Deena Goldstone spent the majority of her professional career as a screenwriter until she released a book of short stories in 2014. Now the writer has written Surprise Me, a deeply profound debut novel about the complicated relationship between an aspiring writer and a reclusive mentor. Surprise Me’s synopsis might sound like a typical trope used over and over in literature, but what Goldstone does exceedingly well is use her incredible prose to help make the two main characters – Isabelle and Daniel – resonate long after completing the novel. In this interview, Goldstone revealed what it was like to write scripts for film and television, how much plotting it takes to make a successful novel, and how much she loves writing short story collections.
You have spent a considerable amount of your career writing a handful of screenplays, how is writing a novel similar or different to that experience?
Although I have a handful of produced screenplays, I have been a working screenwriter for over 30 years. In the movie and TV business, there are far more developed screenplays than produced product. That means that for every 10, often times 20, commissioned screenplays – work a screenwriter is hired and paid to do – maybe one is produced. You can see that over a long career, that ratio can get very discouraging. While on the one hand, you as a screenwriter can do good work, earn a comfortable living, be constantly employed, on the other, you can have few completed works to fuel a sense of accomplishment.
Screenwriting and fiction writing are totally different experiences in most every significant way. Screenwriting is a collaborative form – the screenplay is the blueprint for something else. In order for your work to be realized, other people – actors, directors, producers, executives, production designers, cameramen, etc. – have to participate in the creation. When there is a consensus of opinion, that collaboration can be exciting and inspiring. When there is not, then the experience can be painful and destructive.
Fiction writing is a singular experience. One voice, yours, has to be translated onto the page. That freedom, especially for someone who has been used to such a collaborative experience, can be heady and freeing as well as intimidating and lonely.
The other main difference is that screenwriting is a much more restrictive form. Structure dominates screenwriting. Every scene has to, in some way, build the structure. There is no place for digressions or lyricism. There is an acknowledged length – screenplays shouldn’t be longer than 120 pages – because movies usually run about two hours. So in screenwriting the form dictates the writer’s choices.
In fiction, the writer’s vision dictates the form. There is room for the story to grow organically. A novel can evolve as it needs to. I felt so freed when I began to write fiction, as if I could spread my arms out and exhale.
The last major difference is that screenwriting is a visual medium. What you write on the page has to be able to be translated into images on that huge screen. Lovely, descriptive narrative passages are “cheating” because they are for the reader of the screenplay and not the viewer of the finished product. It is through images and behavior of the characters that film communicates.
In fiction, the words matter. And so the way you put sentences, paragraphs, pages together dictates the reader’s experience. For me, after so many years of being terse and minimalistic in my writing, that emphasis on the words themselves is a large part of the pleasure of writing fiction (as well as reading it).
In film, the screenwriter is one of many creative people involved in a communal project – and never, never the most important person. In fiction, the writer is the owner of the work, recognized by everyone else as the prime creator.
Similarly, what about the editing process? With films, I assume the production companies and directors have some authority in how a project forms once the script is purchased. Is that relatable to a book editor?
In film (or TV), by the time the film editor begins to put together the dailies (the film shot each day), the writer is usually long gone. Once shooting starts, it is rare to have the writer still involved with the project. Production is the director’s arena and very few of them want the writer around. (I know that seems strange, but it is true.)
If you mean, how do writers and directors work together on the script before the film is shot, that differs according to the director’s whims. Once a director is signed, he is the captain of the ship. Even if he signed to direct the finished script, most want changes and many don’t want the original writer to do the changes. New (and often multiple) writers are hired and fired according to the likes of the director, actors, producers, etc.
In my experience in the literary world, and I readily admit my experience has been limited and informed by the wonder who is Nan Talese, an editor’s thoughts are suggestions to be considered by the writer. The premise we all start from is that the writer is the creator of the work and the editor’s job is to help the writer realize his or her vision.
This novel uses a well-known backbone to the plot, but there is so much freshness to it. How did the genesis of this project come about?
After I had completed the eight short stories which made up my first book, Tell Me One Thing, and we were waiting to see if anyone would buy it, I started another short story. At that point in my leap into fiction, short stories were all I felt I knew how to do. And I loved writing them – the form suits me – and so I continued on. But when my agent, Marly Rusoff, read the new short story, she was very insistent that it could be the beginning of a novel and that it would help the sale of the short stories if she could say I was now writing a novel. And so I said I’d give it a try.
