A Conversation With Warren Adler
by Claire E. White
A product of the New York public school system, internationally bestselling author and playwright Warren Adler graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School and New York University, where he majored in English literature. Inspired by his freshman English Professor Don Wolfe, Mr. Adler went on to study creative writing with Dr. Wolfe when he taught at the New School. He also studied under Dr. Charles Glicksburg at the New School. Among his classmates were Mario Puzo, William Styron and many other talented writers. Two collections of short stories, American Vanguard and Which Grain Will Grow, were published by Doubleday and represented a showcase of many young emerging authors, who like Warren Adler, won both popular and critical acclaim.
After graduation, he worked for the New York Daily News before becoming Editor of the Queens Post, a prize-winning weekly newspaper on Long Island. His column “Pepper on the Side” became a staple of a number of newspapers in the country.
Prior to his success as a novelist, Mr. Adler had a distinguished business career. He has owned four radio stations and a TV station, has run his own advertising and public relations agency in Washington, D.C. and was one of the founders with his wife Sonia and son David of the Washington Dossier magazine.
When his first novel was published in 1974, he gave up all interest in business to become a full-time novelist. He has been writing full-time ever since.
His novels have been translated into more than two dozen languages and two have become major motion pictures, the classic The War of the Roses starring Michael Douglas and Random Hearts starring Harrison Ford. A trilogy on Public Television, The Sunset Gang, was a critical and popular success and has played many times all over the world. It was produced by Linda Lavin and starred Uta Hagen, Ron Rifkin, Jerry Stiller, Anne Meara and Doris Roberts. The War of the Roses became an instant classic: a morality tale about the dangers of materialism and greed, told with a wicked black humor. It also became a shorthand way of referring to a particularly nasty divorce: in the book, the married couple literally ends up dead because of their war over their possessions. His latest novel is Mourning Glory: the story of a 30 something single mother who leaves feminism behind and sets out to find a wealthy husband. Her favorite hunting ground? The funerals of wealthy Jewish women in Palm Beach, Florida, preferably those with a grieving and vulnerable widow who is now unattached. Mourning Glory is classic Warren Adler: it’s wickedly funny, moving, and fully of wry societal observations.
A forward thinker, Adler is one of the few novelists who foresaw the electronic revolution and acted quickly to adapt to the new technologies that are changing the face of book publishing. In addition to the creation of an extensive website with book ordering capabilities, he has launched an ambitious project. After buying back the rights to all of his lengthy backlist, he has created a complete ebook library of his works which will soon be available on every existing electronic platform. The books are now formatted for the Microsoft Reader and Adobe, and will soon be available on Peanut Press, Glassbook, Rocketbook and other ebook publishing venues. When the project is completed, the books will also be available in most languages and in audio. Although it was an expensive undertaking, he says that he feels it was a necessary move which will more than pay for itself over time.
Mr. Adler’s themes deal primarily with intimate human relationships, the mysterious nature of love and attraction, the fragile relationships between husbands and wives and parents and children, the corrupting power of money, the aging process and other important universal themes. His books have been cited by readers and reviewers for their insight and wisdom in presenting and deciphering the complexities of contemporary life.
“I wanted to be a novelist since I was fifteen years old,” he says. “Throughout my early career, I would write from five to ten in the morning every day before going to my office, a habit that has stayed with me since.”
Mr. Adler’s novels have always been in demand by motion picture producers. Ten of his novels have been sold or optioned to the movies, and Lifetime Television is currently poised to produce a series based on Mr. Adler’s mystery book character Fiona FitzGerald, a homicide a detective in the Washington D.C. police force.
When he is not writing, Mr. Adler lectures on creative writing, motion picture adaptation and the future of electronic books. He is the founder of the Jackson Hole Writer’s Conference and has been Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Jackson Hole Public Library, one of the most important libraries in the west. Unlike his famous protagonist from The War of the Roses, Oliver Rose, Adler has been happily married for over 43 years to the former Sonia Kline, a magazine editor. They have three sons, David, Jonathan and Michael. The couple divides their time between New York City and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where they built their dream home which features views of the Grand Tetons. The house is designed especially for a writer who wrote for years in a windowless basement: it has a large library with floor to ceiling bookshelves, cozy fireplaces and fantastic views.
Warren spoke to us about his latest novel, Mourning Glory, how he got his start as a writer, and why he’s wholeheartedly embracing the new ebook technology.
What did you like to read as a boy?
I was addicted to various boy’s adventures series and read every single book in each series: Bomba, the Jungle Boy, The Boy Allies, The Hardy Boys and also loved Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson and The Mutiny on the Bounty series by Nordoff and Hall.
What was first thing you ever wrote? What reaction did it get?
I wrote a novel when I was sixteen, but never gave it to anyone to read.
Was there anyone who really influenced your decision to become a writer when you were very young?
My mother was an avid reader which probably subconsciously gave me the idea that writing was an important vocation. But my real inspiration was my freshman English teacher at NYU. Don M. Wolfe. He was truly the one who put the idea in my head that I might have the talent to pursue a career in the writing game.
You had a somewhat unusual path for an author, already being a success in business before you turned to writing. What led up to the publication of your first book? What was your reaction when you found out you would be a published author?
