By Prune Perromat
The first time you meet Matthew Weiner, you can’t help thinking about certain images, certain scenes that feel like a dream or a memory: love and nylon; John Hamm’s La Joconde smile; Peggy Olson’s mythical, lean in-style walk into a new, hard-won job; sunglasses and a Mondrian dress; a Californian hippie Coke ad. This guy is one of the handful of writers credited with bringing literature to the television screen.
Once named in Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World list, the Baltimore-born writer - and now novelist - has won countless Emmy and Golden Globe accolades for his work on The Sopranos and his own TV masterpiece, Mad Men.
But even Matthew Weiner gets scared, and when Mad Men finished, he wondered if he'd ever write again. When the words you write are accustomed to a global audience - when lines you crafted had such a significant influence on pop culture, and even culture more generally, where do you start next? What is left to be said? For Weiner, literary fiction was the answer.
LSP’s Prune Perromat met Weiner in New York in early June at Book Expo America, the sprawling annual book fair. His face beaming with pride, he took obvious pleasure in sharing insights about the genesis of his new book, Heather, The Totality, in what he says was one of his first interviews as an author.
A slim but burning piece of noir fiction, Heather is an intense read. It makes you sweat and breathe quickly; it makes you stand up from your chair and lean against the nearest wall for support. Unlike the work he's best known for, there is very little dialogue here. Instead readers will find a crisp, almost clinical writing style that cleverly builds tension in a deliberately huis-clos atmosphere.
As LSP approached him at the event, he was telling a group of people that the book is "about your private desires and about how you're perceived." A story of love, fear, frustration, and envy; a story that only really begins when a murderous look forever binds the four main characters' lives together. In just 134 pages, Matthew Weiner, the storyteller, shows that his pen, and his words, remain poised to make an impression - to get under your skin.
Weiner is soon off to Paris to begin working on his new Amazon TV series, The Romanoffs, over the summer. After a Little, Brown Book Expo luncheon, he took a moment to chat with LSP about his literary renaissance, Steinbeck and Dickens, and about how writing a novel liberated him.
* * * * *
The Literary Show Project: How would you describe your novel? What is it about?
Matthew Weiner: It's like a policier. It is the bottom of society and the top of society, meeting. It is about passion, and ownership, and our lack of control of our senses. It is about two parents fighting over their child. And about a child who is empathic and beautiful to the point that she starts to withdraw from the world. But everyone who meets her must own her, so the father, the mother, and this construction worker - all of their lives will be complete by possessing this girl.
LSP: A very Platonic theme? That desire to be whole again through the other half...
MW: It's true... I mean the “totality” in English is a philosophical world. It's about completion. I don't even know if it's a half, actually. I think that they want to... eat her basically, they want to control her.
LSP: From writing and directing shows, how did you come to writing a novel?
MW: I finished the show (Mad Men) a lot longer than before people saw the end of it so I had a year or so... I stopped writing, I stopped taking notes because someone told me that was a good idea to clean my brain, to fill up my tank with life experience again. And it was very scary, and it was hard to get started again, and my children were reading a book in school and were listening to it on audio - East of Eden by John Steinbeck - and I started listening to it and I started reading it. I read while I made the show, but I only read about the period - it was related. Also when you get older, you stop reading so much fiction, you start reading more non-fiction. So of all of a sudden, I'm listening to this book and then I start reading it and I can't wait - "Is dinner over? I want to go back and read my book" - and I remembered my relationship with literature.
And then I just started reading everything, but I still wasn't writing and I went to an artist residency in Upstate New York - a writer sent me there - Ann Holmes. She suggested this because I was afraid I wasn't going to write again. So I got there and I said: all I have is 15 days, I just have to decide what I'm going to do next. And I started writing this short story about something I witnessed in New York.
LSP: Could you tell us what you saw?
MW: I witnessed the origins of this story. I saw a construction worker look at this girl like he was going to kill her - rape her and kill her. I watched it happen. An incredibly beautiful girl going into this apartment building under construction and I saw the guy look at her and I just wrote down on my notebook: "What if her father saw this." And so, when I got there, I was like well, it's a bite of dessert that I can handle - I'll write a 2,500-word short story. I'll write 10,000 words and I'll cut it down. And it just kept going. And the event of them meeting kept getting deeper and deeper in the story. So eventually it became a novel. There's no fat in it. No fat.
LSP: It’s quite thin. How come? Were you not tempted to make it a little longer?
