J. Michael Straczynski, TOGETHER WE WILL GO

J. Michael Straczynski, TOGETHER WE WILL GO

“If you want to have a long-term career as a writer, you have to be constantly questioning and challenging yourself.” J. Michael Straczynski may be well known for his film, television, and comic work, but he’s always looking to find something new to do next. Joe joins Zibby to talk about why he wanted his latest novel, Together We Will Go, to be told through letters and how experiencing the loss of multiple friends to suicide inspired him to write this story. Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books has teamed up with Katie Couric Media and Random House to give away 100 copies of Sarah Sentilles’ book, Stranger Care! Enter the giveaway by clicking here: https://bit.ly/3jdKctA


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Joe. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Together We Will Go.

J. Michael Straczynski: Thank you. Happy to be here.

Zibby: I know you’ve had this amazing career, but just to start with your most recent project, this book was so interesting as a look on how to deal with depression and end of life and chronic pain and what to do when you feel like you have no options. Then the way you crafted it with all the different forms and audio recording buttons and text and everything, I found it all just super interesting and original. I just wanted to start off by saying that.

Joe: Thank you. I appreciate it. It was a calculated risk on a lot of different levels. On the one hand, you’re doing a story about a suicide and a life and the choices that come with that, which is risky all on its own terms. Then you add to it doing it in an epistolary format, which is not usually done outside of very obscure literary circles. This could fail in so many spectacular ways, but that, to me, is the fun of doing it. You want to take chances and do things that are not expected of you. For me, this was a good chance to do that. I’ve had a number of friends, a large number of friends, who have taken their own lives and passed away. I really wanted to delve into that and try and figure out what’s going on and understand that more, and along the way, I hope, help others to understand that dynamic. There is a passage towards the end of the book where they talk about the value of what they’ve put together as a way of, in a way, inoculating the reader against that problem. Very often, it blindsides you. You’re unprepared for it. By living through so many different scenarios of the characters, you now know what to expect when it happens. You can adjust accordingly.

Zibby: There was some of the characters where you’re just like, oh, yeah, I get it. Not that it’s ever sanctioned. For instance, the character who had, I think she called it the spider, the monster. What was it called? The spider?

Joe: She had a chronic pain syndrome. The spider, yeah.

Zibby: Yeah, the spider. To have to live with the worst pain of your life twenty-four/seven, that is hard. It raises all these questions. What is life? What is the value of life? What does it mean to really be able to live? When is it too much? It makes you think about all these things really deeply in just a few paragraphs, really.

Joe: Thank you. I wanted the book neither to condemn nor to condone. What I did want to do is use the range of characters to explore — as you had said, some look at it, you think, you know, I understand why they would do that. Some characters, like Peter, you look and go, you’re just nihilistic. Some can be defensible. Some cannot. For some people, there is that question of if you are chronic pain. In her case, she actually finds a way to love and experience that causes her to not be sure any more about her path. That’s the cool thing about the book. Some of them go all the way with the path. Some of them don’t. For me, it’s them discovering joy and love and life.

Zibby: Yeah, even if it’s just going to a strip club. Why not? You never know.

Joe: Exactly. The thing is, the metaphor is for all of us. We all come into this world with potentialities and talents and dreams. We have a finite period of time. Whether that finite period is a few days or weeks or years, you have to decide, what is worth living for you? It’s easy to find something worth dying for, but hard to find something worth living for. For our characters, what is that thing? One character makes the point that the suicidal impulse is like when your car pulls to the left all the time. You have to keep putting your hand on the wheel to readjust it to the right. For some people, that decision to step off the earth, isn’t like, I decided to do this. It’s more like, I decided not to hold onto the wheel anymore. Things certainly begin to happen at that point.

Zibby: Interesting. There was also the part where sometimes the people you leave behind feel like it’s about them, almost. How could you do this to me? Whereas your character’s like, could we not just have suicide be finally about us? Come on, just give me this one moment. In some books I’ve read where people have really struggled or been on the brink, there’s usually one relationship that tethers them back or says, my son, for instance. In Erin French’s book, Finding Freedom, who founded The Lost Kitchen, she was on the brink of suicide and said, no, no, no, I’ve got to be there for my son. I can’t. She put down the shoelaces or whatever. Sometimes there’s that one thing. There’s this whole, what happens with those who have been left behind by this particular means of death? It just raises all sorts of questions.

Joe: For those who are, in the book, thinking of doing this, they want it to be about them, ultimately, as you say. It is a hard situation because you know you’re going to have an impact on other people. What I found interesting is that those who I’ve known who have taken this step, there’s a lightness to them after they made that decision. The hard part was making the decision. Once they got passed that, oddly enough, they got really funny. They got really free. That’s one reason why I wanted the book to have a sense of humor to it. It’s not grim, dark, and relentless the entire time. There’s great character moments to it. There’s great humor to it and great bonding by someone who thinks the same way they do. Not only do they have a companion, but they now have a person to bounce off the question, am I really doing the right thing here or not? Some of them indeed do change their minds.

