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.
As I fell asleep the night before Pitchapalooza, I told myself not to be nervous. I decided that one of three things would happen: 1) I would go and I wouldn’t get to pitch. 2) I would go and I would pitch and I would lose. 3) I would go and I would pitch and I would win. I then told myself that there was no way number 3 would happen, so it was really just down to 1 and 2. I decided that there was a large possibility that number 2 wouldn’t happen, either, because only 20 or 25 people would get to pitch. So I resigned myself to the fact that I would probably end up sitting there listening to 20 other people pitch, chin resting on my hands, applauding after every one, and then leaving as the same person I was when I walked in.
I had written my pitch earlier that day. It had taken about five minutes. I used my iPod to time myself saying it once or twice, to make sure it was under a minute. It was. So I printed it out and went back to what I’d been doing before – writing fanfiction.
It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested or excited to pitch – it was that I didn’t want to let myself anticipate anything but losing. I realized that a fifteen-year-old writing what was really like an anthology of short stories was an unlikely win. I figured I would get up to the podium, do my pitch, and if I got through it without majorly screwing anything up – which was definitely a concern of mine – the judges would just say things like, “Well, it’s a good idea, but…” or “There really isn’t a market for an anthology of short stories right now.”
I didn’t want to expect to win because I really didn’t think I would. It was like when I went to Disney World when I was 10 and was anticipating the single best week of my life, and it just really didn’t live up to my very high expectations. How could it?
I was trying to protect myself.
In the car on the way to the book store, my parents asked me to read my pitch. I get nauseous if I read or write things in the car, so I agreed to read it once and then stop. I did, and of course my parents had all sorts of suggestions. My mom handed me a pen and told me what she thought I should change. So, stomach growing ever more uncertain, I changed a few of the things she suggested but disregarded some of her suggestions. I added some things that I thought would work better, and re-worded some sentences.
One of my biggest pet peeves with my mom editing my work is when she tries to tell me exactly what to do. She makes suggestions and then tells me exactly how I should re-write it. I hate that. I don’t feel proud of myself if she does this, because it technically wasn’t me who wrote it – it was her. And I’m terrified that someone will say, “Oh, the best part was this!” and that this was something my mom wrote.
I realize this’ll be an issue where editors are concerned, but I’m just trying to live in a fantasy about that for right now, so let me be.
The pitch that I presented was almost completely written in the car. I kept the main structure of what I’d written the day before, but I changed most of it. I didn’t even read through the final thing because I was afraid I might barf if I didn’t look out the window.
I’ve been in plays before, I’ve gotten up on stage and read things in front of tons of people, I’ve given presentations in class, et cetera. Each and every time I’ve done this, I’ve freaked out. I don’t like presenting things. I’m always terrified that I’m going to throw up or faint in front of everyone and embarrass myself thoroughly.
Yet I make myself do it. In some situations I don’t have an option – like the time in eighth grade where I had to present a power point on House Slaves in the 19th century in front of 100 people. That was truly terrifying and I would’ve paid money not to have to do it. In other situations, though, it’s a choice that I make – I like doing plays because I meet a lot of great people in them.
And Pitchapalooza I chose to do because if I want to be a writer, I have to get used to talking about my books in front of lots of people.
Today I watched the livestream of the red carpet at the London premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. J.K. Rowling stood on stage in front of thousands of people in Trafalgar Square and millions around the world, and she talked about the whole Harry Potter experience and all that.
So I figure I have to have practice for when I’m standing in front of millions of people worldwide at the premiere for the eight movie made about my books.
Also I have to put myself out there if I ever want to get to Trafalgar Square. Baby steps.
When my name was called to get on deck for presenting my pitch, I was surprised but forced myself to just stand up and walk over to the book case next to the podium and wait for the woman before me to finish her pitch. I had my paper in my hands, with things written across other things, sentences crossed out, arrows directing me where to read. It was all wrinkled and I was afraid it looked unprofessional.
