PORTSMOUTH, Va. – Sometimes soft dung can become a nourishing pill. I learned this from Jean Henri Fabre.
It’s not just the name I love; nor is it the science.
Fabre, a French entomologist, was a remarkable man of letters because he had a way of putting them in the right order. I picked up two volumes of his work last year at Old Professor’s Bookshop in Maine, and have since returned to them repeatedly for the descriptions of Fabre’s observations of nature.
As a bonus, his work often speaks to the nature of writing, particularly the ever-elusive narrative central to both the sciences and the humanities alike. And he writes things consistent with my own philosophies of discovering stories both in fiction and journalism. For what it’s worth.
The following quotes are from The Life and Love of the Insect, an early 20th Century English compilation of some essays. I am misappropriating some lines that deal not with narrative but nature. Hopefully for pure purposes. As Fabre wrote:
And now let us unfold the authentic story, calling to witness none save facts actually observed and reobserved.
I am convinced one can say excellent things without employing a barbarous vocabulary. Clearness is the supreme politeness of whoso wields a pen. I do my best to observe it.
On planning or editing:
It now becomes a question of shaping it.
On respecting the canon, if only to a point:
We take the genesis of the species in the act; the present teaches us how the future is prepared. (90)
On reaching that point, and continuing to achieve craft:
The creative power throws aside the old moulds and replaces them by others, fashioned with fresh care, after plans of an inexhaustible variety. Its laboratory is not a peddling rag-fair, where the living assume the cast clothes of the dead: it is a medallist’s studio, where each effigy receives the stamp of a special die. Its treasure-house of forms, of unbounded wealth, excludes any niggardly patching of the old to make the new. It breaks up every mould once used; it does away with it, without resulting to shabby after-touches.
On finding areas of study in one’s own backyard:
The gathering of ideas does not necessarily imply distant expeditions. …
Certainly, I have plenty. I have too much to do with my near neighbors, without going and wandering in distant regions.
On digging deep:
But what is the use of this history, what the use of all this minute research? I well know that it will not produce a fall in the price of pepper, a rise in that of crates of rotten cabbages, or other serious events of this kind, which cause fleets to be manned and set people face to face intent upon one another’s extermination. The insect does not aim at so much glory. It confines itself to showing us life in the inexhaustible variety of its manifestations; it helps us to decipher in some small measure the obscurest book of all, the book of ourselves.
On finding what matters within all the words:
She collect the remnants pouring down around her, subdivides them yet further, refines them and makes her selection: this, the tenderer part, for the central crumb; that, tougher, for the crust of the loaf. Turning this way and that, she pats the material with the battledore of her flattened arms; she arranges it in layers, which presently she compresses by stamping on them where they lie, much after the manner of a vine-grower treading his vintage. Rendered firm and compact, the mass will keep better and longer.
On clarity of form:
The poplar-leaf, with its simple form and its moderate size, gives a neat scroll; the vine-leaf, with its cumbersome girth and its complicated outline, produces a shapeless cigar, an untidy parcel.
Because John is en route to South Africa today, he can’t write If You Read the Paper. He left yesterday and lands in Cape Town tonight, where he’ll spend ten days visiting a friend and researching a novel. During his layover in Amsterdam he sent us one of his old short stories instead, as we urged him to consider doing. It’s called “Mr. Gas,” from his 2003 collection Born on a Train. He wrote “Mr. Gas” when he was twenty-two and knew virtually nothing, so he prefers that you not read beyond the end of this editorial note, which he also wrote. He doesn’t usually talk about himself in the third person. He is probably jetlagged and confused.
This is called underselling, you see. There’s a lot in it for writers and readers to discover. Please visit AltDaily and enjoy.
This is a long talk, broken into two parts, but those interested in comedy writing and other forms of writing — particularly finding the core structure of a work — should stick around.
This discussion includes some adult language and frank discussion of jokes you may find offensive. That mostly in the next part of the talk, which I’ll post in a couple days, but there is some adult language below.
For those who may be coming to this blog for the first time, I write it to learn from other writers and artists. I appreciate their time and honesty, and I have respect for the direct discussions they agree to be a part of. So thanks to Devereux. And thank you for reading.
Without further ado, part one of the conversation …
Q: How did you start writing?
I’ve always been a comic book nerd and my mom has comics that I wrote when I was five or six years old. I’m not a very good drawer but I could trace my hand. I would then turn (it) into a character. She has just pamphlets and pamphlets of these pages that I would draw one drawing per page and then write a caption and staple them together.
I always was very interested in comedy. … (W)hen I was in junior high and even high school, I would write scripts for The Monkees TV show. … Say what you will about their music and whether or not they played their own instruments, but their TV show still holds up as pretty funny. It’s a lot of absurd humor. It’s breaking the fourth wall type of stuff. I’ve always been fascinated with how they were kind of playing exaggerated versions of themselves, and then there were times they would break that character and go back to their real selves. I was always a big fan of that. I was a fan of Saturday Night Live.
Q: Do you remember the first time you saw SNL?
No. I do remember always liking the Coneheads. I always liked Bill Murray, but I’m not sure if that was from Ghostbusters and Caddyshack first and then Saturday Night Live after. I guess by the time I really was kind of aware of him, he must have already been off Saturday Night Live … so I must have seen repeats.
