Today I chat with filmmaker and author James Jandak Wood about his artistic inspirations, writing journey, and what inspired him to get an MFA. Don’t miss this writerly goodness!
Q. Tell me a little bit about your writing journey. What led you to where you are today? What inspired you to get an MFA in writing?
I have always had a passion for reading and writing. At a very young age, I read a number of fictional war books, including almost all of Leon Uris’ works, a curious choice for a boy who would grow up to despise war. But at that age, fear drives young boys to shelter in machismo. After reading Battle Cry, I took one of my father’s old desk calendars and began writing a book on the back of the huge pages. I’m sure it was a messy stream-of-consciousness blather – thankfully it did not survive. I showed the stack of calendar pages – their backs filled edge to edge with dark blue ink – to my mother, who was decidedly unimpressed.
Years sped by through Call of The Wild, Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye (it’s always Catcher in the Rye that slaps a young man upside the head), To Kill A Mockingbird, Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky (when you hit the Russians, you’ve made it).
The idea of studying literature in college was rib-tickling to my mother. Her reaction might well have been “please, stop, you’re killing me.” During my passionate affair with literature that continued through my college years, my steady rock was math and science, at which I excelled. So with a figurative cattle prod in my back, I completed a degree in electrical engineering.
Skip twenty years, through Vonnegut, Robbins (Tom not Harold), Richard Russo, A Prayer for Owen Meany, All Quiet on the Western Front, and a thousand more, I was able to stop working in technology. I immediately went to film and theater, writing and directing a feature documentary, several narrative and documentary short films, and two full-length plays.
And after all that, the desire to write a book bowled me over. So just last year, I applied for several MFA programs and chose Oregon State University.
Q. What does your writing process look like?
I try to write first thing every morning for several hours, “try” being the essential hurdle here. We all nagged by life: chores, responsibilities, the lure of surfing the kahunas of the internet. When successful, I try to write something fresh first, then spend time rewriting either what was written that morning or days before. I try (again that word!) to stay focused on one project at a time. By lunch time, my creativity is usually spent, so spend afternoons focusing on tasks outside of writing.
I am not an outliner. I have a general idea of where I want to go, start writing, and let the surprises come. I love those surprises, ideas that simply pop into your head. Surely there are muses throwing lightning bolts of ideas which ignite the mind as the ancients believed.
The most rewarding days are those uninterrupted journeys into the imagination.
Q. What does your dream writing office have in it?
I have a friend, who, when I ask: “How are you,” invariably responds: “Living the dream.” Well, when it comes to an office conducive to writing, I am undoubtedly living the dream. On the walls are posters of some of my favorite movies: Brideshead Revisited (the Matthew Goode version), Wings of the Dove (get your tissues out for this one), Much Ado About Nothing (Kenneth Branagh’s), and Twelfth Night (Trevor Nunn’s). Two guitars sit nearby, mostly idle. I’m a hack, but I love to play without an audience. A comfy desk chair. A good sized wooden desk, my iMac atop it. And all of this in a little barn a minute walk from home. Quiet. Peaceful. Quiet. Serene. Did I mention it’s quiet?
Q. What non-literary artists have impacted your writing?
I am inspired by musicians and lyricists. Great music evokes powerful emotion. Some bands who lyrics and music inspire me are REM, Steely Dan, Pearl Jam, Peter Gabriel, Jethro Tull, and many more.
However, I almost never listen to music with lyrics when writing. It’s too distracting. When writing, I like to listen to Helen Jane Long – a brilliant composer and pianist. Her album Porcelain is my favorite. I also love Philip Glass’s compositions, but they kindle such powerful emotions, that even though there are no lyrics, I often find myself distracted when writing and listening to his work.
I am also inspired by filmmakers, playwrights, and actors. John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt is, to me, the best film ever produced. The script, the cinematography, and the acting are all stellar. I’ve watched that film a dozen times. Birdman is a recent addition to my best films of all time. The Lives of Others, a German film, Wings of the Dove, and Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet are other greats.
Q. Tell me about being a playwright and director. What is that like? How does it impact your writing and/or your writing process?
Having time to write is a joy: the solitude, the quiet, the ability to let your imagination run wild, or sometimes amok. But I do miss directing. Working with actors to see your writing come alive is nothing short of amazing.
When you write, you imagine your characters speaking and moving – how they deliver a line with a tinge of anger, or a hint of deceit, how they wave their arms in excitement, or turn away in embarrassment. This is true in writing scripts as well, but the magic is in what the actors bring to the story. Often an actor will deliver a line with an emotion you had not envisioned, and it adds a layer of complexity, or gravitas, or humor you hadn’t imagined. It’s a wonderful witches brew of personalities and creativity that explodes into an unexpected work of art.
There is also something wonderful about the bonding that takes place among the actors and the director. This is mostly true in theater where you spend at least a month rehearsing for hours prior to opening. With film, everything happens with less preparation, lots of retakes, higher pressure, and not as much fun. The counter to this is you have a lasting work, where a play, when it wraps with a particular cast, is gone forever. Still, I prefer directing plays and developing that connection to the actors in what becomes a creation of not only the writer, but the director and actors as well.
Q. What author should every writer read? Why?
All Quiet on the Western Front because it is a poetic portrayal of the horror of war. Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow, perhaps the most fascinating story structure I’ve encountered. Lord of the Flies and Catcher in the Rye – no explanation needed. Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates and Jitterbug Perfume because the descriptive writing in both books is brilliant. 1984 because we’re living it now given the doublethink emanating from our politicians and the fact that “Ignorance is strength” is becoming a reality. The Bells of Nagasaki about the dropping of the atom bomb. Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea. Tale of Two Cities. Watership Down. Prayer for Owen Meany. Novecento and Silk by Baricco. And recently, All The Light We Cannot See – simply one of the most beautifully written books I have ever encountered. Of course, this list could go on for pages and pages. But there it is.
Meet the Author:
James Jandak Wood is a filmmaker, playwright, and writer based in the San Francisco area.
James grew up outside of Providence, coincidentally, during the era of Outside Providence. He ran track and cross-country at Villanova University (punctuated occasionally with classwork), graduated, had two amazing children, and married Jennifer Jandak Wood: a talented singer, musician, and brilliant scientist.
After studying film classes at the Film Arts Institute and the Bay Area Video Coalition, James embarked on his first film – a feature documentary. The film, Crude Impact, screened in over thirty film festivals and won many awards. Crude Impact has been translated into five languages and broadcast in numerous countries around the world.
James is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing at Oregon State University. As an undergraduate, James earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Villanova University. He also studied Shakespeare and Contemporary British Fiction at Oxford University English Literature Summer School.
Connect with James Wood:
Check out his website: http://www.jamesjandakwood.com. You can also see an interview here: http://www.jamesjandakwood.com/impact#interview, and a review of James’ documentary CRUDE IMPACT from the book The Environmental Documentary, http://www.jamesjandakwood.com/activism.
You can reach James at the email address email@example.com.
James’s latest project is directing a play entitled Jeeves Intervenes. The play was adapted for the stage by Margaret Raether from P. G. Wodehouse’s famous novel series starring that omniscient butler Jeeves. The play opens in Sonoma, California in May of 2018.