Ernest Brawley, a native Californian, is the man behind the gritty prison novel The Rap, a runaway bestseller which went on to be adapted into the Hollywood movie Fastwalking, starring James Woods. Another novel, Selena, set in the Central Valley of California during the Mexican farmworkers’ strike, was purchased by Twentieth Century Fox. Simon & Schuster published his third novel, The Alamo Tree. Ernest has also written two movie scripts, The Dressing Of The Dead for writer/producer George Gonneau, and The Northmen for producer Jeff Goldman. Jihadi Joe is his latest offering.
T & T: First thing first, Ernest. You’ve had an eventful life, hitch-hiking from San Francisco to Patagonia, and from Paris to Singapore. You’ve been to almost every continent. How did you stumble into writing? Did your travels inspire you?
Ernest : As a matter of fact, I truly did stumble into writing. In high school, I had no intention of writing anything, or even of attending college. I loved tinkering with cars, so my fondest desire was to become an automobile mechanic. However, my high school English teacher, Mr. Millhizer, was so impressed by one of my essays that he invited me to write a gossip column for the school newspaper. My column, which I called “Ernie’s Brawlesque,” included a flattering photo, and it was a great success, especially with my female classmates. And from that moment on, I forgot about working in an automobile garage and set my sights on the university and a career as a writer, which I erroneously believed was “glamorous.” My writing improved in university, and I worked for the college newspaper and published a short story in the college magazine. When I returned from my trip around the world, I assumed that I would immediately start writing about my many adventures on the road. Yet oddly enough, I started writing stories based on my life in my native California and my grandparents’ lives in Mexico. What my travels had done, in fact, was cause me to look back at my early life as if from a long-distance telescope and compare my early experiences with the varying ways of life I encountered around the world.
T & T: Prison life is a person’s worst nightmare. Whatever prompted you to deal with such a macabre topic in “The Rap”?
Ernest : My novel THE RAP, now available at http://amzn.to/1E2N6Im, is based on my personal experiences, like all my work. My father was born Ernesto Robles, of a Mexican family from the state of Sonora. When he came to California, he changed his name to Ernest Brawley, to find a job. In those days, Mexicans were relegated to second class citizenship, like African Americans. They had their own segregated schools and could not find employment except as farm workers. As it happened, my father got a job in Chino Prison, married my American mother, and raised his children in the guards’ quarters of prisons all over the state of California. Along with Chino Prison, we lived in Lancaster Prison, Tracy Prison and San Quentin Prison. When I was 21 years old, a senior in college, my father got me a job working nights at San Quentin. I started out as a tower gunman, aiming my rifle at misbehaving prisoners in the Big Yard and threatening them with death if they did not conform to prison regulations. Then I worked in the cell blocks, where every evening I forced the convicts into their cells and counted them to make sure none was missing. I also guarded the prisoners in Death Row, watching them sit in their cells, counting the days until their deaths. If a prisoner escaped, I joined a posse of prison guards with a pack of great sniffing dogs, tracked them down, bound them in chains, and conducted them back to Solitary Confinement. My last job was in the Big Yard itself, trying to keep order without a weapon, not even a billyclub. I was attacked there several times, and once came within an inch of losing my life. In short, working in San Quentin was a nightmare. I quit my job there the instant I received my Bachelor’s Degree from San Francisco State University. Then I walked out to Highway 101 and stuck out my thumb. Feeling much like an escaped prisoner, I did not stop hitchhiking until I reached Buenos Aires, Argentina, a distance of 6,464 miles.
T & T: As we all know, “The Rap” changed your life. From a starving artist in Paris who could barely afford the postage to send your 600-page manuscript to your agent in New York, you went on to receive a six-figure check. Wow! What did you do with your first advance?
Ernest : Yes, my wife and I were starving artists in Paris, struggling to pay our monthly rent. Then one day my wife said, “Hey, why don’t you write a novel based on your experiences in San Quentin? They’re so exciting, it ought to sell!” So, I sat down and wrote night and day until I completed my prison novel THE RAP. Lucky for us, it became an instant bestseller. I’ll never forget the day when we received our first check. Again unable to pay our rent, I opened an envelope and found a check for $179,000. That doesn’t sound like much now, but in constant dollars it’s nearly a million dollars. And what did we do with it? We had fun! Living the life of European aristocrats, we ate in five-star restaurants every night, treated all our starving artist friends to the good life, bought all our Disco style clothes at Paris’ most fashionable couturiers, flew off to gamble in the casino at Monte Carlo nearly every weekend, traveled Europe first class from end to end, staying in five-star hotels. And in three years, guess what happened? Yes. We were dead broke again.