Zibby: I had a very close friend who committed suicide a long time ago, but she had developed some mental illness to go along with it. I don’t think she consciously — there were a lot of factors that led to what happened to her. I don’t know what it was like for the people that you’ve lost. Did they tell you that they had made this decision, or you just knew in retrospect that that’s what happened?

Joe: You kind of know in retrospect. They often don’t tell you. One or two people did tell me, but others did not. One reason I wanted to write the book also from a youthful point of view is that suicide right now is the number-two killer for people in their twenties. It has gotten completely off the hook. Someone had to, I felt, address that in a way that wasn’t preachy or wasn’t trying to correct them, just saying, look, these are the options. I understand where you want to go, but there are other paths you can pursue.

Zibby: Wow. How was the act of writing this? What made you decide to write it in the format? How did you choose this format to tell the story as opposed to just straight prose of twelve people getting together and going on a trip?

Joe: I like to experiment. I like to push myself. I think that if you want to have a long-term career as a writer, you have to be constantly questioning yourself and challenging yourself and trying new forms. I always look at, what carries the biggest risk? Where can I possibly screw up and blow up my entire career? Writing an epistolary novel in the twenty-first century, this is going to be great. It’s the only vehicle that would allow me to really delve into the thought process of everyone involved. When we’re talking to someone else, very often, we choose our words carefully or we hedge our bets. We’re not being a hundred percent honest. When we’re writing just for ourselves, then we tend to be a little more honest. I wanted this to be an honest discussion of their lives, their histories, what they’ve gone through, their perspective, why they made the choice that they made, why they may change their mind. The only way to do that was to get inside their brains and stay there. The idea of switching points of view twelve times made a lot of sense.

Zibby: How long did this project take? When did you come up with the idea? How long did it take? What was your process like when you were writing it? Did you have a special place you liked to go to get it done? Did you do it everywhere? What was it like?

Joe: I work in my office. It’s my sanctuary. It is the one place where everyone knows, don’t bug him when he’s in there. I had been noodling around with it for quite some time because, as I mentioned, I’ve lost a number of friends. Stories are like lint on a sweater. Bits and pieces stick to you. One day, you do that, and oh, my god, there’s a story. It was kind of like that. I began to see what the focus of it, the structure of it was. Then finally, I thought, okay, I’m going to try this. It took me about a year to write it, altogether. I really wanted to be authentic in the writing process. I’m very happy with how it came out.

Zibby: Me too. I know you’ve done a lot of work with screen and adapting things and everything from graphic novels and Spiderman and Ghostbusters. It’s crazy, all the things. You’re like the Forrest Gump of — I was trying to get my fourteen-year-old son in here to do this with me, but then I was like, it is all about suicide. I was like, “You’re never going to believe what this guy has done.” He’s like, “Yeah, yeah, I’m going to go back to my video games.” How did this whole life happen for you?

Joe: So you’re saying I can’t hold a steady job. Is that what you’re trying to say?

Zibby: No judgement here.

Joe: I always knew I was going to be a writer. From age twelve onward, there was just never any doubt in my head at all, which is why I created a career where either I was going to make it as a writer or I was going to crash and burn and die. Those were my only options. I started writing in high school. I started off initially as a journalist. I thought that might be my path and enjoyed it quite a bit. What being a journalist does, it teaches you how to deliver on time, how to think fast, how to write fast. It wasn’t really a plan. I knew I wanted someday to work in TV or someday to work in movies. I kept blowing up one career and moving on to the next. I journalism, went from there to animation, blew that up, and began the live action. So far, so good. Back up. When I first came to LA, there were about a dozen writers that I knew who were the top of our group at that time, very successful, made a lot of money. There’s not one of them currently working today to the same extent. Some of them are not working at all. What happened is the town began to change. The kind of stories that were valuable and appreciated and purchased began to change. I think you have to be willing to change with the times and adapt and grow. If you don’t have anything newer than ten years on your playlist, you don’t have a playlist. You don’t know what a playlist is. You’ve got a problem. As things began to go south, I kept saying, try a different genre. Try a different form. Do novels. Do movies. Do comics, whatever. They all said, this is the kind of writer I am. This is the kind of story that I write. They couldn’t adapt. They lived in a box, and they died in the box. That’s what boxes are for, which is why a lot of people flame out early on. They define themselves to death. For me, I’m a chameleon. I’m constantly changing. I think it’s important to constantly question yourself. When I wrote Changeling, I had never written a move before. That got produced. Clint Eastwood directed it. We’re a genre guy. We aren’t in mainstream drama. Well, that’s the whole point. You got to do something different once in a while.

Zibby: Wow, that’s really inspiring. I think sometimes people are afraid to try new things. I’ve talked to authors who typically wrote historical fiction. Then they were moving into thrillers. They’re like, I don’t know, this is so off-brand. I feel like there’s this pressure to sort of stay in your lane in the literary world sometimes when, isn’t that the whole point? If you’re a gifted writer, you should be able to experiment like you’re in a cafeteria. You can take lots of different things as long as you’re in the right place.

