Warren Adler

Interview with “War of the Roses” author, Warren Adler

Warren Adler: On His Popular Novel, Married Couples, and Loving Your Work
By Dan Couvrette, CEO, Divorce Marketing Group, Divorce Magazine and Family Lawyer Magazine.

Warren Adler is best known as the author of the legendary novel “War of the Roses”. So far, he has published 32 novels and short story collections. Recently, he spoke with Divorce Marketing Group’s CEO Dan Couvrette and shared his views on:

  • The inspiration and story behind his masterpiece “War of the Roses”
  • How today’s married couples are struggling with self-deception, impatience and materialism
  • The dynamics of human behavior and the importance of loving your work
  • His philosophy of novel writing
  • The challenges of transforming a book into a movie
When did you write War of the Roses?

The book was written in 1978. It was suggested to me at a dinner party. One of my friends was dating another friend of mine. At 11:30, he looked at his watch and said: “I have to get back to my house, otherwise my wife will lock me out. We’re getting a divorce, we hate each other, but we have arranged to live together until the divorce is final. So if I don’t come in on time, she’ll lock me out. I have half the refrigerator, we sleep in separate locked bedrooms, and we share time at the washing machine and the dryer. We have our own food, and we live together until the divorce will be final.”

And I thought it might be a really interesting study on human behaviour. Also at that time in the late 70’s, there was a group called yuppies. They wanted to show how much success they had by buying things, and I thought that would go very well, because the results of divorce are usually built around children and material things and how they share them, these are the real bones of contention.

And in War of the Roses, it was their chocked-full house that killed them in the end. Not only their divorce, which separated them and started their war, but they were killed by their house — which I thought was a very interesting ending.

Also, I just signed for a Broadway show, that will be a musical about the War of the Roses and it’s all over Europe and South America as a straight play that I wrote. The interest keeps building. I wrote a sequel called Children of the Roses, which has never been made into a movie, but it deals with what happens to the children when such a nasty thing has occurred. That book is doing quite well.

When you started thinking about writing this book, and of course you had this person as your inspiration, did you interview the person after, or did you gather enough information from that one dinner party that you figured you had a good enough start, and that you didn’t need to talk to him any further?

Well no, I talked to him for exactly five minutes. But you know, when writing novels, you have to imagine the scenario and then the characters begin to develop themselves.  A fiction writer understands this and it’s very difficult, because most people are literal about how books are made, but that was the spark and the inspiration. The characters were created from whole cloth, out of the imagination of the author.

My theory about writing novels is that if I knew the ending, I wouldn’t write them. I sort of work it out with my characters and they control their own destiny. It was a pretty bold move to have them both die. But I thought that was logical, because they deserved it.

Is your opinion of marriage and divorce as jaded as it would appear in that movie? Or do you think there’s some hope for people to have a happy marriage, and it’s just a percentage of people who can’t have a happy marriage? 

Well I can only judge by my own experience. I’ve been married over 50 years to the same person. I’m a fan of marriage, and we work out any problems we’ve had over the years. And once the children left the house, the marriage became even smoother. In the end, it’s about friendship.

A lot of people are impatient with marriage. When they have issues, they turn on each other. If they had a little patience, maybe the divorce rate would not be as harsh as it is today.  You know, people fall in love and that makes them a little bit crazy, but nevertheless, that’s the chief reason people get married. And if you ask me about the nature of love and why this person and not that, I couldn’t answer it. As a matter of fact, I’ve written about 25 books on that subject. What makes people love each other? It’s a phenomenon, and there is no answer.

You’ve also written books and the movie Random Hearts about couples who aren’t honest with each other and how marriages sometimes don’t work out. Do you have more insight into why that occurs? 

I’ve explored that over and over. I try to get the real essential human behavior material into my characters.  And one of the things that we have in common is self-deception.  We are constantly deceiving ourselves and this novel, Random Hearts, is about self-deception.  While I like the movie version of the War of the Roses, I hate the movie version of Random Hearts and Harrison, I guess and Sydney Pollack who directed it, weren’t too happy with me. I don’t think they got it.  I mean a lot of people love this movie, but it was not about a cop, and for some reason they made Harrison a cop where he was merely an assistant in the book to a congressman. I thought the book was a 100 times better than the movie. And I wrote a piece to the New York Times about how much I hated the movie, and I think that they were rather upset with me.

Many times movies are not quite as good or as accurate as the books, because they just don’t have the same perspective right?   

Well, it’s more than that. Even if you have in your contract that you have some limited control, you’re usually ignored. The process of putting a movie together is very complex, and there are a lot of opinions that go into it, and I guess I just lost control of being able to advise the people associated with it. They were all nice people, but they had no insight into the characters I created.

On the other hand, the movie The War of the Roses was a mini masterpiece, It plays somewhere in the world at least every day. People may not know Warren Adler, the author, but they sure as hell know The War of the Roses.  It’s now part of the nomenclature of divorce.

The U.S. has been in a recession for the past number of years. The fact is a lot of people stay together because they can’t afford to sell the house. They’re forced to draw a line, just like the Roses did in your book. Maybe that’s part of the reason why the book is still popular?

