Tuesday, November 01, 2005


Paul Levine is the author of the newly released SOLOMON VS. LORD, a humorous legal thriller. Levine is a former trial and appellate attorney, and the award-winning author of the critically acclaimed series featuring Miami trial lawyer Jake Lassiter and other legal thrillers. He has also written for ABC Television, Stephen J. Cannell Studios, and the CBS television program, "JAG." Levine makes his home in Los Angeles, where he is at work on the second Solomon vs. Lord mystery, which Bantam will publish in Spring 2006.

BookBitch: SOLOMON VS. LORD seems like a bit of a departure for you. How does it compare with the Lassiter books?

Paul Levine: I'd rather not characterize the book...rather you do it [see review]. It's true, though, that personal relationships are as important here as the A-story murder trial. And I guess that's a departure for me, though the Jake Lassiter books were character driven, but more male oriented. Here, instead of writing 1st person from the POV of an ex-jock, it's shifting POV between the equal male & female co-protagonists. I worked hard as hell to get the woman's voice right, and the early reaction from women (my wife, Bantam editors, my grown daughter, my mother [& the BookBitch]) is that it seems to work. Obviously men can write women as main characters and make them real. Stephen King wrote Dolores Claiborne and dozens of great women characters. Tom Wolfe wrote an 18-year-old Carolina hillbilly girl, Charlotte Simmons. Arthur Golden wrote the [fictional] memoirs of a Japanese geisha in the 1930's-40's. Not being that good, I just based Victoria Lord on my wife and put our arguments on the page.

I'm pitching the book to the networks as a TV series in the next few weeks and trying to pigeon-hole it in a few sentences is hard. A battle-of-the-sexes courtroom dramedy seems to be one phrase. Opposites Attract. Moonlighting in the courtroom. Law partners who are sparring partners. Etc. 

BookBitch: Does Jake Lassiter have a future? 

Paul Levine: I think Jake might have been disbarred or at least publicly reprimanded for his courtroom antics. I'll have to check with the Florida Bar. But yes, if Bantam would like to resurrect Jake, I'm willing. But I'm under contract for four "Solomon vs. Lord" novels, so they come first. 

BookBitch: Why did you stop writing novels?

Paul Levine: I didn't plan on stopping. I moved to the Left Coast six years ago to go on the writing staff of JAG. Even though I'd free-lanced two episodes, I was clueless about the life of a TV writer. When they told me I'd write five or six episodes in a season, I really thought it was a part-time job. I mean, how long can it take to write 60 pages of: "Request permission to speak freely, Sir?" So, I thought I'd dash off a script in the morning, have a martini at Musso & Frank at noon, then work on my novels. I quickly learned that TV writers sometimes work around the clock, especially if one of their episodes is filming. It's not unusual to re-write scenes as cameras roll or to get a call from the set at 3 a.m. with the director asking for changes.  

BookBitch: Why did you decide to move to California and write for TV?
Paul Levine: For the health insurance. Don't laugh. I was seeking cheap meds, not fame and fortune. My last novel, "9 Scorpions," a stand-alone thriller, was not a great success, and I was tired and disillusioned after writing eight novels in eight years. In 1999, I traveled to L.A. to pitch the studios on a World War II film based on my father's experiences as a POW in Japan. I didn't sell it as a feature but I sold it to CBS for a four-hour mini-series. So, I had a script to write. On the same trip, Don Bellisario, the executive producer of JAG, offered me a job on staff. So, now I'm thinking I'm hot out here. Of course, I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I didn't know a smash cut from a cold cut. I also didn't know about ageism in Hollywood, and that most writers are considered dead at 40. 

[May I digress for a moment? As Burt Lancaster said (in another context) to Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success: "You're dead, kid. Get yourself buried."]
Anyway, when I started on JAG, the Christian Science Monitor called me "the oldest rookie writer in Hollywood."

BookBitch: Do you like writing for TV?  

Paul Levine: No. Not more than books. Not more than grocery lists. I mean more than books.  

BookBitch: But for established shows especially, aren't you somewhat stifled creatively with what you can do because of existing characters and storylines? 

Paul Levine: Exactly! I'm writing a piece on just this subject for MWA’s Third Degree.
BookBitch: What was the first show you wrote for? Which show did you enjoy writing for the most? Which did you hate? Are you allowed to say? 

Paul Levine: A lot of novelists take a snobbish attitude toward screenwriting. But it's really a demanding craft. I think writing for JAG and co-creating and writing for First Monday actually sharpened my prose skills. My writing is leaner, my plotting tighter, my dialogue zippier. There's also something to be said for regular paychecks plus pension and health benefits. I was such a rube I had to ask if I'd been overpaid when checks started arriving for re-runs. "Gee, I didn't do any extra work, but they're paying me again." Other checks arrive in your mailbox with no explanation. Money for cable syndication, foreign rights, character payments, and program fees. What are "program fees?" I don't have a clue, but the checks cleared all the same.  

Still...I find writing fiction far more rewarding in other ways. In television, it's not your show. It takes upwards of 200 people to put on a one-hour network drama. The writer is dependent on the director, the cinematographer, the producers, dozens of actors, studio and network executives, and the guys serving lunch at the craft services table. With a book, it's all you, baby. 

BookBitch: Do you think money influences writers to write? David Morell told me he thinks writers have to be obsessed with writing to be successful and it has nothing to do with the money or anything else.  

Paul Levine: Writers write because it’s an illness.

