While most authors have the same veil through which they write, unable to escape the shades of color through which they view the world, Jonathan Tropper gleefully punts this premise.
His productivity and shapeshifting style made me suspect he must have a wild and giddy twin who also writes for him (see Nic Cage, Adaptation, 2002). Nothing else could explain his range of finely nuanced novels at once mournful, real, and hilarious—with a quiet reverb that gets more powerful as the book goes on—and the fact that he is also the co-creator of of the all-bets-are-off Cinemax mind-twist that is Banshee, mashing Russian underworld lords with Amish farmers and jewel heists, and never looking back.
We talked about the perfect novel, remaining calm, and perseverance.
What do you do to refill the creative well?
Jonathan Tropper: I don’t find that the problem is the well running dry. I think most active writers are constantly finding and inventing characters and stories as a matter of course. For me the problem is more about finding the time and focus to properly develop the stories from raw notions into actionable projects that are ready to be written.
What are you always searching for within your work and why?
JT: This won’t be a terribly original answer, but I’m fascinated by behavior, the things we do instead of the things we should, the way we, as humans, bounce off of each other in unexpected ways, the way we lie to ourselves, or sabotage ourselves in ways we can only understand retroactively. I love writing about the way otherwise intelligent people can’t get out of their own way. Of course, if they could get out of their own way, there wouldn’t be much to write about. Put another way, regardless of the story, I try to excavate and convey those frail and less immediately obvious glitches in human nature, to share a basic human truth in a way that will both illuminate and entertain. So I guess I’m always searching for some vague but powerful engine of the psyche that, when articulated, will be both fascinating and familiar to the reader.
I’ve found all novelists, when they sit down to hatch a new story, keep coming across a certain recurring character (nerd girl, sinister outcast, angst-ridden father with a secret, etc.), a person who keeps haunting their stories, demanding to appear in ways great and small. What is that character for you and from what situation in your life was she or he born?
JT: I seem to always find a way to introduce a verbally fearless character, someone without a filter who cavalierly says all the scandalous, devastatingly honest, funny-as-hell things that others might think and never say. Someone with who is either confident enough or oblivious enough to simply live out loud. I don’t think this comes from any specific person or event in my life. Rather, I think it sources from a lifetime of frustration with myself for self-filtering, for not living out loud as much as I would like. I’ve always had a relentless and pretty outrageous inner monologue running in my head, but it took me years to kind of loosen the reins on it, which is probably why I became a writer, to give all those thoughts somewhere to go. Over the years, I’ve taken some satisfaction in removing that filter, but I still can sometimes find myself clamming up when I would rather be speaking my mind, and I think that’s where those characters come from.
If there were a Jonathan Tropper merchandise table, what would you be selling and what would be printed on your T-shirts?
JT: Probably just my novels and Banshee DVDs. If I had a T shirt it would probably just say “Remain Calm.”
Banshee is such a roller-coaster mash-up of Amish culture and classic heist action movie with a touch of modernist film noir. How did the singular tone come about and what was the germinating idea or inspiration?
JT: Banshee was really kind of a happy accident. I’d been pitching HBO television that was much more in line with the tone and subject matter of my novels, but I just couldn’t get them to bite. So finally, in frustration, I pitched this thing I’d been thinking about in some form or another ever since I’d read The Count of Monte Cristo in high school – the notion of this guy who gets out of prison and completely reinvents himself. Of course, in the intervening years, my tastes evolved, and I think Banshee has a lot of strong cinematic influences, from Tarantino to the Coen brothers to David Cronenberg, kind of mixed up with everything from Bruce Lee to Stallone and Schwarzenegger.
As a novelist who moves so effortlessly between TV and film, what would you consider your guiding writing motto for each medium? Which medium do you prefer?
JT: “Effortless” is actually a pretty ironically misleading word. It takes a tremendous amount of effort and time, and I’m not always successful. It’s just that, in most cases, no one sees the failures. That said, I think I will always prefer the leisure and space of novel writing – the room to explore every impulse and idea without worrying about page count – the ability to expand or contract or digress without conforming to a template. At the same time, the economy and the math of a screenplay can be a relief – the challenge of conveying character and tone through visuals, confining yourself to only a certain amount of real estate to portray something. It leads to really creative ways of showing instead of telling.
Do you have any weird writing ritual? What is it?
JT: Sadly, I don’t think I do. Open to suggestions.
What do you consider the most perfect novel ever written and why?
JT: I wouldn’t presume to call any book the most perfect novel ever written, but there are two novels I always come back to that I feel are just wonderfully complete. The first is Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney, which never fails, even after all this time, to feel smart, fresh, and original. It’s epic and concise and if it’s not perfect, it’s pretty damn close. The second is Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon, which is just a phenomenal character study dropped into a fantastically entertaining and well-written novel.
What have you gotten right and what have you gotten wrong?
JT: I think just being able to spend my time writing is something that I’ve gotten right, because looking back, I don’t know how I had the nerve to ever think that was a reasonable expectation. I think, with regard to my novels, I stayed true to the kind of tone and stories I wanted to tell, even while the marketplace took a while to accept them from me. I’ve written some novels of which I’m really proud.
I’ve gotten pretty much everything else wrong. But the beauty of being a writer is that every day is literally a chance to start with a blank page.
What does writing fiction mean to you? Is it:
A. Something to pass the time before we die akin to knitting scarves in a nursing home;
B. A calling, much like Harry Potter’s showdown with Voldemort;
C. A perfectly respectable, albeit lonely way to make donuts;
D. A daily hell one must face, much like Sisyphus’ boulder;
JT: The only one I agree with here is B. I could think of far more relaxing ways to pass the time, and while it’s definitely a lonely way to make donuts, there’s nothing “reasonable” about it. There is certainly something Sisyphean about it, but I would hardly call it a “daily hell.” Most days it’s actually pretty nice. I don’t report to a boss, I make my own schedule, and I’m doing what I love.
But it is a calling, and the reason I know that is because I’m not, in any other aspect of my life, particularly given to perseverance. And yet, somehow, here I am. You don’t become a professional writer if you’re not driven by that call. The system is designed to weed out all but the most committed. In that sense, it’s less about talent than absolute commitment. It’s the sword in the stone, and not everyone gets to pull it out.
About Jonathan Tropper
Jonathan Tropper is the internationally bestselling author of six novels: Plan B, The Book of Joe, Everything Changes, How To Talk to a Widower, This Is Where I Leave You, and One Last Thing Before I Go. His books have been translated into over twenty languages. He recently adapted This Is Where I Leave You as a feature film for Warner Bros. Studios, starring Jason Bateman and Tina Fey, and is currently adapting One Last Thing Before I Go for Paramount. Jonathan is also the co-creator and executive producer of the television show Banshee, which premiered on Cinemax in January 2013. He lives in Westchester, NY with his three children.