Inside Literary Television: An Interview with Patrick Somerville

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Here’s a sentence you never thought you’d read from a TriQuarterly fiction editor: I love television. I don’t think I ever expected to type it, either—until recently, when television became so undeniably, unstoppably good. Of course, I’m not alone in my admiration. It seems everywhere I go these days, from workshops to book signings to writing conferences, everyone is talking about Mad Men, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, True Detective, The Leftovers . . . Everyone feels the same level of excitement over this new breed of episodic drama that marries the literary with the visual, and demands a whole new level of respect for the small screen.

Patrick Somerville knows all about the trend toward literary television. After publishing two widely acclaimed novels (The Cradle and This Bright River) and two short story collections (Trouble and The Universe in Miniature in Miniature), he joined the writing staff on FX’s The Bridge. One opportunity led to another, and pretty soon, he found himself reviving Jack Bauer’s character in 24: Live Another Day, which in turn led to the TV gig of all TV gigs—writing for The Leftovers on HBO. As a fan of his work, I was excited to talk with Patrick about his experiences in the writing room. What follows is a discussion of the inner workings of script writing, the ever-hallowed distinction between the book and the televised drama, and what still may lie ahead in the evolution of TV.

TQ: You’ve had quite a bit of success with short stories and novels. Did you ever think you’d find yourself writing for television?

Somerville: Not at all. Up until a couple of years ago, I didn’t think I’d do anything but write books. The appeal of writing fiction was always that you could sit down and write without anyone’s permission or any resources. I loved that. You needed a pen, probably a notebook. TV, on the other hand, always felt far away and inaccessible. I liked watching it, but it was something else. My house was an overstuffed library when I was growing up—every room had piles of books on every spare shelf. It felt like the natural direction for me.

TQ: Everyone from Salman Rushdie to Lorrie Moore has come out in praise of the episodic drama, saying that shows like The Wire, Homeland and Breaking Bad offer a level of artistry comparable to that of the great novels. How do you feel about this comparison? Do the two formats really have that much in common?

Somerville: They’re more like cousins than twins. They look alike, sound alike, and seem alike, but the DNA is cut with some totally unrelated ancestors. Storytelling, characters, drama, delightfully weird moments—those are all there in both books and television. But there is a unique psychological state that only reading can create, I think.

But all that aside, just to make a thing with a huge group of people is so different from making it by yourself. I do think those differences carry into the final product. Everything that makes it to the screen on a TV show has an explanation, on some level. It’s been debated. If you see a weird narrative curlicue in a scene, and the show doesn’t bother to explain it, that’s great, but I guarantee you someone has had a conversation with someone else about why that’s there—someone has asked, “What’s the story with that?” and someone has been forced to justify it out loud. Or it could be that the little wrinkle you saw actually used to be a more substantial story idea, but it got whittled away in post, and you’re only seeing the remnants. Or it might be that the boom operator dipped his mic into the take that did the scene the way it was written, and the actor found something unusual in the next take, and it ended up feeling more real. All those variables make TV very fun, but in novels, you can include a sentence that really makes no sense at all, but for the way it changes the feeling of a moment, and it is inherently justified. I love that. It’s creatively mysterious. No one with money will demand to know why it’s there. Eventually the author will forget why it’s there, too. Hopefully.

TQ: There’s a lot of talk right now about a Golden Age in television. We’ve never had so many beautifully written, beautifully acted, beautifully directed programs available to us, all at the same time. Any theories on what prompted the trend? Does HBO (and The Sopranos) really deserve all the credit?

Somerville: They deserve a lot. So does FX for doing The Shield, a show that more directly inverted good and evil as far as hero-expectations went. And I think Lost obliterated the traditional way point of view was dealt with on TV. It was on a long time before I was involved with TV, but my sense is The Sopranos, for TV writers, was just a string of realizations that, “Holy fuck, we can put that in the show, too. This is amazing.” The Wire then demonstrated that even more was possible. Real social issues were potentially on the table as well. (Not that much of that has happened since.)

