I have to begin by providing some background for this week’s interview. When I first metWilliam (Bill)Torgerson, I was a transfer freshman at Olivet Nazarene University. I had arrived on campus, mainly to play basketball; as he will affirm later in the interview, my first practice was when I discovered that universities still had junior varsity teams, and JV basketball was my destiny in the Tiger basketball program. Despite his humility about his athletic career , Bill was esteemed by those of us who were younger as the hardest working basketball player in ONU’s program. If you were going to play pick-up with Bill, you needed to be ready for a fight. Bill and I have reconnected in the past year and discovered that we have much in common — including teaching English, less than successful stints in coaching, and a passion for writing. The Bill Torgerson of today is not unlike the basketball legend I met in college: as funny and engaging as he is hard-working. He approaches the craft of writing with an intensity that is more than admirable and it is apparent in his work.
Torgerson’s adaptation of Love on the Big Screen was awarded the Grand Prize in the Flickers Rhode Island International Screenplay Competition. In addition to novels and screenplays, he writes short stories and articles on teaching and writing, and his work has appeared most recently in the University of Maryland’s Sakura, Old Dominion University’s Barely South Review, and NYU’s interdisciplinary journal Anamesa. You can learn more about William on his website (and pick upyour copy of Love on the Big Screen) at TheTorg.com.
The prose of his new fiction titled Love on the Big Screen is intelligent yet accessible, clever yet endearing. It is an account of a young man who is so wrapped up in recreating the Hollywood romance he has experienced in various 80’s movies (see Say Anything) that he succumbs to all sorts of misadventure. The novel is set at a strict religious college which mirrors our experience at Olivet and simply adds layers of humor and believability to Bill’s plot. The pure charm of the novel is found in its characters. As you read, you will find yourself familiar with Zuke’s band of friends and will sympathize with his hopeless battle to win the girl of his dreams. Bill does for 80’s movies what High Fidelity did for music. The novel also has some pretty profound things to say about love and relationships in our culture.
I had originally planned to run Bill’s interview in March, and was grateful that he agreed to do it on such short notice. I highly recommend youget acopy of Love on the Big Screen.
Bill graciously answered all of the questions I sent — I think you are really going to enjoy St. Johns University Professor, award winning novelist, and my friend,Bill Torgerson’s “Five Good Answers”:
Matt: What did you learn about yourself writing Love on the Big Screen?
Bill: One of the pleasures of writing this book was going back and re-watching all the movies that my teenage self had so enjoyed: Say Anything, Sixteen Candles, Dead Poets Society, Weird Science, and The Princess Bride. What I realized upon watching all those movies again was the degree to which I’d been under the spell of those storylines. I think I’m still under Lloyd Dobler’s impulse to “dare to be great,” but I also spent a lot of time in pursuit of woman who initially didn’t know who I was. In other words, I saw a girl, I created her personality in my mind, and I kept thinking that if I could come up with the grand romantic gesture (say, Dobler’s boom box over the head moment in Say Anything) that the girl would fall for me. Eventually, I learned that I had some control over who I loved and that it was a good idea to love somebody who would love me back.
Matt: How have your writing practices changed over the last several years?
Bill: Writing used to feel like work. It was something I felt good having done, but not something I enjoyed in the moment. Now writing is more like running used to be for me. I wake up and I go downstairs and write, or I wake up, drive to work, and I write. If I don’t write (in the same way I used to be when I didn’t run) I feel as if the whole day was wasted and I’m not very pleasant to be around. I think my wife Megan used to want me to take some days off, but when we tried that for awhile, I think she preferred the me who began the day with a couple hours to myself in the basement. As I say in the book’s dedication, I’m very blessed to be married to Megan who understands and supports my desire to write.
Additionally, I think my writing has changed in the way it might for anyone who isn’t doing something for the first time any longer. Whether you’re a coach, a sales person, or a parent, when you’re doing something you’ve done before, you can see the big picture. The first year of being a teacher is the craziest. I’m guessing that’s true for a lot of ways that someone might spend a life. Once you’ve written a book (or taught for a school year), you can anticipate some of what might happen, what might go wrong, and you can leave room for discovery. Once you’ve written a book, you have a better idea for how you might plan to write the next one. I do much more mental building of the story and characters now than I did with the first. I’ve learned to place myself in conversation with other texts and people before I begin to write.
