Interview: July 9, 2010
Gregg Hurwitz is the author of 10 thrillers, including LAST SHOT, THE CRIME WRITER, TRUST NO ONE, and the newly released THEY’RE WATCHING. In this interview with Bookreporter.com’s Joe Hartlaub, Hurwitz reveals the source of inspiration for all of his novels, and compares personality traits with his latest protagonist, Patrick Davis. He also discusses his work in television and comics, fantasizes about alternate careers if he weren’t writing for a living, and shares details about a possible big screen adaptation of THEY’RE WATCHING currently in the works.
Bookreporter.com: I’m going to go out on a limb and call THEY’RE WATCHING my favorite book of yours to date. There’s a Southern California world-weariness to it that reminds me a lot of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels, while the narrative is very cinematic, putting one in the mind of Alfred Hitchcock. Let’s start by talking about Patrick Davis. In the beginning of the book, Davis is on the downside of the accomplishment of his life’s dream. He has sold his first screenplay for a film, but has been fired by the studio, sued by the main actor, and his marriage is floundering. As if that wasn’t bad enough, someone starts leaving DVDs on his property that contain video recordings of Davis and his wife going about their business. When it becomes obviously that Davis is being stalked, things get even worse for him. Whoever is doing it starts jerking him around, and before he knows it, his life is turned upside down in the worst ways imaginable. There are strong shifts throughout the story among the issues of who, what, how and why, right up until the end of the book. When you sat down to write THEY’RE WATCHING, which came first --- the people behind the recordings, their method of invading his life, or the reason for picking him to begin with?
Gregg Hurwitz: It was the method of invasion. My books generally start from personal experience --- personal fears. And that notion of someone watching and recording everything I did seemed so damn unsettling. I imagined getting DVDs showing footage of me in my private life and having to cope with the fact that no matter where I went, I'd have to check over my shoulder to look for people spying on me.
What came next was the character. I know I have a book when a plot collides with a character. In this case, with Patrick and his unique set of circumstances. His circumstances and emotional state are what open him up to this sort of intrigue, so when I met Patrick, it was a happy day at the keyboard. I knew he was the man for the job. And then, to thank him, I put him through hell for 400 pages.
BRC: One of the interesting side-plots to THEY’RE WATCHING was the film industry itself, how things do and --- more often than not --- don’t get done. You have had your own experiences as a producer and screenwriter for television. How much of Gregg Hurwitz is there in Patrick Davis?
GH: This is always a tough one to answer. Everything is fiction. And everything is nonfiction at the same time. I think that some of Patrick's "shameful" dreams --- to be noticed, to be more than he is, to have the magical sale that changes his life --- are dreams that most of us have when we move to LA. So I think his more unflattering traits --- the ones that make him human --- are closer to me than the aspects of him that are heroic.
BRC: Patrick Davis notwithstanding, LAPD detective Sally Richards was hands down my favorite character in the book. She’s a glib, streetwise cop, a smart aleck who is always the smartest one in the room but always knows more than she lets on. She is also, in a surprising way, one of the book’s more sympathetic characters. How did Richards evolve as a character for you?
GH: I have no idea. She was one of those delightful characters who completely wrote herself. Every time the cursor was there blinking after I typed, "Sally said," she would come up with something far wittier than anything I could have thought of. I tend to get one character like that per book who just talks on her own. I'm glad you liked her so much and wish I could claim more credit.
BRC: Let’s make you casting director for a day for a new film project entitled They’re Watching based on your novel of the same name. Do you have thoughts on which actors you would pick to fill the roles?
GH: There's a broad range. I think someone who is believable as an ordinary guy makes sense. Which brings to mind a Tobey Maguire or Jake Gyllenhaal. Perhaps surprisingly, Tom Cruise could also be a candidate --- he is terrific with characters under pressure (think The Firm, not MI). Johnny Depp would also be great.
BRC: It seems as if you have something new and different that releases every month or two, whether it’s an episode of “V,” an issue of Moon Knight or The Punisher, or a new book, such as THEY’RE WATCHING. How does this impact your writing schedule? Did you have to make any adaptations to juggle multiple deadlines? How do you manage it?
GH: Comprehensive lack of sleep. And virtually no wasted time every day. I try to get by with 12-hour days, but sometimes they go longer. I tend to work in blocks. I can't work on a script in the morning and a novel in the afternoon. I do better to jam through a draft of something, set it down, hit a rough draft of something else (say, a first act of a novel), then pick up the other and polish it. That keeps me from having to hold too many things in my head at any one time.
