Thu, 09/01/2005 - 00:00
Writer Sara Faith Alterman book's My 15 Minutes hit shelves this month. Here, she shares her experiences writing a novel, working at ImprovBoston, and exactly what she's drinking at those cafés to make her so productive.By Michele Meek
Writer Sara Faith Alterman's novel My 15 Minutes hit bookshelves across the country this week. Part 'chick lit' and part Hollywood parody, her first book tells the story of Julie Jorlamo who becomes an overnight sensation when she's accidentally discovered in the apartment of mega-celebrity Chad Downing. The book has already caused quite a stir of its own and was called "an engaging satire of fame and modern romance" by Publishers Weekly. As if all of this weren't impressive enough, Alterman also was under 25 when she finished it. But wait. She can top that. In the meantime, she's been working on films, writing her second (and now third) novel, writing for NewEnglandFilm, and now even acting (and yes, singing) in the upcoming ImprovBoston show.
NewEnglandFilm.com recently caught up with Ms. Alterman to learn more.
Michele Meek: My 15 Minutes is a great parody of Hollywood culture. What was your inspiration?
Sara Faith Alterman: It wasn't hard to find inspiration, because Hollywood is omnipresent. It's mind-blowing, actually, how you can't turn on a television or open a newspaper without being blasted with trivia about some celebrity's divorce or shoe size or newly adopted African baby.
I went to school for Film and Media studies, with the intention of working in film and television production, so I basically spent four years learning to pick apart the media. I did a lot of internships in film; in Boston, London, New York. Nothing, however, could possibly have prepared me for actually working in the entertainment industry. When you're an intern you're so sheltered, so coddled. I was, anyway; maybe I got lucky. In any case, once I was actually working on set, I was floored by what great big babies celebrities can be, and how their lives are so carefully choreographed. I'm sure those things are related. Anyway, I immediately noticed how funny that was, that some of these people who are exalted by the general public can't even pull it together long enough to tie their own shoes. But at the same time, it was completely frustrating and demeaning, to be ordered around and barked at and made to feel generally insignificant, simply because I wasn't one of the 'beautiful people.'
So besides being decidedly unglamorous, work in production can be somewhat sporadic, so to supplement my income I was waiting tables at a chain restaurant. Horrible, horrible work. Seriously, I have so much respect for people in the food service industry who can get through their shifts with a smile on their face, because I wanted to punch every customer I ever waited on right in the face. Great material, though; I had some really terrible managers who walked around with their chests puffed out because they had total control over their little worlds. And the customers were worse! I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would be reduced to tears over the ratio of cold cuts to vegetables in an antipasto. True story!
There were so many similarities between my jobs that I couldn't help but smush the two worlds together. I was writing about it all the time -- a hobby, really, but then when I started making myself laugh I thought I'd try and string all my rants together into a longer story. It turned into a book!
MM: Was the celebrity spa in the book based an experience you had?
Alterman: I've seen some decadent stuff; the pampering that goes on in Hollywood is out of control. I once walked away from a premiere party with about $500 worth of bath products and coupons and various sundries. And I was a production assistant! Bottom of the totem pole! For the 'spa' scene, and any parties or restaurants that are in the book, I took a lot of inspiration from all of those shows on VH1 and MTV about how good celebrities have it. You know, those shows that are designed to make the little people covet a lifestyle that we'll never have? For those scenes in My 15 Minutes, I would sit down and brainstorm the most ridiculously self-indulgent scenarios that I could, and, sadly, I don't think they're all over-the-top by Hollywood standards.
MM: I read in the Boston Globe that you wrote much of your book in cafes? How did you concentrate?
Alterman: It's strange; I actually find it easier to focus when I'm around other people. Not friends, not people I would have a conversation with, but just people who are whizzing all around me, living their lives. Sometimes I take inspiration from conversations I overhear or observations I make, but mostly I think that coffeeshops have this creative pulse that can't be reproduced in an office.
MM: I find when I try to be productive in cafes it doesn't work. What exactly were you drinking, maybe that's the key?
Alterman: I can't give away my most well-guarded secret! Think of the consequences; suddenly everyone will be tapping into their own personal cache of creative genius and the market will be flooded with competition!
I will say this; I don't mess around. I don't need any of that half-caf, whipped cream, macchiato flavor-shot nonsense. I'm a purist. Some espresso with steamed milk, maybe a cloudy little puff of foam. Keep it simple. And don't drink too much of it or else you're faced with an entire wealth of distractions.
Cover of Sara Faith Alterman's first book, "My 15 Minutes."
[Click to enlarge]
MM: How long did it take you to write?
Alterman: Two years and change. Once I decided to upgrade the writing process from a hobby to an ambition, I picked up speed, but that was about a year in. So, let's say, from the time I started taking it seriously it took about a year and a half.
MM: How did you find a publisher or agent?
Alterman: There's a terrific book that is published every year called The Writer's Market. It lists all reputable literary agents; what kind of material each agency is looking for, some examples of titles they've sold, what their acceptance/rejection rate is. So when the book was ready I went through and picked out a bunch of agencies that seemed like they might be a good fit with my writing style and with what they were looking to represent. I sent query letters to five or six agencies, and eventually was signed by Dystel and Goderich Literary Management.
