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Author Interview — Special to ClubMemoir.org
John Blumenthal Talking with John Blumenthal, author of
What's Wrong With Dorfman

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Meet Martin Dorfman -- cynic, hypochondriac and burned-out screenwriter. In the midst of navigating his latest film script through Hollywood Development Hell, the 40-year-old Dorfman suddenly develops a mysterious disease with bizarre symptoms. After a battery of medical tests, his doctors are stumped, so Dorfman sets out on an odyssey to find a cure, a quest that takes him to the fringes of alternative medicine. On the way, he meets the mysterious and beguiling Delilah Foster, a fellow hypochondriac whom he encounters in his doctor's waiting room. Will Dorfman find a cure? Will his script become a movie? Will he elope with Delilah Foster? And most importantly, what indeed is wrong with Dorfman?


 
CM: You are an accomplished magazine columnist, an author of two feature films ("Short Time," starring Dabney Coleman and Teri Garr, and the comedy "Blue Streak," starring Martin Lawrence), and four humorous books. How different is gearing up your creative juices to pen a book from other types of writing? 

  JB:   First off, I try to keep my creative juices inside my body at all times, thus precluding the need for a cleaning lady and/or industrial cleansers which can be expensive. Secondly, I don't really "pen" anything but checks since we now have computers, although I do still chew on pencils occasionally.
      But seriously... for me, the hard part is coming up with an idea which will be interesting enough to sustain itself for the length of a book or screenplay. Screenplays are easier -- I can write one in 3 weeks. Novels can take a lot longer -- 6 months for a first draft. I'm a fast writer, so if I have an idea that works, I can zip right through it. Of course, with scripts, the producers make you rewrite them a million times which can be tedious. But in terms of "gearing up," the commitment of time and energy for a novel is much greater than for a script. So if you get hemmorhoids, write a script -- less sittting.
 

 CM: What's Wrong With Dorfman, although fictional, is semi-autobiographical. What percentage of Dorfman's experiences would you say were really John Blumenthal's experiences?  And why didn't you choose to simply write this as an autobiography?


 JB: I'd estimate that about 55.67587% of Dorfman is autobiographical. I guess you could say that, like Dorfman, I'm a burned-out screenwriter and I did have weird symptoms like his. My wife is German and I have 2 daughters, just like him. I am, however, much more handsome and debonair than Dorfman, and my taste in clothes is better. I'm also a better dancer than Dorfman and I keep my fingernails neater.
 I actually contemplated doing it as a memoir, but went the novel route instead for two reasons: first, I didn't want to get sued by my own father. A "character based on him"  figures prominently in the novel and it's not the most complimentary portrait. Second, I wanted the leeway to invent characters and plot. Interestingly enough, when my father read the novel, he didn't even recognize himself.
 

CM: In what situations do you think a writer should consider making his or her autobiography into fiction, and why? 

  JB : It depends on the situation. I think most fiction writers use stuff from their own lives in their novels anyway. Characters in novels are often composites of people the writer knows or might have known. If you've got a great story and it works as nonfiction and you're not going to libel fifty people by writing it, do it as autobiography. On the other hand, big libel suits can mean lots of free publicity and most writers, myself included, will do almost anything for free publicity.
 

CM: Your book is hilarious. Tell us of a part that practically had you rolling on the floor with laughter when you were writing it. 

  JB:I never laugh. I've heard all the jokes, all the one-liners. I might chuckle, but I don't laugh. I haven't actually guffawed since 1969. I've been writing comedy for too long -- 30 years. When I worked at Playboy in the 1970's, my first assignment was to write jokes for Groucho Marx. They had an interview with Groucho and it wasn't funny, so they asked me to punch it up. Can you imagine? After it ran, the interview editor got a letter from Groucho saying it was the best interview he'd ever done. This story is unfortunately apropos of nothing. No idea why I brought it up.
      As for funny stuff in Dorfman -- I think the Camp Waywayonda outhouse bit is pretty funny. I may have chuckled once or twice, I don't really remember.
 
 

CM : Writing humorously doesn't come easily for many authors. Why do you think you do it so well?  And how do you know when something will really get a laugh? 

  JB: Why do I do it so well? I'm not sure I do. But assuming I do, a lot of it has to do with upbringing. Humor was one of the only ways we bonded in my family. If everybody was laughing it meant everybody was getting along, which was rare. The rest of the time everybody was yelling and screaming and being neurotic. Most comedians started their acts at home at age 6. I probably would have been a stand-up comedian except I prefer sitting.

   How do I know when something will get a laugh? Instinct. But you're never entirely sure. Humor is subjective -- 2 people might think something is funny, while 2 other people might not laugh at all. You have to follow your instincts and hope for the best. It's easier in TV -- they have laugh tracks.
 
 

 CM: For writers who find it more challenging to relay humor in their work, what are three tips you would tell these writers to help them produce funnier material? A:

   JB:  Three tips?
         1. Always plant corn in September
         2. Floss every night before bedtime
         3. Seabiscuit in the 3rd at Aqueduct.
      Actually, I'm not sure you can teach people how to be funny. You can dissect and analyze jokes until you're blue in the face, but that won't help you write funny stuff. I guess the best strategy is to read as many good comic novels as you can and try to get a sense of how the jokes are set up and paid off. Writing prose humor is much different than writing stand-up comedy or sitcoms, a whole different medium. Timing and delivery are different, everything's different. A guy who might be a laugh riot at a cocktail party would probably not be able to write a funny paragraph.
      Plus, for me, comedy comes from character. If you can create funny characters, the rest is easy.
 

 CM: Do you envision this book as a movie? (Or did you while writing it?) If so, which actors would you cast in the principle roles? 


   JB: Sure, any book can be a movie, but I wrote Dorfman as a novel because much of the humor was in the interior monologue -- Dorfman's thoughts and rants. Which is difficult to get across in a movie unless you use a lot of narration and a lot of narration can be boring. If there's too much narration you have a documentary. Also, the story is not what you might call "high concept," which is what movie producers generally look for. A high concept, for those who don't know, is a catchy idea which can be  put forth in 2 or 3 sentences. Dorfman is a bit too complex and lightly plotted for that.
      Who should play Dorfman? Since the character is based on me, I'd have to say Mel Gibson or Russell Crowe. Actually, I have no idea. Billy Crystal maybe?
 

 CM: What can people get from reading that they can't from movies or television? 

    JB: Depth. Better character development. A better vocabulary. A stiff neck. Possibly migraines.
 

 CM: What is your daily routine when it comes to writing? 

    JB:  It varies (which I guess means it's not a routine). First I read my email, do paperwork. If I'm writing something -- a novel or script -- I'll look over my outline, then totally ignore it, and start writing. I write about 3-4 hours a day. After that I get diminishing returns. But I don't always have a project. For me to make the commitment to write something, it has to be pretty good and most ideas that come and go through my brain just aren't that good. So I spend a lot of time thinking and more often than not, come up with nothing. It can be frustrating.
 

 CM: What book is currently on your bed side table? 

    JB:  "Six Hundred Ways to Cook Linguini." by Doris Fenster-Mussolini
 

  CM: What piece of advice would you give to a writer pounding away on their first book? 

   JB: Get a day job. Also, no need to "pound." Keyboards react better to the light touch. If you're pounding, you're probably using an ancient typewriter which you should immediately trade in for a computer. No editor will take you seriously if you still use a typewriter.
      Advice, advice... if you're really talented, eventually you'll succeed. But just in case, get a day job.
 

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