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Interview: October 14, 2005

October 14, 2005's Carol Fitzgerald, Shannon McKenna and Jennifer Krieger interviewed screenwriter and novelist Brian Strause about his debut work of fiction, MAYBE A MIRACLE. Strause discusses the shaping of his characters and the act of self-discovery that emerges from writing. He also shares his thoughts on constructing a script versus penning a novel, as well as comparisons made between his protagonist, Monroe Anderson, and J.D. Salinger's quintessential troubled teen, Holden Caulfield. Monroe is one of the most interesting narrators we've met in a long time and he's incredibly well-drawn. Did you have a full conception of who he was before you started, or did his character develop along with the novel?

Brian Strause: Monroe and I were merely acquaintances before I started writing. I got to know him along the way. I always thought establishing his voice and making it consistent was my most immediate challenge. Whenever I had my friends read early drafts of the book, that was always my first question --- Is Monroe's voice working for you? What makes writing fun for me, though, is what unfolds during the process. In that sense, Monroe turned out very differently from how I initially envisioned him, and I'm glad he did; watching him evolve and respond to situations is what made spending three years with him so enjoyable for me.

BRC: Monroe has a very distinctive voice --- ironic and wry, a tad sarcastic, but with an innate sweetness and optimism. He felt very real. He's no saint, but despite his foibles, he is truly the moral center of the novel. Was it hard creating a realistic teenage boy who was both heroic and flawed? How much did your own adolescence influence the characterization of Monroe?

BS: I've come to think of Monroe as being a hybrid of a lot of the traits I wish I had and a lot of the traits I regret embodying back when I was a teenager. Monroe's flawed elements came to me quite naturally; it was the heroic side that required a bit more of a stretch. Monroe and I have shared very few life experiences, but we're most alike in the sense that as teenagers we both lived awkward, internal lives. While it's definitely not an autobiographical depiction, there is certainly a slice of me in there. As far as Monroe's flaws go, I think that's ultimately what makes him realistic and approachable. After all, perfection is inherently boring. It's the flaws that make us human.

BRC: Monroe's mother was a particularly striking character and your depiction of her spiral deeper and deeper into faith-based blindness was believable, well-developed and heartbreaking at the same time. Her character was both sympathetic and maddening. Have you had experiences with people who have reacted to tragic circumstances with similar delusions?

BS: I haven't had any immediate experience with people who have responded to tragedy by embracing religion, although I have had friends who made radical religious conversions later in life. From the outside it seemed as if they had put blinders on, like they'd checked out of reality. But from their point of view, they became more focused than they've ever been and their lives gained a sense of purpose. It's hard to hold that against someone. In that respect, I hate to refer to such a conversion as a delusion. To some extent we all create our own realities.

Nonetheless, it's heartbreaking to see someone you love make that leap into the deep end. On one level, I'm happy for the people I've known who have made religious conversions because they seem to have found happiness, but on the other hand, I miss them. They no longer resemble the people I used to know and, selfishly, that makes me sad. Unfortunately, we live in a gray, complicated world that makes it easy for people to embrace the simple black and white answers offered by extreme, fundamental religious factions as a means to make sense of it all. Certainly, there's a median where one can find a spiritual purpose in life without becoming dogmatic about it.

BRC: The question of whether or not Annika will wake from her coma propels the novel towards its startling, unexpected climax. Without giving anything away, did you know Annika's fate from the beginning, or did her destiny work itself out as you wrote this?

BS: From the day I began writing this novel, I knew how I was going to conclude Annika's story. Because of that, I've come to think of writing as akin to taking a road trip. When I hit the road, I like to know where I'm going. What's fun about a road trip, though, is that while you may know the destination and you may know what some of the stops along the way will be, you never really know what's going to happen until you get in the car and go. Maybe you end up not even stopping where you thought you were going to stop, or maybe you end up getting lost and finding yourself somewhere more interesting than you ever imagined. I got lost along the way and visited many unexpected places during the writing of this book. While many of those excursions ended up in my debris file, the journey the characters take in the book wouldn't be what it is had I not gone down those roads that at the time seemingly led to nowhere.

BRC: You grew up in Columbus, Ohio, the setting for MAYBE A MIRACLE. It's obviously an area you're familiar with, but were there other reasons you chose this location as the setting?

BS: I had the privilege of enjoying a storybook upbringing in Columbus. It truly was an ideal place to grow up. One of the additional benefits of living in Columbus is that Corporate America values the city as a test market. If they want to know how barbeque-flavored salmon jerky is going to fly, they try selling it in Columbus first. Of course, as a test market with predictable demographics, it's easy for people to demean Columbus as a Wonder Bread town where nothing interesting ever happens. I don't believe that to be true, so with those misguided notions in mind, I figured, Columbus is, in fact, the perfect place for something extraordinary to happen.

BRC: What is it about the character of Monroe that you think will most appeal to readers?

BS: I know what appeals to me about Monroe is his honesty. He's willing to expose his weaknesses. And while he's a passive character on the outside, the thoughts inside his head are quite rebellious. Monroe's challenge is to break out and let his thoughts turn into action. In that sense, I think Monroe is a very relatable character because we all need to reflect not only on how we feel about the world around us, but how we're complicit in the world's problems when we don't act on our beliefs.

BRC: Leading into the story you include a quote by Albert Einstein: "There are two ways to live your life --- believing everything is a miracle or that nothing is." Why did you choose this particular quote? How does it represent the story?

BS: I believe that quote reflects the central conflict of faith that Monroe struggles with throughout the book. In fact, they were the first words I wrote down when I began work on the manuscript.