BRC: On a somewhat related note, if you could have one --- and only one --- of your novels adapted to film, which would it be?
GH: THEY’RE WATCHING --- and we're on our way! There's such a visual aspect to the storytelling in this one. In a way, it's an homage to my favorite movies of this type. Rear Window. Blow Up. Blow Out. So there's so much to be done with those grainy, creepy DVDs....
BRC: What is your favorite film adaptation of a novel? Why?
GH: Probably Apocalypse Now. Because it honors the soul of the book while changing the story drastically. And it recasts the story to make it incredibly relevant for a different time. Sometimes the best adaptations don’t stick closely to the novels.
BRC: You have made a strong mark in three different media as a writer: you've had novels published, written screenplays, and penned stories involving iconic comic book heroes. Given that it is difficult to break through in even one of these areas, could you tell us what events led you to where you are currently? What happened first? And how easy or difficult has it been to make the transitions into each of the different disciplines?
GH: I think I was too dumb to be overly respective of the obstacles. I was told what I COULDN'T do a lot, and I like to nod politely, then ignore that. The books started first. Then I broke in to feature scripts. Next was TV. And finally comics. Having success as a novelist certainly helped in some regard, though Hollywood is inclined to think that novelists can't do scripts (they're worried we're too long-winded). Once I'd broken in to screenwriting AND novels, I had an advantage in the last two. I got a shot in TV and comics more easily, but then of course had to prove my worth in short order.
BRC: Do you prefer writing series fiction or stand-alone works? And what are the advantages and disadvantages to writing either?
GH: Right now I am loving writing stand-alones. I like to pick up a character where I want to and leave him off where it is best for the story. There's no regard for setting up the next book --- just a complete focus on the story at hand. Some writers are of course brilliant at doing this within a series, but I think I'm less suited to it. Even my series --- the Rackley books -- felt more like a tetralogy than an ongoing series. Readers remarked that it felt like a series composed of stand-alones. Weird! Also, THEY’RE WATCHING (and TRUST NO ONE) have Everyman protagonists. And it's hard to build a series around an Everyman or one strains credulity by having him stumble into crime scene after crime scene in all those Chapter Ones.
BRC: Of all of your own work to date, from any discipline, which is your favorite? And why?
GH: Novels are my first love. How do I feel when I'm writing a book? Tennessee Williams described the sensation more artfully than I can: "There is no pleasure in the world like writing well and going fast. It’s like nothing else. It’s like a love affair, it goes on and on, and it doesn’t end in marriage. It’s all courtship."
BRC: I found it interesting that you have a Master’s Degree in Shakespearean tragedy from Trinity College in Oxford. Which is your favorite tragedy of Shakespeare, and why? And which of Shakespeare’s tragedies, in your opinion, would best provide the basis for a thriller novel?
GH: Coriolanus! It's the greatest. And I'm so excited that there's a Ralph Fiennes film coming out soon. Macbeth of course would be a brilliant mob thriller. And Othello: lust, love, murder --- 'nuff said.
BRC: You’ve garnered some amazing accomplishments in a relatively short time. What career goal or goals that you have set for yourself do you have yet to achieve?
GH: Getting a film adaptation made of one of my books. I've adapted my own work for the studios, but never gotten a movie made. Likewise with my scripts --- I have a few specs that got snapped up lately, but I'd love to see one go the distance. Oh --- and getting my own TV show on the air. Working on “V” is a blast, but someday I'd love to run a show that I created. As for the books? Getting better each time out.
BRC: If you were just beginning your writing career, but knew what you know now about the process and the industry, what would you do differently, if anything?
GH: Nothing. From day one, my focus has been on the writing. I love to write. The industry ebbs and swells, and one can't pay attention or try to ride the latest currents.
BRC: If you weren’t writing for a living, what, in the best of all possible worlds, would you be doing?
GH: Second base for the Red Sox. Pedroia's injured right now....maybe I could just fill in for a few games?
BRC: What have you read in the past six months that you would recommend to our readers?
GH: My favorite thing is a play called Orange Flower Water by Craig Wright. He's the playwright and Emmy-Award winning screenwriter who we got to adapt THEY’RE WATCHING, and this play is one reason why he's so right to depict the complexities and pressures of marriage.
BRC: What are you currently working on in terms of a future novel?
GH: Editing away on the next one. I can't talk about it too much or else I'll no longer have to write it. There's something about keeping a book inside that makes it want to come out more....
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