After almost ten years of working in editing and publishing, Lea Carpenter published her very own short story in 2011. Now at peace with her writing process as well as her journey to becoming a writer, she interprets the drastic changes in publishing due to the political climate and shares her personal experience during the pandemic.
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Lea Carpenter [00:00:01] Aaron Sorkin, when asked how long it takes him to write a screenplay, likes to say that it really takes him two years, but that the first 21 months of that just look like him lying on the couch watching.
Sam Jayanti [00:00:40] How do you make the leap to writing after spending years in adjacent professions like editing and publishing? Lea Carpenter got her start in the literary world through her experience working with Francis Ford Coppola on his magazine, Zoetrope, John F. Kennedy Jr.’s George magazine and at The Paris Review. She’s the author of two novels, 11 and Red, White and Blue, and also wrote the screenplay for Pete Berg’s Mile Twenty Two, starring Mark Wahlberg and John Malkovich. Lea, it’s so great to have you on Ideamix radio today.
Lea Carpenter [00:01:14] Thank you so much for having me.
Sam Jayanti [00:01:17] So you wrote your first book after a landmark personal event in your life. Tell us about that.
Lea Carpenter [00:01:26] Well, I had not set out to be a writer, and then my father died, and two days after he died, some family and friends came to the house to bring to my mother and me a declassified Bronze Star citation. It was the Bronze Star, it was a citation for something my father had been involved in that I had never known about, although I’m pretty sure it was not that he kept it secret, but that I had never asked about it. My father and my mother had a big age difference, and I was born when he was in his mid 50s. So by the time I was old enough to ask him, you know, an articulate question, I never said what was your life like 40 years ago? But it turned out he had spent quite a career in the military and in military intelligence and in what we now call special operations. But it didn’t really have that name then, although in this citation was that phrase special operations. And I was at the time working, writing speeches for Beau Biden, who was the attorney general of Delaware. And Beau and I were working on a book together. And when that book got put on hold, the agent who was shepherding that book said, Lea, why don’t you write your own story? And really pushed me and sort of said, you know, I dare you to try and write ten thousand words under your name. And if you can do that, and I like the story, I’ll represent you. And so I had been reading, since my father died, everything I could on this subject. Special Operations, which is a field largely of books written by men for men and about men. And I just thought maybe I could do it differently. So I wrote, in effect, a short story which was told from the point of view of a very young single mother who, like my mother, had a child at age 19. And it was really about, you know, her trying to understand how she had ended up in a military family. Because after my father died, I was trying to understand how I had ended up in what I now know to have been a military family, although I didn’t think of it that way when I was growing up. And those pages went to that agent and he liked them. And that became my first book. Which really tries to tell the story of the evolution of the special operations forces community from World War II down to the present day and the, of course, now quite well-known night when our Navy SEAL Team Six killed Osama bin Laden.
Sam Jayanti [00:04:36] That’s one of my favorite books.
Lea Carpenter [00:04:39] Thank you. Well, I think it was a you know, you someone very famous was it, Chekhov? I’ll fact-check myself after we get off, but some famous writer once said happiness, writes White. Which is to say, taking it entirely outside of the context as we think about white as it relates to race now, what he meant was when you’re happy and clear, there’s sort of canvas that stays blank, but it is often through pain that you generate a story. And I certainly., when I look back on that book now, it was coming from such a place of intense pain, the loss of my father and a few other things going on at that time, but so I think about that phrase when I think about that book.
Sam Jayanti [00:05:35] That’s a good phrase. Paul Bogarts, the VP and deputy publisher at Ottenhoff, who published your last novel, says 2020 has been the year of the pivot for the publishing industry. You’ve had experience in both writing and literary publishing. How do you feel this year has forced publishers and writers to adapt?
