How did you become a writer?
I sort of backed into it. We had a 10 watt radio station at my high school. By my senior year I was its program director, and I gave myself a one hour block once a month to do a sketch comedy show, inspired by Saturday Night Live, which at the time was fairly new. I wrote it all myself. But I didn’t think of it as writing; I thought of it as doing radio.
The following summer, right before college, I was a counselor at a camp for the arts, running their closed-circuit radio station. I had a friend there who was a writing counselor. He was a little older, had been writing and putting on plays at Yale. I played him cassettes of some of my radio stuff and he suggested I try writing a play. I kicked out a one-act on a day off, we did a reading, and I was hooked.
Thirty-five years later (yikes), I sort of backed into becoming a novelist. I’d made my living as a writer for all the years since college -- five years in advertising, then TV (mostly sitcoms) and then movies. I had this detective screenplay which I thought was as good as anything I’d ever written, and we kept coming so close to getting it made, but couldn’t quite get it there. It occurred to me that even though detective movies weren’t as common as they used to be -- which was why we were struggling to get it produced -- they still published a whole lot of detective books. So I got the book rights back from the producers and wrote a reverse adaptation, just because I didn’t want this good material to die. I didn’t know if I had the talent to write fiction -- I hadn’t tried since my teens -- so I wrote it under a pseudonym, so that if it stunk it wouldn’t damage my TV and movie career.
But then I got a book agent right away and he sold it right away. Thirty-five years, and it was the first thing that ever came easily. Somewhere in there I dropped the pseudonym and now I think of myself as a novelist who still occasionally does some TV and movie work.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
First, that fellow counselor, Glenn Gers, who to this day is one of my closest friends and the most talented writer I know, full stop. And also the most deeply thoughtful writer about the activityof writing. (More on this below.)
I had three important English professors at Amherst College, right after I started writing, who shaped the way I think about literature and my own work: Richard Cody, William H. Pritchard, and Benjamin DeMott. I still think about the things I got from them at least every month, probably every week.
Woody Allen and Larry Gelbart were my first creative role models, and Mike Nichols, too. Later I had the great fortune to have Nichols as a mid-career mentor for a while. I also learned a lot from Allan Burns, whom I worked with early in my TV career.
Nothing was as powerful as my first time reading the Christopher Durang one-act SISTER MARY EXPLAINS IT ALL FOR YOU, when I was eighteen or nineteen. It was like the sky cracked open. Woody and Gelbart were gentle; SNL was gentle; this guy was out to break things and somebody could get hurt. I hadn’t realized comedy could be like that.
The biggest influence on the fiction I’m writing now has to be Scott Turow, but I didn’t realize that until I was deep into my sec ond novel. Now I’m going back through all his books and can really see where a lot of my instincts came from. He went to Amherst, too, but well before me. I don’t know what that means.
When and where do you write?
I start early mornings, seven days a week, at a coffee shop about three quarters of a mile from my house. I walk there and treat it like an office, put in a full morning, then usually go somewhere else and work through an early lunch. My brain’s fried by 12:30 or 1:00; then I walk home, take a short nap, and spend the afternoon reading and exercising and handling whatever miscellaneous work I have floating around, like answering these questions.
What are you working on now?
Usually I’m deeply focused on one project, but this summer it’s been sort of a potpourri. I’m spending this week and next making small revisions for the publisher on a second Waldo book. I’ve been polishing a draft of a stand alone comic novel, fairly different, and starting to plot out the third Waldo. I’ve also been doing a little movie work (revisions for the director on the screenplay version of LAST LOOKS, which will, with luck, go into production soon) and a little television development.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I’m so terrified of the blank page that long ago I worked out an M.O. to get around it. I outline like mad, months and months sometimes, so that the “actual writing” is really just finding the words (dialogue for a movie or TV script, prose for a novel) to fill in scenes I’ve already worked out thoroughly. When I’m writing TV or movies, I’ll write the first pass as fast as I can, as badly as I have to, then revise like mad, too, scribbling on it with a red pen, then typing in the changes and doing it again, pass after pass after pass until I’m finally satisfied. Novels I treat a little differently, trying to write as well as I can sentence by sentence, but I’ll still go back and do three or four or five or six laborious passes at each chapter before I’m ready to move on to the next, knowing even then that I’ll be back for more passes later.
So, no, I don’t get writer’s block, but only because I’m so terrified of it that I’ve figured out how to inoculate myself.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
This goes back to the last question, and to Glenn Gers, whom I mentioned earlier. It was about twenty years ago. I was already a successful TV writer and showrunner and I was doing one of my first screenplay assignments, an adaptation of a novel for Jack Nicholson to star in, and I had done my extensive outlining and I blasted through a pass, and it sucked, but I was frozen in place, so intimidated by the idea of Big Jack reading it that I couldn’t think of how to make it better. I guess that’s a cousin to writer’s block, a rare case of even that for me.
Glenn said: Just do whatever it is you did when writing has gone well. Work the time of day you worked, eat what you ate, drink what you drank, use the same pens or pads or computer or whatever. The same process, in every way you can control. I did, and broke through whatever had been holding me up and it turned out really well.
It was the first time I gave thought to regularity of process, about keeping my mechanics simple and constant so that the creative part can happen without distraction. I’ve become kind of neurotic about it since then. I need the same three software programs on my laptop (MS Word, Scriptware, and Writers Blocks, my secret weapon), and I bop between them constantly, even on novels. When I’m working in pen I need to use a Uniball 0.2 mm Roller, red when I’m scrawling on a printed page and black when the pages are new, and, for those new pages (more common on a script than a novel), I need a three-hole pad so I can add them to my loose leaf binder, and not just any pad but a National Porta-Desk, college ruled. (I order a carton of them every few years.)
By the way, on that Nicholson project, the director slipped in an old script of his own instead, and they made that one. Jack never read mine. But still.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Don’t let anyone outwork you; keep your butt in the chair. Learn to love outlining; it’s your best friend. Learn to love revising; it’s your second best friend.
Howard Michael Gould graduated from Amherst College and spent five years working on Madison Avenue, winning three Clios and numerous other awards. In television, he was executive producer and head writer of CYBILL when it won the Golden Globe for Best Comedy Series, and held the same positions on INSTANT MOM and THE JEFF FOXWORTHY SHOW. He wrote and directed the feature film THE SIX WIVES OF HENRY LEFAY, starring Tim Allen, Elisha Cuthbert, Andie MacDowell and Jenna Elfman. Other feature credits include MR. 3000 and SHREK THE THIRD. His play DIVA premiered at Williamstown Theatre Festival and La Jolla Playhouse, and was subsequently published by Samuel French and performed around the country. LAST LOOKS, his first novel, will be published by Dutton in August. A sequel, BELOW THE LINE, will follow in 2019.