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A Conversation with John Blumenthal

Interview by Mark Schofield
Conducted Fall 2003

Good Heavens! What are we-madmen? Why do we bother writing? In a spirit of turmoil and quest, I asked John Blumenthal about his process. Author of several books, including The Tinseltown Murders and The Official Hollywood Handbook, and two movies (Short Time, Blue Streak), JB took my questions in stride. Perhaps not everyone is as nervous as I am.

FF: How’s your health? I feel that people shouldn’t eat eggs very often. Do you think that’s true?

JB: My health? Fine, except for the 2 missing limbs and the last lobotomy. Yes, I eat eggs, but raw and with the shells.

FF: Do you write on the beach, in cafes, in a recliner? How comfortable do you need to be?

JB: I write in my office. Nowhere else. Unlike Hemingway, who wrote standing up a lot, or Nabokov, who wrote exclusively on the toilet, or Faulkner, who wrote in the reptile house of his local zoo, I need to sit in a chair at home.

FF: I love the definition of perverse given by a Washington writer who was remarking on the intricacies of diplomacy. He said the perverse is that which enlists your curiosity while discouraging your understanding. How important to you is transparency of meaning in your work?

JB: I generally have something to say in my books, not an Aesop’s Fable moral or anything that corny, but there’s usually a hidden message. As for transparency, I don’t think you want to spell it out for the reader – the reader has to get it on his or her own. If they don’t, then you, as the writer, have done something wrong.

FF: There’s having something to say and there’s saying it well. Do you labor more over issues of style or substance?

JB: Both. Style is important because without it, you don’t grab the reader and the writing is lame and trite Obviously, substance is important too, but for me, the story and characters are the most important elements.

FF: What’s the worst advice about writing you’ve been given?

JB: A professor once told me I had no talent for writing and would get nowhere if I continued. I was 13 at the time. Since then, I’ve had 6 books published and 2 scripts made into movies.

FF: Is plot or character the more crucial element in asserting a story’s themes?

JB: I would say they are of equal importance. It’s essential, in my opinion, to hook the reader right away and never let go. Therefore, you have to tell an interesting story and have interesting, lifelike characters. Many people have told me that they read What’s Wrong With Dorfman? [JB’s originally self-published novel, later picked up for republication by St. Martin’s] in one sitting. That tells me that I’ve succeeded in some way with the story and characters.

FF: I can only listen to instrumental music when I work. Is there any music you find helpful?

JB: I have on several occasions hired a mariachi band to play live Mexican music in my office from time to time while I work. Of course, I wear earplugs – how else could I concentrate?

FF: Are you closer to being a minimalist or a maximalist? What’s left to construct or deconstruct, really?

JB: Somewhere in the middle. In all my fiction, description of inanimate objects is kept to a minimum, while dialogue, characters and action are of more importance to me, particularly dialogue. I think dialogue, if done right, can help make a character live on the page. I can’t stand reading books that go on and on describing some hill or house or snow-covered field. Who cares? Besides, I write comic novels and they have to keep moving along with funny stuff or they just die.

FF: My theory is that all books are translations in a sense, from the language in the writer’s head to words that get onto the page. How well does your prose capture what’s on your mind?

JB: Sometimes I surprise myself with what ends up on the page, a clever turn of phrase, a good joke, a humorous description. I ask myself: Where the hell did that come from? Even the story sometimes goes a different way than I’d originally planned.

Publication date for What’s Wrong With Dorfman? is August 16, 2003. Visit WhatsWrongWithDorfman.com for more information. And don’t eat too many eggs.

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