By: Gregg LaGambina
A novelist writes novels, of course, but when you’re Nina Sadowsky, that’s just one small part of being a writer. Sadowsky didn’t even start writing her first novel until she was in her 40s, and much of her success can be attributed to her ability to flout convention and remain fearless despite the many odds stacked against her. Her tenacity has not only helped launch her career as a novelist, it’s why she became one in the first place.
Once upon a time, Sadowsky was an entertainment lawyer. She has also written, produced, and developed countless films and television shows for studios and networks from Disney to Lifetime. But she will be the first to tell you that when she reached a certain age, it was becoming more and more clear to her that her ideas were not being met with the same enthusiasm. Around that time, she also realized that her passion for writing had begun to wane. She could have complained, or accepted her situation, but that’s not how Sadowsky wanted to live her life. So, she did what any smart, ambitious person would do in her place – she reinvented herself.
It took her over a year of Sunday afternoons to get the first draft of her first novel, Just Fall, into shape to show a publisher. This was while she was simultaneously teaching a full course load at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Since that first book was done and sold, she has already sold her second book (The Burial Society, out early next year) with a third on the way. She is also currently in talks about expanding one of her characters into a series of books. As for her debut, Just Fall is currently in development as a possible series for the STARZ network.
It is because of Sadowsky’s unique background, subsequent reinvention, and return to the world of film and television development – with her own intellectual property this time – that CreativeFuture decided to sit down with her to find out about all of the work a novelist does when they are not writing.
Gregg LaGambina: I was just reading that your first book might become a television series.
Nina Sadowsky: That’s true. It’s in development.
GL: This is why your career is so fascinating to me. You came from that world of television and film and now you’re headed back into it, but from a totally different perspective.
NS: I suppose, in that way, I’m very unusual. I had one representative tell me – because I was very involved in the selling of the book to television too – “Most of my clients don’t care. They just want me to sell it!” I told him, “That’s not how I am.” I know the business and therefore can’t help but have opinions! I partly wrote the first book because, honestly, I was feeling frustrated. I was feeling very old and very female in every room I walked into. I was really frustrated by this because I’ve only gotten better at what I do.
But, I had a bad television-pitching season where I was strung along on some things, jerked around on others, and I was just feeling so demoralized. I thought, “What this is doing to me is killing my love of writing. And I don’t want it to do that.”
So, I decided to write a book, which had always been on my bucket list of things to do during my life. It also came out of something personal, which is that I was recently remarried and I blended a family of four teenagers, which is basically suicidal [laughs]. My son and my stepson – who really did not get along in the beginning – started to bond over football on Sundays. In the beginning, my stepson wouldn’t even come to our house if my kids were present. We both had shared custody and it was very difficult. So, my stepson started coming over on Sundays and they would watch football together and I was kind of afraid to leave them alone, honestly. But, I could go into my office and work. I decided that on Sundays, I was going to work on this book. I worked on it for about a year-and-a-half. I didn’t really tell anyone about it. I just did it.
GL: How long did you get to spend writing during those Sundays?
NS: About five or six hours. I’m a good worker once I get into it.
GL: Did you just start with a blank page, or did you have some idea of what you wanted to write when you sat down that first Sunday?
NS: I went in with an image that came out of a weekend away with my husband. We had been married a few months and my stepson was so angry it was ripping us apart. So, we went on this little vacation to Laguna for the weekend to regroup. It was supposed to be hotel sex and cocktails on the beach and reconnecting, but it was freezing cold. We went to the movies just to get warm. We didn’t have the right clothes. We were stuck in the fog and we didn’t want to talk about our problems because we were afraid to talk about them.
On the very last afternoon, I was standing on the balcony of our hotel, looking at some guys playing football down at the beach below. I looked back at my husband who was lying on the bed and for the briefest second, I imagined he was dead. Because I’m a writer, I always have a notebook, so I scribbled that down and that’s how the book begins – with a woman in a hotel room with a dead body in the bed. Of course, he is not my husband and she is not me, but I kind of scribbled down that scene and saved it for later.
GL: When you were in law school, you were the articles editor for the Arts and Entertainment Law Journal. So, even from the very beginning, it seems you were more inclined to write than to litigate. When you worked in film and TV, but on the development and production side, was that inner writer you’ve always been just itching to get out?
NS: I’ve always considered myself a storyteller, even though I’ve made more movies as a producer than as a writer. Nothing I’ve written has been produced, although I’ve sold a lot of scripts and that’s not uncommon. But I’ve always loved writing and even while working as a producer did some writing on the side.
