Writer Finding Elusive Secret to Success
The heroine of Joyce Burditt’s new novel, “Buck Naked,” bears the considerable burden of being named Demeter O’Brien. Even a man who wants to take her to bed can’t resist jibing, “Great name, as in ‘Cabbie, Demeter is running.’ ” No surprise that everyone but her psychiatrist mother calls her Dutch.
Burditt will join more than 20 other novelists and writer-producers Saturday at a one-day seminar on “Writing the Series: Books & TV,” sponsored by the Valley-based Southern California chapter of the Mystery Writers of America.
Many of the speakers have had distinguished careers in television, including Dean Hargrove, creator of “Matlock,” and Michael Gleason, who created “Remington Steele.” Others, including Roger L. Simon, who wrote “The Big Fix,” and Edgar winner Michael Connelly, have written mystery novels with protagonists that keep readers coming back for more. Burditt is one of the few who has mastered both media.
A former network executive, Burditt is the creator of the Dick Van Dyke series, “Diagnosis: Murder.” She was also a writer-producer of “Perry Mason,” “Matlock” and “The Father Dowling Mysteries.” And she recently launched a series of mysteries featuring Dutch O’Brien. The second O’Brien book is now in the hands of Burditt’s publisher, Ballantine.
As another mystery writer observed recently, there are an awful lot of books out there whose protagonists are “private eyes with uteruses.” But O’Brien is different from her hard-boiled sisters. Yes, she can arm wrestle with the best of them, and she knows her way around a .38. But Dutch is also a romantic, who allows her heart to be broken by a haunted, irresistible man named Michael and who has a weakness for Victorian tschotkes uncovered at swap meets.
Yes, yes, Burditt says, laughing, there is a lot of herself in Dutch. A friend told Burditt after reading “Buck Naked,” “Just like all your books, you’re all of the women and most of the men.” Take the passion for pretty Victorian-style things, for example. Burditt recently moved from Toluca Lake into a Queen Anne cottage in Pasadena that Dutch would kill for.
“I saw a house that reminded me of my grandfather’s house in Ohio,” says Burditt, an Irish-Bohemian native of Cleveland with great cheekbones and striking pale blue eyes. Burditt moved into the 101-year-old cottage, planted a garden replete with roses and filled the house with Victoriana (“I’m very big on flea markets”).
“Taste in decor skips a generation,” Burditt says. “My mother gave away my grandmother’s dark mahogany and bought turquoise Formica.
“It makes me happy,” Burditt says of the retreat she has built for herself. “I have the fantasy that I’m going to walk out in the backyard and my Mommy and Daddy are going to be there, and my Grandma and Grandpa.”
Making Dutch a romantic was a gamble, but Burditt liked creating a character whose competence doesn’t keep her from loving someone almost to death. “If losing the love of your life doesn’t kill you, what should?” she asks.
If Burditt never met a damask rose she didn’t like, she has also managed to thrive in an industry that has broken more hearts than any guy. Burditt followed her ex-husband, writer-producer George Burditt, into television, and one of her first TV-life lessons was that you never know how long any given show is going to last.
“He did the shortest-lived show in the history of television,” she recalls. “It was called, ‘Turn-on.’ It got canceled at the first commercial. The pope joke threw the show right off the air. . . . It was canceled while we were at the premiere party.”
“Buck Naked” is at heart a Hollywood novel, one of the growing number that make wicked fun, not of the movies, but of the weird, wacky, intestine-roiling world of episodic TV. Written by insiders, many of these books transmogrify bad workplaces into good reads.
Roger Director’s “A Place to Fall” is a good example (he wrote for “Moonlighting”), as is Charlie Hauck’s classic, “Artistic Differences.” The arc of these books is simple: the writer-producer decides life is too short to deal with a crazy star and trades big bucks for a life without Maalox.
Burditt’s “Buck Naked” has many of the classic elements, including a writer who is all but shackled to her desk and has cranked out so many scripts she doesn’t remember whether events happened or she made them up. It also has a wonderfully monstrous star in Buck Stevens, star of the fictional but utterly believable TV series, “Stone, Private Eye.”
Buck’s persona is that of a lovable hayseed who became an American folk hero as a result of his earlier hit, “The Buck Stevens Good Times Roll Along Variety Show.” On the set, needless to say, ole Buck is a country Caligula.
Buck was inspired, Burditt says, by the Andy Griffith character in “A Face in the Crowd.” Burditt loves television, but she sees its potential for abuse--in rewarding the telegenic, regardless of their character. “We could elect the anti-Christ if he were a good TV performer,” she says.
Burditt likes the fast-paced collaborative process of TV, but she also likes sitting alone at her word processor, making artful fictions out of bits and pieces of her experience. She is a great believer in humor, not jokes, but “humor as the alternative to suicide or homicide.”
One of the pleasures of writing a novel, she says, is that it allows her to write the sort of comedy that grows out of character, something that episodic TV gives you little opportunity to do.
“I think humor is a life force,” says Burditt. “It can save your life.” That kind of humor informs her first two novels, “The Cracker Factory” and “Triplets,” both published in 1981 (when she wrote as Joyce Rebeta-Burditt).
In “Buck Naked,” Dutch does one thing Burditt would never do--she has a glass of wine. Burditt sticks to iced tea. The best-selling “The Cracker Factory” is about a beautiful young woman’s harrowing, hilarious triumph over alcohol. When Burditt was on tour with the book, an interviewer asked her straight out, if she was the model for her protagonist. “Yes,” she said, deciding candor was a greater good than the Alcoholics Anonymous tradition of anonymity.
At recent signings, she says, with obvious satisfaction, women have come up to her with well-worn paperback copies of the book and asked her to autograph them, saying how much it had eased their own recoveries.
Burditt, who still has dinner regularly with her ex-husband, had three children by the time she was 21. Ellen and Jack are in television, the family business. “Then,” she says, “there’s the family hero, my son Paul, who teaches eighth grade in Palmdale for a cent and a half an hour.”
One of the tips Burditt gives people trying to break into series TV: Write a spec script for a show you know well and then send it, through an agent, to the producers of a similar series. If you were to send her a script for “Diagnosis: Murder,” for example, she might tend to notice and focus on the mistakes.
“My son,” she says, “did a spec script for ‘Seinfeld’ and got his first job on ‘Mad About You.’ ”
* WHAT: “Writing the Series: Books & TV,” a seminar presented by Mystery Writers of America, Southern California chapter.
* WHERE: Sportsmen’s Lodge, 12833 Ventura Blvd., Studio City.
* WHEN: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday.
* HOW MUCH: $55 for members, $65 for nonmembers (includes lunch).
* CALL: (310) 392-1438.