The Beatrice Interview

Frank Baldwin

Balling the Jack

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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Tom Reasons is a bright young Wall Street paralegal who loves to live on the edge. Every week he takes his paycheck and bets all but forty dollars on one game. When he wins, it's fine dining and plenty of beer at his favorite Irish pubs; when he loses, it's a week of Ramen noodles. He's also on a bar-league darts team, and when a grudge match against another team escalates into a $40,000 wager, Tom's got a lot of scrambling to do to get his stake in time...and even more scrambling to do if he loses...

Balling the Jack is the first novel from Frank Baldwin, a young writer who moved to San Francisco from a New York much like the one in which Tom lives. But let's hear it from him...

FB: I was transferred to San Francisco in September of 1993 because of my job as a copy editor for a newsletter for the oil business. The company folded the following July, and that was when I seriously decided to try writing a novel, and in January 1995 I was accepted into the UC Berkeley novel-writing workshop, which is taught here in San Francisco.

One of the ways the workshop helped me is to impress upon me the importance of structure and story. This novel grew out of a personal essay I had written about my time in New York that I hadn't been able to get published. I had originally thought that I could simply expand that to book-length, but I learned that you have to do more than spout off for 200 pages; you have to build a story. The teacher also gave me a lot of encouragement for the four months I was in the class, and after I spent another six months working straight through on it, I took the manuscript to her and she told her agent about it. The agent took it, showed it around, and it was accepted by Simon and Schuster in February of 1996.

RH: And in the time between acceptance and publication, you've also worked on the screenplay. Is that complete?

FB: It's tough to say when anything is complete in Hollywood, but I've written two drafts of the screenplay for New Line Cinema. They're currently looking for a director and actors. That doesn't mean that it will get made, but it's looking good at this point. Writing a screenplay was a very enlightening process, a lot of fun, actually. I think it helped that I had written the book, so I wasn't starting from scratch. I read a lot of books on screenplay writing and a lot of screenplays, trying to teach myself the craft.

RH: It probably helps that your story already has the rhythm and pacing of a screenplay.

FB: People have told me that, and I think it's true. The plotlines are pretty clear, and it can translate well to the screenplay in that sense. But you still have to do so much compression for a screenplay, to tell things much more quickly. It was a challenge to ignore all the peripheral elements and get down to the essence of this story. I decided not to use voiceover in the screenplay as well, so instead of having Tom's tell the reader everything, I had to find a way to show everything in the scenes by he does and says.

RH: The dialogue is fantastic, also very cinematic. In some of the scenes with the other gamblers, the balance between humor and tension is perfect.

FB: I'm glad you say that. Dialogue can be fun to write at times, when it feels like it's just popping out of your head onto the page. I'm sure that you're finding with your book that some parts of more fun to write than others. To me, the worst part is all the background information you have to find some way of getting in without slowing things down too much. It's even harder when you're writing in the first person, when you have to come up with some excuse for the narrator to tell you what he knows or be told what he doesn't know. You have to get at those things indirectly, to avoid having your narrator say things like, "Then I met this new guy. He was a loan shark and I needed ten thousand dollars."

RH: Now, I ultimately think Tom's a sympathetic character, but he's also a jerk in some ways, and I know some readers would think of him as an asshole.

FB: To me, the voice is crucial to a book. If you don't like the voice or aren't struck by it, you aren't going to like the book. Skirting that line between giving Tom an edge and making him unsympathetic was dicey, and I think it's natural that some readers will end up not caring for him at all. One of the things that I tried to do with him was to create a young guy who thinks and talks the way a lot of young guys really do think and talk, rather than the way we'd like young guys to think and talk. He wants to have a good time, he wants to get laid. I know that's going to rub some people the wrong way, but what can you do? He's not a politically correct character. Political correctness often becomes a way to hide from reality to avoid upsetting or offending people, and I tried to resist doing that every step of the way when writing this story.

One of the things that I tried to capture with Tom was the frustration a lot of people feel a year or two out of college, when they can't stand the whole 9-to-5 routine. It's a crisis of belief at a very young age, when you start realizing that you really are going to have to work for the rest of your life.

RH: A lot of people see what you and I do, writing full time, as a great escape from the desk job. But we both know that it's as grueling if not moreso than any office job they'll ever have.

FB: And it has the added disadvantage of being lonely. Your workday is walking into your room, sitting at your desk, and being alone for X number of hours every day. Sure, you're your own boss, if you're good enough at selling yourself, but you're alone. That's another reason that the novel writing workshop was so good for me, in that I've stayed in touch with some of the other writers in the program and we get together every six weeks or so to read each other's material and talk about writing with other people who understand what it's really like.

I was very lucky in that my wife agreed to work to support us while I was writing this book, with the promise that if I couldn't sell it I'd go back to working fulltime. The advance from Simon and Schuster for Balling the Jack was good for a first novel, but it went straight into paying for the bills that had built up while I was writing it. It was the film deal that gave me extra money to be able to continue to write fulltime and get my second novel to the point where Simon and Schuster will look at it.

RH: It sounds like you've wanted to tell this story for a long time, but it took the workshop to give you the opportunity to actually write it.

FB: Yeah, but getting out of New York also gave me a chance to take a step back and organize my thoughts. When I was there, I was too busy and distracted. It was only when I came out here that I was able to write the New York book that I had in me.

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All materials copyright © 1997 Ron Hogan