Monday, October 15, 2012

My First Time: Richard Kramer

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Richard Kramer, author of the new novel These Things Happen from Unbridled Books. Kramer has won multiple Emmy and Peabody Awards as a writer, director and producer of numerous TV series, including Thirtysomething, My So-Called Life, Tales of the City, and Once and Again. His first short story appeared in The New Yorker while he was still an undergraduate at Yale.  These Things Happen is his first novel.

My First Line of Dialogue 

Where to begin? An author has many first times. I could choose the first time someone said about something I'd written Hey! I sort of liked that....But who was it, and when? Then there's the first time I was asked Am I missing something here? I don't remember the details around that, either, just the shadow of a feeling, let's say at nine years old, that I was clearly Ahead of My Time. And then there was the first time I sold something, but I don't know how to tell you that in a way I haven't told it a thousand times, to the point where I’m not quite sure which parts are, or were, actually true.  

But three moments suddenly live again, the thirds adding up to one first time. Google tells me they happened at around the same moment, within a year or two of each other, what’s now a half century ago. I'm ten, eleven, at Jean Brodie's impressionable age, ready to see that sentences that made me laugh, or moved me, or just lingered long after I'd read or heard them come from an actual person, and that person was: a writer. 

The first sentence, a line of dialogue, came from Singin' in the Rain. I saw it on Saturday Night at the Movies, in the upstairs den with my brothers while my parents were either having a dinner party or guests at one a few blocks away (I still have my mother's stroganoff-centric Thoughts for Buffets). All of a sudden Lina Lamont, the blonde, screech-voiced silent star, grandly informs some studio lackey (full disclosure: words Googled) "What do they think I am? Dumb or something? Why, I make more money than--than--than Calvin Coolidge! Put together!" I laughed, and even as I did something woke up in me; some small new creature opened its eyes for the first time to peek out at a waiting world. Somebody wrote that. Somebody sat down, typed that up. Somebody--could I ever be somebody like that? It was a long time before I realized this particular Somebody was, in fact, two Somebodies, and it was longer still before I had the chance to tell screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green what those words had meant to me. It was during a meeting in Mr. Green's apartment when we discussed a project that would never come to pass (a cartoon musical to be set in ancient Egypt).

"Singin' in the Rain?" said Mr. Green. "Never saw it."

"So we made you a writer?" said Ms. Comden.

Then, as one, they asked: "Are you suing?" 

That was 1993; come back with me to '63, and the next two seismic events. It was winter, at the start of that year; one day I was surprised to find my mother waiting in her station wagon outside what we called in those days a grammar school. "I have a surprise," she said; she wouldn't say what it was as we took the LIE into Manhattan, through a light snow that, by the time we were coming back from the surprise, would have grown to record proportions. 

The surprise was Radio City Music Hall, and a movie which had recently opened there. As it began, a woman’s voice gently set the scene. "Maycomb, "she said, "when I knew it, was a sleepy town" And, again, as with the shrill Lina, something in me sat up to not only listen, but to hear. I think I know now what I could only guess at then, that here was a story being told, by an actual person, who was owning the story even as she told it. When I knew it....The tale belonged to someone--we had to trust her, we were in her hands--and even though these words were disembodied I still sensed they were those of a writer.

A surprise waited for me when we got home, too (my birthday was that day, which is how I'm able to date it); it was a book, in the waning moments of the time when the gift of a book was still a disappointment. But maybe that started to change with this one, because when I unwrapped it, I found To Kill a Mockingbird, the film of which ("Hey, Boo...") we'd just seen.

I still have that copy; it was $3.95; Lippincott published it, a house whose status, Wikipedia informs me, is “defunct." But no first time can ever be defunct, not in memory, especially when looking back you see how it was the start of something, how it--by which I mean words, voice, trust, surprise--began there and, so far, begin again for me every day.  

Author photo by Beau Deshotel

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