Paula Berinstein interviews Stefano Boscutti on the role of writers, publishing revolutions, and why you are your own salvation
PAULA BERINSTEIN: What’s your writing process like?
STEFANO BOSCUTTI: I’m usually minding my own business when I get assaulted by an image or an idea. It won’t let go until I sit down and write it out. This can take two days, two weeks, two years in some cases. It doesn’t stop until I sit down and write it out. I put it off and I put it off and I put it off, and then I start writing. First it’s crap. Then it starts getting better. And then of course, by the end, it’s complete genius, and no one is allowed to change a word [laughs].
BERINSTEIN: Do you get ideas that don’t strike you right away?
BOSCUTTI: Sometimes an idea will lead to others. I may have a really good story I want to tell, but it’s asking a lot of people to read a novel. So, I’ll write a screenplay and then think — shit, that’s still a bit much. So maybe I should do a story, maybe two thousand words, five thousand words. Then I’m only asking for twenty minutes of their time.
BERINSTEIN: So, if you get sick of your subject, you don’t have to go all the way with a novel.
BOSCUTTI: That’s right. Also, some stories won’t go the distance. Who wants to spend an entire novel driving around with John Grisham’s head? You’re going to run out of gas at some point. Sometimes it will reveal itself to be a bigger story. After a while, you begin to think there must be some theme to what you’re doing. It seems I’m drawn to stories about characters as individuals, as opposed to situations. I find it hard to get inspired about a story unless it’s about a conflicted individual, one person trying to do something despite themselves. Usually, they’re stupidly heroic, or misheroic, or whatever the opposite of heroic is.
BERINSTEIN: You like to write about real people, or at least use them as an anchor for writing about fictional people.
BOSCUTTI: I think we write best when we write closest to who we are. I used to be a journalist, but I was the worst journalist in the world. My idea of truth was to make it up. Once I had to go and cover a soccer match. I’m not a sports fan, I’m completely bored. I decide to go off with the photographer to have some fun. When I get back, the match is over. So when I get to the newsroom, I just make it up. The story runs the next day, and when I get in, the editor screams me into his office. Everyone stops typing. He slams the door, but his office wall doesn’t go all the way to the ceiling. So everyone can hear him complaining about all the phone calls, pulling the story apart line by line, until it dawns on him that I haven’t made errors, I’ve just made it all up [laughs]. But I loved writing it. That seems to have set the pattern. I seem to be drawn to real people to land the story, to give it some sense of truth as opposed to a story where nothing is true.
BERINSTEIN: That’s really funny. You’re looking for a sense of truth in your fiction, but when you were a journalist, you were making things up.
BOSCUTTI: I must be paying for my sins.
BERINSTEIN: Maybe you’re just contrary?
BOSCUTTI: Maybe it’s what all writers should be. If you look through history, all the way back to the Ancient Greeks, anybody who could put their thoughts down on paper or papyrus or clay tablet or whatever, have always been mistrusted by those in power — free thought and your own ideas you can share with others, uh-uh, that’s not part of the plan. Words are amazing. You can start a war with them, you can fall in love, you can do anything.
BERINSTEIN: So what is the role of the writer in society?
BOSCUTTI: To save the world from itself. To save us from ourselves. Wow, that sounds pompous, but it’s true. It’s our job to try and make sense of it all. Try to point the way forward. Try to do the right thing.
BERINSTEIN: What is the right thing?
BOSCUTTI: Probably being true to yourself. You should play to your strengths, to your truths. I think writers are supposed to lead by example. You need to define the things you’re most passionate about, you’re most drawn to. And you can say — well, I don’t want to do that. I want to go down the easy path, and you invariably get dragged by your ear to go and do what you’re supposed to be doing — whether you like it or not. I think a writer’s job is to envisage other possibilities and other realities. They may come true, or they may not. That’s not the point. The point is to keep going forward, keep evolving. Society is going through an upheaval at the moment — actually, revolution is a better word. The role of the writer will become even more important because everyone is kind of freaking out. It’s our job to calm everybody down and point the way forward. We’re the conductors of the future because, if we don’t do it, governments and corporations become the storytellers. And we know they prefer you to live in fear and debt. I’m all for love and freedom, which might explain why I’m drawn to writing about individuals raging against systems of control.
BERINSTEIN: Does writing come easy to you? Is it a struggle?
