Thursday, July 30, 2009

[Interview] Mark Kaplan

Novelist, school teacher and screenwriter, Mark Adam Kaplan was born in Staten Island, NY. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and a Masters of Fine Arts from the American Film Institute’s Center for Film and Television Studies.

He has worked as an Associate Editor and then as a public school teacher in New York City before relocating to Hollywood, CA.

His film credits include, A Time to Remember (Tai Seng, 1998) and Echoes of the East: Tibet, 1997.

His writing includes book and music reviews which have appeared in magazines that include Rapport Magazine in Los Angeles; “Date with the Chairman”, a short story which was published in the anthology, Wicked: Sexy Tales of Legendary Lovers (Cleis Press, 2005); and, A Thousand Beauties (BeWrite Books, 2009), his first novel.

In this interview, Mark Kaplan talks about his concerns as a writer:

When did you start writing?

I’ve always written, although I think I made a formal decision to give writing more importance when I was in college. I was directing plays and found myself inspired to speak my mind that way. Several of my own plays were produced in New York and Los Angeles, although nothing took off.

How would you describe your writing?

I do many different kinds of writing at the moment.

I write articles about teaching and education, prose, and screenplays. I find it difficult to stick to one genre (or media for that matter). Some stories are made for the screen, I believe, and some require deeper insight into a character’s thought process. There is room for crossover, of course. But I believe that truly interesting works in one genre do not translate easily into another.

For example, I really do not care what goes on inside of John MacLane’s mind, but I love watching the Die Hard films. On the other hand, I found Snow Falling on Cedars quite moving as a novel and unwatchable as a film. There are exceptions, of course. But I believe the rule generally holds.

I am reminded of an interview I read with Milan Kundera. After having The Unbearable Lightness of Being made into a film he swore that he would never write another novel that could be adapted. After reading his Immortality, I understand what he means.

Who is your target audience?

I do not write with a single target audience in mind. Perhaps that is what impedes my greater success.

Some of my screenplays are written for families, others for young adults. A Thousand Beauties was written without a target audience in mind, but I have found great interest among adults, middle-aged and above. Naturally, the audience is not confined to this age group, but when discussing the book with them, I have seen genuine surprise and interest once I disclose the nature of the story. It is certainly too adult for teenagers.

Who influenced you most?

My mother wrote stories which she read to us as we grew up, and I loved hearing them. She pursued her writing throughout my life and that taught me to keep going regardless of how my work was received.

My father, on the other hand, is not a writer, but always offered his honest opinion, which was sometimes very painful for me to hear. He did, however, keep my feet on the ground and offered me a more pragmatic outlook on life.

I began writing A Thousand Beauties after the death of my paternal grandmother who succumbed to pancreatic cancer. My maternal grandmother died shortly thereafter. I have been fortunate to lose few loved ones during my lifetime. Their passing forced me to stop putting off my novel writing and sit down to work.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

I have many concerns as a writer. I want to touch my readers’ hearts, to entertain them, but I also hope to reveal something they may not have considered.

I am most concerned by what appears to be the approaching disappearance of the casual reader. Computer games and the internet have provided the next generation with such a wealth of hands on, interactive amusement, that I fear the loss of a public that reads books for pleasure.

Young people are reinventing the language with text messages, and their growing need for immediate gratification, (which was a punch line twenty years ago) does not bode well for entertainment that delays satisfaction for two- or three-hundred pages. J. K. Rowlings’ books, and the runaway success of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series are encouraging signs. But I fear the tide is turning away from a novel reading public.

How are you dealing with these concerns?

I have seen some books that have generated interest among our disenfranchised young people. Townsend Press puts out The Bluford Series, a number of books set at the same inner-city high school. I have seen kids who have never finished reading a book devour these one after the other. They deal with what used to be adult themes, but are more and more teen issues. The prose itself is accessible, and writers like Paul Langan and Anne Schraff have proven there is still hope.

I am now working on my own young adult novel that deals with teen issues, Dangerous, in the hopes that it has a similar effect on our young people.

Dangerous will be about Leon Mendoza, a young kid coming of age in East Los Angeles who faces the challenges that come with the territory. He’s been arrested for dealing and accused by his homies of ratting them out. Caught between the courts and the streets, Leon fights to survive and escape from the life that fate seems set for him.

What are the main challenges that you face?

For years I tried to write for financial success, with no success. When I started writing, I was all about the creative energy and artistic inspiration that drives most artists. Then suddenly I was 30 years old, and my future livelihood was in question. I turned to screenwriting, hoping to crack into the Business and achieve the financial success that had eluded me. To that end, I came up with “commercial” stories. I honed my craft until the writing was top-notch. But what had suffered were my ideas. I spent nearly a decade working on ideas that were not truly inspired due to my misconceptions about what I thought Hollywood wanted.

I still love much of the work that I did at the time. But none of it was original enough to separate me from the pack. I worked with countless partners on countless projects, none of which have taken off.

