Friday, August 16, 2013

Author interview: Jason Odell Williams
By Brenda Janowitz

It's always such an honor when I get asked to blurb a book.  When Saira Rao, author of the hilarious novel CHAMBERMAID, and the brains behind In This Together Media asked me to read Jason Odell Williams' debut novel, PERSONAL STATEMENT, I was super excited.

And it wasn't just because Saira told me the book was funny (funny is an understatement).  And it wasn't just because she told me Jason was accomplished (oh, is that what you call that Emmy nom?!).  It was because the subject matter is something I could really relate to: trying to find the perfect personal statement for your college applications.  I'll let Jason tell you more about what the book's about, so without further ado, here's Jason:

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I'm a writer and television producer originally from Columbia, Maryland, now living in New York City. I recently wrote a YA novel called PERSONAL STATEMENT, published by In This Together Media on August 1st this year (and available on Amazon!)  I'm also a playwright and have written several full-length plays. One of them, called HANDLE WITH CARE, will have it's 7th regional production this season in less than three years (including the international debut in Toronto, Canada). We're currently working on bringing the play to New York for an Off-Broadway run later this fall and winter. And somehow I also squeeze in a full-time job as a writer and producer on the hit TV series BRAIN GAMES on the National Geographic Channel; I was even recently nominated for an Emmy Award for my work on the show. It still hasn't sunk in... but maybe it will once we all go to L.A. in September for the ceremony! I've been married for 12 years to an amazingly beautiful and talented woman, Charlotte Cohn, and we live in Manhattan with our daughter Imogen who's almost 8 years old.

Tell us about your novel in 25 words or less.

PERSONAL STATEMENT is satire about the college application rat race set against the backdrop of “competitive volunteering.” I think it's laugh-out-loud funny and hilarious throughout, but at the heart it's a coming-of-age story about several teenagers trying to figure out who they are and want they want out of life.

You're also a playwright.  How does one medium inform the other?

My good friend (and executive producer of BRAIN GAMES) Jerry Kolber once said to me, "Storytelling is storytelling. If you can tell a good story in a play, you can tell a good story in any medium." And i think he's right. So if it's plays, TV, novels, short stories, blogs, it's all about telling a good story. Sure, there's always a learning curve about format and each medium has its own quirks and idiosyncrasies, but you can learn those in a week or two. What you can't learn in a short amount of time is how to tell a compelling story. Beginning, middle, end... like Aristotle said so many years ago. I come from the theatre world - I was trained as an actor in college and grad school and what I learned as an actor was about character, dialogue, plot, comedy, drama... all the necessary tools to tell a great story. Even if it's a 22 minute TV show about the brain, there's still the need for dialogue (voice over) and a driving story with a good flow. And of course writing a novel requires all of those skills too. The other thing about playwriting that helped inform writing the novel was how to rewrite. Playwriting is almost never done. We're tinkering with lines and moments at every rehearsal right up until the end. And it's a great lesson in not being too precious with your words. Keep what works, the best idea wins, and cut everything else!

[Ed. Note: LOVE that advice, Jason!  We writers can’t say it enough: writing is re-writing!!]

When Hollywood (inevitably) snaps up movie rights, who do you see in the lead roles?

I don't know! And the movie rights HAVE been snapped up for "Personal Statement" and we are working on the screenplay right now. I'm writing it with my wife, Charlotte Cohn, who has more or less been my collaborator on all of my plays and she directed one of them brilliantly as well, so she has a great ear and knows what I like; we can speak in shorthand and also be brutally honest and critical about the work without worrying about ego or feelings. It's a great partnership. But in terms of casting: many of the roles are for 17 and 18 year old kids... so i think they'll have to find some up-and-coming actors who I don't even know. But for the role of A.J. (the 26 year old working for the Governor) I see Anna Kendrick in that role. I think she amazingly talented, funny, smart and can do anything. She'd be perfect for A.J. For the role of Governor Watson I'd love someone like Rob Lowe (who was born in Charlottesville where i went to college!) and is so great and funny without trying to be. Loved him on The West Wing and now Parks & Rec... plus he's a very talented writer so he can bring another layer to the text. For his right hand man, Teddy Hutchins, I see Paul Giamatti -- the perfect character actor with intellect and humor. And for the role of Richard Gains, the former TV star and now B & B owner-slash-yoga lover, I'd see David Duchovny or Bryan Cranston. It's crazy to even think about in the abstract at this point, but it would be amazing if we could get even ONE of those actors for any of those roles!