T & T: How did “The Rap” fare in the theatres? What did the movie pundits say?
Ernest : Here’s the only review I have, from All-Movie. It describes the ascendance of the movie version of THE RAP, called “Fastwalking,” pretty well:
Review by Donald Guarisco
This oddball prison story escaped notice at the time of its release but has since earned a following amongst cult film aficionados. One viewing of Fast-Walking makes it easy to understand why: this is exactly the kind of offbeat sleeper that is tailor made for the cult movie set. The storyline mixes grim, controversial content and dark humor in an unpredictable way, lacing its suspenseful tale with reams of quotably profane dialogue. Director James B. Harris handles this storyline in a spare, confident manner, allowing a gallery of interesting character actors to carry the film. That was a wise decision because the performances are fantastic across the board: James Woods digs into the role of the title character with fire and wit that distinguished his early performances while underrated leading lady Kay Lenz is all cool sex appeal as his romantic interest. The rest of the cast is fleshed with sly, humorous turns from reliable favorites like Susan Tyrrell, Timothy Carey and M. Emmet Walsh. However, the best performance comes from Tim McIntire as the film’s scheming convict villain: he scorches the screen with a fierce, commanding turn highlighted by a few breathtaking scenes in which he lays out a black-hearted, cynical take on life in monologue form. There is plenty of recommend in this film, but those scenes alone make it worth viewing. In short, Fast-Walking is a must for anyone interest in the cult cinema of the early 1980’s, especially anyone who enjoys a good crime story told from an unconventional angle.
T & T: Books and script-writing— you have tasted both. What appeals to you more— Hollywood or writing full-length novels?
Ernest : I love both. I just finished a feature film script called JIHADI JOE, about an Arab-American spy who infiltrates the Middle Eastern terrorist group ISIS to prevent them from exploding a “dirty bomb.” And I have a new novel coming out soon called BLOOD MOON, about a young girl in 1880s Arizona who gets raped by an older man and never rests until she brings him to justice. Both were thrilling to write.
T & T: Don’t you think that churning out a novel rather than movie scripts is more profitable in the long run? Because not only you make money from the book, there is also the added advantage of selling the movie rights— if ever your book is made into a movie, that is.
Ernest : Actually, it’s probably easier to sell a film nowadays than to sell a novel. Book readership, especially serious fiction, is way down, probably because of I-Pads, I-Phones and Television. But movie theaters are full every weekend.
T & T: “Selena” is set in California during the Mexican farm-workers’ strike. Whatever motivated you to write about Mexican farm-workers? Any ancestral linkage with Mexicans?
Ernest : I was inspired to write my novel SELENA — now available at http://amzn.to/1JGHkNo — by two Mexican women, each remarkable in her own way: One summer when I was a teenager I worked in a tomato packing shed. A beautiful illegal alien from Mexico named Naná Guzmán labored down the line from me, stuffing green tomatoes into boxes that I lifted onto a waiting forklift. I spoke fluent Spanish because of my Mexican grandparents. So, with nothing to do but chat with each other ten hours a day, we established a magical rapport that might have turned into something more romantic had the immigration police not raided the place, tore her weeping from my grasp, and shipped her back to Mexico. Years later, I attended a rally in the Mexican ghetto of East Oakland, California. It was in honor of a radical labor organizer just back from Argentina where she had been jailed and tortured. Her name was Olga Talamante, and she entered to the music of Flore de Pueblo, or Flower of the People, a hot band in farm activist circles of the time. She wore a Mexican Indian tunic of red and white, and an eagle medallion from the United Farmworkers Union around her neck. Eagle-nosed, with up-slanting eyes, her face was a deep rich brown, framed by long, lush black hair. She was remarkably beautiful, with the look of an Aztec queen, and reminded me of my lost Naná. She was about 24 at the time but had the charisma of a woman much older. There was vast experience written on her face, and pain, and incredible resolve. Yet there was something almost flowerchild-like in the way she smiled at people, looked them directly in the eyes, and connected with them. She seemed to be at peace with herself despite her violent struggles in the San Joaquin Valley of California and in Argentina. She brought her humble old fieldworker parents on stage with her, and she was such an eloquent speaker in both English and Spanish that she had us all in the palm of her hands before the evening was over. In short, she had a truly remarkable presence, one of such power and beauty that it seemed to this lapsed-Catholic part-Mexican writer to be almost saint-like. We would have followed her anywhere. When her speech ended, everyone lined up to shake her hand, and it took me nearly an hour to reach her. When I did, I lost my ability to speak for a moment, and finally blurted, “I just wanted to say… you are beautiful!” The way I said it sounded almost sexual, for I was already completely smitten by her, so I quickly added, “I mean… I mean you are great… great!” Her mother eyed me like I might be an importunate suitor, but Olga understood me perfectly, and bestowed a magical smile upon me that inspired me to write SELENA and I have remembered to this day.