They did a big interview with (the SNL cast) in Rolling Stone and I got that issue and I must have read it a million times. It was kind of around then I decided I really would like to write for SNL, which I had forgotten about until my high school reunion a year or two ago. A lot of people were bringing it up. ‘That’s so cool – you were always talking about writing for SNL and now you’ve got your own comedy group.’
Q: What was it about the show that you liked?
I have a very short attention span so I like the sketch format better than sometimes even a half hour sitcom. Again, I always gravitated more toward comedies than dramas or even action movies. There’s just something about laughing I really enjoy.
Q: Did your folks have a good sense of humor?
My mom has a very weird sense of humor and my dad was kind of a life-of-the-party, lampshade-on-the-head type of guy.
Q: What’s a weird sense of humor for a mom?
She was a very strict mom growing up, but then there would be other times when we would be eating dinner and she’d be like, ‘Wow, these mashed potatoes smell kind of weird.’ And when we’d go in to sniff them she would push our head into them, which if my sister or I ever did it to one another we’d get in big trouble. That was our biggest joke. She always liked doing that.
She’s not like a joke teller or anything like that, but she’s really good at telling stories. She’s from New York and worked for ABC Radio in the early to mid 1960s, and her office was two doors down from Howard Cosell’s office. So she has a bunch of great stories about going out with Howard Cosell. Not dating, but just everybody from the office going out. She saw, when the Beatles came to New York, she got to go to the concert at Shea Stadium. When they gave their first press conference, she was actually in the room. She was the assistant program director at one point in time. She has a horrible taste in music. I always wonder how many really good bands never really got their shot because my mom would just toss their stuff before it ever got to the program director. She just has a way of telling a story and making it funny.
Q: You got that from her?
I think I kind of did. I’m not a joke person. When people find out I’m in The Pushers they go, ‘Oh, tell me a joke.’ I don’t know any jokes. I know maybe one knock knock joke.
Q: The one with the interrupting cow?
Well, there’s the cow one and there’s the other one where you start it. Start the joke.
Q: Knock knock.
Q: (Uncomfortable silence, then laughter.)
For some reason, that’s my favorite knock knock joke. … It’s more to get back at people asking me to tell them a joke.
Q: You don’t see yourself as a joke teller, but you have to write comedy.
My comedy is very situational, or it’s more about taking something in everyday life and just exaggerating it. With the exception of the super hero sketches I do, most everything I do is more relationship based. A lot of it’s usually based on something that happened to me, and then just retelling that in sketch form and exaggerating the hell out of it.
Q: So how do you get from wanting to write for SNL to forgetting all about that dream and then (to The Pushers)?
A failed marriage.
Q: A failed marriage?
Yeah. That’ll do it. One of the reasons is I had the desire but had no idea how to act upon it. I went to George Mason University and my first semester I was actually a theater major. I did theater in high school. I had no desire to be on stage, but it was about being around the kind of people I had a kinship with. Mason at the time had a pretty competitive theater program and I couldn’t get into any of the theater courses, not even intro to theater. The only one I could take was actually taught by the Religion Department. It was themes and motifs in contemporary theater. So after my first semester I switched to English composition with an emphasis on fiction writing.
Q: What did you want to do with that?
I had no idea. At one point I thought about teaching. I still harbored thoughts of eventually writing for TV in some form.
Q: You didn’t want to write short stories or the Great American Novel?
No. I love reading those things but for some reason the actual mechanical act of writing I’m not a big fan of. Which is why I think I love sketch writing. It’s only four or five pages. … I did do a lot of short stories. I would still kind of dabble in script writing. I also ended up getting a minor in film and media studies, but it was in their Communication Department.
During my junior year, myself and some friends decided we were going to do our own TV show, kind of interview program, like a very localized The Larry Sanders Show, mocking the late night TV format. I wrote five scripts for that. We actually started filming pieces for it. The problem was, instead of going with other communication majors to help me do this, I had my friends who had no idea what they were doing and as soon as exams rolled around they abandoned the project to go study.
Q: So what was an early sketch?
Early sketches were a lot of mocking Mason campus life. They had just unveiled a new bus system that students could use, but it had weird stops. It wouldn’t stop at the Metro station, so if you needed to get to D.C., you’d stop like a half mile away and you’d walk. … Essentially they spent all this money for this new bus line that nobody ever bothered using. So we’d do live reports – it had some kind of name, like the Tide – so we’d always have a roving reporter trying to interview people on this bus. There would never be anybody on it. …
The summer between my junior and senior year, I got an internship at Channel 13. I started in the news department, because I gave a brief thought at trying to be in journalism. Two weeks in the news department, I realized that journalism really wasn’t the thing for me. You had to stick with facts. I do like exaggerating. My version of the story was always much better, or I thought was much better than what actually happened.
Q: And they frown on that.
Yeah, they do frown on embellishing. So after two weeks I moved to the production department. … So a lot of it was going out to Harborfest or Bay Days and handing out t-shirts. I went back to school and graduated and had planned to move to New York with two really good friends. My girlfriend at the time who was a year behind me had visions of the three of us going roughshod all over New York City, so if I moved up to New York she would break up with me. So I picked her over New York and moved back home to Virginia Beach.
Q: Do you know how many women they have there?
Q: Just putting that out there.
Yeah, it was not one of the smarter moves I’ve ever made.
Q: Well, I’m sure at the time it was very noble.