BOSCUTTI: Probably the first thirty percent, the actually sitting down and making the necessary mistakes to get to where you need to go. At the beginning, you’re always a little bit lost. I always think I’ll outsmart myself by making a plot outline. I’ll beat it out. I’ll have my fucking twelve steps. Blah, blah, blah, blah. Best laid plans, you know. They always end up triggering other ideas and the rest of it. I’ll put off beginning a story because I don’t want to mess it up, or make a mistake, or make a fool of myself. Which is ridiculous, because I know it’s part of the process. I think I’m just trying to find the rhythm, or letting the story find me. Somehow, the story gets its own life and, you know, you’re just dictating. The characters take on a life of their own, and I’m really just taking notes. That’s the best stage, after I get over all the procrastination.
BERINSTEIN: Do you still procrastinate?
BOSCUTTI: Every time? We have to do this every time? Yeah, apparently we do. Procrastination is such a dirty word, right up there with Satan for most people. Procrastination is a harnessing process and not as terrible as everybody makes out. It’s the bottling process, or the fermenting process, of the idea. You’re actually churning over ideas in your brain until you have enough velocity to get down and start writing. Look at psychological studies and you’ll find, if you try and push through with willpower alone, you’ll just exhaust yourself.
BERINSTEIN: So people who tell you to write every day are forcing the issue?
BOSCUTTI: It’s hardwired into the American psyche, that manifest destiny, that work ethic. Every day, you must produce X number of words. Every day, you will go to the horizon, and you will go past Indians, and you will go west until you find the promised land. That is a really American idea. It’s part of the American myth, the American story. Australia has the exact opposite idea. Our explorers didn’t conquer. They went west and starved to death on the edge of an endless desert. That’s our history [laughs].
BOSCUTTI: Yeah. So Australians have a fairly laid back attitude to that whole self-made ethos. I try to write every day, but today it was writing out a list, yesterday was scratching out little storyboards. So the idea of five hundred words a day, minimum, I’m not sure that’s the best way to write. Especially all the guilt that comes if you don’t hit some arbitrary word count. Guilt is about the most useless emotion in the world. Sometimes I’ll write three thousand words a day, sometimes thirty, sometimes I’ll just draw out some storyboards.
BERINSTEIN: You do storyboarding?
BOSCUTTI: They’re the worst little drawings you can imagine. I draw out scenes and shots, then describe what I see. I scratch out a lot of stuff like that. It may be a question of my age, and having started writing on Underwood typewriters that, you know, weighed more than your refrigerator. When I started out as a journalist, I had no idea how to write anything. You get the old, bitter, cigarette-smoking journalist in the corner, who’s been there longer than time itself, who sits you down and explains it in plain English. (Adopts accent) Now writing a story is very easy. In the first paragraph, you have to sum up the whole thing in thirty words or less, and then in the next paragraph, disagree with it, and then agree with it, and then, you know, black white, black white, and then whatever you want your take on the story to be, make that the last paragraph. Got that? Good. Let’s get a drink.
BOSCUTTI: You’d have a stack of three-inch by five-inch sheets of hacked newsprint, a flimsy sheet of worn, blue carbon paper. You’d sandwich the carbon paper between two sheets of newsprint. Write a single sentence on each sheet of paper. Keep the copy, and pin the originals together. And hand them to a subeditor, who would tell you it’s crap. Unpin the sheets, and rearrange the story — which is essentially like a storyboard, rearranging each sentence to tell the best story.
BERINSTEIN: I love that.
BOSCUTTI: You’re basically doing needlework, stitching your story together on sheaves of newsprint and a crap typewriter, clacking away — clack, clack, clack, clack-clack.
BERINSTEIN: The good old days.
BOSCUTTI: That’s how I learnt. These days I try and write something fast without thinking about it too much, with typos and everything. Then print it out, and scrawl all over it in pencil, and reordering sentences and paragraphs all over the place according to some weird plan I can’t make any sense of. Then I retype that. So it’s a rough draft, pencil edit, and then back in, with a little polish on the computer. How’s this for pathetic? I spent thirty-five dollars on a computer program that mimics the noise of an Underwood typewriter on my extremely expensive Mac system.
BOSCUTTI: Through my Bose headphones.
BERINSTEIN: That’s great.
BOSCUTTI: Clack, clack, clackety-clack. Ding. Clack, clack, clack.
