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Page One
"Every book begins with Page ONE"
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James Dalessandro

 

James Dalessandro was born in Cleveland, Ohio. He is the author of the best-selling mystery BOHEMIAN HEART, which is set in his adoptive city, San Francisco, California. Mr. Dalessandro recently completed the sale of his eagerly anticipated screenplay and novel, 1906, a thriller which recreates San Francisco just prior to the devastating earthquake and fire. His new book, Citizen Jane, is the true story of Jane Alexander and her mission for justice.
James is married and the father of one son.

 

 

Page One
"How did the story
of Jane Alexander and James Dalessandro get together? Did you find the story or did the story find you? Why did you want to tell this story and tell us a little about Jane Alexander and the book."

James
"I found the story
of Jane Alexander, Founder of "Citizens Against Homicide", on the front page of the alternative newspaper, The Pacific Sun, in Marin County California. There was this white-haired woman, a grandmother of 12, who puts killers behind bars, solving murder cases that the cops and D.A.'s can't seem to solve. Unbelievable stuff. I had a book deal in weeks with Penguin/Putnam called "Citizen Jane" and now the t.v. and film producers are calling. What appealed to me is the human drama: a woman who lived a sheltered, almost cloistered life who spent 13 years seeking justice for her murdered 88 year old aunt. Blew me away."

 

Page One
"What do you think
makes Jane Alexander's story different from other true crime stories? What is at the center of Citizen Jane, the book, and why?"

James
"Stories about people
getting justice for their murdered loved ones are not uncommon. But Jane Alexander went far beyond that. She founded this group, "Citizens Against Homicide" to help OTHER people find justice. Jane won a conviction in a murder case a few months ago that was 14 years old. Two Grand Juries and the Attorney General of California said the case could not be won and refused to indict the killer. Jane spent years hounding cops and D.A.'s until she found a young homicide detective, Michael Yore, in Palo Alto, who was a ballistics expert. They just put the killer away for life. No one, anywhere, has ever paid a higher price in pursuit of justice than Jane Alexander. I get weepy just thinking about the things she did."


Page One
"There had to be
a heck of alot of research involved in writing CITIZEN JANE --- what and how did you sift through all of the articles, interviews and phone calls to prepare?"

 

James
"Part of my problem
in researching and writing Citizen Jane was that I was also writing the movie script for "1906", my San Francisco earthquake tale, for Barry Levinson and Warner Brothers. But Jane Alexander had kept a diary of every minute of her life throughout the ordeal. Without that, I would have been lost. She was my guide every way. And the other part of the answer is in your next question."

Page One
"Another writer,
David Mehnert, is listed as a contributor to CITIZEN JANE. What was his role in this book? Does conflict arise from two writers researching and writing the same story?"

 

James
"I teach private screenwriting
classes in San Francisco, and David Mehnert was one of my students. Princeton honor graduate, Rhodes Scholar, former Newsweek correspondent. A master at research and a damn good writer. Originally, he was not going to be named on the book. But he contributed huge sections of the book, writing the first draft of chapter after chapter. He even managed to integrate my style of writing with his. Both Jane and I agreed he should share credit. He read thousands of pages of documents and interviewed dozens of witnesses. His wordk was critical to the success of the project. We had very few arguments, really. We both kept in mind that it was Jane Alexander's story more than it was our book. The subject guided us. We kept the egos in check. We did it for her."


Page One
"You are a proven
and completed writer so, how is writing for screen (1906), writing non-fiction (Citizen Jane) and writing a fictional novel (Bohemian Heart) different? The same? Would you consider one more difficult than the other?
Why or why not?"

 

James
"Great question
, which I'm asked often. I'm also an award winning radio writer and poet. I believe if you're a devoted writer and good story teller, you can work in any medium. Screenwriting is the most difficult: you have know everything about drama, character, structure, sound and music cues. And you have so little space, 110 pages, to tell a huge story. Fiction to me is the most rewarding: your book is your book, not someone else's movie. I compare fiction to free verse and screenwriting to sonnets: the latter has a rigid set of rules and structure, though infinite range for creativity. Journalism is the easiest to me: you have source material, you are guided by the truth. To me, they feed each other. As a journalist, you learn to write a sentence, a paragraph. As a novelist, you learn to create characters and stories. As an screenwriter, you can use the camera, the eyes, the ears to create a complex tapestry. I'm thrilled that I'm able to be successful at all of these. No matter what ideas I get, always have a medium. It's been a long, fun journey."

 

Page One
"Tell us about
your screenplay "1906" and when we may expect to see it on the big screen? I understand Barry Levinson bought your script -- ?"

James
"Yes, Barry Levinson and Warner Brothers
bought 1906 after a bidding war with other studios and directors. It's an epic tale of the San Francisco at the turn of the century, the wildest, most dangerous, most beautiful city this country has ever seen. My pitch was "Titanic was a boat in the North Atlantic--this is an entire city, the most beautiful we've ever seen, destroyed in 48 hours." Twenty-nine thousands buildings burned to the ground, much of it because of human folly. The story is not like the fictional romance of Titanic: I used many real characters, creating fictional ones to illustrate the battle to rid San Francisco of rampant political corruption, Shanghaiing, the trafficking in Chinese slave girls. Enrico Caruso sang at the SF Opera House five hours before the quake hit. It is truly the greatest American epic: not because I wrote it, but because it was."

