Once again Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest Mitchell Kriegman. Mitchell has published in The New Yorker, Los Angeles Review of Books, The National Lampoon, and Glamour, among others.
A winner of four Emmy Awards and a Directors Guild Award, he was also a writer for Saturday Night Live. He was the creator of the classic groundbreaking television series Clarissa Explains It All, as well as the executive head writer on Ren and Stimpy, Rugrats, and Doug.
is the author of Being Audrey Hepburn and has recently authored a
second novel, Things I Can’t Explain (Thomas Dunne Books, on-sale
November 10th, 2015). His second novel is a re-imagining of the 1990s
television hit he created, Clarissa Explains It All. Now a
20-something, Clarissa tries to navigate the unemployment line,
mompreneurs and the collision of two people in love.
Good day Mitchell and thanks once again for participating in our interview.
How did you break into television writing and what did you wished you knew when you first started out?
Mitchell: Television is one of those areas where the less you know the better off you are – as soon as you realized how messed up the business is your doomed! Beginners Zen is way better. I can’t tell you how many times the fact that I was oblivious to the rules and the various pecking orders, allowed me to create the shows I’ve created and cover new ground.
Knowing the rules in TV means never doing anything new. I started as a video artist, which is pretty much like creating YouTube videos before there was YouTube. I just wish YouTube existed in those days it would have been easier! I would be a star with millions of views!
Norm: What do you think makes you different from other screenwriters and writers?
Mitchell: My utter inability to color between the lines, or see the box that I am usually out of, if you know what I mean. I’m just not good at doing the usual thing. I also like to study the way people speak – especially when they aren't saying anything. And I’m generally pretty good with story, analyzing what works and what doesn’t. I also see every character as a window on a world of their own making.
Norm: What gets your attention and makes a television script stand out from the crowd and what do you think makes a good story?
Mitchell: Pretty hard to answer this question. I can only say that if it’s a sitcom script (whatever that means these days) then it’s about the web of characters and how they interact, antagonize and dovetail with each other. Then it’s about the dialog and – again – what they don’t say… and how that is conveyed. If it’s a drama or long form the issue is how the characters contribute to story development. Hope that’s helpful. Those are all tip of the iceberg kind of thoughts. There is so much more to it than that.
Norm: Many people believe that a huge part of succeeding in Hollywood is “who you know.” How true is this and how does “who you know” stack up against “what you know” and “how good you are?” As a follow up, how does a new guy or gal make contacts?
Mitchell: Again I’m the wrong person to ask on this. I was never very good at the “who you know.” I was only good at the “what I do.” By the way – this wasn’t to my benefit. And I wasn’t that way because I was arrogant. It was because I had zero social skills in those days. I could have been raised by wolves and I would have known more about how to make my way in the world. So I was pretty rough-edged in the beginning. I lived by my merits alone, which is about the hardest way to make it. In other words people bought my shows even if they weren’t fond of me and the shows lived and died by how successful they were on their own creative merits. Because I’ve specialized in original paradigm shifting work – it was even more difficult – but it has been and still is an interesting ride.
Warning: I wouldn’t advise this as a career plan.
Norm: What went through your head when you sat down to write the television show Clarissa Explains It All and now your subsequent book that is a re-imagining this television hit.
Mitchell: I sweated every page of the original pilot of Clarissa because 1) I had never written a sitcom before, even a spec. 2) I had a totally different idea what a sitcom was anyway – short scenes, graphics, fantasies, talking to camera and more – all of which I am indebted to Rachel Sweet and Steve and Dave Higgins for. 3) I didn’t really know how to write a “sitcom joke” and 4) I had never written a girl before. That last one turned out not to be as difficult. Bottom line is I was mostly terrified.
Now on the novel – the toughest part was to translate the tone of a sitcom to a novel. I feel like Things I Can’t Explain is a unique creature as a result. It has a unique tone – with some of the breezy laugh out loud smartness of a sitcom and some of the dark turns you expect from a novel – or at least I do! There were definitely moments in the beginning when I was trying to crawl back in her skin. Like trying on your wedding tux (or dress) and finding that you don’t quite fit. But when I found her adult tone and her adult presence it was easier.
When I wrote this:
“Yes, I’m that snappy, lighthearted girl who mixed prints with ease and had an affinity for leggings, scarves, and Doc Martens; but now I’m a woman in my late twenties, and I have curves—mostly in the right places—and eye makeup. My once-naturally blond hair requires Sun-In to stay blond, but it’s grown thicker and lusher. Sometimes I tie it up in some random way just to get rid of it. I swear my hair has a life of its own. Thank God the gap-toothed smile that always made me seem younger than I really was is gone—it never kept me from smiling anyway, but now I just feel better about it.” I knew who she was.
Norm: What would you say is the best reason to recommend someone to read Things I Can’t Explain and could you tell our readers a little about the book?
Mitchell: Whether you knew her when she was 14, when she was a precocious know it all, or not, now she’s in her twenties and she is one of the most soulful, deeply emotional, vulnerable, endlessly clever and resourceful people you will ever know. Spending time with Clarissa – i.e. reading this book – is like passing time inside the mind of one of those amazing “it girls.” Those girls who make the world spin, who are passionate about the oddest most interesting things and despite their seeming vulnerability are powerful and strong.
Anyone in their twenties male or female can relate to her dilemmas, her obsessions, her obstacles and her solutions.
Norm: What purpose do you believe your story serves and what matters to you about the story?
Mitchell: Every character is a window on a world – have I already said that? Seeing other people we get to see ourselves. Clarissa’s superstitions, her goals, her demands of the world and of the men and women around her are what matters. By the way Norm, her ex boyfriend cum stalker was a guy named Norm…you’re not that guy are you? You’re not trying to pull a number on me are you? I hate when the characters I write sneak up behind me!
Norm: What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating Things I Can't Explain and your previous novel, Being Audrey Hepburn?
Mitchell: How in television and film it’s easy to be light and hard to be heavy and how in writing a novel it’s hard to be light and easy to be heavy.
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?
Mitchell: EVERYBODY IS GOOD ENOUGH. EVERY VOICE MATTERS. Ok now that we’ve gotten that out of the way. There’s still the question of execution, of applying yourself and becoming better and better, not great but better I always say. You never know – if you keep getting better you might become great someday. Besides you don’t get to decide if you’re great – Time is in charge of that!
Where can our readers find out more about you and your novels?
Mitchell: By uh reading them? Oh. Otherwise you can go to My Website - you might especially like my .02 cents BLOG because it’s at least worth that much or that little depending. But sign up you’ll be entertained annoyed and intrigued at the very least. Signup for our email list and give us some social media love or just follow us.
Norm: What is next for Mitchell Kriegman?
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
I think we covered it!
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.