Ross Klavan’s novel Schmuck was published by Greenpoint Press earlier this year. His work spans film, television, and radio, as well as print, and also live performance. His original screenplay for the film Tigerland was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.
He recently finished an adaption of John Bowers’ book, The Colony, and he has written scripts for Miramax, Paramount, and TNT, among others.
His play, How I met my (Black) Wife (Again), co-written with Ray Iannicelli, has been produced in New York City, and Klavan has performed his work in numerous theaters and clubs. He has acted and done voice work in TV and radio commercials and has lent his voice to feature films, including Casino, You Can Count on Me, and Revolutionary Road, and the new Amazon web series Alpha House, written by Gary Trudeau.
He has worked as a newspaper and radio journalist in London and New York City. An earlier novel, Trax, by Klavan was published under a pseudonym.
Klavan currently lives in New York City with his wife, the painter, Mary Jones.
Derek Alger: You were raised in New York City and on Long Island, growing up in a creative environment.
Ross Klavan: Very creative. We were a family of four brothers so we were constantly coming up with creative ways to maim each other. Also, for whatever reason, the family only communicated in loud, screaming arguments about which film originals or remakes were best and which actors should go find a day job. And if you mentioned that you’d read and enjoyed a particular book, you could be promised an all-out fight in which you were personally ridiculed for not knowing what you were talking about. Although it was phrased a little differently. This turns out to be a perfect upbringing for a life in the arts.
DA: Your father was the comic half of a radio comedy team—Klavan & Finch– and you said you grew up thinking everyone in the world was on the radio.
RK: My father, now long dead, was a pretty wacky character. He was incredibly quick, very funny, a terrific performer. He and his partner used to ad lib their show, going live for four hours every morning, making up routines with comic voices and characters that were built on commercials or current events or people at the radio station or whatever they could put together. It was sort of like a form of comic collage, although I think if he heard me say that he’d roll over in his grave. Or he would if he hadn’t been cremated.
DA: That brings me to your novel, Schmuck, which came out earlier this year.
RK: Schmuck is set in 1969, an incredibly wild time in New York. The whole country was turned upside down—the battle against the Vietnam War, the fight for equal rights for blacks, women and gays, the whole culture in revolution. And underneath all that there was a solid vein of the Horrible and the Tragic. And don’t forget that almost all of the men, my father’s generation—Elkin and Fox included—were veterans of World War Two. So those memories were very much kicking around. Then, into this Absurd mix we have this radio comedy team trying to keep laughing and knowing, somehow, that they’ll probably get pushed aside, too. Along with Frank Sinatra, who makes an unpaid appearance in the book.
DA: Quite a compliment, one reader said she could hear Jerry Elkin’s voice as she read.
RK: I’ll try not to bore you by being literary but in a boring literary way, I’m not that interested in pretty phrases on the page. The book, hopefully, has an honest, antic, anarchic feel and the words on the page are just a vehicle for a kind of carnival sense that you can carry with you. At least for ten minutes after you finish reading.
DA: Schmuck is also about Jewish New York. You capture the dark side of human nature, but with humor, consistently entertaining but also profound.
RK: Jewish New York really was about the dark side and the humorous side so totally mixed together that you ended up needing a glass of seltzer to settle your stomach. And yeah, I wouldn’t say this is your rabbi’s Jewish New York. This is more about the guys who told the rabbis to get the hell out and go home if they showed up when you were sitting shiva. If these guys did schmaltz, it was so you wouldn’t notice they were chasing your wife around the living room. The book is about comedians and gangsters and agents and bohemian teenagers and a gorgeous blond and a no-longer gorgeous blond. And they’re all Jews.
DA: Did you start writing at an early age?
RK: I’ve been writing since I was around five. I remember at that age, I wrote a major piece about the invasion of Iwo Jima, a memoir based on my experience of watching Million Dollar Movie. Later, I was able to make my work appear slightly more sensible. I’ve also been a performer. I did some fairly mediocre acting and some very good radio and voice overs. But, see, growing up around show business, my father took it pretty seriously. As a kid, when I mentioned offhandedly that I was thinking of being an actor, he hauled me down to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and had me audition for the professional children’s program. And I got in. And he said, “OK. Goodbye and good luck,” and I spent some time doing that.
DA: Where did you go to college?
RK: The great and very large NYU. I studied film and then journalism. I briefly quit school and lost my draft deferment so that in the middle of everything, I had to leave and go into the Army for a while though, fortunately, not the war. I was a terrible soldier and I think the government may still want its money back.
DA: You ended up writing the screenplay for the movie Tigerland, starring Colin Farrell, in his breakout movie, and directed by Joel Schumacher.
RK: Yeah, that’s right. He was terrific in the film. Tigerland was based on some of the people I knew in infantry training at Fort Polk, Louisiana. It started off as a novel.
DA: The film takes place in 1971, when it’s clear the Vietnam War is lost. The main character, played by Farrell, is an unruly solder with no respect for authority, who was drafted. His only friend is another recruit and an aspiring writer who volunteered and who wants to be another Mailer or James Jones.