GL: Does it bother you when something you’ve written gets abandoned somewhere down the line of developing it for the screen? Some writers don’t care – they think of the book and the movie as two separate things and are just happy to get paid again for the same book. Other writers visit the set and make sure their story isn’t being ruined. Where are you on that spectrum?
NS: I would much rather have it get made, of course. Knock wood – I’m really optimistic about my pilot, because Starz doesn’t develop a lot of projects and they seem very enthusiastic. We’ll see. I just like making stuff! I like being on the set and actually making something. That’s another reason I find writing books so gratifying. A novel is a thing unto itself. Screenplays are just roadmaps for other people to follow to create something else, but a book exists on its own in the world.
The other thing that was really fun for me in writing a novel was that I completely abandoned structure, because film and television structure is so codified. For the book, I have alternating chapters – “Now” and “Then” – the “Now” sections take place in St. Lucia and are linear; all of the “Then” chapters are completely non-linear and dive back into the pasts of the two main characters, their relationship, and their childhoods. I wrote it in a way that was juxtaposed to explore character, as opposed to just advancing the plot.
I had no rules, because I had never written a book before and I didn’t really know how. No one was telling me what to do. I felt very, very free and, as a consequence, I wrote the book as a kind of howl. It felt like the purest thing. I finished the draft and I asked a couple of friends if they would read it and they were like, “When did you write a book?” I was like: “I’ve been working on it when I can. Mostly on Sundays.”
GL: During football.
NS: [Laughs] During football. The reaction was incredible and within three weeks I had a really top-notch New York literary agent and it auctioned and we sold it to Random House. It was like, “OK! Here we go!”
GL: All of that frustration was for a reason. It drove you to finally sit down and write a book and the gamble paid off.
NS: Yeah! It was interesting because a lot of people said to me, “Do you want to adapt it?” And some friends of mine were like, “I thought you wrote a book to step out of that world.” But then people began chasing it and I partnered with a very good producer named Mark Canton. He just loved the book. A friend had given it to him and he took the book on vacation with his daughter Dorothy, who also works with him. His daughter read it first and said, “Dad, you have to read this.” They pursued me and I liked that Mark said: “I’ve done this as a studio head, but not as a producer. I’ve never done a book adaptation and I’m a little afraid of it, so I think that’s why I have to do it.” I thought that was kind of cool.
GL: You wrote a novel to get free of that world and instead…
NS: They sucked me back in!
GL: I’m guessing you were never that enthusiastic about becoming a lawyer. Even in law school, you wrote for the magazine. Did you even want to be a lawyer?
NS: No, I didn’t. This is the truth, and it’s not a very flattering story, but my father, who is a lawyer, offered to pay for an apartment if I went to law school. At that age, I was shallow enough to take the deal.
GL: What did you tell him you wanted to do that made him offer you that deal?
NS: Well, I graduated with an undergraduate degree in dance and writing. My parents were very supportive up until that point and then they were like, “Well, what are you going to do?” My first job out of college, I worked at a magazine as an assistant editor, but I was making too little to move out of my parent’s house. I had to do something. My then-boyfriend was taking the LSAT and there was a lot of family pressure, so I went to law school.
GL: Has your law degree been helpful, even as you reinvent yourself again as a novelist?
NS: It made me who I am. There were people who were so cutthroat in law school and in a way it prepared me for Hollywood. Naturally, I just don’t have those sharp elbows. I’m a diplomat, not a politician. I navigate my way, but I’m not into confrontation. I’m more into kindness as a modus operandi, for my work as well as my life. I just feel it’s important to live your values in your work as well, so that’s not me. And I didn’t love practicing law; it always felt like I was making deals for someone else to have all the fun. But I think I’ve always wanted to be a storyteller so I observed all those people in law school and elsewhere and put them through my writing prism! The novelist thing is great and I love my first book. I learned so much doing it. I was very lucky because I have a fantastic editor. She edits Lee Childs and a lot of big thriller writers. I felt very lucky to have her and very lucky that they bought a second book five months before the first one was released. They really have invested in me and now we’re talking about a third book.
GL: It’s a counterintuitive career move. Everyone is telling us that the novel is dead, television is having a Golden Age, and no one has the attention span to read an entire book anymore. Were you nervous about where you might end up career-wise, even with a finished first novel?
