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Friday, April 13, 2012

Interview with Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist turned Author and Screenwriter, Mark Ethridge

I met Mark Ethridge at my husband's Princeton University reunion. I write a movie review column for Carolina Parent's website, a newspaper Mark co-owns. When he told me about his book, Grievances, being turned into a movie, I got excited. This is the dream of all fiction writers.

This week, Mark rolled into town with the crew of the movie for a premiere. DH and I attended and met the director and some cast members. I wrote a review of the movie, Deadline, which I loved. When I discovered Mark and Curt, the director, met at a high school reunion and put this deal together, I knew there was a story in this you might want to read. Here's a bit from Mark about how it's done and what it feels like, from a writer's perspective.
You have won two Pulitzer Prizes, is the true story your book and movie are based on taken from one of those?

I played a key role in the The Charlotte Observer's  two Pulitzers for public service but they weren't for this story. One was for the PTL scandal involving Jimmy and Tammy Faye Bakker and the other was an investigation of the textile industry's handling of brown lung disease.
 2. Since you've always written non-fiction, why did you decide to tell this story as fiction?
Frankly, I am not interesting enough to be a protagonist like Matt Harper. Matt Harper incorporates many elements of my life but some are invented like the death of his brother. And the death of my father is accurately portrayed but it happened during a different investigation, not this one.  I wanted to write the best story, not the best history.
3. As a non-fiction writer, what was your biggest challenge writing your story as fiction? Was this your first foray into fiction? 
Remembering that it was okay to depart from the facts. My book editor would ask why I had written things a certain way and, at first, I would respond, "That's how it happened." He would remind me, "We don't care how it happened."
4. How did you feel about the editing process when your book was published? Jeff Kellogg improved Grievances enormously, as he did Fallout. I've learned much from him, as I have from Curt Hahn. They've always made my work better so I think they're terrific. Plus, we laugh a lot and have fun.     
5. Which do you like better, journalism or fiction writing?
Ha! That's like asking which of your children you like better.
  6. Did you have an agent to get the book published?
Yes. Jeff Kellogg, who is also a great edftor. 
7. Did you use an agent to craft the movie deal or did you work it out with the director at your Exeter reunion?
Curt Hahn and I worked it out starting in Exeter and then at a meeting in Nashville. Jeff Kellogg was a good advisor in those discussions 
8. Where are you from originally, North or South?
Born in Winston-Salem, NC and have lived the last 40 years in Charlotte except for a post graduate fellowship at Harvard. But I also grew up on Long Island and in Michigan and went to school in New Hampshire and New Jersey. 
9. Why did you settle in Charlotte, was it because you found a job there first or like the region and then sought the job?
The latter. I was working in Boston after college and wanted to return to my roots 
10. It's increasingly unusual for the author of a book to write the screenplay when the book is made into a movie. Did you want to do that or did you do it to save money?
I wanted to and Curt Hahn, the director wanted me to. I was just delighted that they were willing to pay me to do it. 
11. Did you enjoy writing the screenplay? How was that different from writing the book?
I loved it for several reasons. It sharpened my writing skills. Screenplays are only 100 pages so every word counts. It gave my greater insights into character arcs and how to define them. And working with Curt Hahn as my coach was a truly wonderful collaborative experience. Writing a screenplay is very different from a booksbecause the camera does all the describing.
12. As the author of the book, you could choose what made it into the movie from the book, right?
The book author doesn't have much power in that area but the screenwriter does. Fortunately, I was both. Even then, the final decision is the director's
13. Did you cut much from the book when you turned it into a screenplay? Was it hard to pick what to keep and what to drop? Did the director play a part in that with you?
I love parts of the book that never made it into the movie, such as Mary Pell showing the reporters Wallace bedroom. But Curt and I have always been in agreement about what had to go and what needed to stay. 
14. Did you base your characters on anyone you know? Did they resemble the people from the original story?
Ronnie Bullock is based on a wonderful reporter at The Charlotte Observer named John York. He's now deceased. The managing editor, Walker Burns, is also modeled after a former colleague. Characters like Possum are very close to the people in real life.

15. Were you the junior reporter in the film? The Managing Editor? Both?
Matt Harper, the junior reporter.
16. In what ways has making this movie changed your life?
72 days on a movie tour bus is life-changing in itself. The best part has been getting to spend time with our audiences and reconnecting with friends night after night in 46 cities. 

17. Is your family supportive of you taking the book to a movie?
They love it. My wife and daughter appear as newsroom extras so they're pretty happy about it. 

18. What advice would you give budding fiction writers who want to turn their books into movies...besides attending Exeter, that is.
Study movies. Remember that stories are not about what happen, they're about what happen to people. 
19. How much real life from your life did you borrow for the book? Did you use that in the movie as well? 
Most first novels are necessarily autobiographical to some degree. You write what you know. 
20. Do you have plans to keep writing thrillers?
I want to tell good compelling stories that make people want to keep turning pages. That's my goal. Make them turn another page. It doesn't have to be a thriller 
21.Was working with the director sort of like working with an editor?
A very good inspiring editor. There are other kinds. 

What is the title of your new book? Do you play to make that into a movie as well?
Fallout is the story of a widowed weekly newspaperman and divorced physician in pursuit of an unimaginable danger that threatens their community. It's  journey through an Ohio River town’s myths, heroes and oddities, from Indian curses, to rat fishing to an alternative view of George Washington. Above all, Fallout is a story of corporate irresponsibility, of political self-interest and of a potential catastrophe that looms in most American cities.
OR WATCH FOR THE DVD, COMING SOON.                   


Lindsay said...

After reading this interview I went to check the movie out on Wikipedia and from what I read here and there this is going to be a MUST see

An Open Book said...

How exciting and fascinating! And yes, it is every authors' dream to have a movie, whether small or biog screen, based on their book make it to the screen.

Congrats Mark- wish plenty of well wishes


Tabitha Shay said...

Interesting. A great interview. Plan to check out this movie. Thx. for sharing.

Kellie Kamryn said...

Wow! How exciting! All the best with everything :)

Sherry Gloag said...

Thanks for such an interesting interview, Jean and Mark, and best wishes with the film.

Davee said...

Hi Jean, what a coup interview! Thank you, Mark, for taking time for an interview. I certainly want to see the film and will be on the lookout for your future works.
Many congratulations!