Sunday, June 09, 2024

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Chas Halpern

Chas Halpern has made a living writing and directing marketing videos for global tech companies (including Google, Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco, and Intel). He’s known as a storyteller, with a specialty in humor. Chas is also a screenwriter. Awards include top honors at the international Script-to-Screen Festival. He wrote a PBS documentary, which was shown throughout the U.S. and internationally. And he has written for a Disney Channel series. His screenplay, “Positive” (a dramatic comedy) has been optioned and is still in development. The Physics of Relationships is his first novel.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first published novel, THE PHYSICS OF RELATIONSHIPS, changed my life in very concrete ways. I entered the world of book promotion. This required spending hours each week contacting online book influencers, working on Facebook ads, responding to interview requests, contacting media outlets…even recording a short reading for an NPR radio station. That kind of work is what it means to be a professional writer.

I suppose it also had an effect on me psychologically. I have been a professional writer for several decades. Having a novel published meant I could call myself an author, as opposed to the more generic term “writer”. Although I was always confident in my writing ability (perhaps too confident!), having a published book that has been praised by reviewers has increased my level of confidence. That is no small matter for a writer. I would venture to say that we writers are, generally speaking, insecure and in need of encouragement. Writing, after all, is a lonely, highly speculative endeavor. There are always questions lurking the shadows of our minds: Is this work worthwhile? Will it be appreciated? Am I worthy?

I am currently writing a new novel. It builds on my experience writing THE PHYSICS OF RELATIONSHIPS. I am using the technique of the first-person narrator, which worked well in PHYSICS. I still rely heavily on dialogue to reveal character and move the story along. However, I have made a conscious effort to work more on setting and description. I have learned that many readers want to know more about the characters’ environment. This includes all the senses –odors, touch, and feel, as well as a visual sense of place. As one of my editors put it, you don’t want to have “bodies floating in space.”

Has a greater sense of confidence affected my writing? Yes! My latest novel is truly an exploration. I launched into it without knowing exactly who the characters were, what they would discover, or what would eventually happen to them. Each day, I sit down at my computer and wonder whether the muses will continue to guide me.  I am truly feeling my way in the dark. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do that earlier in my career. It’s exciting and daunting in equal measure.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I’ve always been a storyteller. Before turning to novels, I wrote marketing videos for global companies. My specialty was storytelling and humor.

Fiction has allowed me to explore deep questions. In THE PHYSICS OF RELATIONSHIPS, I explored the question of how you find meaning after the death of a long-term, loving spouse. I wondered what it would take to renew your spirit and reshape your life in a positive way.

In my speculative novel, HUMANS ANONYMOUS, I explored the question of what would happen to society in the near future when artificial intelligence begins to replace our jobs, even the jobs of professionals.

In my current novel, I’m exploring the question of how to react as an individual to a world that seems to be off-kilter…a world where progress is possible, but many forces are holding back that progress…a world that seems to be bending toward atomization and self-destruction.  

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Once my question starts obsessing me (see above), I simply launch into my writing. I tend to write quickly. I have yet to experience writer’s block.

Every time I sit down to write, I start by reviewing the previous chapter. So, I edit as I go along. Because of this, my drafts are often fairly close to the final version, at least on the line level. However, I do extensive editing after I complete my first draft. Sometimes that involves restructuring the novel. For example, THE PHYSICS OF RELATIONSHIPS began as a series of essay-like chapters recounting the life of a woman after the death of her elderly husband. I went back and took the most dramatic element of the novel and put that at the beginning of the story. The story, as a whole, became more plot-driven. Along the way, I had to kill some of my “babies”, chapters that no longer worked in the plot progression.

4 - Where does a work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I always sit down to write a whole novel in linear progression. Sometimes, as in the case of my current novel, I will play with that linear progression. My wife suggested I put my original Chapter 7 at the beginning of the novel, and then go back in time in the next chapter. I thought it was a crazy idea at first. But I tried it, and it worked wonderfully.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I don’t mind doing public readings. I am happy to share my stories with as many people as possible. A novel is a meaningless series of words until someone reads it.

I don’t crave public attention. I would venture to say that few writers do. However, I’m fairly used to being in front of people. In my career as a director, I would often be corralling a group of some twenty crew members, plus actors and extras. And I have had a side career as a voice artist. For me, speaking in public, performing the text, is not a problem.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I covered this somewhat in my answer to question number 2. I do start my writing with a question in mind. However, I do NOT expect to come up with answers. I don’t believe that literature is about answering questions. It is about exploring questions. Novelists, I believe, have a high tolerance for ambiguity. We can live with unanswered questions. We understand that differing opinions can all contain an element of truth. We are not crusaders. We are explorers of the human heart and all the mysteries that lie within.  

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I can’t speak for other writers. Sometimes writing can serve the simple, but noble, purpose of entertainment. An entertaining book can take us away from our personal problems and struggles. That kind of distraction gives us the respite our minds need occasionally.

Although I always keep the entertainment element in mind when I write, I hope to serve another purpose. Reading novels can increase our empathy and compassion for our fellow humans. If my novels can serve that role in society, I will be very pleased. Many of our current problems stem from a compassion deficit, particularly in some of our so-called leaders.  

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
For the most part, I have been very pleased with my experience working with outside editors. Whether one works with a professional editor or a trusted beta reader, it is extremely important to get feedback on one’s writing. It is the only way an author can compare their intention to the actual reaction of the reader.

