Christina Hamlett knows a lot about the stage. Besides writing collections of one-act plays, she’s also spent time in front of an audience and behind the curtains as an actress and a director. But that’s not all she’s known for. Her writing credits to date include 25 books, 125 plays and musicals, and five optioned screenplays as well as hundreds of articles in a multitude of publications.
Here, Christina tells readers at Mother Daughter Book Club.com a little bit about herself, her books and her home office. And she adds some new ideas for things you can do to spice up your club meetings. (From a March 2008 interview.)
How did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
CH: I’ve been writing stories ever since I first learned how to read. To begin with, I was an only child in a wealthy family. The latter obviously exposed me to the best of the arts, a quality education and extensive travels. The bigger influence, however, was that – in the absence of siblings – I entertained myself by becoming a voracious reader and developing a vivid imagination. (I used to write dialogue for my Barbie dolls and put on puppet shows with my marionettes.) I also had an abundance of dysfunctional relatives who proved to be great fodder for what would become future humor columns in my repertoire. While the particulars of a person’s upbringing obviously have an influence on their career choices and opportunities, the important thing is to simply decide what it is that makes you happiest and figure out how to pursue it. I always knew that writing was exactly what I wanted to do when I grew up. What I didn’t realize is that I’d create the opportunities to establish myself as a playwright, novelist, screenwriter and magazine/newspaper columnist. The fact I enjoyed acting, too, eventually led me to not only perform in community productions but also establish my own touring theater company.
How did your experience of performing and directing influence your own writing as well as your analysis of writing by your clients and students?
CH: Being onstage probably taught me more about character development, dialogue, structure and pacing than I’ve ever learned from any fiction or screenwriting class. To this day, I still walk around the house reading my work out loud to hear how it flows. In the evening and on weekends, I recruit my husband to test script dialogue with me. (Since we’ve both done lots of acting and are adept at doing accents, I’m pretty sure our neighbors think at least 17 other people are living with us…) Theater also taught me economy of expression. Among the biggest mistakes I read in new screenplays, for instance, is a tendency to rely heavily on the glitz of expensive sets and technical effects to carry the story. When these elements are stripped away, there’s rarely a compelling plot underneath. In novels, novice writers tend to err with an excess of flowery descriptions and incorporation of historical/technical detail. Both of these significantly slog the pace and keep a reader from really bonding with the characters. Unlike books—which can be peopled with casts of thousands—the physical constraints of a stage force one to determine the minimum number of characters, locations and props needed in order to deliver a solid story. Interestingly, my clients who majored in Theater Arts and/or did stints in community theater/summer stock tend to write more tightly focused scripts, novels and short stories, have better developed characters, and construct more plausible dialogue than anyone else.
A lot of your writing is directed to a young adult audience. Do you feel a particularly strong connection to that age group?
CH: Absolutely! The energy, the enthusiasm and the imagination that children and teens bring to the table is priceless and, in truth, are among the things that keep me perpetually young. I also believe that – in the pursuit of any artistic endeavor – it’s much easier to learn things correctly when one is young than to have to unlearn bad practices as an adult. That’s what gets me so excited about the screenwriting books I’ve specifically targeted to high school students and, even more so, the plays I have written that introduce young people to the fun of live performance and the discipline of true teamwork. It warms my heart when I hear one of them say that my words have not only given them the encouragement to try something new but also to want to learn more. Last but not least, I think books like Movie Girl impart the message to kids that they are not alone in their geekiness or angst or confusion; through the gentle humor that ripples through these pages, they will come away with the confidence that there really is life after high school.
Your latest book, Movie Girl, melds a lot of your areas of interest together. Did you blend real-life experiences into the fictional for the book?
CH: For as long as I can remember, I have always been at least one of the characters in every book I’ve written. Laurie Preston, however, most accurately captures who I was when I was 15 (including being ignored by senior hottie boys who – if they knew how I turned out – would now be whacking themselves in the forehead with 2×4’s). Laurie’s parents and grandmother are also based on real individuals, and I’m always amused when reviewers comment that they’d love to go hang out for a day at Laurie’s house. I’m pretty sure that if I ever divulged the real Peter and Liz’ address, there would be legions of fans camped on their front lawn every morning and – like the woman who owned the Minneapolis house Mary Tyler Moore’s 1970’s character supposedly lived in – would have to sell it and move away.
