Hearing Alexis

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Writing a screenplay for The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban between the initial short story I came up with, and the novel it eventually became, was kind of a weird step to take, but one that was necessary for me. I’d taken a screenwriting class in undergrad, and while I’d never written a full-length screenplay before, I’d written an act of one, and a screenplay felt like a natural progression from the short story that I wrote, which felt like it was too compressed (probably because I was unconsciously aping the style of Mary Gaitskill’s stories in her collection Bad Behavior, which I was reading at the time). Writing my first full screenplay was a nice feather in my cap, but as soon as I got it done, I realized that I had still more that I needed to tell in that story, and even though I’d read books about how to write novels before, I still dreaded the thought of attempting to write a whole novel myself. I got it done, though, and even if I’d just let that initial draft sit in the proverbial desk drawer for the rest of my life, just proving to myself that I could write something of that length was a huge deal for me.

When I took that screenwriting class, though, I was at a point in my life where I hadn’t really been watching films regularly for years, and I’d missed pretty much all of the turn-of-the-millennium masterpieces that sharply redefined the conventions of modern filmmaking. I didn’t recognize that fact at the time; I knew I hadn’t watched a lot of films that my classmates were talking about, but it never occurred to me that my lack of knowledge of contemporary cinema would leave me at such a disadvantage when it came to writing screenplays. To be honest, I’ve only come to appreciate this in recent months, as I’ve been catching up on more recent films to help me teach a class on cinema and social theory this semester. Even with my work there, it’s not like I’m flush with spare time to catch up on every important film I’ve missed in the past quarter century, so I still feel at a loss there.

The closest thing I’ve come to screenwriting these past few years was right after The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban was published in 2016, when I adapted a couple of scenes from the novel for a short ten-minute “teaser” film I wanted to produce as a promotional tool to help me sell books. Former students of mine in the Toledo area were interested in helping, and I figured that it would be a nice project to help boost my spirits in the months after Mom passed away. I never got around to getting everyone together to make the film before I left Toledo, though, and I haven’t had an opportunity to start that process anew here in Wisconsin (or when I was living in Colorado, for that matter). Still, that short screenplay has been sitting on my hard drive all this time, and while I hadn’t been thinking about it every day, it was still in the back of my mind here.

A couple of months ago, my campus announced that in lieu of producing a play in our campus theatre this semester, they would hold a “ten-minute play festival” on Zoom this spring, where plays would be table-read by performers instead of staged, and they were looking for scripts from the local community to produce. As soon as I saw a message about the festival on social media, my mind leapt right back to that short screenplay I’d whipped up a few years ago, but then I worried about the fact that my screenplay was essentially a giant advertisement for my first novel, despite the other merits it may have. It didn’t seem right for me to potentially “hijack” the festival with what was essentially a promotional tool for my own art. I spoke with one of the people involved with the festival, though, and I was assured that as long as my play could stand out on its own, then it would be welcome as a submission.

As if I weren’t dealing with enough things already, I then had to educate myself last month on the conventions of plays and playwriting; not only had I never taken a class on playwriting, nor written any stage plays myself, but I’m pretty sure that I’d only read one play throughout my entire college career, and even that was just for my graduate exam, not a class. By the time I finally had a revised play to submit, I honestly felt like I had no clue whether it was any good or not; I still strongly believe in the overall story of The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban, but that doesn’t mean it will translate as well to the stage as it does to the printed page. Shortly after I sent my submission in, though, I was informed that it had been accepted for the festival. I guess being one-for-one in play submissions kind of makes up for the problems I’ve had getting work published in other media.

Because the rehearsals for the play are being done through Zoom, we playwrights (and wow, does that ever feel like a weird phrase for me to type) were invited to sit in on our scripts being discussed and rehearsed. The first rehearsal of my play was this past Thursday, about eleven years since I wrote that first short story, and for the first time ever, I got to see and hear the characters I created come to life, given voice by two of my students. I’d imagined the scenes I wrote for my short story and novel countless times in my head, and I could even do a good job of piecing together that screenplay as a potential movie I could screen in my mind’s eye, but that was the first time I got to see two people transform themselves into Alexis Tove and Ms. Best, and speak the lines that I had first come up with over a decade earlier.

The honour of having this kind of opportunity is almost overwhelming, and waiting for over a decade to get it probably intensifies that feeling even more. Beyond that, though, as hard as I worked on my first novel, and as much as I’d still like for it to get in more people’s hands (at least after the pandemic — support struggling artists right now, since a lot of them aren’t as fortunate as I am to have steady work here), it’s been kind of easy for me to get lost in all the work I’m doing now to create my next big book (again, please donate to my Patreon to get exclusive updates on that work), and forget about all this work I’ve done up until now. Getting to experience the creations of my mind in this entirely new way is a welcome reminder to me that, “Oh. I did that. And it’s actually pretty good.”

I don’t know if I’m ever going to do anything more with playwriting — I just haven’t had much interest in the form, and I’m armpit-deep in research work and teaching right now — and maybe it’s best for me to keep my success in this format pristine, to have one column in my “statistics” where I’m batting 1.000. Getting to enjoy this opportunity right now is pretty awesome, though, and having the upcoming rehearsals and performance to look forward to is sure to be a much-needed pick-me-up throughout the semester. Maybe that performance will lead to the interest in my novel that I’ve been hoping for here, but in the meantime, I kind of have to let that possibility simmer while I teach and work on my next book. A writer’s work is never done.

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