BRC: The author Madison Smartt Bell said, "MAYBE A MIRACLE starts out somewhere not far from J.D. Salinger's rye field, but it ends up in a new and strange and marvelous place where only this extraordinary first novelist could take it." What is your take on the comparison of your work to that of J.D. Salinger?

BS: Well, first of all, it's very flattering to have MAYBE A MIRACLE compared favorably to one of my all-time favorite books. It does, however, come as a bit of a shock, especially when people see Annika and Monroe's relationship as being reflective of the bond between Holden and Phoebe Caulfield. It certainly never occurred to me while writing that they were in any way related. I suspect it's a danger whenever anyone writes from a teenage boy's point of view that comparisons to Holden will be made. It's sort of an occupational hazard, so I try to keep that in mind as well. But let's face it, J.D. Salinger wrote an amazing, life-altering book and it's an impossible standard to live up to. CATCHER IN THE RYE was a gift to everyone who has ever felt alienated by our increasingly artificial world. It gave me hope at a time in my life when hope and optimism seemed pretty lame. Thanks to Salinger and so many other great writers, I've come to believe that's what novels are for --- to show us the possibilities of saying yes in a world where it's so easy to say no.

BRC: You've written scripts for TV and film. What made you decide to try your hand at writing a novel? What first sparked the idea for MAYBE A MIRACLE?

BS: On a practical level, I decided to write a book because I wasn't having much success in television or film. I was hitting my mid 30s and I wasn't leaving much of a footprint. It was a very unsatisfying state of affairs. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, yet expecting a different result, clearly I needed to quit banging my head against the wall writing scripts. The natural alternative was to write a book instead.

One of the benefits of writing that I particularly enjoy is the thrill of placing myself in the middle of unique situations and seeing how I react. I've always been conflicted about religion and issues of faith, and since conflict is the crux of all drama, throwing my main character in the middle of a so-called miracle opened up an arena I was interested to explore. It turns out that writing MAYBE A MIRACLE challenged many of my preconceptions, and I came to realize that I had long confused faith with religion. I thought they were one and the same. Joan Didion once said, “I don't know what I think until I write it down.” Her words struck a chord with me, and now I know why. When I began writing this book, I might have described myself as a skeptic, but in the end, I surprised myself with how much faith I actually have. It really was quite a revelation to me.

BRC: Your writing style is especially vivid, making the story come alive for the reader. Did your work in film influence the writing of MAYBE A MIRACLE?

BS: It used to be novelists came to Hollywood and started writing screenplays. Well, it looks like I got it all backwards. After all, it is thanks to writing screenplays that I managed to acquire the skills I needed to write a novel. Before I started writing scripts I was literally afraid to write dialogue, so I'd write stories where no one ever spoke. As you might imagine, it was a bit of an obstacle. It felt like such a huge responsibility, putting words in so many different characters' mouths --- it was paralyzing for me. Like so many of our fears, once confronted, it wasn't nearly as difficult as I imagined. It's funny that after some practice, writing dialogue actually turned out to be one of my strengths.

Another element of successful screenwriting that I appreciate is that you must be concise and the reader must always know exactly where you are. If you're doing your job, you make it very easy for the reader to literally see the story unfold. I like to think my prose benefited from the lessons I learned in this respect.

BRC: Given your background as a screenwriter, it is hardly surprising that this novel, with its striking imagery (rose petals falling from the sky, the mad media circus outside Annika's hospital room), has a distinctly cinematic feel. Could you imagine it being adapted into a film? Are there any actors who you could imagine playing your characters?

BS: With the right director, I'd be very happy to see MAYBE A MIRACLE adapted for the screen; and I certainly hope I'm the one who writes the screenplay for it.

Whenever I write a screenplay, I tend to think of characters in terms of which actor I'd ideally like to see play them. Not once, however, did that occur to me while I was writing this book. The characters were just who they were, people running around loose in my head. Even now, I don't really have any actors in mind for these characters. I suppose if I did, I wouldn't say --- I fear such a proclamation would deprive readers of their imaginations, and I would never want to do that. In fact, as I think about it, there's nothing worse for the cover of a book than seeing a well known actor's face on it.

BRC: What do you find to be the most satisfying aspects of novel-writing versus screenwriting?

BS: The process of writing a screenplay is, by necessity, very calculating. Every script I ever wrote was methodically plotted out --- maybe that was to their detriment, I don't know. Not all screenwriters work that way. Some just let it fly, but you really do have to know where you are at every single page. There's a strict structural formula and it's important that it be followed, especially for television. That structure doesn't allow for a lot of experimentation while doing the actual writing.

Novels, on the other hand, allow for a lot more freedom. I had a sense of where my act breaks were when I started, but that's about it as far as an outline goes. Discovering the heart of the story and who the characters are occurred during the actual writing. It was an incredibly liberating experience. It has often been said that scripts are about the external and novels tend more towards the internal. Novels offer the opportunity to get into a character's head in a way that scripts simply don't have room for. That was probably the most enjoyable element for me, the opportunity to really get into Monroe's head.

What I'm most satisfied about, though, is that the book says what I wanted to say and I didn't have to make any compromises to get there. That's all I could have ever hoped to achieve. Certainly, screenplays offer that same opportunity, it's just not an experience I ever managed to make happen. At least, not yet. After all, a screenplay is just the beginning, a blueprint. Until it is translated to the screen, it remains nothing more than an unrealized idea.

BRC: Can we expect to see more of your novels or your screenplays in the future? What are you working on now?

BS: I'm mapping out a new novel in which I'm very much looking forward to immersing myself, and I'm putting the final touches on a screenplay with Karen Krenis. Also, I hope to soon be working on the screenplay for MAYBE A MIRACLE. So, yes, I hope you'll be hearing more from me soon.