I don’t think so. It was sheer stupidity on my part, and then I had to go and marry her. So once I moved back here, I had no idea what I was going to do. I went to Regent for about two semesters. They actually really have a good program.
Q: Masters of communications?
Yeah. It was going to be with an emphasis in screenwriting, but I quickly found I had to start editing some of the work I turned in. Nothing against their form of Christianity, but it is very strict. I thought I could fake it for the sake of getting a degree and using their equipment and stuff like that. I only lasted probably a semester and a half before I decided to drop out. …
For me, I didn’t mind it so much at first. I come from a pretty strong Catholic family. I had an uncle who was a priest. So the fact that you had to pray before every class, I was okay with that. Not really my thing, but I was okay with that. I had a script analysis class, which was actually pretty good and then one day the professor never showed, and then the next day, the next class, she was very apologetic, but (a family member had been injured; and this incident became a distraction for the class). … We had to spend the rest of the class praying for her (relative) and by that point in time I was pretty tight on money so I started calculating how much money I was wasting by praying …
Then I was taking a television scriptwriting class, and I loved the class. The guy actually had credits to his name. … He was really cool. There was probably 40 people in the class, and the first week or two we had to pitch him ideas. We had to take an existing TV show and then pitch him ideas for possible scripts, kind of like you would do pitching –
Q: In a writers room.
Exactly. On the first day he shot down every single idea that anybody came up with. He was very harsh and mean about it. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really weird for Regent.’ So the next class, like half the people dropped and we had to go through the same process, pitching him ideas. This time a couple people would be close to him saying, ‘Okay, that’s a good idea.’ Then something would happen and he’d say, ‘No, that sucks. Give me your next idea. No. Horrible. Move on.’ Finally, at the end of the class he said, ‘A lot of you had really great ideas, you know – things a producer might actually pick up, but when you go into a meeting with a producer it could be right before lunchtime. He could have just been chewed out by his boss. You know, you could have the best idea in the world, but if this guy’s having a rotten day, there’s a good chance your idea is going to fall on deaf ears. … I’m going to get you ready for the real world.’
Devereux later dropped out. He had written for class, among other things, a script for Mad About You, but lost much of his Regent writing when a computer virus software apparently ate the disk.
Q: Are you sure it was the virus software?
It could have been God.
Q: He’s gotten pretty tech-savvy in the past few years.
He has. I have an uncle who was a priest who died a while back, so I’m assuming that he’s up there looking out for me. Although he had a pretty weird sense of humor, too. … I remember a Christmas, and, again all my family was in New York, and his parish was in Brooklyn. We’re all at my grandmother’s house, and my mom is one of six kids who all had pretty large families. Every Christmas was just a mass of people at my grandmother’s house. We’re all starving but we’re all sitting around the dinner table waiting because we can’t start eating until Uncle Marty came. He ended up showing three hours late. My grandmother made no bones about it that Marty was her favorite because he was a priest, so we were all kind of annoyed when he finally showed up. My mom was like, ‘Where the hell were you?’ And it’s like, ‘I’m really sorry, but a family in my parish, you know, the husband died this morning so I had to be with the family.’ And my mom was like, ‘Oh my God that’s horrible, what do you say to a family who has a loved one die on Christmas Eve?’ And without blinking his eyes, straight-laced, he’s like, ‘I hope you saved the receipts.’
So my uncle the priest had a very morbid dark sense of humor, which I’m a big fan of as well.
Q: Were you an altar boy and the whole bit?
Yeah, I was an altar boy, in Sunday School, I taught the youth group.
Q: I still have my cassock. I put it on every now and then.
When we first started, Jeremiah (Albers) would play all the priest roles. Back then we were always going for the cheap (jokes), so the fact that he was gay, you know, naturally he would be the one to play the priest. Now that he’s out of the group, I’m regulated to all the priest roles.
Q: Have those jokes died down?
They have. The priest character I have is an angry priest … We have a recurring series of sketches where Brad plays a kid with Tourette’s. With sketches that have recurring characters, the game of the sketch is always the same. It’s just the situation that would be different, kind of like John Belushi with the samurai character. … So Brad does this character, this kid who has Tourette’s, and either it’s at a wedding or at a funeral or just a church service where I’m giving my homily and he keeps on interrupting with more and more profane outbursts, and my character is trying to keep his cool until he finally loses it and berates the kid in front of the whole church.
Q: So what happens?
It always ends with Brad having one last outburst … so I repeat it, and my out line is always ‘God is dead.’ … and then I toss the Bible at him, and it always hits the actress behind him.
Q: Wow. A little hardcore.
Q: How did it play?
It’s, ah, there’s always a shock when I say it, but then when I toss the Bible it always hits the girl smack in the face and she’s a pretty good physical comedian and falls over the back of her chair, that cuts whatever – because people like watching other people fall down. … Whatever moral indignation they had at me saying God is dead is quickly forgotten by a girl getting hit in the face and falling over the back of a chair.
We discussed how Devereux came to work at a local news station after working in retail and doing freelance production assistance, which led to a full-time job. The interview picks back up with how he returned to writing.
I was writing for work. Occasionally I would come up with an idea of like, ‘Oh, this would be a good movie or a good sitcom.’ And I would jot it down, but I was really not writing other than for work for a long, long time.
Q: What would you do when you had an idea?