T & T: You have a penchant for writing stuff based on personal experiences. “The Rap” is a case in point. Is it because you find it easier than having to make up things?
Ernest : Yes, all my work is based on my own experiences, but most of it is so highly fictionalized that many of my real-life characters don’t recognize themselves when they read it. The reason I base my work on my personal experiences is because I feel them very deeply, and the greatest art is based on deep, true emotion.
T & T: If not a writer, what would you have been?
Ernest : An automobile mechanic.
T & T: You are married to a Thai nurse, Kanchana Namjaiyen. Your daughter, Lucia Brawley, has made a mark in Hollywood. Are your wife and daughter supportive of your writing?
Ernest : They are both very supportive of my writing. And my daughter is always my first editor, with both film scripts and novels.
T & T: You’ve travelled much. You’ve even visited Bombay. What is your impression of India?
Ernest : India, without a doubt, is the most fascinating country in the world. When I was there, I never ceased marveling at its art, architecture, religions, culture, natural beauty, and the kindness of its ordinary people. Riding the tops of trains with them as a penniless hitchhiker in the 1960s, I found them to be thoughtful and generous beyond belief, feeding me from their meager food stuff, and saving my life several times when I lost my grip and was on the verge of tumbling to the tracks. My favorite places: Ajanta, Ellora, Aurangabad, Agra.
T & T: What do you think is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?
Ernest : I’ve had no trouble with my publishers, except for one that keeps promising to publish a novel I wrote and yet keeps putting off the publication date.
T & T: Writers need writers. Do you have author friends? How do they help you become a better writer?
Ernest : I belong to one screenwriters’ group and one novelists’ group in my city of Pasadena, California. My best living writer friend is the Irish novelist Damien Enright, author of DOPE IN THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, and my best departed writer friend is the American novelist Max Crawford, author of LORDS OF THE PLAIN. All of the above have helped me edit and improve my work through brutal, and much appreciated criticism.
T & T: What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
Ernest : After I sold my second novel, SELENA, to 20th Century Fox, I swore I would not blow all my money as I did when I sold THE RAP. So, I bought a gigantic living loft in a little-known part of New York City called Tribeca, which used to be full of old factories but was now becoming gentrified. I paid $135,000 for it. It is now worth 3 million dollars. Too bad I don’t own it anymore!
T & T: As an author, what’s the best way to market your books?
Ernest : The best way to market your books is to let your publishers do the work. They are professionals and know exactly how to get it out there to the public. If your publishers are lackluster, the best way to publicize your work is online, especially on Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook.
T & T: Do you commit yourself to research before starting a book?
Ernest : Even though my work is generally based on my personal experience, I do voluminous research, especially when there is a political element such as in my novels THE RAP and SELENA, or when there is an historical element such as in my novels THE ALAMO TREE and BLOOD MOON.
T & T: What is the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
Ernest : The most difficult thing about creating characters of the opposite sex is bringing them to life through their actions and dialogue. Women think and talk and act differently from men. They also make different life choices. That’s why it is vital to have a good female editor read and criticize my work.
T & T: How do you select the names of your characters?
Ernest : Most of my characters are based on real people. So, I give them their real-life names, or names very similar to their own. It’s amazing that I’ve never been taken to court and sued for “defamation” when a character is described as “evil” or “corrupt.” But so far, I’ve been lucky.
