Q: Why an interview after that interminable bio?
WK: Because people who wade through the bio always come back at me with questions, particularly those who, on occasion, are getting paid to write something interesting about me. They are desperate for detail, so I’m hoping that this will save time and cover things that they might dig up to ask.
Q: So what do you have against Brooklyn?
WK: Not a thing, at least not until they let the Dodgers go to L.A. Because I was born in Brooklyn while passing through, I pulled for the Dodgers and had team heroes. But it never was the same when they left Ebbits Field and started playing baseball in a ravine.
Q. What got you into acting?
WK: Showing off. My family was in a profession that had a lot of public attention focused on them, at least once a week. They were very good at it. I watched my father step into a pulpit every Sunday morning and hold a congregation – or you might say, an audience – spellbound with a new sermon – or you might say, a monologue – that he’d write every week. Applause was not an appropriate response, but I heard plenty of laughter, gasps, sighs and weeping. Then came the choir with music and the solos. If it was well done, it was a terrific, moving and at times cathartic show, with all the elements of mesmerizing drama. I wanted to do that, I thought, at least the getting-attention-dramatically part. I started out showing off whenever possible, singing in a lot of choirs, and then Miss Bishop gave me the part of Robin Hood in the sixth grade play. I shot the Sheriff of Nottingham (Chubby Charleton) with a dulled arrow in the butt and everyone applauded. From then on, I was lost to the theatre.
Q: Did you not write anything until you wrote the play backstage during that Broadway run?
WK: Only the usual high school and college papers, which I enjoyed doing but which did not move anyone to give me prizes or even decent grades. At Stanford, I took creative writing courses from Wendell Berry and Wallace Stegner, both of whom I’d greatly admired as writers, but neither came close to offering me any encouragement. I was totally involved with theatre in college, so that I looked on the idea of writing as something of an indulgence. I suspect that they looked at the theatre the same way.
Q: That first play, then: Why the Russian Revolution?
WK: I got hooked on the history. I picked up a book when I was at LAMDA about Rasputin. That led me to Tsar Nicholas and his dysfunctional family, then hemophilia, WWI, the politics, and on and on. I started going to the British Museum Reading Room, one of the great and most beautiful libraries in the world, where you’d put in slips ordering the books you wanted and they were delivered by hand to your desk, arriving like Christmas presents. I just kept reading. I can’t remember if I wrote anything there; I took a lot of notes without knowing why. When the time came to write a play backstage, I had a lot of Russian material banging around in my head.
Q: Once you made the transition to writing, did you ever miss acting?
WK: Every second of every day. By then, I’d been acting for ten years, not including high school and college. Theatre work is always with a lot of other people, and then in front of an audience. Being a voluble kind of guy, to suddenly find myself sitting silently in a room alone for six to eight hours a day was daunting, to say the least. It was a question of radically changing disciplines. Eventually, I discovered that saloon singing for whoever asked satisfied my congenital need to perform.
Q: Who asks?
WK: After a long hiatus when I only wrote screenplays and books, I was asked to sing a program from the American Songbook at The Century in New York. An animated elderly lady sat on the front row, tapping her foot and mouthing the lyrics, having a very good time. The next day, I got a call and heard, “Is this Mr. Kinsolving who sang last night? This is Brooke Astor,” a name I drop at every opportunity. She asked me to sing at her 94th birthday dinner party for 150 of her closest friends. It turned out to be an astonishing night. From that I started getting calls for other parties, and from those, I got an increasing number of gigs at clubs in New York and beyond. Luckily I had found a musical director, David Lewis, who has the distinct talent to make me sound so much better than I deserve. This went on for three years, until I finally admitted to myself that I hadn’t written a word. So I pulled out of doing what gave me a very pure pleasure to get back to work. I still perform, but not as much.
Q: Getting back to the writing, when you were in Ms. Colbert’s Broadway vehicle, you just sat down backstage and wrote a full-length play with 84 characters?
