By Megan Bungeroth
In a few weeks, hundreds of writers—the wildly successful (Mary Higgens Clark, Colson Whitehead, Lee Child) and humbly aspiring alike—will descend on Hunter College for the annual Writers’ Conference, an event that brings industry professionals together to work on their craft and discuss the state of the written word. This year, the conference will focus on changes in the publishing world and how writers can and should be adjusting to them. Panels and workshop intensives will cover old standbys like fiction writing and literary agents, as well as self-publishing and the suspense genre.
Bruce Jay Friedman, author most recently of the memoir Lucky Bruce, will sit on the memoir and biography panel at the conference. We talked to the Upper West Sider about his long and thriving career as a novelist, playwright, screenwriter (hits include Splash and the story for The Heartbreak Kid), short story author and, now, memoirist.
You’ve been called the “hottest writer of the year” at various points in your career—how has that affected you?
I had a movie that was a very big movie, Stir Crazy [in 1980]. And this entertainment attorney, a young kid, said, “Don’t you realize you’re the hottest writer in Hollywood?” I was so deeply offended—that was exactly what I didn’t want to be. So I moved back to the East Coast, shut off the phone and started to write a novel, which was what I felt I should be doing.
But you also got that mantle for writing the play Scuba Duba in 1968.
Being the so-called hottest playwright is not so bad. You do get better tables in restaurants. You get your—well, it’s more than 15 minutes, actually.
Did all the hype around your work ever make you feel pressure about your next projects?
No, I always had an appointment with that next thing to write. I’d finish a novel and think, why not try a play now? I’d always go back to the short story—that’s what I’m doing now—that was always my anchor.
I think you will hear that if you’ve written a novel, it doesn’t mean you can write a play; if you’re written a play, it doesn’t mean you can write short stories. I’ve never bought that. To me it’s storytelling, in one form or another. And I’ve gotten away with it so far.
With novels and memoirs, writers often write from their experiences. How do you navigate writing about real people?
The person you’re worried about slandering is the last person to recognize himself in a book. However, occasionally, as happened to me with my first novel Stern, I was terribly concerned about my boss. I needed the job and I had him as a character, not the most lovable character. I disguised him in a million different ways, but still, he was a very smart guy. But he never said a word. The book was published and he gave me a raise.
Then I got in the elevator and a woman I’ve never heard of before gets on. She starts screaming “Why? How could you do that to me?” I’d never met the woman, I knew nothing about her. She identified closely with that character and you could not dissuade her.
How did you approach writing your memoir?
The struggle for me was trying to find the right voice—not so much what the book was, but what voice. I’ve got at least half a dozen different voices. Finally I decided to just be me, and then the book was relatively easy [to write].
There is so much pressure on writers now to self-promote their work and find commercial success—how can young writers deal with that?
To the extent that it’s possible, and that I have any advice at all, is to just really get rid of all that and write a wonderful story and let the rest take care of itself. I’m sure Salinger wasn’t thinking of promotional opportunities when he wrote Catcher.
Allen Houston, executive editor of Manhattan Media, will be part of the editor’s panel at the conference. For a full lineup of writers and information on the Writers’ Conference, which runs June 6-9, visit hunter.cuny.edu/ce.
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