T & T: Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
Ernest : I read all my reviews. Thank God most of them have been good. In the two cases when I got a bad review, I skimmed them in an instant, then lit them afire and watched them crumble into ashes.
T & T: Name your favorite childhood book.
Ernest : My favorite childhood book was Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry. It’s about two orphan children who love a wild pony named Misty that lives on a remote island off the Carolina coast.
T & T: What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
Ernest : Writing is easy. Selling is hell.
T & T: How long on average does it take you to write a book?
Ernest : Two years.
T & T: Do you have any particular goal or intention in writing a book, like, say, giving a message to the reader?
Ernest : Yes, especially in political novels such as THE RAP and SELENA. In THE RAP I wanted to expose the corruption of the prison environment. In SELENA I desired to expose the injustices of the landowners toward their poor Mexican laborers.
T & T: Who are some of your favorite authors that you feel were influential in your work? What impact have they had on your writing?
Ernest : William Faulkner, James Joyce, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Vladimir Nabokov, Leo Tolstoy, Gustave Flaubert, John Steinbeck.
Faulkner and Joyce influenced my stream of consciousness style. Dostoevsky the gritty reality of my plots. Nabokov my off-the-wall topics. Tolstoy and Flaubert my tragic/romantic female characters. And Steinbeck the colorful reality of my native California.
T & T: What do you think about the ebook revolution?
Ernest : Since the millennial generation is addicted to their I-Pads and is quickly turning off on old-fashioned paperback books, I believe that Kindle/Amazon ebooks are the future.
T & T: What do you like to read in your free time?
Ernest : I try to read the classics, but I sometimes fall under the spell of the thriller genre.
T & T: What projects are you working on at present?
Ernest : I’m working on a new novel entitled LOVE HAS NO COUNTRY. I spent years in Southeast Asia. And like the hero of this book I once awakened in a hospital there, looked up at the beautiful smiling Asian face of my nurse, and thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I went on to marry that nurse. And I‘ve drawn on all this background to create my new novel, which is set in the Golden Triangle region of Laos during the CIA’s “secret war” there in the early 1970s.
My hero is a strong, handsome, brave, but flawed young CIA military operative named Zack. Far too trusting of others, he was literally seduced into joining the CIA. He has no ideological motivation, and his only real loyalty is to the Hmong tribesmen in his platoon.
My heroine, Nita, is a beautiful, highly motivated Laotian Communist doctor, and Zack’s exact opposite. Her beliefs are so strong, so uncompromising, that she is willing to do absolutely anything, even use her body as a “honey trap,” to combat the “American bandits” who have invaded her country and killed her father.
Both Zack and Nita change during the course of the novel. As Zack becomes more certain of who he is and what his goals are, Nita becomes less sure of her rigid system of values. Love is the magic. She falls for Zack even though he’s against everything she believes in and might actually destroy her. He does the same with her.
Jimmy Love is my villain, and his name is particularly apt, and ironic, for he is madly in love with himself, and pursues women relentlessly. A huge, skin-headed, scar-faced, granite-jawed Hell’s Angels type with fierce beetle brows, indigo eyes, and a grey walrus mustache, Jimmy wears a long native knife shaped like a scimitar that he uses to chop off the heads of traitors and spies and intimidate everyone else. Ruthless, corrupt, yet hysterically funny, and not a little insane, Jimmy has been in the Golden Triangle forever, fighting a losing battle against the Communists.
At the start, Zack and Nita share only one thing, of which they are unaware. They are both spies. Zack has been sent to Firebase Juliet to gather evidence against its commander, Jimmy Love, whose increasing irrationality is of concern to his superiors. Nita has been sent by the Communists to seduce Jimmy, spy on him, and send the intelligence she has gathered to her superiors.
Soon after Zack arrives at the firebase, Jimmy leads his Hmong tribal warriors on a “surprise attack” on a Pathet Lao main base. Forewarned by Nita, the Communist troops ambush them, and they lose more than half their number in a desperate battle.
Jimmy is suspicious that Zack might be spying on him, and he’s jealous of his budding relationship with Nita, so he goes out of his way to put Zack in danger. As a consequence, he is wounded, but he doesn’t suffer as much as he might have because he is attended by “Doc” Nita.
