Bridge of Sighs
, my new novel, was six years in the writing, and one of the things I'm certain to be asked while I'm out promoting it is, "What took you so long?" It's a question I've been asked often over the years and mostly I don't mind, because it suggests that my readers are anxious for a new Richard Russo novel. But trailing that compliment is an unstated implication ? that the delay must be the result of laziness. To defend against this all too reasonable inference, I'll likely point out that I also wrote several screenplays during the period I was at work on the novel, though this explanation is fraught with its own impressive array of difficulties.
When a novelist confesses to writing screenplays, isn't he just redefining laziness? After all, a movie script is only one hundred and twenty pages, most of that white space. Some dialogue, a few spare dramatic instructions like, "a gun battle erupts," periodic slug lines to tell where all this is happening. You call this work? Worse, aren't you substituting a particularly malignant form of indolence for a more benign one? After all, screenwriting is both well-paid and glamorous, its potential for corruption extreme. I have a writer friend, one I rarely see these days, who asks each time we do meet if I'm still writing movies. "Aren't you afraid of what that's doing to you as an artist?" he asks as if I'd just admitted to doing crack cocaine or that I found Paris Hilton interesting. He studies me carefully for signs of spiritual corruption, of selling out, and when I answer that no, I have other things to worry about, he smiles sadly that I should be so deluded.
Okay, sure, there are dangers. One of the screenplays I worked on after I'd started Bridge was Empire Falls, the fine HBO miniseries based on my novel. I'd originally argued that someone else should write it, explaining that while I loved the characters, the novel had exhausted me and I felt played out. Fresh eyes, a new take, would be just what the project needed. But Paul Newman talked me into doing it anyway, explaining that if I didn't, the movie probably wouldn't get made. So I put Bridge on the back burner for awhile, and later I worked on both projects simultaneously for more than a year. In the years that followed, still plugging away at the book, I wrote two more screenplays. It's true I worried more or less constantly that I might be harming Bridge by dividing my attentions, much as I used to worry back when I was a teacher that my students were sapping all my creative energy. But for them, I used to imagine, I could write my novels twice as fast, which meant twice as many of them. Past the midway point of each semester, after which I'd be swamped by my students' more immediate needs, I was never able to do much of my own work, and I always wondered if, when I finally got back to my novel-in-progress, it would welcome me. But here's the thing: it always did. I might have a few rough days getting back in the swing, but then there it would be, as alive as when I'd temporarily abandoned it. Sometimes, there'd even be an added bonus. While ignoring it, I'd have come to some important understanding about the book that hadn't been there when I was staring at it every day. It's been the same with my screenwriting. I worry, but I've come to understand that my books just seem to take as long as they take, a fact that drives not just me but my agent crazy. He seems to think that if I could just clear the decks, focus my attention on one important thing, I should be able to complete the task more quickly. I agree. It should work that way. Why doesn't it?
Is it possible I've been corrupted and don't know it? Sure. Greater talents than mine have suffered that fate. Faulkner. Fitzgerald. Still, blaming Hollywood for what happened to them has always seemed simplistic to me. But more to the point, a lot's happened since those two giants headed west. The very fact that they went to Hollywood is indicative. Thanks to technology, the situation for screenwriters has changed radically, even if Hollywood and screenwriting itself hasn't. I write my scripts on the coast of Maine and deliver them by e-mail attachment. In the last decade that I've been writing screenplays, I've been to Los Angeles no more than seven or eight times, and a couple of those visits were for book tours. Faulkner and Fitzgerald had to enter the life of the screenwriter. I don't.
Okay, fine, but the problem with screenplays ? so the corruption argument goes ? is that novelists who write them inevitably end up writing novels that resemble screenplays, spare little things that are all scene and dialogue. The problem with the logic here is that the novel in general has come to resemble the screenplay. This isn't true of all novels, admittedly, but movies, aided and abetted by television, the internet, and video games, have profoundly influenced all storytelling, by making stories more linear and more focused in time and space, by streamlining narratives, by quickening the pace and "cutting" between dramatic moments instead of providing more leisurely (and coherent) transitions. By their very natures, movies value exteriors (speech and action) over interiors (thought). My point is that these cinematic influences can be tracked even in the storytelling of writers who have never read, much less written, a screenplay.
I cheerfully admit that part of the reason I've enjoyed writing movie scripts is that they play to my particular storytelling strengths: characters developed by means of dialogue and action/behavior. Even as a novelist I like to slow time down, let my story develop from one scene to the next. Screenwriting puts a premium on precisely these skills. What comes less naturally to me are narration (which typically speeds up time by summarizing events), character development by means of entering their private thoughts, and descriptions of the physical world in which the action takes place. These are all essential skills for a novelist but are of little use to a screenwriter. The camera can see in a split second what would take the writer several pages to describe, and what characters are thinking has to be in their dialogue or the expressions on the actors' faces. The last time I dealt with the passage of movie time through a montage, the director gave me withering look and said, "I hate fucking montages!" Far better, he believed, to insert a card at