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Thomas Kaufman has spent years behind the camera filming documentaries and TV shows around the world. But after winning a contest for new crime writers, he’s venturing from the moving image to the written word. We meet a local writer and award-winning cinematographer and explore his vision of crime in DC.
- Thomas Kaufman Author, "Drink the Tea" (Minotaur); Award-winning cinematogrpaher
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, your turn on the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq, upcoming elections or that new device near the Gallery Place Metro station that's intended to run off teenagers. But first, some writers dream of a book contract followed by a screenplay and a movie deal. But Thomas Kaufman came to fiction writing from the opposite direction. He's already in the movie business, an award winning cinematographer.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe's worked on feature films like Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," documentaries like "Eyes on the Prize," TV shows like "The West Wing." But he's a big fan of Raymond Chandler and George Pelecanos and he's always wanted to write a crime novel. So he used his cameraman's eyes to visualize his tale and put it down on paper. Kaufman's story, by the way, has a fairy tale ending in a way. The book won a contest for being the best first crime novel and now it's in print. Thomas Kaufman is the Emmy-award winning cinematographer and author of "Drink the Tea," winner of the Best First Private Eye Novel Competition. Thomas Kaufman, welcome, thank you for joining us.
MR. THOMAS KAUFMANWell, thank you, Kojo. It's nice to be here.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that when you were, oh, maybe five years old, you saw your first Charlie Chaplin movie in a nickelodeon.
NNAMDIHow did that spark your interest in becoming a film maker?
KAUFMANWell, I think every child is interested in magic. And for me, when I was five years old and my father showed me what a nickelodeon was, we were at a restaurant. And he hoisted me up and said, look in there, and he turned the handle and I saw this little short of Charlie Chaplin. There was something magic about that. So I was very interested in seeing all of Chaplin's films. I think, by the time I was eight or nine years old, I'd seen...
NNAMDIYou'd seen them all?
KAUFMAN...seen them all and also read a biography of Chaplin. And I found a wind-up 8 mm movie camera in our attic and my father said, I don't really remember how this works, but you're free to play around with it. So that's when I started fooling around with it.
NNAMDISo by the age of 10, you were already making movies?
KAUFMANYeah, I was making movies. I had no idea what I was doing. And it hasn't improved much since then, but, yeah, I was having fun with the camera. And that's what I like to do today.
NNAMDIOh, it's improved a lot since then. You've worked on documentaries, TV shows, campaign films, even a feature film with Michael Moore. You're usually the director of photography. Explain what it is that you do?
KAUFMANWell, a director of photography is another way of saying -- is what the English would call a lighting cameraman. You're a person who's deciding where the lights go and helping the director decide camera position, lens choice. So you have a lot of responsibility. But mostly, what you're there to do is help the director tell their story, whatever it is that they're trying to put across. And your photography can either parallel what that story is or counterplan it.
NNAMDIYou directed an Emmy-award winning documentary about deaf children learning to communicate. It was filmed here in DC at Gallaudet University. Tell us about that?
KAUFMANYes. It was filmed, actually, at the Kendall school, which is a demonstration elementary school. It's part of Gallaudet University. And I was -- I moved to Washington from Los Angeles. I had gone to school in Los Angeles and I moved to Washington in the early '80s. And I was telling a friend of mine -- we were working on a documentary and I was telling my friend it would be interesting to do a documentary about deaf children because sign language is a visual language and film is a visual medium. And my friend said, oh, well, you should -- you've probably been in touch with the people at Gallaudet University. And I said, what's that?
KAUFMANSo I went over to Gallaudet. I met the people at the Kendall school, told them what I wanted to do and they were very happy with the idea. So I followed a group of kids who had hearing parents. About 93 percent of all deaf children have hearing parents because the biggest cause of deafness is heredity. So I followed a group of these kids through their first year at the preschool at Gallaudet University. So these kids were between the ages two and four. And over the course of that year, they gain these communication skills through sign language. And so I saw intellectual development, as you might expect, but also emotional development, too. I saw them form relationships with each other and strengthen their relationships with their parents and their teachers through the use of communication skills. So I felt very privileged to be a part of that.
