Award-winning writer, actor, and director Michael Elias has written for television, film, theatre, and fiction. His writing projects have ranged from the outstanding comedy The Jerk with Steve Martin, Young Doctors in Love, The Frisco Kid, as well as Serial, and the mid-80’s sitcom Head of the Class. He kindly gave us some of his time to talk about his exciting new thriller You Can Go Home Now, as well as some of the differences in writing novels and screen writing and how audiences have changed over his lengthy career. He also let us in on his next upcoming thriller, as well as the “most important thing” that you need to know if you want to be a writer!
You can find Michael on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, along with at his website.
Hi, Michael! Can you please tell us a little about yourself?
Sure. I grew up in a rural upstate New York village. My parents showered me with love and books. At St. John’s College in Annapolis I studied classics, went to New York to be an actor and eventually came to Hollywood writing tv and film (Head of the Class, The Jerk) and finally claimed my postponed ambition, to write fiction.
How does screen writing compare to novel writing?
Screenwriters don’t have the same concerns as novelists. They’re only concerned with moving a story, using dialogue, action, and images that a director can shoot. They need to allow room for music, lighting, sound effects and the excellence of actors to bring it to life. Screenwriters can’t express inner thoughts and feelings (unless they use voice over) they don’t need to pay much attention to descriptions of rooms, clothes, cars, drinks, and even what people look like, or describe how they react physically, or speak their lines. Try writing “smiles broadly” or “grimaces” for Anthony Hopkins. The director and his/her army of costume designers, art directors, location managers, car wranglers, set decorators and stunt people don’t need you to write a room, a dress, or stage a fight or a car chase. But novel readers do. On the other hand, screenwriters sometimes get to hang out with movie stars.
Tell us a little about You Can Go Home Now, which releases on June 23rd 2020, and where the inspiration for the book came from.
You Can Go Home Now is about Nina Karim, a young Queens homicide detective investigating the cold case murders of abusive men. She discovers that their widows all had the same alibi – they were in Artemis, a battered women’s shelter when their spouses were killed.
Her father, a Planned Parenthood doctor, was assassinated by an anti-abortion fanatic. She is obsessed with finding the killer—and taking her own revenge.
I think the idea book had its origin in thinking about revenge and why we celebrate it in our culture and at the same time reject it as anti-social.
And then the title came, perhaps as a buried disagreement to Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, my favorite book as a teenager.
I read about abused women and their children, refugees, prisoners, exiles, displaced persons, all of whom want to hear, “You can go home now.” Are there sweeter words? And, as in my novel, perhaps they wouldn’t ask or care what was done to allow them to return home?
I also read about the doctors, nurses and clinic workers who risked their lives (and some lost them) providing healthcare to women, and the staggering statistics of femicide, here in the United States and all over the world. I tried to put it all together into one book.
Is your main character, Nina Karim, based on someone in real life?
No. But I borrowed from many lives, including my own, to make her come alive.
From first draft to final copy, how much did Nina’s story, or the book as a whole change?
The biggest change was the late inclusion of Sharon, a “miracle baby” who makes an impassioned argument against abortion.
How did you decide that Queens was the right place to set this story?
It had to be New York; I wanted a borough I knew fairly well, but not Manhattan. So, it was Queens.
Over the course of your writing career, how has your writing process, what you write about, or how you write, changed?
When I first came to Hollywood my process was, in a word, collaboration. Writing with Rich Eustis Head of the Class, Young Doctors in Love), Steve Martin (The Jerk), Frank Shaw (The Frisco Kid), Ed. Weinberger (The Bill Cosby Show), sitting in writing rooms on sit-coms, variety shows, working with directors who wanted changes in screenplays, and actors making suggestions for line changes, stars demanding changes; but I always worked on a project that was my own., usually at night and weekends. And, in the process I tried to find my own voice, only argue with myself. It was more difficult, but in the end, whatever the result good or bad, it was mine. I wrote a play, a screenplay Lush Life that I directed, short stories, and my first novel The Last Conquistador, and now You Can Go Home Now.
And how have readers/audiences changed over that same time?
When I began thinking about You Can Go Home Now, Harvey Weinstein was still making movies, and Jeffrey Epstein was just another rich guy. Halfway through writing the book the #MeToo movement began. But domestic violence has only grown worse, especially now in the Covid19 crisis when women can’t leave home.
What is next for you?
I’m writing a thriller set in Maui.
To steal a question that your character Nina asks in You Can Go Home Now: What’s the most important thing to know if you want to be a writer?
What a generous theft. I will look up what Nina is told. Ah, here it is:
“There are two things. In fiction, your life comes in handy, so write about it. And, if your life isn’t interesting, steal someone else’s.”
Okay, I’ll add this: “Writing is a process, so is becoming a writer. It’s like watching a great tennis player, we only see the perfect serve, not the hundreds of hours of practice. There are two things to do: one, when you read, try to see how the writer accomplishes her/his mission like keeping you amused, scared, and in a state of wonder; and two, you have to practice. It tends to make perfect.