A Thousand Beauties was written for nobody’s sake but my own. It is, by far, the best work I have done.

What sets it apart from other things you have written?

A Thousand Beauties is different from anything else I have written not only because of its form, but because of the intimacy with the characters the form allows.

Most of my writing for the past decade has been in screenplay format, where the focus is on meaningful actions. A Thousand Beauties allowed me access to the character’s thoughts and feelings as well as their actions.

This is also the one project that I have spent the longest time developing. The growth from its inception until its present form has taken seven years, far longer than any other project in my repertoire.

It is similar to other things that I have written because I tend to embrace the darker passions, and this work is full of them.

Do you write everyday?

Unfortunately I do not have the time to write everyday. As the father and primary caretaker of two young daughters, a public school teacher and a husband, the demands on my time are extreme.

Whenever I find myself with some free time (which is rarely) I sit at the computer and try to move through whatever I am currently working on (right now, Dangerous has this questionable honor). I usually finish writing sometime after 1:00am, and have to leave for work by 6:00am.

How many books have you written so far?

A Thousand Beauties (Bewrite Books, 2009) is my first full-length book, although I have had short stories published, am an internationally produced screenwriter and of course, have essays on the Internet.

What would you say the novel is about?

A Thousand Beauties is about Rupert Ruskin, a successful but unpopular man who has isolated himself from the world to chase his family’s elusive vision of enlightenment. He believes if he can see a thousand beautiful things in one day he was achieve the perspective of angels and spend the rest of his days in bliss. But his vision-quest is interrupted when his ex-wife, Elaine, bursts back into his life with the news of her cancer. Ruskin figures that if he can help Elaine find a thousand beauties, then perhaps her last days won’t be completely miserable.

I wrote the first draft of A Thousand Beauties in about eight months back in 2002. It sat on the shelf for a while, and I wrote several page one rewrites, cutting out over 150 pages from the original length.

How did you find a publisher for the book?

I sent out submission packets, but they met with little success until I sent it to BeWrite Books, where the editor, Neil Marr responded to one. He requested the full ms, and, after reading it, rejected it. Luckily for me, his rejection came with copious notes on the text. I reviewed his notes and found them clear professional.

I wrote back to ask if he would look at the text again after I worked on it more. Fortunately, he was happy to do, since he loved the premise so much. This rewrite took about five months.

True to his word, Neil reread the ms. This time he accepted it, and we began the process of beating the text down to its shiny core. We worked for several months on the book. Without his insight, honesty, and openness, A Thousand Beauties would not be as good as it is. I was very lucky to find an Editor who actually works as a editor. It was a terrific collaboration and I am grateful for the experience. This was the biggest advantage this publisher offered.

Did the arrangement present any disadvantages?

The disadvantages are that BeWrite is a small European publisher, and I’m in the United States. Also, the company relies on Print-on-Demand technology, which means they do not print a large run and blast sales in the first few weeks. (This is not Publish-on-Demand, or self-publishing. It is an entirely different animal.) Also, they offered no advance against royalties, and due to the nature of their publishing process, the paperbacks are a bit pricey. However, they also offer an e-Book, which positions them well for the future, and is good news to all Kindle users.

The challenges posed by this kind of publishing primarily involve accepting and evaluating their criticism of the work, being open to others’ ideas regarding design of the book and cover, and working collaboratively on a project conceived and executed (until this point) on my own.

Also, without the clout carried by a big house, it is more difficult to obtain reviews by recognizable figures or papers. This is a primary focus of my attention right now.

I am also involved with the promotion of the book far more than I would be should the book have been put out by one of the big publishing houses. Fortunately, the people at BeWrite have a wealth of knowledge about ways to get the word out. It’s a great learning experience for me and a lot of fun.

What did you enjoy most about the whole process?

The most enjoyable part of the process so far has been working with the Editor. I had been looking for feedback such as he provided for years, and had even paid for it at one point. For all of that, no one gave me the specific kind of notes that he did, which I found both useful and refreshing.

Part of the reason why it was so pleasurable is the manner in which the notes came. All were handled with meticulous attention to tone and came in the form of suggestions – which I was free to either accept or reject. This courtesy and professionalism is something I have rarely encountered.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

A Thousand Beauties is definitely my most significant achievement as a writer. Although I am proud of my film work, the quality of this novel, and the difficulty of the work in getting it here have made its release the proudest moment of my professional career.

How did you get there?

It all comes down to hard work, being open to criticism (but not a slave to it), and the luck of finding an editor who shared my vision, and was willing to nurture a novice writer to make it a reality.

Possibly related books:

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2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Mr.Kaplan as an english teacher is good. Even though he's wierd sometimes he's really understanding and chooses the best for his students.

Anonymous said...

I agree, his methods may seem at times unconventional and strange, but in the end the help students understand the core of writing and how to develop it