I yearned to be a writer since my freshman days in college, but various obstacles prevented a full time effort. I married young and was faced with supporting my growing family. I was entrepreneurial and from working on newspapers, I went to founding my own advertising agency. During that period a man walked into my office wanting my agency to promote his book. When he asked for our charges, I told him that his only fee would be if he could get his publisher to publish my first novel. The publisher read the novel which had been written and proceeded to publish it. Of course, I was thrilled and by the time my second novel was published, I was already beginning to unwind my full time businesses to concentrate on my writing full time. Mourning Glory is my 24th novel.
What kept you going during the years when you were receiving rejection slips?
An absolute abiding faith and belief in my talent as a writer. Those who originally rejected me are long gone, faded into the mist. I am still writing and publishing.
I’d like to talk about your new book, Mourning Glory. How did this book come about?
I have been a frequent visitor to Palm Beach. Its closed stratified society and pretensions always fascinated me and I’ve always wondered if there was a short cut into that society. In my writing I’m always exploring the nature of love and attraction and how it can, by some mysterious chemistry force, make changes in one’s life that are not readily apparent. The story is also about the dark side of wealth.
The main character in the book is Grace Sorentino, a 30- something divorced mom who takes some rather drastic steps to find a better life for herself and her daughter. How did you create Grace? What was your inspiration for her?
I know many women who could serve as the model for Grace. They are desperate, cast aside, put upon, taken for granted and with little prospect of enjoying a better life. Only the strongest and most imaginative can find their way out of this morass. Grace is one of those and I love her pluck and determination. Also her vulnerability. Even as I wrote this novel, I rooted for Grace to find the right path.
Grace’s daughter Jackie is a real handful. How did you approach writing this character? Did you plan her out or did she evolve as you wrote the book?
I have known numerous Jackie’s, selfish, mean-minded, immature and foolish. Some grow out of it. Most never do.
Your books are known for their dark humor, complex characters and sharp dialogue. What is your advice on writing believable dialogue — in either a book or a play?
Do less talking and more listening. I have found that the greatest resource for a writer is the ability to listen to others. A talking-too-much-writer is a tip-off to a writer who knows little about human nature and the human condition.
Mourning Glory is very funny, as well as being a moving story. Have you always had a dark sense of humor? How important in life is it to have a good sense of humor?
A good sense of humor is an essential part of the coping mechanism of living. After all, considering that we all end in oblivion, a sense of humor is an absolute necessity in understanding the big joke that is life.
Your books usually illustrate a moral dilemma of some kind, usually in a very unique way. In The War of the Roses you explored the devastating effects that materialism can have on a marriage. Were you surprised at the incredible impact that the book had?
It has baffled me, but I am happy it struck a chord. One writes, but there is no way to assess the impact of the story. Nevertheless, it is the goal of the novelist to move people, provide insight and entertain.
Let’s talk about ebooks. How did you get interested in this technology? Have you always been interested in emerging technologies or is this a new interest for you?
The impact of the new technologies on authors is profound. It opened a window of opportunity to re-release all my backlist to potential readers throughout the world. Any author who does not take advantage of these new technologies, ebooks and print-on-demand, is missing the boat. I hope I will show them the way.
Please tell us about your current project to convert all your backlist into all ebook formats. What has been the greatest challenge in this project?
All along we have had a clear path: make all of my books available to the widest possible audience. It was a complicated venture since there is no one dominating format. I hadn’t realized how much was required for full coverage in both cyberspace and the so-called real world. Despite all the difficulties, it has been the most satisfying and fulfilling project I have ever undertaken.
When you write novels and plays, do you have a particular audience in mind?
I write what I need to write and estimate that the core of my audience are intelligent adults from the age of thirties on upward who live an essentially middle class life, are of both genders and are searching to make sense out of contemporary life, a difficult task at best.
I’d like to turn to the Jackson Hole Writer’s Conference. Please tell us how that came about. What were your goals in founding the conference?
Having lived a long time in the writing world and enjoyed the company of my fellow writers, I figured that Jackson Hole, because of its beauty and infrastructure, might be a perfect place to welcome writers who needed a helping hand in both their work and their marketing. Besides, I spend lots of time here and enjoy helping writers gain their objectives.
How important is it for aspiring writers to go to conferences? How do you know that a conference is worth your time and money?
The only way to tell is if the attendees come back. Many have come three and four times.
Many writers want to be published, but not everyone is cut out for a writer’s life. What are some signs that perhaps someone is not cut out to be a writer and should try to do something else for a living?
If writing is not the work priority of your life, if the need to write is not paramount, and if it is the main source of your joy and bliss, you know you are made to be a writer. In my opinion, writers are born, not concocted.
Adapting a book to a feature film is a process which is usually pretty disturbing for an author. The War of the Roses was a brilliant adaptation of the novel, whereas you have made no secret of your disappointment in the adaptation of Random Hearts to the screen. What went wrong when Random Hearts was made into a film?
Neither the director nor the star truly understood that Random Hearts was at its core a story of forgiveness. Missing that point threw the story into another realm. Nevertheless, I have met many people who liked it.
Traditionally, Hollywood has been reluctant to allow an author to write the screenplay when his novel is made into a feature film. After John Irving won an Oscar for the Best Screenplay Adaptation for Cider House Rules, do you think that Hollywood will be more accepting of a novelist adapting his own work for the screen?
Cider House Rules was not made through the studio system. I have no reason to believe that things will change.
Do you enjoy most about living in Jackson Hole, Wyoming?
Jackson Hole is quite real, spectacularly beautiful and inspirational and is a fine place to write. What more can one ask of a place?
What is your advice to aspiring writers?
Stick with it. Keep writing. Believe in yourself and pay no attention to rejection.