Lauren Katz interviews Richard Kramer, author of These Things Happen.
These Things Happen is a domestic story told in many original and endearing voices. The story opens with Wesley, a 10th grader, and involves his two sets of parents — the mom and her second husband, and the father, who has become a major lawyer/activist, and his fabulous “significant other,” who owns a restaurant. Wesley’s best friend, Theo, has just won a big school election and simultaneously surprises everyone in his life by announcing that he is gay. No one is more surprised than Wesley, who is temporarily living with his gay father and his partner so that he can get to know his dad. When a dramatic and unexpected trauma befalls the boys in school, all the parents converge noisily in love and well-meaning support.
Q&A with Richard Kramer
I just want to start by saying that reading These Things Happen was truly an interesting experience. The different points of view took me on a roller-coaster ride of emotions. When did you start writing? What made you choose to make it a career?
I started writing when I was still in grade school, in what is called middle school now.
The first piece I remember writing (and I still have it) was a review of To Kill a Mockingbird, which was the first grown-up book I ever read. I wrote about two pages, and illustrated it with bird stickers. My teacher sent me from classroom to classroom to read it aloud. As I look back at that afternoon in the hallway, I think it must have been the first time I sensed the connection between a writer and a reader or, in this case, a listener. After that, I wrote a couple of plays, a book of poems about people on my street (I was very impressed by Spoon River Anthology) and even a novel, called “An Appointment with Spring,” which was about life on the minesweeper my father had been on in World War II. This was all before I was 12. And I liked reading a lot, too; so much of what I wrote when I started, maybe most of it, was in the nature of an awed response to something I’d read and loved, a response captured in words.
I decided to make writing a career not when I sold my first fiction or magazine work but when I sold a TV script I’d written when I was, literally, at sea. If that hadn’t happened, I’d probably have gone to graduate school and gotten a master’s in English. I also, amazingly to me now, looked into becoming a detective. But it was that TV script, for the 70s series “Family,” that made me decide to give a writing career a go.
What is your favorite part of the writing process?
My favorite part is when I’m not planning to write on a given day and then, somehow, find that I’m sitting down to do it. I’m not self-conscious or careful; I just have to get out of the way and let the impulse work itself out. Sometimes this impulse is over in a few minutes, and sometimes it can stretch out for an hour. When I teach writing, I try to impart what I’ve learned from this phenomenon, which is that thinking is not the writer’s friend, and doing is.
I also like it when I’m writing and I suddenly see a solution to a section I’m not working on! This came up often while I was writing These Things Happen; as a first-time novelist, I was always amazed to see how the whole piece stays in your mind at all times.
You seem to be a writer who does not back down easily. I noticed online that you took a fiction-writing course as a college senior that ended badly. The teacher tore apart your short story, but in the end you decided to stick with writing, which resulted in a short story getting published in The New Yorker. Did your writing career seem to fall into place after this event? Or were there still a lot of roadblocks?
At 21, I vaguely wanted to do something that involved writing in some way. I wasn’t too focused beyond that. My adviser suggested I prepare packages of my college writing and make a mass mailing to newspapers and magazines all over the country. I had been on my school paper, so I had lots of material there. I also stuffed envelopes with English papers. Then, almost as an afterthought, I defiantly decided to include in my application package the story that hadn’t gone over well in my fiction-writing class. I sent this package to 50 magazines and newspapers around the country; I got a few encouraging responses, but no offers. Then one day, I got a call from William Shawn, The New Yorker’s editor. He was famously proper, and spoke in a near-whisper. He told me he was terribly sorry that the magazine didn’t have, at the moment, a job to offer me, but he wanted to know if there was some way I might consider selling the magazine the short story I had included in my envelope. It didn’t take much arm-twisting on his part. I was now a New Yorker writer at 21, one of those rare people who would never have to suffer. I was wrong; they then rejected my next half-dozen efforts.
I was surprised to find that this was your first novel. What made you choose to deviate from your typical short stories and tackle the project?
About five years ago, I was trying to lay the groundwork for a very different life. I’d been a writer for three and a half decades, and even though I loved it and had wonderful experiences, I always yearned for the kind of career where I didn’t have to invent each day on my own and look to myself for the discipline writing requires. I thought it would be a welcome change to have the kind of job where I had a client at 10, another at 11, another at 12; where, in short, the days had structure and — just as important — had a defined end, because as most writers will tell you the problem with a writing day is you can’t turn it off; it accompanies you everywhere.
So I went to grad school to become a therapist. I finished four of the six required terms. Then, on a vacation, I found myself writhing on the ground in a Tuscan plaza, and within minutes I was on my way to an Italian hospital where I would have emergency surgery. I couldn’t speak Italian, the doctors and nurses couldn’t speak English. But they still saved my life, and as I recuperated, my life changed in other ways. I decided I didn’t want to go back to grad school. And I wanted to write a novel. And given what had just happened, the time was now.
I found your choice to include multiple points of view in the novel extremely fascinating. How did you come to this decision? Was it particularly difficult writing for all the different characters?
When I saw that my pile of pages might become a book I decided to play to what I saw as my strengths. I had been writing TV and movies and plays for 30 years, so I had come to understand writing as something that happened in voices, in the first person, in the now. That helped me choose the way to tell this story. As for writing for the different characters, I kept what I call a casting board, which was a computer file of pictures of people I knew — friends, family, friends of friends, actors — who reminded me of the characters I was trying to capture. I would look at one person’s picture, then another’s, and that made it much easier for me to tell them apart and hear how they sounded. Some days it felt like a dinner party, with me as the host, with everyone talking at once. The different voices made it fun; in fact, I imagined that I was the person the characters were talking to, that when they were speaking in the book the person who was listening was me. In the final section, you’ll see I decided to tell it in the third person; maybe it’s because I spent so many years on movie and TV sets, but I imagined myself on a camera crane, lifting up just far enough so the camera could take in both Wesley and George at once.
