Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Ken LaZebnik

In author interview, directors, essays, film, nonfiction, plays, TV, writing on May 31, 2014 at 11:37 am

Ken LaZebnik. Photo courtesy of the author.

Ken LaZebnik. Photo courtesy of the author.

An introduction to Ken LaZebnik, author of Hollywood Digs (Kelly’s Cove Press, 2014), a book of essays. LaZebnik writes for television, film, and the theater.  His work includes collaborating with Garrison Keillor on Robert Altman’s last film, A Prairie Home Companion, many years of writing for hour-long television dramas, and ten plays. LaZebnik wrote the film Thomas Kinkades Christmas Cottage, which featured Peter O’Toole and Marcia Gay Harden, and was directed by Michael Campus. For television, he has written on series as varied as Touched By An AngelArmy Wives, When Calls The HeartProvidence, and Star Trek: Enterprise.  

Quick Facts on Ken LaZebnik

  • Website: http://www.kenlazebnik.com
  • Home: Studio City, California
  • Comfort food: In-N-Out french fries
  • Top reads: F Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather, Charles Dickens, Patrick O’Brian, Faye Moskowitz
  • Top movies: Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Bull Durham, The Sweet Smell of Success, Zoolander
  • Currently reading: The Last Best Kiss by Claire LaZebnik

What are you working on at the moment?   

I am writing a screenplay based on a real-life incident from my hometown of Columbia, Missouri:  Sterling Wyatt, the son of a friend of mine from high school, was serving in the US Army in Afghanistan, and tragically died in combat.  When his body was brought home to Columbia for burial, the crazy Westboro Baptist Church announced they would picket the funeral.  5,000 local townspeople lined the streets in red shirts, forming a human shield for the family from the protestors.  It was a tremendous act of community and I’m trying to do the story justice as a screenplay.

What do you hope readers will take away from Hollywood Digs?

A sense of the specific lives and struggles of those who devote their lives to making film and TV.  Particularly, I hope there are some insights as to the ups and downs of writing for film and TV, both its joys and its heartaches, and the peculiar demands of the craft.

You must have had so many stories to share, how did you choose the final content for Hollywood Digs?

“Some shard of historical evidence

touched my own life, prompting me to dig deeper

into the story behind the individual.”

I tried to stay true to my basic premise, which was that some shard of historical evidence touched my own life, prompting me to dig deeper into the story behind the individual.  In the case of the glorious Leigh Wiener photographs, it was the fact that my wife knows Devik Wiener, Leigh’s son, and I had the opportunity to see these photographs firsthand in the futuristic Hollywood Vault.  Or I wandered into the garage sale/estate sale of writer Mel Shavelson.  The decision around final content was framed by these personal encounters.

What was the research process like for Hollywood Digs? 

I don’t pretend to be an historian, so real historians would probably not approve the somewhat cursory method of my research.  I hope it’s clear these essays are largely personal reflections.  For the research I did do, I tended to rely on personal interviews—either with the person herself (such as Kathy Zuckerman, aka “Gidget”), or the sons and daughters of the deceased, as was the case with Dick Powell’s son Norman.  For the short pieces about those pictured in Samuel Goldwyn’s 80th birthday party, I did old-school library research, hunting mostly through autobiographies of iconic stars.  And in one case, I relied on a real estate listing (i.e., Frank Sinatra).

Where and when do you prefer to write? 

Procrastination is the key to the writing process, so I tend to move from spot to spot.  Coffee shops are a favorite place, although they have to be off the beaten track (not Starbucks, but little ones like the Jump Cut Cafe in Studio City).  The Studio City Library is an excellent place to write, and when all else fails I actually have an office where I do a lot of writing.  It is a pleasant place, and if I can ignore the lure of the internet, I get a fair amount of writing done.

As to when—I recommend to writers that you take note of when you are most productive, and set aside that time to write.  For me, and I think this comes from years of meeting deadlines on TV shows, I get very productive in the late afternoon.  So I know that around 4-5:30pm I will usually be able to get a fair amount done.

Do you listen to anything while you write? 

No, I prefer silence. 

It’s been said writers can do their work from any place, where would you most want to live and write? 

My wife and I once vacationed in Cornwall, which is gorgeous and offers wonderful walks, followed by a retreat to a pub or inn.  The combination of sea air, long walks, and then a quiet countryside would be ideal. 

