Last week, an article in Variety announced that HBO had signed on Darren Aronofsky – lauded director of five feature films, including Black Swan, The Wrestler, and Requiem for a Dream – to direct “Hobgoblin,” a new drama pilot in development. The pilot will be written by husband-and-wife team Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, who will also executive produce, along with John Lesher and Adam Kassan.
Ayelet Waldman was kind enough to do a brief Q&A with us — about the series, collaborating with her Pulitzer Prize-winning husband, and her own work. She is the author of three novels, including Love and Other Impossible Pursuits (2006), which was adapted into the film The Other Woman (2009) starring Natalie Portman, and most recently Red Hook Road. In 2009, she published the NY Times best-selling memoir Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace. Before starting her writing career — with a series of crime novels, the Mommy-Track Mysteries — and before starting a family with Chabon, Waldman also had a career as a federal public defender.
The Millions: The subject matter for Hobgoblin – i.e. the role of magicians in deceiving Hitler during World War II – is fascinating, and very particular. Where did the idea for the series originate?
Ayelet Waldman: Michael and I had decided we wanted to write a contemporary series, set locally so that we wouldn’t have to travel, so that everyone could just roll out of bed and go to work. So, of course, as soon as we limited our imaginations to California in 2011, we came up with Britain in 1941.
TM: Is there a lot of research involved in writing the pilot, or had you and your husband Michael Chabon already been engaged in the subject matter?
AW: Tons. And that’s the best part. We’ve been reading everything we can get our hands on about the period, we’ve been watching old movies (which is tremendous fun). I was pretty well immersed in the period already — I am writing a novel set, in part, in Salzburg in 1945 — and Michael spent five years of his life sleeping, breathing, dreaming the Golden Age of comic books, and wrote a novella about war time Britain (Final Solution, read it) so the time period is a comfortable one for us.
TM: Is Jasper Maskelyne and his Magic Gang the inspiration, and will they appear as characters? (There’s buzz on the Internet about this, inquiring minds apparently want to know!)
AW: Details are officially under wraps. I can and will tell you this — we have made up all the characters in the story. None are based on anyone who actually existed.
TM: Your husband has been involved in several film projects, and you have also had a novel adapted into a film; but this is the first TV project for both of you?
AW: We’ve both been happily employed in the health insurance scam that is pilot season before (write a pilot, get a year of health insurance from the writer’s guild). Neither of us has been lucky enough to have any of our pilots produced yet.
TM: How, so far, has the process of writing a TV pilot been different from writing a film screenplay? Or a novel?
AW: It’s a delightful combination of screenwriting and novel writing. A teleplay is, of course, very much like a screenplay, but because there exists at least the potential of a series, you are allowed to set plot and character elements in motion that can take a long time to play out and pay off. This is far more similar to the process of plotting a novel.
TM: You mentioned in another interview that you and your husband are very supportive of each other’s work, but what is it like collaborating this closely on a writing project? How have you found that your interests/strengths complement (or clash)?
AW: Our interests are very complementary, though they are of course also very different. In this instance, we both love the world of cons and con men, of Vaudeville. We’re infatuated by the romance of wartime Britain’s Keep Calm and Carry On ethos. Magic is more Michael’s purview.
We clash, of course. Constantly. It wouldn’t be fun if we didn’t. We are one another’s biggest fans and harshest critics. I don’t know if members of other writing teams make vomiting sounds when they don’t like a partner’s suggestion. (In fairness, only I do this. Michael is much more likely to bark a gruff, “No.”)
TM: How did the collaboration with Darren Aronofsky come about?
AW: Luck. We both love Mr. Aronofsky’s work, but it’s the producer of the project, the multi-talented John Lesher, who gets credit for convincing him to come on board.
TM: As Executive Producers, have you envisioned in detail the entire series beyond the pilot? If so, how many episodes?
The series takes place during World War II and begins in 1941. You do the math. How many episodes? 529. We plan to beat “The Simpsons.”
(Right now, we are only just writing the pilot. We are a million miles away from going to series.)
TM: You’ve had a career as a public defender, you’ve written a mystery series, three novels, a best-selling memoir, and many personal essays; you’re co-editing an anthology of writing by women in prison; you’re a mother of four and a wife. Now, a TV series. Did you always know that you had this many talents; or has it been more like a discovery process, each thing leading to the next?
AW: Talents? Bah. I’m just indecisive.
TM: Your most recent novel, Red Hook Road, features three compelling elements: love, tragedy, and social class. It also features a young girl who is a violinist. Pat Conroy wrote: “With language and example, Ayelet teaches me everything I didn’t know and can never know about music.” Are you also a musician, or are you just brilliantly channeling research?
AW: Before I began the novel I knew nothing about music. I mean, seriously, nothing. It’s all about the research. Research is by far my favorite part of writing.
TM: Related to this, is Red Hook Road further from your personal experience than your first two novels?
AW: Absolutely. It is set in a place I love (Maine) but the characters and story are very very far from my life. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, which, when you think about it, is pretty telling. Perhaps we should all be grateful that I’m writing a TV pilot about magicians and con men who spy for the British in World War II.