Lea Carpenter [00:06:02] I feel a little over my skis and answering that question or any question that Paul Bogarts, who I think is so brilliant and has been so helpful to my career, any question that he would answer? He is one of the most thoughtful readers I have encountered in my publishing career. I would guess that he’s talking less about COVID than he is about the conversations around race, diversity and inclusion, but let me assume he’s talking about both, so I’ll just say something briefly on both of those. COVID for me was an unbelievable experience. As a reader, I find that I have kind of rediscovered reading and COVID and have been reading more than I ever have, rediscovering the pleasures of reading. I rediscovered audio books in COVID. I think it’s been a great time for readers and for writers whose lives are sort of often taken mainly in hibernation. But I think, thinking about how to market a book…there’s been a lot of interesting thought there in terms of, you know, did we have the right model of sending writers out to cities? I have a great friend, a writer called Bruce Wagner, who just released an unbelievable novel into the public domain called The Marvel Universe and he’s spoken a lot about, which I highly recommend, he’s spoken a lot about why he chose to do that and and why he feels the old models of publishing are broken. But, of course, if you’re Paul and you are at Random House, which is the big, formidable player, I’m sure they’ve had to really think carefully about literally the logistics of selling books, less publishing them, but probably the marketing and how that has all changed. I’d love to hear his thoughts on that. And in terms of the, you know, publishing, as has traditionally been quite a white privileged business, because it’s an industry that doesn’t pay very well and doesn’t ever promise economic riches unless you’re J.K. Rowling. So I think that the publishing industry has had to think carefully about the implications of that and what it means and I think a lot of really smart people have been doing some really hard thinking about how to navigate that. I think it’s really complex stuff but I can assure you, Paul, you know, he will be at the forefront of making those decisions.
Sam Jayanti [00:09:04] Publishing has gone through so many radical changes over the last twenty, twenty five years. As we think about it, I totally agree with you. I think it’s being redefined all the time, both by writers, by the retailers, as well as in turn the publishing companies.
Lea Carpenter [00:09:23] Yes, I think that I was listening to an interview with someone, you know, Joe Lonsdale, and he was talking about the fact that the pharma industry is so quixotic and strange in the pharma industry, prices are considered trade secrets and like that creates all sorts of market irregularities.
Sam Jayanti [00:09:49] It’s so absurd.
Lea Carpenter [00:09:50] As he was talking about this, which I didn’t know, I, of course, thought of publishing because an author’s sales used to be more or less a trade secret before Barnes and Noble. You know, it was very, very difficult to find out how many copies of a book had sold. And so you could sit atop the literary pyramid from a reputational standpoint and maybe
Sam Jayanti [00:10:18] Sold very few books.
Lea Carpenter [00:10:20] And so the the application of traditional market metrics to publishing has been something that’s happened certainly in my you know, in over the time that I’ve been working in that field or bumping up against that field and it raises all sorts of very interesting questions because, again, the economics of that business are very different to other industries, and if you look at how the economics of the music industry have collapsed or changed it’ll be interesting to see what the future is. I never thought I would read a book on my phone or listen to a book on my phone and now that’s almost exclusively how I experience books.
Sam Jayanti [00:11:10] So true. You didn’t start writing until 2011 and you worked in literary publishing for ten years prior. As you made that transition and now look back on it. Was that experience essential to your skills as a writer?
Lea Carpenter [00:11:36] I think it was less, time in publishing than it was time doing something other than writing, Elliott often says that, you know, if he had a child come to him at twenty one and say, hey, I want to be a writer, he’d say, well, go be a Marine for 10 years first or go do something else for ten years first.
Sam Jayanti [00:12:00] Have a life experience.
Lea Carpenter [00:12:02] Yeah, not to compare. Listen, the number of times I said God, I wish I had had the confidence to start writing at 22 and not taken this really long detour into lots of other things with lots of mixed results. But now I feel, you know, I guess I’m old enough now. I just feel at peace about how it happened. I think I needed to be boxed into a corner where there was no other option, where I’d kind of committed to being a writer but being a speechwriter and I was writing a book, but it was with someone else and then that rug was ripped out from under me because I got sick and I thought ok, now it’s now or never. I’m going to write or I’m not going to write and it, you know, it feels kind of silly at the beginning to think, you know, I have something so interesting to say that I’m going to put it down on a piece of paper and people will care about it. But you do it for long enough. And then that’s what you do, like with anything else. So I’ve said, Elliot and I say to each other many, many, many times, like, are we? Are we still going to be doing this next week? And we kind of help each other answer that question with yes, because the process as people, my mentor and friend, has compared the creative writing process, but I think it’s true of any type of writing to being blindfolded in a room doing a Rubik’s cube behind your back. I mean, there’s something there’s a lot of complexity to it, and yet there’s a lot of complexity to neurosurgery, but on the other side of performing brain surgery, you’ve saved someone’s life and on the other side of writing a book, you don’t really know if you’ve done anything. So it’s also peace with the fact that
Sam Jayanti [00:14:08] it’s hard to gauge impact,
Lea Carpenter [00:14:10] Yes, impossible.
