Since David was a screenwriter for many years, he’s fascinated by the difference between writing for the screen and writing for between the covers. He’s also quite fascinated by pain, how we use it, how we avoid it, and what we can learn from it. So when he came across Jamie Mayer’s wonderful new novel Painless, we decided to pick her brain about books, screenplays, and pain. Which all seem oddly related somehow.
The Book Doctors: What were some of your favorite books as a kid and why?
Jamie Mayer: I think some of the books that make the biggest impression are the ones that help you learn about things you really want to know but no one is telling you, so stuff like sex (Judy Blume, my parents’ old hippy-ish copy of The Joy of Sex), magic (Half Magic, Dragonsong), or the mysteries of older, cooler kids (The Outsiders, Judy Blume again – my friends and I had a well marked-up copy of Forever, her “adultiest” one).
I also loved stories about kids who did things they weren’t supposed to be able to do, like living in a museum (From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), or solving mysteries (Harriet the Spy, Encyclopedia Brown).
TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?
JM: I always wrote short stories for myself, but never really considered writing as a career. In college I studied film, photography and documentary film. I later decided that if I wanted to direct films, no one would let me unless I also wrote them, so I started writing screenplays – and then it turned into my primary career.
TBD: What was the inspiration for Painless?
JM: I read a newspaper story about a young boy with the same disorder as Quinn, the main character in Painless. It’s a neurological condition where you literally can’t feel pain, and his parents were beside themselves trying to live with this kid who had no natural fear of pain and thought nothing of doing things that would hurt himself or others. And I wondered what living like this would do psychologically to this boy as he grew older – if he grew older, because lots of people with this condition don’t survive to adulthood.
TBD: Why did you choose to write a Young Adult novel?
JM: The story of Painless originally took the form of a screenplay, one of the first I ever wrote. I came close to directing it as a film, but when that fell apart, I put it in a drawer and tried to forget about it – but the story still wasn’t done with me somehow. My mentor Holly Goldberg Sloan, the screenwriter/director-turned-best-selling YA author, suggested I try writing it as a YA novel. And that idea just breathed new energy into it – as I expanded and developed it into novel form it took on a whole new life!
TBD: We live in New Jersey, and we wonder what it was like for you growing up in the Garden State?
JM: I always like to stick up for New Jersey, which is really such a beautiful place but gets a bad rap!
My parents lived in New York City before I was born, but when I was still a baby they hit the suburbs of central New Jersey. It was a great place to grow up, just an hour’s train ride from New York – and we visited often to see family, go to museums or theater, etc. – but it really was this smallish town, where kids wandered freely, disappearing into the woods to play and collect tadpoles or whatever for hours without grownup supervision. At the time I thought it was a little boring, but in retrospect, it was pretty awesome. Plus Jersey corn and tomatoes. Plus Springsteen. Plus Jon Stewart. Come on.
TBD: Why did you pick someone who can’t feel physical pain to be your book’s hero?
JM: There are upsides to feeling no pain, but obviously there are downsides too. Around the time I wrote the original story, I was dealing with the long illness and death of my father (who was a wonderful guy, by the way, nothing like Quinn’s dad!). And like anyone who’s experienced the death of a loved one, or a terrible romantic breakup or even unrequited love, I thought to myself, “Wow, this feels horrible. Maybe if I just never care this much about anyone ever again, I’ll never feel this bad again!” Of course, that’s a terrible idea if you want to be even remotely human – if you want to feel the good stuff, you’ll also be vulnerable to feeling the bad. So this physical condition struck me as a perfect metaphor for how people sometimes close themselves off from connection and love, becoming emotionally “painless”. And I wanted to write a story about someone who comes to realize that to make life worth living, he has to open that door a crack.
TBD: How does your process for writing a novel differ from writing a screenplay?
JM: Screenplays are so much about structure and clear character arcs – which are also really useful in writing a novel. But where screenwriting style is usually very spare and external, only describing what you can see, a novel can be more descriptive and internal, so I needed to consciously remind myself to widen the palette, and that was really fun and liberating! Also, in a screenplay you don’t have to choose between first and third (or second!) person POVs, so that created a whole new facet to the process as well..whose POV are we in when, and why, and how?
