Tell me about how This Is Where I Leave You became a movie. What was your initial reaction when the rights were acquired?
When I finished writing the novel and my agents wanted to shop it to studios, I told them I thought it was the best novel I’d written, but no one was going to option a novel about a family sitting shivah. To further complicate things, I insisted on attaching myself as the screenwriter. And, to my great surprise, Warner Brothers optioned it, this despite the very clear absence of superheroes in the book. The movie then went through the typical studio process: “We love the script, but we just can’t make it unless Leo is in it.” This process saw two directors fall off the project, one of whom had already amassed an entire cast. In the intervening years, I wrote two scripts for director Shawn Levy. He had always been a big fan of the book, so when it became available again, he threw his hat into the ring, and, along with the producers—Paula Weinstein and Jeffrey Levine, pulled it all together, along with an insane cast, in record time.
Were you involved in the screenplay? I believe you are involved in the screenplay for One Last Thing Before I Go?
I wrote the screenplay for This Is Where I Leave You—all 40 drafts of it. And yes, I also wrote the screenplay for One Last Thing Before I Go, for Bad Robot and Paramount, which I hope will have a more direct path to production.
Any tips you learned from turning your book into a screenplay?
Yes. Have someone else do it. And you adapt someone else’s book. Adapting your own book is like performing open-heart surgery on your own child.
How does it feel that first time you see your book in movie format?
Well, the movie isn’t cut yet, but being on set and watching Jason Bateman and Tina Fey and Jane Fonda saying the words I wrote and rewrote over these last five years has been incredibly surreal and extremely fulfilling to me.
How did your TV show, Banshee, come about? How is writing for television different from novels and the big screen?
Banshee was kind of a lark. I was getting paid pretty well to write movies no one was making—and so I decided to try my hand at TV and get paid much less to actually get something produced. I always imagined I’d sell something character-driven—I’m pretty sure that’s what HBO expected me to pitch. But I’ve always been a big fan of action films and pulp. I don’t actually remember how it all came about. David Schickler and I developed the pitch—we got Alan Ball on board, and when Alan walks you in to HBO, you pretty much have to shit the bed to not sell it.
Describe your morning routine.
When I wake up, I spend more time than I should trying to locate myself. Am I in New York? In Charlotte, where my show, Banshee, shoots? Or L.A.? When it takes me more than 60 seconds, I seriously consider the possibility of brain tumors and begin wondering who will show up to my funeral. Once I figure out where I am, it takes another minute to remember what day it is and where I need to be. Then I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to decide whether or not I will shave.
What is your favorite item of clothing?
I have a handful of leather jackets, and I love them all. I think most men my age do, and it can be traced back to the Fonz and Danny Zuko. The jackets are all bought in San Francisco, because every time I go to San Francisco, I forget that it’s going to be cold.
Please recommend three books to your readers and tell us why you like them.
Apathy and Other Small Victories, by Paul Neilan. May very well be the funniest book you’ve never read.
Nobody’s Fool, by Richard Russo. He’s far and away my favorite author, and no one is better at creating complex, real characters. He’s smart, funny, a fantastic storyteller, and not at all pretentious.
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, by Peter Hedges. Every time I reread it, I wish that I’d written it. Someday I hope to wake up and find out that I actually did.
Do you have a writer friend who helps and inspires you?
My friend Laura Dave is a fantastic novelist with a great analytic approach to story. It’s rare to know another writer who will sit there and listen to you for 20 minutes, while you try to explain the narrative corner into which you’ve painted yourself, and then actually have some great solutions to offer.
Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time or just let it flow?
I suck at this question! I have no routine. I just write until I get jammed, then I rethink and write some more. I always know where I want the story to end, I always have a clear picture of the emotional arc, but everything else just has to come while I’m writing.
What has to happen on page one, and in chapter one, to make for a successful book that urges you to read on?
I favor an abrupt start to things. Don’t spend any time on setup in that first page. Start with stuff already happening and fill in the backstory later. If the first page is a description of a house or a man or a town—well, unless it’s very masterfully done, it may not grab me, while that same paragraph, written four pages later, would completely have my attention. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.
Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.
I don’t have a particular routine, especially now, dividing my time between novels and screenwriting. My problem isn’t motivating myself to write—it’s finding enough time to do all the writing I want to do. It’s a pretty good problem, and I know that, but I also know that I’m not getting any sleep.
Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your workspace? Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk? What is the view from your favorite workspace?
My desk has a 15-inch doll of Yoda on it. He makes me happy. I don’t know why. He used to talk, but the battery died, and I’ve never replaced it. It’s on the list I keep in my head of things that my staff will do, if I ever have a staff.
What is guaranteed to make you laugh?
Do you have any superstitions?
I don’t like being complimented. It makes me very nervous. It might be a Jewish thing—like the minute you say I’m a good writer, I’ll never sell another book.
What is your favorite snack?
I’m addicted to Cherry Coke Zero. It’s my coffee and my cocaine. And not enough places sell it. I need an app on my phone to tell me where the nearest place selling it is at all times.
What phrase do you overuse?
I have this verbal tic: I say “in other words” too much—usually before I’ve said it the first time, so what the hell do I even mean?
Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author?
I quit my day job after my third novel came out. Being unemployed definitely made me feel like an author.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
There are far more talented writers than published writers. Perseverance is everything. If you believe you can do this, then don’t stop, no matter how hard and how often they reject you. Unless you suck. Then you should probably stop wasting everybody’s time.
What is your next project?
I’m looking forward to the movie version of One Last Thing Before I Go, which is supposed to shoot next March. I adapted that one, as well. The second season of Banshee airs in January, and I’m getting ready to start my next novel!
This interview has been edited and condensed.