Sam Jayanti [00:14:16] You started writing 11 days after your friend dared you to write ten thousand words and you said you felt painted into a corner and so finally wrote that, how did you wrap your head around it? It’s one thing to write for yourself, it’s one thing to submit that to your friend, but this idea of writing for a public audience.
Lea Carpenter [00:14:46] You know, that that friend was it was a literary agent who was a just an incredible person called Ed Victor, he’s no longer alive, but he took me out to lunch in December in London, and said, I’d like you to I’d like you to write ten thousand words and I will see you here in London on May 3rd. So you have six months and will either have a nice lunch or we’ll have something to talk about. And I literally didn’t know what to do until about April 15th, which is how I work anyway, I’ve now made peace with that. Aaron Sorkin likes to say when asked how long it takes him to write a screenplay, that it takes him, it really takes him two years, but that the first twenty one months of that just look like him lying on the couch watching ESPN. And so I finally got down to it. I had just read a book. Called Lone Survivor, ironically, and this is how strange life is, a lone survivor, which ended up being adapted into a movie directed by Peter Berg, who didn’t come into my life until much later, but I read the book and.
Sam Jayanti [00:16:12] Also a great film.
Lea Carpenter [00:16:13] Yeah. Really, really moving well, Pete understands human beings and emotion and
Sam Jayanti [00:16:21] absolutely, I think he has a real empathy for people in the forces and the people that surround them.
Lea Carpenter [00:16:29] He really does. And he and I have spent a lot of time talking about that. But anyway, in that book, which is a memoir written by Marcus Luttrell, who was a Navy SEAL, there’s a sort of almost peripheral moment in the book where he talks about what was going on in his home in Texas while he was missing in Afghanistan and what was going on in that home was that home was filling up with people, everyone in the town coming in this sort of accidental vigil waiting to hear news, people bringing food, people bringing alcohol. If I’m remembering correctly, the house got so filled with neighbors and friends that some friends built a second structure. They didn’t just erect a tent. They built another house to house what had become a community waiting, waiting to hear about what had happened to this young man. And I remember asking myself at the time, how would I feel if I was that mother in that house? And my answer to myself was, I’d want to get out of the house. And so I wrote 10000 words about the book. It opens with the mother putting on her running shoes and going for a run to get out of that house. And as she’s on her run asking herself the question, as I said, I have asked myself, how did I get here? How do I sort of be a bohemian liberal? Intellectual? How do I have a son who’s in the special operations forces and he’s the person I love more than anyone else, and that’s exactly the question I asked myself about my father. And that mother goes on to sort of say to herself, what if he never comes back? And so the book was in a weird way, my way of sort of having a dialog with my father who I could no longer talk to. But I I met that agent on May 3rd and astonishingly, as I was reading through it one last time in my hotel room in London of late the night before Barack Obama came on the news to announce that Osama bin Laden was dead and that he had been killed by a Navy SEAL team and I had chosen the Navy SEAL teams because they were so obscure and not known. My father was not a Navy SEAL.
Sam Jayanti [00:19:03] Perfect moment.
Lea Carpenter [00:19:04] But yeah, so I sat down to lunch with Victor, who’s a very funny guy, and I said, here are my pages. He said, What’s your subject matter? I said, it’s Navy SEALs. Of course, it wasn’t really Navy SEALs. It was motherhood. But I said, it’s Navy SEALs He said, ha. I said, no, it is. And I could see his little, you know, antenna pop out of his brain with, like, marketability and I really think because I accidentally landed on that subject matter, we got a book contract for me to finish the rest of the book.
Sam Jayanti [00:19:36] Amazing.
Lea Carpenter [00:19:36] And I’ve since learned how very hard it is to happen on a tough topic, that that immediately lights people up and I think it was it was total accident and that was really the start of what has been a you know
Sam Jayanti [00:19:58] A successful writing career.
