(Screen)Writing Against Type: Brandon Easton, Walter Mosley, Paula Yoo, and Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn
By LARB AVAugust 25, 2021
IRENE YOON: Good evening. On behalf of the Los Angeles Review of Books, it’s my pleasure to welcome you all to Screenwriting Against Type, with Brandon Easton, Walter Mosley, Paula Yoo, and Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn. Incredible screenwriters and authors all, that we’re very honored to have join us for tonight’s discussion of writing, genre, and audience expectations.
I’m Irene Yoon, executive director of the Los Angeles Review of Books. Tonight’s event is part of LARB’s ongoing 10th anniversary celebration. Each month we’re spotlighting the terrific work of our editors and contributors in various fields and all the things they’ve done over the years. This summer we’re excited to be focusing on LARB’s wonderful coverage of TV and film.
As you may know, LARB is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that relies on reader support to sustain our work. Work which contains, among other things, public programming, like tonight’s event, and a commitment to publishing essays and reviews daily without cease. If you’d like to make a donation to help keep such work going, you can do so by clicking on a link that we’ll drop in the chat shortly, and all donors of $5 or more will receive a special digital compilation of LARB’s best TV writing, curated by our TV editor Phillip Maciak. I want to extend our heartfelt thanks to those of you who have already made contributions with your RSVP for this event, and really to all of you who are making the time to join us here tonight.
So after about 30 minutes or so, of roundtable discussion, we’ll transition to Q&A with you, the audience. We invite you to submit any questions that you might have for our panelists in the Zoom Q&A window, or in the Facebook Live chat, depending on where you’re joining us from. Or, if you’re here in Zoom and you’d rather ask a question live, you can just hit the “raise your hand” button when we get to that part of the evening, as well.
So without further ado, I’m honored to introduce our fabulous moderator for this evening, Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn. Janice is a journalist, essayist, and co-author of Swirling: How to Date, Mate and Relate Mixing Race, Culture and Creed. She is currently developing a novel based on characters from her screenplay Those People: A Love Story, and writing stories for a forthcoming memoir chronicling life, love, and rediscovery during menopause. Janice is a former senior editor of women, culture, and media here at the Los Angeles Review of Books. She writes for Ms. Magazine and Shondaland Digital Media, among other publications, and works at the University of Southern California as the associate director for the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities.
We’re so grateful to have Janice, a dear friend and a dear of LARB’s, here with us tonight to help guide this evening’s conversation. And with that, I’ll turn it over to you, Janice.
JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: Thank you so much, Irene. And thank you to everyone at Los Angeles Review of books for making this possible, and to everyone watching this evening. I’m so excited, and I am very honored to welcome today award-winning children’s book and YA author and screenwriter Paula Yoo. Her latest book From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial that Galvanized the Asian American Movement was just yesterday awarded the 2021 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Nonfiction, and that award celebrates excellence in children’s and young adult literature. So for you TV and film writers out there, it’s the Golden Globes for kidlit. And her TV credits include NBC’s The West Wing, Syfy’s Eureka, Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle, and the CW’s Supergirl. Welcome, Paula.
PAULA YOO: Thank you for having me.
JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: Our next panelist is award winning graphic novelist and screenwriter Brandon Easton. His credits include the Netflix series Transformers: War for Cybertron: Siege and Marvel TV’s series Agent Carter, along with Judge Dredd, Star Trek: Year Five, Marvel Action: Spider-man, and Mr. Miracle from DC Comics. He is also on the team at Blizzard Entertainment. The latest installment of the comic Mister Miracle: The Source of Freedom #2 was released just this week. Welcome, Brandon.
BRANDON EASTON: Thank you.
JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: And finally we have the legendary Walter Mosley, who has just landed in Los Angeles after being on set in Atlanta, where he's been shooting the Apple Plus limited series based on his book, The Life of Ptolemy Grey, which he adapted for the screen. Mosley has written more than 60 critically acclaimed books, and was recently awarded the National Book Awards Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and in February Mosley released his 15th Easy Rawlins Mystery, Blood Grove, and is also working with Steven Spielberg to develop and produce a TV series adapted on his Rawlins Mystery series. And Rawlins, if you didn't know, is one of the most popular black investigators in literature.
He is also serving as a writer and executive producer for FX’s Snowfall, which has been greenlit for a fifth season. And thank you, Walter, Brandon, Paula, for joining me today.
BRANDON EASTON: Thank you.
JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: So, let's jump right in. And I'm going to start with just a few questions, and like Irene said we'll open it for questions from the audience and then we'll just bounce back and forth so it feels like everyone is involved in the conversation.
I’m going to throw this first question out to all of you, because it really is wonderful that all of you have experience as genre fiction writers working on properties with fan bases which cross platforms. Brandon, you've reimagined and updated, a number of classic comic properties; Paula, you've worked on Supergirl, bringing a comic book character to screen; and Walter, you've had several of your books adapted to screen, and now you're writing and producing them yourself.
So, I was wondering if each of you can talk about how you're able to balance the expectations of viewers and/or a readership when you decide to approach these projects. So, Brandon, if you want to start with that, you can take it away.
BRANDON EASTON: In a lot of ways it’s not so much about managing an audience's expectations, because if you're hired, it's a job, and particularly if you're hired to write on a licensed property or legacy character or whatever you want to call it, you have to kind of adhere to the mandates of your boss, you have to adhere to the mandate of the license owner, the intellectual property owner. And if you're working on a TV series, you have to show runners, the executives, the network, the studio, the production company. It's kind of a balancing act of spinning a bunch of different plates.
