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Interview With Ross Klavan, Author of <i>Schmuck</i>

"The connection between the writer and his characters is a weird one, I think. You have only yourself to work off of, so obviously you're making characters out of different aspects of yourself, different experiences, memories, dreams and wishes."
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Ross Klavan's novel Schmuck has just been published by Greenpoint Press and he recently finished the screenplay for The Colony based on the book by John Bowers. His critically acclaimed original screenplay for the film Tigerland was nominated for the Independent Spirit Award. The film was directed by Joel Schumacher and released by 20th Century Fox, starring Colin Farrell. He's also written screenplays for InterMedia, Walden Media, Miramax and TNT TV. For Paramount, he adapted Tom Clancy's Without Remorse. A public and intense "conversation about writing" with Kurt Vonnegut and Lee Stringer was both televised and published in 1999 as Like Shaking Hands With God (Seven Stories Press). Other works of fiction include short stories appearing in Zing Magazine, Pierogi Press, and several produced by the BBC. His play How I Met My (Black) Wife (Again) was produced in NYC in 1997 and '98 and a novel, Trax, was published by Pinnacle Books in 1982.

Ross has performed his own work for Creative Time, Exit Art, Four Walls, CBGB's, and HERE (in association with the Lincoln Center Theater) as well as the KGB Reading Series and other clubs and theaters in downtown NYC. As a performer, his voice has been heard in dozens of feature films including Animal Rescue, Sometimes in April, Casino, In and Out, and You Can Count On Me as well as in numerous TV and radio commercials. He was a member of the Four Walls alternative art space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A former journalist, Ross was a reporter in New York City and London, England for WINS Radio, the RKO Network, NBC (London) and LBC (London) as well as the Gannett Newspapers. He lives in New York City with his wife, the painter, Mary Jones.

Loren Kleinman (LK): In your latest book Schmuck you provide an insanely funny look at the 1960's radio scene. Why radio? Why the 1960s?

Ross Klavan (RK): Thanks for the "insanely funny" -- actually, it's a good description of the late '60s if you add tragedy and an undertone of the Absurd. That's why I used the era. Very colorful and lively, crazy and sad, with the world turned upside down. And all of that was happening with World War II still in the memories of just about all of the men -- as in the book, The War plays in the psyche of everyone who fought it. But also, the novel is loosely based on my father, Gene Klavan, who was the comic half of a radio comedy team, very well known during that period. He was a wacky, disturbing, incredibly talented character. And writing about radio? I like writing about show business, having spent a lot of time there. Radio is a fantastic medium, mostly wasted today -- like writing, you have only words and sounds to infiltrate the imagination. I knew radio growing up and later worked in it myself. Radio was once a primo medium, central to the continuation of the glorious republic. And today? Zilch. Sort of like vaudeville.

LK: Who's the schmuck in Schmuck? Is it Ted Fox or Jerry Elkin? Who do you think readers will connect with more? Why?

RK: Schmuck is a wonderful word and should be used more frequently. It's tough to translate into English without losing a lot of the flavor but the Yiddish is based on the German for "jewel," so it's sort of like the term "the family jewels" other words, you're calling someone a "prick." But it's more than that. One of the characters defines "schmuck" as a dope who plays by the proper rules but can't wrap his head around what the real rules are, how things really work. So, I have to leave it to the reader to decide who the "Schmuck" is...or whether everyone takes a turn. And between Elkin and Fox? I'm guessing most people will connect more with Jerry Elkin, comedian of the team. Ted Fox is the straight man and the straight man is there only so the comedian can be funny -- the comedian not's there so the straight man can be straight. So Jerry's a little more central to the tale.

LK: What's the role that sex or sex appeal plays in the book? What is its relationship to that particular era? And how does Sari Rosenbloom fit the "American dream" girl personae?

RK: If there had never been sex, it would've had to be invented for the 1960s, a wonderfully sexual era when, I believe, several new positions were discovered or further developed and everyone below the age of 70 was constantly out of breath. And I think the attraction in the book -- to Sari Rosenbloom -- is that seeming promise that sex will be not only a lot of fun for the body but also, somehow, transcendental. That through sex one reaches some kind of extra state that's beyond definition. Much was written about this in the 1960s by intellectuals who are now either dead or out of work. The "American dream girl" was probably a part of this and Sari knows that she's got it. So she runs with it. And why not?

LK: If you were stranded on a desert island what character would you prefer to be stranded with? Ted, Jerry or Sari? Why?

RK: See, Jerry would be a lot of laughs when stranded on a desert island but, gee, I don't know, Sari ultimately would provide more, how can I say it, perhaps joie de l'amour? Even though I don't speak French and I'm not sure what that means. I wouldn't go with Ted, though, because he's the straight man. So you'd have to be endlessly funny. It's too much work.

LK: How much of Ross Klavan is in Schmuck? What character do you relate most to? Why?

RK: The connection between the writer and his characters is a weird one, I think. You have only yourself to work off of, so obviously you're making characters out of different aspects of yourself, different experiences, memories, dreams and wishes. Then, to complicate the process, there's the observation of others, still filtered through yourself. All this while in a state that's halfway between wakefulness and sleep while your fingers are gliding gracefully over a keyboard. So I relate to all of the characters though after a few drinks I can relate several stories that sound similar to Jake's stumbling journey through life.

LK: What's next?

RK: I'm working on another novel, this one also set in radio but a little bit later, a period in New York City when it was remarkably like, say, Tombstone, Arizona. Lots of run-and-gun and bloodshed mixed in with the usual lunacy. I'm also working on a couple of film projects, a short and a longer feature. I try to stay busy so I don't have to call my psychoanalyst.

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