MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Since I write fiction – and fantasy fiction at that – most of the interviews I have done have been with writers with similar interests. Today I’m going off in a different direction by interviewing a nonfiction writer … But we still have a lot in common. Like me, Daniel Kimmel graduated from law school in Boston and within a few years after graduating started writing about movies.
His love of movies propelled him to a career as a newspaper film critic, Variety correspondent, and TV reviewer. He has five books in print, the most recent being I’LL HAVE WHAT SHE’S HAVING: BEHIND THE SCENES OF THE GREAT ROMANTIC COMEDIES. His book about Fox TV (THE FOURTH NETWORK) won the “Cable Center Award” for best book about the television industry in 2004. He’s also written a play about Hollywood blacklisting.
DANIEL KIMMEL: I actually passed the bar and worked as a lawyer for two or three years. I didn’t start reviewing professionally until the end of 1983.
VENTRELLA: Dan, how is writing non-fiction different from fiction? Do you think it’s easier or harder? Are the skills similar?
KIMMEL: Well, a big difference is you can’t make things up. I have written fiction, both in a humor column I did in college and law school and managed to do for local newspapers for a few years. In both cases it’s a matter of figuring out the story I want to tell, but having to work around the facts with non-fiction. Some writers of non-fiction do make things up and when they get caught it gets messy.
VENTRELLA: Did Law School help or hurt your writing style?
KIMMEL: I think it helped, but not from legal writing. In my first year I had Rikki Kleiman for my writing instructor (who went on to Court TV and even appeared as herself in a few episodes of “Las Vegas”) and I remember her telling me after reading some of my early efforts that she could teach me what I needed to know about legal style and research, but that I had already developed a clear writing style. Later a professor reading a draft of a paper on pornography and the law said when he got to my paper he put down his red pen and sat back to enjoy reading it. (And all the quotes were from court cases, so it’s not what you think.) However I continued doing humor columns for the law school paper and for an “underground” college paper at Boston University and I kept pushing myself as a writer to get out of my comfort zone of doing Art Buchwald style columns and try other forms.
VENTRELLA: Besides your play, have you written any fiction? Do you have any such desire? Would you ever consider writing a screenplay?
KIMMEL:Yes, yes, and yes. I have several unproduced screenplays in collaboration with other writers. We actually made money off of “The Waldorf Conference,” our blacklist script, which was produced in a staged reading for “L.A. Theaterworks” and nationally broadcast on NPR. (The audiotape is available through Amazon.) It’s currently sitting on a shelf at Warner Bros., unlikely to ever be made. I’ve also written two novels, both humorous and one decidedly science-fiction. However since my name is not Terry Pratchett, publishers haven’t expressed any interest. Any publishers interested in an SF comedy about Hollywood should contact my agent, Alison Picard.
VENTRELLA: For a starting writer, in order to have a fiction book published, you have to have a completed manuscript. How does selling a nonfiction book work? Do your publishers give you a contract based on a summary, for instance?
KIMMEL: My last two books (THE DREAM TEAM and I’LL HAVE WHAT SHE’S HAVING) were done on simple descriptions and outlines since I was dealing with the publisher of my FOX book (THE FOURTH NETWORK). That book had a troubled history. I had a proposal out for a book on science fiction films but the SF publishers didn’t want to do film books and the film books publishers weren’t interested in SF. However one editor liked my writing and asked what other ideas I had. I went through several e-mails coming up with numerous ideas and the one that he liked turned into THE FOURTH NETWORK. That was sold on an outline and a description. When I was finished — I was down to writing captions for photos that were to be included in the book which had been fully edited — the editor left the company and the publisher got cold feet. I started getting ridiculous demands (like securing letters from every person I had interviewed allowing me to quote them) and I quickly saw they were trying to get me to breach our contract. So instead I contacted my own lawyer who succeeded in getting the manuscript back from them. It took almost three years for my agent to place it with another publisher and at that point I had to do some new interviews and write an additional chapter to bring it up to date.
For a current proposal I have a much more complicated package which includes not only a description and an outline, but sample chapters, quotes from reviews of my previous books and a marketing plan. I find the last particularly galling but that’s the state of the publishing industry today. If you’re not a superstar author you’re largely expected to do your own publicity. Maybe the publisher will help a bit before he/she is distracted by the next book on the release schedule.