I looked at a book on the book case which had a lovely picture of a really nice, sleek modern house in the middle of the woods that reminded me of Edward Cullen’s house in the Twilight movies. If I was still a Twihard, that would’ve gotten me so psyched up and ready to go that it’s almost embarrassing to admit.
I stepped up to the podium when it was my turn and everyone was looking at me. I set my paper down because I absolutely hate when people are standing up in front of people and they seem perfectly calm in their face and voice, but you can see the paper in their hands shaking and you can tell they’re nervous.
I avoid that at all costs.
I read my pitch, inwardly freaking out and hoping that no one could tell. Everyone was looking at me and I was afraid that they were judging me or were mad at me; like, ‘How come this fifteen year old girl can get up and pitch her stupid book when I’ve worked for 30 years on my book? She probably wrote it only 6 months ago.’ Which would be true. And yeah – how dare I? Shouldn’t I just give up my place and let someone older and more mature and wiser and better than me present their pitch?
I should probably just go home to my fanfiction.
I was truly shocked that the judges had such good feedback for me – they actually liked my idea and thought it would have a good market! I could barely even understand what they were saying, because by the time they got to one sentence I was still processing the sentence before, thinking, ‘What?!?!’
It’s a good thing my dad was videotaping it so I could go home and watch it over and over again so I could actually hear and try to comprehend what the judges had to say.
As I walked back to my seat, people were smiling at me. I couldn’t figure out if they were smiles like, ‘Oh she’s such a cute kid!’ or if they were more like ‘Wow, that was a very nice pitch!’ Or maybe they were like, ‘I’m going to smile at her so she won’t realize that I’m cursing her out on the inside for taking my well-deserved spot.’
I got back to my seat and my parents were smiling at me. I was smiling, too, so unbelievably relieved that I hadn’t gotten the reaction I’d expected. The rest of the event passed in a blur; I tried to figure out if I actually had a chance or not and I’ll admit, I thought I did. I didn’t want to think this, because I didn’t want to set myself up for disappointment, but sometimes I can’t help it.
When the winners were announced, I was freaking out again. I do a lot of that – but I’m a fifteen year old girl – it’s in the job description. (Incidentally, there is a lot of freaking out done in my book by fifteen year old girls.)
There was a tie. Apparently, the two winners had such drastically different ideas that they couldn’t pick.
I really, sincerely hoped that the first name they announced, if it wasn’t mine, was drastically different from my book.
It was. It was about financial scams and stuff I don’t fully understand.
They announced my name
I stood up and grinned and everyone cheered and I tried to figure out if I should sit down again. I looked at the other guy who had won and he was sitting down, so I sat down too.
And then I realized that I had won.
Number 3 out of the 3 possibilities was the least likely! It was the one that I’d told myself wouldn’t happen.
And it did.
The next 15 minutes were all smiles and ‘thank you’s and handshakes and more ‘thank you’s. I just hoped they weren’t all secretly plotting my murder for winning when they didn’t.
To be honest, I felt kind of bad. Lots of these people had spent their whole lives working on these books, and I’ve spent my whole life writing mediocre stories on pieces of paper that I stapled together and presented proudly to my parents, declaring that they were books. When I learned to type, I wrote hundreds of beginnings of stories on the old mammoth computer in the study. It took me a few years to ever write something that I actually finished. When I learned about fanfiction, I got an account on fanfiction.net and wrote a lot of it.
Fanfiction was actually how I grew as a writer. My first fanfiction is complete and utter crap and I wish no one had ever read it. But as time goes on, I can look through my computer and my profile on fanfiction.net and see the evolution of my writing. I can see that the view counts go up on my stories, and the review number on my most recent fanfiction, which is 50,337 words is 201.
So clearly I’ve come far from those stapled ‘books.’
But I never imagined that by the age of 15 complete strangers would be looking me in the eye and telling me that they ‘knew I would win.’
That just completely threw me for a loop.
So at this point, anything could happen.
I just really hope that Trafalgar Square thing is part of ‘anything.’