Matt: You won an award for the screen-play adaptation of Love on the Big Screen, what is the challenge of transforming a novel toa screen-play?
Bill: Like I say in the writing courses that I teach, if you can learn to read like a writer, you can write anything. And I’d extend that to many situations beyond putting words on a page. I’ve got former students who’ve carried that sort of thinking into scientific laboratories where they now work. They can “read” the environment, and figure out how to dress, act, and how to deliver the weekly report, whether that report be oral or written. I grew up on movies and basketball, and I’ve learned to read like a writer, so I read some scripts I admired, picked up some of the nuances, and wrote a script. I guess I should say that the impulse to write them at all came from the studios that were asking for the novel manuscript and then eventually passed on the script. There was always a reason for why the book wouldn’t work as a movie, and I thought I could write through those challenges.
As far as the writing of the script goes, that process was a good teacher for me. It taught me to really zero in on active sentences, and by that I mean sentences where the subject does something: Matt dribbled the ball past LeBron. And since I went from the book to the script, I think my first-draft was over 200 pages and needed to be absolutely no longer than 120. Anytime you do that much cutting, I think you’re going to learn about what’s needed and what isn’t. In short, if you can’t see it or hear it, it probably doesn’t belong in the script.
Matt: There are definitely aspects of Love that are autobiographical – and some really funny moments. Can you share a real life story that inspired one of those moments?
Bill:There’s a lot of my life in this book: my friends and I really did call ourselves The Brothers in Pursuit and wear matching boxer shorts to weekly meetings; there was a Chapman Residence Hall wrestling match, and I did attend a Shakespearean play where we were all surprised by the appearance of nude witches. Probably the most autobiographical part of the book was the essay that Zuke writes and is given to the reader as a first-person narrative. I wrote a draft of that essay twenty years ago in Professor Joseph Bentz’s class when I was at Olivet Nazarene University. Professor Bentz was the first person I ever met actually working on a book, he ended up writing an endorsement for Love on the Big Screen, and he was one of the first teachers I had who encouraged me to keep writing. In real life, the date Zuke describes was a double date, but like Zuke, I did have an unshaven and grotesque carbuncle on my face. I didn’t have the old draft of that essay from college, and so I just rewrote it and changed it so that it would fit the story’s needs and Zuke’s life.
Matt: In the last ten years what has been the most transformative moment of your life?
Bill: Well, I’m going to almost totally ignore the fact that you are asking for a ten year time span and ONE moment, but your question brings to mind three things that were pretty hard for me: I didn’t get to play very much on Olivet’s college basketball team; I was the head basketball coach for a couple teams in Indiana that had horribly losing records, and I near the age of thirty, I got divorced. The first two are a bit embarrassing to admit that they were hard, but growing up in small-town Indiana, my identity was very much centered on being a good basketball player. Divorce is interesting to me in that it is so common, but that it is so common, didn’t cause it to hurt less or have a less (at least initially) destructive affect on my life. Eventually, divorce was very liberating. I thought I’d messed up my life so badly that I wouldn’t be able to disappoint anyone anymore than I already had, and that was what freed me up to quit coaching, move to North Carolina, and try to be a writer.
Following the divorce, I promised myself that I would never remarry. So I guess to really answer your question, my most transformative moment was breaking that promise to myself and marrying Megan. Part of marrying her was to say that I was willing to have children. It used to be that I didn’t care or not whether I had kids. If I’d have missed out on our two little girls, I’d have missed out on what has been life’s greatest pleasure. I doubt that I could write a word if I didn’t have the loving foundation of our family to write from.
Matt: When did you know you wanted to write a novel?
