"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."
"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."
"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?"
"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."
"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?"
"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."
"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
"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."
"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?"
"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."
"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 -- ?"
"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."
"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?"
"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."
"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?"
"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."
"I've read (in another interview --)
that you said about being a writer, 'It's not a career; it's
a calling.' Please explain."
"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."
"How does one sell a screenplay? Take
us through the business dealings that got 1906 off the ground?"
"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.."
"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
"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."