How did you become a writer?
I grew up in an alienating southern California sub-division and at a certain age -- around 16 -- I started to feel chasmically depressed. For whatever reason, I came to the belief that I could avoid suicidal despair -- a common theme in much of my early work -- and that my salvation/redemption would be engendered, if I discovered a form of creative expression of some kind. I didn't really consciously analyze it like this at the time, but in retrospect that's what was happening: I truly believed that art -- when I was finally exposed to great art -- was salutary and could do for anti-deists like me what religion did/does for others. In other words, I truly believed in the transformative therapeutic benefits of creation. I gave up the guitar after one month because I had zero musical talent. I couldn't draw to save my life. Acting terrifies me. My 8th grade teacher prohibited me from singing when the class had the music period, so apparently opera was not an option. But, I loved words. They had power. I wrote a poem about my high school principal titled “Mr. Pencil Head.” It got published in the school journal. The principal called me in to rebuke me for what was obviously an attempt to make him look foolish and otiose. That's when I knew I wanted to be a writer. That's when I realized I had found my creative medium for personal transformation.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
There are too many. When I was 19 years old I took two gap quarters from my alma mater, UCSD, bought -- in one eye-popping purchase! -- the Collected Works of C.G. Jung. All 20 volumes! I read every day for five hours. No TV. No internet back then. Nothing. It was a monastic experience, a herculean undertaking. It took me six months. I emerged transformed! A different person. Jung, among many other accomplishments, of course did all the early research on introversion and extroversion (huge for me later on when I was finding ways to create conflict with character). Also, his work on archetypes in myth and religion and fairytale. All of which Joseph Campbell borrowed heavily from, with Jung's blessing. The hero's journey and all that, but in a psychological context. Jung was huge for me.
I labored through Kafka's novels, but his Letters to Milena blew me away. So emotional. So personal. Early Peter Handke had an effect on me, but I don't care for his later work. D.H. Lawrence -- the power and force of his writing, how it all came out in a veritable cataract. Ditto Henry Miller. The Diaries of Anaïs Nin. Especially today, the unexpurgated ones. Feminists have unfairly maligned her. Bukowski -- the humor, not the misogynist. And Raymond Chandler! And Ross Macdonald! Master prose stylists. And young -- at the time -- women authors like Mary Gaitskill, and obscure ones like Djuna Barnes and Anna Kavan and many others. I read copiously. Anyone who could fearlessly go to the personal, and anyone who had a supreme grasp of craft. Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. But, also, Max Fritsch's Man in the Holocene. Dostoevsky. War and Peace. Fitzgerald for craft. And I still read poetry!
When and where do you write?
I use to write at a desk when I wrote on a typewriter and a desktop computer. But, about five years ago when I was doing revisions on my Sideways the play, I remember I did some of them on my laptop while lying on a couch. It occurred to me: I don't need to go to a desk. So, I write on a couch with my feet up on a table. A while back I was watching a documentary on Ross Macdonald shot in the '60s. Get this: he sat in a big, overstuffed leather arm chair with his feet propped up on an ottoman. He laid a 1"x8" board across the armrests and set his manual typewriter on it. That's how I am if you imagine my thighs instead of a board, and a laptop instead of a manual typewriter.
What are you working on now?
I'm under contract writing a novel titled The Archivist. It's a murder mystery (eventually) wrapped around an erotic love story set in a special collections and archives in a major southern California library. It's based on an 8-episode teleplay I wrote, then stopped writing when I signed this deal with Blackstone Publishing to do the novel instead. It's the first novel I've written in third person. And the main character is a 27-year-old woman, which is kind of terrifying for me as a writer at moments. Fortunately, almost all of my friends are women. I'm co-writing it with a woman -- well, she's the brilliant uber creative consultant; I'm doing the writing -- and my copy-editors are women. And I will only read women authors right now. So, I’m in good hands.
I also finished a screenplay adaptation of my Sideways Chile and there's talk now of there finally being a Sideways sequel movie.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
When I was young I did because I was trying to imitate Beckett and Burroughs and those meta-fiction, post-modernist writers, and it wasn't me. But I had a huge breakthrough with an original screenplay that became my second feature film that I directed. I wrote from what I knew, fictionalizing, and I had the whole trajectory of the story in my head: the characters, their voices, the story, everything. Since then, I haven't had so-called writer's block in a long time. If something isn't working, I go to another fire flaring in my head. But, here's the deal: I don’t write until I know my characters and my ending. I will not write unless I see the whole novel or screenplay unfolding before me. I don't care if I detour along the way, but I have to have that ending. And if I have that ending I never have writer's block. And I have to know the world. I don't like being in places in my fiction that I haven't been in in real life. My only problem today is that I have so many projects in various stages of production development that I have to know when to take off my producer's hat and put on my writer's hat. No, I don't fear the blank page. If anything, I fear too many projects in my head. It helps to have had a success.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
In the Collected Letters of Raymond Chandler there's one letter to a young, aspiring writer that Chandler generously vouchsafed. He told the young writer -- and I'm paraphrasing -- for 4 hours every day, 6 days of week, do nothing but write or think about what you're writing. But, do nothing else for those 4 hours. Now, that's hard to do today with email and texts coming at you all the time like incoming enemy fire in a DMZ, but you have to do it every day to keep it going. When it's really going all I really have to do is put my foot in the stream and I'm gone. I also keep a journal on my phone in this terrific little app where I write down ideas, or sometimes just a great expression or adverb I just read in a novel I'm reading.
Writing is not an avocation. It's a life. A writer -- not a famous one -- once told me: writers are like thieves; they're always working. But, this should not be advice. This should be who you are innately, if you're a real writer.