As Zack recovers, he and Nita find time at last to be alone and talk to each other at length. Despite their differences in race, culture, and politics, plus strong mutual suspicions, Zack and Nita fall in love. At one point, when they’re entwined in a tender embrace, Nita seems ready to confess some terrible secret to Zack, but he doesn’t want to hear it.
Since there are so many differences between them, and their relationship seems so impossible, they joke about meeting “next lifetime,” where they will find peace together at last.
Soon after Zack’s recovery, a turncoat comes forth to denounce Nita as a communist spy. Jimmy is on the point of chopping Nita’s head off when Zack bursts into the room and shoots him down.
Both implicated in Jimmy’s murder now, Zack and Nita escape the firebase during a typhoon and manage to evade their pursuers by taking a narrow crumbling trail down a mountain.
Seeking refuge in a cavern, they are discovered by a group of Pathet Lao guerillas who happily inform them that the Paris Peace Accords have been signed and the war is over.
The guerillas take them to the camp of the Pathet Lao colonel who is Nita’s superior. Hating Americans, and resenting Nita for taking the “bandit” under her wing, he prepares to shoot Zack, even though the war is over. Nita kills him to save Zack’s life.
Now they are both anathemas. Neither can return home. Love is their only country.
T & T: When creating characters, do you already know who they are before you begin writing or do you let them develop as you go?
Ernest : I imagine I know who my characters are before I begin writing, but a fully developed character assumes an identity of its own and tends to go its own way, regardless of the wishes of the writer. This may sound like an exaggeration, but it’s true. Several times my characters have absolutely astounded me by their unpredictable actions.
T & T: Which character do you relate to most?
Ernest : The prison guard Little Arvin Weed in THE RAP is most like me, and is based on my own experience, so of course I relate to him most.
T & T: Tell us about your writing process and how you brainstorm your plots.
Ernest : When I run out of ideas, I consult the journals I have kept since I was twenty years old. There, I am sure to find another exciting story. However, all my most interesting plots and scenes come to me in early morning dreams between sleeping and waking. The instant my eyes pop open, I grab the pen and paper I keep by my bed and jot them down in detail.
T & T: Where is your favorite place to write?
Ernest : At my desk, in my bedroom, with a view out my window of gigantic redwood trees, skyscraping palms, and the lofty San Gabriel Mountains.
T & T: Do you have any unique or quirky writing habits?
Ernest : Yes. As noted above, I rely on dreams to form my stories.
T & T: People say writers are socially inept. Is it a misconception? Or how true is it?
Ernest : Although I spend many hours alone in my room writing, when I come out in the evening I love to hang out with friends, and no one has ever called me socially inept. As a matter of fact, I’m quite happy chatting and laughing with companions till the early hours of the morning.
T & T: Which works best for you— typewriter, fountain pen, dictate, computer or longhand?
Ernest : Back in the Sixties, I wrote everything out longhand. In the Seventies I bought a typewriter. And at the turn of the century I bought a computer, which has served me well ever since. I find my computer is most valuable as a memory aid, as I now keep a record of all kinds of ideas I used to jot down on pieces of paper and casually toss aside.
T & T: Writers are often associated with loner tendencies. Is there any truth in it?
Ernest : In my case, there is no truth in it at all. I love people, love being with friends and family, and learn much from them.
T & T: Have you ever experienced Writer’s Block? How long does it last?
Ernest : I’m extraordinarily lucky. I have never experienced writer’s block for more than an hour or two. And I have so many script and book ideas there is no way I will write them all out before I depart this earth.
T & T: Do you proofread and edit your work on your own or pay someone to do it for you?
Ernest : I’ve rarely had to pay a proofreader. I have many literarily talented friends and family members who do that job for me.
T & T: What is your take on the importance of a good cover and title?
Ernest : An evocative title and cover are vitally important to the sales of books. I love all my novels’ titles: THE RAP, SELENA, THE ALAMO TREE, BLOOD MOON. My all-time favorite cover is the one for the original version of THE RAP, featuring claustrophobic prison bars.
T & T: Do you attend literary lunches and events?
Ernest : I do occasionally. And I have gone on two nation-wide publicity tours where I gave talks and interviews on TV, radio, and to newspapers and periodicals.
T & T: Do you read any of your own work?
Ernest : Haven’t read any of my books in years. Perhaps it’s time to go back and re-read them.