NNAMDISo you're having this career as a cinematographer. When do you find the time to write novels? Ever since you read your first Raymond Chandler book at age 18, you knew you had to try your hand at writing a crime novel, but when?
KAUFMANWhen do I find the time? Well, I blame the airline industry. I don't know if you've been flying at all lately, but it seems that we spend more time either waiting for the plane to take off...
KAUFMAN...you know, so I have a lot of time. Working as a cinematographer, I travel a lot and I have a lot of time to spend in airports and on airplanes and in hotel rooms. And I was working along as a cinematographer and quite happy, and still love the job. But I was unhappy with the amounts of time I was spending on the airplanes.
KAUFMANYou had down time. And I just said, you know, "There's got to be a better way. There must be something I can do to use this time constructively." And then, when my first child was born, it was sort of like a wake-up call. Like, you know, I better start this process right away. So now she's 17, my first child, and now my book is out. So I think I just began this in the nick of time.
NNAMDIIt took a writing competition many years later, 17 at least, to get your first book published. How did you get from there to here?
KAUFMANWell, Saint Martins Press is my publisher and they actually have four different mystery competitions that they run every year. And so I hope that people listening to this will think about that novel that they have in the bottom drawer of their desk and think, hey, maybe I could brush that up and send it to Saint Martins Press. Because I know that they would like to get more entries then they currently get. I had heard about this contest by taking a class at the Bethesda Writers Center and I knew that I wanted to enter it and so I did. And then, I forgot about it.
KAUFMANI remember when I was sending in the manuscript that I was wasting $6 in postage. I remember that very clearly. I was thinking, like, this is a -- you know, why am I doing this? And also, the person who was judging the manuscript was the founder of the Private Eye Writers Association, the guy named Robert Randisi. And I thought, well, I'm sunk. There's just no way they're going to like this. And then, I forgot about it. And I was in Wisconsin. I was filming a commercial and my phone went off and I silenced it because I was in the middle of a shot.
KAUFMANThen I picked up the voicemail and it was my editor, Ruth Cavin, saying, I have some wonderful news for you, but you're going to have to call me to find out what it is. Well, it was Friday afternoon. By the time I had called them, they had already closed for the weekend. So I spent all weekend thinking about it. Then I called them up on Monday and they said, yes, it's you. You're the competition winner. So I drove home and I told my wife, I have to go to New York right away. And she said, why? I said, well, I think they have a different Tom Kaufman, that can't be me. So I drove to New York and they said, no, it's you. You can go back to D.C., it's okay.
NNAMDIWhoa. Well, congratulations on that.
KAUFMANWell, thank you.
NNAMDIHow did you come up with your private eye Willis Gidney from? You know, Willis Gidney is a born liar. He's a scam artist. He grew up without parents or a home. Now he's a PI walking the same D.C. streets that he grew up on. And he has a fascinating name, which I won't reveal, unless you want to, how he got that name.
KAUFMANWell, how he got the name is something that you can find out about in the book.
NNAMDIBut it's safe to say it's not the name that he was born with. And...
KAUFMAN...Yeah, Willis Gidney. And I think that part of the reason that he came to being is from me working on a lot of different films. I worked on a film with a Washington filmmaker named Jenny Duren (sp?) called, "Promises to Keep," about Mitch Snyder and the Creative Center for Non-Violence so I spend a lot of time with homeless people. I've also shot-directed a number of shows for Discovery Channel about cops so I've spent a lot of time with policemen. And I also have this love of the private eye form, as a genre. To me it's like -- it's an inexhaustible genre. So those things combined together.
KAUFMANAlso, I had a good friend -- have a good friend who went through D.C. foster care in juvenile justice and she told me some stories that were just amazing. I mean, they were horrible stories, but also terribly interesting and they were dramatic. And, I thought, this would be interesting for a character, to have this kind of background and do this kind of work would make him different from a lot of private eyes that I'd read about.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Thomas Kaufman. He is an Emmy-award winning cinematographer and author of "Drink the Tea," which is the winner of the Best First Private Eye Novel Competition. You're a big fan of jazz music and you've described writing crime novels as a lot like playing jazz. Lots of improvisation. Lots of moot.
