of many theatrical and TV writers in Britain.
I discovered Proust while I was there, read him straight through, then learned French to read him in the original three years later. His influence on me has been more textual than stylistic. I discovered other French writers I like very much (and who’ve influenced me in ways that most English-speaking readers wouldn’t notice), such as Patrick Modiano, whom I’ve read and re-read, René Belletto, who has become a good friend, Jean Echenoz, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, J-P Manchette, and so on, though now, thirty years on, I really can’t detect much influence on my work other than my own. So my question is: how have you absorbed or shaken off your earliest influences? And do you detect them still in your work?
[Dale J Rappaneau, Jr]
Lastly, what is your best piece of advice for today’s generation of up-and-coming writers?
Avoid writing school. Simply stop even considering it, because there you’ll either write like everyone else in the class and/or your revered instructor, at whose feet you will sit in the glow of his or her reputation and awards. Learn how to write by learning how to read. Read widely and deeply. Anyone who wants to write as a profession really should know the classics. Dickens, Thackeray, Flaubert, Proust, and several hundreds more, just as anyone who wants to write for movies should know all the classics, even if they are in black-and-white and don’t have things blowing up every two minutes.
When I taught English to kids from grades seven to twelve I’d throw stuff at them they wouldn’t have read in other schools: Nabokov, Graham Greene, Malcolm Lowry, Virginia Woolf, Kafka, Tolstoy, and many others. I walked them through paragraph after paragraph, showing them how the writer was building his or her scene, how character is first introduced, how effects were achieved. I even—and it would never happen today—offered to juniors and seniors a two-semester course on James Joyce, the second semester being devoted entirely to Ulysses.
I was happy to read in an old interview with Philip Roth that when he was offered a job teaching writing at a university, he said that he would only teach reading. Because that’s the foundation for writing.
And don’t just read your contemporaries. Don’t just read people who write the same genre you’re passionate about. These days I don’t read many contemporary writers, save for the French novelists I like very much and whom I’ve followed over the years. Since my mentor died, I have one novelist friend, and he writes in French. And, when we exchange emails, we never talk writing, always music. He’s an expert on Bach, and a composer and musician in his own right.