Author
Q&A

About the Book:
Since you've written a book called The Real Life Channel, does that mean you watch a lot of "reality TV?"
Actually, I don't watch any! The roots of this story go back a long way, long before the "reality TV" phenomenon started. When I was a kid, sometimes I'd imagine what it would be like if my life was being covered like an event on TV, with commentators reporting on me doing my paper route or on my choir's performances or things like that. Then I wrote an earlier version of The Real Life Channel about twenty years ago - that was a completely different story from this book, but the idea for the network and what it wants are the same.
So what does the Real Life Channel want, if it's not to create the next Survivor or American Idol?
More than anything else, they want control. It's hard to make a TV show about people in real life, because they don't always do what you expect them to do. Most of the time, just the fact that you've got people in front of a camera will change how they behave. That's when Marcus Bligh started working on his "advanced techniques," as Andrea puts it. And then, if you can control the people who are performing in your shows, why not try to control the people watching your shows as well? Where does it stop? Or you might say that the people at the Real Life Channel asked themselves, "Why does it need to stop?"
But isn't it normal for people to want control over things? Are you saying that's bad?
No, of course it's normal. Wouldn't you love to have your own Scriptor 7000 and rewrite your life when you wanted to? Take a look at the kids who make the show, What Do You Think You're Doing? They want control in their lives, too. The whole reason they get involved with the Real Life Channel in the first place is because they want to control the fate of their show after it gets put on hiatus. And individually, you have Alan feeling unable to control that he's getting older, Sydney unable to control whether she gets to see her friends at the studio, and others worrying about their own issues. But nobody can control everything in life. There are always going to be walls that you run into along the way. What matters is what you do when you reach those walls. Do you just stop there? Try to go around them? Try to knock them down? The Real Life Channel has its own answer, but the kids still need to find theirs.
You used to write for a TV show yourself. How much of that experience did you put into your book?
In a lot of ways, this book is a tribute to my favorite memories from my time working for You Can't Do That On Television. The TV show, What Do You Think You're Doing?, was inspired by the real show, although of course I made up a different set of gags. When I came up with the "Lunch Lady" routine for the book, I couldn't help thinking it was too bad I hadn't thought of it twenty years ago, because it would have fit perfectly.
What about the characters? Are any of them based on the cast and crew members you worked with?
I took bits and pieces from both the people I worked with and the characters they played. If you watched You Can't Do That On Television, you'll probably recognize a few of them. But some of the other characters are based on people I've met elsewhere, and still others aren't really based on anybody. And in the process of writing a book, the characters always take on their own personalities and change from the way you originally envisioned them.
What else from your TV experience have you put into the book?
Well, if the kids represent my favorite memories, I guess the Real Life Channel itself represents my not-so-favorite memories. The TV business can be a rough one, and it really can disconnect you from reality if you're not careful. And when you're a screenwriter, you soon discover that there are a lot of people who will change your work for their own purposes. You have very little control over how much of your work will make it into the finished product. That's why I switched to writing books.
So are you saying you have your own need to control things?
Guilty as charged! I am a writer, after all. It kind of goes with the territory.

About the Author:
How did you start writing for television?
When I was a kid, writing for TV was something I'd always said I wanted to do. I read and reread David Gerrold's book, The Trouble With Tribbles, which was his account of writing for the original Star Trek series when he was a 22-year-old graduate student. But it wasn't until I was halfway through college before I actually tried it. I was studying engineering, and it wasn't really what I thought it would be like. That got me thinking about what else I might want to do with myself. I'd been watching Nickelodeon's You Can't Do That On Television, and had been getting some ideas for it - which is what happens with a lot of shows I watch - and I just decided that after wanting to write for so long, it was time that I actually did it.
How did you sell your script once you'd written it?
I was lucky that You Can't Do That On Television wasn't made in Hollywood and didn't appear on a broadcast network. That meant I didn't have as much competition for the producers' attention, and I didn't have to worry about finding an agent. But it was still difficult, because they were in Canada and I was in Tennessee, and this was before the internet made long-distance communication so much easier. Once we got in touch with each other, it was mostly a matter of waiting on my end. After four months, I got a definite "maybe" - they asked me to do some rewriting and try again. I didn't hear anything more for another four months, until suddenly one day it all came together.
How long did you work for the show?
About a year and a half. My first four scripts were part of the 1985 season, and I spent that summer working on the set as the "script doctor," rewriting things on all the scripts as production went along. After that, I went back to Tennessee, but continued to write from there. Unfortunately, by the time I graduated, the show was winding down and going on hiatus, so that's where things ended. I wrote a total of nine episodes, and there are about a half-dozen others that have some of my work in them.
What was working on the set like?
I absolutely loved it. First of all, there's nothing like seeing people perform the things that you've written. Second, there was a really great atmosphere on the set. The cast and crew all got along with each other and enjoyed what they were doing. I wasn't that much older than the kids in the cast - and was actually younger than one of them - so I fit right in. There was plenty for me to do besides write, too, whether it was providing one of the off-screen voices or sitting in the background on the set. Once I had to stand behind the school bus set and throw branches into the air, to make it look like the bus was driving through a garden. And my big moment was when I played a "good-looking guy" working at the burger joint where the kids always went. I guess all the real "good-looking guys" were busy that day.
Singer Alanis Morissette has become You Can't Do That On Television's best-known former cast member. Did you ever work with her?
I met her once, in 1986 on my last visit to the set. I remember being surprised when she told me she was only twelve years old, because she had been hanging around with another cast member who was fourteen, and I'd thought they were the same age. She did appear in one of my episodes, though. In fact, that was the only time she ever got the show's trademark "green slime" dumped on her head.
So does that make you, "The Man Who Slimed Alanis?"
Yup, that's me.

About Sydney Myerson-Walsh and her family:
Why did you give Sydney Myerson-Walsh the family that she has?
You mean why does she have two dads? The simplest answer is because that's who she is. That's the way the story came together. When I was brainstorming my cast of characters, she just kind of popped into my head and announced, "Hi, I'm Sydney, and these are my dads." When a character is that definite about something, it's usually a good idea to listen and go with it.
And that's the only reason?
That's how I got started. Once I had the characters established, I made several decisions about what I was going to do with them. One thing I knew from very early in my story development was that I was going to make them as normal a family as I could. I tried to write Tim and Jerry in exactly the same way as I would if they were "Tom" and "Joanne." You could say that the whole point to them is that there's no point, or that the most remarkable thing about them is that they're unremarkable.
Do you think that's a realistic portrayal?
Sure, why wouldn't it be? I see families like Sydney's at my church all the time. They're getting their kids baptized, sending them off to Sunday school, arranging child care for them - just like any other parents would do.
Do you really think including a gay couple is appropriate in a book written for young people?
Absolutely. I think it's important to introduce young readers to different people of all types, and to show that just because people are different, that doesn't mean they're scary or threatening. That's why I try to put some diversity into all my casts of characters. Besides, I think it increases the number of potential readers there are who can find someone to relate to in the story, and I think it makes the story more interesting. It's certainly more interesting for me to write that way.


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