I would put it in a notebook. A lot of times I would start working on something. At the time I had a work ethic when it came to writing. I would write and if I would get to a sticking place instead of plowing through and keep on writing I would stop and then go back to the beginning and reread what I wrote … and I immediately would start editing myself. I can’t write directly onto a computer. I have to write longhand first. I would just start rewriting. So I have an amazing first 15 minutes of a movie because, you know, I’ve edited the hell out of them, but nothing past that. Nowadays, even if I getting to a sticking point and it’s crap I just keep on writing and then go back and start rewriting.
Q: Did you ever want to try to write a comic book?
Yes, I thought about it. I actually met an editor back in the late 1990s. … We went to the San Diego Comic-Con, and this was right before it blew up to what it is now. … There was one point in time where I had a drunken conversation with an editor from DC Comics and I don’t know how we got into it, but I actually pitched him a couple of ideas, which he was receptive to. He was actually pumping me for information. But it was almost like – not work, but it made me look at comic books with a more critical eye, which I really don’t want to do. It’s a guilty pleasure, and I kind of want to keep it a guilty pleasure.
Q: One of my short stories is about a guy who gets out of the Navy and opens up a comics shop in Norfolk.
During the period when I was kind of directionless in my writing, the one idea I kept going back to was, and I probably had close to 90 pages written, was a screenplay that is kind of a cross between High Fidelity and Clerks set in a comic book shop. A lot of it is kind of autobiographical, which is I guess is the same as the idea you had, which is the guy has a lot of great ideas for comics but he’s afraid of failing. So it’s one of those things, if you don’t try, you know. …
Today, because of the interview, I pulled up the ‘Justice Crusaders’ sketch. I don’t think I’ve seen that in a couple years. … I don’t know if it would ever make it in The Pushers these days.
Q: Why not?
It’s long. It’s like eight minutes long. Right now we’re down to if you had something five minutes long, maybe that would make it in.
Here’s ‘Justice Crusaders,’ a NSFW sketch we will discuss in some depth in the Part Two of this talk, especially some of the jokes about race and sexuality:
Well, let me ask you what is it about the sketch that you like?
Q: It’s got all kinds of little crises, which I like in comedy. It’s interesting and it’s absurd. Number one that all these people would answer an ad and show up. It’s got these layers of absurdity, and then I don’t want to say that it’s obvious but it’s, the setup is … Aquaman shows up, there’s a reveal that it’s Aquaman, and they don’t want him to be in the group. Which is funny.
It is. It’s Aquaman and no one wants Aquaman in the group. All he does is talk to fish. That’s not a new joke.
Q: But it’s also funny that he’s the only person who is an actual superhero.
Right. Exactly. I’ve always had a love-hate with that sketch. I think I told you this before, but when I joined a group it was strictly as a writer and then I got thrown into the performing aspect as a necessity. The entire first summer of the group I was always playing little bit parts. That scene, I wrote it, but it was the first time I essentially had the lead and was the one driving the sketch. I was scared shitless walking out on that stage. …
I think I noticed in the video today that I started out with a really kind of geeky voice and halfway through the sketch I ended up losing the voice I created for the character. Going back to what I said about comic books, where I said I never wanted to look at comic books with a critical eye, I’ve gotten to the point now where I do look at the sketch and sketch comedy. I can still enjoy it, but when I watch Saturday Night Live now, it’s never I can kick back and relax. It’s always, ‘Oh, I see what they did there. Oh yeah, that didn’t hit as much as it should have.’
Q: I always remember liking the late sketches.
Q: They take a risk. It’s like when you go to a jazz show and the polite people stay for the first hour and leave, and the musicians open up.
I always loved the last sketch. The first sketch is always some recurring character they know is going to hit. I was really disappointed with the Betty White episode. Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and all the girls came back and it turned out to be – the Dana Carvey episode turned out to be the same thing. It was nothing but recurring character after recurring character. There was nothing new. You know, I have a stable of characters that I play, but I’m more about writing something new or trying to take a character out of a standard format. …
I’m trying to find out where can we put this character and make it work.
There's a world outside every darkened door/Where blues won't haunt you anymore/For the brave are free and lovers soar/Come ride with me to the distant shore/Here's a picture of Earl Swift/(Chorus) Life is a highway/I wanna ride it all night long/Photo by John Doucette
This is it, starting below, and it couldn’t come at a better time.
His new film, in which anthropomorphic cars engage in an international spy adventure, has earned nearly $287 million at the international box office. This, despite the regrettable preproduction death of Paul Newman and the doubly regrettable continued involvement of Larry the Cable Guy, whose every utterance is the tonal reproduction of the sound a banshee makes when kicked in the throat. Oh, wait.
Yeah, I’m think of that new Pixar money grab. Swift wrote a terrific book that is 100 percent Larry the Cable Guy free.
Swift, formerly of The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, is also author of Journey on the James, Where They Lay, and The Tangierman’s Lament and Other Tales of Virginia. The Big Roads also has received favorable reviews in The Washington PostandThe Wall Street Journal.
And, by way of full disclosure, Swift and I are friends. Without further ado …
Q: Can you talk about how (The Big Roads) came about? What got you interested in the interstate system as a history?
Well, I’ve always loved road trips, and I’ve always been a bit of a techno-geek; I could identify most airliners by name, model number and manufacturer by the time I was ten, and could ID close to every tank used in World War II at 11 or 12. I could name pretty much every country on a globe, too. Some kids play sports; I memorized cubic yards of weird, arcane, seemingly useless crap.