NS: I was savvy enough to think, “Well, if anything comes out of this book that would be great.” But my sole motivation was to just finish it. I had no expectation of an outcome at all; I let go of that. But somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought, “Well, if anything comes of it, I own the IP.” And that can’t be bad, because IP is king. We all know we live in a fear-based environment here – and I’m not talking about Trump, I’m talking about Hollywood [laughs].
Anyway, this is a fear-based culture and if someone else has already determined that something has value, it automatically has a value. If I had written this same story as a pilot script instead of a novel, I don’t know that it would have had the same impact. But the fact that top people gave me great quotes and that there’s a beautiful hardcover book with art. Oh, god, it was incredible when it first arrived. They’re all over the house! And now I’ve sold it in seven other languages – French, German, Spanish, Turkish, Serbian, Japanese, and Italian. It’s been incredible.
GL: You have been a producer on a number of films, helping to develop other people’s stories. How do you see your past work informing the process of developing your own material?
NS: I’m very good at developing other people’s material. I consider myself more of a creative producer than I do, say, a physical producer. My work has always been about, “What is the story? And how does every element enhance that story?” I’ve developed some “self-interrogation techniques” that help me (and other writers) step back and take a look at the work with some different perspectives. And of course, it’s easier for me to help develop other people’s work than my own, exactly because of that difficulty of looking at one’s own work objectively.
This is also an interesting question as it relates to my process. Many people have commented about my writing for this book, that it’s very visual. That’s because I sit down before every chapter and I think, “What would every department have to bring? What is production design doing here? What is wardrobe doing? What does the lighting look like? Is there a greens department needed? Is there a food stylist?” So, even though I’m not writing for film – to try and visualize the world, I think about what departments I would have to pull on in order to create this world. And then a lot of research, which I really love to do. St. Lucia is an island I visited a long time ago and that’s where Just Fall takes place, so current research about the island was essential.
GL: I was going to ask if you had spent time there, or if you were just imagining what it would be like because you wanted to go there.
NS: I’ve been there and I’m going back soon for a vacation with my family. I was there a long time ago. It made a big impression on me. I love the island. When I sat down that first Sunday with that snippet of a scene that I had scribbled, I thought about where to set the book and was like, “Why not St. Lucia?” It was all so random, but when I sat down to write my second book, which is largely set in Paris – which is a city I know pretty well and I love – I was thinking more consciously about setting. In that book the locations are almost characters themselves.
GL: You’ve mentioned that you think in terms of visuals and film crews and departments. How do you make sure you’re writing a novel and not just a treatment for a movie idea?
NS: I have no good answer for this [laughs]. My first book was written so instinctually. My chapters tend to be short. I tend to be pretty economical with my language. When I overwrite, which I sometimes do, my editor redlines it right out. But I think there’s a real difference. I’d say the main difference is that when you’re writing a novel, you can write interior thoughts. It allows you to bring a reader into the mind of your characters in a much more explicit way.
I think one of the hardest challenges of writing good screenplays, or good television, is you have to convey a lot of that through subtext or action. That is hard. I have a lot of tricks – a lot of self-taught tricks to make my writing better. For example, when I teach writing, what I say to my students, “Write exactly what you would have the characters say to get the structure of the scene. Then go back and figure out how to say it in subtext.”
I think every experience we have serves and fosters your other experiences. I became a much better novel writer after writing one. I worked with an editor, so when I did the second one, I pitched her an idea, we talked it through, and I had a guiding hand from the beginning. And, as I said, I love my editor. But there is a luxury of freedom in writing a novel, an ability to play with language, explore interior thoughts, use described imagery to create sensation, it’s luxurious, whereas film and TV scripts have to be tight and highly structured. And I’ve found in adapting my own work that one can really see the difference in the approach to how the story is told in the different mediums.
GL: You teach at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. What have you learned from teaching?
NS: Oh, well, I love teaching. You’re paid nothing as an adjunct, but I love the students. Particularly at USC, the students are international, so there is a diversity of perspectives that are presented. I taught one class for eight years where we made 15 short films every semester. I’ve had students from Japan, Brazil, France, Italy, England, all over the United States, many from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea. It is the United Nations over at USC and that is fascinating, because you see different ideas, different ways of doing things. Some of these kids know so much more than I ever will about the latest cameras, but beyond that, their perspectives and why they want to tell stories and what kinds of stories they want to tell – I find that really gratifying.
GL: What are some of the classes you teach?