Best advice I've given and adages I've coined:
Life is not a meritocracy.
Writing doesn't owe you anything.
Between enthusiasm and money lies the Grand Canyon.
Control what you can control: the work.
Don't pander to what's current. Don't be a sheep. Be a wolf, a lone wolf. Risk opprobrium.
Art in service of commerce is not art; art in service of the soul is art.
Also, I like what novelist Alice Hoffman said was the best piece of advice she had ever received. It was from a creative writing professor at Stanford. He exhorted her: quantity over quality. Wow! Now, a lot of writers -- I'm not going to name them because I mostly don't like their work -- would tell you to work over a page until the death. Fuck that! Vomit it out. See what you have. Now, it's true that I write dialogue- and character-driven novels -- largely because my background is really in film -- so I like writing fast, in bursts. Writing Sideways the play -- based on my novel -- was such a joy. Plays can come really fast. Because it's in real time, and it's all dialogue-driven. I understand how Sam Shepard could write a play in one night. I love that kind of raw explosion and the emptying of the soul. Of course I get into revisions, but my advice is to get that first draft out there. I ideated Sideways for months, years, but I wrote the first draft in nine weeks.
I loved it when I read that Nobel Prize-winning Kazuo Ishiguro wrote the first draft of his legacy work, The Remains of the Day, in one month! Sure, he researched it for six, but he wrote the first draft in one month. Wow. He's my hero.
What’s your advice to new writers?
1. Read -- read the best -- write, read some more, see great movies and TV shows. Study them. DO NOT read fucking books on how to write novels or screenplays! They will cripple you. Develop your own voice, your own sensibility. I read every night after a day spent with words. I watch the best movies and I analyze/critique them with friends. Fall headlong, tangle-footedly in love with words. That's all you have.
2. Surround yourself with critical, artistic people who will inspire you, galvanize you, force you to defend your aesthetics. Be talking about literature, about films and TV, and theater all the time. Immerse yourself. Engage. I read The Long Goodbye every couple years just to remind myself what a shitty writer I really am.
3. You don't need a fucking agent or manager. Seven of the last 8 deals I've done, I've done without them, without turning it over to them. Aspiring writers are always asking me: How do I get an agent? My answer: Don't try to get one; make them chase you. They're mostly unimaginative, slow, feckless, negative to a fault. And when you've had success they'll leverage you to their benefit and screw up your career by trying to manipulate you into lucrative deals that you shouldn't sign on to. And, in this day and age when anybody can get to anybody -- like you did with me -- agents and managers are going the way of lacework. 20 years ago you needed agents to get to the talent, to the green-lighters. Not anymore. The gate-keepers are fast becoming superannuated.
4. Be mindful of the changing times -- be it novels or screenplays -- but write unapologetically and unhesitatingly from the deepest layer of your soul. Be unafraid. If your partner leaves you because you scared them, good! In this ocean of self-published novels and feature films shot on iPhones, where the internet spews more content every 48 hours than the entire 20th Century, you have to figure out a way to be an island of recognizability in this veritable tsunami of voices vying for attention.
5. Don’t show anything to anyone until you have at least done a few drafts. I cannot tell you how many people told me Sideways was a total piece of shit, including one of my agents, and over 150 nasty-ass senior editors at esteemed publishing houses. For me, success is the best deodorant; all these rejections were expunged overnight when Sideways was released. The world of senior editors and agents and managers and so-called film and TV development executives is a swamp of carapace-thick wretched creatures seemingly angry that you even exist. Until, of course, you get validated. Then, they appear wraithlike around you and convince you that you need them. It's not that they want to make money off of you -- of course they do! -- it's that they're also jealous that you can do something they can't. Don't listen to them. Find that one person you trust to give you feedback. If it turns out to be an agent or a manager, great, and it's still possible there's a Max Perkins out there. Yes, eventually, you have to go to the world and face this monstrous onslaught of reptilian countenances of rejection, but until then stay in the inviolability of your work and your vision. Don't let it be vitiated by others. Everyone's a critic. Less than 2% of what I've heard over the years about something I've written has ever made any sense to me. I've never incorporated into my work anything unless someone was paying me to sell out and I needed the money. And then, taking my entertainment attorney's advice: grin until it hurts.
6. There's the dream. And then there's the work. The work is 90% of bringing the dream to a point where it's conveyed to others in what you hope they will one day call art.
7. Get all obstacles out of your way. Be a roamie, if you have to. Only get involved in relationships if they support your aspirations. Recognize that you're selfish, but try to stay humble. Be a writer 24/7/365. You may leave it for a few hours here and there, but it should never leave you. Don't tell people you're a writer; don't announce it. Be it. Let them recognize you.
8. Unless stories go away -- and I don't think they will because they're archetypal and necessary for the nurturing of the soul -- writers are always in the pole position. They need us more than we need them, especially in Hollywood. But, it's also true in publishing. Remember your worth. And remember that that agent or film exec who blew you off very well might be helping you into a new car the next year and explaining how the navigation system works. The so-called gate-keepers are nothing without you.
Rex Pickett is author of Sideways, the novel upon which the Oscar winning Alexander Payne film of the same title was adapted. Rex has written everything from poetry to screenplays to novels to plays. He has also written/directed two feature films. He's proud of the fact that he wrote his ex-wife's 2000 Oscar-winning Best Live Action Short, My Mother Dreams the Satan's Disciples in New York. All of his writings and films are now in UCSD's Geisel Library's Special Collections & Archives. He doesn't hate Merlot.