The audience, contrary to popular belief, is not always in the conversation as much as it is getting the project done on time and within budget, and then usually after the fact you have people jumping on forums whining and complaining about things they don't understand anything about. And one of the things I've always wanted to say to a very large audience, or as large of one as possible, is that, you know, a lot of people don't understand the difference between mediums. Literature is not radio, radio is not television, television is not film, and some folks don't quite understand that there are certain financial roadblocks, or obstacles in adaptation.
I'll never forget a conversation I had with a good friend of mine about the X-Men films, the ones that Bryan Singer did in the late 90s throughout the 2000s, or even up till now, right? He complained about the costumes not looking like they did in the comic.
And I was like, “well, how many characters on the X-Men of the 90s had green in their costumes?” And there's quite a few — several, right? — including a robe and a few others. And I said, “well, if you have a green screen background, it is literally almost impossible to have a green costume show up against the green screen background for CGI compositing and things like that.”
And he, most people don't even think about, just like, the nuts and bolts of production, let alone how casting — I mean, it is a business, it’s an industry; it’s not called a show fun, it’s called show business, and a lot of folks don't quite understand that. So, I guess what my point is, is that a lot of times the expectations or the demands of an audience aren't really in the conversation because any writers’ room I've ever been in, no one has ever said “oh boy, what are the fans are going to think?” It was more like we get this in and get this done. So that's basically my take on that because once you're hired to work on a licensed property is not, you know, it's not a whim. There's a lot of money involved, and time, and there's no time to fool around with arguing about people on forums and commenting threads.
JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: Walter, you kind of chuckled there when he mentioned “on time and on budget.” I was wondering since you work on a lot of your own work, I was wondering if your experience is any different, or how that how that works for you.
WALTER MOSLEY: I mean, I have things to say. I’ve said this to Brandon, you know, Agent Carter was my favorite show ever on television. Such a great show. It's so hard to create a female action character that actually works within the limits of what we understand as being, you know, male, female, whatever, person in this world. It was a great show. So sad, you know, because it came out at a time where we were transitioning between actually watching television, and being able to watch anything you want. And I think that the show would have would have lasted longer if it had been able to do that.
But the other thing is that it's, I find it interesting, you know — I mean, of course, you can say okay, you're making a very specific thing, a licensed, you know, but everybody who puts things on television, the thing they want is viewers. They want people to watch. One way or another, they're going to make money doing that. They're either going to make money from the venue that's paying you, the more people who watch it, the more money you get paid, because the people are paying money to be there, or from commercials.
And so, you know, because I know, working on Snowfall — which has, you know, been doing really very well over the last year or so — we talk all the time about how people are, what they're saying on social media. Sometimes I don't quite understand what we're asking, because “alright, they didn't like this, or they thought this, even before we did it,” or something, and I wasn't sure about that. But if people really express dislike towards something, I think that, you know, not only us, but FX itself pays attention to it.
I agree, though; you know you're creating something, and when you create something you have to be free to be a creator and to make things work in the world.
I'm working now on this show. It's so funny, it’s for Apple Television and it's based on a novel of mine, The Last Days with Ptolemy Grey. And I'm really hoping a lot of people like it, I think I've done a lot of things in it, and other people — Sam Jackson, Walton Goggins, etc. — have done things that people will like. I don't know. In my career, my future, in some ways based on that, if I make a show that's really really successful, then people will really, really want to work with me. If I made a show, people will be happy with me. If the show fails, they'll be a little less happy, but we can still work together.
JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: So when you're when you're thinking about that, then, are you thinking about “we have x many readers coming to the table for Ptolemy Grey, are they going to come back and watch this?” Do you approach this screenwriting any differently when you're writing the script for that, or?
WALTER MOSLEY: I think when you write some kinds of genre, that happens. For me and Ptolemy Grey, if it's sold 100,000 books, I'd be surprised. Actually, maybe not surprised. Maybe it's sold 100,000 books. That 100,000 people watching something on a screen, that's not a lot of people. You’ve got to start at a million and use multiples from there. There's some writers — Stephen King, for instance — who has multiple millions of writers, and then after that 10s of millions of viewers, so he [might not be] worried about that there.
Apple is interesting. They come at television from a way different than NBC or FX or CBS or HBO or whatever. Most of their money comes from hardware. It didn't come from the show, though if you buy their hardware, you can watch their shows on there. And that's another thing to attract them in, and I think that those shows are going to have a future. I'm just sitting there saying “well, I'm trying to do this work, it sounds kind of interesting.”
It's different. A lot of times when I'm working on television people come up to me and say, “oh,” — you know, you talk to writers and they'll say, “well, listen, I've seen that before.” I say, “well, you know, I've seen a lot of things that I like on television.” Like, I've seen showdowns. I'm always interested in showdowns. I mean, that's why I watch television.
I don't know, it's hard to know anything about this medium. You're making shows — I can watch Preacher today, in 1961 I was watching Dobie Gillis. There's almost no comparison between Dobie Gillis and Preacher, except for it's the same medium, but it's so different. It changes every few years. Major changes occur, and we’re trying to hold on and say, “okay, let's try to do that.”
JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: So, Paula, that seemed to have struck a chord with you. Would you like to chime in on that?