BOSCUTTI: It’s completely ridiculous [laughs]. But that whole acoustic rhythm is part of my process. That’s definitely how I do it. I don’t know if I could do it any other way. It’s definitely two parts of your brain. When you storyboard with a pencil, when you’re drawing, it’s a different part of your brain than when you’re putting letters end-on-end to create words, to create sentences, to create, in my case, very short paragraphs.
BERINSTEIN: I’m sure writers don’t think of storyboarding unless they’re in film.
BOSCUTTI: Well, a lot of my stories are filmic in form and content. I prefer written stories that are closer to a screenplay than a literary masterpiece that describes a cloudscape in twelve pages.
BERINSTEIN: Why is that?
BOSCUTTI: We’re increasingly living our lives on screens. Yesterday, I was walking down the street, marveling at the number of people looking at the screens of their phones, either texting a message, watching a video, reading a novel. No one was connecting with each other, just connecting with whatever stories were being presented to them via their screens. Every writer is now a screenwriter. I love the screenplay form because it seems to me to be the most precise way to deliver a story to people today. Because that’s how we live — the screen is the medium of our lives.
BERINSTEIN: What about books?
BOSCUTTI: If you want to present a story in a book form, which is a dead tree that apparently smells nice, ummm . . . I don’t think that is the media for most people anymore. I was feeling guilty last week because I hadn’t read a book for a while, and ended up reading six screenplays, which I found a far better value for the time. In an hour-and-a-half read, I got all the emotions you can get in a novel without the boring bits. To my eye, it’s a very condensed and very powerful form. I think the literature of now is the screenplay. But everyone thinks I’m crazy — especially traditional publishers.
BERINSTEIN: Everyone thinks you’re crazy?
BOSCUTTI: Most everyone thinks a screenplay is just the blueprint or working document for a film. I think it can exist on its own literary terms, on its own literary merits. You don’t have to throw ten, twenty, a hundred million dollars at it and turn it into a film that robs people of their imagination. When you go and see a Harry Potter film, you can’t imagine what the snake is going to look like. Nothing is left to chance, and nothing is left to the imagination, because filmmakers can now create everything. They’re more than happy to do that. It’s their craft. But when you go and watch one of those films, it’s stunning and amazing because your eyes have never seen anything like it before. It’s overwhelming, but you’re not bringing anything to the story. You’re parking your brain at the concession stand — now, give us your mind, here’s some popcorn, see you in two hours. Thanks. I like reading a screenplay and imagining the story myself.
BERINSTEIN: How common is it to write screenplays without intending for them to be produced?
BOSCUTTI: Not so common, which is probably why people think I’m crazy. Writers are being reminded all the time that this is how the industry works — oh, and by the way, this is your first screenplay, so you’re going to have to sign over all your rights, and you have no say. Really? Why? Because that’s just how it works. Do the rewrite and revisions, and fuck off. Now, that’s one way to do it, but it certainly isn’t the only way. You mentioned before about me being contrary. I’ve lost a few screenplays in development, which is one circle of hell Dante missed out on. I’ve changed my terms now, so if you want to option or buy one of my screenplays, you can’t change a word. I’m also releasing them as books and ebooks. I’m turning the whole thing on its head. My screenplay writing has flowed into my other work. It’s stripped back so it doesn’t read like a screenplay per se, it doesn’t read like a technical document, but it still moves like a screenplay in terms of very brief descriptions, a lot of dialogue, and bits that you’re not sure whether it’s voiceover or not [laughs]. Hey, it works for me.
BERINSTEIN: It certainly gets everything across.
BOSCUTTI: I love writing to the point where I’m taking people to the edge and saying, See, look at all this. Isn’t it amazing? And they can see it for themselves and say, Wow, cool! As opposed to, Hey, okay, shut up! Stand there, and I’m going to tell you everything you’re about to see. If you have no input, there’s nothing for you to do. You know, if you read a good Cormac McCarthy piece, a one-and-a-half sentence description is enough for you to get a sketch of a person. And then you fill in the details. You don’t need the exact hemline, or pattern on the dress, or shoe size to get an idea of the character. The more you have to contribute of your imagination, the more real it is for you — regardless of the character.
BERINSTEIN: Like Don Simpson? Why did you write about him?
