Tuesday, 7 August 2018

An Epiphany - starring Hollie Overton as herself

Ten years ago, Hollie Overton’s acting career was just gathering momentum when she had a profound change-of-heart and decided to chuck it in and direct her creative energies into becoming a writer instead. A gamble that paid off with television writing jobs for series including Cold Case, The  Client List and Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments.

Last year, her debut novel, Baby Doll became a Sunday Times bestseller and was selected as a Richard & Judy Book Club summer read. Now, her second novel, The Walls, is already climbing the charts.

Hollie Overton
(author photo courtesy Random House

Both of her novels to date draw upon her unique childhood experiences to lend realism and compassion to her depictions of violence and complicated family dynamics. Baby Doll, described as ‘a gripping and tense psychological thriller’, features a relationship between twins and Hollie is an identical twin herself. The Walls tells the story of a single mother who happens to be a Death Row press agent for the Texas Department of Corrections as she grapples with temptation to murder her abusive boyfriend using her knowledge of the criminal justice system and guidance from a death row inmate. Hollie’s father was a member of the notorious Overton gang in Austin, Texas, and spent several years in prison for manslaughter, so she was raised by her single mother.

In this exclusive Scrawl interview, Hollie Overton talks with Remy Dean and shares some of her experience of writing for television and talks about how she made a brave decision that paid off and led her to becoming such a successful novelist.

Are you an actress who writes or a writer who acts?

There was a time when I would have said that I was an actress who writes but over the last six years that has changed. Now I’m a writer who used to act. I have no desire to perform anymore. Sometimes admitting that surprises even me. Acting consumed so much of my life - from the time I was ten until my late twenties. If I wasn’t trying to get an audition, taking classes, or performing, I was obsessively thinking about what else I could do to further my career.

For a while, I tried writing and acting, but the more writing opportunities that came my way, the less acting mattered.

Was there a particular moment, or series of events, that changed your outlook?

I remember getting an audition for a TV show and being surrounded by dozens of actresses in the waiting room. I had this sudden epiphany--“I don’t want to do this anymore.” That was the last audition I went on and since that time I’ve focused fully on writing. I almost couldn’t believe it was that easy to walk away from but it was.

Perhaps if I had been more successful I would feel differently about it, but I truly believe I wasn’t quite good enough. I got into rooms, got auditions for great projects but could never get to that next stage where I was booking roles. I have zero regrets though.

Did the actress skillset feed into being a writer?

Studying acting taught me so much about the writing process. I learned how to analyse text, the specificity required in creating a character, the collaboration involved in bringing a creative work to life. Acting was my first love, and ignited my passion for storytelling. I’m forever grateful for those experiences.

Would you say that portraying a character as an actress and creating a character as a writer have anything in common?

I studied Meisner, an acting technique that is all about getting out of your head, so you can behave instinctively to your surrounding environment. Despite all my training, I was never truly about to let go and be “in the moment.”  I found it impossible to escape all the superficial thoughts that filled my head. LA is a harsh place where youth and beauty is held to an almost impossible standard. It’s difficult not to compare yourself to others. As an actor, instead of embracing the role I was playing, all these thoughts would cloud my brain; am I too fat, too tall, too pale, too redheaded?

There were moments in acting class, and occasionally on auditions or during performances, that I could silence that voice, but it was always a struggle. I’m not sure why but the process for creating a character when I was writing always felt more organic, sometimes even effortless.

The Walls by Hollie Overton

So, are characters usually your starting point?

Before I begin a writing project, I always start with a main character. Then I ask myself what their emotional wound is and what core relationship matters most and I build the story from there. I think it’s because I’m working from such a deep emotional place that has nothing to do with those superficial aspects so I’m really able to silence that inner critic.

Because you are so regularly involved with television and writing for screen, do you consider your novels to be screenplays in waiting?

I don’t consider my novels as an extension of my screenwriting. As a matter of fact, it’s important that I keep them separate. When I first started writing Baby Doll, I was in a creative funk and frustrated by my TV career. I wanted to do something that was just for me and not for the marketplace. I wasn’t even sure what I was writing. I called it my “project” and worked on in bits and pieces in between screenwriting gigs.

