In the last entry, we learned a bit about James Balestrieri, his likes and dislikes, and how he approaches the craft of writing. In this post we’ll learn a bit more about The Ballard of Ethan Burns, what it means to craft a work in the “Western” genre, and what the Romantic era still has to do with modern writing.
The work contains modern references to YouTube and yet Ethan Burns doesn’t feel dated or outdated in any way. When you were writing this book, what did you have in mind when you decided upon how to convey time, timeliness, and the Western genre?
“I wanted the audience to be sure the story was rooted in the present, though when I first conceived it, there was no YouTube—there was barely an Internet! My experience of the American West stems from my day job at J. N. Bartfield Galleries in New York. We sell original works of art by the greats—Remington, Russell, etc. But when I began to go to Scottsdale every year for our auction and I began to see something of the West as it is today, I saw something much more complex, tension between the past and present, cultural tension (some of it quite fruitful) between the white, Native American and Hispanic communities. The New West isn’t the Old West, and that’s okay. And I wanted to convey this—to write the Navajo and Apache characters, for example, not as stoic survivors dreaming of past glories (a very tired cliche), but as living, breathing, laughing, self-aware individuals.
The West and the Western, as depicted these days, often (not always, but often) sheds sepia-toned tears of nostalgia. Some grizzled old sheriff longs for the old days, when good was good and bad was bad and it was easy to tell the difference. Not true. Wasn’t then, isn’t now. And by the way—barf. So in Ethan Burns, I tried to make the older characters very aware that the West they loved, the magic it means for them, was largely a celluloid product. This awareness isn’t only the wellspring of much of the humor. Eventually, it frees them, allows them to throw themselves into the here and now, into this project—Paintbrush Valley, the movie they are making.”
The banter between characters is something that drives this work from start to finish. How do you typically approach humor in writing?
“In my work, humor is almost always banter. I am a huge fan of 1930’s screwball comedies—The Shop Around the Corner, Ninotchka, His Girl Friday. When people ask me to sum up Ethan Burns, I say it’s a Howard Hawks picture about making a John Ford epic on a YouTube budget. If they’re film nuts, they get it. What this means in the writing is that I have to create smart, quick characters. When it works, the occasional pratfall or pie in the puss kind of physical humor brings them down off their cleverness and gets a good laugh.”
The Ballad of Ethan Burns heavily relies upon the relationships of characters to drive the work. In this way, how do you think that this work is really more like a play?
“I think of myself as a playwright first. This is also true of someone like Aaron Sorkin, who came from a stage background but has had monster hits on the big and little screens. At heart, he’s still a playwright. Does that mean he gives his characters more depth, that dialogue drives the plot more than in more cinematic films and TV shows? Does it mean that words tell the story more than images? Maybe. Having said that, in Ethan Burns I would want the Arizona landscape and its contrast with Hollywood to function as silent characters, mirroring visual bookends. Hey, I could see Ethan Burns working on the stage, though the cast would bust any theater budget.”
Pages 38-43 contain my favorite section of the book. It’s here that the manuscript turns in on itself as both a comedy and a commentary on comedy; it is the comedic genre while simultaneously acting as a commentary on the comedy genre. Only a skillful writer is able to create this reflexive quality without losing the reader along the way. Was this reflexive quality something that you had in mind when you began crafting this work, or was this something that simply became an outpouring of the creative process itself?
“This scene began with something larger—and older—than comedy. It’s a classical trope that comes out of the epic and crosses cultures and chronology. It’s the ‘assembly of the heroes’ scene, one you see in Homer, in The 47 Ronin, The Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, Silverado, even Ocean’s Eleven. The heroes gather. We see their talents, flaws and potential points of friction with one another. In some works, they realize that they need one more person who has a certain talent that the team lacks. Here, it’s the director that’s missing. They’ve been interviewing all day and it isn’t going well. Originally, I wrote in two or three of the candidates, hoping to milk their quirks for laughs. But I cut them out and chose to start the scene late, when they are at their wit’s end. Enter Gillian Hawksworth, who seems, on the surface, to be the absolute wrong person to direct a Western—she’s a British, lesbian director of political documentaries.
But within the span of a few lines, she proves she’s tough, smart and eminently skilled—the last piece of the puzzle, the gun our team needs. By setting the scene in an empty Italian restaurant at a round table, I am deliberately invoking the saloons in Westerns. Angelo, the Italian producer who lives for Westerns, is on some level aware of the “saloon-ness” of the moment. He asks for rye whiskey and is incensed when the waiter doesn’t have it. So the scene’s reflexive quality, its awareness of itself and its genre—comedy and Western—acquired layers as I worked with it. In all honesty, it was the scene I worked on—and over—more than any other.”
On page 43, you have a wonderful line, which contains many layers of possible meaning: “If you knew you had as many lines as you wanted, how could you ever write a sonnet?” What does this line say about the craft of writing?
“The Romantic Era notion of the artist as free spirit seems to me more and more like a bum bill of goods. Most of us who write, or paint, or play and write music, or throw pots, do what we do in the cracks, in the time we have after we work, take care of our families, and so on. And it’s incredible what people accomplish within those slivers of time. I’ve begun to think about this in terms of form as well. David Mamet, in his great book, On Directing Film—a book I’ve taught many times—agrees that form is liberating, that one of the artist’s jobs is to know the forms of his or her art so well that they become second nature, that when they disappear the unconscious goes to work.
Too many people who would love to write say they don’t know where to begin: they’re freedom’s prisoners, to quote Browning (I think). But restrict them to 14 lines and give them a rhyme scheme—Sicilian, Petrarchan, Spenserian, makes no difference—and suddenly they’re pushing words around on the page. And the truth is, we make craft even where there isn’t any. We play all the time with internal rhymes, little rhythms, repeated and balancing motifs. Dylan Thomas (I think it was him) once created and buried an entire rhyme scheme in a poem, something he said he did solely for himself. Art seeks form, wrestles it out of (apparent) formlessness. Ethan Burns is without doubt the most accessible, familiar (and that’s not a knock on it) work I’ve written.
My other works play with forms, taking them apart, exploding them, reassembling them. But they all have some sort of intrinsic logic, at least in my twisted imagination. Expression unfettered from form is merely art that hasn’t found form yet. Does that make any sense?”
On page 53, Gillian says “Ethan, this is crucial…If the audience laughs at you, if they fail to suspend their disbelief, we’ve lost. Hans, is he teachable?” What do you think is the most crucial element in writing that allows readers to remain in a state of suspension of disbelief?
“Belief. The reader/audience member has to believe in the world the writer creates, even if the rules of that world are insane and inconsistent. Even insanity and inconsistency has to be underpinned by a logic the reader/audience member can believe in and then ignore. Great science fiction accomplishes this in astonishing ways that seem easy but are, in fact, the product of incredible organization.”
“The knots in a net, the hands of our ancestors, their tongues and the words they shaped and the worlds they shaped out of the words and the worlds they made that shape us.”
If you loved this interview, purchase your copy of The Ballad of Ethan Burns!