PAULA YOO: I laughed because you said Dobie Gillis. I remember watching that as a kid with Leave It to Beaver and I was like “I remember that show!” That was childhood for me. No, I think what Walter and Brandon have said, yes, I agree with that: it's not show art, it's not show fun, it’s show business. But to step back and just talk a little bit about the writing perspective of it all when it comes to viewer expectations or reader expectations and dealing with an audience, because at the end of the day, shows get cancelled, books don't sell or they get remaindered.
I want to take a step back and say, before I became a writer, I played the violin, I was going to become a professional musician. I still play violin, I still do weddings. You can find afterwards my rates. And so with music, though, and especially with — because I play the violin — with classical music, you have to play the notes that are on the page. You still bring your own interpretation to it, so if I'm playing a Mozart piano sonata, if — I’ve played in rock bands — because I'm doing, you know, the Eddie Van Halen guitar solo, the fans expect certain notes in “Eruption,” or for classical music, people expect the Mozart G major sonata to be a certain way when you play it, but as a musician, as a writer — it was frustrating for me with music because I wanted to create my own, what I wanted to say, but with music I can't compose, though I can improvise and I can interpret other people's music.
So that's why I ended up becoming a writer, because I like to write, because it expresses what's on my mind, but I still love to play the violin because it's about what's in my heart. So how do I make Mozart or Eddie Van Halen my own thing? It's my interpretation within respecting the integrity of the music Mozart wrote, or what you know sir Eddie Van Halen. It’s what they wrote that I have to respect, those boundaries. So, when I wrote for Supergirl, or when I was hired on the fourth season of Syfy’s Eureka, you know, on an existing show, I go into it going, “okay, the notes have already been written. What’s my interpretation? Do I take it at a faster tempo, do I play a little bit more piano or softer at this part and go louder here? How do I phrase the music?”
And so I think when it comes to viewers and readers that are watching something that is for a franchise book or a comic book series — anything that's, as Brandon says, licensed — I always ask myself, “what's Holly’s life experience? How can I bring in my emotion to what Kara Danvers or Sheriff Carter in Eureka — like if I were in their costume, how would I react, but yet without straying from the boundaries of integrity to that character? You know, “Supergirl would never do this,” so of course I'm not going to pitch an idea that goes against the antithesis of what her superhero character symbolizes and represents. So I think that that's not a way of kowtowing to the fans or the readers, but just a little bit of respect, you know, and so it's a little bit of, they have to trust us, just like they have the right to whatever opinion they have. But at the end of the day, I feel that I've done my job if I feel that I've done justice to the character or the storyline that exists already and I've given it a little bit of creativity to my point of view, but still also respecting the original integrity of that licensed character and so forth.
JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: Well, Paula.
WALTER MOSLEY: Excuse me. Can I ask Paula a question? I mean, one of the things, though, that you might think is that if you've been writing a character for three or four years, so in the beginning, the very beginning, this character didn't really even know what her power was or how to use it or whatever. And then, time has gone on and then maybe she's fallen in love with somebody, and maybe she's backed some kind of organization that, all of a sudden, she realizes that organization is doing things that are wrong. I mean this is old television, but new television, you might find you’re in episode four saying “listen, by now my character knows not to trust this.” So I mean, in that way, you can be creative, right?
PAULA YOO: No, that's an excellent point, and yes, that's definitely true. And I think also with how TV is working, they're almost like novels now, where see the character doesn't stay the same, it's not the X-Files where Mulder’s always going to believe one thing and Scully’s always — they're always going to be clashing. It's like, yeah, they're starting to change and I do love that. And I think that, yes, even in that that maturation, even in that emotional arc and that journey and how they grow, and the mistakes that they make — you know, sometimes you know Kara Danvers would do something a little against, maybe, her beliefs because she's growing, she's stretching. We all make mistakes, and that's also I think very creatively fun, and I think at the end of the day you can't please everyone, you just have to please what you think at the end of the day you've done is full of integrity, and also creatively challenging. So I definitely agree with you on that.
JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: So basically what you're what you're saying, or what I'm hearing is, it's not based really on fans or audience, but what's true to character, or to true to the context of the character that you’ve created.
PAULA YOO: Exactly.
JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: Okay, fair enough. Well, Paula I wanted to ask you, getting to book writing in particular, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you think about or approach writing about real life people, oftentimes with hard narratives to digest, like you did with the killing of Vincent Chin for this recent book that you have, since it's centered or is focused for YA audience. I was just wondering how — and some of the other books that you've had as well — not what would be considered easy topics to address, and you're doing it for a young adult audience. How do you make decisions on that kind of storytelling?
PAULA YOO: That's a great question. I'll start off by saying, I'm a Gen Xer, so I'm a child of the 70s, a teenager of the 80s, and came of age in college in my 20s in the 90s and I still wear my Doc Martin and my baby doll dresses. Gen X for life.
So anyway, growing up wasn't a lot of diversity inclusion and equity in children's literature. A lot of the characters and the stories I read, often white characters, and if they weren't, they were animals. That was it. And it's funny, I went back several years ago to see my family in Connecticut, and I was going through the boxes and I found some old drawings that I did as a child and when I was five. I had black hair — I clearly knew I was Korean American — black hair, black eyes, everything, my little violin. And then, the more I read — because I was a voracious bookworm — I started to notice as I flipped through the little drawings that I did, I was starting to have blond hair and blue eyes. I was erased. My identity was completely erased, and I had to become something else.