When I sold my first book, I was beyond excited because it seemed like such an impossible achievement. Having worked in Hollywood, I’ve seen how difficult it is to get something produced, even if it is a well-received book. I told myself from the start that I’m would focus only on what I could control—writing a great book. Of course I’d love to see my books on TV or film but that’s not why I write them. I simply love the process and then seeing my books in print.

To what extent is your writing process emotional/intuitive vs. calculated/intellectual?

I’m without question an emotional and intuitive writer. I’m mostly self-taught, though I have taken several classes to learn structure and hone my own process but most of what I know I learned from doing with lots of trial and error along the way.

I used to have doubts about the type of writer I was and the type of writer I “should” be. I grew up reading all the greats. Steinbeck, Hemingway, Jane Austen and every time I thought about becoming a writer, especially a novelist, I’d talk myself out of it. If I wasn’t going to be able to write like the masters, then maybe I shouldn’t write. Once I let go of the expectations and pre-conceived notions and followed my heart, I started writing the stories that mattered to me. That’s when everything changed and I discovered what I was meant to be doing.

One of my favourite writers, Graham Masterton says he runs his stories as a film in his head and writes down what he sees and hears… When writing a novel are you acting-out all the scenes in your head first?

I’ve never thought about my process like that.  The way I work is very loose and less rigid than when I’m writing scripts. I’m a huge proponent of outlining screenplays or teleplays, but when I’m a writing book, I write from character and the story finds its way. I don’t suggest other writers attempt that because it can be tricky but so far it’s worked for me.

Once I’ve started a book, I spend a lot of time building each scene/chapter, trying to find the arc and the rhythm so that it’s exciting and entertaining and making sure the characters are tested in a way that’s real and grounded.

It’s also important to find those unexpected moments, the twists and turns that keep readers turning the pages. It’s usually when I’m writing dialogue that I employ Mr. Masterton’s technique, reading out loud the dialogue, doing my best to ensure that each character sounds as unique and specific as possible.

I was scanning your your IMDB credits… could you explain what the difference is between ‘staff writer for’ and ‘written by’ …and all the different writing jobs you do?

Staff writer is basically an entry-level position. When you’re a staff writer, you receive a salary, but you don’t get paid when you write your episode - which is a significant amount of money. You do receive residuals each time an episode you wrote airs.

When it says ‘written by’ that means I wrote a specific episode but was a story editor on the complete season.

The other rungs on the TV Writer ladder are: Story Editor, Executive Story Editor, Co-Producer, Producer, Supervising Producer, Consulting Producer, Executive Producer - Showrunner.

To clarify, my credits state that I was a story editor for TV but that was on a previous show. Story Editor is a title given by the Writers Guild of America to help classify your pay structure and job requirements. I’m currently a Co-Producer. What that means is I have slightly more responsibilities than as a story editor.

Whether you’re a Story Editor or a Producer, you’re still in the writer’s room pitching ideas and writing episodes. The higher up the ranks you go, the more responsibilities you’re given.

Dominic Sherwood, Anna Hopkins and Katherine McNamara in
Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments (picture courtesy Disney ABC)

One of the main obstacles for the writing process is the ‘internal editor’, which some can find crippling at times… How do you deal with that when there are so many 'external editors' involved? 

In TV, time is precious so you don’t have the luxury of worrying about your internal editor. You have to make decisions and move on because in a few weeks you’re breaking, writing and prepping the next episode.

The nice thing about the process of TV writing is that it’s collaborative. You may have a wild idea that doesn’t quite work and someone else will have the perfect fix and vice versa. There’s often a consensus from the room about what works. Or the showrunner has a very clear vision. That usually helps eliminate the internal editor. If you’re in a room that really supports each writer, it also gives you the courage to pitch wild and inventive things and see what lands. Sometimes those are the ideas that work best.

When it comes to the actual process of writing an episode versus writing a book, it’s the same - sitting down by yourself and typing away until you have a finished product.

The benefit of writing for TV is that you’re not doing it alone. You’ve got a team of writers working to build the story, scene by scene, everyone with the common goal of creating the best show possible.

The downside is that because there are so many people working to create an episode of television, there are times when that an episode morphs into something that’s not aligned with your personal vision. You have to remind yourself ‘this isn’t your show.’ Your job is to support the showrunner and creator’s vision.  That means you have to accept letting go of an idea you love or implementing an idea you might hate.

