James Curtis

How did you become a writer?

Just happenstance. I was in college and got interested in the work of a rather mysterious film director named James Whale. Intrigued, and having nothing better to do, I wrote a few letters and started getting responses. This led me to Whale's longtime companion, a producer with a reputation for working with writers. He encouraged me to put the story down on paper, although I had absolutely no background in writing. The result wasn't good, but it was eventually published, and I decided to try another, which turned out a bit better. But I never took it seriously in terms of a career, and went on to work in business. It was something I only did on the side until about 15 years ago, when I began doing it full time.    

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

My first editor, the late Marcia Magill at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, did a line edit on my second book that was a revelation to me. I still have those pages and whenever I grapple with draft content, I think of the things I learned from that experience.    

In terms of writers, Gene Fowler, who really popularized biography in the 1930s and 40s, was an early influence, as was Kevin Brownlow, who rescued the silent film era from incorrect projection speeds and tinkling pianos. He saw the romance of it all back when no one else did. Generally speaking, I have always responded to strong stylists like Raymond Chandler and Kurt Vonnegut. In terms of books, I never read one on how to write, but I devoured the nuts 'n' bolts interviews in the Paris Review collections. Currently, I have John McPhee's "Draft No. 4" on my nightstand, but I haven't gotten to it yet.    

When and where do you write? 

I have a home office and an old desk I keep thinking I should replace. As to when, I'd like to be able to say I have set hours, but I can't. When I have a deadline to meet, as I do now, I tend to work seven days a week.  

What are you working on now?

A biography of Buster Keaton for Knopf.  

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

No. Subject's block, yes. But not writer's block. 

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

From Mark Twain: "When you catch an adjective, kill it.” No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them--then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are far apart." And from John McPhee: "Creative non-fiction is not making something up, but making the most of what you have."   

What’s your advice to new writers?

Persist. You'll only get better by continuing to work at it. There's never a time when you're good enough to slack off.  

James Curtis spent twenty-five years as a senior executive in the insurance and computer industries before turning full time to writing. His latest book, Last Man Standing: Mort Sahl and the Birth of Modern Comedy was published in May. He is also the author of William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to ComeSpencer Tracy: A BiographyW. C. Fields: A Biography (winner of the 2004 Theatre Library Association Award, Special Jury Prize); James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters; and Between Flops: A Biography of Preston Sturges. Born in Los Angeles, he and his wife are longtime residents of Brea, California.