Joe: Yeah, and there’s economic pressure to be consistent. There’s familial pressure. Your peers, why are you stepping outside your lane? It’s really hard to choose to do that, but it’s so essential. Everything feeds into everything else. You write a science fiction script that teaches you how to write about technology that you can use in a contemporary thriller which teaches you structural elements you can use in a mainstream drama. Everything feeds into everything else. That’s all part of the same process. That’s why we have crop rotation. You can’t keep planting the same crops in the same field all the time. We’re going to leach all of the nutrients. I think writing is no different. You have to constantly be engaged in crop rotation, or in my case, crap rotation, probably.

Zibby: I hope that was the first time you used that because that was really good. What haven’t you tried? What are you excited to still do?

Joe: I suck at poetry. I am the worst person in the world when it comes to — just the worst, awful doggerel. go back and try that again. I started off, script-wise, in theater, live-action plays. I’d like to go back. There’s a couple plays that I’ve wanted to write for a while now. One is a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern opposite of Richard III, oddly enough. There’s a couple of other contemporary plays that I want to write. I’m looking for the new thing. I’m kind of running out of things I haven’t tried before. Right now, poetry and plays are the thing I’m looking at now.

Zibby: You could try a scripted podcast.

Joe: I could do that. I think I would be terrible. One never knows. That’s the whole point of trying it.

Zibby: You never know. Just putting it on the table.

Joe: Me being in person in front of the camera is always — whenever I appear on a podcast or interview, homeland security always gets involved. It’s just one of those things. I’m better behind the camera than I am in front of it.

Zibby: Well, you could write it for someone else.

Joe: Okay, all right. That, I can go along with.

Zibby: I didn’t mean you had to be a star.

Joe: The nation thanks you as well.

Zibby: What do you like to do when you’re not trying to innovate on the writing front and movies and all this stuff? What do you like to do on the weekends or when you have time off?

Joe: This is going to sound weird, but I don’t really have time off. I love what I do. By nature, I am geek. I am nerd. I am clumsy. I am a jerk. When I’m behind the keyboard, I am golden. I think I’ve taken, in my entire life, two vacations. Meaning, I had a whole week to myself. Weekends, weekdays, I am behind the keyboard eighteen hours a day, every day, and have been pretty much ever since I turned eighteen.

Zibby: Eighteen hours a day?

Joe: Yeah.

Zibby: Seven days a week?

Joe: Yeah. I love it. I could not possibly love it more. I start writing about maybe seven, eight o’clock at night, work until about four in the morning. Crash for eight hours. Get up, spend several hours trying to find my face. I always find it. Sadly, it’s always the same face. You figure Tom Cruise’s face would show up, but it never does. During that time, I’m editing, returning phone calls, thinking about the day’s work. Then seven o’clock, the engines turn on. I just fly on through four in the morning. This is my routine every single day. It’s not a burden. It is the most fun I have ever had or ever will have.

Zibby: What if somebody asks you out to dinner or something?

Joe: Oh, yeah, I’ll go out to dinner. Very often, I’ll be at dinner, and they realize that I haven’t spoken in a long time. They say, “Where did you go?” I said, “I was working on my story.” I don’t get asked to a lot of dinners. It’s kind of awkward. This is what I was born to do. This is what I enjoy more than almost anything. It’s just the best thing ever.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Wow. How great that you found it. That’s awesome. It’s just so awesome. Love it. This whole thing has basically been advice to aspiring authors, but if there was someone just starting out, what would you tell him or her?

Joe: Don’t try to be a writer. Just write. Very often, and this happens to every writer, myself included, we’re not quite sure what writing is or how it’s supposed to sound. Creative writing teachers will tell you the writing should sound a certain way. It should sound literary. Writing is just talking on the page in your own natural voice. It’s pairing away all the other stuff that you think it’s supposed to be. It should be natural. It should be fun. It should be easy. Imagine, if you will, an old-fashioned dance hall. At one end of the hall is someone who just came out of the Arthur Murray dance school. He’s doing okay, but you can hear him in his head going, one, two, three; one, two, three; one, two, three. Then at the other end of the hall is Fred Astaire. He is just dancing. There’s trying a dance, and there’s dancing. They’re trying to write, and there’s writing. When it becomes effortless and easy and transparent and translucent and you’re just speaking in your own natural voice, the process becomes luminous and joyful and no longer homework. I would say go for the joy of that. Just don’t worry about how you’re saying it. Just say it. You can always edit it later. Just have fun with it. Dance.

Zibby: That was great. That was so great. I loved it. I’ve interviewed seven hundred-plus people, and that’s the first time I’ve thought about it, ever, that way. Thank you. That was great.

Joe: Thank you.

Zibby: Congratulations again on your book. Thanks for coming on my show.

Joe: My pleasure. Thank you. Good to be here.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

J. Michael Straczynski, TOGETHER WE WILL GO

TOGETHER WE WILL GO by J. Michael Straczynski

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