If you graphed Seth Greenland’s writing career, it would look like an Escher drawing: Apparent dead-ends emerge as new beginnings. A novelist who is also a television writer, Greenland has tried his hand at just about every kind of writing except poetry — which is the avocation of the protagonist of his new novel, “I Regret Everything” (Europa: 256 pp., $16).
In the novel, Jeremy is secretly a poet (in his real life, he’s an attorney) but after a cancer scare he begins to reconsider his decisions. He’s also met Spaulding, his boss’ enchanting and wild college-dropout daughter, who narrates about half the chapters as the two dance and fall in love.
Greenland moved to Los Angeles from New York with his family in 1997 after his own bout with cancer. In his Brentwood backyard with a view of the Santa Monica Mountains, he sat down to talk about the book and writing in all its forms.
How much of your own experience being diagnosed with cancer ends up being Jeremy’s experience?
Some. I had Stage 4 Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It never recurred, and that was 20-some years ago or so. I’ve been trying to figure out how to exploit it for my writing ever since. You gotta use everything — I try to be a nose-to-tail writer, you know?
How did you get started writing?
I met Richard Belzer, I’d written about him for the Soho Weekly News, and he hired me to write a radio show he was doing for WNBC [in the 1970s].… It was like a Howard Stern show kind of a thing, pre-Howard Stern. He needed gag writers. It was a great way to make money, I was funny and it was easy. Here’s the thing: If I had thought in my 20s I had the talent to be a novelist, I would have skipped that whole phase, I think, and just become a novelist. But it was too intimidating at that point. Having been an English major, you’re in school studying Faulkner and Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, and you think, man, that looks impossible, really. Whereas script writing, comparatively — I mean it’s hard to write a great screenplay too, but it’s a lot easier doing that than writing a great novel.
When did you decide to try writing your first novel?
It’s a really circuitous route, and I’ll tell it quickly. I came out here in ’82, and Norman Lear gave me a job writing on a show he was doing, “a.k.a. Pablo” for ABC — it was the first show about a Mexican American family and was meant to be a big thing, which it alas did not turn out to be. But it was a great opportunity; I was 27 years old and writing for a network show. [After it was canceled] I moved back to New York and was able to get work writing screenplays. But I was not getting a lot of creative satisfaction doing that and I taught myself how to be a playwright. My first play was a comedy about the CIA’s attempted assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected president of the Congo; it was in the vein of “Dr. Strangelove.” The play [“Jungle Rot”] won two major awards.
That was in 1996, shortly before you moved to L.A.
By the early oughts, I thought, “I’ve done this and I’ve wanted to do a book, and I’m in my 40s now, and maybe I should write a book while I still think I have time.” You have your ups and downs as a screenwriter, and I was in a down period, and I thought it might be my final down period. I mean, you’re always checking to see if your career has a toe tag. I thought, “Well, it’s now or never, I want to write a novel.” It took me six months to write the first draft. I had a manager who was an English major at Wesleyan, so I trusted his taste. I gave it to him — he later told me, his reaction was, ‘Oh, good God, please tell me you didn’t write a novel.’ But he really liked it.
That was “The Bones” (2005), then “Shining City” came out in 2008.
Then all of a sudden, I’m a novelist. I’m not some guy whose career in Hollywood was OK for a while and then petered out. Then the guys at “Big Love” read the books and say, “Geez, you should come write for our show.”
What was it like to go into a writing room after having finished two novels writing by yourself?
Hard. Really hard. I had never been in a room like that. I had been in comedy rooms, which is its own level of anxiety, because everything you say has to be funny. Because this room was so intensely story-driven, and I didn’t really know how dramas were put together, the first six weeks were very difficult for me. They had just been nominated for an Emmy for best drama, so I really got thrown in the deep water. It was a great job, and it was a chance to reinvent myself, so I embraced it. And came home and had a really stiff drink every night — I drank a lot of Scotch that summer.
What books do you think best capture Hollywood?
“The Player” by Michael Tolkin is a really good Hollywood novel. “The Day of the Locust” by Nathanael West holds up really well…. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Pat Hobby Stories” — he so gets the sweaty desperation of what it is to work in Hollywood. Although the trappings are different, everything else is the same. It’s just unchanged.