Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Author Interview: Bruce Ferber [Elevating Overman]
Bruce Ferber is an Emmy and Golden Globe-nominated comedy writer and producer whose credits include Bosom Buddies, Growing Pains, Sabrina, The Teenage Witch, Coach, and Home Improvement, where he served as Executive Producer and showrunner. In addition to being recognized by the Television Academy, his work has received the People’s Choice, Kid’s Choice and Environmental Media Awards. Ferber lives in Sourthern California, with his wife, children, large dog, and assorted musical instruments.
Elevating Overman is his first novel.
Interview: questions by Aspen, answers by Bruce
Elevating Overman is your debut novel, but you have been involved in producing and writing for television sit-coms prior to this. Would you tell us a little bit about your background as a writer and what it’s like writing for television? (PS I was a big fan of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch).
I had always thought I’d be a feature film writer, but you learn very early on to go where the opportunity takes you, and my first assignment was writing for a show called “Bosom Buddies” starring Peter Scolari and some guy named Tom Hanks. It was a freelance script that I wrote with a partner. Our goal was to impress enough people that we’d become staff writers on sitcoms. That eventually happened, and I found myself, first as part of a writing team, then solo, working on many different shows, including “Growing Pains”, “The Facts of Life”, and an early FOX show called “Duet.” Eventually, I worked my way up to the producer level, becoming the Executive Producer of “Home Improvement” and “Sabrina.” Writing for TV is a hugely collaborative process – one writer turns in the script, then the staff helps re-write it. During the production week, the network and studio watch rehearsals and give notes, and it’s the job of the writing staff to address the things they (and we) think aren’t working. It’s an intense process, because teh minute you’re done producing one episode, you start on next week’s.
Is the approach to writing a novel different from writing a sit-com? How so?
Network television requires that your story be told in either 22 or 44 minutes, depending on whether it’s a comedy or a drama. There are act breaks before commercials, which are designed to make the audience eager to come back and see what happens next. With a novel there aren’t such time constraints, but as a writer, one still must be able to keep the reader’s interest. TV requires a rigid outlining process. Novelists work in different ways — some do details outlines, others let the character take them where the story goes. In “Elevating Overman”, I started out with the character and the idea of wanting a second chance. Then I happened to go to my mailbox and see a Pennysaver ad for “Life Changing Lasik Surgery.” That became the springboard for everything.
How do you feel your background in writing for and producing television shows has helped or hindered your novel writing process?
I don’t think it has been a hindrance at all. One way it’s helped a lot is that TV writers are used to rewriting all the time. So if an editor says “You can do better here” or “This isn’t really working for me,” I’m not offended. Working in TV has taught me that a first draft is just that. Get it down and improve it afterward. Rewriting is much more fun than writing.
Why did you decide to make the switch from television to novels?
Frankly, I’m not very taken with the kind of comedies that are currently on TV–the ones that use “penis” and “vagina” as punch lines. I had had a lot of success in TV, which afforded me the luxury of trying to stretch and explore other kinds of writing. I remembered enjoying writing prose back when I wrote short stories in high school. So I decided to see whether I could actually take on the Great American Novel. Just finishing was a victory.
What inspired the idea for Elevating Overman?
It may sound pretentious, given the fact that a lot of the book is comedic, but it’s really about a search for meaning–something I grapple with in my own life that I think is pretty relatable to anyone looking beyond material success.
We meet a lot of personalities in your novel and each character was well developed. Were any of your characters inspired by people that you know or have met in real life? Do you have a favorite character in the book?
Every character in the book is a composite of people I have known. I love Janie because I want her to be karmically compensated for what happened to her in the past. And I love Big Dave because despite his craziness, he believes in Overman from the get-go and is a true friend right to the end.
Comic book superheroes were utilized as a parallel to Overman’s transformation in your novel. Why the superhero theme?
Superheroes are bigger than ever in today’s pop culture. I think it’s because people are looking for heroes. But what does it take to be heroic? I wanted to explore the idea that you don’t have to jump off buildings and shoot death rays to do that. To me, the small measures of kindness and consideration that people used to take for granted now fall under the banner of “heroic”. I think it’s because people are more afraid to speak their minds, are wrapped in themselves or their iphones, and can easily get lost in a world where people named Kardashian are given money and credibility. I wanted to wade through all that crap and dig out some human decency.
Can you see Elevating Overman as a television series or a movie? Who would you cast as Overman, Jake Rosenfarb, and Big Dave?
Movie. Paul Giamatti as Overman, Phillip Seyour Hoffman as Rosenfarb, Matthew McConaughey as Big Dave.
Your novel got me reminiscing about my high school days as well, particularly the scene where Overman was flipping through his high school yearbook. Did you have a quote for your senior year picture? Would you share with us what it was? If not, if you could have quote, what would you have chosen?
My quote came from Woody Guthrie: “Take it easy, but take it.”
What would you say is the take home message of your novel, Elevating Overman?
Pay attention to what matters. Weed out all the extraneous bullshit and stand up for what’s right. Admit your mistakes. Is that three messages?
What is next for you? More books? More Television?
I’m writing a second novel, there is some movie interest in “Elevating Overman”, and I have a TV project out there that I may be developing for next season.
In your bio you mention that you live at home with your musical instruments. What instruments do you live with and do you know how to play them all? What else do you like to do in your free time?
Piano, guitar, banjo, ukulele. I play them all at levels ranging from poorly to decently. The uke is my latest infatuation, and I’m very excited to be taking a one day workshop in October with the Hawaiian master, Jake Shimabakuro.
If you could have a best friend with a superpower, what would it be?
Getting “Elevating Overman” on the bestseller list.
Thank you so much to the author for taking the time for the interview.
My review of Elevating Overman can be found here