You’ve written for movies, TV, and the stage—how does writing for those audiences differ? How has your experience with one type of writing influenced the other? 

There are vast differences in writing for the three forms, although I think the film and TV audience have more in common with each other than the theatre audience does with the other two.  Theatre remains my favorite, not just because the author is most in control in the theatre, but because there is also the greatest latitude for language—it’s a verbal form at heart, and the language really matters.  Language (speaking of dialogue specifically) matters in film and TV, but they are essentially visual mediums and the language of the stage is paramount.  I will say that writing for TV in particular has actually helped my writing for the theater:  TV is all about story construction and I think before I wrote for television my play writing often didn’t pay enough attention to story construction.  Now I take it very seriously in all forms and I think it has benefited my work. 

“It’s a verbal form at heart,

and the language really matters.” 

How do images inform your writing? 

Images—visual images—are crucial to film and TV, so each piece I write tends to be informed by some central or recurring image.  And in the theater, I have enjoyed in my last couple of plays the opportunity afforded by new technologies in graphic media to use images there that were previously unavailable.  In On the Spectrum, we see the fantastical world of the website that a creator is designing grow and bloom in front of us, and it is very effective. 

What do you find most challenging about writing? 

The pull of distractions:  Everything from the little necessities of daily life (walking the dog, getting hardware for the front door, buying groceries), to the responsibilities I have teaching and reading other’s work, to the very real commitment to my family, to the endless wave of emails that seem to demand a response.  Another way to phrase it might be having the discipline to ignore everything else and just write. 

When you’re having trouble with a story, where do you look for inspiration?

To the characters in the story.  Not literally, but rather to go back to the back questions that always inform everything:  What does the hero want?  What is the simple emotional journey of the hero?  What obstacles are in her way?  Often when one gets stuck, it’s just because we have somehow lost focus on those simple questions.

How have your goals as a writer changed over time?

The goal of making money from my writing has grown proportionately as I look at college tuitions for my sons. 

Is there a quote about writing that motivates or inspires you?

Muriel Rukeyser:  “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Simply to keep writing.  There is no other way to do it.  I think it helps if you write with some authenticity:  Think of the thing about yourself that you would never want the world to find out, and write about that.  It will probably be the most beloved piece of writing you ever do.

“Think of the thing about yourself

that you would never want

the world to find out, and write about that.”

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

 Watch baseball—the St. Louis Cardinals, specifically.

About Ken LaZebnik

Ken LaZebnik’s work includes collaborating with Garrison Keillor on Robert Altman’s last film, A Prairie Home Companion, many years of writing for hour-long television dramas, and ten plays, two of which have won citations from The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA).  He wrote the film Thomas Kinkades Christmas Cottage, which featured Peter O’Toole and Marcia Gay Harden, and was directed by Michael Campus.  For television, he has written on series as varied as Touched By An Angel, Army Wives, When Calls The Heart, Providence, and Star Trek: Enterprise.   During his seven-year tenure on Touched By An Angel, he wrote over twenty episodes.  He wrote three PBS specials for their series “In Concert at the White House,”which were filmed in the East Room of the White House.

LaZebnik’s most recent play, On the Spectrum, was commissioned by The Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis in 2011 and was voted by the ATCA as one of the three best new plays premiered outside New York City.  Another of his plays about autism, Vestibular Sense, was also honored with an award from the ATCA at the Humana Festival in Louisville.  His adaptation of a pioneer memoir, Rachel Calof, premiered as part of the New York International Fringe Theatre Festival in 2011, and stars Kate Fuglei as the Jewish pioneer settler.

LaZebnik has a long history of writing for Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion”radio show, including such popular Keillor tapes as “A Visit To Mark Twain’s House.”  He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, actress Kate Fuglei, and their two sons.

Hollywood Digs by Ken LaZebnik (Kelly's Cove Press, 2014).

Hollywood Digs by Ken LaZebnik (Kelly’s Cove Press, 2014).

Buy Hollywood Digs, preferably at your local independent bookstore.

Catch Ken LaZebnik in person this June (if you’re in the Northern California Bay Area):

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Ken LaZebnik.” Words With Writers (May 31, 2014), https://wordswithwriters.com/2014/05/31/ken-lazebnik.]

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