Author Workspace: John Schulian
It’s a sunny afternoon in an El Nino winter and I’m at home looking out my office window at the kind of view readers might never expect if all they had to judge me were the damaged knight valiant, soiled angel, show-biz pimp and relentless sociopath who populate my noir novel A Better Goodbye. At the far end of the swimming pool, the last red roses I’ll see until spring are leggy and proud. A blood orange tree heavy with fruit sits on the slope above them, hard by a historically puny orange tree and a lime tree that will produce endlessly. On the flats of my patio, potted plants slumber and my tangelos and Meyer lemons look ready to pick. Meanwhile, two New Zealand tea bushes are gearing up to burst forth in a riot of color. And to think I once worked on a newspaper whose newsroom looked out at the Baltimore City Jail.
Of course, in those days I thrived on that kind of thing. It made me feel like I should be wearing a fedora, smoking unfiltered Camels, nipping from a pint of Old Crow between editions, and shouting “Hello, sweetheart – get me rewrite!” whether or not the occasion called for it. I reveled in the ink-stained life until I lit out for Hollywood, where the pay was better and I got fussier about offices. It’s still hard to believe that one show I worked on housed its writers in a converted photo processing plant. Then there was a converted warehouse on a dead-end street where gang kids gathered on Friday nights to drink themselves into the mood for trouble. At Paramount I found myself working out of the Jerry Lewis Building on one show and the Clara Bow Building on another. Universal was an improvement even though my office was at the bottom of a parking garage. I had privacy, an unimpeded view of the Los Angeles River when it flooded, and the pleasure of telling visitors they could find me on Muddy Waters Drive. Addresses didn’t get any cooler than the one named after the man who electrified the blues.
When I went house hunting for myself in 1996, I wanted a home with a media room that could accommodate a TV the size of an aircraft carrier. Once I found it, I managed to control my euphoria long enough to look at the rest of the place. That was when I first laid eyes on my office, in the southwest corner of a half-acre lot, beneath a 150-year-old oak tree. I’ve been here nineteen years now, and though I’ve become the proud owner of a TV the size of two aircraft carriers, the room where that monster sits is nowhere near as appealing to me as my office.
It is where I turn words into sentences and sentences into stories, both fiction and non-fiction. It may sound like factory work to you, but I love it until those occasions when the right words won’t bubble to the surface. But even then I never hate it. I look around the room and see remnants of the wonderful moments writing has brought me. Waiting to greet visitors is a framed enlargement of the award-winning cover of the boxing anthology that my old friend George Kimball and I edited for the Library of America. To the left of it is a photo of me with Bill Veeck, the last great promoter who will ever own a team in any major professional sport. Across the room hangs the letter in which Steven Bochco, the legendary TV writer-producer, invited me to take a shot at writing a script for L.A. Law. It changed my life.
I would keep my hand in sportswriting, of course, but I was a TV writer first and foremost for twenty years. The rest of the photos in my office bear out the dichotomy – Muhammad Ali here, the charmingly truculent Xena there. Half of my tottering oak bookcase is devoted to journalism and writers who were heroes of mine, deadline artists like Jimmy Breslin, Red Smith and A.J. Liebling. The other half contains as many Hollywood books as I can squeeze into it, the master works of David Thomson, biographies of Robert Mitchum and Sam Peckinpah, and scripts, scripts, scripts, none more important than Robert Towne’s Chinatown, the first I ever read and the one that has stayed with me longest.
I write on a handmade pine desk I have owned for more than a quarter century. To my left is the steamer trunk my father brought to this country from Denmark in 1926. Atop the trunk is a well-worn Royal upright typewriter that I bought for 25 bucks when I worked on the Warner Bros. lot. My writing machine of choice, however, is a MacBook that reminds me of the Olivetti portable typewriter I used when I was a newspaper sports columnist bouncing from big game to big fight to big horse race.
As I sit at my laptop now, I realize something important is missing from the room that houses the heart of my career, its storage space jammed with what I have written, its walls crowded with memories. There is no sign of A Better Goodbye, and that must be rectified. My office is where it sprang to life and I experienced the sense of triumph that comes with finishing a novel. I’d never written one before, and now that I have, I partial to the idea of writing a second. You’ll know where to find me if and when I do.
With A Better Goodbye, John Schulian makes his debut as a novelist after a long and much-honored career as a journalist, sports writer and TV writer-producer. He was a nationally syndicated sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and twice was hailed by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the country’s best sports writer. The Village Voice praised his work as “brilliant,” bestselling novelist William Brashler called his prose “a cross between Dashiell Hammett and F. Scott Fitzgerald,” and the Boxing Writers Association of America honored him with the Nat Fleischer Award for excellence in boxing journalism. He has also been a sports commentator for NPR’s Weekend Edition, a special contributor to Sports Illustrated, and a familiar byline in such publications as GQ, Inside Sports, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Oxford American. Schulian broke into TV with a script for L.A. Law and wrote for such iconic crime dramas as Miami Vice and Wiseguy before he co-created the international hit Xena: Warrior Princess. He is the author of three collections of his sports writing – Writers’ Fighters & Other Sweet Scientists, Twilight of the Long-ball Gods and Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand – and the editor of two Library of America anthologies, At the Fights (with George Kimball) and Football. His short fiction has appeared on the websites Thuglit and The Classic and in the Prague Revue.