I don’t consider myself a writer, per se, even though 90 percent of what I do each day—for art and commerce—is writing. For me, writing is simply a mode of composition that allows me to physicalize the beautiful chaos in my inexplicably dark and bizarre psyche. I say inexplicably because if you put my social stats on a baseball card, you would conclude that I am an upper middle class white boy solidly soaked in WASP culture (the kitchen carpet and convenience store Midwestern variety) who used to be able to throw a fastball in the low 90s. The point is that what is in my head is an amalgamation of the gigaflops of information my brain has hungrily absorbed over the years and some kind of divine or alien transmission. Just ask my mom. She has no idea “where the hell I come up with this stuff.” So, in the interest of avoiding a rubber room and daily thorazine injections, I have always needed an outlet. Since my stick figures can actually draw better stick figures than me and musical training was considered a satanic distraction from sports, I do what I was born to do and what I have done since my first existential crisis at age eight. I write.
I made a commitment to deploying a highly visual style in hopes that a reader’s mind would click into the world’s greatest film director: the imagination.
For years, I attempted to apply my creative weapon of choice to film. I grew up completely obsessed with movies, sharing equal passion with haute cinema, B movie shlock, and everything in between. Woody Allen was an extraterrestrial being whom I worshipped with greater fervor than Martin Luther’s more pragmatic Jesus. Stanley Kubrick was Zeus, ruler of celluloid Olympus. Clint Eastwood was the front man for a technicolor drenched rock n roll band that I camped out overnight to see. And David Lean was a pencil thin Mozart whose screen symphonies reduced me to an ocean of tears and a desert of angst. I never cared about novelists. Of course, I read voraciously but it was an eclectic mix of Stephen King, C. S. Lewis (religious parents), Holden Caulfield (I believe in him more than I do J. D. Salinger), and my science fiction star chamber consisting of Vonnegut, Asimov, Dick, and Bradbury. Later I glommed on to Chuck Palahniuk and William Gibson because they fed the uncontrollable growth of my weird machine. However, it’s important to note that, even when reading, I was combining media to enhance the experience. I read the Chronicles of Narnia in its entirety while listening to the entire Led Zeppelin library—at least what was available on cassette. I watched reruns of Night Gallery and Twilight Zone and listened to Black Sabbath while reading The Stand. And every autumn I read Catcher outside when the leaves are on fire, while listening to Jim Croce, Cat Stevens, Janis Joplin, Gordon Lightfoot, and now Birdy—in that order, while drinking cider.
Even while reading, I was always composing an experience in my mind that was not just specific to the words. It was multi-faceted, mixed media, highly personal, and wildly satisfying. For years, I was convinced that this was my own version of psychological filmmaking and that all I needed to do was become a filmmaker. Easy, right? Nope. Filmmaking in the modern age is a soul sucking, incomprehensible labyrinth wherein business has grown like a rapidly metastasizing cancer around the art of it all and if you attempted to kill it, you would most certainly destroy the host.
But let’s mark the path of history as I never want it to be known that the movie business didn’t work out for me due to a lack of trying. I went to film school. Two of them. Both prestigious. I studied screenwriting under an Oscar-winning Italian writer who worked with Cary Grant and was blacklisted by the Communist Crusade. I worked on film sets. I read Syd Field and Robert McKee, watched “Inside the Actor’s Studio” and subscribed to Variety. I sold pitches to studios, was hired on studio assignments and even directed a horror film for one of the studios. I even co-founded the Slamdance Film Festival, an amazing independent filmmaker showcase currently celebrating its 20th anniversary. I was a student of the game . . . but unfortunately I spent most of my time on the bench. I recently got a great review from Kirkus for my book The Intern’s Handbook and one of the first things the reviewer does is describe me as a B-movie screenwriter. Nailed. It. The B list. Hell, that’s being generous, all things considered. Even now, as movie people approach me to acquire my book, they always ask if I would be willing to allow them to hire someone else to write it. Telling, no?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not bitter and I have met many great people in the entertainment business. It’s just that a career in movies never really clicked for me. So, in late 2012, out of DEFCON 1-level frustration, I sat my ass in a chair and cranked out my first novel. And it was what I imagine that first spike of heroin is like. The high flooded my entire being and I was addicted with the first hit. I had so much fun—for the first time ever on a writing project—that I worked like a fiend for three solid months and had my first draft. Six weeks after that, the book was sold to Simon & Schuster. Click.
So, let’s talk about the perfect storm that made all of this possible. You know about the frustration. You know about the literary euphoria that came with each page. But there is another major element that, like a chemical bonding agent, fused all of the atoms together to form a unique molecule: Cinema. First, because I had never written a novel—at least one that I’ll tell you about—I had to figure out story structure. Because it was what I know—through training and experience—I applied the three act structure from Hollywood style filmmaking (Euros sometimes use five) and the outline literally wrote itself. My book has a very distinct first, second and third act and these acts are divided into sub-act story milestones that create a steady, vertical arc through drama-inducing narrative twists and turns. Also, I made a commitment to deploying a highly visual style in hopes that a reader’s mind would click into the world’s greatest film director: the imagination. The result is a novel that many readers have called “cinematic” and “visual” and that even the most infrequent reader can finish in a matter of days. Mind you, that is also a function of the art of brevity and consolidated communication that I learned in the advertising business. The result is something like a movie—a compact, yet densely layered narrative that entertains but also offers the right amount of emotional depth so that a reader can relate to and empathize with a ruthless assassin—a character who is traditionally quite “unrelatable” (that’s not a real word but they use it in Hollywood).
Back to composition. The point is that, to me, book writing is not only about compelling prose, complex and original characters, and all of the other things that speak to the more two dimensional aspect of the medium. Because of the human imagination, it is a three dimensional canvas with infinite possibilities. In that way, it even transcends cinema because cinema is, without question, a finite world constrained by money, technology, modes of distribution, and people who dress in black at Sundance parties and talk about their Vegan cupcake cleanse. Think of Mozart. If you think for one minute that he was only seeing notes on a parchment, you have never listened to Mozart. He was hearing, and more importantly, seeing an explosive flood of moving images infused with powerful, often violent emotions. It is this level of composition that I aspire to in the literary world (a boy has to dream) and I have cinema to thank for teaching me that vision, when conveyed with truth and conviction, is truly the opiate of the masses.
Shane Kuhn, the author of The Intern’s Handbook (Simon & Schuster, April 2014, titled How to Kill Your Boss in the January 2014 UK edition), is a writer, director, and producer with fifteen years of experience working in the entertainment business and advertising. He is one of the original cofounders of the Slamdance Film Festival and is currently co-writing features for Paramount and Fox.