Is it criminal to collaborate with your ex?
Best-selling novelist Lisa Lutz started out as a screenwriter and, unlike so many wait staff in Los Angeles, actually saw her script, Plan B (starring Diane Keaton), get made. But the film was a flop that went straight to DVD, leaving Lutz broke (at the producers’ request, she had quit her day job at a San Francisco private investigation firm and moved to L.A. to rewrite the script). Lutz’s own Plan B turned out to be writing The Spellman Files, a Novel, that just so happened to chronicle the adventures of a San Francisco PI. Lutz’s latest mystery is Heads You Lose, the saga of a NorCal pot-farming couple who find a headless body on their doorstep that they can’t seem to get rid of (don’t you hate it when that happens?). Co-written with her ex-boyfriend, poet David Hayward, the novel incorporates real-life emails between the couple as they battle over the plot and which characters to axe. Figuring I could pick Lutz’s brain about the writing business, I gave her a call at her San Francisco home for some much-needed career advice.
Paul Kilduff: A lot of times, ex-girlfriend, ex-boyfriend, it’s like returning to a crash site. Like what do you want to go back to that for?
Lisa Lutz: The point of the whole book [Heads You Lose] is sort of to expose a collaboration gone wrong and who better to team up with than an ex, so you know the book is meta fiction so we present it in a certain way. We present it as this is a crazy, idiotic idea but the fact was I went into it knowing exactly what it was going to be so the point was that we were going to have numerous conflicts over the story, over the characters, over everything that happened in the crime novel and we were exposing how the novel would unfold with that in mind.
PK: So you knew that going in that it was going to be a train wreck.
LL: Well, I don’t think I would call it a train wreck ’cause you have to look at the whole picture of the book and how it works. The book is not just the crime novel; it’s the story of the two authors vying for control of the crime novel.
PK: Did old tensions arise between the two of you?
LL: No, I mean we have been friends for a while and we do have a contentious relationship in the sense that we’re critical of each other but I don’t know that we feel the blows anymore when one person makes a snarky remark to the other. But we did sort of expose things that in the past might have bothered us but we were using them for the story, we weren’t actively feeling them as we wrote. I mean there were other tensions that arose as we realized what this collaboration would be. Dave writes a lot slower than I do and because we didn’t have a deal for the book we had to write it all on spec. I had some time constraints because as a crime novelist you’re expected to have one book a year and I didn’t know if this book was going to work or not so I couldn’t be spending, you know, a full year on a first draft. So you know there were conflicts like that. I mean Dave’s a great writer, he was an award-winning poet, he’s currently doing freelance writing and copyediting but plot is not his forte and I was shocked because the novel, not like my other books, it begins with murder. You begin with a dead body, you know foul play is involved and when I handed over my chapter to Dave, because they’re written in alternating chapters, Dave’s, in chapter two, barely addressed the murder at all.
PK: That’s not what you were expecting.
LL: Well, with a crime novel you usually somehow deal with it.
PK: So you didn’t sketch this out in advance then?
LL: Well, when we first started I wanted to sort of write it the way we presented it that I write the odd number chapters, he writes the even number chapters and then we include our notes to each other in between. And I actually sort of thought we could do the whole book that way but by chapter four or five Dave said I need to know something, we need to have some guidelines, and some plot points to go to as we go along. So, at that point we started plotting it out a little. I mean I did most of the major plotting, but that said, these were just brush strokes. Giant brush strokes that we had preordained, but every time one of us got a chapter we expected, and the fun part was that we always got a blindside. There was always something in the chapter that completely surprised us and then we had to deal with it accordingly in our own chapter.
PK: Have you created a whole new genre of literature here, this collaborative effort? I mean I’m not aware of any other book written this way.
LL: There is no other book written quite like this, no, where you actually show a collaboration and sort of expose the beams.
PK: Do you recommend it?
LL: I still prefer writing alone.
PK: I kind of get that impression that you would have preferred to have done this by yourself.
LL: This isn’t a book you can do by yourself, you know. I can’t play another writer. I suppose I could but it wouldn’t have been as good. You need the blindsides for it to work. You need a completely different personality messing with your vision but I still do find that writing alone is easier in part because I can work at my own pace and it was very difficult for me during the down time while I was waiting for Dave’s chapters. I was like a drill sergeant with him on getting them in on time.
PK: Hurry up Dave.
PK: Was that reminiscent of your relationship with him? That he was kind of slow when you guys were going out?
LL: No, no. He’s just a slow writer.
PK: Do you think this is going to be a genre that’s going to take off? That we’re going to see other examples of this?
LL: I don’t really think so, no. I mean it’s like a sub, sub genre. I just don’t see it becoming some big thing. Someone has suggested even a sequel for me and Dave and it just seems sort of, on some level, ridiculous because it’s about a disaster. We hope that we’ve created a satisfying ending and I’m really proud of the ending because I wrote it but I also think that there’s no reason someone would think they could copy us and think they could do better.
PK: But what about as a movie though? The whole process of doing this as a movie?
LL: Well, we have a screen rider attached and we’re trying to get some backing for that, and I think it could be a really interesting film so we’ll see what happens.
PK: I mean it could be sort of a love story at the end.
LL: Well, it’s not a love story in the book so I don’t know why it would be in a film.
