Debut author Billy Mernit knows a thing or two about romantic comedy: he teaches the rom-com template to aspiring screenwriters at UCLA. It’s no wonder he applied what he knows best when writing his novel, Imagine Me and You, released this past Tuesday. In Imagine, Mernit explores what happens to a man when he struggles, literally within a comedic framework (the main character, Jordan, also teaches rom-com), to reform his collapsed marriage. Jordan’s imagination not only gives him hope but ultimately pulls him through the worst time of his life. And the comedy is rich indeed when Jordan comes face to face with his imaginings in some unexpected ways and is forced to choose–deal with them, or deal without them.
We’re thrilled Billy took time out to chat about Imagine Me and You, and share an excerpt from his novel. Enjoy!
Interview with Billy Mernit: Part 1
Q: Tell us a little about your day job and how that influenced the creation of your debut novel, Imagine Me and You.
BM: I read scripts for a major studio and do notes on movies they’re trying to make. That can teach you a lot about what not to do when you’re writing a screenplay, but it hasn’t had much of a direct effect on my fiction writing. (The job of reader, however, with all its weird effects on one’s psyche and soul, is actually the partial subject of the novel I’m writing now; its protagonist is a studio reader who’s being so bombarded with other people’s stories, he’s lost track of his own.)
Q: The protagonist of Imagine Me and You is a rom-com screenwriter, and you’ve structured your novel based on the various known stages of a romantic comedy (e.g. chapter 2: Cute Meet. An inciting incident, or catalyst, that brings man and woman together and into conflict: often an amusing, inventive but credible contrivance that establishes the nature of their dynamic and sets the tone for the action to come.). Were there benefits and disadvantages to this approach? How do you work with these stages but keep the story fresh and unpredictable for the reader?
BM: The benefit to any given structure is that it’s there – you’ve got these hooks to hang your story on. And the very intention of my plot was to be a test of that structure. In other words, here’s this time-honored so-called “formula” for romantic comedy: people use it, it works, and it does actually reflect the arc of most courtship stories in real life (that’s why it’s endured). So I was asking myself: Does it hold? Is it true for me? How much can you screw around with the thing before you’ve genuinely deconstructed it?
What keeps the story fresh for any writer who’s fooling around with such conventions is the choices you make on two levels. One level is: you can tweak the content. Philip Roth runs a sort of perverse black comedy/romantic comedy subplot through Exit Ghost; the standard beats of courtship, seduction, et al are there, but they’re cruelly twisted – that is, they’re cruel to Nathan Zuckerman. Since Zuckerman is sexually incapacitated, so much older than the girl he’s chasing, and she’s married, no less, this is a guy who literally and figuratively cannot “get” the girl. So in terms of content, the ostensibly same-old beats can’t help but be surprising to the reader, who’s thinking, “How in the world is this going to work?!”
The second level is execution. In my novel, I made sure that every time I was overtly hitting a romantic comedy beat, I was subverting it in the way that the scene played. For example, when Jordan has his “cute meet” with Naomi, he has no idea who he’s dealing with, and the reader’s not even sure if Jordan isn’t just imagining the whole encounter. So the fun came in constantly changing the representation of her on the page – she’s this, she’s that, then she’s… what? She disappears altogether, and when she reappears, she’s still a shape-shifting moebius strip of a woman. This should — I hope! — keep the reader from feeling, “Oh, Jeez, the old meet-cute bit, I’ve seen this a thousand times.”
Q: Clearly, you succeeded in using the screenwriter’s formula for a novel in an experimental way. In retrospect, how easy or difficult was it for you to apply the screenwriting template to the novel? (Did the ease or difficulty surprise you?) And what kind of advice would you give someone with screenwriting expertise who wanted to adapt his or her knowledge to novel writing?
BM: It was fairly easy to apply the template, in that here was a readymade structure that had its own organic integrity. It wasn’t arbitrarily imposed, it made sense: stories of romance generally follow this pattern, and it was helpful to have it in place. (I’ll wager that most fiction writers would develop a similar armature of their own – you’ve got to have a map of some kind, in order to navigate the sprawling territory of a novel.)
But screenwriters generally tend to over-outline; they’re trained to identify every beat of the plot in advance of beginning to write a draft. And obviously, that can take a lot of the exploration and fun out of the writing process. So contrarily, what I would say to a screenwriter trying a novel for the first time is: for the actual writing of your first draft, check your screenwriting mind at the door. Leave it outside.
The beauty (and the terror) of writing a novel stems in part from a willingness to ignore such structural necessities at the start, and instead explore the characters, the theme, the world. Yes, I thought like a screenwriter to map out the major plot points of the story. But then in writing the first draft I dove blind into the big in-betweens. I mucked around in there for as long as I could stand to, and I’m glad I did. Later, when I did the rewrites, I invited the screenwriter back into the room, because then he was a great help. The screenwriter in me could look objectively at a given scene and say: Hmmm. Nice writing. But is it moving the story forward and/or developing character? If not…Another darling baby bites the dust.
Q: How did you approach writing this novel? Did you plot it out entirely ahead of time? How long did you work on it, from concept to finished product?