KAUFMANYes, that's right. Well, first of all, you should know that -- as you know, jazz is an American art form, but also the private eye story is an American art form. The very first one was written by Edgar Allan Poe, who was a native of Baltimore, and it's called "Murders of the Rue Morgue," and it featured Auguste Dupin. This is a private investigator. So if you start with the consideration that both jazz and the private eye story are American art forms, the other thing that links them together is improvisation.
KAUFMANAnd I've spoken with great writers like George Pelecanos and other writers who've told me that they don't plot out their books. Donald Westlake, Ed McBain, these are guys who sit down and they figure it out as they go along. And in a way, that's a kind of improvisation also. So I feel that these two are closely linked. And also there's, you know, a lot of -- I think there's a lot of linkages between listening to a piece of music and reading something in a book. I think they're similar experiences in some way.
NNAMDIIt's a little scary, though, the fact that you're embarking on a mystery novel in which the mystery has to unfold, in which it's ultimately going to get solved, in which you have to maintain the reader's interest right through. But while you're writing it, you don't quite know where it's going.
KAUFMANThat's right. But one of my favorite writers is a fellow named Lawrence Block who said, if the writer himself doesn't know what's going to happen next, chances are the reader isn't going to know either. So you have that advantage going for you.
NNAMDIYeah, but it -- doesn't it make you, like, nervous? Doesn't it make you tense?
KAUFMANIt does. And the thing about staring at a blank computer screen or a blank sheet of paper and thinking, well, I have to put words on here somehow that make sense, it is a little nerve-racking. But on the other hand, here, you know, when I'm working as a cameraman, I'm carrying, you know, hundreds and hundreds of pounds of gear everywhere I go. So it's a compensation for the fact that all I need is my laptop and a coffee shop somewhere and I'm good to go. So I don't mind sweating it through. And the other thing I want to say, is if you are the kind of person who likes to outline and there's nothing -- I mean, outlining is great. I've got nothing against it. Either way, you're going to be spending time figuring out what happens next. So one way, you're figuring it out with the outline before you start writing the book. The other way, you're figuring it out without an outline while you're writing the book. Now, for me, I -- what kept me from writing, "Drink the Tea," for some time was that I didn't have an outline. And I felt I really ought to have one. I mean, I wouldn't start the car to go on a trip without having a road map of where I wanted to go. But because it was keeping me from writing the book, I decided, well, you know, I've read so many of these books at this time, but in a way, unconsciously, I've programmed my brain to think this way. So I'm just going to start writing words and let it happen.
NNAMDII contrast that with the Pulitzer prize winning novelist, Edward P. Jones, who writes the entire book complete in his head before he even sits down at the keyboard.
KAUFMANYes. And you just named one of my favorite writers. I think -- it's interesting. Edward P. Jones and George Pelecanos, both Washington writers, who may be two of the greatest writers in America.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. And we'll come back to our conversation with Thomas Kaufman, who may be one of the greatest writers in America, but this is just his first novel. It's called "Drink the Tea." If you'd like to join the conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850 or go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIOur guest is Thomas Kaufman. He's an Emmy-award winning cinematographer and now author of "Drink the Tea," winner of the Best First Private Eye Novel Competition. He joins us in studio. You can join the conversation at 800-433-8850, at our website, kojoshow.org or you can send us a tweet at kojoshow or e-mail us to firstname.lastname@example.org. How did your filmmaker's eye influence the way you wrote this novel, Thomas?
KAUFMANWell, when I was writing "Drink the Tea," and I would be sitting in some coffee shop -- so first, I have to tell you that I cannot write at home. It's too difficult and it's too distracting.
KAUFMANSo I have to be someplace else, almost any place else will work so -- an airline, you know, airport lounge, a hotel room. Once I took my son to a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese, I knocked out a chapter there. That was fun.
