“Writing Superficially Is Easy”: An Interview with J. Michael Straczynski
By Alex DuebenSeptember 21, 2019
[B]ecause I am a romantic, I still believe that we have the potential to be nobler than we know and better than we think. […] So I urge you to keep your heart's compass on the true north of your dreams. Be free to be romantics, to reject cynicism, to believe that good will prevail and that those who do wrong will be punished, because, when the hour of the wolf comes, as it comes to all of us sooner or later, those are the things that sustain us.
J. MICHAEL STRACZYNSKI wrote that speech 20 years ago for Angela Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher, the protagonist of Murder, She Wrote, for which he wrote seven episodes and one TV movie. Straczynski has gone on to become one of the hottest screenwriters in Hollywood (Changeling, Thor), one of the great science fiction writers in television history (Babylon 5, Sense8), and an award-winning comic book scribe (The Amazing Spider-Man, Midnight Nation, Superman: Earth One). But for him, the hour of the wolf was not simply a turn of phrase. His idealism and his strength were tested by the world — and by his father, especially — as he describes in his new memoir, Becoming Superman.
The title may hint at a story of Hollywood adventures, and the book relates those, to be sure. After all, Straczynski created or co-created five television series, in the process butting heads with executives, networks, and studios. But the heart of his memoir is its story of a Dickensian childhood involving a brutal and abusive father, war crimes, cults, and incest. Those of us who have followed his career have long known him as an insightful writer with a profound understanding of human nature and history balanced by a strong sense of romantic idealism. In the pages of this memoir, Straczynski details the hard-fought origins of those values. As inspirational as it is chilling, Becoming Superman is about the power of fiction, and the journey to become better than the people around one.
ALEX DUEBEN: Structure has always been very important for you as a writer. How did you go about thinking about how to shape not just your story but your family’s story?
J. MICHAEL STRACZYNSKI: Because the book is in many ways a multigenerational look at an immigrant family, there was a lot of ground to cover. Initially I explored various different approaches to make that work. One of my first efforts was nonlinear, kind of a Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse-Five approach where our POV slid up and down the timeline like a pearl on a string, counterpointing one moment against another much earlier one. From a structural perspective it worked well, but from an emotional one it fell apart because incidents shown without context or lead-up lacked the visceral punch needed to give them emotional resonance. So I finally opted for a straight-ahead chronological approach.
The book begins with your grandparents and an exploration of the contrast between family lore and fact. Why was that the place to begin the story?
On the one hand, because there’s so much to unpack in my family’s history and my own, it made sense to go chronologically. On the other, and maybe more vital, hand, that structure sets up what is probably the book’s dominant theme: my family’s nearly pathological need to always appear as something other than they are, to understand our past as something other than our past. My grandfather tried to sell himself as successful in order to get women, and ended up trapped in a marriage he didn’t want. My grandmother felt the need to go to Poland and convince the relatives there that she was happy and successful. Had that not been the case, she wouldn’t have been there for the invasion or stuck in Eastern Europe for the next six years. My father was desperate to convince the world that he was a good father, not the monster we all knew him to be. That desire to appear one way while being something altogether different is one of the book’s major leitmotifs, and that opening salvo sets the stage for this motif’s appearance later.
This sort of book is something that you haven’t done before. Did your writing process have to change because memoir is a different beast?
The main change was to flip back to a more reportorial methodology and style that I haven’t used much since my journalism days. Because much of my family’s history had been deleted, destroyed, or hidden behind decades of lies and misinformation, I in essence had to go back to being an investigative journalist — except in this case it was my own life that I was trying to unravel. On several occasions the book stalled out because I didn’t have some of the pieces I needed to get a full picture. It was only with the passing of my father and my aunt, after which their papers and records came to me (along with much that belonged to my grandmother), that I was finally able to fill in some of the gaps.
You’re clearly a thoughtful, analytical person. Has being in therapy changed you and helped you to write this book? I’m thinking specifically about sections which involve thinking about and deconstructing oneself and one’s assumptions.
The therapy was short-term and specific to my inability to reconcile the feeling that I had to leave my marriage because of my own issues, and my determination never to break a promise. “Till death do us part” was a huge promise that I couldn’t see any way around. Once the therapist helped me see that I wasn’t doing my wife at the time any favors by keeping both of us in a marriage that — though amiable and kind — was not what it needed to be, I was able to take that step. Doing so also ended the therapy. That being said, I’ve always been very — some might say too — analytical about my personal life. There are some people who, if you ask them what time it is, will give you a history of the watch. Sadly, I am several of them. So that’s part of the reason for the analytical feel of the book in places. I also didn’t want to write a teary, “poor me” story. I don’t believe in that kind of self-indulgence, and I felt that by keeping some of the more violent, awful stuff at arm’s length emotionally it might actually be more effective than it would be if I bled all over the page.