I think it’s about flexibility in a new era of media. The serial drama can do narrative things that film and books cannot do, and over the last ten or fifteen years a lot of very smart people have charted those unexplored pockets, and we’re largely the better for it. The headline for me is that even though it may not seem like it if you glance at mainstream culture, people in America do want serious drama. They want it to be hard and challenging along with being fun and gratifying. They want thrills without the cheat of a $100 million illusion. So there has been room for the rise of cable TV.

TQ: How did the opportunity to write for television arise?

Somerville: I met some TV people over the course of publishing a couple of novels, and then a time came when it felt right to try something radically different. So I studied up and wrote a pilot and got it into the right hands.

Having our first kid rattled me about money, honestly, and I could already feel this bad pressure to write fiction that would sell more. I have no idea how to do that. The publishing world is hard. Making a living only writing fiction is just not something that will ever be a reality for a writer like me. There’s no reason not to spread out a little. So TV has been a way to still feel like I’m doing my share to support the family, but to keep writing as well.

TQ: Writers talk all the time about the solitude of their craft. What was it like to make the leap to the writer’s room?

Somerville: It’s a huge difference. I mean, in TV, you sit around and talk about what you’re going to write for as long as, if not longer than, the actual writing. It’s nuts if you’re looking at it from the perspective of a single author. You have to let go of that model, though, unless you’re utterly in control of a show, which is really rare. TV will make you insane if you can’t let go of your grip on the story.

Being on staff has forced me to be more verbal, that’s for sure. There is excitement and fun that just doesn’t exist when you’re alone in a room. Everything comes down to the pitch. Good ideas don’t always look like good ideas when they first flop down onto the table in the writer’s room. In fact, they often seem terrible. Like someone dumped a corpse in front of you. But then someone pokes at it a little, and someone else has an idea that helps it breathe and stand up, and soon you’ve got a live one. I like that mystery. It’s refreshing to be around people who don’t think the way you think. It may mean you sometimes have to write something you don’t love, but it also means you end up pushed in dangerous directions you might otherwise run from.

TQ: Maybe you could demystify the concept of the writer’s room. What actually happens in there—brainstorming, outlining?

Somerville: Rooms are different, but what’s pretty consistent is this: at the outset, there are a handful of core ideas about the season that come from the show runner. Maybe an ending, or an emotional endpoint. A couple of images. Probably a new plot premise, or at the very least an idea about a character that seems like it could be a story engine for the whole season. A good story engine will feel on-show—in other words, it’s an idea that won’t just generate several possible episodes, but will generate episodes that feel right, thematically. It might be a good story engine to say that Jack Bauer uploads his own consciousness onto the Internet to fight an alien computer virus, but you’re not really in 24 anymore once you’re pitching on that concept. (I would watch that, anyway.)

From there, debate. Talking. New ideas. Pitches. Weird ideas. Ideas shot down. Old ideas returning. Arguments. Crazy scene pitches. Boring scene pitches. More debate. From there, episode breaks. This means focused debate about a particular episode and eventually getting scenes up on the board. Hopefully they are in the right order. Often they are kind of in the right order.

After that, more detailed outlines.

And after that, a writer or writers disappear into the shadows (of their office) to write the actual script. It probably gets rewritten by the show runner before production gets it. Sometimes totally rewritten, sometimes hardly rewritten. You never know. And the credits on an episode never tell the story of who really wrote it. The room wrote all of them and the show runner wrote all of them.

TQ: What have you learned from the experience of writing as part of a collaborative, where everyone from the director to the actors to the set designer does something to enliven your script?

Somerville: Sometimes they know better, sometimes you know better. Usually the end product is right.

TQ: You’ve written for The Bridge and 24, and I hear you just started writing for HBO’s The Leftovers. How difficult is it to move in and out of these vastly different worlds, and to write dialogue for characters that come to you at least partially formed?

Somerville: Usually it’s a relief, to be honest. There’s always an opportunity to put your very tiny stamp on scenes or moments, but even if there isn’t, that’s not what TV is about. For me, writing novels involves a lot of worrying. Probably for several years. About shit that I made up in the first place. That is not a healthy thing, but that’s the other side of the coin. The novel is just you.