What is now the first section of Surprise Me was that short story, in a somewhat altered form.
I should also tell you that the transition from writing short stories to writing a novel was not an easy one. I struggled with the expanded form for months and months and months, bemoaning to everyone who would listen that I was completely stupid to attempt a novel and that I should have stuck with the shorter form which felt more natural to me. But about half way through the writing, the novel form began to make sense to me and then I really began to love the freedom I found in writing “Surprise Me.”
The relationship between Isabelle and Daniel is one a lot of writers may come across – in one way or another, not necessarily this way. Was there some autobiographical undercurrents to this? Or a lot of research with other writers? Or was it complete fabrication?
When I was a beginning screenwriter, writing my second commissioned screenplay and basically floundering, I was mentored by an Academy Award-winning screenwriter. He was at the height of his career and I was just beginning, but he agreed to work with me on that particular screenplay. (He had some sort of arrangement with the production company which had hired me.)
Without ever telling me what to write, he taught me how to write. That experience made me a real writer, a good writer.
However, my screenwriter is nothing at all like Daniel. He was wonderfully successful when I met him. His background couldn’t be more different from Daniel’s. And his personality and life situation couldn’t be more different.
It was the connection we found through the work that I used as the inspiration for the book.
Also, for the past decade, I have been invited each year to mentor young screenwriters at the Sundance Screenwriting Lab up in the mountains of Utah, an intense week of one-on-one meetings. The experience of being a mentor also helped me understand what Daniel gets from his relationship with Isabelle.
When writing a project, how much of the entire story do you have planned out? I have talked to authors who are very meticulous with every plot point, while others prefer to keep an open mind to see where their thoughts take them.
Part of the pleasure of writing fiction is to let the process play out as it will. Maybe it’s the years of screenwriting with its tight rules, but I like to be surprised as I write fiction. I usually start with an idea, not really completely formed, or an image of a scene. For Surprise Me I wanted to write those beginning scenes in Daniel’s office at the college – two people in a room, both lost in their own ways, who end up giving each other something vital. That’s about as much as I started with. But I do make notes to myself – sit down at the computer and write about my characters, stream of consciousness about their backgrounds and personalities, fears, hopes, etc.
For Surprise Me, I knew what I wanted the first section to accomplish and I knew they parted but that was pretty much all I knew. As I wrote, the rest came to me at, often, odd moments, until somewhere in the middle of the writing, I could have told you – Daniel ends up in New Hampshire and begins to write again; Isabelle falls madly in love and has a child and can’t write. They meet again when Daniel writes about her. Broad strokes like that but the particulars come when I sit down and type.
I’m a great believer in trusting the writing process and so I don’t put too many barriers in the way. It’s scarier that way but so much more rewarding.
When you were plotting this novel, did you have a sense that it would be broken into parts for the precise years you were depicting? Or how did that come about?
I knew the book would cover about twenty years. I wanted to see how these two people’s connection with each other informed the rest of their lives. I strongly believe that often the most pivotal people in our lives aren’t necessarily the ones we end up with, those who have a traditional title in our lives – husbands, wives, partners, etc.
The first section seemed pretty self-contained to me – those months in that room. It was the middle section that I had trouble with – how many years should it cover? When should it start? How much do we need to know about each life? How do I resolve Isabelle’s fury at Daniel? The answers evolved as I wrote. I had no outline or game plan for the middle section. But once I had written it, I knew I had to jump forward in years because I wanted the last section to be the two of them again in a room with the roles reversed.
So the idea of exploring a span of years in two people’s lives drove the decision to break the book into sections, otherwise the book would have ended up thousands of pages.
Have you continued to pursue screenwriting, or are you a full-time novelist now?
I won’t say I’ll never write another screenplay but I will say I would be quite happy if all I wrote from now on was fiction.
What’s your next literary adventure? Any details, no matter how small, would be greatly appreciated. I understand if you’re not able to talk in detail about it yet.
Despite all the warnings about how difficult it is to get a short story collection published, how poorly they sell, etc. I am at work on another group of stories. Whether they will all coalesce into a book and whether anyone will be interested in publishing the book, I have no way of knowing. But I want to/need to explore the theme of forgiveness in my next group of stories. One is written. One is in the middle of being finished, and three ideas await.