KAUFMANJust working at home is just a little bit too difficult for me. So when I'm sitting down to write a scene, I like scenes -- the kind of book I like to read, the conflict is realized in action. And you see the characters act out what it is that's bothering them. There's not a lot of internal conflict -- or there is some internal conflict, but a lot of the action has the conflict contained in it. So when I'm writing the scene, I'm trying to see it and write it at the same time. I'm trying to see how the people are moving through space, what kind of body language they have and the kinds of things that they might, the kinds of things that they might not say.
KAUFMANRecently, my wife took me to a gallery and we were looking at some of the impressionists' work. And the impressionists were very interested in body language and gesture. And I think, as a writer, that has a big influence on me. Also, when I see, you know, the way people move, the kind of positions that they take, it sort of telegraphs how they're feeling. And so as a cinematographer, I see so much of this unfold through the viewfinder of a camera that it felt quite natural, as a writer, to try to incorporate that into the writing of the book.
NNAMDIHave you thought about writing "Drink the Tea" as a screenplay for a movie?
KAUFMANWell, writing a screenplay for a movie is a -- it's more of a long shot proposition, quite honestly.
NNAMDIThan getting a book published.
KAUFMANGetting a book published. I think you're better off trying to get a novel published than trying to get a screenplay made into a movie. Now, it's possible you could sell a screenplay and it would never be made into a film. That's happened to a number of people also. But it just seems that there are many more novels published each year than there are feature films made.
NNAMDISelling a screenplay and not getting it made into a movie seems like it doesn't happen to a few people, it's happened to a whole lot of people. I read a comment by Madonna yesterday saying it's a wonder that movies ever get made because in the process of making a movie, you get more obstacles than anything else.
KAUFMANYes, that's true. That's true. And, you know, working in my business, I remember once my -- when I was shooting with a tape camera, I took a -- something was broken and I took it in to a guy to take a look at it. It's the type of camera where you drop the cassette in, the cassette opens. These little arms reach the tape, they wind it around this drum that's spinning very quickly. And the engineer who took me says, you know, it's amazing that it works at all.
KAUFMANAnd I think that's true of motion pictures true. You know, there's so many obstacles. And then, these films come out, a lot of writers say they don't even recognize the film -- the script that, you know, they sold. It seems totally different, different location, different characters, different dialogue. So I don't see myself doing an adaptation of "Drink the Tea" any time soon, unless when I get home, I find a message waiting on my answering machine.
NNAMDIBut if one goes to your website, and I think we've provided a link to your website, they can see a little dramatization of "Drink the Tea."
KAUFMANOh, sure. Sure. Well, there's a video trailer for "Drink the Tea" on the website. And I thought I really had to do that. Here I am working in the business and book trailers are very common now. And I thought if I didn't do it, all my friends would say, hey, Kaufman, what's with you?
NNAMDIThank you. You're a cinematographer after all. Here's Marshal in Fairfax, Va. Marshal, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARSHALHello Kojo. Thank you very much. I have a question for your guest. I started writing a book. I'm not a writer. And this is just a huge undertaking for me and I found that just getting started was really the hard part. And as I kind of dive into it, it's really just becoming a -- it's getting easier and easier as I go. I love it. And the more involved I get in the story, the more excited I get about it and the more I tend to write. I'm going to finish it. My question is really where do I go from there? I mean, I -- this is all really new to me. I think it's great.
MARSHALI mean, maybe -- you know, I'm really just writing it for the sake of doing it, just to say that I've done something like that. I've created something and when I'm gone, it'll be there. But it would be nice to have an option, to give people the chance to see it and tell me what they think. And what do you recommend for something like that, for someone who really has no connections or no idea, you know? It's a shot in the dark kind of thing for me.
NNAMDIMarshal, how well do you handle rejection?
MARSHAL(laugh) Rejection's fine. It's -- like I say, it's really just a matter of taking that shot. And, you know, if I can get my foot in the door somewhere, even if it's just a matter of just -- you know, just a public forum. I don't know. Is there even anything like that? There's got to be, but I don't even know where to look. I mean, even if it's a matter...
NNAMDIHere's Thomas Kaufman.
MARSHAL...of posting it on the website.