BM: I started with the basic concept: writer makes up a lover, in the hopes of winning back his errant wife. Then I resisted plotting it. I didn’t want to know too much about the story, I wanted to discover what it was about through the writing of it. I didn’t really know the end till I was well into the first draft. Instead, both on my own and in a writing workshop that I take with Deena Metzger where we all write short pieces in class, for a few months I just went after the hot spots — whatever scenes popped into my head that wanted to be explored.
Eventually I had a bunch of disparate scenes, scattered all over the imagined map of the book. When it felt right, I spent some time sort of connecting those dots – not too specifically, though, because I was mightily intrigued – though it goes against every storytelling inclination in my body – by the notion of not knowing how a given scene would play (I’ve found that the urgency to find out “how does this happen?” is the one thing that’ll finally force me to face the blank page). So the first draft represented a collection of rough guesses at how the story would go. Then, once I had a sense of what the story was, I went through about seven and a half drafts getting it as good as I could.
I should note that I was working a full-time 9 to 6 job throughout the writing, and also teaching, with occasional meal breaks. The novel was written in slow-motion because I generally only had an hour or so a day to work on it. So what might have taken me about a year of steady work became a total of four years plus, if you count the revisions that my most excellent editor Sally Kim had me do.
Q: In an interview with scriptmag.com, you said, “Romantic comedy is unique because it is the only story structure requiring two protagonists to function. These protagonists must be believable and compelling for the story to work.” Is it fair to say that the two protagonists in your story are Jordan Limited (Idealized) and Jordan Whole-Self? Was this choice always clear to you or did it evolve with the story?
BM: You know, this is a great angle on the story, that your idealization of yourself (as well as the collected ideas of you that everyone else perceives) is actually a lesser version of who you really are. Jordan’s “who I think I’m supposed to be” is limited, versus the “realized” Jordan at the novel’s end. And you’re right, this through-line of the story became clearer as the story evolved.
At the same time, I did see Jordan and Naomi as the central protagonists – yes, they’re two aspects of the same character, but I also saw them as two autonomous beings, and I played them as the “boy meets girl” in a romantic comedy plot. It’s a “boy-meets-girl spirit who is the feminine in him” story.
Q: Can you share an excerpt with us?
BM: This excerpt is the opening page or two of the book.
On my third night alone since Isabella left, our home feels so haunted that I can’t stand to stay inside, so I bolt through the garden gate and go stalking the empty street, crazed and aimless, only to realize I’m also keyless—I’ve locked myself out.
Even as I curse I have to laugh. Nothing is the way I want it to be, so it’s only perversely logical that I’m forced to return to our place to stomp around the garden, peering helplessly at the barred windows. Such nice bars, too, with their hip, zig-zaggy shape, befitting this perfect little Venice beach apartment, a sweet one-unit bungalow, its only drawback (formerly an asset) being that you can’t break in.
And such a beautiful night! The kind of beauty you only get when you’re desolate, when it’s all gone wrong. Everything painfully clear—indifferent stars twinkling through the dark branches swaying in the wind, a rainbow-ringed silver moon for me to howl at. The extra key isn’t hidden where it’s supposed to be, in the dirt of the potted olive tree by the back steps. I should rustle up a pickaxe, a battering ram. Instead I stand staring at the door, wondering: Did romantic comedies ruin me, or was I born a sucker for such myths?
I could blame Cary Grant, him and a whole seductive slew of movies I saw in my youth, which imprinted me with a formula for how it’s supposed to go. I could blame my parents, sixty-somethings, who on the afternoon of the forty-seventh anniversary of their love-at-first-sight ignited marriage were found rolling around on a couch, giggling and making out. No matter. Either way, I’m warped. I’m a writer who writes romantic comedy, a cinema studies teacher who teaches it, and I have so much faith in the standard beats of the successful courtship story that being left by the love of my life has me totally discombobulated.
Those beats weren’t cooked up in some mad movie scientist’s lab – it’s a codified structure that replicates what happens when people fall in love in so-called real life: Set-up (dueling personal histories) is followed by a Cute Meet (sparks fly) and a Complication (romance mucks up everything else that’s going on). Further on comes the Hook (the sex is good). Then this thing that could be love gets tested, there’s a Swivel, or turning point before a big commitment is made, and then one or both of the lovers hits that Dark Moment where they seriously consider bailing. But inevitably they have a clinch-and-kiss Resolution, and the audience leaves the theater with warm and fuzzy feelings, or merely feeling horny.
Well, we had all that, me and Isabella. After four years of marriage I thought we were living the reasonably happy ending. So the only way I can make sense of her leaving now is to rethink the structure of our story. I thought we were in Resolution, our Dark Moment having been back before the wedding when she had second thoughts about living here in Los Angeles, but that wasn’t it, no, we must’ve been in a prolonged Swivel, questioning our decision. Now we’re in a real Dark Moment—the crisis/climax preceding the finale, where she’ll realize she was meant to be with me all along and the marriage is worth saving. So what I’ve got to figure out is how to move from sixth beat to seventh, from boy loses girl to gets. Not a simple task when your wife has already left the country.
First, though, I really ought to find that key.
Come back next week for part 2 of my interview with Billy Mernit!