RK: And they all sort of end up trapped. Not only in the real situation of a war that no one really wants any longer and that everyone knows is lost, but also in the well worn clichés about the Army and about war itself. That traps them, too. These are guys who came of age in the peace movement in the 60’s and the Army lets them know—in no uncertain terms—that what they’re involved in now is beyond politics. Or anything else besides killing and trying to stay alive.
DA: You tell the story largely through Paxton’s journal while at Tigerland.
RK: Paxton’s volunteered for something that he probably should have left alone. He’s trying to come to terms with the unfortunate feeling that he’s got nothing to say about the experience. And all the sanctimonious nonsense—the stuff you see now on TV all the time—his buddy, played by Farrell, won’t let him get away with it. You know. Bad is bad and as they used to say…”How do you get out of this chicken shit outfit?”
DA: The Army was a common link once.
RK: Yeah, see, both in the film Tigerland and in my novel Schmuck, the characters live in a world where most people have had some experience with the military, whether in war or in peace. Even if it’s just the stories your old man tells you while he’s on his fifth Scotch. Not like now. So, in the film and the book, there’s a sneaky, underlying feeling that if you’re sticking guns in the hands of kids and sending them away, things have kinda gotten out-of-hand. It’s a tragedy, even on the very rare occasion when it might be necessary.
DA: That’s how you felt when you came back to NYU?
RK: I started studying journalism. Then, a friend of mine who was just back from Vietnam got a job as a newspaper editor and he hired me as a reporter. I was still in college. He did a lot of dancing around to get me hired but I think he was so glad to be alive that he didn’t care what he said, he was just having a good time and wanted me to join in.
DA: The newspaper business, for a reporter, follows the premise of Samuel Goldwyn Mayer: “I don’t want it good, I want it Tuesday.”
RK: Exactly right. And there’s some excellent lessons there, up to a point. After that point, you forget what the lessons are and go into therapy, or you do if you’re interested in writing something else. Journalism’s very solid training but too much of it can kill any other kind of writing. Or any other thinking and feeling, for that matter. Later, while I was working on a book and a screenplay, I became a reporter for WINS Radio, 1010 WINS. I covered a lot of interesting stuff: the Son of Sam murders, the blackout riots, the time a helicopter crashed on top of what was then the Pan Am building. But that kind of thing is very involving and pretty soon you go back to your novel or screenplay and say, “Hey! How come all these pages are blank?!” Also, for me, it was a little too much like real life.
DA: You lived in London for two years.
RK: I sold a screenplay, never made, when I was 27 or so and I grabbed the cash and moved overseas. For two years I worked on the rewrites and a book that later became Tigerland . I also worked at a London radio station, LBC, and did some voice overs when they needed what they called “a Mid-Atlantic accent.” London’s a great town and I loved the English, although from time to time, I could honestly see why a bunch of 18th Century Massachusetts farmers would say, “Get my flintlock off the wall, honey, I can’t stand these fuckers any more.”
DA: And after that?
RK: Once I got Tigerland made, I worked in Hollywood quite a bit. I did screenplays for Miramax, Paramount, A&E, TNT, a lot of other places.
DA: Tell us about how you ended up involved with the book Like Shaking Hands with God: A Conversation about Writing with Kurt Vonnegut and Lee Stringer, a writer who’d been homeless and had some interesting things to say about the experience.
RK: Apparently Vonnegut didn’t like to read in public. We had some backstage chit-chat but I never got to know him all that well. I’d been involved with an alternative arts group called Four Walls, in Brooklyn, and we did a lot of performance pieces. Someone in the group suggested my name and I did some public readings for Kurt. At one of them, C-Span came to film for TV and Vonnegut and Stringer appeared together with me, as moderator. People liked it so they turned it into the book.
DA: You also recently completed a screenplay based on the book The Colony by John Bowers, about a writing community in 1952 in Marshall, Illinois.
RK: “The writers colony” was run by a larger than life character named Lowney Handy who was the mentor to James Jones of From Here to Eternity fame and they used the money earned from the best selling novel to fund the colony. John’s a terrific writer and a good friend and he’d been one of the writers there in his misspent youth. Lowney was sort of half a genius and half nuts and this was one of the first writer’s colonies in the country. It was almost like a cult and I’m happy that John Bowers came out of it unscathed with his mind intact.
DA: A very regimented place.
RK: No women were allowed and on the weekends, Lowney would send the boys off to the whorehouses in town. You began your days not writing, but literally typing out works by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Dos Passos. Somehow, Lowney Handy thought this subconsciously would help young writers to develop. Who knows? Maybe it did. No television, or radio, or even newspapers. Bowers went on to write seven books of which The Colony, his first book, was published to critical acclaim.
DA: What’s ahead for you?
RK: I have another novel in the works, after Schmuck. This is about radio as well, also a dark comedy. Radio is a great landscape. It’s really mostly in the past now so it’s almost like writing about a fantasyland, like Game of Thrones, only with tape recorders. And in the old days, there were some truly great characters who now have morphed into people to write about it, even if at the time, you wanted to smack them in the head. I’ve also been following the career of my wife, the painter Mary Jones. She does this terrific abstract work and discusses it with me, so I have to practice sounding like I know what she’s talking about.