WK: Why not? I had no idea anything would ever happen with it. To me, it was purely an exercise, and it seemed – for whatever reason – I was ready to take a chance on writing it. By then, I’d read, seen and been in a lot of plays, great plays – and some real dogs. It wasn’t as if I just stumbled into the dramatic form and filled it in.
Q: With that kind of success – the Ford Foundation Grant, a production at one of the best theatres in North America — why didn’t you go on writing plays instead of selling out to Hollywood?
WK: I worked on more plays. I had a grandiose scheme that I’d do a trilogy of the Russian Revolution, with NICHOLAS ROMANOV being the first, KERENSKY the second, and LENIN the third. I interviewed Kerensky for four of the most fascinating hours of my life; I went to then-Leningrad (before and since St. Petersburg) and Moscow for three dark frigid months to do research. That was crazy because the Soviets had done everything they could to sanitize their history, making Kerensky a fool, Lenin a god and Stalin a saint. When I came back, I was discouraged about the project and as fate would have it, I ran into a friend from high school who was a movie producer. He’d heard about my play in the trades, had read it, and offered me a job as a screenwriter for a current project. I took it because it sounded exciting and was employment. I believed I’d get back to playwriting as soon as I could. It took a while, but I never thought of writing screenplays as “selling out.” It was more writing, in another form. I thought that as long as I could keep putting words together, nothing was lost, a lot of writing was gained, and it couldn’t hurt. I mean, Faulkner started out writing screenplays – and that professional factoid is the only comparison intended here.
Q: Did it hurt?
WK: No. At least, not the writing. It was my training ground in concise story telling, character and plot. The form of a screenplay – on average for two hours on the screen — runs about 100 pages of script. (I’ve read 300-pagers that never were made). Such a short structure forces a distillation of every element of narrative. Every word counts. Adapting a great writer like Exley was incredibly difficult, in that there was so much wonderful, funny, ravaging stuff I had to cut. Also, you don’t describe at any length the visual, as you’re writing a blueprint for a lot of other people – director, cinematographer, actors – to realize. So it ain’t literature; it’s an extremely precise technical document, its main concerns being the overall construction of scenes, the dialogue, and the development (or “arc,” the snooty in-term that became one to drop by clueless studio execs wishing to impress) of characters.
Q: You said when asked about hurt, “at least not the writing.” What damage was done in Hollywood?
WK: I wasn’t happy there, nor “successful” which is measured by stratospheric degrees of money and fame. Nor was I — as a script doctor — writing anything that I could call my own work. I never got to the pragmatic point of saying goodbye to my own scripts and not caring what happened to them or how they were rewritten. I was viscerally enraged by changes made – until I was the one making the changes on others’ work. In a way, that was worse as far as self-esteem goes, because I was rewriting what someone else had sweated to create. Besides all that, there were a lot of effervescent as well as destructive temptations with which I was not effective in resisting, until I met Susan.
Q: Tell about the temptations.
Q: In the bio, it was suggested that you be asked about Zeffirelli sometime. How about now?
WK: Why not? Franco Zeffirelli is one of the great geniuses of his day in theatre, opera, television, and film. My agent ordered me to have tea with him at the Savoy in London when I was there writing the ninth script of a project called CHOICE CUTS for Warner Brothers. (Another story.) Anyway, Franco is one of the most charming, charismatic, and persuasive people in the world, as well as being Italian. He had a film scheduled to begin shooting in six weeks, for which he had five screenplays written by the best and most expensive writers in the business. He hated them all and was convinced they were undoable, and if he didn’t start shooting on the appointed day, he’d lose his European financing (often a dodgy arrangement at best) and the production would collapse. “Therefore, the whole thing depends on you,” he laid on, which I knew it didn’t but basked in the importance of it all, something screenwriters seldom enjoy. He then informed me that I had to fly to Rome with him that evening to solve the problem. I informed him that I was under contract to Warner Brothers and my office and secretary were right next to the London head of operations. To which Franco smiled seraphically and said, “Darling,” (by then my sobriquet), “what do you do on week-ends?” I flew to Rome that Friday evening and read the five scripts. They were in worse shape than Franco had expressed and I knew six weekends was an impossible time to do my magic. I urged Franco to put off production, hire Harold Pinter to write a new script and start from scratch. He had no time for such luxury and said again, with charm and desperation, “It all depends on you.” So for six weekends, I commuted to Rome. I did my best, which was not enough. BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON was one of Franco’s least successful films. There’s more to this story, involving Maria Callas for one, but that’s for another time.