BOSCUTTI: He was the guy who essentially ruined Hollywood by introducing the blockbuster model as the only way to make films. The idea that, if a film could not attract a stupendous audience and make a tremendous amount of money, then it’s not worth making. His model now means that next year, Disney and Paramount and Universal and 20th Century Fox and Warners and Columbia will all reduce their output to maximize the profit made from each title. They’re spending too much money making and promoting. They’ll reduce the number and variety of films to squeeze as much money as possible from each title. They will make them as potent and powerful as they can to be as popular as possible. All this thanks to a boy from Alaska. It’s amazing when you think about it. “Boscutti’s Don Simpson” is the story of how one man changed Hollywood forever. If you go to the pictures, you can’t not see the films he made. He made Richard Gere, Tom Cruise, Eddie Murphy, Will Smith. He made the idea of an action-comedy superstar as an extension of his personality. He was a larger-than-life figure with a taste for way too much drugs and hookers. He died a pathetic death — which seems to be a recurrent theme of some of my characters — at the grand age of fifty-two. I liked the idea of taking a story when somebody dies, and working backwards to see how he got there.
BERINSTEIN: And then from one extreme to the other — Anne Frank?
BOSCUTTI: I’m not even sure where that came from. Maybe it came from the idea of what’s the most impossible thing to try and sell. I’ve always been intrigued by advertising as a delivery mechanism for culture. That’s why I set the story in an advertising agency in the future. There’s some other stories coming, with other agency characters getting themselves into too much trouble. Why Anne Frank? I guess I wanted to see if advertising could do something good for a change.
BERINSTEIN: I don’t imagine you’ve ever met Anne Frank, but have you met any of the other people you write about?
BOSCUTTI: I’ve never met Don Simpson. I’m working on a story with Rupert Murdoch, and I’ve never met him either. It’s all fiction. I’ve heard of writers who take characters and plots out of their lives to create their stories. That’s really easy. I should do that. Maybe I don’t have enough interesting people in my life [laughs]. My characters seem to be amalgams of parts of my personality I’d rather not talk about in public. So, I’ll put them through a character, through the sieve of a character.
BERINSTEIN: You never met Don Simpson?
BOSCUTTI: People don’t believe me when I say I’ve never met the man — if you didn’t meet him, then how come you described his lawn so perfectly? I don’t even remember writing about his lawn. So I check the text, and I never wrote about any lawns. It was completely in their head. That’s what I was talking about before, about writing in a way that lets the reader see and feel things that aren’t on the page. I do a lot of research when I fictionalize a character. I’ll even get an astrological chart made.
BOSCUTTI: Physical, metaphysical — I’ll use everything. I’ll read every interview I can get my hands on to give me a sense of what they want to communicate, of how they speak, of their language and rhythms. If you’re Don Simpson, and you do your interview for L.A. Times, you get to sign off on it anyway, you get final approval. So, you end up presenting your best side. I look between the lines. I end up with a lot of words. “Boscutti’s Don Simpson” novel was one-hundred and thirty-seven thousand words that I chiseled down to seventy thousand. I do that a lot. I won’t just write and say, Look! Aren’t my words beautiful? I’ll keep trimming and trimming, shortening and tightening. Like the editing process when you shoot a film. You know, you shoot a gazillion hours on a twenty-to-one ratio, ten-to-one ratio. Shoot, shoot, shoot. Crap, crap, good. I’ve got to write it all out. Jesus, why can’t I just do seventy thousand words and be done with it. No, no, write it all out, and then trim it all back.
BERINSTEIN: Is it cheating to write all that and then whittle it down to the best stuff?
BOSCUTTI: It doesn’t feel like cheating, it feels like hard work. I’m trying on the next batch of stories to work from the bottom up, rather than from the top down. But it seems I’m more comfortable condensing all those truths into a finer truth. Boy, that probably sounds incredibly self-indulgent and pretentious, but nothing makes me happier than to get a thirty-word sentence down to, say, I don’t know, ten. And still make it pop. That makes me happy.
BERINSTEIN: I know what you mean.
BOSCUTTI: Hemingway told us to take our darlings out to the back shed and shoot them. Sometimes I’ll write something I know is clever and makes me smile, and then I think, yeah, but it’s not really helping the story. It pulls away from the story — look, am I are a smartass writer or what [laughs]. That isn’t what you want to do in a story, you actually want to disappear. My little idiosyncrasies, my taste in literature and writing — personally, I want them to go away and just for the story and the characters to come to life.