NNAMDIWell, fear not. Be optimistic.
NNAMDIHere's Thomas Kaufman.
KAUFMANWell, Marshal, I guess if one of the things you're interested in is simply having the work where people can see it ,you have a lot of options now, thanks to the internet. You can self-publish electronically. People can download the book. You could -- if you wanted to have an Amazon account, you could have it available as a Kindle book very inexpensively for people so there would be that option. If you're interested in getting it published as a board and paper book that someone would go into a store or buy online, then I think what you ought to do is look at what -- first of all, I would say is finish your book. And then, look at kinds of books that you like that your book may be similar to and see who's publishing those books. Try to find out...
MARSHALWell, let me ask you...
MARSHAL...let me ask you this. You brought up another question. Now, if I were to publish online, first of all, where would I go for that and would that somehow inhibit me from doing it the second way that you talked about? Is that going to cause a problem for me in the future if it's -- if I've taken the...
MARSHAL...easy road, as you put it?
KAUFMAN...well, that's a really good question. The first one, I think you could find out pretty easily on your own. There's a -- there are a lot of sites where you can self-publish. But as to whether you could self-publish this book in some form and then have it considered to be published by a typical book publisher like a MacMillan or something like that, the answer would be no. Book publishers generally do not want books that have been self-published in some form. Now, there are exceptions to that. There are people who have self-published books that have gone on to become best sellers. But generally speaking, the answer would be no.
MARSHALOkay. Well, thank you.
NNAMDI...good luck to you. Here is Fran, who is on the road somewhere in Maryland. Fran, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
FRANHi Kojo. Thanks for taking my call.
FRANI'd like to ask you about the methods of writing. You know, we're taught in school this very stringent way of writing, which is, you know, you have to do the outline first and the title and all that kind of thing. And that really screwed up not only myself, but my friend. You know, we had a really hard time, you know, doing that kind of stringent writing that they teached (sic) you in public school. And we passed by the skin of our teeth, but we found that that screwed up our way of thinking because, you know, we didn't think like that.
FRANWe're kind of like you, you know, our -- we write our thoughts down and we piece it together. And a lot of even famous writers have done that. Do you see any way that -- did you have this kind of problem when you were growing up, when you were trying to write or do you think that the public school system could change that and be more flexible?
KAUFMANWell, I think the public school system is trying to apply a standard that is a basis, but it shouldn't be the end result of what you want to do. And I also think that when we talk about writing in this way, we talk about a writer's voice. Even though it's a voice you may not hear audibly, it's a voice that you create with the words on the page. So that whatever voice you want, that should be true to yourself. It shouldn't be through some sort of standard that we learned in school. For instance, in school, they told us we should never begin a sentence with the word and. We should never begin a sentence with the word but. Still, in conversation, we hear those words all the time. So how could you possibly write dialogue without breaking those rules?
NNAMDIIndeed, what most of the writers we've had on this broadcast tell us, Fran, that in order to write, you've got to write.
KAUFMANOh, and Fran, it sounds like you're in the car, so I just wanted to caution you, do not write while you're driving.
NNAMDIYes, we don't want a...
KAUFMANAnd don't read and drive either.
NNAMDIFran, thank you very much for your call. Here is Frank in Alexandria, Va. Frank, your turn. Go ahead, please.
FRANKThank you. Main reason I called was just basically to thank the author for some of the insides you gave me. The little number about if the author doesn't know what's going to happen, the readers won't either. It was great. That was worth the price of admission.
FRANKYou really, really...
KAUFMANWell, that was Lawrence Block who said that, but thank you.
FRANKBut the only main reason I want to mention is about a couple of years ago, I wrote a screenplay that actually got some action in Hollywood. I -- it was great fun. I mean, it never went anywhere, which of course is no surprise. But the thing that was really funny about it was that I realized that, in the long and the short of it, was I was the only one in the world who could've written the damn thing.
FRANKBecause I went and I was going through a lot of experiences and my own particular problems. Like you mentioned with the -- getting the information about the woman who had been in foster care. And I popped up with a hero who was a New York City street thug, who was an alcoholic seminarian.
