NEOMFA faculty member Chris Barzak is the author of four books: One for Sorrow (Bantam Books, 2007), The Love We Share Without Knowing (Bantam Books, 2008), Birds and Birthdays (Aqueduct Press, 2012), and Before and Afterlives (Lethe Press, 2013).
Jamie Marks is Dead, the film based on One for Sorrow, made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Directed by Carter Smith, the film has been described as a “spooky rendition of teenage passion and shame,” and has garnered positive reviews from many major media outlets.
NEOMFA student Matt Lattanzi recently spoke with Barzak about his experience with the film’s production.
Recently your first novel, One for Sorrow, was made into a film entitled Jamie Marks is Dead. I think we can both agree that it’s a very exciting thing for a writer to have his or her work turned into a film. Can you talk a little bit of how that came about? Did the director [Carter Smith] approach you for the rights or was the film optioned previously?
Sure. It was about eight months after One for Sorrow was published that I heard from my agent that Carter Smith was interested in optioning the rights to One for Sorrow to be made into a film, which he did several weeks later. And after that, the options were renewed a couple of times so that he could retain the rights to be the person to make this movie…if he chose to…or became solvent…or was able to bring together all the human and capital resources he would need to do so. It was around the time that it would have come up for a third option renewal that he had pulled everything together, including haven written the script and pulling together a cast and having backers arranged for it that he bought the rights, which is a different thing than options and everything moved really quickly after that. What had been three or four years that went into getting the foundations laid for the movie to be made, it became a process where the movie was put together and filmed within a period of four or five months after the rights were purchased, so everything moved really quickly after that.
Did you have any input at all about what was going to go on the screen? Did he ever ask you questions about how things were going to work in the script?
Yeah, well even over the few years where he was renewing the option of the film, he would periodically call me, email me, and he shared some ideas he had as he was writing the adaptation and he wanted to know what I thought occasionally about changes he might be making…or motivations for certain characters that he was trying to make come alive on the screen and didn’t necessarily have the internal…capacity that a novel does to delve into a character’s thoughts in the same way. He still wanted to convey motivations on the surface of a film, so that was pretty much the extent of our conversation together. Ultimately the script is his, but even up to the last few moments before filming, he had sent me questions about various aspects of the film and the script, was still asking what I thought about certain things, and brainstorming ideas for how to execute certain actions in the film.
So, it must have been a surreal experience seeing your characters come to life on the screen. And I’d like to hear about that. How was it different than having your characters limited to only the page? Did it change the image of your own characters?
Well, it hasn’t changed the image of my own characters for me. I still see those characters in my mind…and that really won’t be changed by the film. Although [laughs], I do understand that it probably will for people, particularly for people who see the film for the first time and possibly read the book afterward, they’ll see those actors most likely, which is an experience I think a lot of people have when they see a film based on the book and then go read the book. But, I’m okay with that [laughs]. But…it was definitely strange to see it when I visited the set last March and…was waiting to be let into the trailer…mobile home set where they were filming from the narrator’s house…family home. After being let in, I was given a headset and brought to a monitor and then they immediately started filming again. And there were there were these two teenage boys who were acting out a scene that I’d written in the book and it was pretty much a scene that was word for word the dialogue I had written. It was definitely surreal. It was mind-blowing. Especially because even though those actors won’t replace the characters in my own imagination, I think that they were really good choices and that’s why I really don’t mind that might be some people’s image of the characters as they go from the movie to the book. They really captured the essence of those characters…so I’m really happy and flattered by the cast that has been put together.
It probably helps that you feel like Carter was probably really happy to do this and he was really excited about the project, so you might be more trusting to give him this world too.
Yeah, I completely trusted him with it. He got the book and wanted very badly to retain the essence of it regardless of what any…whatever kinds of changes would have to be worked on it by the necessity of taking a novel and making it into a film. You know, you really can’t take everything word for word and literally translate it from a novel to the film script. There’s just not enough pages in a film script. They’re usually around 120 pages and a novel is 320…or at least this one was. It leaves a lot out, but mostly the internal kinds of stuff.
Which is common with movie versus book…
Changing gears a little bit, early in 2013 your first technical collection of short stories Before and Afterlives was released. How much work is involved in creating a collection for you? Was there a revision process at all? And what was it like revisiting your earlier work?
Well, there wasn’t really a revision process in terms of going back and revising stories that I’d already published. They were all stories that I’d worked on and revised heavily time and time again, up until they had their first publications. I really don’t try to publish stories that I have any…questions about or possible doubts. So, I didn’t go back to any individual stories and revise them for publication…in the collection format. The hardest part was trying to find a grouping of stories that communicated amongst each other as a kind of network of stories that shared themes, or character types, or even plot types and had things that were in common so that they create a kind of…effervescent dynamic when placed together. And that was…somewhat difficult for me because I’d spent probably around close to twelve years writing all the stories in that collection and it’s a large collection…it’s seventeen stories, so I had probably another seventeen to twenty stories that I did not collect in that and that are sitting in files for other collections. You know, sort of whenever I have a new story published I try to see if it fits into one of those other potential future collections or not. I sort of categorize it that way. That’s not something I’d been doing in the past, so it was huge to look at about thirty six stories I’d published in the past twelve years and select out of those the appropriate ones, and then after that to find an arrangement, in terms of order, for how to order them in the book to be a pleasing reading experience. Well…some readers just read around in a collection of stories so it doesn’t really matter for that type of reader what order things come in. There are also a number of readers that are trained to read from first page to last even if it is a collection and for those readers in mind, you’ve got to think about which stories are perhaps too similar to each other so that you’re not serving them the same course over and over again…I think about it a lot if I were having people over for dinner for like a three or four course meal, you don’t want to give them a sorbet and another sorbet. You know [laughs] you need to break things up so they have different experiences as they’re reading through a book.
