Monday, February 6, 2012

The Many Lives of Sarah Kernochan


An interview with Sarah Kernochan

When the almighty afterlife powers were handing out talents for this lifetime, Sarah Kernochan must have stood front row in many lines. She has enjoyed remarkable success over many decades in fiction, film and music. In her latest endeavor, JANE WAS HERE, a fascinating and gripping tale of reincarnation, she explores the dark side of karma and its impact on her character’s present lives.

Sarah scripted such films as the notorious "9 and ½ Weeks," "Sommersby," "Impromptu" (her personal favorite), "What Lies Beneath" (storyline), and "All I Wanna Do," which she also directed. Her two documentaries "Marjoe" and "Thoth" won Academy Awards 30 years apart. However, Sarah’s first ambition was always to write novels.

I am grateful and excited Sarah has taken the time to share insights into her life, writing and why she believes in karmic comeuppance.

Susan May (SM): Your biography reads like the heroine of a book. You were a musician in the seventies; friends with some of the biggest names in the music industry, like John Lennon and Harry Nilsson; you write a successful book, and then turn to writing Hollywood screenplays for thirty years, along with directing. Along the way, you win two Academy Awards for both your documentaries. Now, you have returned to novel writing. Was the transitioning planned?
Sarah Kernochan (SK): I didn’t set out to be professionally mercurial. I take my cues from my inspiration. Stories come to me in different forms – sometimes as films, sometimes songs, sometimes (most recently) as a novel. But forging a career out of any one of those forms is another matter. In that sense, my transitions weren’t planned—anything but. After my first Academy Award, the natural follow-up should have been directing another film. But it became plain I was not going to get that opportunity, Oscar or no Oscar. Except for Lina Wertmuller there were no women directors in 1973. Thus, I had to quickly switch paths: I became a singer-songwriter. Then when my second album didn’t sell well, RCA let me go and I had to switch yet again—to novels. I would have been happy to settle into a career as an author following the publication of my first book, which was a success. However I found myself stranded when my second book was cancelled by the new editor, and suddenly no one wanted me. I turned to screenwriting, where I had better luck and a much better income. So I stuck with that until I turned sixty. At that point, it became hard for me to find work. Older writers (particularly female) are weirdly dismissed as has-beens by the film business. Even though I’m still lucky enough to find script jobs, they are fewer and far between. So I have gone back to the novel. Now that JANE WAS HERE is published, it still remains to be seen whether I can succeed with books. I would love to settle into the life of an author, since my earliest ambition was to be a novelist, and obviously I got sidetracked along the way!

SM: Was the plot for “Jane Was Here” a light globe moment or did it haunt you for years?
SK: For years, I played with the idea of an ordinary woman who discovers she murdered someone— in a former lifetime. I never managed to figure out how to construct a plot around that premise, though I’m sure it can be done. The light bulb moment came when I realized the central character should be, not the murderer, but the murder victim, who is reborn into the present with the task of finding out who killed her in the past. The moment I received that notion, I started to write immediately – though at that point I had no idea where I was going.

SM: Most people have a fear of change, yet here you are embarking on a new adventure, and embracing the digital age with eBooks, twitter and blogs. Thirty years after your first book, have you approached the writing and promotion of this novel differently?
SK:Obviously the mechanics of writing have changed—when my first book was published we didn’t even have computers, and word processing had to be done in the brain! “Cut and paste” used to be an actual physical chore, and liquid white-out was the only way to change words. Or you had to retype everything. It was laborious enough to put you off revisions. You would do anything to avoid it, so you were more accepting of flawed writing. I think I became a better re-writer with the advent of writing software. Now it’s so easy to try words and phrases out for size before you commit to anything. You can be a perfectionist with little effort. As for eBooks and online marketing techniques, one constant in my life has been my craving to be in control of my own work, and not to be under the thumb of editors or movie producers or recording executives, as the case may be. There’s a tremendous democratization that’s taking place: power to the people is a very recent phenomenon both artistically and politically. The downside is that there’s chaos. Suddenly no one’s in charge and everyone wants to be heard. So how do you raise your literary voice above the crowd? Also, the social networking process is so time-consuming (though it’s fun) that you don’t have any time to write your books! All in all, I’m pretty ambivalent about the new lay of the land. It will be fascinating to see how it all shakes out. Then I’ll have to figure out how I fit in.

SM: After three years working on “Jane” part-time you mentioned you rewrote the whole thing—quite a task.
SK: In my first draft, my reincarnated heroine Jane remembered everything about her past life and her murder. She arrived in town to make people remember what happened there, and what part they played in her demise. It was horrible to get to the end of the writing only to discover that the book didn’t work. Thankfully, my agent suggested that maybe Jane shouldn’t have any memory at all of who she was, and suddenly it all became clear to me: that the audience could find out the truth at the same time Jane does, piece by piece. Suddenly I had a much tauter, tenser story. It was actually a pleasure to rewrite everything because I could tell I was on the right path this time.