T & T: Are there any books that you are currently reading and why?
Ernest : Right now, I’m re-reading THE GREEK MYTHS by Robert Graves, but I just put down a thriller set in Paris by Allen Folsom called THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW. As I said before, I love reading the classics, but occasionally find myself tempted by the thriller genre.
T & T: It is often believed that almost all writers have had their hearts broken at some point in time. Does it remain true for you as well?
Ernest : Oh, yes. In my long life and many travels about the world I’ve had my heart broken several times by women who loved and left me. And in one fictionalized form or another, I’ve told all their stories. One example is my short story/memoir “Fever Road,” which will soon be published by this magazine.
T & T: Poets and writers in general have a reputation of taking their own lives. Why do these things happen? Can it be frustration or depression?
Ernest : Since I’m an inveterate optimist, I’ve never experienced the professional frustration that sometimes leads to depression. But I have had two very dear writer friends who intentionally drank themselves to death when they felt their muses had left them.
T & T: Is it true that anyone can be a writer?
Ernest : Let me answer this question with a brief story. My younger sister was a rancher’s wife and a cowgirl. While roping a calf in a rodeo, her horse fell on her and she lost her leg. Like everyone in our family, she is an endless optimist, so she was up and active in record time, riding horses, water skiing, and indulging in all kinds of other physical activities that would have daunted anyone. I told her that she should write a book about her experiences. She said, “But I never finished college, and I can’t write at all.” I said, “Anyone can write. Just write your story down in your own words, and let your editors do the rest.” So, she sat down and wrote her story. I edited it for her. She sold it, and it became a worldwide best seller entitled ONE STEP AT A TIME. Therefore, the answer to your question is yes, anyone can write, if they’ve got an awesome story and a great editor.
T & T: How does it feel when you don’t get the recognition that you deserve?
Ernest : I’m not one to belabor the past, or moan about a lack of recognition. One of my books did not get the recognition it deserved, but I just set about writing another one, hoping it will get more literary kudos.
T & T: Do you enjoy book signings?
Ernest : I don’t mind them, if they don’t go on so long that I suffer from finger fatigue.
T & T: Now when you look back at your past, do you feel accomplished?
Ernest : Yes, I do feel that I’ve accomplished a lot, and that I will accomplish more. I have some great ideas and have every intention of bringing them to life.
T & T: Are you a member of any writing committee or club? If yes, define your role.
Ernest : I was a member of the United States Endowment for the Arts for three years, handing out awards to deserving writers and poets from all over my country, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.
T & T: What do you do in your free time?
Ernest : I go to art films and plays, listen to classical music, work out in my local gym, take walks on the beach and in the mountains, and travel to Europe and Asia.
T & T: Given the chance to live your life again, what would you change about yourself?
Ernest : I would be a more faithful husband.
T & T: What is the secret to becoming a bestselling author?
Ernest : Luck, and a hot topic.
T & T: How do you feel when people recognize you in public and appreciate your work?
Ernest : Another brief story: On one of my nationwide publicity tours, I spent two days in St. Louis, Missouri, talking on TV and the radio, giving interviews, signing books. On the plane back to my West Coast residence, someone recognized me from one of my television performances and spoke to an air hostess who spoke to the pilot. Shortly thereafter, he spoke over the loudspeaker. “Passengers, I’d like to inform you that the famous novelist, Ernest Brawley, is aboard today, and I’d like you to give him a round of applause. Please stand and take a bow, Ernest.” And the entire plane erupted in applause. It was without a doubt the most rewarding moment in all my years of writing.
T & T: Did the thought to give up writing ever occur to you?
Ernest : Never. I have written every day of my life since high school. Not all that I’ve written has been published, but it has all been personally rewarding. In fact, I would write even if I never got published again, just for myself.
T & T: What advice would you like to give writers who are struggling with their first novels?
Ernest : Write from your own experience. Things you’ve seen with your own eyes or heard in your neighborhood. And don’t labor over small things like punctuation or turn-of-phrase. Get it down fast, stream of consciousness. Then when you’re finished, go back and finesse your prose.
T & T: How did you react when your first book got published?
Ernest : I’ve never been happier in my life. I danced around our tiny Parisian apartment and shouted my joy so loud that the neighbors complained, and my wife threatened to gag me with her head scarf.