So that's why I write these books, because I don't want kids today and teenagers to be erased like that, to no longer know who they are. And right now, because of the coronavirus and the increased spike in anti-Asian racism and because of the Atlanta tragedy, alot of state senators and education boards are now moving to have more Asian American Pacific Islander history taught in K through 12 classrooms, because we're never taught, we are rarely taught, and if we are, it's a paragraph on the legal incarceration of the Japanese Americans during World War II. That's it, you know. And growing up, I'm self-taught, I have to go to that tiny Asian bookshelf at Barnes and Noble to find out for myself, and so that's why I write this, this this stuff should be taught in schools.
And to just go very quickly to answer your question about Vincent Chin, my book. Yes, it's a brutal murder, it's the first federal civil rights trial for Asian Americans. Two white men beat a Chinese American man to death in 1982 in Detroit at the height of anti-Japanese sentiment because Toyota and Datsun and all the Japanese import cars were basically decimating the American auto industry. And so he became a rallying cry, and the Asian American movement kind of blossomed in the mainstream society, and people started to realize “oh, wait a minute. You can be racist against Asians.” You know, it's like we actually count, when it comes to the conversation on race as well. And it was also a really interesting movement because the black community in Detroit synagogues, churches, it became a multicultural, very diverse coalition that fought for his justice.
And I know it sounds a little familiar because the same thing’s kind of happening today with the coronavirus and everything. History's repeating itself again, unfortunately, or, I think I would say history never repeats itself because racism never went away. I would say the only thing that repeats that's good is every time racism happens, we all band together to fight back. I'm a half glass full person, so if history is going to repeat itself, I'm grateful that we always continue to fight back. That's important. That's what keeps my glass half full, knowing that.
Going back to answer your question, I wrote this book for everyone. I do not censor the language. There is testimony at the federal trial where a dancer at the nightclubs said that she overheard one of the killers allegedly say “it’s because of you little mother F words that we’re out of work.” I actually spell out the F word. There are F bombs in my book, I do not sanitize the very graphic brutal baseball beating death of Vincent Chin. I do not hold back on any of that. So this book is actually written for everyone. I approached it just like I did as a former journalist. I did my due diligence with primary sources I read — for show and tell, I have like dozens of these binders — I read every single court transcript. I interviewed people. I actually interviewed people who haven't talked about this on the record for 40 years. I unearthed new information and exclusive new sources for this.
But the reason why it was marketed for young adults, and why in a way it's specifically written for them, even though it's written for everyone, is that we have a young man in the story. I tell two stories: one is of Vincent Chin and his story in his case, the other one is of Vincent Chin’s fiancé, because he was killed on the night of his bachelor party. His fiancée, Vickie Wong, moved on with her life, got married, and had other children. I met her son, and he didn't know for almost 30 years that his mom was engaged to be married to Vickie, Vickie Wong was engaged to be married to Vincent Chin.
So the other parallel storyline is about this young 25-year-old man, try to work up the courage to talk to his mother about this secret family history, so he provides a guide for the kids. And I'll just wrap up by saying that the other reason why I'm glad this book and all my books are for young adults and elementary — like from kindergarten through 12th grade — is because there was a recent statistic that came out that said one out of four Asian American Pacific Islander teenagers have reported being physically and or verbally harassed and bullied because of the coronavirus, and if this history was taught, if our voices in our contributions and our struggle was not erased, that number could have been zero. So that's why I write this.
JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: Paula, I was curious, so do you, when you're approaching these kinds of stories, you mentioned with the Vincent Chin story that Vickie’s son was the conduit through which you base this book to approach a young adult audience, but I'm just wondering, do you ever have any pushback with — because the beating is extraordinarily brutal. And I'm wondering, do you ever get any pushback from editors on the language or the visualization or anything like that, or are they just kind of in from the get-go?
PAULA YOO: They’re in from the get go. I think one of the stereotypes of children's literature and young books is that it's, you know, kind of dumbed down — I hate using that word, I don’t want to use that word — it's lower level reading. And you would be surprised, some of the very dark topics that are covered a children's picture books. I mean, we're talking abuse, talking Alzheimer's, we're talking about death. Same thing with a young adult novels and nonfiction. So I think that the maturity level of the children and young adults that read these books they can handle it, they really can. They're a lot savvier than we realize, and I think editors have known this forever. So I’ve never gotten pushback. You'd be surprised how progressively liberal and forward-thinking a lot of these editors are. I'm very fortunate because at Norton, my editor’s Simon Boughton, who's very, very famous. He’s a veteran famous editor. He's actually originally from England, and many of his authors, including Steve Shienkin and Gene Yang have either one or been finalists for things like the National Book Award and the Newbery Honor, so I was very fortunate to have him as my editor to guide me in the process. So, luck, I was lucky there was no pushback. And I would say I'm not the only book out there that's pretty brutal. There's a lot out there that librarians and teachers know about.
JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: And Brandon, I wanted to pose this question to you. I wanted to kind of dig a little deeper in how you think about our approach, writing legacy literary characters like Sherlock Holmes and reimagining them as African American, or other people of color. Could you talk a little bit about those decisions, the decisions that you make going into projects like that?
BRANDON EASTON: I approached a lot of my characters from the core question of what does a character want versus what does the character need, and then I scaffold everything else based on that. I mean The Wizard of Oz was one of the best examples of how that's done. The film 1939 version, that is. Again, I always go back to what I was saying in the beginning, is that when I'm hired to do a project that's not original there’s usually mandates in place either on an editorial or executive or network level, and as long as you meet those mandates, you're given a certain amount of freedom to interpret things.