I was fascinated to learn, at about the time I was perfecting my knowledge of tanks, that the interstate system boasted a numbering protocol, and I made it my business to commit some of the principal routes and numbers to memory. This was completely extraneous to my needs: I was years from getting my driver’s license; even when I got it, knowing such stuff came in handy only once in a very great while. Mostly, it occupied brain space that I would have done well to reserve for other matters. Calculus, for instance.
Fast-forward 30 years, and I’m watching a TV meteorologist serve up the morning weather, and I notice that his map of the Lower 48 has been reduced to its barest essentials—a few cities, the boundaries of the various states. And lastly, the interstate highways. At one point, any national map would have included principal rivers and mountain ranges. No longer: It features no topography at all.
It strikes me that I’ve come to see the country the same way, as a grid of high-speed roads. And that ushers a chain of mini-epiphanies: In the supermarket, I realize I can buy fresh asparagus and clementines and strawberries the year round; that a widescreen TV sells for about the same price in North Platte, Neb., say, as it does in New York; that Virginia Beach, the ultimate bedroom community, a quiltwork of subdivisions that covers a couple hundred square miles, was swamp and truck farms until the 1970s. Superhighways — the efficiency and ease of movement they offer — are the reason for all.
Not long after, I’m talking to an editor at Houghton Mifflin, an incredibly smart and gifted guy named Eamon Dolan. He’s been reading a proposal of mine in which I’ve pitched an entirely different book, and suggests that I instead tackle the interstates. It occurs to me that I’ve been preparing for the story. So I say: ‘OK.’
Q: There’s a great deal of history that coincides with your present-day reporting in Journey on the James, Where They Lay, and now (to some extent) this project, as well as some of your narrative features for The Pilot. What is it that draws you to history?
Living in Virginia, and especially in Norfolk — which has been settled since the 17th Century, and where every piece of property has been used and reused several times over — it’s hard to ignore the notion that our individual stories are part of a greater, never-ending narrative, and that each individual story is affected by those that came before and reverberates in some way to affect what comes after.
I find it reassuring, this idea that we’re all connected through time — that the environment in which we pass our days in 2011 is no accident, but the sum of human enterprise over centuries. And that each of us, however big or small our lives might seem, leaves a mark.
Q:This clearly was a very research and reporting-intensive project. Would you please talk about how you began this process? How did you determine where to gather records, and what was that process like?
In that it was Eamon’s idea, I had to figure out what the story was — like most Americans, I assumed that the interstates were a product of the Eisenhower administration, and that they were largely a civil defense project. It took about 18 months to figure out that they really dated to the 1930s, and were based on ideas that harkened a lot further back than that.
I started by reading everything I could get my hands on that had been published before, from Caro’s The Power Broker to Phil Patton’s Open Road to Jane Fisher’s Fabulous Hoosier. From there, I moved on to academic journals, then magazines. I was well aware that a book about an inanimate object, no matter how huge or compelling that object might be, wasn’t going to fly, so most of that early research was aimed at identifying a handful of characters through whom I could tell the object’s story.
Eventually, I had four main players. Carl Fisher, a wild man from Indianapolis, would get things started: In 1912, he proposed the first coast-to-coast motor road, the Lincoln Highway, and in so doing inspired the creation of a primitive, mostly dirt web of privately sponsored ‘auto trails’ in the teens and early twenties — the country’s first interstate road network. Thomas MacDonald, a preternaturally uptight engineer who led the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads, turned that network into a rational, numbered system in the late 1920s, then oversaw the research and assembled the policy that yielded the concept of interstate expressways in the late 1930s. Frank Turner, MacDonald’s quiet, teetotaler protégé, took that concept and translated it into concrete and steel in the 1950s and 1960s. And Lewis Mumford, a writer and amateur urban planner, was among the first proponents of what we now know as limited-access superhighways, then evolved into their harshest critic — and in both roles helped shape what we got.
I fleshed out all four through their papers, which are kept by university libraries scattered around the country, and through their families, who supplied me with letters, photos and such. I wound up with more than 10 cubic feet of papers.
I didn’t settle on the last main character, a Baltimore homeowner named Joe Wiles, until six months before I finished the first draft. I knew I needed a character who represented the thousands forced from their homes when interstate highway construction ventured into America’s cities, but considered several cities as the setting for that drama before settling on Baltimore. Even then, I had another character in mind — Barbara Mikulski, now a U.S. senator, who by reputation helped lead the fight against the concrete juggernaut. The senator’s staff repeatedly promised that I’d get face time with her, and repeatedly failed to deliver. That turned out to be a favor to me: My research was to show me that her leadership of the fight has been overstated. In her place, I chose Wiles, who was in the thick of Baltimore’s ‘Road Wars’ from the start.
Q: I’ve always been impressed at your early research. What I mean is, you seem to have always done a lot of homework before picking up the phone to do interviews or heading to a location to report or pull records. Can you talk about preparation and planning in reporting?
Interviewing is an organic process. The more you know, the better your questions will be, and the better your subject’s answers will be — which will yield better follow-up questions, and enable the two of you to get into territory you’d never reach if you, the reporter, came into the conversation knowing nothing.
But beyond that, it’s a question of respect. You’re asking somebody to give you something you want but don’t have. It establishes that you value that gift, and that you’re serious about putting it to its fullest possible use, when you’ve done your homework beforehand. Fail to do it, and you broadcast to your subject that he or she is of little importance to you.