Q: So you left Hollywood with your first book being published that eventually became a best seller. Did that do anything for your self-esteem?
WK: Everything imaginable. First of all, I left with Susan. Not being married, we went on a six-month honeymoon in Europe where I started my next book. BORN WITH THE CENTURY, meanwhile, illustrated the importance of luck and timing in a creative career. I pitched the original idea to Fox soon after they released STARWARS and had a lot of money flooding into the studio. The expense of letting me write a novel was lint-money to them at the time. Subsequently when the paperback rights were auctioned, it was exactly the time when publishing and Hollywood were doing mating dances with each other, trying to figure out how they could fit into each other. BORN WITH THE CENTURY was sold to paperback for the largest amount ever paid for a first novel (at the time, since then overcome by many multiples). The day I heard the news, I sensed instant trepidation, knowing that they hadn’t bought the book, but had bought the hope that 20th Century Fox was going to make a “Major Motion Picture” of it. They couldn’t conceive that the studio might be corporately raped, and the movie would never be made. After the book became a NY Times best seller, the paperback house that paid so much for the rights went bankrupt. Fortunately, I managed to publish four more books. Rubric: Keep writing, no matter what happens.
Q: And you wrote those books in Connecticut?
WK: Yes. When we came back from our honeymoon in Europe, we decided that we didn’t want to be IN Manhattan, but near enough so we could do our business there and enjoy the city. Susan was publishing her poetry in New York, and I was working with New York editors. We found a 1796 farmhouse in Bridgewater on fifteen acres, and were sucked into a second occupation of preservation and restoration. Oh yes: We were married one fine day by a justice of the peace in our kitchen, had tuna fish sandwiches and champagne for lunch, and went back to work.
Q: What brought you back to playwriting?
WK: In a deleterious way, it was a result of my last published book, MISTER CHRISTIAN. Michael Korda of Simon and Schuster, one of the best editors in the business, had bid hard for it and bought it at auction. (I’d always been lucky with editors, being taken on by Phyllis Grann, Nan Talese, and then Michael.) The book was a sequel to the HMS Bounty mutiny, about how Fletcher Christian returned from Pitcairn Island to live in England as a fugitive, was protected by William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and fought in the Napoleonic Wars. The manuscript was optioned by 20th Century Fox, with the idea that Marlon Brando would star as Captain Bligh, wanting to make up for his having played Fletcher Christian so disastrously in a previous version of MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY. I had a four-hour meeting with Mr. Brando during which he swore to lose at least a hundred of his three hundred pounds. (He never did.) Everything was in place for the successful launch of the book, but alas, two months before pub date, Michael was confronted by cancer and had to leave S&S. MISTER CHRISTIAN was thereby “orphaned,” meaning no one at the publishing house cared to shepherd it through publication, publicity and marketing of the book. As a result it was ignored and died. Such a result causes more damage than to just the book. The sales figures become a part of an author’s public record and are referred to whenever another book is proposed. Literary agents, in the business of making money, are chary of taking on damaged goods. I’m happy to tell that Michael went through an unknown circle of hell but recovered fully, and since then has written a lot of very good books. Following my own rubric to keep writing no matter what happens, I wrote some books, too, about which one can learn on the pages of the website. During this time, I also realized I could get back to playwriting, which I did with joyous alacrity – again described in greater detail on the website’s pages.
Q: This brings us up to date, but it seems so much has been left out.
WK: If any more questions come my way that would add anything germane, I’m told that it’s an easy matter to slug them in at the appropriate place in the chronology above. So ask! Go to the contact page and write me a question. I’m eager to hear from you.