TBD: What are you working on next?
JM: I just wrote and directed a short coming-of-age film called Crowbar Smile that you can watch on TheScene.com. I’m hoping it will become a full-length feature film soon. I’m also writing several new film and television scripts. There may be a new YA novel brewing as well, but it’s too soon to talk about it!
TBD: If time had split and you were living another, parallel life, what would it be?
JM: I would be a large animal veterinarian. As a kid, I loved biology and animals and was always bringing random animals home. I wanted to go to vet school and interned in high school with my local vet, where I even got to scrub in and assist in the surgery to spay my own kitten! In college, I discovered a love of film and photography, and somehow never got around to all the pre-med classes I would need for vet school. So in my alternate timeline I am a horse doctor, driving from farm to farm with my muddy boots on…
I know it seems unrelated to my current career, but my interest in biology and things medical makes me especially interested in story ideas like the one underlying Painless!
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
JM: Write – which seems obvious, but lots of people don’t do. There are a lot of bad drafts that have to happen on the way to accumulating 10,000 hours of practice! And learn to re-write – which I think is a different, and in lots of ways harder, process, which involves evaluating and incorporating criticism and notes and being willing to tear up things that you might be very attached to! These things are simple to say but not necessarily to do – and I think every writer grapples with both these processes every day.
Screenwriter Jamie Mayer is venturing into prose with her debut YA novel Painless. Born in New York City, Mayer grew up in New Jersey and graduated with a degree in Visual and Environmental Studies from Harvard University. She now lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son and a neurotic-but-good-hearted rescue dog. More info at www.jamiemayer.com.
After having travelled America coast to coast Pitchapaloozing, we were extremely excited and slightly terrified to bring it to our own hometown: Montclair, NJ. Because Montclair is populated with publishing professionals (shake a tree here and an editor from Harper Collins or a New York Times writer will fall out), we were worried that the jaded been-there, done-that mentality might make our event seem passé. But we also know that basically everyone in Montclair wants to write a book, so we were optimistic that there were enough writers who would be hungry to dine at our publishing buffet. Plus we had an all-star panel of judges: Dominick Anfuso, Editor-in-Chief of The Free Press/Simon & Schuster, agent Liza Dawson, founder of Liza Dawson Associates, and Pamela Satran Redmond, New York Times bestselling author and founder of MEWS.
While we started a little late in the game with publicizing our event, we ended up working our tails off to get the word out. We hooked up with Meetup groups, sent stuff to the Montclair State University student newspaper, and its writing department. We got something up on Baristanet, and a couple of pieces in the Montclair Times. Margot Sage-El, the amazing owner of the amazing bookstore, Watchung Booksellers, did her part getting the word out via her website and emails. We also put up posters in the bookstore and at strategic spots in town where writers like to hang and sip their decaf soy lattes with just one shot. The piece on Baristanet sparked some flaming, hate spewing in the comments. Montclair seems to be such a liberal, happy place, but there can be an undercurrent of profound anger bubbling just below the surface. Very David Lynch-ey.
It was a freezing, frigid night. David arrived at 6:15 to help the videographer who was nowhere to be found. The library tech guy announced at 6:40 that the sound system they promised us “wasn’t working.” David, seething, asked the library tech guy what he meant. He explained, that the sound system they had promised didn’t, in fact, work. David, now livid, demanded an explanation. The library tech guy explained that the sound system wasn’t working and he apologized very nicely. David, overwrought, immediately began to assemble his portable sound system–yes, David travels with a portable sound system for just this very reason. And since we were videotaping this Pitchapalooza, we had to have sound. Arielle had not yet arrived, but Montclair’s best and brightest were already piling in by the score. The wonderful staff of Watchung Booksellers, who were sponsoring our event, were frantically putting out more chairs, always a good sign 10 minutes before an event. The videographer finally called, her GPS sent her through Chinatown from Long Island.