With a title like Becoming Superman and a lot of Hollywood stories, I’m sure that it would have been very easy for you to sell a book of Hollywood anecdotes. What was the response when you said, it’s really about my family, and it gets really dark?
Writing superficially is easy, and doing a book of funny/weird/telling showbiz stories would be the easy choice. But I don’t like to go that route with anything I write. It’s not just about doing “stuff,” it’s about all the choices behind that stuff — the good, the bad, and the ridiculously ugly. I’ve said at conventions for years that if I can make it as a writer, anybody can do it — but absent context, absent any sense of what that actually means, it just bounces off people because they tend to assume a guy in my position maybe had some hassles with school loans or other little issues. I come across as reasonably undamaged, so it’s an obvious assessment. But I wanted the lesson to stick: it doesn’t matter where you come from or what you endured or what your resources were or who didn’t believe in you. Your success is the result of your talent, your dreams and the degree to which you are — or are not — prepared to fight for them.
I have been a devoted fan of yours since Babylon 5, which was a show that I loved for many reasons. It came out in the 1990s — back when people believed in things like “the end of history” — but you understood how time and history work in ways that a lot of shows don’t, and never seem to even consider. After reading your memoir, I can’t help but think that some of that understanding comes from your own life.
No question that I manifest all the perils of a liberal self-education. My interests growing up in philosophy, history, and politics inform pretty much everything I do, especially Babylon 5, where we were free to play on a huge canvas. Science fiction is about asking the next logical question, and that’s not just about technology or plot. Future fiction is predicated on those next questions, but absent historical context it’s just randomly throwing plots at a moving target. You have to know where you came from to ask where you’re going, and I don’t know that everyone takes the time to really dig into the past to project what’s coming next. The last few years it’s been both rewarding and a bit ominous to see so many fans of my work pointing to the current political landscape and saying, “I thought the show was over the top, but now it’s like everything in the show is on the evening news.”
Babylon 5 remains incredibly contemporary. You were writing about authoritarianism, media manipulation, xenophobia, colonization, ethnic hatred, war, torture. Looking back, to what degrees did you think you were writing about what was happening in the 1990s, about history, or simply about timeless themes that just happened to be set in the 23rd century?
What you have to understand about the human race is that there’s a profound difference between social and physical evolution. Changes in technology have advanced us at lightspeed over the last hundred years, but physical evolution doesn’t work that fast, which is why so many of us are stressed out all the time. We’re still hardwired to be living in an agrarian culture and the noise of technology is sometimes more than our neural networks can process. Similarly, we are hardwired to react in certain ways to outside stimuli. The need for security above all, the perception of the other as dangerous, all the sociological alarm bells that were at work in the 14th century are with us still. We’re just better at hiding them or recasting them in new lights. But that means we’re susceptible to repeating trends and falling for the big lies, the scapegoating and feel-good fictions. That means certain cycles will continue to repeat until our cultural self-awareness catches up with our toys.
You wrote about some of your adventures — misadventures? — in Hollywood. One project that you didn’t mention, though is Murder, She Wrote: A Story to Die For, which came out in 2000. I ask because I just watched it and it really felt like you using the character of Jessica Fletcher to explicitly voice many of your thoughts about writing and art and life.
After Murder ended its run as a series, there was a deal in place between Universal and CBS to do three TV movies. But the network kept rejecting every idea Angela [Lansbury] and the studio pitched. The sense was that the execs felt the premise skewed too old at a time when CBS was working extra hard to bring in younger viewers. Nothing was working. There was a meeting at Universal with the key personnel from Angela’s company to try and figure out a way to get one of these movies going soon, because if they failed to do so the contract would expire. I’m told that after much backing and forthing, one of the Universal execs — I think it may have been Charlie Engel, but the person varies in the telling — took a deep breath and said, “Well, there’s always Joe.” He knew I could get the project over the finish line, but they also all knew that I would write it my way or not at all, because I’m a pain in the ass that way. So, they all had a nice long lie-down, then my phone rang, and I got it done.
One subject I wish you had written about in more detail is Sense8, which you co-created and of which I am one of many loyal and devoted fans. I just wanted stories about working with the Wachowskis and an amazing cast and crew and shooting all over the world. I could seriously do an interview longer than the current one just asking about this show. But it’s a show about empathy, and we are at a moment where empathy — and who we empathize with — is more important than ever. A show about empathy getting canceled also feels very of this moment as well …
The problem with Sense8 is that while it was — I feel — a good story, there weren’t very many terribly interesting stories behind the making of it, or at least none that came within range of my antennae. It was a hideously difficult job of work for everyone involved, but there weren’t any particular peaks or valleys that made you think, “Oh, here’s a lovely little incident I can write about.” But what you say about empathy is desperately important. The show made the point many times that empathy not only equals civilization, it creates civilization. Starting at our most primitive level, we have empathy for our family and for our tribe, and the tribe on the other side of the hill is the enemy. Then we get to know the other tribe and they’re not that bad or weird, and now civilization extends beyond the hill, and the tribe on the other side of the river is the enemy. The more empathy expands outward like a bubble, the more civilization and mutual cooperation extends with it. And the moment we begin to destroy or devalue empathy, the more we start to drift backward into warring tribes, which is where we are going at the moment.
