When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
It’s hard to pinpoint. I was always an avid reader. I remember, when I was in high school, reading The Stand, by Stephen King and thinking, at some point, that it must be fantastic to be able to be able to make a living just telling stories. But I think it was years before I actually really considered giving it a try. And then there were all those years of denial, when I wouldn’t admit to myself that I wanted to try, because failure was such a large possibility. So I probably lost a few years there, and then, at some point, it just became imperative to give it a real shot. I think it helped not being particularly interested in anything else.
How did you get published?
I wrote a book that I thought was pretty good. I submitted to about fifty agencies and a handful of publishers and got rejected across the board. So I gave it up for a while, but never stopped reading. A few years later I felt the urge to write again. This time there was more urgency to it. I felt I actually had something to say. So I wrote what would become Plan B, my first novel, sent out query letters, got interest from a handful of agents, signed with one of them, and few months later we had a deal at St. Martin’s Press.
Your books tend to be about people dealing with very serious, sometimes tragic life-issues, and yet they’re all very funny. Why do you think you tell your stories in such a funny way?
Because that’s how life really is. No matter what you’re going through, there’s comedy to be found. And if you ignore the comedy, than life is just one long funeral. I’m the guy who laughs at a funeral and cries at American Express commercials. You have to be open to the full spectrum of emotional responses. So I try to write books that convey that range. I want you to be moved, maybe to tears, but also to laugh your ass off.
Critics have often referred to you as “The American Nick Hornby.” How do you feel about that?
I understand that publishers, booksellers, and reviewers need to somehow categorize writers, to establish reference points. I understand the comparison, in that there aren’t very many men writing in an accessible manner about the topics he and I write about. So, while I would prefer to be seen as Jonathan Tropper, and not the American version of anybody, I think you could do a lot worse than being compared to Nick Hornby.
Three of your novels are in development as motion pictures. What do you think it is about your novels that has captured Hollywood’s interest?
I couldn’t say for sure, but I write very character driven novels. I work very hard to create three dimensional, flawed, interesting, and occasionally over-the-top characters. And I think interesting characters are in demand in Hollywood. Interesting characters attract top shelf actors, who in turn, attract the rest of the talent, and then the financing, which is what ultimately gets a movie made. It all starts from the characters, so I think, when producers are moved b characters, they see a project that has the potential to attract talent.
Which authors have inspired you?
In college I read Bright Lights Big City, by Jay McInerney, which was a very important book for me, because it illuminated what contemporary fiction could be. It was really a revelation to me. Every sentence just leapt off the page at me; the economy, the word choices, the simple elegance of it. I still reread it at least once a year, just to kind of recalibrate myself. I also reread What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, by Peter Hedges every few years. Coincidentally, Hedges is the writer/director on the adaptation of my novelEverything Changes. Some of my other favorite authors are Richard Russo, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Michelle Tea, and John Irving.
Are you a disciplined writer? Do you write every day? Do you follow an outline?
I’m a terribly undisciplined writer. I do try to write every day, try to treat it like a job; show up by nine, put in a full day, etc. But it’s hard when it’s such a solitary process. There are good days and there are bad days. I never start with an outline, I start with a character, and after I’ve written about that character for a while, I start outlining the novel, but I never seem to follow my outlines anyway. So it just becomes a mess of chapters until finally, hopefully, the book presents itself. I tend to write a lot more than actually makes it into the book.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a remake of the play Harvey, for Fox 2000. There was the great, iconic movie in 1950 starring Jimmy Stewart, and we’re telling the story in a very contemporary manner. It’s been a great challenge to reinvent it for a modern movie audience.
I’m also writing the adaptation of my latest novel, This Is Where I Leave You, (August 6, 2009) as a feature film for Warner Brothers. After watching three of my other books go through the adaptation process at the hands of others, I decided it was time to try it myself, so when Warner Brothers optioned it, I attached myself as the screenwriter, and, to my pleasant surprise, they went for it.
And, once the dust clears on the book tour for This Is Where I Leave You, I plan to start my next novel.
Which do you prefer, writing novels or screenplays?
I greatly enjoy the challenge of screenwriting, and I’ll always want to do it, but I love words, and I love the length and depth of writing novels. You can write dialogue in a novel, but you can’t write exposition in a screenplay. Still, my goal is to always be working on at least one of each.