KAUFMANWell, sounds very promising.
FRANK...I still like writing lines for my -- I was trying to punch up a second script I wrote and -- that wasn't all that hot. And I have him meet the Cardinal at this big fancy opening of the national gallery and they -- they're off in one of these old square gardens and they bump into each other. And the Cardinal goes, oh, good, my own walking, talking, breathing nightmare.
FRANKAnd the other -- and Bart goes, oh, evening, Eminence. And he goes, don’t you Eminence me. What are you doing here?
FRANK(laugh) And they go on from there. And the last thing he says before he leaves the Cardinal -- looks at him and says, you gonna get arrested tonight? And Bart goes, no. And the Cardinal just walks away. (laugh)
NNAMDIWell, sounds like you got the beginnings of a novel in there, not...
NNAMDI...a screenplay that's going to get rejected.
KAUFMANYou know, one of the things that this brings up, I think, is pretty interesting. And that is that for a lot of writers, the characters are very much alive in their imaginations and -- like this caller who just phoned in. And also I think that when you're reading a great book, after you finish it, those characters will resonate in your mind, sometimes for days or weeks later. And I think that's a mark of really great writing.
NNAMDI"Drink the Tea" includes scenes that portray shortcomings in the District of Columbia's juvenile justice system. Are you trying to send a message?
KAUFMANI'm not -- well, I think it was Louis B. Mayer who said, if you want to send a message, use Western Union.
KAUFMANI'm not trying to send a message so much, but I think some of that -- some of what I heard from people who went through that system is reflected in what I'm writing. And if someone read the book and came away thinking that the system needed to be improved, then I certainly would not disagree with them.
NNAMDIYou're working right now on your own film about a music school in Berkshires and you've interviewed a lot of music legends for it, Pete Seeger, Arlo and Woody Guthrie, Carly Simon.
NNAMDIWhat's it about?
KAUFMANWell, I haven't -- I have to backtrack. I haven't interviewed anyone except Pete Seeger and the two founders of the school, Irma and Morty Bowman. The school was called Indian Hill and it began in 1952. And it was an interesting, unusual school. It was accredited. It was only during the summer. It was in the Berkshires and some of the kids who went through there were Frank Rich, Carly Simon, Jake Brackman. The Guthrie family was there because their mother was teaching dance at this school.
KAUFMANAnd it's about arts education and how, over the last eight years or so, arts education's been really cut back in our schooling and yet it's essential for a well-rounded child to have arts education. And, in fact, research shows us that kids who get this arts education do better in math and science than they would if they didn't get it. So cutting arts education really is not helping us. And so this film is about the importance of that, whether the child is interested in becoming an artist or not.
NNAMDIAnd while you're working on the film, with down time on airplanes...
NNAMDI...what's the next novel you're working on?
KAUFMANWell, the next book is -- the next book originally was called "Water for the Elephant" and then Sarah Gruen came out with her book called "Water for Elephants." So Saint Martin's press said, you know you're going to have to change the title of your book, right?
KAUFMANI said, yeah, I know that. So then, I thought I might call the next book "Standard Oil of New Jersey," but it turns out that someone's already used that one.
NNAMDIYeah, vaguely heard of that. Yeah.
KAUFMANYes. So right now, the working title of the second Willis Gidney book is called "Show Stealer," and it's about a group of people who come from Los Angeles to premier a film here in Washington and they make Gidney's life a living hell.
NNAMDIWillis Gidney, he is the protagonist in the first private eye novel by Thomas Kaufman. It's called "Drink the Tea." Thomas Kaufman is an Emmy-award winning cinematographer and "Drink the Tea" has caused him to the win the Best First Private Eye Novel Competition. Thomas Kaufman, congratulations and good luck.
KAUFMANWell, thanks, Kojo and thanks for letting me be here.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, it's your turn. You can start calling right now, 800-433-8850. What do you think about that new device near the Gallery Place metro station that makes a loud, piercing, whining sound that only young ears can hear that's intended to cause young people not to hang around businesses there very much. 800-433-8850, it's your turn. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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