PK: I know, but between the two of you, just the process of writing this again, it brings you back together, you know what I mean?
LL: Yeah, but it didn’t. So, yeah I don’t think that’s what our book was about in any way.
PK: That would be how Hollywood would screw it up if they got the script, right?
LL: Yeah, probably.
PK: They would probably turn it into that. So, when it was all over you didn’t say to yourself, “Gosh you know, David’s a really cool guy after all.”
LL: No, it’s pretty obvious if you read the book that I didn’t.
PK: If you want to get a movie made or a TV show made, is it better to write a book first or to write a screenplay?
LL: If you want to be a screenwriter, the odds are against you. It’s like winning a lottery. Anyone who truly believes that they’re going to write a screenplay and it’s going to get made, I think is crazy.
LL: But somebody who wants to write a novel and get it published, if the novel is good, you are likely to find an agent and maybe a publisher. You may not get rich off of it. In fact, most novelists don’t make a living writing novels. But you’re more likely to get published than to get produced.
PK: Is that just because of the politics of Hollywood and it’s all about who you know and who’s going to read your script anyway?
LL: That’s just a very small part of it. It’s mostly, if you just think about how many films are made each year and how much it costs to make a film and how much it costs to publish a book and how many books are published each year. I mean and I’m talking about legitimate publishing. Not like having your book formatted for Amazon or something.
PK: Right, yeah. It’s like playing pro sports or something. What are your chances? Forget it, right?
PK: I never thought about that. Because you actually beat your head against a brick wall for many years and actually did get a movie made. But it sounded like all the rules of screenwriting really dragged you down, that you don’t have with writing a novel.
LL: Well, at the time, I didn’t think, “Oh I hate these rules.” At the time, I thought, “Oh, I hate getting notes from morons.” That’s what I was really thinking. There’s so many people giving me notes that are just dimwits. They have no business telling you how to write anything. They’re just throwing out ideas and expecting you to use them without really considering the effect an idea will have on the rest of the script. That was what I was thinking of at the time. And I just never thought I could write a novel. I felt like the screenplay was the perfect language for me. I knew my screenwriting was over after Plan B was made so I thought, okay, I’ll just try to write a novel and see what happens. And when I did that, I thought to myself, okay, this is how I’m going to approach it. There are no rules. The only thing I cared about was would the reader want to turn the page? So when I asked people for early reads on the book, all I really said to them was, “Tell me when you’re bored.” And that’s it. And that to me is the most important thing. Like you just need somebody to turn the page. That’s the only rule. You can do whatever you want.
PK: Did you have any experience growing pot?
PK: Did you have to do a lot of research on that? Getting a sense of it?
LL: No. Because I was the reason the whole book was getting published and the book was entirely my idea. I felt it was really Dave’s obligation to be the one to do the research. And Dave knew some people who were in that world and already had this interesting information before we proceeded on the novel. So I just let him handle that.
PK: Does he live up that way?
LL: Yeah, he lived in the wine country area. But in that general area, there is a lot of marijuana growing.
PK: It’s hard not to know people that are doing that up there because that’s the only way anybody makes any money, right? I mean that’s basically the economy.
LL: Well, I think that there are other ways. There’s prostitution, you know.
PK: Any experience with headless bodies?
LL: Of course! You have no experience with headless bodies? Wow.
PK: Do you have any advice for people that want to do this? I think a lot of people probably feel that they have a novel in them. Sometimes, I think I do.
LL: Yeah, a lot of people feel like they have a novel in them but they don’t. I mean here’s the thing. My agent and I always sort of joke about this but there’s so many people who want to write a novel but they don’t actually have a story to tell.
LL: I always wondered why do you want to write a novel if you don’t have anything you have to say? You don’t have a story already in your head that needs to come out. The best advice I can give to writers is not try to emulate anyone else. If you really love this author, you’ll probably not ever going to be better than that person. So do what you do best. Figure out what angle you can approach writing that’s sort of unique and that’s the best advice I can give. That’s sort of how I approach novel writing. People always ask me who my influences are and I say I don’t have any literary influences. I have authors I love but they’re not influencing what I’m doing.
PK: I think so often what people are really saying when they say, “Well, I want to write a novel” is that “Boy, the life that I’ve led up to this point is so interesting and fascinating that I’m going to turn it into some sort of autobiographical novel.” That’s an essential element of a lot of first novels is that they are autobiographical.
LL: That is true. That’s absolutely not true for me. In fact, everything I wrote up until fairly recently has been quite distant from my own life. You know, it’s like, yeah, I worked in a PI firm but none of the characters or the family of the Spellmans resemble mine in any way whatsoever.
PK: It almost sounds like what you’re saying is if that’s something that you want to pursue as a novelist, take a good look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself is that even an interesting story? Maybe your life story isn’t that interesting.
LL: Exactly. Most people aren’t as fascinating as they think they are. I hate to break it to them.
For more Kilduff, go to thekilduff-file.blogspot.com.
Age: Don’t you know it’s impolite to ask?
Birthplace: San Bernardino. And that was probably the last time I was there.
Astrological sign: Pisces. But if you think that tells you anything about me, you’re sadly mistaken.
When I Grow Up I Want to Be: A Scorpio.
MyAmerican idol is: I’m sorry, I fell asleep. What was the question again?
Tuesdays, 1 p.m., Sproul Plaza