You've heard the old adage about how once you've seen a movie based on a book, it ruins the book and you can never go back and read it. Do you think that's true?
I wanted my books to become movies. That was my aim. I wanted to make some money doing this. My first books, I would get like 2,000 bucks. That was mostly in the '50s, then it went up to $4,000. I didn't really make money from books until the 1980s. But I got a lot more from movies. Why didn't you just write screenplays?
I don't like screenplays at all. You're not writing for yourself; you're writing for a committee. They're throwing ideas in, then the producer gets involved, saying you need to add this character or that character. I need to be alone and write my own story. I used to go to these Hollywood meetings where you'd meet on a Friday and they'd tell you how you needed to change the screenplay. Then they'd say, "Well, you've got something to do all weekend!" And they'd all go off and have fun, or do whatever they do, while I'd go back to my hotel room to stare at the walls. When you write, do you think about developing characters who will work well in movies?
It's my style. My writing has a lot of dialogue, which seems to producers to be readily available to be made into a movie. So you feel most of your books have survived the transition to the screen?
Lately they have survived. But one of my books, The Big Bounce, when I saw the movie, I thought, there must be something worse, but that's gotta be the second-worst movie ever made. Then they remade it a few years ago, and set it in Hawaii, and when I saw that, I knew, aha! Now I know what the worst movie ever made is. It had a decent cast, Owen Wilson was in it, but it was so bad the director basically gave up. He sent me the script and said, "Do what you want with this." Then they wanted me to play a part in the movie, playing dominoes with Harry Dean Stanton. But it was shooting two days after Christmas, and when I learned that, I said no. For the most part, yeah, my books have done OK on the screen. Out of Sight, Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, it worked for those.
There's this presumption that a book is somehow a higher form of art, of a higher form of expression, than a movie. Do you agree?
I don't think the book is a higher form at all. Because most books are not very good. They're a chore to read. Anything on that bestseller list interest you?
No, I don't think so. Most writers are pretty boring. Do you think that's something new? Or has it always been the case?
Probably that's always been the case. When I started writing, I was reading a lot. Probably a book a week. I remember reading Mickey Spillane's I, the Jury, which came out in the '40s. I thought, this is terrific, and I couldn't wait to read more Spillane. But then he ended up writing all the same stuff. It didn't get any better. Then I began to read Book-of-the-Month Club selections, and all of these books, they just had way too many words in them. Then I read Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday, with its mock chapters that you don't have to read if you don't want to. He also had this prologue and a character who said, "I don't like the author telling you what to think." A lot of good writers seldom, if ever, describe the character. You can essentially stop the action if you describe too much about a character. You might be messing with the reader's idea of the character, and that's not a good idea.
When I'm writing about a character, I'll describe things important to me. I've concentrated more on my women characters, getting them right. I'll describe how a woman is sitting with her legs crossed and a high heel hanging from her toe. You can see her arch. Or I'll write about her nose. I don't think of her as a woman; I think of her as a person, describe her the way I'd describe a guy.
How do you feel about the kind of stuff most people read every day—what's in the newspaper, or in magazines, or even the writing they hear on the news or on sitcoms?
I was reading the sports section of the newspaper this morning. There are eight pages in the sports section, but nothing in there about what's really going on. Sportswriters always seem to open with a negative. Like in Detroit, our catcher recently re-signed for $13 million, and they seem to take that idea and say, "Well, he's not worth $13 million." And I say, well, who's better that they can get? He's an awfully good catcher, and I think he is worth $13 million.