As a novelist, how did you learn to write screenplays?
Working with Robert Benton [first, on Nobody’s Fool] has been like studying with Yoda.
Do you ever watch films together?
We both love Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and all those Howard Hawks and John Huston adaptations. As we were working on Twilight [their 1998 crime film starring Paul Newman], we’d say, “Remember the scene in The Big Sleep?” But we had the same weaknesses. At some point, one of us turned to the other and said, “All right, who did it?” Neither of us knew. We had fleshed out half a dozen rich characters that we could have cast with a phone call, but we didn’t know who did it.
So much of your fiction has been shaped by your hometown [Gloversville, New York]. What did your family expose you to when you were young?
My mother and father separated when I was a kid, so a lot of my family life was concerned with my grandparents. My grandmother and I used to watch Zorro. The old Guy Williams Zorro, back in the fifties? It was on an affiliate that came out of Utica, and the screen was 90 percent snow. Now, you haven’t lived until you’ve watched Zorro in snow. You could only tell who was who by the music, because Zorro, dressed entirely in black, was represented by white snow.
It was so romantic! The great black horse! Or in this case, the great white horse. Kids have a particular lust for justice and hatred for injustice. That’s the basis of the Zorro myth—that the world is an unjust place, that it takes a man of courage in unjust times to do something.
Zorro doesn’t sound so different from your protagonists. They aren’t masked, but they’re often decent men who take a stand.
Of course, it hadn’t occurred to me until I started talking about Zorro, but that’s exactly what would have appealed to me. That, and for a young boy, that Zorro is such a romantic pictorial of maleness. I spent much of my career trying to figure out what the hell that means, to be a man.
What men did you look up to?
I used to love to draw, and I remember drawing New York Giants football players. At that stage, we didn’t have a car. And the illustrator LeRoy Neiman was doing a lot of baseball players and football players. Sunoco, the gas station—they had this special limited edition of drawings with New York Giants football players. So each month, with a fill-up, you could get this rendering of Kyle Rote or Frank Gifford. I loved to copy those, but of course the problem was that I had nothing to fill up. Talk about injustice! Zorro would have done something about that too.
So what did you do?
My father was an irregular visitor but I was determined: He had to show up at least once a month because we had to go get the fill-up at the gas station.
Your men are often funny. Which men make you laugh?
I don’t tend to admire the comics who write jokes but rather the kinds of comics who dwell in character. Think of the old Bob Newhart telephone sketches. Or Bill Cosby. They were always bringing us these wonderful fools. They said, “It’s not something to be ashamed of—we’re all idiots.”
You’re a writing-program success story. Whom did you emulate while doing your M.F.A.?
I went to the University of Arizona because I just wanted to get as far from Gloversville, New York, as I possibly could. I wanted to think of myself as a kind of urban and urbane wit, to be sophisticated in a sophisticated place. I would have loved to have written like James M. Cain of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Serenade, like L.A. writers with big-city sensibilities.
So, could you write like Cain?
My first novel, unpublished and unpublishable, was 500 pages long and took place in Tucson, Arizona, where I was still very much a tourist. My mentor said, “There’s really only one section of this book that has any inner life to it—and that’s set in upstate New York.” I knew he was right. I had to come to terms with who I was.
As you turned to upstate New York in your fiction [the setting of Straight Man, The Risk Pool, Nobody’s Fool, and Mohawk], which writers did you begin to read differently?
After that first novel failed, The Great Gatsby began to take on new meaning because I was trying to do what Gatsby was trying to do—except there was no Daisy involved, which was even dumber. Despite the fact that Sherwood Anderson was writing about the Midwest or John Steinbeck was writing about Cannery Row—they cut through my early despair at discovering that I was not who I thought I was. I’d thought my problem was a place problem; I hadn’t quite caught on that I was going to be a writer about class.
Empire Falls reminds me of Steinbeck. Miles Roby is asking his daughter if he should hang up some old photos of the town’s millworkers. He asks, “Too hokey?” And she says, “Just hokey enough.”
Contemporary writers are more afraid of sentimentality than they should be, as if it were suddenly the greatest of all literary sins. It is a literary sin but not the worst. If you’re going to play it safe, you don’t get the real payoff. So that’s my Just Hokey Enough credo.
Is that reflected in the music you listen to?
Well, I love Springsteen: The Ghost of Tom Joad. The lyrics in that are just stunning. I could quote any line from “Youngstown,” and it could serve as an epigraph for any of my work.
Writer, Empire Falls