Lea Carpenter [00:20:00] Period of years in which I write, I write on or around that topic, not just sales, but service. Yeah.
Sam Jayanti [00:20:08] Amazing when you aren’t writing, you’re involved in various efforts to preserve the arts. You’re on the board of the art production fund and more recently have worked in service of the Biden campaign. Tell us about this different part of your life and has being involved with a political campaign brought out any feedback from readers?
Lea Carpenter [00:20:32] I guess I would say that I am from Delaware, which is a very small state, first state to ratify the Constitution, but nonetheless a small state. And my parents worked in Republican politics. So my first act of active rebellion was to tell them at age 15 that I wanted to work for then Senator Biden and I did, starting out as an intern in his Senate office. And I had known I had known his boys growing up. And that was the start of a lifelong connection to that family, what I thought would truly be a lifelong career working for Beau for me to get a little bit involved by trying to generate enthusiasm among other people who might not know the candidate in the same way, might not know Joe in the same way, has been great. And back to novels versus brain surgery. I’ve seen why people get very excited about getting involved in political fundraising, political campaigns, because you do realize you can see if you get past the finish line, you can see how you can affect change. So that has been exciting. Art Production Fund is an organization. One of the founders was a dear friend of mine – I am not otherwise at all involved in the art world. But my time on their board was a great education for me. You know, I feel like if writing – at least writing books – is a very solitary thing and of course I have my boys…Elliot and I have four kids between us, so life can really feel like I’m alone or with children and both of those things I love but I guess I would say some of the other things I’ve gotten involved with are a way for me to engage that part of my brain that loves being part of a team and particularly part of a team building something. That’s how I weirdly ended up at business school. I had worked on these. I didn’t graduate and go to work at Vogue. I didn’t graduate and go to work at Random House. And I look back now, I think at the time, those ironically those more secure jobs felt more intimidating to me. So I thought, oh, well, I’ll work on this startup and then I’ll learn something. And then I moved to another startup and then I moved to another startup. So by the time I got to business school, my career had been three publishing startups and then I left business school and went to essentially work on another startup, which was resuscitating.
Sam Jayanti [00:23:45] The Paris Review
Lea Carpenter [00:23:46] The magazine I cared deeply about. But I didn’t. Now I can look back and see very clearly what all of that was. So when I pivoted to writing, which is totally non entrepreneurial, I miss that energy and I think that’s that’s the itch that working on the campaign is scratching in addition to true truly believing with all my heart, as I’ve said for a long time, that he he is the right leader for for what’s what’s going on with this country now.
Sam Jayanti [00:24:22] At the right time, absolutely. We’ll be right back after this quick message.
Sam Jayanti [00:24:31] So Lea, how are you staying creative during this year? Are you staying creative? It’s been an eventful end for 2020.
Lea Carpenter [00:24:41] I think in April and May, it was very hard for me to do anything other than school and feed the children. You know, we had an excuse. Four children across two schools and four grades and you know, breakfast, lunch and dinner for six people. It was an interesting time just in a total reallocation of time and very humbling in that way. But my focus was so much on the kids. That was a period of a lot of reading, as I think I said when I got any time it was reading time and starting to work on one new project. And then COVID has turned out to be very productive. There are three things I’m working on now and and I think for writers, it’s been a, as I said, a time where we, unlike so many other folks, have been able to keep doing what we do if we can find the time. I think about all the people who’ve either lost their jobs or have been unable to work for various reasons, and that is the one thing that the profession of writing had going for it, is that you are able to do it anywhere and all you need is a laptop or for some people, just a pencil. So the writers that I’ve been in touch with over this time, and particularly the ones with older children, have actually been able to be very productive.
Sam Jayanti [00:26:29] It’s interesting, I think you’re right. Despite the struggles or sort of alongside the struggles of caring for one’s family and being isolated, I think. People who took a positive view of that were able to turn it into a deeply productive time for them. As a writer, you’re your own business effectively. Who are the people that you look to and rely on for support, for advice in your professional life?