I’ve heard some journalists say they don’t prep ahead of an interview because they don’t want to be ‘tainted’ by research. I think anyone who suggests that winging it beats preparation is a fool.
Q: Could you talk about how you organized the narrative? Did you do a lot of outlining? Did you plan out the ways you foreshadow some of the events that take place later in the narrative, such as the events in Baltimore, or does that tend to take shape naturally?
I did do a lot of outlining. I’m a bit of a freak for structure: I believe that it dictates whether a story works. The skeleton is key: Pretty words are all well and good, but they’re like nice skin — they can’t obscure the presence of ugly bones.
This book’s structure morphed substantially over the three drafts I took it through. Initially, I had all five main characters making their first appearances early on, and kept the narrative threads braiding through the whole story. My editors at Houghton, who were terrific, suggested that instead I should introduce each character at the point at which he reached prominence. I wound up with a hybrid of the two structures, in that I had some of the characters make cameos ahead of their full-on entries.
At one point, I was all but committed to using Washington, D.C., as my setting for the freeway revolt. I liked the idea that the protests there occurred within sight and earshot of the guys pushing the highways into town. But Baltimore came to make more sense to me, because it was the example that the Bureau of Public Roads used, back in the 1930s, of a city that would benefit from the interstates — and as things turned out, it’s one of the few major cities in the country that is not penetrated by them.
Q: You demonstrate very clearly that Eisenhower was not the father of the interstate system, and that thought is a kind of mythology. Was this something you understood going in, or did it come in your research? Have you had any feedback on this aspect of the book? It seems like something that would be widely known to engineers, let less so in popular memory of the interstate system.
I didn’t understand it going in; the research made it plain. It’s funny: A good many highway engineers know of Toll Roads and Free Roads, the 1939 report that served as a rough draft for the interstates. They know of Interregional Highways, the report that amounts to an actual blueprint of the system, and in response to which Congress authorized the network in 1944. Still, if you were to ask them, whether employed by the federal government or the states, who is most responsible for the system, a bunch would answer, ‘Eisenhower.’
Q: The placement of this discussion isn’t exactly a revelation, as it is mentioned briefly early on (7), but it’s meat comes roughly 150 pages in, after you have demonstrated the fathers of the system – “career technocrats” – laying out the groundwork. That was an interesting choice that seemed very natural when I reread the selection in the context of the earlier chapters. Then you reinforce it at least two or three times by noting Ike’s absences on major policy events involving the highways. Can you talk about how you determine what information supports what is a fairly major point, and how you decided to lay it out within the text?
Insofar as this is the story of how the highways came to be, and not a hatchet job on Ike, I didn’t see much need to burden the reader with an opening rant over his being given unjust credit for the interstates early on. I laid out the story in a fairly straight, chronological line, and built a case for who really authored the system simply by relating their acts in the order they occurred; by the time you come to Ike, it’s quite apparent that he’s arrived too late to play a substantial role.
Q: One cost of the highway system in urban areas was the removal of people in slums and struggling neighborhoods to make way for roads. You mention this issue throughout the book, even stressing that urban renewal efforts involving highways target neighborhoods but fail to address the human toll. One of you most compelling examples of the human cost is in Baltimore, where the effect of a planned highway is shown through a middle class black community. What led to this choice? What was it about Joe Wiles and the Rosemont community that led you to use them to illustrate a larger point?
The main argument for Baltimore, from a storytelling standpoint, is that it was the hometown of Herbert Fairbank, who wrote the bulk of Toll Roads and Free Roads and was the ideological brains behind the interstate system. Fairbank used Baltimore in the report as an example of a central city wasting in blight, choked by traffic on colonial-era streets, and losing population and influence to its suburbs—then proposed that encircling the city with a beltway and penetrating its heart with a spray of radial expressways might not only unclog its arteries, but provide a handy tool for clearing slums.
Baltimore was thus the first city of the interstate age, the test case. For my purposes, it was all to the better that it’s also a pretty cranky place, and that the interstates envisioned for it were met with 30 years of protest so harsh that the plans were ultimately abandoned.
Q: Were you aware of Thomas MacDonald and the role he played shepherding the interstate system before you worked on the book?
I’d never heard of the guy.
Q: Though you discuss the shortcomings of engineers behind the system, and unintended consequences of the system, you seem to have an appreciation for Frank Turner, who lost property to a highway and simply accepted that his parents would have to move for a road project – and never used this fact to gain favor or understanding in his role with the system. And then there’s a really poignant moment toward the end of the book that I don’t want to spoil for those who have not read it. Turner, as much as anyone in the book, seems fully realized as a character within the narrative – yet he is someone dramatically different and perhaps harder to bring to life than a showman and businessman such as Carl Fisher. How did you find these stories in your reporting and decide how to deploy them?
As you suggest, Fisher was easy—the guy was a total maniac, each of his ventures bigger and scarier than the last, his every word grist for the newspapers. He was way beyond a risk-taker; he could be downright reckless. That said, he was no dummy, and he had great instincts. I had a lot of fun digging into his past.
Writing about someone who lives a comparatively quiet and careful life is always tougher. Frank Turner was especially so, because he was so damn good — a man whose heart was almost always in the right place, and who didn’t think too much of himself, and who was a loving and responsible husband and father, and who was good at his job and decent to the people who worked for him.