VENTRELLA: Do you have any specific books on writing that you use as a guideline?
KIMMEL: No, although I do give Strunk and White’s ELEMENTS OF STYLE credit for teaching me the difference between “its” and “it’s.”
VENTRELLA: I would assume that outlines play a much larger role in nonfiction than in fiction. Since you are not “telling a story” in the strictest sense most of the time, how do you decide the organization of your books?
KIMMEL: Each book had its own organization. The FOX book was set up so each chapter followed a television season. The DreamWorks book tended to be thematic rather than chronological. One chapter was on their building a studio except they never really did. Another was about animation. Another was about their publicity machine.
For the romantic comedy book I had agreed with the publisher it would cover fifteen films. I selected them based on their importance (“It Happened One Night,” “Annie Hall,” “When Harry Met Sally”) as well as making sure they were spread out over the decades. I could have easily focused on just movies from the 1930s (a great era for romantic comedies) but I limited myself to three. When I got to the ’50s I decided to focus on three different iconic actresses: Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and Doris Day. If my agent sells my current proposal I’ll be happy to share how that’s organized as well.
VENTRELLA: What kinds of fiction do you like to read?
KIMMEL: Science fiction, of course. The occasional legal thriller or mainstream novel. For the former I much prefer Scott Turow to John Grisham. For the latter I’m a big fan of Philip Roth. Of contemporary SF writers I like William Gibson, David Brin, the late Octavia Butler, and John Varley. I am in awe of Dan Simmons and have his massive latest novel, “Drood,” waiting for me.
I’ve also become a fan of some authors I first got to know at local conventions, like Walter Hunt and Jeffrey Carver, and only later started to read. Recently I found that someone I had met under other circumstances, Shariann Lewitt, was a published author and I was embarrassed I didn’t know it. I went out and got one of her books and subsequently wrote her that she had a new fan. That’s one of the neat things about the world of science fiction: you can actually get to know the writers of the books you read.
VENTRELLA: I’ll never get to meet the characters I have created for my novels. One of the advantages of writing nonfiction, I suppose, is that you get to meet some of the people you are writing about. Care to share any interesting stories about encounters with the famous? (Not counting me, who is quoted in your DreamWorks book)
KIMMEL: I’ve met lots of famous people over the years, but that’s not a reflection on me. It’s my job. When I did a Facebook survey on 25 famous people I’d met, I had no trouble coming up with 25 and had stories to spare. I do have a short list of people I can’t believe I was lucky enough to meet: Gene Roddenberry, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin,” Jonathan Winters, and John Cleese. I was interviewing Cleese about some hilarious business training films he was involved in making and distributing and afterwards he had nothing on his schedule and so he invited me out for a cup of coffee and conversation. He told me about a script he was then working on that would become “A Fish Called Wanda.” When I asked him what else he had been up to he mentioned that he had co-authored a book with his therapist called FAMILIES AND HOW TO SURVIVE THEM which he didn’t expect would get much notice. I reached into my briefcase and pulled out a copy. I told him that was what I had brought him to autograph. He was very pleased.
I suppose the best story about a celebrity encounter is when I met Penn & Teller after having reviewed their film PENN AND TELLER GET KILLED for Variety. It was a favorable review and when I met them Penn — a big scary looking guy in person — gave me a big smile and thanked me for the nice review. I said there was no need to thank me. I was simply expressing my opinion. He said he understood, but if I hadn’t liked it he would have had to tear my heart out. I’d like to think he was only kidding.
VENTRELLA: That’s the second John Cleese reference in an interview I’ve done in two weeks! I’m a big fan of Cleese and also Penn and Teller. This has nothing to do with writing, but I’m just curious: What are your favorite movies of all time?
KIMMEL: “Annie Hall” is my all time favorite. Also in the pantheon are “The Producers,” “North by Northwest,” “Holiday” (1938), “The Fly” (1986), “Dr. Strangelove.” “High Noon,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “Love Actually,” “When Harry Met Sally” and “Casablanca.” When I first met my wife she had not seen a lot of films. We soon had a VCR festival to educate her but there were two movies I would only let her see on the big screen, which she did eventually: “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Lawrence of Arabia.” People who have not seen these films should do so immediately, except for the latter two which really do need to be seen on a big screen.