MM: If you had to pick Chad's real-life counterpart, who would it be?
Alterman: Now that's a loaded question! Chad Downing is the combination of all the smarminess that A-list Hollywood actors seem to embody and one very unfortunate ex-boyfriend of mine. He was good-looking and arrogant and just generally clueless about how to function without somebody to hold his hand at all times. From my experience, those things are also true of most actors, especially those who are constantly in the public eye.
MM: I know you also are head writer at ImprovBoston. How does writing skits versus writing a novel differ? Do you find it's important to keep different kinds of writing in your life?
Alterman: I am the type of person who needs to have a million projects going on at once or I can never get anything done. That sounds completely contradictory, but it's absolutely true. Writing sketch comedy is one of my favorite things to do. I love handing a script to actors, seeing what they can bring to the scene with their own creative choices. Sketch-writing is totally different from writing a novel because it's a collaborative process; even if I initially write a scene on my own, it will continue to evolve once it's in the hands of a director and actors begin to put it on its feet. Working with improvisers is especially inspiring, because they love to play around with dialogue. Often I don't even have to work on heightening a joke because the actors do it for me. It's great. And it is so satisfying to put your work in front of an audience! You can see it in people's faces if a joke works, if a story is compelling or engaging. I can't exactly sit and watch someone read my book and gauge their reaction. I mean, I could, but that would be weird.
I have a multi-faceted writing career, and that is absolutely crucial; not only to my success, but to my general happiness and satisfaction. Each aspect of my writing satisfies a different personal interest. Sketch-writing allows me to explore short bursts of silliness, or sensationalism, or satire, or any other "S" word you can think of. Writing a novel is much more of a commitment; to characters, to plots, to form, really. It is so, so exciting to be immersed in writing a novel and suddenly discover that I've set up a domino effect. At that point, the book is almost writing itself. It's quite magical. And of course, I write for NewEnglandFilm.com, which is just fantastic. I am such a champion for independent filmmaking, especially in New England. There are so many people who are producing compelling work that just isn't getting enough attention. I love being able to help expose independent art to the public.
MM: What are your favorite books?
Alterman: I have very eclectic literary tastes, just because I find different aspects of my personality to be inspired by different things. The first book I remember as being a favorite was Madame Bovary. That character is so delicate, so tragic. Even though she's conniving and deceitful I couldn't help but be compelled by her because she's so clearly trying to make her life more interesting but she's completely stunted by her gender.
I will devour just about anything that Tom Robbins has written, and then go back for seconds. His writing feels luscious. I am confounded by his analogies; words that I would never think to string together but make perfect sense.
He only wrote one novel, but Oscar Wilde will always be on my bedside table. Actually, my favorite work of his is not a book but a play; The Importance of Being Earnest. So sharp and playful. I must have read it at least 30 times.
And of course, I can't be an author of women's fiction without having been inspired by Helen Fielding. The name 'Bridget Jones' has become synonymous with being a single woman, and my god, do I laugh every time I read that book. She really hits it on the head! It was so great to discover this female comic character that bumbles around as much as I do. It's nice to know I'm not the only woman in the world who makes out her holiday cards after a few snorts and always wears the wrong thing at the wrong time. Maybe I'm giving too much away about myself.
MM: What are your upcoming books or projects?
Alterman: Besides continuing to write regularly for NewEnglandFilm.com...
My second novel, Tears of a Class Clown, comes out in 2006. That's also an Avon Trade (Harper Collins) publication. And I'm still writing with ImprovBoston; I'm actually performing in their annual Halloween show, Gorefest. It's an original musical that's just one big bloody mess. I mean that in the most literal sense; the theater actually hands out ponchos to the audience. The script, the music, it's all fantastic. I’m beginning work on the script for their holiday show. And I've just started to write my third novel. Wow. I don't sleep a lot.
MM: What's your advice for wannabe writers?
Alterman: Writing isn't nearly as complicated as people seem to think it is. Should you write every day? Sure, if that's what you feel like doing. Granted, if I waited to feel one hundred percent inspired before sitting down to write, I'd never get anything finished.
Honestly, the most important thing I could say to aspiring writers is this; take the time to learn the business aspect of whatever creative field you intend to enter. If you want to write a novel, know what the process is for getting published. If you're a screenwriter, figure out the professional protocol for shopping a screenplay. Magazines? Have the appropriate portfolio materials. I cannot stress this enough; find out what the rules are, and play by them. I know that's not what you want to hear, and when I talk about rules I don't mean that you should write a book by the book. But if you want your work to be published, you must, must, must go about it in a professional manner. A query letter can be the most important thing you ever write in your life; it serves as your sales pitch, as your first writing sample, and as a representation of your personality. There are so many great books out there about how to write a query letter, and how to get your work published. Go to a bookstore and buy one. No, seriously, go now. And pick up a copy of my novel while you're at it.
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