Jamie Mayer is screenwriter turned novelist. I recently chatted with Jamie to talk about her debut YA novel, Painless; how screenwriting is different from novel writing; and what to do when your main character isn’t the most loveable guy.
NLK: In Painless, the main character Quinn draws graphic novels. Do you enjoy graphic novels?
JM: They are an amazing storytelling medium, and when the right artwork meets the right story, it can be magical. In Painless, it felt like the appropriate way for Quinn – a character who shows very little external emotion – to express his dramatic and complex internal feelings. In my mind, Quinn’s artwork is a sort of unholy style mashup of the amazing illustrator and artist Dave McKean, legendary painter Francis Bacon, and the wonderful contemporary painter (and former illustrator) Josh Hagler.
NLK: Was it difficult to change from writing screenwriting to prose? I would imagine the process of screenwriting helps writers to write visually strong scenes, is that the case?
JM: There are so many elements of screenwriting that were useful in the switch to prose – primarily having to do with how I approached structure and character arcs/development. But where screenwriting is spare and external (you’re trying to paint a picture of what the viewer will see on screen, so you tend to avoid too much description of characters’ inner thoughts and feelings), a novel usually includes much more internal character development, so that took some getting used to!
In addition, thinking about POV in the way that novelists do made my brain hurt a bit! Screenplays have POV in the way you think about whose story it is, whether we seeing events from their point of view only, or a more omniscient place, etc – but in a novel you have to not only decide whose POV you will be hearing the story from but HOW to convey that POV – is it told in first or third person, and how closely are you inside their head? It was a fun mental shift and the process taught me a lot!
NLK: What was the biggest challenge you faced writing Painless?
JM: A big challenge was that the main character, Quinn, is not the most likable guy when we first meet him. He’s not incredibly self-aware, and rubs a lot of people the wrong way. Through the course of the story, I hope people come to understand why he is the way he is, and see that he is starting to change for the better, but my goal was to get readers interested enough in him from the start that they would want to stick around for that journey!
NLK: How long has Painless been in your life?
JM: A much earlier and different version of this story was actually one of the very first screenplays I ever wrote. It’s one that I sweated over and revised over the years, and came very close to directing as a film. When that fell apart years ago, I put the project away in a drawer and worked on many other things. But the story still called to me, and a friend suggested that it might work well as a novel, so I decided to try writing it that way as an experiment, and it then took on its own new life and momentum in that form.
NLK: Tell us about the inspiration for Painless.
JM: I originally read a tiny, human interest story in the Sunday paper about a family that had a preschool boy with the same disorder as Quinn has, and it described how difficult it was to live with a child who had no natural fear or pain. He would burn himself on the stove and not know it, so he wouldn’t know to avoid it again. He would think nothing of trying to jump off the roof. His parents were beside themselves trying to keep him from harming himself or others. And I started to imagine what this little boy might be like psychologically as he grew older…
NLK: What’s the main message of Painless? What did you want readers to take away?
JM: There are upsides to feeling no pain, but obviously there are downsides too. And it occurred to me that the condition of being impervious to physical pain also worked as a metaphor for the ways that people often – intentionally or unintentionally – cut themselves off from emotional pain by walling themselves off from connection and love. So they don’t feel the emotional downs – but they don’t get to feel the ups either.
I wrote the original version of this story not long after I had experienced both a bruising romantic breakup and the long illness and death of my father (who by the way was a lovely man, in no way resembling Quinn’s father!), so I think the idea of a character wanting to be immune to not only physical but also emotional pain was something that spoke to me at the time! But of course, as much as you may feel at painful moments, “I’m never going to care enough to let myself get hurt this badly again,” you ultimately have to – because if you don’t, you’ll miss feeling all the good stuff too!
NLK: What advice would you share with newbie writers?
JM: 1) Write. 2) Find smart and trusted readers to be your test audience and listen (which doesn’t mean you take every note, it just means learning to hear and evaluate their feedback). 3) Learn to rewrite, which is a different (and harder, in many ways!) process. I wish I had more magical advice, but it’s pretty straightforward (to say, not to do!)
An excerpt from Painless
I got hit by a car on the day my dad died. The stupid jackwagon in the BMW just kneecapped me—so it was fairly minor. I didn’t feel a thing. Then again, I never do.
But hang on. Before I even say anything, shouldn’t I say why I’m saying it? Isn’t it kind of bizarre when you read a book and people start going “I did this,” and “I thought that when such-and-whatever happened,” and you’re like “why are you telling me this stuff?” Well, I’m not just talking to talk, I’m telling you because I have to. I can’t say the reason now because you won’t believe me, but you’ll eventually see what it is. Is that weird?
What do I know, I don’t even like books. Don’t read ’em. What I do is draw pictures. My eighth grade art teacher, Ms. Barnett, who was a whackadoodle in every other way—you can’t take someone in homemade shoes seriously—said one thing I’ve always remembered. She said, “Every mentally healthy person creates art,” even though they might not think of it as art. It might be the way they wash windows, if that’s their job, or the way they raise their kids. She said art was anything you did that interpreted the world, something that reached out and communicated to other people, “Here’s how I see things” or even, “Here’s how I wish things were.”
That was the last class I still bothered to go to before I just kinda stopped going to school altogether three years ago and no one even said anything.
About Jamie Mayer
Screenwriter Jamie Mayer is venturing into prose with her debut YA novel Painless. Born in New York City, Mayer grew up in New Jersey and graduated with a degree in Visual and Environmental Studies from Harvard University. She now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son.
Connect with Jamie
Painless is published by Rare Bird Books and available wherever you like to buy books.
Keep an eye out for my review coming next week.