Lucky for me, he left a hell of a paper trail, along with three children and a large number of friends and colleagues I was able to interview. He also sat for several long interviews, the transcripts of which were in his papers at Texas A&M. They were invaluable.
Creating a real character out of him — and of Thomas MacDonald, for that matter — relied on inculcating the reader with an engineering mindset. I hope I was able to pull that off. Engineers get a bad rap as overly sober, numbers-driven, careful. The best of them are, in fact, enormously creative. They’re puzzle-solvers.
Q: I understand you have some magazines stories in the works, as well as another book. Will you please talk about what you’re working on?
I’m halfway through a book about a local man named Tommy Arney, and his struggle to restore an old car. There’s a lot more to it than that, but I don’t like to talk up a project until it’s farther along. I have another book in the outlining stage that’s completely unrelated to cars or transportation — it’s set in the Deep South in the 1910s and 1920s.
Besides that, I’ve been writing for Popular Mechanics and doing a lot of radio interviews. Not least, by any means, I’ve been finishing an MFA in nonfiction at Goucher College; I’ll be heading up to Baltimore to collect my degree in August. What a great program. I’m going to miss it.
After that, I hope, I’ll be back to writing full-time.
Albers and McMurran also directed the play. Again, it opens Friday, June 17, at the Generic, 215 St. Pauls Blvd., Norfolk downtown. The run is from June 17-19, 23-26, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $10. For more information call (757) 441-2160 or visit the Generic’s online reservation Interbot thingy. Patron under the age of 18 must be accompanied by a “responsible” adult.
This is Generic’s standard, not mine.
The playwrights met while studying in the Old Dominion University theater department before working together in The Pushers.
We spoke at the Colley Cantina in Norfolk for about an hour, and I had to make some hard choices about what to keep in these posts. I leaned toward questions about writing, as this is the supposed thrust of the blog. Point being: thas been edited for length, clarity, and, in cases that should be fairly apparent, language.
One link to/embedded video below contains adult language and probably is not safe for work.
This starts with a question to Albers about joining The Pushers.
Q: You had a dramatic background, but had you done improv?
Albers: No. No improv.
Q: So why did you want to do comedy?
Albers: It just seemed like an interesting thing to do. It was something I hadn’t done before.
McMurran: He turned in probably … in my opinion, one of the finest scripts we had the first season. What we’re doing now, compared to then, is a lot different, because we didn’t know what we were doing. He turned in a beautiful parody of The Vagina Monologues. … It was written by somebody who certainly knew that play. You know, it plays every ten minutes in Hampton Roads.
Q: I think people hear improv and think you get up on stage and make up whatever you want. When I went to my first Pushers show – One of my favorite skits, as I told Sean (Devereux, head writer and producer of The Pushers), was “Justice Crusaders.” It’s just great. It’s written –
McMurran: That was certainly a sketch. It wasn’t until the second year of The Pushers that I went up to Upright Citizens Brigade and went through the whole program up there, and came back and started implementing that into shows. We also used that for writing. Still are. … We found something in New York that I think we instinctually knew, but to put vocabulary to it, “game.” (Finding “the game of the scene,” for example; Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre defines “the game as the single, specific comedic idea that makes a scene funny.”) … I started to notice the pattern of a game. It makes your scene so much better. That’s something that’s gotten a lot better about writing and doing improv.
Q: There’s a really clear pattern of reversals, and not just reversing the expectations of the characters but what the audience expects, and that makes it funny.
McMurran: One of the first things you learn about comedy is one of the funniest things you can do is the unexpected. That’s game. If you’re leading an audience down a pathway to where they think it’s going somewhere and then you – (claps) – flip it on them? They love it.
Q: Particularly the sketch where (Albers) plays Aquaman trying to join the supergroup in the kid’s bedroom or basement or whatever –
Albers: Yeah. It’s kids with a superhero club.
Q: But you play it straight. It’s a tragedy for Aquaman. … Did you have a part in writing it or did Sean write it?
Albers: Sean wrote that one, and he brought that. The key to really successfully acting in comedy is you have to believe it. You have to play it straight.
McMurran: If you don’t play it straight, it’s not funny.
Albers: If you don’t believe it, nobody else will either.
Q: And then you’re doing reviews as well. What was it that made you want to write a play?
Albers: It’s something that we’ve been talking about doing since probably the beginning of The Pushers.
McMurran: Believe it or not, this is our fifth idea. We have four other ideas that we want to do. The original idea that we had … is we wanted to write a comedy around Elizabeth and Bloody Mary as sisters, where what that would have been like growing up in that household between the two, but done as a pure comedy. We, ah – we bailed on that project. (Laughs.)
Q: When did you start writing this project?
McMurran: A little before that.
Albers: February? February.
Q: And when did you have a script?
McMurran: Yesterday. (Laughs.)
Albers: Ask me on the 17th. (Laughs.) No, we actually had a second draft of the script by the beginning of May. We had a rehearsal-ready script. And, of course, we’ve been revising and changing and rewriting as we’ve been going through rehearsals.
Q: What was your process? I haven’t seen the play or read the script. I made the assumption that it’s based (after its inspiration, Arthur Schnitzler’s play La Ronde) on a circular –
Albers: It is. One character from each scene moving to –
McMurran: Yes and no. We have an argument about this.
Albers: It is the same model.
