I was fortunate to speak to Marilyn Atlas over the telephone. She's gracious, funny, inspiring and full of information.
I hope you enjoy our conversations as much as I did. The final post of this multi-blog series will be her bio. Wowser!
Please welcome Marilyn Atlas to the Five Scribes. ~Leslie Ann
Conversations about Diversity and Stereotyping.
Okay, I took a deep breath and dialed.
Leslie Ann: Marilyn? Hi, it’s Leslie Sartor.
Marilyn: How are you, my dear?
LA: Feeling so lucky to talk to you. Thank you for doing this.
M: Oh, no. My pleasure. I thought your questions were great.
(Prior to our conversation, I’d emailed her a list of questions we might want to talk about. She graciously took the time to write answers, so you’ll find a mix of both during this blog series.)
LA: Really? Thanks. I was a little concerned as this is my first interview.
M: I don’t write at all, not a lick, I can talk, but I don’t write. But I thought MY GOD, this seems like a reporter wrote these.
LA: Stunned silence on my end, then a squeaky, "Thank you."
And with that, Marilyn put me at ease, and I felt as if I was talking to an old friend, one who didn’t hold back, one who loves to pass on information.
LA: The last line in your bio states that you’re committed to projects that reflect diversity and portray non-stereotypical characters. I believe, when talking about the portrayal of diversity, it can be as sweeping as using terms like "people of color," "Latinas" (ethnicity) or "Catholics" (religion,) but I also think it can be as narrow as a white vs. white or whichever color is being written about. The characters can be white, the project can be mainly white, but we still need to create diversity within this project and create non-stereotypical characters.
M: Definitely! Opposing points of view are really why there are these basic classifications to begin with. Along with that of course are varying degrees of codes of morality and social mores. But, as long as you know intrinsically your characters’ backgrounds and reasons for acting the way they do, you can create richly textured worlds.
Specificity by definition exceeds the boring straitjacket of tropes. This is why I emphasize to writers they must really know who their characters are. Only then can the writer truly show what the characters want, their goals, needs, etc.
LA: Tropes? You’re talking about Archetypes, aren’t you?
M: Yes. I think when you’re creating character...and Archetypes is one of the ways writers create characters or they check Meyer Briggs...I think you want to bring something different to it.
LA: Bring our own experiences to that archetype?
M: You know, it’s always recommended that you write what you know, but that can be expanded into researching what you know.
Knowledge doesn’t have to be based solely on experience, and if you survey your world in depth, then broadly, and then in a random, highly particular corner with no ostensible connection to what you want to do, you’ll come up with the oddities of locality that will imbue your story with juicy credibility.
I recently read a book by a white gay writer yet his portrayal of a marriage and specifically the young African American protagonist was so rich, so universal and the writer so insightful, it hardly mattered his ethnicity or sexual orientation.
I am a big believer in using one’s imagination (after having done your research) and I do not fully adhere to solely writing what you know. Even when writing what you know, it’s the writer’s original take, his voice and execution that make a story and characters memorable.
Also, I would imagine that writing about yourself, your neighbors, your friends lends a working familiarity that is hard to beat. But for more experienced or ambitious writers, there should be no explicit limits placed on themselves.
I’m so concerned about writers writing stereotypes because it’s sloppy writing to me.
M: Yes, lazy. Exactly.
LA: Regarding Diversity. The first thing that pops into my head when I hear the word is racial or ethnic diversity.
I’ve spoken to many writers at conferences, in classes and on line that often feel uncomfortable writing outside their race because portraying another race, ethnicity or even region (south vs. west for example) is challenging to nail down without offending.
M: I really believe taboos or conceived politically/racially offensive lines should be redrawn.
If art, insight or experience can transcend initial fears, then use this foreign context to show the preconceptions of the author’s natural community in approaching this kind of material, or conversely highlighting the astigmatism within this newly explored, sensitive community as more ably seen from an outsider’s perspective.
LA: Before we had our conversation, I went to Webster’s dictionary, and one definition of diversity is: "composed of distinct or unlike elements or qualities." That definition could be perceived to be simply what we talked about above, but I’m thinking "distinct or unlike elements" can be so much more.
M: Yes, exactly. One of things I thought was so interesting about Real Woman Have Curves (Marilyn Atlas--Producer. HBO Independent Films, available on DVD) is that normally in immigrant families, particularly Latino families, it’s usually the mother that’s the back bone and encourages the kids to go out and make a life for themselves. And in RWHC it was the father. He was very understanding of his kids, so that to me was interesting. He was diverse in both ethnicity but also and perhaps more importantly in his qualities.
Because I have actor clients and read for them, to me it’s always about finding a character that’s a little different, that’s three dimensional, that has qualities you don’t necessarily think they should have.
It was Marilyn’s last line: "...that has qualities you don’t necessarily think they should have" that really crystallized the fact I must not simply be content to create characters I already know.
That in order to create interesting and notable characters I must go beyond the archetype foundations and go outside my comfort zone to build characters that will make producers, editors, readers, viewers and actors, take notice.
I know I HAVE TO DO THIS.
What do you think? Please, go ahead and join the conversation.
This was a great segue into tomorrow’s blog about What Actors Want in a Script and Creating Worlds. See you then.