NS: I’ve taught a short-film production class, both graduate and undergraduate. I’ve taught the thesis-writing class, which is for MFA students who want to graduate by writing and directing a film. I’ve taught the script-development part of that. Currently, I’m teaching a production seminar – an overview, where I take the students through ideation, development, production, distribution, marketing, and beyond. I also teach another lecture class that is specifically about short films and how to develop them.
GL: What would be your advice to someone who has multiple interests – such as yourself – but thinks they have to concentrate on one thing at the expense of another thing they might also want to pursue?
NS: I will say this: There is only so much time in the day and, eventually, you have to pick. You can’t spread yourself too thin. But I do believe you have to be willing to reinvent yourself, which I have done many times in the course of my career. I’ve been an entertainment lawyer, a producer, a screenwriter, a writer/producer and now novelist – and it is totally possible. You have to have a high degree of persistence and you have to have a pretty thick skin, because you’re told “No” or “It’s terrible” – you get rejected so much. But, for me, I’m a storyteller. I wrote a book because it was always on my list of things I needed to accomplish: One day, I will get a book published. It’s something I’ve always had in the back of my head. And I thought, “Well, I’m just going to try it.”
GL: And you’ve proven by example that it’s never too late to try something else.
NS: I’ve never looked at age as an impediment. I know that it is, particularly in youth-oriented Hollywood, but I just think I am better and smarter and faster the older I get. Maybe I can’t run faster, but my brain is fasterI had such an education working in publishing because there are things that are analogous to film, but there is a whole lexicon I didn’t know. For example, my editor sent me an email that sounded very exciting – “We’re moving your publication date by one week to accommodate the Barnes & Noble table dates!” I had no idea what that meant.
I have a friend from high school who happens to work in publishing and she has become like my publishing whisperer, so I immediately texted her, “What does this mean?” She said it’s a really good thing. It basically means a buyer at Barnes & Noble really liked the book and wanted to feature it on the New Release tables and that was worth waiting an extra week to publish. I had to learn lingo I didn’t know. I had to learn timing – it takes a year from when the editor accepts the book for the book to be released. It’s called the “production period.”
GL: And that takes a full year?
NS: Yes, and for a number of reasons. They’re used to be quarterly lists in publishing, now there are really only two. There’s a fall new release list and another one in the spring. So, there are two waves during the year where marketing and distribution have to ramp up to present their books to all the buyers. So, if you miss one of those waves, you have to go into the second one. Then, there’s also the physical production, which includes copy-editing, typesetting – all of which comes back to me every time for revisions. Then, there’s the cover art and subsidiary sales– we sold Just Fall to those seven other countries before the book was released. There’s a big push on that end – getting ready for the London Book Fair or the Frankfurt Book Fair, which are two of the biggest markets.
There is also the work I do, which is largely promotional and includes everything from speaking engagements, guest teaching gigs (I’m teaching at the Midwest Writers Workshop this summer for example), book reading and signings, organizing “street teams,” (a network of fans who help one promote a book in different parts of the country), written interviews, guest blogs, guesting at book clubs, social media promotion and other promotions like book give-a-aways (for Just Fall for example, we did a contest with Loverly, a wedding planning website since the book is about newlyweds).
GL: In some ways, it sounds similar to prepping a film for international release.
NS: Yes, there are some parallels, but there are also things that are quite different. I will say, in publishing, the most remarkable difference is that people in publishing do what they say they are going to do. If they say they’ll have a check for you by Thursday, you will have a check on Thursday. You’re not calling your agent six weeks later going, “Would you please get my check?”
GL: What have you learned about your writing now that you’ve gone through this entire process of reinvention, writing a book, and watching the process of getting it published and developed for a series?
NS: I’ve learned an awful lot. For one, I’ve become a much better writer. My editor, while we working on the second book, gave me a really tough note, which has forever changed me and I will always be grateful to her for it. The book is about 450 pages. She edited the first 50 and said, “I think you’re pushing too hard and it’s tipping into melodrama. You’re pitching it too high. You’re afraid that the reader is not going to get it, so you’re hitting it too hard.” So, I edited those first 50 pages according to her line notes and it was fine. But, then I started in on the rest and I got very defensive – “This is my style! If she doesn’t like my style, then forget it!” Then, I was like, “She’s completely wrong! I don’t even know what she’s talking about. I don’t see it!” Insert a couple of days of panic and then I found one place in the text where I saw what she meant. Then I found another place. Then, I realized she was absolutely right and I rewrote the entire book from the beginning. After that, the book sort of rose up out of its bones in a really powerful way. That’s something you learn by just putting yourself out there and doing it, no matter the odds.