T & T: Do you keep a diary?
Ernest : Yes, I have kept a journal since I was twenty years old. I find much of my inspiration by consulting half-forgotten events in my early life and aiming a more mature perspective at them.
T & T: Do you prefer writing over reviewing the work of others?
Ernest : Reviewing is hard work. Writing is pure pleasure.
T & T: Doesn’t it bother you that when books are turned into movies, they are often changed to suit the audience’s needs?
Ernest : A novel is one thing, a movie is another. Movie audiences require a lot more “Bang, bang, bang!” A novel needs more deep background. So, I don’t mind when a novel is turned into a film, if the plot moves forward nicely, and the scenes and characters are dramatic and convincing.
T & T: How much of a say do you have when your books are being adapted into movies?
Ernest : If you are listed as “writer,” then you have the right to some input. The screenwriter and director consult with you, and you give them as much help as possible. In the case of the movie version of my prison novel THE RAP, I could provide a lot of information because I was really a prison guard and went through a lot of the experiences of the protagonist.
T & T: Do you believe that you have done enough to leave a legacy behind?
Ernest : To be frank, I doubt that I will be remembered like my literary gurus William Faulkner and John Steinbeck. But I did make a little stir during my lifetime, as evidenced by the applause I earned on my flight to California, and my election to the National Endowment for the Arts, and that is quite enough for me, thank you. I’ve never had a big ego.
T & T: Has it ever happened to you that someone published your story in their own name?
Ernest : Yes, once.
T & T: Have you ever destroyed any of your drafts?
Ernest : Yes, I once tore up a three-hundred-page draft at the behest of my wife, who termed it “absolute twaddle.” And she was right.
T & T: Which of your novels best describes you as a person?
Ernest : THE RAP. As I said before, the protagonist, Little Arvin Weed, is very much like me, and all his emotions and decisions are similar to mine.
T & T: Have you received any awards for your literary works?
Ernest : Yes. I won the Joseph Henry Jackson Award in Literature.
T & T: Do you need to be in a specific place or room to write, or you can just sit in the middle of a café full of people and write?
Ernest : I must be in my room with a view. I’ve never been able to do more than jot down ideas in a café. I treat writing as a job. I get up in the morning, eat breakfast, and write till lunch. I take a brief nap after lunch and go back to work until it’s time to toddle off to the gym for my nightly workout.
T & T: If you’re writing about a city/country/culture you haven’t physically visited, how much research do you conduct before you start writing?
Ernest : I never write about a city or country I haven’t visited and experienced personally. However, when writing about Arabic or Indian cultures, I must do voluminous research.
T & T: What are your views about the elaborate synopsis of books at the back of the cover? Do you think they reveal too much?
Ernest : I almost never read them. Either the book stands on its own, or not.
T & T: How often do you go on book tours?
Ernest : Not often. Only two book tours in my life.
T & T: Do any of your family members make occasional cameos in your books?
Ernest : Absolutely. For example, fictionalized versions of all my family members exist in my novel THE RAP.
T & T: What weather inspires you the most, in terms of bringing out your literary best?
Ernest : Even though I’m a Sunny California surfer boy, it’s the grey of wintertime Europe that brings out my greatest work. It’s as if I view my native land, about which most of my work concerns, from a drone-like height and distance, and see all the things I miss when I’m up too close.
T & T: How many siblings do you have? How many of them share your passion?
Ernest : I have three siblings. My two sisters are ranchers and horsewomen in Northern California and Oregon. My brother is an English teacher in Brazil. They all share my passion for reading. But only Lenor, the sibling who lost her leg, shares my love of writing.
T & T: Aren’t writers supposed to be solitary?
Ernest : I am solitary when writing. But at the end of the day I love people, music, dance, café life.
T & T: What’s the worst job you have had?
Ernest : Correctional Officer, San Quentin Prison.
T & T: Who is the most famous person you have ever met?
Ernest : The great American writer James Baldwin was my dear friend in Paris. But in Rome I also met the great Italian film directors Fellini, Passolini, and Antonioni.
T & T: Any last thoughts for your readers?
Ernest : Never give in to the age of thumb-tapping cybernetics. Keep reading old-fashioned novels, just like your grandparents did. You will find them much more rewarding and fulfilling than Twitter or Facebook.