When you mentioned the Sherlock Holmes, I got an Eisner Award nomination working on a comic series called Watson and Holmes where they were both reimagined as folks in modern Harlem. It took the mythos and it put it in modern New York City, right? And we made Holmes almost an on the spectrum IT guy, and Watson was a former paratrooper who worked in Harlem Hospital. So we tried to take elements of the real world and plug them into what was already established about the relationship between Watson and Holmes, that's why it's called “Watson and Holmes,” not “Holmes and Watson,” you know?
Ultimately you just stick to character building, and then you find those quirks that make a character unique. Like Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark is very different than he was in Temple of Doom, because Temple of Doom is a prequel, and he learned something about respecting people and life by the end of that second film. And you project that to Raiders of the Lost Ark and you see the change, same character, but there were differences, there were tweaks.
Depending on what the project is, I mean Judge Dredd, I was the first African American writer ever to write Judge Dredd to this day. Right? He doesn't change. He is like the cipher for fascism. So you build a story around that. And you let things fall where they may. So, depending on which project I'm hired on, when it's like I said again, if I'm hired for a licensed property, I have to keep in mind — for example, I've done a lot of Transformers stuff. I have to keep in mind what Hasbro wants, because Hasbro owns it, and Hasbro is in the business of selling toys. So no matter how dark or controversial or bizarre the story gets, I have to stick to their mandates, and I can't cross certain standards and practices boundaries.
However, I wrote a Superman story about heroin addiction in Superman Red & Blue; it came out a couple of months ago. It was a semi-autobiographical tale about something that happened in my family. I've never done that kind of thing, but I've seen it. So I was able to basically posit what would happen if you mix Superman with The Wire, the HBO series. So that's what I did.
And DC Comics did not push — or Warner Media or whatever you want to call them — did not push against that. I was able to tell a mass incarceration story in a Superman Truth and Justice series, and about African American male incarceration, where Clark Kent was trying to exonerate a falsely accused black male. It's still Superman and still Clark Kent, but I wanted to tell the story where Clark Kent was more of the protagonist than Superman punching out the sides of buildings. So I was given certain amount of leeway to tell a story.
But again, when you're hired by someone else you have to be careful not to cross their standards and practices, and television and their standards and practices, comic books — prose and film and theater as well are different, but I always have to keep in mind what my producers, show runners, and ultimately executives have in mind. Or editors for that matter.
JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: Okay. And Walter, I wanted to — since you were writing novels long before you were writing for television, or at least that's my understanding, how do you think about or approach writing for TV differently or similarly than you do writing for novels?
WALTER MOSLEY: Well, you know, writing a novel is a very personal thing. I mean, you're writing, you know, a story that you're thinking of that, you're creating. Almost everything that happens in the novel is defined by you. If you're working in television, you know there's actors, there's casting directors, there's costume, there's a director, there are editors, and as Brandon was saying that there's the executive. I mean, there's all kinds of people. It's a very much a collaborative effort.
Writing a novel, it can be. I mean, an editor can actually get in your way, you know, and they come in pretty strong. I’ve had editors tell me things, but I just, you know, I just say no. Some people don't. Some people can't. I've been in a good place as a writer where I can basically, you know, do what I want.
I don't want to work in television. It's true, what Brandon says is true. I'm not sure that all writers live by that rule or even understand it, that you're trying your best to you know to represent your own social view, gender view, political view. And regardless of what anybody else says, usually doesn't matter because in the end, we're going to do what the people in charge say we can do. We may not do what they want, but we won't do what they don't want. And then, you know, we get fired. I mean, everybody who works in television gets fired sooner or later. I mean, that's just part of the deal, even if you do exactly what they want.
So, you know, so that's a difference. And as a writer, I love writing. I can write a poem, I can write an essay, I can write a nonfiction book about writing other books, I can write a mystery novel or a science fiction novel or literary novel or short story. I mean, anything that you do, anything you write is really kind of, it's wonderful. And the more you do it, the more you learn, the more you understand.
I've been writing a comic book for Marvel lately, it's been a lot of fun. I love comic books so much, it's something that's really hard for me to say, “I'm going to write this comic book.” I say “write this comic book, man? Comic books, that's like Genesis in the Bible, I can't write that!” But I'm doing it and I'm having a great deal of fun doing it.
In the end, it's who you are, versus, you know, dot dot dot. You versus the world. Sometimes you go along with the world, sometimes you don't go along with the world. Sometimes you get fired. Sometimes they say, him, he was right.
JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: Well, I'm going to break it up a little bit and ask a question from Joseph Elliot Coleman, and it actually relates to a question that I have for the whole panel, but this one is directed specifically to Walter Mosley.
He first says “it's an honor to make your acquaintance. My late father and I were very great fans of your novel Devil in a Blue Dress. I wanted to say that I am appalled at your treatment while you were on writing on the writing staff for Star Trek: Discovery. Do you believe that there is a reticence to deal honestly and truthfully with the ugliness of racism on mainstream genre TV?”
WALTER MOSLEY: My trouble when I was working at CBS on that show was that I told a story. I said, “Look, I got stopped by a cop when I was a kid, and he searched me and questioned me and searched me and questioned me and searched me and questioned me, and finally he said, ‘okay, you can go’ and I said ‘well, okay officer.’ And I was high, I just want to say, I was 16 and I was high, but he didn't know that. And I said, ‘Officer, excuse me, tell me why did you stop me? I wasn't doing anything, I was just walking down the street.’” And he said to me, and I'll repeat what I said in the room, “If I see a n*** in a paddy neighborhood, I stop him. And if I see a paddy in a n*** neighborhood, I stop him, because they usually up to no good.”