I understand Movie Girl is the first in a series. How many books do you have planned and when can we expect to see the next one?
CH: The next three books are already on the drafting table—First Date, The List, and Basement Band. First Date—which picks up right after Movie Girl—will be out this summer. Having a very long memory of what it was like to be in high school, this series has the potential to continue indefinitely. I tell people that it’s because my characters have the ability to “age” in dog-years or, perhaps more accurately, cartoon-years.
What are some of your favorite books?
CH: When I was growing up I was hooked on Nancy Drew. A lot of my allowance, in fact, went to the purchase of her latest plucky adventures. Long past my bedtime, I’d read them under the covers with my Girl Scout flashlight (which probably accounts for why I have such bad eyesight as an adult). I still enjoy mysteries today, as well as historical novels, Sophie Kinsella’s wacky chic-lit books, and biographies. To date, however, my favorite book of all time is Terry Brooks’ Magic Kingdom for Sale. It’s clever, it’s smart, it’s magical, and everyone to whom I have ever recommended it has loved it as much as I do.
What’s the best part of being an author?
CH: I have a blissfully short commute from the kitchen to my home office, can work all day in my bathrobe, and love getting feedback from readers – especially high school students from around the world who have acted for the first time in one of my plays. The downside is that I’m a much more demanding boss than anyone I ever worked for and, thus, have a hard time playing hooky with myself.
What does your home office look like?
CH: The French doors are flanked by a suit of armor and a black velvet dragon named Mischief. Holding court in the middle of my Oriental rug is Viktor the Siberian tiger (one of 310 stuffed animals I have collected throughout my life). My L-shaped oak desk has a high, 6-foot-long hutch with lots of cubbyholes and cabinets that prompted one of my friends to remark that it reminds her of a really quirky Advent calendar! My love of books is evidenced by all the bookcases behind me and my love of photography (we travel a lot) is reflected in the fact that virtually every square inch of wall space has something hanging on it. (I suspect that one day the drywall will completely collapse from the weight of all the frames.) A life-size standing cutout of Captain Jack Sparrow literally has my back. Since my office is in view of our dining room, I often turn on the miniature white lights in my silk ficus tree when we have dinner parties; they throw off just enough light that guests who haven’t been here before have been known to freak out that there’s a pirate standing in the shadows by my chair.
Is there anything else you’re working on now?
CH: In addition to several new plays and my ongoing ghostwriting assignments with The Penn Group in Manhattan, the project I’m most excited about now is a collaborative venture with my husband called Consumed with Passion. It’s an anthology of 12 romantic short stories – one for every month – that each revolve around a wonderful meal. I’m writing the stories and Mark is writing the recipes. If it catches on – and we already have a waiting list of people who want to buy it – we plan to do a new anthology each year and even open it up to a competition that invites other food-loving writers to participate.
Do you have any advice for members of mother-daughter book clubs?
CH: I think diversity of material is what makes these meetings fun. This means that each member of the group gets to choose a title before the cycle repeats and that everyone is willing to have an open mind, especially with genres and topics they wouldn’t ordinarily seek out. (I recall, for instance, that one of the best art appreciation courses I took in college required us to choose an artist whose work we personally didn’t like and to be able to objectively discuss the strengths and weaknesses.) In addition, my experience as a former Girl Scout leader taught me the value of incorporating related activities into our various discussions. For books, this can include things such as (1) planning/preparing a menu of what the fictional characters might eat, (2) acting out favorite scenes, (3) staging a “talk show” in which the characters are interviewed about their actions, (4) watching film adaptations of selected books and comparing which one was better, (5) creating biographies of favorite characters that go beyond what the author has already told us (i.e., favorite toy as a child, greatest fear, what he/she would do with a million dollars, etc.), (6) developing crossword puzzles to not only test knowledge of the book in a fun way but also increase vocabulary. It’s crucial, too, that all members respect whomever has the floor and not interrupt until she is finished.