Bookpleasures.com is honored to have as our guest today, Victor L. Cahn. Victor was born in New York City in 1948, and received his A.B. from Columbia College and his M.A. and Ph.D. in English from New York University. He taught at Mercersburg Academy, Pomfret School, Phillips Exeter Academy, Bowdoin College, and for thirty-two years at Skidmore College, where he specialized in Shakespeare, modern drama, the history of drama, and expository writing. He was profiled in 300 Best Professors (edited by The Princeton Review and published by Random House).
Victor has written more than a dozen non-fiction books, including Shakespeare the Playwright: A Companion to the Complete Tragedies, Histories, Comedies, and Romances (named an Outstanding Academic Book by Choice); The Plays of Shakespeare: A Thematic Guide; Political Animal: An Essay on Shakespeare's Henry V; Bard Games: The Shakespeare Quiz Book; Beyond Absurdity: The Plays of Tom Stoppard; Gender and Power in the Plays of Harold Pinter; Conquering College: A Guide for Undergraduates; Classroom Virtuoso: Recollections of a Life in Learning; Polishing Your Prose: How to Turn First Drafts into Finished Work (with Steven M Cahn).
In addition, Victor has authored two novels, Romantic Trapezoid and Sound Bites, and his articles and reviews have appeared in such diverse publications as Modern Drama, The Literary Review, The Chronicle Higher of Education, The New York Times, and Variety.
Victor has also authored of numerous plays, many of which have been produced Off-Broadway and in regional theater: Roses in December, Embraceable Me, Fit to Kill (all published by Samuel French), Dally With the Devil (Steele Spring Stage Rights), A Dish for the Gods, Getting the Business, Sheepskin/Bottom of the Ninth, and Sherlock Solo, a one-man show that he performed.
Other scripts have been presented throughout the Capital Region of New York, where he has taken leading roles with Home Made Theater, Schenectady Civic Players, Albany Civic Theater, Curtain Call Theatre, Hubbard Hall, Cohoes Music Hall, and Theater Voices, and in works by Shakespeare, Shaw, Pinter, Ayckbourn, Coward, Simon, Gurney, and Knott.
His primary avocation is the violin, and he has been soloist both with the Skidmore College Orchestra and in recital, frequently with his brother, Dr. Steven M. Cahn.
His most recent work is Walking Distance: Remembering Classic Episodes from Classic Television, which we will be discussing today.
Norm: Good day, Victor, and thanks for participating in our interview. Do you recall how your interest in writing originated, and what keeps you going?
Victor: In school I always enjoyed writing prose, and my interest in theater inspired me to begin writing plays in college. What keeps me going is probably what motivates most writers: a need to express what’s churning inside me, and the satisfaction of seeing those ideas and feelings take shape.
Norm: How do you approach the work of writing? As a follow-up, what does a typical writing day look like for you, from waking to turning in at night, and how does it compare to a conventional 9 to 5 job?
Victor: My approach
depends on the form in which I’m working. Plays generally begin
with a character, a situation, or both. Nonfiction starts more
directly: I have a subject I want to discuss. I tend to compose new
material first thing in the morning, then edit during the rest of the
Some writing days are short, while others extend well into the night. As for how writing differs from a 9-5 job, I’ve always been a teacher, so I’ve never worked within the strictures of a daily career, but no doubt one particular pleasure of the writing life is freedom. With that freedom, of course, comes responsibility. Writers have to motivate themselves.
Norm: What do you see as the influences on your writing, and is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Victor: Again, I suspect that like most writers I’ve been influenced by almost everything I’ve seen and read. For me, no matter if I’m writing drama or prose, the biggest challenge is to capture the proper tone, whether the voice in question is my own or that of the characters, so I can say exactly what I want as effectively as possible.
Norm: What helps you focus when you write, and do you find it easy reading back your own work?
