pleased to have as our guest today award-winning writer and producer
Ann Lewis Hamilton. Ann has written for TV and film and her TV
credits include, among others, Haven, The Dead Zone, Grey’s
Anatomy, Saved, Providence, Party of Five, and thirtysomething.
Ann was twice nominated for an Emmy award, and was the winner of a WGA Award and the Humanitas Prize.
She grew up in Staunton, Virginia, in a house full of typewriters - her grandfather was the editor of the local newspaper where her father worked as a reporter and her mother wrote for the society page. Ann's goal was to write and draw for MAD magazine, but instead she graduated with a BA from the University of Virginia and an MFA from UCLA.
Ann will be discussing with us her first novel, Expecting as well as other topics.
Norm: Good day Ann and thanks for participating in our interview.
How did you get started writing for television? As a follow up, where did you get your information or ideas for the various series?
Ann: Thank you for inviting me. My MFA from UCLA is in screenwriting, so I assumed after I graduated I’d be deluged with offers from film studios to write movies. Whoops. Didn’t happen. But a fellow writer pal was lucky to be hired as a staff writer for a TV series and he asked five writers from the UCLA MFA program if they’d like to come in and pitch story ideas. I was the only one who said yes (everyone else said they were “feature writers”). I sold my pitch and I was working in television.
On a lot of TV shows you’re hired as a writer, but you didn’t create the show - for example, I didn’t create thirtysomething, Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz did. So it’s tricky - you have to learn to write characters invented by someone else. Sometimes that works out and sometimes it doesn’t. But that’s one of the cool things about writing for television - the collaboration - a group of writers trying to come up with a dozen or so stories and teleplays every week. As opposed to a novelist writing a story all alone.
Norm: Why do we like to read as well as watch fiction?
Ann: We all love stories,
don’t we? We can be Sam Spade or Emma Bovary. I don’t prefer
one medium to another. Sometimes it’s nice when you’re reading a
book to imagine what the characters look like or the settings. And
then sometimes it’s nice to see actors and the setting.
My husband and I are addicted to The Knick on TV - a doctor working in a busy NYC hospital around the turn of the century. Clive Owen is wonderful (well, it’s Clive Owen, of course he’s wonderful) but it’s also interesting to see the sets and NYC locations in a different time. And coincidentally I just finished reading Time and Again by Jack Finney, about a man living in 1970 who goes back to NYC in 1882. And even though there are illustrations in the book, you still have to use your imagination - what does Si Morley look like? What is NYC like in 1882?
Norm: When writing for television, do you work from an outline?
Ann: I always use an
outline for television although I prefer short outlines. That might
be from my training on thirtysomething - Ed and Marshall liked short
outlines. Make sure you know how your act begins (at that time we
were writing four acts - now a lot of TV episodes are five acts and a
teaser) and make sure you know how they end.
Some studios like 30 page outlines and that makes me a little crazy because when a script is 50-plus pages, I prefer the fun of discovery in writing the script as opposed to discovery in an outline. (There are many cooks in the kitchen when you’re writing for television.)
Norm: How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?
Ann: Because my parents and grandfather were reporters I grew up with a great respect for reading. My maternal grandmother was a teacher who became an elementary school principal. So reading was always - not mandatory - but something everyone around me was doing all the time. We got at least four newspapers every day. We went to the library twice a week.
My family was very southern and not dysfunctional (maybe I would have had more to write about if they were dysfunctional). My parents loved history and social issues and wanted to make sure I did too. They sat me down in front of the TV when I was young and made me watch To Kill a Mockingbird and I remember crying and saying, “But Tom Robinson didn’t do it” and my parents nodded and later we talked about race and how sometimes life is unfair.
Norm: What motivated you to write Expecting and can you share a little of the novel with us? As a follow up, what would you say is the best reason to recommend someone to read it?
Ann: Television and film
writing have been very good to me. But a few years ago I wanted to
try fiction - I hadn’t written fiction since college. I took a
short fiction class through UCLA Extension and it was surprisingly
hard. Expecting started as a short story and a friend suggested I
expand it to a novel. I laughed. It was hard enough writing 20
pages - the thought of writing a whole book - ha! So I wrote another
novel instead (rough going at first, but then I fell in love with the
Trying to find a book agent took a long time - he tried to sell the first book but couldn’t. He encouraged me to write another one and asked me for ideas - I showed him the short story version of Expecting and he said, “Why don’t you expand it to a novel?” And I did.
My husband and I had fertility issues. I had two miscarriages and after having a son we couldn’t get pregnant again. During an IUI (intrauterine insemination) my husband laughed and said, “Hope that’s me.” I think he was trying to make me feel less nervous. And years later I thought - suppose it wasn’t him? Suppose somehow the sperm got switched around and I got pregnant, but my husband wasn’t the father. How weird would that be? I should write about a woman who gets pregnant through IUI and finds out later on that she isn’t carrying her husband’s child. And that turned out to be Expecting.
People who have gone through fertility issues are in a special nightmare club. Of course you’re supposed to be able to have a baby, how can you fail at something like that? Expecting looks at pregnancy loss and how far people will go to have a child. It’s told with a lot of humor (but plenty of heart, too). So ultimately it’s an entertaining, sometimes sad, novel about perseverance. What it takes to make up a family.
Norm: What was the most difficult part of writing your novel and did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
Ann: A first draft is always the hardest part for me, just getting words on paper. (Or on a computer screen.) Trying to make the characters sympathetic was tricky, too. I was constantly asking my husband - “But how would you react to something like this?” because I wanted to make Alan, the husband character, feel real.
I learned it was possible to write something both funny and sad at the same time. I wasn’t sure it would work when I started out. The first chapter (not the prologue) was rewritten over and over and over. I learned that my husband is the most patient man in the world because he read draft after draft after draft and never complained. (Well, he complained a little - but can you blame him?)
Norm: How was the process of writing your novel different than writing for television?
Ann: It was very lonely. I talked to myself more. I didn’t have to comfort of being able to run down the hall and talk to people like you do on a TV show - hey, how do I solve this problem? The freedom was nice - not having to do endless notes from producers and studios and networks. Working with the Sourcebooks editor was joyous - I am not kidding. Her notes were so terrific and thoughtful and they made the book better. I loved that part.
Norm: What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?
Ann: I always tell people to never give up. If you are passionate and committed, it will happen. But you have to keep doing it. And rewrite rewrite rewrite. When my first book didn’t sell it seemed crazy to write another book. But if I hadn’t written the first book I might not have written Expecting.
Norm: Where do you see book publishing heading?
Ann: I don’t see the end of physical books. I have a Kindle and it’s great, but there are lots of books I prefer being able to hold in my hands - non-fiction with maps and photos especially.
I think there are more opportunities out there for writers these days. Self-publishing used to sound like the white trash version of publishing and it’s not anymore. It’s become a very real, very good thing. I know there are people who prefer that to going out to big publishing houses.
I’m a cockeyed optimist when it comes to the future of books.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about your and your debut novel, Expecting?
Norm: What is next for Ann Lewis Hamilton?
Ann: I’m trying to sell two television pilots - one I’ve written and one based on a great book (not one of mine). I’ve got a very rough draft of my next novel, loosely based on how my parents met (as newspaper reporters) and two crimes that happened in my hometown, one in 1906 and one in the early ‘50s.
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
Ann: “Did you know Stephen Colbert is my first cousin and would you like to go on his show to promote your book?” Why, yes. Thank you very much.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.
Follow Here To Purchase Expecting: A Novel