An Interview with Bill Roorbach, by Heidi Sistare
January 28, 2015
Bill Roorbach is a lot of things: novelist, essayist, father, screenwriter, and naturalist. Most of all, he is someone who finds, writes, imagines, and tells good stories. His most recent novel, The Remedy for Love, is a love story set during an apocalyptic snowstorm. He also wrote Life Among Giants, which is in development as an HBO series; Temple Stream, winner of the Maine prize for nonfiction; and many others. I spoke with him about his blog, writing for television, and advice for new writers.
I used to be more orderly, but with a kid in the mix and book tours and every other thing life throws at me these days, it’s hard to keep my old schedule of every morning no matter what going. So now I catch blocks of time whenever and wherever I can. Drop my daughter at ballet, go to the library across the street. Write for an hour before the dentist appointment, bring laptop along, keep going in the waiting room. Write in airplanes. Lots of airplanes. Write late, late at night when everyone’s asleep. Write for five minutes whenever I can, let the bits add up and combust. As for bad habits, nothing like when I played in bands! Though the late nights and late mornings persist.
Your 2013 novel, Life Among Giants, is in development as a potential HBO series. Can you describe the writing process involved with adapting a novel for television?
It’s fun bringing my characters to life in a new medium. You start with bringing producers on board and developing a pitch, then bringing that pitch to the major studios. What a week that was, driving all over Los Angeles from gorgeous board room to gorgeous board room. In the end, HBO took the prize. We’re in the phase of writing the pilot script. I have a writing partner who knows the TV ropes, so that helps. And the support and advice of two great production companies. And of course the vision of HBO itself, which turns out to be a lot of very smart people all aimed at success. Collaboration isn’t unheard of for a novelist–you’re always collaborating one way or another with your editor. But this is a new experience, exciting even when it’s frustrating. My partner and I write, our producers give us notes, we revise, more notes, including notes from HBO, and then we revise again, and again. And you know, the script is just getting better and better, the energy more and more keen. The next major hurdle is the green light for the pilot. We have a lot of confidence, and a great show in mind. Can’t wait to go through the casting process, and start production. But for now, I’m just happy to be getting paid….
Are there any writers or books that you go back to again and again? Who/what are they and why do you reread them?
There are so many that this question is almost impossible to answer. But in and around new reading I’ll go through my shelves and read eclectically for ideas and just bright moments, sharp sentences, sometimes a paragraph, sometimes a chapter, often a whole book, people like Alice Munro, George Eliot, Philip Roth, any Bronte, Stephen Dixon, John Cheever, Alice Walker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, on and on. And movies count, also music, also dance and visual art… These days, I’m as excited watching Netflix as I am reading, and really, isn’t it all the same? So long as it’s good…
Your most recent novel, The Remedy for Love, takes place during a snowstorm in your neck of the woods—western Maine. What is it about Maine that’s inspiring to you?
Well, it’s my territory now and my home all these years and has great nature and lots of it, including real danger, which was essential to my story. But I write about everywhere… The Remedy for Love needed a cabin and deepest snow and terrible isolation, and Maine just happens to have those things.
Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour is the place to go for bad advice and conversations about books, among other things. Can you describe where the idea came from and why this project is important to you?
It’s not bad advice, it’s Bad Advice! David Gessner and I do it together, and just celebrated our 1000th post and millionth view last week. Five years nearly. So it was six years ago that someone listening to us at a big dinner said, “You two ought to have a radio show!” We looked into that idea, but it wasn’t going to fly. Then Dave got the big idea for a website, a place where like-minded people could come sit and have a drink with us and basically listen to us talk, since we’re not going to let anyone else get a word in edgewise! No, we have lots of guest posts and lots of all kinds of things, from cartoons to videos to essays to stories to serialized novels to you name it… The idea was for two old-fashioned writers to have a web presence that encompassed old-fashioned conversation.
How does your other creative work (I’m thinking of filmmaking, but I’m sure there are others) impact your writing? Does it teach you anything new about storytelling?
I’ve always been a very visual and cinematic writer, it seems, preferring scene over cogitation and character over idea. You learn so much shifting from medium to medium. I like to paint, too, and play music. It’s pretty fascinating to think how a sentence and a phrase of music are similar. And it’s fun to realize that when you’re writing scripts, your job is mostly structure and dialogue, as actors and directors and cinematographers will do the rest. So you’d better be good at those things! One thing I’ve learned is that story is everything–what happened?
What was the best advice you ever gave to a student?
If you’re going to be a writer, be a writer. That is, write. And do it every day.
Bill Roorbach is the author of The Remedy for Love, a novel, which was a finalist for the 2014 Kirkus Prize in Fiction. His novel Life Among Giants is in development for a drama series with HBO. Other books include Big Bend, short stories, and Temple Stream, a memoir. He lives in western Maine.
Heidi Sistare writes from her home in Portland, Maine, where she attended the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. You can view her published work on her website: www.heidisistare.com.