Monday, June 16, 2008

David Benioff interview

David Benioff recently spoke with my co-host Marrie Stone on my show, "Writers on Writing." But there was a broadcasting glitch, and not only was no one able to tune in, it also will not be podcast. So here is some of that interview, thanks to Marrie.

David Benioff is an author and screenwriter. He adapted his first novel, The 25th Hour, into the feature film directed by Spike Lee. He also adapted The Kite Runner for screen and wrote the script for Wolverine. In addition he is also working with D.B. Weiss on an HBO adaptation of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, which is due out in 2009. Stories from his critically acclaimed collection When the Nines Roll Over appeared in Best New American Voices and The Best Nonrequired American Reading. He is a graduate of our very own UC-Irvine MFA program. And it is his latest novel, City of Thieves, published by Viking that we’ll be talking about this morning.

(The following is a synopsis taken from the publisher’s comments about City of Thieves.)

A writer visits his retired grandparents in Florida to document their experience during the infamous siege of Leningrad. His grandmother won't talk about it, but his grandfather reluctantly consents. The result is the captivating odyssey of two young men trying to survive against desperate odds.

Lev Beniov considers himself "built for deprivation." He's small, smart, and insecure, a Jewish virgin too young for the army, who spends his nights working as a volunteer firefighter with friends from his building. When a dead German paratrooper lands in his street, Lev is caught looting the body and dragged to jail, fearing for his life. He shares his cell with the charismatic and grandiose Kolya, a handsome young soldier arrested on desertion charges. Instead of the standard bullet in the back of the head, Lev and Kolya are given a shot at saving their own lives by complying with an outrageous directive: secure a dozen eggs for a powerful colonel to use in his daughter's wedding cake. In a city cut off from all supplies and suffering unbelievable deprivation, Lev and Kolya embark on a hunt to find the impossible. A search that takes them through the dire lawlessness of Leningrad and the devastated surrounding countryside creates an unlikely bond between this earnest, lust-filled teenager and an endearing lothario with the gifts of a conman. Set within the monumental events of history, City of Thieves is an intimate coming-of-age tale with an utterly contemporary feel for how boys become men.

MS: It feels like it would be terribly easy to fall into an entirely macabre tone in this book, given the subject matter, given the stand-out scenes which I won’t give away. But if one can imagine the Siege of Leningrad in any detail at all, you can imagine what went on. And yet that’s not the feel of this novel. It’s not oppressive and hard to take. It’s got its moments, but it also has moments of real humor and sex and love and the whole spectrum of emotions. Was it difficult to lift your characters out of this molasses of despair and keep them going in the face of all that adversity?

DB: I was fortunate enough to be able to visit St. Petersburg with a friend and translator while working on this book. One thing that really struck me, and this is true in other countries as well, but particularly in Russia, was how fiercely connected the Russians are to their literature. People walking around quoting Pushkin all the time. I don’t know who the American equivalent of Pushkin might be, but I know we don’t quote literature in this way.

From the diaries I studied, it became apparent that the Russians really did stay connected to their culture during the siege. They still wrote, they still read, they still attended theater and concerts. If the first violinist was on the front lines, they turned to the second violinist. If he was gone, they found another. They were very attached to culture and to humor. They didn’t give up who they essentially were in the face of what was going on around them, and I wanted to retain that spirit in writing the book.

MS: You said that Ann Patchett once told you to chose the single best book on the given subject and study it obsessively. As opposed to reading a dozen books on the subject. What’s the wisdom in this advice?

DB: Ann was one of my mentors at UCI. She wrote this fabulous book called The Magician’s Assistant and she seemed to know magic in and out. I asked her about research and she advised getting the one definitive book and studying it fiercely. The thinking being that if you studying too many texts or books on a subject, you become someone who sets out to write a sort of high school report that may be factually accurate, but is lacking imagination. With that said, I was too overwhelmed to enter into a project so big—the Siege of Leningrad—something that happened long ago and far away, without really getting my facts straight. So I read quite a bit. But the real texts that I relied upon were Harrison Salisbury’s, “The 900 Days” and “Kaputt,” by Curzio Malaparte, an Italian journalist who was an early Fascist (he marched on Rome with Mussolini) before becoming disillusioned with the movement. He had remarkable access to the German and Finnish officers commanding the invasion of Russia, his writing is beautiful, and I ransacked his reportage for many key details. And the diaries.