Lea Carpenter [00:27:05] Eliot, first and foremost, he has a very rigorous approach to how he works, which I admire, it’s not the way that I work, but he sets a very high bar and really believes, you know, when I have my…”I’m not a neurosurgeon” moments, he’s very good in those moments, and he has become a real mentor to me in so many ways, particularly about helping to remind me that part of the process is you. You fall down and you get back up again. We, he gave me an incredible opportunity. I don’t know why, but he did get me to write a film. And it was this exhilarating experience where I got to work with incredible people and a big budget action movie and my boys got to be in the movie. And it was just, you know, all these exciting things, and then the movie didn’t work. And the day the movie was released or the day the reviews were going to come out before I, I woke up to a letter from him. And I hadn’t seen any of the reviews we had seen in early screening, which it felt like it could work. And people were enthusiastic and, you know, there were all sorts of plans for where this was going to go and how I was going to be part of the ride of where it was going to go. And it didn’t work, and I woke up that morning and the letter basically said. “Don’t read the reviews. You know, you showed up every day as an artist, that’s the only thing that matters”. That’s the only thing that matters.
Sam Jayanti [00:29:05] That’s hard, but he’s so right, I think in any creative endeavor and in the end, you’ve got to put one foot in front of the other.
Lea Carpenter [00:29:11] And I’ve had a book, a book that I’m really proud of. It worked in all the ways that I wanted it to work, and then I got a really nasty review about it. In The New York Times, I got a phone call from an old friend of mine who works in the movie business and has done very well, and so I very highly regard him as an artist in his point of view on things. And he called me and he said, Lea, incredible review in the Times, I’m so proud of you. And I said, John, did you read it? And there was a really long pause and he said, no, I didn’t read it. I said, You didn’t read it. He said, no, but I saw your picture and you look great and that is the only thing people will remember.
Sam Jayanti [00:30:03] That’s so great. That is so true.
Lea Carpenter [00:30:04] The reason I like that story is whether or not it’s the picture. It’s kind of like when you get a few projects into the business, you really do realize, like the greatest living television writers write projects that don’t work and they write the best television on TV and the greatest living novelist writes the best novel. And you know this or that reviewer doesn’t get it like it’s it’s that that becomes so much a part of the path and all of the people operating on the level that I would like to think I will be operating on get that. And so there’s a sense of like, you know, you’re in the arena. That’s that’s all that’s that’s the only thing you just need.
Sam Jayanti [00:30:43] Half the battle
Lea Carpenter [00:30:44] And nobody and nobody, nothing else really matters in the end. But it takes you you do have to get kicked in the teeth a few times but why did I have to wait 17 years before waking up and saying I’m going to try and write it? Because I was viscerally afraid of that, I think.
Sam Jayanti [00:31:09] Yeah, I think it’s an intimidating process. Last question, Lee, where do you see yourself three years from now?
Lea Carpenter [00:31:18] I very much hope to still be writing. And Very much hope to be writing in the Film and television world, hopefully with another book. And, you know, parenting the kids and hopefully they’re all happy and healthy, but. Probably doing a variation on what I’m doing now, but hopefully having learned a lot from it.
Sam Jayanti [00:31:50] It’s a good place to be.
Lea Carpenter [00:31:51] Yes.
Sam Jayanti [00:31:53] Here’s something else you should know. Book sales didn’t fall by as much as people expected at the start of the lockdown. They were up almost 6% through August 2020. And of course, e-book sales are up. But the real story is that with rising e-book sales and shuttered stores, book buying revenue has moved rapidly from small businesses to Amazon, further shifting power away from smaller booksellers. Thanks to the Boston Globe for the industry data used in today’s episode, Lea, we love your candor about your hesitations and your journey up to taking the plunge into professionally writing and love your books. Thanks so much for being here with us today.
Lea Carpenter [00:32:36] Thank you so much. Can I say one last thing? A friend of mine has an older brother who was working in Silicon Valley right around the time that Jeff Bezos was starting Amazon. And he knew Jeff Bezos and he said to him when he looked at the business plan for the company. Jeff. I don’t know, Amazon, why don’t you just call it booksdotcom? And Jeff Bezos said, I don’t think so.
I’ve always loved that story. From the very beginning.
Sam Jayanti [00:33:14] That is a great story.
Lea Carpenter [00:33:17] Anyway, thank you so much for having me.
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