“Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner talks about his debut novel, “Heather, the Totality.”

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Lit Life

Update 11/10:

Matthew Weiner was scheduled to appear at Town Hall on November 13; that event has been canceled after an allegation of sexual harassment was reported Thursday.


From earlier:

After many years spent writing some of the greatest dialogue on television, Matthew Weiner’s next project is a novel — one with almost no dialogue at all.

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“Originally I intended to write in first person, and then I realized I always write in first person,” said Weiner this week, on the phone from a New York hotel. His debut novel, “Heather, the Totality,” is a taut, quick, almost noir-ish story of a struggling marriage, and of two people — a lovely and empathetic teenage girl, and a dangerous and angry man — whose paths darkly cross.

And it came from a desire to try something different; to create an interior world on a page, rather than a physical one on a screen. “Not writing dialogue was a choice,” he said, “because I wanted to preserve a point of view” — a single narrator, rather than a cacophony of voices. That narrator slips in and out of the characters’ heads, reflecting their point of view. “It’s still dialogue, it’s just not two-sided.”

“That was all totally new for me, and not related to film, and that was very exciting and scary.”

Though this is Weiner’s first published fiction, it’s not surprising that he would have a knack for it. Read the script for the “Mad Men” pilot, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and you’ll find deliciously evocative scene-setting. Here’s the description of that 1960 Manhattan bar where we first meet Don Draper: “Vinyl upholstery and mirrored walls, but brand-new. It’s after work, but the women have their hair done and each man’s tie is pushed to the top of his collar. Highballs and martinis clink under quiet music and everywhere are the sights and sounds of smoking.”

Though Weiner’s “Mad Men” work didn’t usually have that level of non-spoken prose (the pilot, intended to be shopped around, has more detail than subsequent scripts), he emphasized that writing a screenplay involves far more than crafting dialogue. “It’s about pacing the story out and showing the drama, the physical activity that goes on in a scene, nonverbal scenes and nonverbal moments, the cinema moments,” he said. “Those are devised by the writer, not the director.”

For the novel, which was inspired by a chance sighting on a New York sidewalk (a stare that was “more than unsettling”), he relished the challenge of telling, rather than showing. “I’ve proved myself capable of showing. I’m going to tell now, and hopefully in the telling, you’ll get a chance to really be in an interior world that I could never convey on film.”

Born in Baltimore in 1965 (no, he’s not old enough to remember the period he re-created on “Mad Men”), Weiner has spent two decades working in television, beginning as a writer on the sitcoms “The Naked Truth” and “Becker.” Unhappy with the work on those shows, he began writing the “Mad Men” pilot on his own, at night. That script made its way into the hands of “The Sopranos” creator David Chase, who liked what he saw and hired Weiner for that show’s writers’ room in 2004. He remained there until the show’s conclusion three years later.

Though he finished the “Mad Men” pilot script in 2001, it took years to find a home for the show; it was famously rejected by numerous networks, including HBO. (Weiner has said that he carried the script around in his bag every day for four years, showing it to anyone who would look.) Finally AMC bit, and “Mad Men,” led by the disarmingly handsome (and then-unknown) Jon Hamm as enigmatic ad man Don Draper, premiered in July 2007.

Seven seasons (and numerous Emmy Awards) followed, taking Don and his co-workers and family through the 1960s; along the way meditating on identity, the place of work in our lives, parenting and growing up, and whether you can sell something without selling your soul. We came to know Weiner’s unforgettable characters: Peggy, who begins the decade as a nervous young secretary and ends it as a confident career woman; Pete, an ever-striving weasel whose saving grace was a touching vulnerability; Joan, the office’s cool bombshell who belatedly came to embrace her real power; Roger, the silver-haired clown prince. And Don, a fascinating creature of smoke (Lucky Strikes), mirrors and instinct; rarely likable, always fascinating.

Though Weiner says he doesn’t spend much time with the show now, even with his kids (getting caught watching it would have, he said with a laugh, “a Norma Desmond quality to it”), he said he’s still not tired of talking “Mad Men.” “I’m very proud of it,” he said, “and in a strange way, I’m only absorbing right now what it meant to people.”

As a full-fledged “Mad Men” geek (and the author of the Mad Men Mondays blog here at The Seattle Times), I had to ask him about the birth of a favorite scene: the late Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) appearing to Don in a fantasy sequence, singing “The Moon Belongs to Everyone” and performing a silky soft-shoe (in his socks; Bert never wore shoes in the office).

Weiner was aware that Morse, then 83, was “one of the great song-and-dance men of all time, and I was having a hard time with the fact that I had this man on my show and I was basically ignoring that.” (Morse won a Tony Award in 1962 for “How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying” — a very “Mad Men”-ish musical.) Driving to work, Weiner heard “The Moon Belongs to Everyone” on the radio, sung in 1947 by Frances Langford. Having planned that Bert’s death would coincide with the moon landing, he thought the song would be perfect.

“I knew it would have a deep emotional resonance,” he said of the scene, performed by Morse with a gentle twinkle in his eye.

These days, Weiner’s revisiting “Mad Men” just a bit: He’s now filming his new Amazon series, “The Romanoffs,” for which he gathered many of the former “Mad Men” writers, crew members and actors (the cast includes John Slattery and Christina Hendricks). “We’re halfway through production,” said Weiner of the series, which will premiere sometime next year.

Shooting “all over the world,” the series is eight separate stories about people who believe themselves to be descended from the Russian royal family. “Each has a different cast, a different story, a different location,” he said. “Like the novel, it’s a little bit of an exploration of the form.”