MS: I like the device of putting your characters on a deadline. There was a ticking clock in this novel, and also in “The 25th Hour.” Something needs to be solved or done by a particular time or there’s some consequence. It strikes me as a good suspense builder, and a good way to keep momentum. Is this a screenwriting ploy or something you build into most of your material?

DB: After my first book was rejected, and I worked up the courage to sit down and read all the rejections, the gist of the feedback was that nothing was really holding it together. The novel took place over 30 years and there was no cohesive story. At first, I thought they were all wrong. I thought they were just idiots who didn’t understand what I was trying to do. But after I sat with it, I realized they were right. So I forced myself to have some structure to the narrative in the form of something having to be accomplished. The 25th Hour has a deadline. It’s the 24 hours before this man goes off to prison. And this novel obviously has a deadline motivating the movement of the novel. I think it’s a good way to keep yourself on track.

MS: One thing that struck me, and maybe this is just because I knew you were a screenwriter going into the book, but this is a very visual novel. There are some novels that you feel—you’re in the character’s brain and there are amazing insights and ways of looking at the world—and this had that too. But there are other novels that you really see. This had the feeling of a movie playing in my brain. The language was almost tactile somehow. Talk if you would about how your screenwriting informs your fiction writing, and what the two mediums can give to each other.

DB: The good part about screenwriting is that it made me a very disciplined writer. Working within the constraints and pressures of time . . . you have to tell a story, a fully fleshed out story, in 120 pages. If you see the number 200 or more on your page count, you’re done and over. So there’s a real discipline to telling a story in a compressed time. The bad part of screenwriting is that it makes you a lazy novelist. While I can just write “interior restaurant” on a script and I know the production director and lighting guy and location scout will take care of it all, you can’t do that in a novel. You have to slog through descriptions of where you are and make it come alive on your own. And that takes discipline. The first section of this novel took me months because I was out of practice on describing things well.

MS: You had this to say about writer’s block: “Writer’s block, I think, is often the result of a frustrated anticipation for inspiration. But if you’re writing for a living, you can’t sit around waiting for the muses. You get your butt in the chair, you turn on the computer, and you write, and if the writing’s no good you keep doing it anyway, because that’s all you’re good for.” I rearranged a few words for radio. But I do like you combating the notion of inspiration or the muses or whatever it is we think we need to write.

DB: I have this friend who I went to college with. Brilliant writer. I always thought he was the best writer among us. And now he barely has written a word. Every few days he writes me these gorgeous emails. And on the one hand, I’m so happy to receive them. They’re beautiful and poetic, and on the other hand it makes me so angry that his talent is going to waste. He always says he’s waiting for inspiration, or he’s stymied because he can’t write until he feels he really has some insight or some phrase or something important to say. We’ve been having this debate for years and years, and I’m so frustrated with him because it’s just wonderful talent going completely to waste. You can’t wait for inspiration. It’s rare. It happens, but it happens so infrequently that if you rely on it, you’re doomed.

MS: You came out of the UCI MFA program. No need to let that influence your answer here. But seriously, I’m curious about your feelings on MFA programs in general and what you may have gained from it in particular.

DB: I do see value in the MFA programs. For one thing, I was able to study with some incredible writers. Ann Patchett, Geoffrey Wolff to name a few. What the MFA program did was give me time to focus on nothing but writing. And while I know there are people out there who can handle a job and keep writing (Khaled Hosseini is one rare example, who kept writing while practicing medicine), that’s not easy for most of us. And while I was in the program, I was teaching undergraduates which paid for my time there. And being around that kind of intellectual stimulation was very exciting. So it gave me time and focus and access to amazing writers.

MS: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

DB: My advice to screenwriters is to read more screenplays. Good screenplays. “Carnal Knowledge” and “Chinatown,” to name a couple. We’re told as novelists to read, read, read. But I don’t think scriptwriters are given the same advice, and it’s a shame.

My advice to novelists is just to get into the discipline of sitting down to write. There’s no other way around it.

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