BERINSTEIN: Do you like the people you write about?
BOSCUTTI: Yeah, I think I do. I may get frustrated by their actions, so I might tell them that — You know, Don, here’s what you should have done when you were twenty-three . . . . There’s no argument, Don Simpson was not a very likable man, and the man who hated Don Simpson the most was Don Simpson. He was unable to recreate himself like he was able to recreate characters in his movies. He created this kind of demon man that took on a life of its own. When I think of the other characters I’m writing, they similarly create a character to present to the world, and then, somehow, the character overtakes them, and then they can’t save themselves. You have to like the people you write about to some degree, because you’re going to spend six months or six years of your life with them. There has to be something likable. Maybe that’s what I’m trying to do with my stories, trying to find that likable aspect. My characters are massively flawed and, hopefully, become less flawed in the telling of the story. Hopefully, somewhere between the lines are the answers to leading a better life. I think even the characters you don’t like have to have some sort of humanity you’re drawn to. In a good story, a classic story, the antagonist is the bad mirror image of the protagonist, with all the flaws the protagonist is trying to overcome. If the protagonist doesn’t overcome his flaws, then that’s a tragedy. At the moment, you can’t really sell a tragedy. Which is a pity, because it’s sorely needed. “Boscutti’s Don Simpson” is story about a complete prick who doesn’t change his life and dies a sad and lonely death. It’s a metaphor for a lost country.
BERINSTEIN: Why isn’t there more tragedy?
BOSCUTTI: Popular culture has become complete escapism. It’s infantile. It’s ridiculous. If you can spell these days, you’re considered elitist. Franzen was the last author on the cover of Time magazine. Previously it had been Salinger back in the day. Or maybe Stephen King, because he sold so many books. But if you go back to the twenties and thirties, they used to put authors on the cover of Fortune magazine. Poets? Remember we used to talk about poets and poetry around the dining table. Now, if you’re a poet, people laugh at you. Here’s the hemlock, cheers!
BERINSTEIN: Let’s talk about your writing style. Sentence construction? Word choice?
BOSCUTTI: I’m a fairly excitable, brisk-talking person. So, if that’s how I communicate with words coming out of my mouth, that’s how I’m going to communicate with words coming out of my fingers onto the keyboard. I tend to have short sentences, pretty abrupt. Some may call it jarring. I’ll chop out unnecessary words to speed up the text, to accelerate the story. When you write a screenplay, you want to enter a scene late and exit early. So, I’ll write a scene where he goes to the door, and he opens the door, and blah blah blah blah. And I’ll get the guy in the room, and I’ll get the other guy in the room, and then they’ll do their thing, and then they’ll each leave. Part of the editing process is to have them already in the room, just pick up the gun and forget about leaving the room. So, I’ll tend to chop the intro and outro to speed the story along. I favor words that can do the job in two syllables rather than three. I avoid literary-type words. I’ll reach for the thesaurus at the start of a story. So, say I want a character to feel angry or something. I’ll usually pull up ten, twenty, thirty words that say angry and have them floating around somewhere, more as reminders. I use text set left, rather like non-fiction, rather than indented justified paragraphs. If I follow the literary protocols of five-character indented paragraphs, roughly being six or seven sentences long, that will give the expectations that it’s going to be a typical story that should live in a book. I don’t want to write typical stories that live in books, that live and die on the page. I want to liberate my stories. I want to electrify them. I want to give them life.
BERINSTEIN: So, it sounds like adjectives are out? Rhetorical devices are out?
BOSCUTTI: Over and out.
BERINSTEIN: You write in the present tense a lot.
BOSCUTTI: When you write a screenplay, everything is happening on the screen in real time, even if it’s a flashback. I love the idea of making the story here and now, even if it’s set in the past. It brings the story to life. It puts me right into the story. Writing in the past tense removes you as a writer. You’re looking back at it, you’re at a distance from it. The further back you go, the further removed you are. So even if it’s a historical figure, I’ll drag them into the present. Speaking of flawed characters who need to overcome their short comings, I’m sketching out a story on Jesus Christ [laughs].
BERINSTEIN: Probably haven’t met him . . .
