An Interview with Richard Rayner

The best storytellers are those who can transcend genre; they can entertain us, humor us, and break our hearts, no matter the form. In this way, Richard Rayner is a master storyteller and a definitive multi-genre writer. He has worked on both sides of the publishing process as an editor and a freelance journalist. He is the author of numerous short stories and nine books, and his first book, Los Angeles Without a Map, blurs the line between fact and fiction and was adapted into the film LA Without a Map, for which Rayner co-wrote the screenplay. Rayner is the co-creator of the History Channel series Knightfall, which will premiere in fall of 2016.


ER: What shaped your early writing career?

RR: I sub-edited for a news agency, which was a really useful discipline. It was a lot of retyping. This was back in the days when there was nothing else but a typewriter. Stuff would come down the telex machine, and you’d rewrite it into a story. I remember the news coming down about John Lennon’s death. I was there at six o’clock in the morning, and I was sitting there weeping as I was writing these telex stories about John Lennon dying.

That was a very disciplined kind of writing. At the same time, I started reviewing books and movies for Time Out. It was a very groovy, sex and drugs and rock and roll kind of place. Eventually I got a job there, which segued into doing a lot of two things: interviews and harder feature writing. While I was doing that, I always had the idea I wanted to write fiction.
ER: How did you make the shift into fiction and then into screenwriting?

RR:  I met this guy Bill Buford, who at that time had just started Granta up at Cambridge. He said, “You should be sending your short stories.” So I sent a couple stories, and they got rejected, but Bill was encouraging.

Coincidental with this, I’d met this woman named Michelle, who was a Playboy Bunny at the Playboy Club in Century City. I was pursuing her and inventing reasons to come to LA. Michelle and I ran away to Las Vegas and got married, and it was a disaster. Then some months afterwards I was talking about it to Bill Buford, and he said, “You talk about this love affair as if it’s a Marx Brother’s comedy,” and that was moment I was like, okay, that’s the book. I can write that book.

So I just set out. I was still working at Time Out, but I took a leave of absence. I came here [to Los Angeles], intending to write the book that was then Los Angeles Without a Map.

My students have heard me say,“We don’t really write what we know, we write what we can.” So I wrote the thing that I could write, and it was that book. For good or ill, that book changed my life. It was successful, there were many translations, it went into many reprints, it was optioned for a movie–although it didn’t get made into a movie until way later–and it took me into a different world. I started writing scripts–I wrote the first script of [LA Without a Map]. And it also took me to a job at Granta, where I was able to publish more, while also editing. I became a more serious writer, more committed to what I was doing. Even if it would end up being a reckless journey, I was going to be a freelancer: a book writer/film writer/journalist. I was always going to write whatever I could.
ER: What do you identify as the key difference between writing prose and writing screenplays?

RR: I’m basically a prose writer. I’ve always been able to write dialogue, but being able to write good prose and good dialogue and being able to imagine a world does not necessarily turn you into a good screenwriter. [Screenwriting] takes a long time to learn.

Where the genre of prose writing and screenwriting is really different is in the screenplay, you have to anticipate what the audience will think and how they will interact with the scene. Screenwriters immerse you in the world without you even noticing you’re being involved in the story. With a movie, if it’s not getting you to the end with a feeling of that was great, it’s not worked.

It’s not quite the same when you’re writing prose. You’re still trying to seduce the reader to come into the world you’ve created. However, there can be something so compelling about the way a book is written, it can be an excellent book even though you only read half of it.

The design of the genres and the way they seduce you is different. But if you choose to try to work in different genres, then you learn a lot of different crafts.
ER:  Is there something that unites your writing across genres?

RR: I always lean towards the journalistic. My writing comes from observation of the world out there. I’ve leaned into reality as a basis for imagination; that’s been true of all the fiction I’ve written. The starting point is always autobiographical, directly observed, or a real event in the past.

When I research, I’m fascinated by the documents and stuff; that’s the real granular. Writers are always looking for the thing that’s got that bit of grit that the pearl can form around. And that bit of grit might be the thing you see, or something you feel, or the detail you remember. It’s about trying to make some connection between myself and either observed reality or reality as it’s been previously written.
ER: Speaking of observed reality: your second and third books, The Elephant, a novel, and The Blue Suit, a memoir, were about the story of your father. How did the process differ between genres?