SM: Did you have to adjust your writing technique for screen to novel writing to create“Jane” or was it quite natural for you to return to it?
SK: I was relieved to return to narrative prose. Screenwriting is very limiting in style, and I really wanted to stretch my limbs for a change and enjoy the language. My one worry was that I wouldn’t have a narrative “voice.” There’s no room for voice in scripts. It’s all nuts and bolts: Jane exits, Jane enters, close-up shot of Jane screaming. Fortunately, I found I did have a voice, one that was heaps more mature than my first book. It’s one of the miracles of aging that you actually do get wiser; and that wisdom works its way into your observations about life and people. I would say JANE WAS HERE benefited from the plot skills I developed from writing films. Also, because a script has to be read quickly, you are always trying to distill prose and dialogue to the minimum—and I think that lesson served me well, too, when I returned to narrative writing. I don’t indulge myself; even when there’s a passage or bit of dialogue I’m in love with. I don’t hesitate to cut it if it’s extraneous or slows the rhythm. In movies, you learn not to cling to anything you’ve written. You can’t: you’re an employee; you don’t own your own work. If you don’t change it, they’ll find someone else who will.

SM: You have said that you waited to get the one book idea that would seize you so hard that you had to write it, but that over the years, the ideas that sprang into your head were for films. Since so many books become films, what makes a story idea more suitable for film than a book?
SK: That’s a really interesting question. In many cases, writers want to work out the story in book form first, to explore the characters and work out the plot without the limitations of a screenplay. Then, if fortune is kind, the book will come to the attention of movie people who will purchase the rights. However, if you have an idea that’s good for either medium, and you can’t choose, then practical considerations come into play. Which project involves the least risk? For example: is it more likely that your story would be published as a book than it would sell as a script? Is the story more literary, different, cerebral, edgy, or slow? Chances are that movie types will not be interested until they’re persuaded by a book’s critical reception or readers’ embrace. You couldn’t sell a script of LIFE OF PI without it first having been a sensation as a book. Another factor in deciding between book or film could be your time and patience: do you want to spend three months writing a 100-page script, or a year or more of your life writing a 300-page book?

SM: You suggest there is justice in reincarnation: “that people, who profit from evil and receive no comeuppance, flourishing until their death, are then reborn into a life of suffering.” What makes you believe so strongly in reincarnation?
SK: Maybe it’s foolish but I have always believed that there is an overarching design to existence—that everything has meaning—just as every aspect of a novel originates from the writer’s intention. I suppose I want to believe that God is a writer, and not one word is without significance—that heaven imitates art (or vice versa). If I subscribe to the idea of reincarnation, then I can make sense of things that otherwise defy explanation, such as, “How could a loving Deity make innocent people suffer? Is God cruel, or just uninterested?” And I play with the idea that maybe certain people are not so innocent, that they are atoning for bad choices in previous lives.

SM: With ‘Jane Was Here’ receiving great reviews, are you now firmly reincarnated as a novelist or will you still write and direct films? And what is your next project?
SK: Film writing remains my day job because one needs money to survive. I enjoy writing scripts; it’s the business I’m tired of, after 30 years of peaks and valleys. It’s getting harder and harder to compete for jobs that I don’t really want to write. The projects are all someone else’s idea; they’re assignments. I have so many ideas for books that I would be ecstatic to bid goodbye to the movie business if I could have a remunerative career as a novelist. But that hasn’t happened just yet. My current project is, of necessity, a side project since I have an ongoing script job. I have been writing a true and highly personal ghost story in installments on my blog. People have suggested that this is, in fact, my next book. I guess that would make it a supernatural memoir.

SM: What interview question do you wish someone would ask you?
SK: I wish someone would ask why I am drawn to write characters with a lot of darkness on display. It’s a matter of personal perception of human beings that I see the dark in human beings more than the light—and, in the case of my characters, I can gradually move them toward the light in the course of the story. Perhaps it’s true too that I’m more forgiving of their flaws than the reader is prepared to be. In fact, I love them all, heroes and villains alike. Probably my first literary exposure to an unsympathetic central character was GONE WITH THE WIND—who doesn’t love Scarlett O’Hara? I adore Faulkner, too; his invented family, the Snopses, are the most sublime scum ever. Balzac is another favorite: his books are full of rapacious connivers, vain weaklings and pawns. It’s the divine comedy, what can I say.

Thank you to Sarah Kernochan for this fabulous interview. Learn more about Sarah at her website

JANE WAS HERE is available in Hard Cover and Digital Download at Amazon.

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