All readers will have a subjective response, which varies from reader to reader. That is to be expected. Often, you can ignore the most subjective responses. For instance, many readers will tell you if they “like” a character or not. That response is often irrelevant. A good, nuanced character doesn’t have to be likable.

However, it is important for the reader to understand the more thematic elements. I had one reader complain that the main character in THE PHYSICS OF RELATIONSHIPS didn’t grieve enough, even though the story takes place a year after the death of her husband. This was a misreading of the story. It wasn’t my intention to write a grief novel. My intention was to write a novel of renewal after grief.

Professional editors can also misread your intentions. In that case, you need to initiate a dialogue with your editor. You need to explain your intentions clearly and ask your editor to help you achieve those intentions. This happened to me recently while working with an editor on my novel, A HANDFUL OF CLOUDS, a story about a divorced couple re-examining their relationship. The back and forth with my editor proved to be very helpful.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
The best way to deal with rejection is to keep writing.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (screenplays to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
After I wrote my very first novel (still unpublished), I sent it out to volunteer beta readers. One beta reader wrote back to me: “This isn’t a novel. It’s a screenplay.” I was crushed. But there was a hard truth in that comment. I hadn’t fully made the transition from scriptwriting to novel writing. My descriptions were too cursory. I relied almost entirely on dialogue to describe my characters. I needed to go deeper into their thoughts and feelings. I needed to expand my description of the world they inhabited. I have made an effort to write more like a novelist in my subsequent books. I’m still trying to improve. One is never finished learning how to be a better writer.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I write in the morning for two to three hours, six days a week. I don’t have any goals. If I write 150 great words in a day, I’m satisfied. Usually, my daily output is around 500 words, occasionally 1,000 words. I tell myself, it doesn’t matter how many words I write on a particular day. It doesn’t matter if what I wrote is a work of genius or not. What matters is to write, to continue.

I think it is extremely important to write every day (or almost every day). That discipline allows your mind to be fully immersed in the world and the characters you are creating. And, just as importantly, writing regularly creates a kind of mental friction that causes your subconscious mind to continue working out your writing challenges while you’re not writing. Once the imagination machine is set in motion, it will work on its own while you’re walking, taking a shower, even sleeping.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
My characters inspire me. Once they take on a life of their own, my characters tell me where to go next. I think of writing as a combination of empathy and imagination. I empathize with my characters as they find themselves in a particular situation, and I imagine what their response will be.

I am lucky not to experience writer’s block. On the other hand, it can take me months before I find the subject matter of my next novel. I won’t begin writing until the idea sticks with me and truly crystallizes in my mind. Then I dive into that mysterious pool of water called novel writing and figure out how to swim. So, you could say the writer’s block works itself out before I start writing.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Hmmm. I would have to say the odor of sautéed onions reminds me of home. Is that a “fragrance”  - a pleasant, sweet smell? It is to me.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
There are many influences on my work besides other books. As far as style, I admire many writers. However, I have never been tempted to copy a particular style. I try to please myself first. That is my style guide.

In terms of subject matter, everything in my life influences me – my family, my friends, the news, travel, medical problems, TV shows, magazine articles, podcasts. Everything I have experienced goes into the mix. That is not to say that I write autobiographical novels (aka “auto-fiction”).  The plots of my novels derive entirely from my imagination. And the characters are fictional, although I borrow little bits and pieces from different persons I have known.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
When I read a good book, it expands my sense of humanity and it inspires me to continue writing. I’m not the type to pick favorites. I have admired writers ranging from Elizabeth Strout to Tobias Wolff to Sally Rooney, as well as classic authors like Jane Austen, Tolkien, Trollope, Henry James and many others. I also read journalistic work from authors like Michael Pollan and Naomi Klein. I recently read a history book, Jill Lepore’s These Truths. Whatever the book, I look for intelligence, perceptive observation of the human comedy, and a limpid, cogent style.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Nothing special. I don’t have a bucket list. I spend a lot of my time (probably too much) inside of my head.   

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
My mother thought I would be a good lawyer. She was probably right, although I was never drawn to that profession. People have told me I’m a good listener and would make a good therapist. I’m not sure, however, that I could absorb people’s emotional pain on a daily basis. It might be overwhelming, even if I was helping my clients. I’m doing what I want to do. So, I don’t have a strong desire to try anything else.  

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
That’s a deep psychological question. I’m not sure I have an answer. I was extremely shy as a child. I had a lot of bottled up emotions without any encouragement or outlet to express them. Writing, perhaps, is a way of reclaiming my voice. It’s a way of sharing my true, inner self with the world. I might be looking for that shy, little boy to be validated.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The most recent book that impressed me was Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kittredge. She has a way of expressing deep emotion, deep loneliness, without ever spelling it out. I’d love to learn her secret.

For the last great film, I’d have to go back to the Dardenne brothers’ Deux Jours, Une Nuit. It was a simple story with a universal message about compassion, brotherhood, and humanity.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m about 23,000 words into a new novel, tentatively titled PERPETUAL FLINCH. It’s about a middle-aged woman, Jacqui, who is concerned about her seventy-six-year-old father. He has moved to a rural area and is living a lonely, self-abnegating life with three dogs. Her father’s unusual behavior raises many questions in Jacqui’s mind. Is he truly happy? Has he found a kind of peace in his old age? Or is he simply delusional? Or worse, suffering from dementia?  Jacqui sets out to find out the truth about her father’s decision to live like a monk…and to help bring him back to “life.” It’s a kind of psychological mystery.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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