RR: In my second book [The Elephant], I couldn’t control the material. I wrote it while [my dad] was still alive, which was a strange thing to do. That book was hated by everybody. It also didn’t do well. It was very ill-disciplined. And then my dad died, and I was working on something else. But I couldn’t get away from this story of my dad. The second time I wrote it, I did it as nonfiction. I made a connection I hadn’t made before, which was that the moment he arrived back in my life was when my own life went off the tracks badly for about a year. When I filtered the story in different way, that became The Blue Suit.

All of which is to say, I always thought about the story; not so much about the mode in which I was going to present it.
ER: What is your advice for writers working in one particular genre?

RR: The smart thing to do career wise is to pick a horse and ride it, i.e. you’re David Foster Wallace. What are you going to do? You’re going to take your tilt at the great American novel. And you take your tilt at the great American novel. It’s Infinite Jest. It has some claim to being a great novel. What do you do for the rest of your life? You fail to write another great novel.

But you could commit yourself to become Lee Child, or Gillian Flynn, or the next Patricia Highsmith. You don’t have to commit yourself to write a great American novel, you can commit yourself to writing a really, really good crime novel that’s not generic.

To decide to write a book like Infinite Jest is a very dangerous thing to do because nearly nobody can do it, and it proves to be toxic for the guy who could do it. So to decide to write a book at a more manageable level of ambition is to pick the genre. Why do you pick the genre? Because it’s a genre you love. Investigate that genre. Think about what that genre is. Think about what that genre comes from. Think about why particular novels within that genre, or shows within that genre, work, and write that kind of story as many times as you can until you finally sell one, which you will if you carry on doing that.
ER: Do you tend to edit as you write or work on many versions of a full piece?

RR: [Writing] is like dropping through layers of consciousness to find that still place where something semi-decent comes out. For me that has never ever ever happened until the rewrite. So the first draft is always this hacking out of something. It’s a kind of shape, but it’s awful, and then as I rewrite it, I’m much better able to focus on what is it I’m trying to say. I like to write things, to get the block of clay, and rewrite them quickly. In rewriting there are the moments when the sentence suddenly takes a surprising direction, and a surprising thought appears, or a surprising emotion appears, or the character does a surprising thing, and the writing actually seems to becomes more alive. I’m always seeking that moment of liberation into the material, and that’s the same whether that’s fiction or a script, even journalism.
ER: Have you ever had a project you had to abandon?

RR: I’d worked on this novel for three or four years, and it wasn’t really working out. I did draft after draft of it. A friend of mine in London read it, and she said, “This book is beautiful, but it’s like a house that you can’t get inside. There are all these little windows, and you want to look in, but you can’t actually get inside the book.” It was too distant.

Then I was talking to my friend Paul Greengrass, the filmmaker, about this, and he said, “Well you know what you’re doing, don’t you?” And he went over to a building and he smashed his head against the wall and said, “You’re doing this.” I said, “He’s right.” And then he said, “In a little while you’re going to realize, ‘I don’t have to do this anymore.” And that’s what happened.
ER: Tell us about your latest venture, the television series Knightfall.

RR: I worked on a spec script for a while about the South Pacific Railroad. It didn’t sell but it lead me to this connection with Don Handfield, with whom I’ve created Knightfall. Turns out he’s another history buff, and Knightfall came out of this true story. On Friday the 13th 1307–this is why we have Friday the 13th–the king of France decides to take out the Knights Templar. He has them all rounded up and arrested, and over the following years, they get burned at the stake, and no one knows what happened to all the various treasures–potentially even the spirit of destiny, the holy grail–they’d accumulated during the Crusades, and a thousand conspiracy theories flow from that moment.

We decided we were going to fictionalize that true moment in history, what happens in 1307 when the king of France decides to take out the Knights Templar, this hugely powerful trans-national organization of warrior monks, the basis for the Jedi in Star Wars.
ER: What advice do you have for writers trying to make it in television?