How did you start writing?

I've been writing here and there since college, nothing serious, but I'd write a short story or a short play or short film just because I had a story I'd been mulling over in my head for a few weeks and it needed to get out. Nothing great in those early works, but important to go through... get the crap out of the way, plus it's part of finding your voice as a writer and a way of approaching projects that work best for you. But mostly I was an actor. Right out of college i moved to New York in 1996 and that's was my goal, to be a working actor. And while i found work and had some success, it wasn't as fulfilling as I thought it would be, so one day in 2007 i turned to my wife (a brilliant actress, by the way, as well as a director, writer and producer!) and said, I want to write a play and i want you to be in it, what kind of role do you want. And from there I wrote HANDLE WITH CARE and three years later it got its world premiere and then the writing just escalated. I wrote 4 more plays then got hired for the TV show then started writing PERSONAL STATEMENT. It's all just sort of culminating now at the same time.

What inspired this novel?

Several things, but most notably having a daughter in Manhattan and seeing what it was like when it came time to enroll her in pre-school. It was nuts. The mothers in our Upper West Side neighborhood were talking about nothing but schools and waiting lists and "why haven't you filled out any applications yet, your daughter will never get into a good school or go to a good college if you don't do what we are all doing!!" It was insanity. And that was just pre-school! Then it came time for Kindergarten and we live near a wonderful public school so my wife and i thought, great, one less thing to worry about. But then we found out the school was overcrowded and there would be a lottery and it was the same insanity all over again. So this was always in the back of my mind, when two friends from college, Carey Albertine and Saira Rao (who both have kids as well) came to me soon after they launched their publishing company with an idea for a book about teenagers racing to volunteer after a hurricane to pad their college applications and I was like yes, yes, yes! I get this! We have to write this book! We started talking about how there aren't many great stories about what it's like RIGHT NOW for kids applying to college and speaking to the insanity of it with humor and heart. So over the course of a few months we plotted out a story and all of the characters and it grew from there. But it goes back to my personal experience with the Manhattan pre-school application process. I don't even want to think about what my daughter's college application years. She's the high school class of 2023! I can't imagine what it will be like then. 

Anything I've left out?

The book was optioned for a film as part of a series. The novel was just going to be a one-off, but because of the buzz and interest it seemed to get even before publication, we decided to turn the book into a series called "The Personals" ... Personal Statement is part one, Personal Disaster will be part 2 and Personal Assistant will part 3. We'll follow all of the main characters to college where things won't go as expected and then to their first summer jobs which will also be eye-opening for all involved. I think from ages 18 to 22 are the years we find out who we are  and it's great material to explore. It's where your world-view really changes and to some degree informs who you'll be for the rest of your life. The next books should be a lot fun! Plus I'm anxious to get back to writing these characters. I kind of miss them! 

Thanks for coming by, Jason!  Don't forget to check out Jason's website, follow him on Twitter, and of course, BUY THIS BOOK!

And then when you're done with all that, tell me:  what did you write about for your college personal statement?

I’m the author of SCOT ON THE ROCKS and JACK WITH A TWIST. My third novel, RECIPE FOR A HAPPY LIFE, was published by St. Martin's on July 2, 2013. My work’s also appeared in the New York Post and Publisher’s Weekly. You can find me at or on Twitter at @BrendaJanowitz.


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