McMurran: I learned La Ronde as an improvisation. It’s actually one of my least favorite improvisational games. However, the crowds love it. It’s something we’ve implemented in The Pushers. The crowds love it. I thought this would actually be genius to write this as opposed to improvising it.
Albers: It was a likely first play for us to write because, I mean, we have experience working together in sketch comedy and so here we have this fully integrated complex play but it’s still done in manageable chunks. From a writer’s perspective, it’s easy to handle that. We have these two characters. Each character has a two-scene arc. Everything is very contained in this model. It’s very compartmentalized, and that has made it very easy us to find our feet as (writers) because it’s not like we were trying to write some complex farce where if we find out we have a problem the whole second act collapsed.
McMurran: I think some of the coolest moments we had were how many natural patterns showed up. Some we intended. Some we didn’t.
Q: One of the things that can happen when you have characters who aren’t on stage for a long time, and have a very limited arc, is they can become types. Is that something that you fought against or embraced?
Albers: Every character in the play is identified by their job. You have a housewife and a newscaster and a squid and a waitress, and the idea is you introduce them as these labels, and you peel that label away.
McMurran: It also becomes our thesis in the play, at the end of the show.
Albers: Yeah. It’s really the main thesis of the play.
McMurran: Are we our jobs?
Q: Why did you set it in Hampton Roads?
McMurran: Write what you know.
Albers: I really philosophically believe that theater has to exist for community that it’s in, and what better way to do theater for your community than to do theater about your community. People are more likely to respond to this than they are to, you know, Twelfth Night. That’s just true.
McMurran: We hope. (Laughs.)
Albers: Although I like Twelfth Night. (Laughs.)
McMurran: I like Eleventh Night better.
Q: There might be expectations for fans of The Pushers that the play will be a certain kind of (humor). What do you think their experience will be?
McMurran: You’re not going to get a play by (us) where comedy is not involved. He tried to fight against me on that a lot. “Brad, this is not a sketch show.” I’m like, “It should be.” (Laughs.)
Albers: The idea is kind of a play for people who don’t see plays. I’m hoping to get that audience because I think they will be surprised by what they get, but hopefully they’ll like what they see.
McMurran: This might be controversial. I’m so tired of going to plays where it’s people playing for their friends. I would love to get a different group coming in, much like we do with The Pushers. … We went away from the theater crowd. It was one of the best moves that we made, when The Pushers left theaters and went into bars.
Q: Can you describe the change for you?
McMurran: When you go out and play for people who are in the business or in this local Hampton Roads area – and I have a lot of respect for actors in this area, please don’t confuse that, and groups such as CORE; I love CORE – but it becomes more of Our Gang, where we’re going to put up our play, and they put up their play. I had guys who have never seen any live theater come up to me after a show and say, “I never knew it could be this fun.”
Q: One of the interviews I read, you had talked about Tim Conway. Can you talk about him, and … some of the writers, either comedy or dramatic, who influenced you?
McMurran: When I grew up there were two names in my household, Tim Conway and Bill Murray. Tim Conway … I never heard my parents having such fun. They would be losing it, you know? … I didn’t understand the concept, of just watching this little guy get so carried away in these scenes. Just thinking about him in any sketch just makes me laugh. Certainly, probably the first sketch that comes to mind is the one where he’s the old man. No, I take that back. It’s the dentist. The dentist, where he keeps hitting himself with the Novocaine. It’s all physical comedy. … Bill Murray, I think everybody at this table knows I have an unnatural man crush on him.
Q: What they might have in common is there’s pain in their comedy. Especially Bill Murray, there’s a sadness.
McMurran: He’s a very subtle actor. There’s so much more behind the eyes than the normal comedian.
Q: What kind of writers did you emulate or study?
McMurran: I’m a classics guy. When I got put on restriction … I was on restriction every day. I went to Episcopal church in Portsmouth and every Sunday I would do a pratfall after communion. … I’d be put on restriction. My restriction at the McMurran household was you had to go and read classics. … Herman Hess’ Siddhatha is a book I read two or three times a year. And I know I’ll get dogged on this, but I do love TheOld Man and the Sea. It’s one of those books that I go back to. And the last one I will have to put on there is The Razor’s Edge.
Albers: I read a lot of plays. Plays are easy to read and it’s kind of an occupational necessity to be familiar with a lot of them. I love all kinds of stuff. Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. More modern stuff, I love David Mamet, sometimes. (Laughs.) I will add that caveat: sometimes. Sondheim. I’ve always been really interested in playwriting as a craft because really when you’re acting in a play, which I have a lot of experience doing, you are given this information in front of you and it’s your job to kind of unravel it and get the information out of it that you need to do what you need to do. So I’ve always kind of been fascinated with word choice. I think the best person writing in the theater today, although he’s not really writing anymore, is Sondheim. Even though he’s a music guy, you look at his lyrics and how compact they are, and they’re so clever and they have these crazy rhyme schemes to them, but they’re also brilliant dramatic writing. If you you unfurl them and put them as lines in a play, you could play them as a scene. And I’ve always been really enamored with that idea.
McMurran: One of the writers who has influenced my life is in this play – John Keats. … “La Belle Dame sans Merci” is the (poem) in this play. I’ve never fallen in love with a poet more than I did him. My father turned me on to him. He said, “Hey you ought to read this guy.” I said, “I don’t want to read this flowery guy.” And next thing you know I read that specific poem.
To be continued in part two, which should be posted by early Friday morning.