RR: The traditional path is you write your spec scripts, and you write enough of them, and then different enough, and good enough, that eventually, even though they may not be selling, you get a job in the writer’s room. And the job in the writer’s room enables you to a) get a credit and b) start learning the path that might take you towards being a showrunner, which right now, because so many shows are being done, is a target that someone could achieve within in a few years.

Your hope may be that you eventually become the creator of your own TV series and world. But if you don’t get to do that right away, with enough experience, you can showrun someone else’s show.
ER: You’re not native to Hollywood and Los Angeles. When you first came to LA, how did the city influence your writing?

RR: Like everybody who grows up in England, I had a picture of LA that was purely derived from movies and TV shows. This vivid picture started to transmogrify itself after I first came here. Things really popped and I started noticing things and hearing things, and I had that great thing when writing really makes you feel alive because you’re capturing something, you’re building a bridge between your own psyche and actually reality. The sentence is what allows you to build that bridge, and the sentence might be a line of dialogue that you overhear and write down in your notebook, or it might be noticing that the palm tree has a hairstyle like Rod Stewart. You capture something of the world, and the fact that I was able to capture something of LA, satisfactorily to myself at least, made the city seem fresh to me, and it also made the writing seem fresh.

What makes writing good is if it has that immediate connection to an observation. Whether it’s in a scene or in a descriptive passage, you’re looking for that charge that travels between yourself and the thing that’s being described, whether it’s simply the sunset or two people in a room trying to kill each other.
ER: Even after living in LA for twenty-five years, you still don’t drive. Does that have anything to do with allowing yourself to observe?

RR: Observing is passive, until you make the decision that you are going to be active about observing and write it down. If I’m on the bus or on the Expo, then I’m in observing/writing mode, and when I’m in the car even if I’m in the passenger seat, I’m never that.

Ages ago, I did this piece about Danny DeVito. We were just supposed to be talking, and I put my notebook there between us. And he looked at it, and I touched it, and he said, “I get it.” And what he got was that this was the thing I needed even if it wasn’t open and I wasn’t writing in it. I needed it there as a crutch for me before I could start to build the bridge across to Danny DeVito.

So when I’m on the train or on the bus, having the notebook is a way of participating in the world without participating in the world. It’s secretive on the one hand and public in another. The simplest way to think about writing is: it’s observation of your interior world, or of the immediate world around you, or of some imaginative world you’re trying to create.
ER: Part of the inspiration for our new name, Exposition Review, comes from Exposition Boulevard, the street that borders USC. What is your favorite street in LA?

RR: Well for sure it’s going to be a street in Venice, and I like the streets that go all the way, like Venice Boulevard or Lincoln. One of the things that’s so great about LA is the sweep of one of the big boulevards takes you through so much. You can experience the multitude of villages that make up LA by trundling all the way down Venice on the bus, which is a great scene anyway. If you take the 733 from the coast, the Venice bus will take you all the way to Union Station, and then you see twenty different versions of the city on the way. That was something I used to do a lot, just riding around and watching how the city changes.
ER: If not in transit, do you have place that you most love to write in LA?

RR: Libraries, I suppose, and I’ve had a series of work spaces that were basically converted garages. I’ve always liked going out and about to write. When I wasn’t teaching, I would often go to the UCLA libraries to write. There’s something about being able to create a private space in the world–namely you, the laptop, listening to music, while life is streaming around you–that is less intimidating than sitting down in the apartment or the house by yourself and actually saying, “Now I’ve gotta do this.” No matter the place, one of the tasks is to trick myself into writing.
ER: As a professor, your writing prompts inspired awesome stories.

RR: I like the prompts. I’ve always thought of them as story boxes. You’re given a task: create a certain kind of story in a certain way with a limited number of words. Nearly everybody can get their head around it. There’s something liberating about not having to imagine everything.
ER: Do you have a favorite prompt to use for our readers?

RR: Write a scene in which there are three people in a room and A and B have already decided they are going to kill C, but it’s A who ends up being killed. 700 words.


Back to Vol. I: “IX Lives”