Writing a book is of a much more solitary endeavour and it can be a bit daunting knowing that you have to craft three hundred plus pages by yourself. Writing novels requires a deep level of trust and belief in yourself and the story you want to tell. There are no actors or directors to blame if the final product isn’t well received. It’s all you. For better or worse.

I’m never sure how writing by consensus works! All the re-drafting, editing – can you give us more of an idea about the process?

Writers gather in a room and the showrunner presents their vision for the season or episode. The writing staff “breaks” each episode, pitching our best ideas scene by scene until a story takes shape. Some shows are very hierarchical, in which you’re level dictates how often you speak or how much weight your ideas might have. I’ve been lucky that most of the rooms I’ve been in were very democratic. Everyone had a voice and the best idea won.

At this point, a writer is assigned and sent off to write an outline. The showrunner and studio or network executives, all weigh in with notes. It’s your job to revise as many times as necessary and then you’re “off to script.” Those three words send joy and terror into the hearts of TV writers everywhere!

You’re supposed to have two weeks to write an episode but I’ve done drafts in four or five days. Once a script is done, you turn it in and go through another round of notes. Sometimes the entire staff will weigh in on a draft, other times it’s only the showrunner.

After the script has been given approval by the network or studio, it’s sent to production. Script changes continue throughout that pre-production process. Sometimes the script is too long and you have to make cuts. Other times you can’t get a location or an actor isn’t available and you have to make more changes. This process continues right up until you shooting begins.

Once you’re on set, the changes are usually minimal but you’re always making tweaks. Actors might have an issue with a scene or the director will have a different vision or the studio or network has a problem that wasn’t ironed out so you’re on set tweaking the script on the fly. It’s simultaneously a very stressful and exhilarating process.

What is the best route for a writer to get their script in front of a story editor?

The one difference between selling a novel and getting a TV writing job is that access to decision makers is much easier in publishing. I’m not saying it’s easy. Just easier. Anyone with an Internet connection and a great book can be discovered if their book is good.

You can cold query agents and editors, track them down on Twitter and see what types of manuscripts they’re looking for. But in TV, there’s a much bigger gate to climb over to even get your work read. It’s not simply about writing the best script, it’s about finding someone to champion your work.
Most TV writers, myself included, work for other people. We simply don’t have the power to hire a writer onto a show.  It’s a very complicated process in which the showrunner, network and studios must all agree on whom to hire for a writing staff. To even get a showrunner or studio meeting, you usually need an agent or a manager or know someone with connections.

For anyone hoping to land a TV writing job, writing a TV pilot that gets attention is the first step. Then you have to find representation. A great way to do that and something that really helped me when I started was entering writing contests. There are a lot of scams out there so you must do your homework but there are some exceptional contests and fellowships that will get you noticed.

Which one worked for you?

I was in the Warner Brothers Writers Workshop and that got me my first manager and agent and my first TV job. There’s also the route of working in a TV writers office as an assistant and getting to know writers and having them recommend you to their agents. There’s no one path. If you talked to a hundred TV writers, they would likely all have different stories about breaking in, but all of them would probably say hustle and a positive attitude are crucial.

How would you feel when your fiction gets optioned and other writers are hired to ‘adapt it’?

I’ve loved seeing writers like Gillian Flynn and Emma Donogue adapting their own work and I’m eager to follow in their footsteps.  I’ve had several offers since Baby Doll came out, none that have come to fruition. I have been very clear though that I either get first crack at adapting my books, or it won't happen. I’m perfectly content with letting the books live on as just books.

Could you consider the following two quotes that Oscar Wilde wrote and comment on your thoughts, “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter,” yet he also said, "An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them. We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty."

I adore these quotes though I’m more inclined to agree with Mr. Wilde’s first statement. I write crime thrillers so the basic stories are obviously fictional but the characters and their relationships are loosely inspired by my own. I didn’t start out saying, “these books are going to reflect my life and my family,” but that’s how things unfolded.

Baby Doll - Hollie Overton's debut bestseller

You say your first novel Baby Doll has a lot of your personal experience interwoven with the plot and writing was a kind of therapy… so, is your second book The Walls continuing therapy and self-examination?

