People keep asking me why I, as a screenwriting teacher, wrote The Book of Zev as a novel.
Although I am best known for my screenwriting expertise, since I began my practice over fifteen years ago as a writing coach, I have taught as many novelists as I have screenwriters. Major publishers such as Doubleday and Simon and Shuster have picked up my students’ work, so I have had a fair amount of experience working on commercial fiction.
For me, the allure of fiction was the ability to focus on the inner thoughts of the characters as opposed to being limited to describing the action as one is when writing a screenplay. It’s not that you can’t convey inner thoughts in a screenplay, but rather that the scope is limited. My characters are concerned with their connection to God and their purpose in the world.
I teach my students that character IS plot, a departure from the traditional approach. That being said, my first impulse when working on a story is to create my character profiles using the exercises in my trademarked writing system. I then do, as I teach my students, to perform an exercise where writing as the character in the first person, the character can be explored from the inside.
Before The Book of Zev I wasn’t sure what I wanted to work on next. I’d written part of a romantic comedy, but wasn’t pleased and was focusing on other things. Then I met the man who became the inspiration for my character, Zev, on a train. I spent three hours having an intense conversation, and couldn’t get his voice out of my mind. I sat down, and began to write as if I were him, in the first person, and somehow, a year later I had a draft of a book!
Why did he inspire me so? Because his concerns, though couched in the language of a religious Jew mirrored my own concerns – where do I fit in? How do you define family? Is there a God? What is His relationship with us? What does He demand? Are the demands different for Jews?
One of the key things that we discussed was how it was easier for some people to give, but almost impossible to receive. The real “Zev,” felt that this was a critical limitation in his spiritual skill set, and that the inability to receive was at the very least “rude.” He meant receiving from others as well as a higher source. When I asked him why that was so, he said that he felt he had been shamed into a feeling of unworthiness that no actions however good seemed to affect. I connected with this deep unhappiness and I wanted him to find happiness.
In The Book of Zev, Zev does find happiness. Writers can’t change real life, but we can fix things in our stories. The real Zev was going to stay with another religious community, and I suddenly wondered what would happened if he could have a secular experience. So, in the book, Zev becomes a New York City cab driver. Once I wrote far enough along to get Zev to New York, the story just took off, and as I wrote, the other characters appeared.
All of the characters were products of their thoughts and feelings, not their actions, so the novel form was required to tell the best version. This is another thing I have learned, to let the story dictate the format, not the other way around.
Copyright ©2014 Marilyn Horowitz