MW: No, because the story is... It's very internal, there are only four characters and I felt like I wanted you to be worried the entire time you're reading it. That something horrible was going to happen. And as soon as you ... start describing rooms, and vistas, and meals, and adding other people, the tension disappears. I wanted you to read this thing and be a little bit sick to your stomach, a little bit worried the entire time. And that way maybe... It's like a novel-concentrate. Does that make sense?
LSP: Very much so. Do you think that this urge to 'concentrate' comes from your film experience?
MW: No. This was so different than the film experience. There's no dialogue in it. There's very little dialogue in it. I can go inside people's heads. I can write a sentence like, "she reminded him of his dead sister." You can never get that idea across in a movie and I'm talking about the most visual story-telling there is. You might know someone's lying. You might know someone's lonely. You might know someone regrets what they've just said. But you can never... It's hard enough to explain in a film that someone is somebody's sister. Right. You put a woman and a man in a room, they have to say "hi, sis!" or something dumb like that.
LSP: Did you feel liberated in a way, writing this novel?
MW: It was completely liberating. And the most liberating thing is that the thing you are writing is the thing. I never have to cast this. I didn't have to find locations. I have a main character who is homely. You can't do that in a movie. It's part of who he is. That he isn't that great looking and feels very badly about himself and marries a beautiful woman. You can't tell that story in a movie.
LSP: What did you feel when you wrote the last sentence of the book? Did you know it was the last?
MW: That's the way I work a lot of times - I wrote that last sentence pretty far before I got to it. It came to me earlier.
LSP: Did you know exactly where you wanted to go?
MW: I knew the ending. I didn't know the last sentence but I wrote the last sentence when I was in the middle of the book. I was like: I have to get to that. Because it tells the whole thing.
LSP asks Mr Weiner to read a short passage from the book.
MW: I'll read one I love. Here it is. This is Mark and Karen's first date.
"As they debated... " That's Mark.. "having another drink" and it's told from Karen's perspective "…he told a story about someone eating his lunch out of a refrigerator at work. It didn't matter who did it but he had an idea because he saw mustard on the sleeve of some receptionist. He told Karen that most guys say they're having lunch with clients but they always end up watching sports in a bar together and it's costly and a waste of time and he has an edge because he brings his own and usually he's the only guy awake in the afternoon. She laughed and he looked at her, his face kind of changing with surprise and he said, "People don't get me sometimes." For Karen, this was lovely."
Here's (another) one. One I like. I think this is when they have sex for the first time...
"The night Mark and Karen finally undressed before each other, he stared at her as she got up to get a robe and go to the bathroom. It was a bright moonlit night and her nipples were almost purple n the blue air, her skin so milky, her thighs so full and ankles so narrow. He thought he would never get tired of having sex with her and he took that thought very seriously and knew they would marry."
The style of the story is also unusual because it's basically - someone described it: "it's an omniscient narrator but they don't know anything."
LSP: In your work, are you inspired by any author?
MW: I kept trying something that was like-
Our conversation is briefly being interrupted but then resumes.
LSP: And then I’ll go
MW: I'm loving this. Are you kidding? This is the first interview I have given on the book. Do you know that. No one else is going to get this enthusiasm. Chuckle.
LSP: I can feel the pleasure in your eyes. I can feel it. And the pride.
MW: I'm proud of it. There are some really painful things in there that I think you might stop at like, take a breath at some of the stuff but it's not showing off.
LSP: Could you tell the Matthew Weiner fans and others why they should give Heather The Totality a try? Why should we read this?
MW: If you like, if you were fan of my work, you probably like stories about real people, who have real feelings, and have a reason for doing what they're doing. Better told without judgment and just with observation. That what the story is. And also, you have no idea what's gonna happen. And I think that's part of what I do also. Heather the Totality.
LSP: Will this be your last book?
MW: This is my first book. Is this the last one? No, no.
LSP: Do you feel now that you're on the road to make more?
MW: I am definitely on the road to make more but right now I'm writing this TV show. And I have to finish that first. And that is really like ... 8 novels. It's called the Romanoffs.
LSP: You know a lot about the television industry and what people want to watch, is there an audience for a show that highlights the books that originated the long-form narrative that's so popular today?
MW: A Tale of Two Cities - that is the original benchmark. That guy (Charles Dickens) is the first TV writer, it's as good as it gets. LSP
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.