Bill: When I moved to North Carolina, I told myself that I was done coaching. I began to work toward an M.A. in education, just because it seemed like something I could do in order to try and be productive rather than destructive. I took some creative writing classes, and I could tell that I enjoyed quiet mornings to myself at my desk more than I liked standing under the basket putting people through drills. (coaching is much more than that but you get the idea) More than that, people weren’t heckling me going to and from my desk the way they did when I was a losing basketball coach. I read Donald Murray’s book Write to Learn and Stephen King’s On Writing, and both of those books made me feel as if I could be a writer. I totally re-arranged my life to write, quitting a high school job so that I could take a middle school job where school started later. My idea was really naïve and simple: I tried to write 800 words a day everyday and stick to loosely the same subject. Although I thought I was writing a novel, I was really writing a bad divorce memoir. I did that for the better part of a year and of course had over 300 pages of text. I could tell that what I had written was not publishable, and so then I started applying to MFA Creative Writing programs. I got lucky at Georgia College and State University and had some very good teachers who spent a lot of time with me going over my work.
Matt: We shared a little time on the basketball court – what is your best memory of playing basketball in college?
Bill:As Zuke notes in the book, very few people know that college basketball programs often have junior varsity teams the way that high school teams do. One of my first shocks of being a college basketball player was that on picture day I wasn’t even going to be in the varsity team photo. That was how I learned that I wasn’t on the varsity. Up until that night, I didn’t even realize that was a possibility. I was sitting on the bleachers and feeling low while I watched the varsity guys get all set up, when I looked to the guy sitting next to me. Not only was this guy not on the varsity like me, he had to wear a totally different uniform than the rest of us. I guess they ran out of the old uniforms and dug the one he had on out of some dusty chest. The uniform was so old that it had a metal buckle on the waist band like it was a belt. I was probably ready to cry and I said something like, “Nice buckle.” It was a pretty rude thing for me to say, but this guy broke out laughing. The guy’s name was Scott Rainey, and he ended up being one of my best friends. He’s a pastor of a church in Houston now, and we recently met for lunch in New York. Of course we relived that story.
Matt: What advice would you give to writers hoping to get published?
Bill: Writing can be a lot like playing the piano or shooting a basketball. If you want to be a good basketball player then you better play a lot of basketball. Of course there are exceptions—the worlds’ freaks and geniuses who can mostly just do it—but if you want to be a writer then start writing. It helps to have good teachers, even if those teachers are stories, novels, or texts about writing. A shooter of the basketball can save herself a lot of time if she has a general idea of the mechanics involved in hoisting the leather up to the hoop, but actually, practice can overcome a lot. When you begin writing, write until you finish, and then send it out someplace. There are so many journals (online and print) where a writer can send their stuff. I find energy in sending out and looking for places to send my work. Don’t worry about rejection. I mostly get rejected. Everyone once in awhile there is a yes. I learn to write by reading and writing a lot.
Matt: I think your novel has some good things to say about love and relationships – what did you learn (if anything) about yourself as you worked through these characters writing Love?
Bill: I’m not sure how this is going to sound, but I think love is a choice. It’s something we can decide to do. To some, that can sound pretty unromantic, especially in the context of what so many movies would have us believe about love. But if you look to a Biblical definition of love, where love is described as patient, being kind, striving to always protect, and to be the sort of person who is not easily angered, then those are things are actions I can take or not take when interacting with my wife and children. Admittedly, as a relationship begins, you’ve got to decide that you are with the sort of person you want to love, and I have some friends in their forties now who have either had love go very badly once or they just can’t make the decision to love. They are waiting on the electricity that I think is more myth than reality. I do understand there are plenty of stories out there to refute my belief.
In writing Love on the Big Screen, I knew that Zuke was in for a lot of trouble when he spotted Abby and thought he loved her—this even though he’d never as much as spoken to her—but I didn’t realize how much trouble such a belief actually causes. More practically, in writing Love on the Big Screen, I learned whether or not Zuke would end up with Abby. Starting the book, I had no idea.
You can learn more about William on his website at www. TheTorg.com.
Next week’s Five Good Answers will feature author, speaker, and activist Brian McLaren – you can read about Brian at: http://www.brianmclaren.net/