I’m baffled by the popularity. It’s actually a cautionary tale, and wherever I go in the world, people quote lines for me. There’s one scene where the female character serves up a pate and the Michael Douglas character in the movie says “this is delicious, what did you make it out of?” And she says “woof, woof.”  And he had a dog — who had gone missing. Now in the book she really did cook the dog, but they didn’t have the guts to do that. I mean, I’m a great dog lover, but I thought of the worst thing you can do to another person, is to kill his dog, that was really bad, but they didn’t have the guts to put that in.

I’m wondering if your film helped people understand the stress of divorce — or at least understanding how to try and avoid the worst possible outcome. 

I’ve received countless comments, whether on the Internet, letters and from people that I meet on the street, from people who find out I’m the author of this book. They say to me, “you know as soon as I saw the movie or read the book, I dropped all of my divorce-battles.” So I think that it may have put the idea into people’s heads that this is a very personal thing that happens between two people who are getting divorced — especially those with families.

I think the impact of this movie and book has really made a dent, because people are realizing how terrible it is on everybody – especially children. I think that people are always raising the points that are raised in that movie. They study the movie in schools of psychiatry, it’s part of the divorce nomenclature that lawyers refer to, and many of them give out the book to couples who are involved in a similar situation, which is strange, but nonetheless, it happens.

I’m very much interested in family dynamics.  My new book which is coming out in September is called The Serpent’s Bite. It’s about a father trying to make up with his two adult children, and the dynamics of that as they go on a trek through the Yellowstone Wilderness. I’m very interested in the relationship of parents to children, especially fathers, and how love disintegrates in family dynamics. That’s really the subject of most of my books.

Going back to 1978 when you wrote the book, with respect to the cruelty, was that driven by our materialism — or do you think that people by nature have a propensity to be cruel in relationships?  Or are there compounding factors?

That’s a very interesting question, Dan because you know what I really feel that people have the capacity to be really cruel to each other. I mean look at the people who are dying all over the world in these senseless wars. There’s something inside the human psyche that is really dark, and when it comes out in a situation like a divorce, it’s something that people should look into themselves and see if it can’t be ameliorated in some way. I mean the cruelty we do to each other is almost beyond belief.

If we take it outside of the context of divorce, tell me what you think about human nature in general.

There is a dark side to human nature that we have to continue to fight. We can preach all about love — love they neighbour, do unto others — but people just do the most horrible things. Of course, for an author, conflict is our meat and potatoes. So I’m really an observer of human nature. I mean this is what makes a great novel, to understand the workings of human nature and the dark side of it.  Unfortunately, I’m attracted as a storyteller to the darker side.

My 33rd book, The Serpent’s Bite, is about to be published. The title comes from a quotation from King Lear, and refers to nothing being worse than a faithless child. So I’m immersed in that — in the story of human creatures who do these terrible things to each other.

So that’s made you a tremendous novelist. Has it made you a happy human being?

I write every day, I’ve been doing it for 50 years. I’m very happy in my work.

That’s fantastic. If more people were happy in their work, we’d probably all have happier lives, right?

I would say that that is essential.  If you’re not happy in the things you do and spend the most of your time at, then what’s life all about? I can’t wait to get up in the morning and get to my computer and tell my stories. I’m really a happy camper, even though some of my stories are pretty depressing. But they don’t depress me. I’m just interested in human behaviour, and the wonderful stories you can make up about how people react to each other. That’s my life. I do this every day.

Do you spend any time talking with psychiatrists and psychologists?

No, but I wish that I was a fly on the wall of a psychiatrist’s office. That would really enhance it. No, I don’t do that. I’m an observer of human nature. And if you’re a storyteller, that’s your research.

People ask: “where do you get your ideas?” I get them from the people who I listen to.  Beware of a writer who talks too much and doesn’t listen, because everybody has a great story — everybody. I’m always looking for stories and trying to harvest them. And you can only get these stories when you listen to other people. Everybody’s different; everybody has a fantastic story.

When somebody has written a novel and they believe that it could be turned into a movie, can you describe what the process is like from the start to when the movie is actually completed? 

Well first of all, everybody who writes a novel thinks it’s automatically a movie.  The movie business buys thousands of books every year. From these thousands of books, they whittle them down to 30, maybe 35 that become movies. And the process is simple. First of all, somebody has to find something in that book that’s visual enough for a movie, then the book has to be shown to producers, to actors. They must have elements. You must have a director, and you must have an actor that wants the part. I speak from experience, because I was on the Warner lot for a couple a years and was involved in the process trying to make more of my books into movies. I’ve sold or optioned 12 of my books to the movies and they only made three, which is a pretty good record, because 99% of all the books that they option are never made.

Somebody important enough has to fall in love with the idea, and then they have to convince actors, directors, money people, producers, studios, and distributors. It’s a real tough process, and there’s no magic wand. I think that a lot of it has to do with luck. The most interesting thing about The War of the Roses is that all of the people, with the exception of Danny DeVito, went through horrible divorces. Everyone who touched that book to make it a movie went through a horrible divorce.

They understood what it was like, right?

Well it’s the toughest thing in the world to get a book adapted to the movies, because they usually do five or six scripts. It’s not an easy process.  And most of them flop. They don’t find an audience.  And The War of the Roses is a phenomenon. I mean everybody associated with it is unbelievably happy that it’s still continuing. I met Michael Douglas the other day and he said “this is the best picture I’ve ever made and I can’t believe it keeps going.” And it does keep going. That’s the way it is. I am not unhappy about that.