Now I said that, told that story, and I got called by HR the next day, human resources, and they said “you can't talk like that.” And I said, “but that's what happened to me. We were telling stories about how these things happen, I told the story.” And they say, “but you can't say — you have to say ‘the N word,’” and I said, “but if you say ‘the N word,’ that means you could say that like 1000 times, ‘the N word the N word N word N word.’ Now, you really are saying n***, but you're making it ‘the N word,’ so you can say it as much as you want and nobody can get mad at you. How does that make sense?” And they said, “well, it doesn't, but you can't do it.” And I quit. I mean, I just quit. I mean, they didn't fire me or anything, they would have kept me.
And I think it's a it's a misunderstanding of what language means. It's also a misunderstanding of the freedom of speech. You know, I believe that we can say what we want to say, and then we have to answer for whatever that means. Which I accepted in that particular circumstance, but I honestly think that that HR called me, not because they thought there was anything morally that I did wrong, but because they didn't want their mother companies sued. And that's what I really disliked.
JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: I wanted to throw this out as kind of a piggyback to that question, since we're now all living and writing in a time where both Hollywood and traditional publishing houses are looking to be more inclusive with stories, and with characters that are Black, Asian, people of color, stories which fans have embraced within their own racial or ethnic communities. Are there any challenges in refiguring or reassessing what that can mean for characters or stories when writing commercial projects that are intended for white audiences? I know, Brandon, you mentioned earlier, and you guys have all the talked about “this is a business,” but I'm wondering if there are any challenges developing characters that really do speak to specific audiences or that have been embraced by specific audiences that other audiences may not get. I was speaking recently to Imani Perry in a workshop and we were talking about the word “saditty”. You know, the editors just don't get that word. But I knew exactly what — like we all know exactly what that means. So either there are nuances of characters or things like that that can go missing from characters that are beloved by our own communities that mainstream audiences might not latch on to, or situations they might know latch on to. And I'll throw that out to anyone who would like to answer.
BRANDON EASTON: Well, one thing I'll say is this: before we even get to that point, you have to get into the room as a writer, especially if you're talking about television. The obstacles, unless you've already had like a massive career somewhere else, if you're starting out from scratch and the business, let's say being a writer's assistant or writer’s production assistant, there are a slew of flaming hoops, people of color, and anyone who's not a straight white guy, there's these flaming hoops you have to jump through without getting singed at all, and somehow survive with low pay and mistreatment, and that weeding out process is usually the result of legacy. And I mean legacy in the sense that a lot of these folks in the business have connections that you might not even be aware of. There’s connective tissue for some of these people, and they’re able to get into the business. I mean, I did a flowchart once about how many people actors and actresses are actually related to someone else. And it's abominable. There's very few people working in the businesses that don't have some kind of blood connection to someone else. It's actually kind of insane.
So before we can even get to the question of “how do we develop characters?” and all that stuff, you’ve got to get in the room, and navigate the politics of getting in the room, speaking specifically about television. Then there is — basically I've often said that, to me, the writing scene in Hollywood is middle school. It's not even high school, it's like a big giant middle school. And there are cliques, there are these like bizarre cultural cul de sacs, there's these like unwritten rules of behavior, and the larger and blacker and maler you are, particularly if you're a black male, there are things in place that you might not even be aware about certain fears and warnings that people give, traps that you'll step into. Again, this is more of like if you're coming up from the bottom as opposed to making a lateral or top-down move.
I've seen it. I was in a 2015 Disney ABC writing program. They only let eight people in a year. And I was the only black male. And I saw, wow, and I'm not disparaging Disney at all, but I saw things that if I had not been in that program, I would have never seen, but because I saw them, I understand why things are the way they are. I understand why Kenya Barris left and went to Netflix, and why Kenya Barris is now leaving Netflix. There are things that occur that never made the light of Variety, or Deadline or Hollywood Reporter about the treatment of particularly of African Americans in this business, and the few people who are brave enough or who have the cachet to speak out without getting blacklisted, they shed a very dangerous and dark light on what we have to go through.
And that, I think, before we get into character development and design and world building, you have to be in a room first. And then, then you have to stay in the room, so you can go from staff writer to story editor to executive story editor to co-producer to producer to associate — I mean you’ve got to get up the ladder, and that in and of itself is the landmine. It's like World War I and II all rolled together, there are trenches and ditches and landmines that you're not even aware of.
There's a lot written about this. This is not hyperbole. There's a ton written: UCLA, USC, Annenberg, they did all these studies on the problems behind the scenes, WGA, DGA, all these things. So I just feel that the true obstacle to getting to your question is first having us exist in the space. And if you don't exist in the space, you can't make those changes or develop anything, so that's what a lot of the conversation has to go.
WALTER MOSLEY: But you know, I mean, of course, you're right, and what you're saying, I mean, definitely right. But there's a couple of other things. One, I mean just recently you know Black Lives Matter, all that stuff, has really impacted the commercial validity of the television. And so they've, you know, trying to, you know, to voice some worry about well “Do we have enough representatives people of color etc. etc.?” So it's a good time to make an advance because there is that worry.
But just my particular experience in Snowfall. You know, Snowfall, the reason that exists is because of John Singleton. John said, “I want the show to be. I want the room — ” like right now I'm in, or John's been dead a year now, but like I'm in a room that's there's only one right white writer in the room. I mean, he is the showrunner, I have to admit. However, there everybody else is a person of color, which is shocking to me.