There are so many small character moments that worked their way into Baby Doll and The Walls. I remember my husband hadn’t read The Walls and he was listening to the audiobook and he almost had to pull over he was so surprised by a familiar scene I’d put in.  He called it “surreal.”

I also like to focus on relationships that are important to me because I find it deepens my work. In Baby Doll, it’s the twin sisters, which was born from my relationship with my twin. In The Walls, it’s the parent-child dynamic, inspired by my own relationship with my mother. I often wonder as I continue writing books if that will change. Will I find other sources of inspiration? Only time will tell. Right now I’m trusting my process and going with what works.

You have been open about your stressful and troubled childhood and say you took refuge in writing at an early age. When did you wake up to being a writer?

My childhood was definitely turbulent but I had a wonderful mother who nurtured my creative talents. She bought me a journal when I was seven and it became my refuge. I’d write about my daily activities and thoughts. I filled up dozens of journals over the years.

At ten, I started doing theatre, and that form of storytelling fuelled me, but I never stopped journaling which turned into writing short stories and evolved from there.  I used to say I was an actress and writing was my therapy. What surprised me most was that when I became a professional writer, I felt a profound sense of loss. I no longer had my creative refuge because writing was now a career. I eventually had to find other outlets like yoga and running to calm my mind and keep me centered.

What is the first book that you recall reading that really wrapped you up in its world and carried you off - to a place of refuge?

I was an avid reader growing up but I was fourteen when I read Pat Conroy’s Beach Music and it affected me in such a deep and profound way. It’s a sweeping love story that travels across the globe, from the Deep South to Italy, detailing the characters stories from the Vietnam War to the concentration camps during World War II. What made Beach Music stand out, were the brilliant characters. They’re real and funny and flawed, and practically leap off the page.

I remember absolutely adoring that book and wondering why it wasn’t a bigger hit. It was only later when I read the reviews and saw the book was Pat Conroy’s least successful which surprised me because I loved it so much.  I don’t care what critics or anyone says. It made me feel more than any book I had ever read, and whenever I need an emotional kick-start, I reread it.

Who have been your favourite authors and what have you learned from them? 

I’m a huge Steinbeck fan. I read The Winter of Our Discontent at eighteen. It was a very bleak time in my life; a time when a family financial crisis derailed my college plans. I was questioning all the choices I’d made.  It’s a very bleak book but in some ways that fuelled me. I told myself that I wasn’t going to be one of those people that allowed life to break me. I was going to be a fighter.

On a craft level, it’s hard to list just one writer as an influence. I grew up reading lots of “important’ novelists but I was just as invested in more popular contemporary fiction. Mary Higgins Clark was a huge influence. She wrote about women in dangerous situations and always made me truly invest in their journey and root for them.  In some ways I don’t think she gets enough credit for all she did for the genre.

I also loved R L Stine’s young adult novels. I remember arguing with my sister over who got to read the latest book. He was the master at cliff-hangers and twists. I also loved Stephen King because he’s Stephen King, the master of both story and character.

I was a huge fan of John Grisham and I read The Client and Pelican Brief half-a-dozen times. When I first started writing books, I didn’t know what type of writer I would become but thinking about the books I loved to read, it makes sense that I chose crime dramas.

What's your favourite treat or tipple?

There’s an ice cream shop in LA called 'Salt and Straw' that makes the best salted caramel ice cream you’ve ever had. There’s also a seafood restaurant right outside my hometown in Texas called 'Kings Inn'. They have fried catfish, avocado salad and tartar sauce that are simply the best in the world. It’s worth going back for that meal alone.

What can we look forward to next from Hollie Overton?

I’m currently revising my third novel, The Runaway, which will be out early next year. I just finished writing for a TV show called Tell Me A Story for CBS All-Access that will air later this year. I’m also developing a TV pilot that explores a brutal ‘murder for hire’ in Texas, and an unlikely killer.

Thank you very much, Hollie, for taking the time to consider these questions and sharing some of your varied and valuable writing experience.

Hollie Overton was talking with Remy Dean

For more info and news, check out the official Hollie Overton website

Hollie Overton is the author of The Walls
out now in paperback (published by Arrow, £6.99)

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