Carrie: A short story in the collection When the Nines Roll Over also focuses on a young man in Russia confronted with the realities of war. Is there something that draws you to this theme?
David: I suppose there must be, though I don’t know what it is, except perhaps that my ancestors come from that part of the world.
Carrie: How is writing a novel different from writing a screenplay? Do you prefer one over the other?
David: I guess I have a love/hate relationship with both. Novel writing is a torment for me, because I’m slow and lazy and getting to the end of a single page always seems impossible. But nothing feels better than finishing—there is a sense of accomplishment unrivaled by any other work I’ve done. And, with a novel, the work is entirely your own, as opposed to a screenplay, which is essentially a blueprint for a movie, which will end up being a collaboration with a director, producers, actors, a cinematographer, set designers, costumers, etc. Screenwriting is less intimidating because it’s much faster—I can sometimes complete a script in ten weeks, so the end is always in sight, whereas when I begin a novel I never really believe I’ll reach the end. I enjoy the rigid format of a screenplay—you’re forced to tell an entire story, in about 120 pages, using only dialogue and visual/aural imagery. And I love movies, so being part of the process is often great fun. That said, there isn’t a screenwriter alive who enjoys getting script notes.
Carrie: What was it like adapting a novel into a screenplay, like you did with The Kite Runner? How do you incorporate your own voice into a distinct work?
David: I’ve written faithless adaptations before, but in this case I tried to remain true to Khaled’s story, which meant making no effort to incorporate my own voice. If I wrote an exchange of dialogue that wasn’t from the novel, I wanted that dialogue to remain consistent with the characters’ established mode of speech. Now, I don’t think it’s possible for a screenwriter to be completely faithful to his source material, and if you try too hard, you end up with a movie that looks like a filmic version of a book-on-tape. But incorporating my own voice was far less important than translating Khaled’s voice onto film.
Carrie: The characters are faced with nightmarish realities during the siege of Leningrad – cannibalism, starvation, and worse. How do you think people were able to survive under these horrific circumstances? How did you get inside their heads to create this fictional tale?
David: They survived because they didn’t have a choice. They were faced with a rapacious army of invaders, on the one side, and a brutal dictatorial regime on the other. The citizens of Leningrad, those who survived, focused on the quotidian necessities: Where will I find some extra bread today? Will I be strong enough to haul a bucket of ice up from the Neva? How do we get rid of grandma’s body? Getting inside their heads, if I did get inside their heads, was made much easier because several of them kept wonderfully detailed diaries.Carrie: What kind of research did you do for the novel?David: Aside from the diaries, I read whatever pertinent books I could find. The most helpful was Harrison Salisbury’s The Nine Hundred Days, an epic history written by the first Western journalist to enter Leningrad after the siege was lifted. Another crucial book for me was Kaputt, by Curzio Malaparte, an Italian journalist who was an early Fascist (he marched on Rome with Mussolini) before becoming disillusioned with the movement. He had remarkable access to the German and Finnish officers commanding the invasion of Russia, his writing is beautiful, and I ransacked his reportage for many key details.
Carrie: You’ve worked as an English teacher and a bouncer, among other things. Do any of these experiences help you as a writer?
David: Working in a bar might help in terms of eavesdropping on good dialogue, or watching drunken behavior. Working as an English teacher also provided for excellent eavesdropping, though the slang of Brooklyn teenagers didn’t come in handy when writing about Russians in 1942. The most useful thing about teaching, though, was that it forced me to reread a number of great novels (I’m usually a bad re-reader since there are so many great books I still haven’t gotten to once) and to reexamine them based on the students’ interpretations and my own changed perceptions (The Great Gatsby is a whole different animal when read at 26, as opposed to 16).
Carrie: What’s next for you — film, TV, another book?
David: Jim Sheridan directed a script I wrote called Brothers, out in October. Wolverine comes out in 2009. And, along with one of my closest friends, I’m the showrunner for an HBO series adapting George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels.
City of Thieves, due to be released May 15th ~ Pre-order Now!