BOSCUTTI: Not yet. But when I write that story, it will be in the here and now, as opposed to the there and then. It takes a lot less words to get into the story. He said, she said, quote marks, colons, anything that slows down the story is kind of useless. They’re a waste of time and text. You should be able to look down a page and follow the conversation without referring to who’s saying what. It should be clear by the dialogue alone.
BERINSTEIN: That’s hard to do, though.
BOSCUTTI: That’s me. If it’s hard and difficult, I’m the guy for the job [laughs]. But it works when you get the rhythm and tone right. When the writing has its own rhythm and its own melody, it sings.
BERINSTEIN: Do you read your writing out loud?
BOSCUTTI: Always. It’s amazing how much different it sounds to hearing it in your head. If I stumble through the sentence, I know I have go back and clean it up. Even doing it in a different accent doesn’t help.
BERINSTEIN: What about setting?
BOSCUTTI: It’s a character. You make the house, then the house makes you. With Don Simpson, it became clear that as he shrank into himself, the walls literally closed in around him. He actually shrank into his own setting. He’s a larger than life, outgoing guy at the start of his career, with all the bombast. And then, as he has his doubts and starts to question himself, he withdraws into himself, withdraws into his house. In the last scenes, he withdraws from three and four rooms to two and one, then to a bedroom, and ultimately to the bathroom, to the smallest room in the house. Setting is critical. It definitely informs the character, the story. In the John Grisham story, I’m already worrying about what the car looks like. It’s only going to be two lines to describe the car. But I need to get the car right, because the car we’re traveling in is the metaphor for the story, so it can’t just be any car.
BERINSTEIN: Are you interested in myths?
BOSCUTTI: Can’t live without them. They’re locked in. They’re in our blood. The Jesus story is the Mohammed story is the Buddha story is the Star Wars story is the hero’s journey that is ultimately everyone’s story. Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces” is definitely my bible. We need myths to lead the way. The role of the writer is to make sense of the world. Writers were the first scientists. People looked up at the stars and thought, What the fuck’s that about? It was a writer who proceeded to tell a story about the gods, and the constellations, and the heavens above us, and the truths below. As soon as I got my iPad, I thought, Oh my god, this is the narcissus myth. You’re looking into a glass screen, you’re looking into your own reflection, you’re pressing your finger onto the cool surface, and you’re dipping into your own world. You’re falling in love with your own reflection. You’re falling in love with yourself.
BERINSTEIN: What’s the best line or passage you ever wrote?
BOSCUTTI: There are so many [laughs]. Do you have five hours? Let me take out my list — oh my god, it’s the size of a phone book.
BOSCUTTI: To be honest, I don’t look back. I don’t have a rearview mirror. I just keep going forward, you know. Relentlessly forward.
BERINSTEIN: What would you say are your favorite classic works?
BOSCUTTI: I love Shakespeare. I can recite every play [laughs]. No, I can’t. I love that he took stories that already existed and turned them into dramatic forms, where people paid their penny to go to his own theater, and were entertained for two and three hours. He owned the theater, and he owned the vegetable stand that sold the vegetables you could throw at the actors if you were disappointed. Interactive and nutritious. I’ve tried to do Dickens and Dostoevsky and the rest of them. Classic English authors I find too uptight. Russian authors are way too crazy. French authors are impossible. I’ve tried to do Dante, tried to grin and push through. I can understand the attraction, but it’s not really for me.
BERINSTEIN: Even though you’re Italian.
BOSCUTTI: I know. It’s terrible. I like Aristotle, although he didn’t really write stories. He just wrote tracts about what he thought. But I read “Poetics” at least once a year.
BERINSTEIN: How about contemporary works?
BOSCUTTI: Every word William S. Burroughs ever wrote. Don DeLillo. Viktor Pelevin. Margaret Atwood. Jean Baudrillard. Cormac McCarthy. Jose Donoso. Bret Easton Ellis. Yasutaka Tsutsui. Joyce Carol Oates. Yamada Taichi. Alain Robbe-Grillet. David Shields. Does Walt Disney count?
BERINSTEIN: Walt Disney?
BOSCUTTI: Big fan of Uncle Walt. But he didn’t actually write in the traditional sense, didn’t do screenplays until the nineteen-forties, when production budgets started to climb. Before then, they were all storyboards, little sketches on cards rearranged on corkboard until they were happy with the flow. I’m also a big fan of Preston Sturges because he had these great contracts that kept studios from meddling with his work. He could turn a story on a dime. Amazing writer. Ernest Lehman. William Goldman. Paul Schrader. David Mamet. Francis Ford Coppola. Joel and Ethan Coen. S. Craig Zahler is scary cool. Ben Ripley is sharp. I’ll read Aaron Sorkin’s to-do list.