Each character was so well developed, especially Wesley. You included inner conflicts and a desire for self-discovery that seemed so real. Was Wesley based on someone in your own life?
Wesley is me, or partly, anyway; he’s the me I remember from 45 years ago, at least in his general attitude and point of view. He’s also partly the son of a close friend, and that son’s best friend, whom I used to see around their house and who, for some reason, left an impression on me.
He’s also partly a kid whose name I don’t remember. When I was doing “My So-Called Life,” we used to see kids all the time, even if they weren’t there for a particular role. We’d hang out in this big room, with them and their moms, and just try to get them to relax and be themselves without the stiffness and anxiety of an audition. One day this kid came in, geeky but with some interesting quality about him that we all liked. We even gave him a scene to read (he was good, not great). At break, I went out into the parking lot. There he was; his mom pulled up in the car; he approached me and said he wanted to know if he could tell me something. Usually in those situations one tries to keep a distance, but I remember this boy (dark hair, I think, and I’m pretty sure I recall terrible skin) had moved us all in the casting room and I said sure, shoot. He told me his dad had told the family a few days ago that he was gay and needed to live honestly and would be separating from the kid’s mom. He asked if we would ever do a story like that, then his mom drove up, he got in, and he was gone, not knowing he’d offered me a seed that would flower 15 years later.
I think my favorite part of the book was watching the relationship between George and Wesley transform from the awkward interactions in the beginning to the strong bond we see in the final chapter. Where did you find the inspiration for this relationship?
The development of their relationship surprised me as I was writing it; sometimes, I almost felt that their scenes together were writing themselves, that my keyboard was tapping away like an old player piano. I’ve always been interested in the notion of authenticity, of self-consciousness and the lack of it; for gay men growing up when I did, and I suspect even for ones today, to be authentic was to put yourself in danger of your secret self being revealed. So you learn to be inauthentic, to be pleasant, to not draw attention to yourself, to be agreeably invisible. George has been influenced by this, of course, but he has an authentic core that he can’t hide and to which Wesley instinctively responds. And George doesn’t watch himself as he goes through his life. When he’s just chilling with Wesley, when they’re just hanging out, he doesn’t have a little audience in his head that is charmed at his ease with a teenage boy. Because George has the rare gift of being able to be present; Wesley, in the course of the book, comes to see that as the quality he most admires and would one day most like to possess. I thought of the people in my life who are like that, and have dedicated the book to one of them.
There was another inspiration for George. I have a friend whose parents divorced when he was in his early teens. His father remarried, and my friend says his stepmother saved his life, that she was interested in him, that she saw things in him his own parents were too preoccupied to see, that she was delighted by him and felt lucky to have found him. My friend says she made the difference in his life. And that’s George. I’ve been pleased at the number of people who have read the book who have told me they either had a George (straight, gay, whatever) or wished they’d had a George.
I think it’s impossible to discuss this novel without mentioning the political conflicts. What made you choose to write about the controversial topic of gay relationships? Did you receive any backlash for the details revolving around this choice, such as the fight towards the end of the novel?
It’s funny; I don’t think of These Things Happen as controversial. To me, it’s (hopefully) universal; I make no argument on either side of the issue of the New Family. The problems of the New Family don’t interest me, particularly; I certainly have nothing to say about them. What does interest me — and what the book is about — is how all of us, no matter how advanced, progressive and prejudice-free we might believe ourselves to be, absorb from the dominant culture and the air we breathe certain core beliefs about others — the whole vast world of those who are different, not like us, whoever the “us” might be — that we don’t even know we hold. And sometimes, as is dramatized in the book, we do know, or are forced to know. And how much harder it is to find out, when you believe in your own specialness, that you’re just like everybody else!
As for your question about receiving backlash: I was supported from the start. Agent, editor, everyone only wanted me to get my vision of this story on the page as authentically as possible. The world hasn’t changed a lot, in some ways, but in many others, it has; the support I’ve gotten for These Things falls into the latter category. I’m not sure it would have been the same as recently as five years ago.
I noticed that you have also written for many TV shows, such as “My So-Called Life,” “Once and Again” and “Tales of the City.” How does this experience compare to writing short stories?
The big difference between writing scripts and writing a novel or stories is that with the former you are engaged to please everyone but yourself. You don’t matter; they do, the they being defined as the totem pole of people who are signing the checks — in other words, paying you. And that’s a bargain you make, which is sometimes referred to as making a living. Everyone means well, I’ve found, but very few know how to help. I was lucky to find a few who did, which may have been because they were writers themselves and knew what writers needed.
How did you feel about this writing experience? Will you write another novel or stick to short stories? Do you have any plans for your next piece?
I loved writing this book. I wrote it many times. The first time it was good. The second time I ruined it. The third time I (hopefully) made it good again. My editor, Greg Michalson, had the good sense to rip it out of my hands before I made it bad again. And if I learned anything about the process of writing novels, it’s this: You’d better be prepared to look at yourself, warts and all (and, somehow, it’s mostly warts), because a novel is like a cruel mirror that will not let you look away.
And I will write another, and hopefully one after that. I’ve even got about a hundred pages of something new that emerged, really, from nowhere. The setting, situation, style couldn’t be more different from These Things Happen; third person, past tense, set far from the glittering towers of Manhattan. Stay tuned.
Lauren Katz is a sophomore at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, where she is majoring in English and drama and is a staff writer for the arts and entertainment section of the Kenyon Collegian. Lauren is also a theater critic for D.C. Metro Theater Arts, an online publication.