For the past two and a half years, I’ve thought often of the Babylon 5 episode “Endgame.” Before the president commits suicide in that episode, he turns the guns around in a scorched earth act. I don’t think it needs to be said why this is on my mind. But this goes back to the question of understanding history. Just as you documented the rise of authoritarianism on the show, you also documented how it often ends. After reading your book, I keep thinking about that character as your father in many respects.
The psychological underpinning of that scene, and in a way much of Becoming Superman, is that there are some people who are all about control. Alcoholics try to control everyone else because they’re incapable (or believe themselves incapable) of controlling themselves. This creates a bubble that reinforces their own position while keeping everyone else off balance. Some political figures are also all about control. In both cases, what the person feels they can no longer control or manipulate must be destroyed, because otherwise they may have to face some unpleasant truths about themselves that they’d rather not have to confront. Better to blow up the world, or the relationship, or the marriage, than to let it slip out of your control.
To return to your family, I’m not going to get into all that your father did in his life, but there is a big revelation of something he did when he was young. Was this story a shock when you uncovered it? Did it make a certain sense or explain him in a way?
Even as a kid, I knew that there was something about my father that wasn’t right. Something very dark and very dangerous that inclined him toward some deeply disturbing predilections. I didn’t have the data needed to name it, but that there was an “it” there was undeniable. The truth that finally emerged did so only over the course of many years, and by the time I got to the final piece I’d already been able to see the rough shape of the thing, so it didn’t shock as much as it confirmed my worst suspicions. And yes, it explained much, but clarity does not equal expiation or forgiveness. That I could better see the contours of the monster did not make him any less a monster.
There’s a lot of difficult material in the book, but you seem to have made your peace with it a long time ago. Was there anything in the book that was especially hard to write about?
Yeah, I’ve come to terms with pretty much everything that’s happened to me. The hard stuff was writing about friends and folks I’ve worked with who are no longer here — Michael O’Hare, Jerry Doyle, Harlan Ellison, Norman Corwin. The people who changed my life for the better have a much bigger piece of my heart than those who went the other way.
I’m curious what you want to do now that you’ve finished this book, or what you want to do more of going forward. What interests you, and what has seized you at this moment?
I’m at an interesting stage of my career where I only do the things I want to do — which of course means deciding what that means. For me, the most important thing is to keep challenging myself as a writer by doing things with a huge potential for failure. I recently finished a mainstream novel — a genre for which I’m not known — about a controversial subject, written in a nontraditional narrative style. I just sold it to Simon & Schuster. I have no idea how it’ll go over, which is of course part of the fun. I’m also writing a pilot for USA Network that’s straight-up modern fantasy, again a playground I’m not known for appearing in. Four years ago, I took a sabbatical from writing comics because I’d gotten too comfortable with it, and decided I’d only return if there was a real challenge involved. That came with the formation of Artists, Writers and Artisans (AWA), a new comics company founded by Bill Jemas and Axel Alonso, who previously ran Marvel Comics. They asked me to run the creative council, and I agreed to do it if they’d let me take the company in some new and previously unexplored directions. They’ve held up their part of the bargain, so it’s been a lot of fun.
You did have one great advantage as a writer, which is a best friend who believed — as much, if not more than you did — that you’re a gifted writer who could write your way out of any problem. You don’t write about her much in the book, but her presence is there, and I thought more than once while reading the book that everyone should have such a friend in their lives.
I concur, and in earlier drafts there was much more about her and about our relationship. But Kathryn is a profoundly private person and she wished for that to remain private, so I abided by her wishes. But yes: having someone who simply believes in you with the kind of certainty that comes with knowing the Sun will come up the next day makes you stand a little straighter and feel a little taller in your shoes. Things that might otherwise seem impossible become feasible. That belief, and her presence, have been profound gifts.
Mary Karr said once, “Memoir is like therapy, the difference being that in therapy you pay them.” I can’t imagine telling your secrets to everyone is relaxing, but has the act of writing this book been therapeutic?
The purpose was less therapeutic than illustrative in nature. What I lived through, I accepted and moved on from a long time ago. It is what it is, and it was what it was. What mattered to me in the telling was to illustrate that we have choices about how we react to the things that happen to us, that we can choose differently than others would have us choose, and that we can break the cycle of violence or abuse or alcoholism by taking responsibility for ourselves instead of blaming others or indulging in victimhood. If it can help some people understand that there is a way out of the darkness that does not require doing unto someone else as was done unto them, then the book has been worth the effort.
Alex Dueben has written for The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, The Comics Journal, the Paris Review, The Poetry Foundation, The Rumpus, and many other publications. More of his work can be found at alex-dueben.com and @alexdueben.
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