You worry less when you’re writing a show, even though the stakes are very high—you know that there are also 150 other people worrying along with you, quite possibly at the same time. There’s family in that. So encountering a character’s history just reminds me that a lot of smart people have worked on this already.

TQ: There must be a special kind of challenge to the episodic narrative. Say a program becomes hugely popular; you may find yourself writing season after season, with no end in sight. What does that mean in terms of overall story arc?

Somerville: I don’t think that part of it is all that different from books, so long as it’s a serial drama. A good season of television seems to be about the same creative scope as a good, dense novel; I think a series can be compared to a series of novels. That episodes have to have satisfying arcs makes them different from chapters, and so the comparison starts to fall apart at that level. But as long as you feel okay about characters and continue to find new facets of their identities, you’re still in business. If it’s just the same characters and new stories, I would say that means the series is creatively dead. Time to run for the hills.

TQ: You’ve taught creative writing in MFA programs. Do you think the trend toward literary television opens new opportunities for MFA graduates? Should we study good TV in the same way we study novels and short stories?

Somerville: I think students in MFA programs should read and study books. There are so many reasons why I think this just makes more sense, but the simplest one is that voice, regardless of where you’re trying to write, is what’s most important. Good books make whole realities with their own tonally modulated prose, and if you’re bringing that to visual drama, you’re already ahead of the curve. I feel like the whole reason television has become so much better is that there was suddenly new space for voice and character—it was not just about the plot. Writing and watching television will inevitably herd your imagination toward plot, toward story beats, toward pitches. You can learn so much of that on the fly. It’s much harder to learn the humanism, or just the overall width and multiple agendas, of literature. It’s at the times books cease to be entertainment—or, in my opinion, cease to be even drama—that unique lessons about storytelling start to burble up. Get those. Love them. TV by its nature just can’t explore those same cellars and back rooms of the imagination.

TQ: I read that you’re at work on another novel. Has your experience in writing for television influenced your approach to this new work?

Somerville: Yes! One problem is I can’t write prose anymore. I’m overstating it, but I will say it’s not easy to write several thousand words after getting used to scripts. In terms of language, this kind of work has probably harmed my writing. But that’s fine—that comes back when you read and when you write. I think.

My sense of storytelling, however, has hopefully gotten a little sharper. My sense of the importance of scenes, too. It’s funny—you can write a whole book without a real scene in it. Narration can be that powerful, for better or for worse. It can blur the story as much as it tells it. For a writer like me, I think my work is better when I’m standing to the side and not somehow trying to interpret it in real time through the narration. Working in TV has reminded me to get out of the way. Whatever meta-interpretation I have of the story is not going to be very profound.

TQ: Will the trend toward literary television continue? Has the sixty-minute drama, and maybe even the half-hour comedy, changed for good?

Somerville: I don’t know. Maybe the supernova has burned as bright as it’s going to burn, and we’ll have twenty years of decreasing returns. But I don’t think that’s true. The “golden era” shows are mostly about very male, very power-hungry characters. Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper, Vic Mackey, and Al Swearengen are all empire-builders looking for money and power. Okay, that’s great. The deployment of those stories was ingenious in the way they all platformed character over everything else, but still, that’s a pretty thin slice of the human experience. There are many more stories than How to Build an Empire. There’s How to Be. I hope TV realizes it’s okay to risk telling that, too. People might even watch. Have you seen Olive Kittredge? Olive Kittredge is pretty much everything I could ever ask for from television, and it’s about a family of three people in Maine. The stakes felt higher to me than they felt in Guardians of the Galaxy, and Guardians of the Galaxy is literally about saving the galaxy. So long as you can find a TV executive who agrees with that opinion, I think TV will stay vibrant.

Patrick Somerville is at work on his third novel. He lives in Los Angeles, chases kids, and writes for The Leftovers on HBO. Find him at or @patrickerville.