So is it mainly about diversity within that certain theme or the material you’re working with or is there another way to keep momentum going as you go along?
Sometimes it’s diversity in theme, sometimes it’s diversity in character types because I think many writers are attracted to certain character types and after you’ve written a certain amount, you start to see what those types are so you don’t want to have them over and over either. And then sometimes it’s a matter of length. I have stories that range from three pages in length to as long as forty or fifty pages, and so in terms of ordering I sometimes consider length too. I don’t want to have a large story and then another long story after it too often. I want the readers to…move through different lengths of short stories too, so a lot of that is trying to find the right placement.
Can you talk about what’s next on the horizon for you?
Well, I just sold my third novel. It’s call Wonders of the Invisible World and it will be published by Knopf in…fall of 2015 and I’m now at work on my fourth novel. I’m about halfway done with it…at least the first draft of it and right now I’m calling that A Manual for the Most Effective Usage of Fallen Stars. I’m also trying to pull together a new collection. I need to write a few more stories to make me feel like it’s complete and that is a collection of short stories that are all retellings of and adaptations of classic genre literature. Things like H.G. Well’s The Invisible Man, and Stevenson’s The Curious Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Wizard of Oz…And I am tentatively going to call that Monstrous Alterations.
Just as kind of a follow up question, the press release from Knopf calls this your “debut YA” novel. I found that comment odd seeing as how One for Sorrow felt very much like a young adult story. And I just wondered how that categorization comes about…that one is young adult and one isn’t. Were you surprised about the categorization of One for Sorrow? And did you make any conscious changes in style for Wonders of the Invisible World to ensure you would get the YA release?
Right. That’s a good question. I’ll sort of go through it in an order that makes sense for me. One for Sorrow came out as an adult novel, despite having features of a young adult novel. It has a sixteen-year-old narrator and it’s a coming of age story, and technically those are the only qualities that define young adult novels, today at least…the modern young adult novel. Regardless, as my agent had been taking One for Sorrow around through publishing houses back in the 2005-06 area, a lot of the young adult publishers at that time felt it was perhaps too adult and had a lot of use of adult language. There was some sex scenes in it that they weren’t sure…if it would keep the book out of high school classrooms, which is sometimes a consideration. On top of that, they didn’t know how to categorize it in terms of genre. They didn’t know if it was a realist story or a supernatural story or a fantasy story. Eventually the editor who acquired One for Sorrow said it was all of those things, which makes a lot of sense and I thought she was pretty bright [laughs]. All of those audiences would be the audience for that book. It was published adult because it was an adult publisher who acquired it, but I do think it could have been released as a young adult novel too and especially now. I think about eight or nine years after it was first acquired by Bantam Books, a lot of young adult publishers find adult language in young adult books relevant now and even depictions of sex that aren’t necessarily negative [laughs]. So, when it came to writing Wonders of the Invisible World, which is going to be released as my debut young adult novel…no I didn’t really change the way I wrote anything. It was pretty much the same process that I used for writing any of my books…any of the differences in process had to do with figuring out the book’s structure, but not the book’s age category. And other than that I would say that…it was simply sold as a young adult novel and has a lot of similar features to One for Sorrow and it fits in that category now in a way that perhaps One for Sorrow didn’t at the time that it was sold.
So it was mainly a matter of time and place, rather than content?
Yeah and how the culture of young adult publishing has changed in a very short period of time.
Fascinating to hear. The final question I have is: now that you have some major publications under your belt and a film based on your novel, do you notice a change in the way publishers deal with you, particularly with maybe “Wonders of the Invisible World” or your upcoming novel? Do you find that more publishers approaching you or showing interest in the stuff you’re doing? And what’s that like?
Well, it depends on the different types of publishers. When it comes to novel-publishers, publishers of full-length books, they don’t generally approach. They wait for writers and their agents to approach them with a book or a proposal for a book. Very rarely they might occasionally approach people, but it’s generally celebrities they are approaching and ask them if they can hire a ghost writer and publish their biography or something like that…so no, I’m not necessarily getting approached by book-length publishers. Although when this newest book, Wonders of the Invisible World, was circulated, it did get a lot of attention from editors that it was submitted to, so it had more interest perhaps. I’m not sure what’s changed [laughs], but I hope that it’s mainly because the book is really strong and interesting because I worked for years on it. But when you come to things like magazine editors and anthology editors, those people do actively seek out writers because they are putting together issues of magazines. They are putting together anthologies and they act like DJs in a way, so they are looking for the new tunes they want to spin and they like certain writers the way some DJs like certain musicians. I do get approached by them—although I have been for some time now—where they request for me to write a story for an anthology or encourage me to submit to their magazine.
So, it’s a matter of… an editor really likes what you’ve done before and would like this kind of stuff in his or her magazine. Ok. Well…that’s pretty much all the questions I have right now. Thank you very much!
Matthew Lattanzi is a current student in the Northeast Ohio MFA Program. His short stories have appeared in the online print magazines The Jenny and Swamp Tea and Biscuits. His story “Dreaming in Flesh” was featured on the Daily Fiction website and selected as a notable story for the 2011 storySouth Million Writer’s Award.