Q&A with NHFF Screenplay Competition Grand Prize Industry Judge Susan Kim
NHFF Screenplay Director Dana Biscotti Myskowski sat down with Award-Winning Writer (and this year’s screenplay competition grand prize industry judge!) Susan Kim to get a glimpse into her writing life, and to ask her to share some advice with screenwriters.
Q. You’ve written for many different outlets in several areas. Where did you study your craft?
A. Although I double-majored in theatre and English at Wesleyan University, I never studied writing formally. I did take an intensive playwriting workshop at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in NYC years ago, studying with the kinda brilliant/kinda crazy artistic director, Curt Dempster. The friends I made there (who all became professional writers, as well) and I formed our own playwriting group that lasted for years. I also joined the theatre’s playwriting unit, which was pretty amazing. Out of the fifteen or so regulars who floated in and out every Monday night were writers like John Patrick Shanley, Romulus Linney, Peter Hedges, Bryan Goluboff, Cassandra Medley, Sharr White, Alex Gersten, and others. Being in a dedicated writing group with people you respect is the best education I could imagine and I’m really grateful I happened to luck into two.
Q. You also teach aspiring scribes at NYU and at Goddard College. What advice would you give to writers who seek a career in creative writing?
A. The best advice I ever heard anyone give was actually from Fred LeBow, the guy who founded the New York Road Runners Club. He said that if you had a dream, the most important thing was to make sure you establish a low overhead—if you don’t need much, you don’t need to spend all of your time working day jobs in order to afford your lifestyle. Other than that (and the obvious need to keep writing and reading), I would say that the second best piece of advice I ever heard, which is also the most terrifying (unless you’re either very young or very rich), is that if you’re serious about becoming a writer, take a year off from your job and do it. See if you can hack the solitude, the discipline, the dedication; and see if you like the results. If it works out, great. If it doesn’t, at least you’ll know you tried.
Q. You adapted The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan to the stage. In the adaptation process did you work at all with the screenplay, or did you solely rely upon the book?
A. I actually wrote the play at the same time Amy Tan was writing the screenplay with Ron Bass. I had already read the book, but when I got the commission from the Long Wharf Theatre, I immediately started breaking the story down in a very technical way, working with its then-artistic director, Arvin Brown. A two-act stage play is incredibly different from a screenplay; it needs to build to an act break, for one thing. I remember being fascinated by the movie when it finally came out—just watching what they had kept and what they omitted.
Q. Talk about the “reverse adaptation”; specifically, I’m referring to the unique way in which City of Spies evolved.
A. My boyfriend Laurence and I actually wrote that as a screenplay called Germantown. We were having dinner one night and I mentioned an elderly friend of mine who had pretended to hunt for Nazi spies when she was a little girl growing up in 1940s Manhattan. Laurence thought that sounded like an interesting story; and the two of us started riffing on it, taking notes on the paper tablecloth. We spent about a year writing it before our LA agents sent it out. It did get a fairly positive reaction (as these things go), although along with the nice responses came the inevitable excuses: “nobody wants period pieces.” “Nobody wants Nazis.” “It’s too child-centric.” So we were back to square one. A couple of years later, we were talking with our book agent and mentioned the idea. She thought it would make a good graphic novel and asked to read it. By chance, First Second Books, a graphic novel imprint at MacMillan, was just getting started; and the editor there was specifically looking for scripts that didn’t have any artists attached. Our agent sent it to him and not only did he immediately make an offer on it, he asked if we had any other screenplays. We did—a totally different, horror/black comedy/satire called The Fielding Course—which he also bought. He brought in two incredibly talented artists to draw them, and two years later, both came out at practically the same time—the newly entitled City of Spies and Brain Camp.
Q. Wasteland, the three-part series you’re writing with Laurence Klavan for HarperTeen: how did that project come about, and where are you now in the process?
A. Well, it’s ironic: we wrote our graphic novels as screenplays and couldn’t sell them to Hollywood. And then we wrote the outline for The Young Country (as it was originally called) as a graphic novel and couldn’t sell it to our publisher. Oy. Anyway, our wonderful agent again had a brainstorm: she knew that young adult dystopian fiction was really hot and so she suggested that we retool the project as a novel. We did, reluctantly at first—it’s hard enough writing screenplays together, but FICTION is extraordinarily difficult to write with anyone, much less your significant other (trust me). But we managed to come up with fifty pages and an outline. Our agent went out to about two dozen houses and within days, HarperCollins made a pre-emptive bid… as long as it was a trilogy. That part was easy; we always write projects that can easily extend, story-wise, and besides, I’ve worked in TV a long time and feel very comfortable with serial writing. Anyway, we leapt around screaming with happiness for about three days and then it dawned on us that we actually had to WRITE it. That was in 2011. The first installment, Wasteland, just came out in hardcover this spring and will be out as a paperback next spring, when the second book, Wanderers, comes out. We’re currently finishing the copy-edit on the second book and are about two-thirds of the way through the first draft of the final book, Guardians. If all goes well, that should be coming out in 2015.
Q. As you know, the highlighted grand prize of the NHFF Screenplay Competition is a two-week writer’s residency to Star Island Family Conference and Retreat Center (off the coast of New Hampshire), with room and board provided. Can you talk about the value of having two-weeks away with little else to do but write?
A. Oh wow… I can’t imagine anything more important for a writer! Unless you’re a wealthy hermit with no family, no job, no obligations, a maid, and a cook, you probably have a life that allows you VERY little time for writing. After all, it’s extremely easy to fall into the mindset that writing is selfish, writing is unimportant, and that everything else is far more vital and worthwhile than your poor screenplay, stage play, novel, or memoir. The only way you can write at all, really, is by allowing yourself great blocks of uninterrupted time, when you can actually lose yourself in the creative flow of your story. “Flow” doesn’t just happen, by the way; you have to be patient, spend a lot of time at your keyboard or with a pad of paper, and allow it to kick in. Getting to the point where it becomes automatic, or at least semi-automatic, can take a long time. That kind of time investment may feel like the greatest luxury (and I suppose it is in today’s world), but it’s also VITAL for being a writer.
Q. Any final thoughts that you’d like to share with potential NHFF Screenwriter Competition entrants?
A. This is going to sound negative, but it’s actually not. What I’d like to say that no matter how awesome it will be to actually win this competition (and I am congratulating him or her in advance!), winning isn’t the main thing. I’ve been on a lot of panels and judged many contests… and what you really discover is that there are at least three or four times as many great people you could conceivably pick than there are awards, or grants, or prizes. And it’s not a comment on the contestants, ultimately—how good your script is, how talented you are, etc. In most instances, you will never know just how close you came. So I would suggest you go ahead and assume you came in a micro-percentage behind the person who actually won. There is so much rejection in show business—I just had dinner with a bunch of officers from the Writers Guild of America, and we were all comparing war stories about the screenplays, pilots, and projects we’d written that we LOVED that had been scrapped, sometimes at the last second. It’s important to keep a sense of humor, to not equate rejection with failure, and to keep moving forward. And remember that you actually enjoy writing in the first place… because otherwise, why do it?