Arielle had still not arrived when David had managed to hook up and amplify three mikes. Made them hot. The judges arrived. Steven Pace and Michael Rockliff, two of our favorite people from our publisher, were there. At 6:55, the videographer arrived, a whiff of Chinatown wafting after her. She began frantically setting up. At 6:58, Arielle showed up. The babysitter had been late, some horrendous accident with ambulances had blocked up the streets of Montclair, and there were no parking spaces. Her cheeks were radiating red as she tried to catch her breath as she settled into her judge’s chair. Imagine our gratitude and joy when we started the show at 7:07, exactly as planned, with the cameras rolling and someone from the Montclair Times snapping pix.
Compared to places like Denver, Colorado and Naperville, Illinois, it seemed at first to be a rather subdued crowd of about 125. But once the train started rolling, we heard some top-notch pitches. Ani, an autistic artist and visionary had a stunning book that’s a visual representation of how her autistic mind/soul/spirit sees the world. Plus she has cool green hair. A poet writing a memoir from the POV of a house. A guy who had been tortured by nuns as a kid. But the winner blew everyone away. Wearing a sweatshirt that said, “Careful or you’ll end up in my novel”, she rocked a revisionist historical novel about the Founding Fathers and the creation of America. Spellbinding, smart, timely and timeless, historic and au currant. Plus—get this–she was 15 years old! David confessed afterwards that he had never felt stupider remembering what he was doing at 15.
As usual, our panel doled all kinds of precious info. At one point Dominick said, “I don’t know exactly what your book is. The voice isn’t distinctive and unique. I wouldn’t know which editor I would send assign it to.” Fascinating to see the world through the eyes of a guy deciding which editor to choose. Liza Dowson pointed out the basics clearly, precisely and warmly. Who is the audience? What are the comparable writers/books? Why are you the person to write this book? Pamela Satran Redmond, gushed over a great pitch for a grandmother naming book (she is the author of some of the bestselling naming books of all time) and handed out helpful hints and bon mots about locating, reaching out, and touching your audience.
After the event, the grandmother naming book lady was besieged by admirers and publishing peeps. Our 15-year-old winner (the youngest in Pitchapalooza history) was wide-eyed, stunned, and giddy with glee. Apparently she’s finished five drafts of the novel, but is not quite satisfied yet (why can’t all writers think like this?!). Afterwards people were so nice. It was great to catch up with Montclarian amigos and make lots of new friends among our homies. Laura Schenone, James Beard Award winner and author, and Herb Schaffer, President of Schaffner Media, sat right in front. Laura and Herb also happen to be our closest friends here in Montclair. It was strangely comforting to have our extended family in the hizzle laughing and nodding in all the right places.
We also tried something new. We announced a paid workshop at the Pitchapalooza, then rented a room a week later to do our Stanford University presentation: How to Get Successfully Published. We had no idea if it would work. But we’re constantly trying to evolve the way we get our ideas out into the world. Trying the next thing to see what you can learn to make your thing more easily accessible, simpler for someone who wants it to say: YES.
There was a lot of Montclair love at the Montclair Public Library. The library was great, sound system notwithstanding, and they continue to be an incredibly underrated resource in our community, one that must be supported, nourished, and treasured. Thanks Montclair. We’ve been here 3 years and change, and we can honestly say, Montclair has been very, very good to us. Next stop, Kansas City!
The Fine Grind Book Club
Suburbanistas by Pamela Redmond Satran
Monday, March 7
$5 (one drink–tea, coffee, cappuccino or latte– and a delicious appetizer spread)
Author Pamela Redmond Satran will lead a lively discussion on her book Suburbanistas. This little gem is the story of a Jersey Girl who becomes a movie star, but ends up moving back to her small suburban town and reconnecting with her oldest friend, a mother of four married to a local cop. It’s a story of how female friendships change, survive, and ultimately sustain us through marriages, divorces, kids, moves, careers, success, and adversity. This book is for sale now at The Fine Grind.
RSVP at The Fine Grind counter with one of our excellent baristas, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 973 837 0199. Please check out The Fine Grind Coffee Bar’s list of fabulous events at www.thefinegrindcoffeebar.com.