RH: If it weren't for writing, in all likelihood you wouldn't be alive
EB: That's true, I wouldn't. Even then, it took many years,
because I didn't have anybody to teach me to write or to give me
feedback -- when I was getting started, my only feedback was from
other convicts, and what did they know about writing? So I would
read how-to books and writer's guides in the prison library, and
sometimes out of a whole book I'd get one little piece of advice I
could use. But it was worth it, even though it took seventeen years
and six unpublished novels before I finally got published, because I
wouldn't have been allowed to do anything else. "When you're not
locked up," I tell people, "you're locked out." I discovered in my early
twenties that the only legit way I was going to make it was by
writing. I'd been locked out of society and I wasn't willing to accept
the situation they were going to allow me as an ex-convict.
RH: Despite the decades by which the stories in these two novels
are separated, the core conditions they describe are identical.
EB: It's the same basic problem -- ex-cons only have a small
amount of freedom, freedom within a circle out of which they can't
move. That's true of criminals today the way it was true of criminals
thirty or fifty years ago. The difference is that criminals today are
more violent; when I was young, we preferred finesse. Only fools
committed violent crimes.
RH: With Dog Eat Dog, you're moving away from the semi-
autobiographical nature of your earlier novels. What motivated that
EB: I always followed the dictum, "Write what you know
about." I took that to mean writing about your life, the way that
Hemingway was essentially an autobiographical writer. Then William
Styron said to me once that he envied me the story material that I
had to work with, and that opened my eyes to the stories I knew
about other people besides myself. Although Dog Eat Dog goes
over the same territory as my earlier books, it's based on stories that
I've heard over the years; part of the main plot is a true story I was
told thirty years ago.
James Ellroy, one of my favorite writers, says that he makes
everything up; I make nothing up. I memorize, I analyze, I move
things around and fit them together in different ways, but I'm
working with stories that I already know really well.
RH: What have you been working on lately?
EB: I've written a screenplay for Suicide Hill, one of
Ellroy's novels, for the guy that produced True Romance and
Killing Zoe. It's a pretty good screenplay, but it's a hard book to
adapt because it's so convoluted. Ellroy gives you great scenes,
tremendous characters, but his structures are so difficult to get a
movieline out of -- but I did it, and it's way better than I thought it
would be when I started.
RH: How did you get started on screenplays?
EB: When I was in prison, Alvin Sargent -- "Two-Oscar Alvin,"
they used to call him -- came down and we wrote the first draft of
Straight Time, the movie based on No Beast So Fierce.
RH: How about Runaway Train, your most famous
EB: Kurosawa had written the basic story thirty years before
and never made it. Eventually it was translated and they started
shopping it around Hollywood. Andrei Konchalovsky was trying to
get it made, and Robert Duvall was thinking about acting in it, but he
didn't like the dialogue, he wanted the dialogue between the convicts
to be more authentic. The guy they originally had in mind to rewrite
the dialogue had just gotten busted for possession of coke, so they
called me. I was living in New York, and at the time I was
discouraged about the initial response to Little Boy Blue, so I
Anyway, they flew me out, put me in a hotel suite, gave me a driver,
the whole standard Hollywood treatment. They gave me a basic plot
-- they gave me the train going through the tunnel, those kinds of
things, but the dynamics between the characters, the dialogue, that's
all my work.
RH: What discouraged you about the reaction to Little Boy
EB: It had gotten great reviews, but it came out around the
same time that Jack Abbott was released from prison and killed that
guy. Abbott ruined things for a lot of ex-convict writers...hell, the
peripheral effect still damages me. People still use it, or just the fact
that I'm an ex-con, to dismiss me. I go on radio shows and people call
in telling me, "They never should have let you write, who do you
think you are," all that. They want to put me back behind a hot dog
stand or in a car wash, they want me to be punished forever.
America's not a very forgiving culture. It may profess Christianity,
but it doesn't practice Christianity. The basis of Christianity is
redemption, and we don't allow criminals to redeem themselves.
RH: One of the themes of Dog Eat Dog, in fact, is how the
'three strikes' rule fucks over a lot of people's lives by throwing
away their shot at redemption.
EB: They're going to wind up with people killed over that. You
steal some kid's bicycle from a garage, it's worth six months, but if
it's going to be a third strike, the crook might kill anybody who tries
to stop him just so he can get away. If you make every punishment
the same, you're making every crime the same. It's the stupidest law
I've ever seen.
And believe me, I'm really harsh. If a youngster's doing drive-by
shootings, I say you lock him down until he's forty. But not just for
punishment -- you quarantine him, sanitize him and train him for his
benefit and the benefit of society. Certain personalities, they're
formed by the time you're thirteen, fourteen, and after that, you're
not going to reach that guy until he's forty and he's burnt out...
They've got the whole process messed up. They're letting crooks get
away with their first two crimes, and then the third thing may be
nothing, but they'll still put him away from twenty-five years. They
put a guy away at forty, he comes out at 65, what's he going to do
except go on welfare? It costs a million dollars a case to keep one of
those guys locked up all that time. It's stupid.
RH: Quick change-up question: how'd you get the part of Mr.
EB: Sundance has a director's school, where they teach you
about directing by making you watch a film and dissect it, see what
makes it work. Quentin had been there and the film he used was
Straight Time; he'd seen the film, read the book, everything.
And Quentin hasn't just seen every movie in the world, he
remembers every scene from them. I'd made my acting debut in that
film, in a scene with Dustin Hoffman, so when they were casting
Reservoir Dogs, Quentin wanted somebody that really looked
like a bank robber, and Chris Penn asks him, "How about Eddie
Bunker?", and Quentin says, "Oh, yeah, he was in Straight Time,
he was good!" So boom, they call me up, and I don't have to
read or anything. The reason you never find out what happened to
Mr. Blue is that there was a scene in the script where I'd gotten
killed, and they ran out of money before they shot it.
That film's really what got me over in England. It's so big there, they
mobbed Quentin so bad there when he came over with it, he had to
leave the country. And it got them to bring my books back into print
in England, bring me over to do readings and screenings of
Straight Time and Runaway Train, the works.
RH: When you were a teenager, you felt you were going to die
before you hit thirty. How's it feel to have lasted this long and "made
it" as a writer?
EB: I'm getting more action now than ever before. I'm writing
my memoirs, and they're bringing all my books back into print here.
Cyril Connolly once said that you could tell if you were a success as a
writer if your books were in print twenty-five years later, and here I
am. And I've been places I never would have dreamed I'd be, met all
kinds of people. I have a great wife, a great kid. It's amazing.