BERINSTEIN: Screenwriting is usually a very collaborative process. How do you feel about collaborating versus being self-contained?
BOSCUTTI: The idea that filmmaking is collaborative is fostered by producers to justify their existence. It isn’t the only way to make films. At the moment, I’m of the mind of — well, fuck it, I’m not going to collaborate at all [laughs]. I want to see a singular vision. I don’t want to see a watered-down compromise. I want to see one person’s complete vision up on a screen. But the mechanics of the business is, the more producers on a project, the more collaboration. I saw one film recently, made by people I normally admire, that failed horribly because they overwrit it. Overwrite it? They had it overwritten? I can’t even say the word [laughs].
BOSCUTTI: In my mind, I’ve already spelt it o-v-e-r-w-r-o-u-g-h-t. Too many hands in the pot, too many fingers in the pie, too many voices vying for your attention. I want to have one person’s vision. That’s what a novel does, it connects you one-on-one.
BERINSTEIN: You’d like to see a one person film?
BOSCUTTI: I would. Look at older films, and you don’t an eighteen-minute credit roll. Twenty people, twenty bodies got the whole thing done. It’s the only way you can present something other than, you know, “Harry Potter 27″ or whatever else they’re going to make. You can go down the blockbuster road with tremendous amounts of money, tremendous amounts of resources. You throw all the money at it, all the resources you want at it, or do the exact opposite. I’m trying to think about how I can shoot a film and be in the film at the same time. Not so easy [laughs]. Unless you have a lot of mirrors. Maybe I should stick to screenplays and novels.
BERINSTEIN: And readers?
BOSCUTTI: Never have so many people read so much. Think of Facebook and Twitter and email. We know they’re not reading that many novels or traditional books. Everyone flits from one thing to another. To actually get somebody to sit down and to invest even two or three hours on a story, or two or three days for a novel, is asking a lot. Especially when the rest of the media is becoming an endless carny show — look over here, over here, singing cats, dancing dwarfs, shiny lights, quick, look, come over here, look, look. People are being pulled by so many distractions. Research used to mean lining up at a library. Now, it’s Google and a million abstractions. Our relationship with words is evolving. It’s becoming electric. That changes everything. In a digital world, everything is at you all at once, as opposed to our analog past, where everything had a beginning, middle, and end. The whole idea of a linear story is crumbling. People now access a story, make sense of a story from three, four, five sources. In the past it was just the New York Times. Now you check the New York Times RSS feed, hop over to CNN, click into Huffington Post, jump on twitter feeds. In an hour, you’ve had six or seven sources for that story, six or seven points of view that you’ve blended into your own story.
BERINSTEIN: It sounds like you really need to be in touch with what people want, or you could really miss the mark.
BOSCUTTI: There are two ways to look at it. One way says, Well, fuck it. I’m going to write whatever I’m going to write, and if people aren’t up to it, then they can get fucked. Which is not very helpful [laughs] and a little rude. Then there’s the other way, the Hollywood way, which is to give them exactly what they want. I used to think that everybody should read what I write because I’m such a genius [laughs]. But lately, I’ve been thinking, you know, I’m just going to find people that are like me, that have similar values to me, and I’m going to write stories for them. I’m not going to modify what I write to make it more popular. If anything, I’m going to heighten my writing, my idiosyncrasies. If people don’t get it, I’m like, Cool! Here’s your “Harry Potter” ticket. Tell me how it ends [laughs]. It’s okay. I know how it’s going to end. You don’t have to tell me.
BERINSTEIN: How do you feel about the publishing industry?