And one of the things that John would do, he would just keep hiring people. He said, “well, we're going to hire this person, we're gonna have that person,” so he is that person that you're talking about, who has a lot of power and he comes in with the power, but who also use that power to say, “well, it's not only me who's gonna make it. I'm going to bring these people along with me.” And I — because listen, I mean, if you're not a white person in America, not a white man in America, it's gonna be harder for you. I mean, that's just a fact. I mean, we could say that's wrong, and of course it is, but the thing is that we have to help ourselves; what you're saying being in the room, but somebody like John, somebody like myself, to a lesser degree, has to say, “Hey listen, let's do this let's bring this people in let's do this work. Let's tell this story.”
Like, I am in the thing I'm working with Sam Jackson in Atlanta, you know, it can only be black people in this in this story. If we’re gonna make the story, it can only be black people. Sam was absolute, “we're going to make that story, this thing.” I'm saying “Well, listen, what else can I say? I wrote the story it’s all we could do.” And yeah, I'm just adding that on to it, and no way disagreeing with what you're saying. Just to say, well, there's all these like little, you know, what do I expect of myself, basically?
JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: Paula, I was wondering if you can talk a little bit about, kind of piggybacking on that. There are so many people that are looking to either get screenplays written based on their book projects or vice versa. And I'm wondering if you can talk about maybe some ways that people who are looking to either get a screenplay done based on a book they wrote, or a book they've finished based on a screenplay, how that process works and what are some of maybe tips or advice that you could give for someone looking to break in, in either publishing or television/film, by using work they've already had, but maybe translating it from that.
PAULA YOO: I wish someone could answer that too for me! I will say that, and I do want to go back to the other topic as well, but to answer this question specifically, a lot of times people, you either do books, or you do screenplays. it's very rare for those of us that do a little — all of us, actually, every single one of us on the panel, we've all written many different genres, and the thing is that when you write a book that's very interior, you know, as Walter says, it's about what's going on in your thoughts, it's very cerebral. It can be emotional, it can be action-packed, but it's always a little on the cerebral side, and that's hard to translate. A good book doesn't always necessarily mean it's going to be good on screen and vice versa, you know.
So, I would say, first of all, if you were starting out in books, like let's say you want to be a book author and you dream “and then my book will get optioned and made into an Oscar award winning screenplay,” and whatever, the thing is, don't think that way because that may not be the best thing. Your book maybe should just be a book. Like, it's just good as it is, you know, calm down. But the thing is that if you do have a property that you think can be expanded into a book or optioned into do something like that, ask yourself how and why. Is the book the only way to tell the story? If you have to do a movie option or a television series based on this, why? What gives the extra — what's the extra, you know, icing on the cake that enhances the original story that was your original book or your comic book. Or let's say you wrote a spec screenplay, and you want to turn it into a book, that's a whole other reverse engineering thing that you got to do. And you always have to ask yourself, “what is the best possible way to tell this story?” It may be a poem. You might be Homer, or who knows? So you always have to ask that question first, before jumping in, I think, because I think sometimes people kind of leap frog or put the cart before the horse, I'm mixing up my metaphors, putting the cart before the horse. It's like, figure out what's the best way to tell the story first. So, from there.
And just actually going back — and this is still a little to answer that question — just going back to what everyone talked about, I mean, much respect to everyone and your stories and your experiences, and I was sitting here going “don’t get angry, don’t turn into the Hulk. This is outrageous.” I will say just for people that are listening who want to get their foot in the door and TV writing and feature writing all of that, I am an example of someone who was forced to repeat staff writer three times. And as Brandon says, to get your foot in the door, a lot of us who are Black, Asian American, Latinx, you know, diverse people who are not hetero cisgender white males, white presenting males, and we're not that. I think I hit, yeah. The thing is, is for us, we have to be, as you all know, as we all know, three times, four times as good. I cannot tell you how many Asian American TV writers, “oh, did you go to an Ivy League? Wait, are you a violin prodigy too?” You know, there’s a piano prodigy, there's someone just like me who plays piano, and she worked for, I don't know, like, Time, and I work for People Magazine. It's like, we have to do 5 million things. I have 12 books. Really, you're going to meet me repeat? I should have been executive producer, like, seven years ago. It's ridiculous.
So, and the other interesting thing is that with my books, one of my books are good enough, which is a young adult kind of romantic, you know, very, very fun YA novel that I wrote that was published by Harper Collins, a Big Six publisher, you know, or Big Four now, I think there's only four left, but this won awards, this was — I earned out my advance, it's still in print, it actually got republished in because it's being taught in schools and stuff. When we were trying to see if anyone was interested in optioning and it got told all the time “well, can the main character not be Korean American? Can the — ” And I was like, no, we're not whitewashing this, are you ki — it’s based on my life as a Korean American teenager, you know, as a violin geek, are you kidding me? And then because of Crazy Rich Asians and because of everything that's going on, suddenly I'm the go-to, I'm one of the go-to, can Paula develop — and I’m sitting here like where were you in 2002? I could have had a house by — are you kidding? I lived in a condo or apartment for how long?
So I think that that's the other frustrating thing that people have to understand that it's, you know, and hopefully what we're doing, can help change that. And so, but just going back again just to talking about adapting books and all of that again, I think just the bottom line is, don't worry about optioning or developing anything until you actually get the best version you can of whatever genre you're writing first. Get that done, and then the rest will follow.
JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: Well, I want to, we have about three or four minutes left, so I just wanted to ask kind of a happy little light question. All three of you are doing so much writing in various genres and on various platforms. I'm wondering, what do you do for downtime?
[Long pause. Laughter]
JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: Brandon?
Brandon Easton: Okay, well I live in Long Beach, which is absolutely beautiful. The beach is not far away and I do a lot of reading. I play video games. Just spend time with people I care about. I would just say that's really the trick.
L.A. in and of itself can be very oppressive, and I don't mean that on a racial level, just like the way the city set up, this traffic, sometimes in pre-COVID everyone's kind of on top of you. I need a little bit more space, so I like to get away from L.A. central, L.A. proper, and just get out there, and luckily because of the topography of this region, you can drive in any direction and you can be in a desert, or you can be on the top of a snowcapped mountain, or you could be at a beach or a lush redwood forest at some point. So, you know, it's kind of a thing where it's really good to just get away from the business, I find. And I like to go back to the East Coast, whenever I can, because I was born and raised in Baltimore, and I spent a lot of time in New York. So for me, it's a confluence of things. I don't, I try just to get away from the business, and just surround myself with stuff that I really like and that solves a lot of problems.
JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: Great. Walter?
WALTER MOSLEY: I love writing. So, I write. I mean, a lot. I'm always writing. Certainly the first three hours of every day is writing for me. No matter what else I'm doing, you know, and that's include — because I don't really count writers’ rooms as writing, but, you know, I'm there. And I like it, but it's something different. I write, I draw a lot. I love comic books, so I'm never very far away from them. So like, you know, I was going through that. And again I love literature in general, you know. I guess what I'm saying — I was thinking about this before I said it — is that it, the life I live is, is the life I love.
I've been working on a miniseries about Louis Armstrong. At the end of his life he was in his 60s and he was having a lot of heart trouble and, but you know, he's Louis Armstrong, he is the man who created jazz. Even though he didn't believe in the word jazz. And the doctor said to him, “you know, Louis, you have to you have to stop playing, because if you keep on playing it, you're gonna you're gonna kill yourself.” And he said “well, doctor, I have a serious problem here.” He said, “because music is life to me. So you’re saying, either music is going to kill me, or I'm going to be dead by not playing.” And I think that that’s how I feel about about writing and literature and all of its forms. Even my drawing is a recapitulation of writing.
JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: And Paula.
PAULA YOO: Mosley, he said it, he said it all. I agree, because I believe that one of the best things you can do as a writer, actually, is to walk away. You know, go to the beach, draw in your journal, for me it's playing the violin, because writing is living. It's breathing, and so how we live life always comes back to our writing. We go out and hang out with a friend, they tell us a story, we're just like “oh my god that solves something that I had for a story I was writing.” Or, you know, if a friend's father passes away, that makes you feel emotional, you know, that will help you with your writing. And for me it's just been, I play with my three cats, I annoy my husband when I can, and it's mostly just playing the violin. That's when I don't write, I just practice the violin. I know that sounds geeky and dorky, but I love it and I'll tell you something: the one thing I've been doing lately is violin karaoke, because I play with a lot of orchestras and rock — I do a lot of professional performing. I have not — the last concert I did was at the echo in March of 2020 with the iconic band Love, and I haven't done a live gig since then. So what I've been doing is, I play along with my favorite bands or orchestras. Like, I'll play a Mozart violin concerto along with Hilary Hahn, and it's like violin karaoke because it's the closest thing I can do to, you know, playing with someone. So that's what I've been doing, and hopefully I'll be able to start doing some chamber music and music again soon. I'm still a little — I’m fully vaccinated, but I'm a little bit anxious so it's YouTube karaoke for me.
JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: Well, we could talk for — I still had about eight more questions that I wanted to ask, and we could talk more, especially about Louis Armstrong, the project that you're working on, because I'm a big fan of Lil Hardin Armstrong’s, so I’d love to talk to you about that sometime later. But I want to thank all three of you, Brandon, Paula, Walter, for joining me this evening. And thanks to everyone who is watching live, and I want to bring Irene Yoon back, our wonderful, Executive Director of LARB to give us a few final thoughts. Thank you so much everyone, it was a big pleasure.
WALTER MOSLEY: Thank you.
IRENE YOON: Thank you so much, Janice. Thank you, Janice, Walter, Paula, and Brandon for this really incredible, candid, and inspiring conversation. We really, really are so grateful that you could make the time to join us and we're really grateful to all of you in the audience who joined us this evening too and shared such wonderful questions. I know we didn't get a chance to get to all of them because there's, you know, a lot already to chew on, but hopefully we'll be able to do this again in the future and get to some of those things too.
But, yeah, we just want to thank you all for joining us tonight, thank you for participating in this wonderful event and this kind of ongoing conversation that we're having here at LARB about television, writing, and, yeah. And we hope you all have a wonderful evening! If you enjoyed the event, we also invite you to continue to stay in touch. I can sign up for a newsletter, I think we'll drop a link in the chat for that, and we have other exciting publications that are coming out on television and film. We have a “best of” roundup on television this month, next month we'll be doing film. Today we just published a symposium on the state of streaming media, so if you're, you know, still wanting some more conversations, something to chew on in this vein, and you can find that at lareviewofbooks.org. But in the meanwhile, we just want to thank you so much for taking the time to join us this evening, and thank you all again to our wonderful guests. Hope you all have a wonderful night. Thank you.
ALL: Thank you.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!