BookBitch: Do you like living in California? Do the earthquakes make up for the lack of hurricanes? I know you were in Miami for Hurricane Andrew, did that prompt your move at all? 

Paul Levine: After living 30 years in Miami, I fell in love with the mountains. The first year, my wife and I rented a house in the Hollywood Hills...very near the Hollywood sign. One day, looking out the window into a ravine, I saw my first mountain lion. Then we bought a house in the hills off Coldwater Canyon in Studio City. We have deer and owls and hummingbirds, and our rosebushes grow eight feet tall. [To say nothing of the coyotes, and I don't mean Hollywood agents.] So, yes, I like it here. At night, it's cool, even in the summer. And it hasn't rained since April. Still...I miss Mia-muh. Hurricanes and all. Mosquitoes and all. And someday, we're gonna come home. 

BookBitch: If your Jake Lassiter novels were to be made into films (or TV movies or a series) who would you cast? How about your new series, Solomon vs. Lord?  

Paul Levine: As for Jake, how about George Clooney? He's got that twinkle in the eye. Fifteen or twenty years ago, I would have said Tom Selleck. As for Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord, I'm going to defer. With a little luck...actually with a lot of luck...I'll be sitting in a casting session shortly after the first of the year. CBS has ordered a pilot script based on "Solomon vs. Lord." If they decide to shoot a pilot, we'll be faced with the happy dilemma of casting.
BookBitch: I poked around your new website (very nice, by the way) and saw a picture of you getting an the Penn State Distinguished Alumnus Award. Is that where you went for undergrad or law school, or both?  

Paul Levine: I majored in journalism at Penn State and in the swimming pool at the University of Miami Law School.

BookBitch: My standard questions for authors - these are the things I am most curious about. I'm curious about how you work. Tell me what a typical writing day is like for you.  

Paul Levine: Up at 5:30. Swim laps at 6:30. Coffee and cereal with fresh berries from the farmer's market at 7:30, reading the L.A. Times. Work from 8 until 1 p.m. Eat lunch watching CNN and reading The New York Times. Get back to work until 6 p.m. or so. Maybe some e-mail and editing at night. Read The Miami Herald, The Sun-Sentinel and Variety on-line. Fall asleep reading a novel at 10:30 or 11 p.m. That's why they call me "Mr. Excitement." 

BookBitch: How does your family affect that process?  

Paul Levine: My two kids are grown. Wendy (Sachs) is a television producer and the author of "How She Really Does It," an excellent non-fiction book about working mothers. My son Michael is a sportscaster, the play-by-play voice of the Kalamazoo Kings of the Frontier (baseball) League. My wife, Renee, is a deputy city attorney for City of Los Angeles. She's the one who calls me "Mr. Excitement." 

BookBitch: How long does it take you to complete a novel?  

Paul Levine: Six to nine months, working hard and fulltime. 

BookBitch: Do you use researchers or do your own or just use yourself as your chief resource?  

Paul Levine: I do my own research. Internet, of course. But I use the L.A. public library system, too. It's quite good. 

BookBitch: Do you have groupies? 

Paul Levine: Yes, my rescue dog Nikki and rescue cat Taxi (found by Renee under a taxicab). I have, however, wowed the ladies of Hadassah in various Jewish Community Centers where I am usually asked three questions:  

1. "So, you making any money at this?"  
2. "Are your married?"  
3, And depending on the answer to 2, "Would you like to see a picture of my daughter?" 

BookBitch: What are you currently reading?
Paul Levine: The short story collection, "Dangerous Women." The non-fiction account of life in Cook County Criminal Court: "Courtroom 302" by journalist Steve Bogira. John Schulian's excellent compilation of baseball columns: "Twilight of the Long-ball Gods." 

BookBitch: Can you read other legal fiction type books while you're working on writing one?

Paul Levine: Not a problem. 

BookBitch: What sort of books do you read for pleasure?
Paul Levine: Mostly fiction. Lots of Florida authors, and aren't there a hell of a lot of good ones?  And here's a question for Stacy. Why do Florida authors write with so much humor while L.A. authors are so grim in a faux neo-noir style? Don't ask me because I don't know. 

BookBitch: Well, you lived here, you should know. And you still read the Miami Herald. I heard Carl Hiaasen say he just clips articles from the Miami Herald and then writes books around them. When the publisher calls and says no one is going to believe this, he sends them a copy of the article referencing the unbelievable subject.  He went on to say after the election in 2000, they stopped asking. And for the pseudo noir LA style stuff, let's just blame it on Hammett. Great question - wish I'd thought to ask first! 

Paul Levine: Carl is being too modest. Or everyone would just take those clips and make their stories sing.

BookBitch: Who are some of your favorite authors?

Paul Levine: This changes often, depending what I'm reading at the time. Omitting living writers makes it easier: John D. MacDonald. Raymond Chandler. Ernest Hemingway. It's so difficult listing favorites or compiling Top Ten lists. How do you compare "Huckleberry Finn" with "All the King's Men"? What's a better book: "The Old Man & the Sea" or "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest"? And can a book that's essentially journalistic be considered great? If so, how about John Hersey's "Hiroshima"? And even thought I said I wouldn't mention living writers, let me express my admiration for Stephen King's "Misery" and Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities."

BookBitch: Thank you for being so nice about doing this and for being so forthcoming with your answers. I wish you much success with your new series and I can't wait to read the next one! 

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