BOSCUTTI: I feel it’s time for another revolution. Everybody can now become their own publisher. It’s amazing. You can take your words and stories to market just as easily as Simon & Schuster, just as easily as Penguin, just as easily as Random House, just as easily as any of the big six publishers. Soon to be the not- so-big five, the ever-shrinking four, the quietly-merging three. You now have the capacity and the responsibility to do that. It’s very important that writers don’t just go, Oh, it’s terrible! We’ll be ruined! I can’t get an advance, my publisher hates me, I don’t get any love. Gender politics aside, it’s time to man up, man. There’s a media revolution, and you’re part of it. You can be the collateral damage or the hero. It’s your call, your decision. The role of story in culture has never been more important. Books are just the context, they’re not the content. I can’t believe people are still hanging on to the notion of bound paper as a way to distribute stories. That people say, Oh, but I love the smell of books. Really, you love the smell of decaying, dead trees? Maybe we should have scratch-and-sniff ereaders for all the bibliophiles.
BERINSTEIN: So, is there a place for publishers?
BOSCUTTI: Publishers have to ask themselves how they add value to writers and readers. Being paper merchants is not going to cut it. Slashing your sales force is not enough. Colluding to inflate retail prices is stupid. I’m not going to shed a tear for publishers who’ve slashed their own throats through greed and shortsightedness. I’m not going to the funeral. I’m not paying my respects. Their undoing is all their own doing. They have undone themselves. What we need now is an entirely new kind of publisher.
BERINSTEIN: Do we need publishers and agents to act as gatekeepers?
BOSCUTTI: Even those roles are blurring. Andrew Wylie set up Odyssey Editions after his spat with Random House to publish his own clients’ books as ebooks. When the agent becomes the publisher, that’s no longer business as usual. Of course, every author is now saying, Wait a second. Who’s going to look after my interest if my agent becomes my publisher? What’s he going to do? Arm wrestle himself? Gnaw off his own paw? I mean, the gatekeepers are turning on each other. What they haven’t realized is that the walls have crumbled, so they’re still standing at the gates, facing off against each other as people are stepping over the rubble and walking past them.
BERINSTEIN: So readers will find what they want by reviews and comments and word of mouth.
BOSCUTTI: We don’t need the gates anymore. If you’re a publisher, you make your money from your backlist. You may get lucky and get a Grisham, or do a Dan Brown, or have a bestseller out of the blue. But the backlist is the thing that keeps you alive. Now, as a writer, you’re free to create your own backlist. In the past, you couldn’t keep your backlist in print unless you were married to a publisher or you were one of a handful of writers. There was no way your publisher was going to keep your books alive in print and on shelves. You published, you had your year in the sun, and then you were dead. Now the sun never sets.
BERINSTEIN: Do you think writing will be replaced by social chatter?
BOSCUTTI: God, I hope not. I hope it’s just a phase. To think we used to have locks on diaries to keep our secrets safe. Now we’ve thrown away the key, torn off the lock, ripped out the pages, and flung them to the four winds for everybody to see. We feel compelled to share our most intimate thoughts with complete strangers.
BERINSTEIN: I wonder if people are so engaged in broadcasting their thoughts that they don’t have the time to read or a desire to write.
BOSCUTTI: At the moment, social media is being hyped, being pumped hard by people who stand to profit most by it. It’s the people who run Twitter, or run Facebook, or run social network sites. It’s in their commercial interest for you to chatter aimlessly online. It’s probably rewarding if you’ve never written and you’ve never expressed yourself. It’s probably good for you to do that. Chatter and gossip have always existed, but you’ve never been able to chatter to a hundred and twenty million people at the same time. I’m sure the novelty will wear off. Especially when you actually read the copyright assignment notice you signed on Facebook and realize they own all your words [laughs]. Which you may want back when you decide to write your memoirs. Ah, yes, missing the college years, because they’re all owned by Facebook, and you couldn’t get your rights back. It’s funny when you think about it. To make money, these sites need to sell advertising. They need profiles and content. The chatter is just a way for Silicon Valley billionaires to get free content.
BERINSTEIN: You couldn’t compare social chatter with consciously writing a story.
BOSCUTTI: No, no. They’re just distracted parcels of thought, zipping around the ether. But I could be wrong. Maybe somebody will write the great American novel in one hundred and forty characters or less. No one knows for sure. We live in interesting times [laughs]. Interesting and exciting and frustrating and thrilling times. Great times to be writing stories.
BERINSTEIN: What do you hope readers will take away from your stories?
BOSCUTTI: Good question. I hope readers will. I hope they take away a sense of possibility, a sense that nothing is impossible. If you can dream it, you can do it, whether you’re Don Simpson or Elvis Presley or Pablo Escobar or Walt Disney. Hopefully, you realize you are your own salvation.