Victor: When I’m in the midst of a project, it tends to stay in my mind even when I’m not literally “writing.” The greatest challenge for me is formulating the initial draft. Once I have that, I can tinker and rewrite endlessly and never grow bored. During that process, whether I’m working in drama or prose, reading aloud is a big part of that effort.
Norm: Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?
Victor: I do some research, but I confess that most inspiration comes from within me. What I find most fulfilling is forming my own ideas and feelings into a unified vision.
Norm: What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books and plays?
Victor: With plays, the answer is simple: my characters regularly insist on doing and saying things that I never expect, and my job is to follow where they lead.
With nonfiction, I may be taken aback by unanticipated turns of phrase, but by and large I know where I want to go, and the task is making sure I get there as efficaciously as possible.
Norm: How would you compare television writing to-day to that of the 60’s?
Victor: The chief distinction, of course, is artistic license. For today’s writers, especially those who work on cable, nothing is outside their realm. All aspects of life may be dramatized, and with no boundaries. Writers in the 50’s and 60’s, on the other hand, worked within severe parameters of content and style. Yet the best of their creations remain as compelling today as they were fifty or sixty years ago. In sum, no matter how many options writers today have, the core of a successful show remains the same: characters and plots that inspire audiences to care.
Norm: Where do you see book publishing heading?
Victor: I can’t claim to have more than minimal expertise in the business of publishing. All I can say is that I relish the feel of a book in my hand, and I hope I never lose the opportunity to experience that sensation.
Norm: Could briefly tell our audiences about your most recent work, Walking Distance: Remembering Classic Episodes from Class Television and what served as the primary inspiration for the book? As follow-ups, what purpose do you believe your book serves, what matters to you about the book and what would you say is the best reason to recommend someone to read the book? Finally, how did you go about choosing the shows you analyzed?
My primary inspiration was clear: I’ve been watching television all
of my life, and in this book I focus on individual episodes of eleven
shows that have long been among my favorites. I’m not saying that
they’re the best programs of their time, although some surely are.
These just mattered most to me, I’ve been ruminating about them for
decades, and this book represents my sharing ideas that have been
percolating inside me for as long as I can remember. Thus I don’t
discuss only the individual episodes themselves. I recall the actual
experience of viewing these and many other shows, all the while
drawing on an embarrassingly extensive backlog of information I’ve
acquired about the creative personnel involved.
In analyzing specific
scripts, I approach them as the playwright I am, and try to point out
how they work. Thus I like to think the book will be of interest not
only to anyone who remembers these shows, but to anyone who wants to
understand why they remain so popular.
I start off with “Walking Distance,” my favorite episode of what I believe is the most influential series of all time, The Twilight Zone. I then consider ten more shows in pairs: two military farces, The Phil Silvers Show (“Bilko”) and McHale’s Navy; two creations by Roy Huggins about quintessential loners, Maverick and The Fugitive; two of the most popular comedies of the 60’s, The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Andy Griffith Show; two spy spoofs, The Avengers and Get Smart (which feature two of my favorite women characters of all time), and two comedies that often verged on the dramatic: The Honeymooners and All in the Family. Overall, I hope my book reflects the mind of a teacher and critic, but the heart of a devoted fan.
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?
Victor: I think all writers have doubts, and the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of rejections I’ve received over my lifetime confirm my own. But something inside compels me to keep trying. I think anyone who writes, in whatever form, feels that need, no matter whether the world embraces us.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you, particularly your most recent work, Walking Distance: Remembering Classic Episodes from Class Television?
Victor: At the risk of seeming pretentious, just Google me, and there I am.
Norm: What is next for Victor L. Cahn?
Victor: My latest play, Villainous Company: A Caper for Three Women, is scheduled for production Off-Broadway in January, 2015.
Norm: As this interview draws to a close, what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
Victor: You might have asked how much I enjoyed composing this book. All I can say is that if readers have as much fun perusing it as I did writing it, we’ll all be happy.
Norm: Thanks again, and good luck with all of your future endeavors.
Follow Here To Purchase Walking Distance: Remembering Classic Episodes from Classic Television