 

Page One
"I'm personally a fan of your PI "Peekaboo" Frankie Fagen
in Bohemian Heart-- when can we expect a follow up to Bohemian Heart and will Peekaboo make the big screen?"

 

James
"Thanks for the kind words
. "Peekabood" Frankie Fagen is one of my favorite characters, because he's the San Francisco everyman. Speaks six languages, knows the entire history of his city, rides a Norton Commando motorcycle. 1906 is actually a prequel to Bohemian Heart: many of Frankie's grandparents are present, trying to rid SF of corruption like he is in my contemporary novel. I did not want to do what most mystery writers do: just keep cranking out stories with the same old character. So I did a prequel. The next one may be entitled "1927", and then "1864". But yes, I will bring Frankie back at least once. I miss him as much as his other fans."

 

Page one

"Tell us a little about your PI Frankie "Peekaboo" Fagen in Bohemian Heart. When and where did Frankie come from? How did you create this character? Some writers write down everything about a character from birth til present -- even the stuff that never makes into the story --- Did you do this for Peekaboo?"

 

James

"I think a good tip for any writer is to "physicalize" your characters. I had created Frankie as an older, more traditional private detective. Then one day I saw a tall, long-haired, motorcycle riding friend of mine...an Oxford grad who spoke several languages and lived on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco and boom...I had a model for Frankie. And in most detective novels--Chandler and Hammett--their characters are phantoms. They have no families, no histories, no political opinions, few idiosyncrasies...I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted Frankie to be so complex and compelling that everyone wanted to take a ride with him on his Norton Commando. I don't do a life sketch of my characters...but I know them well enough before I start writing to know how they will react, and I just add from there. The beauty of fiction is discovery: great things happen if you know your characters."


Page One

"I've read (in another interview --) that you said about being a writer, 'It's not a career; it's a calling.' Please explain."

 

James

"I can think of no other endeavor that demands more and returns less in terms of material things, or security, or pension and health benefits...I'm not disciplined, I'm compelled...if you don't truly, truly love writing, if you don't think it's the most invigorating, inspiring of all human activities, you can't do it. You're running on fumes for years. The pure love of the work guides and motivates you. Someone asked Faulkner when he was old if it was easier, now that he was famous, rich, a Nobel winner and he said (paraphrasing) "it gets harder, not easier." Great writers are not drafted from the ranks of the faint or false hearted."


Page One

"How does one sell a screenplay? Take us through the business dealings that got 1906 off the ground?"

 

James
"I had sold more than a dozen
screenplays and seen only a few get made, and not made well. So I turned back to fiction with Bohemian Heart, and was writing the prequel, "1906", using the grandfather and grand uncle of Frankie Fagen to solve a 93-year old mystery about who killed a reformist police chief named William Biggey in San Francisco. Then Titanic hit. Peter Miller, my manager in New York, urged me to get a detailed film treatment ready. His pitch was "I have the only project bigger than Titantic, and based on real events." That hooked them. We only went to directors--actually their productions companies--Spielber'gs company Dream Works, Barry Levinson's company Baltimore Spring Creek, Wolfgang Peterson's Company...within 24 hours, the word had gotten around town and the phone was ringing off the hook. As we were making the deal with Levinson's company and Warner Brothers, people were still calling ask if they could get in. The secret? I had done my homework, I knew my story and characters,and I was in the right place at the right time. It's better to be lucky than good: best of all is to be both. The best way for newcomers to sell a script? Like anything: be good. Write a great one as your calling card. Study. Learn your craft. There are no dumb, lazy writers. And of course, you have to find a good agent. But good work always rises to the top somehow.."

 

Page One

"Do you think there are screenwriters and then there are novelists? Is there a difference? Are some lucky enough to have the talent to do both while others should stick to one or the other? If so, what and why? If not, what and why?"

 

 

James

"You ask great questions. To me, good writing is good writing. I'm fortunate that I can do both, so I have a medium for every idea, and if I get burned out on one thing, I can do the other. But I know very few people who can do that. The great Richard Price. The great William Goldman. Raymond Chandler did it, he wrote scripts for Hitchcock's "Stranger On A Train' and adapted "Double Indemnity." Faulkner wrote screenplays, and Steinbeck even wrote "Viva Zapata." But they are two distinctly different mediums. In film, the camera tells the story. In fiction, a narrator...either first or third person...tells you things you cannot see on camera. It takes a special breed of lunatic to try to master both crafts. Yes, some people should stick to one or the other. I fear that screenwriting is being dumbed down. There are some brilliant screenwriters: Nora Ephron, M. Night Syhmala (Sixth Sense), The Coen Brothers (Fargo, Raising Arizona), but the craft is slipping. Look at the remake of the Thomas Crown Affair. The first was a classic: the second is just soul less fluff, without a compelling moment, without out an ounce of depth like the original. Faye Dunaway playing chess was sexier than Renee Russo dancing half naked. Bad dialogue, weak characters, silly story. The independent film movement is the saviour of writing for the screen."

 

 

 

 

 

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