To be a great writer, be a prodigious reader. Every great author I know is also a resolute and comprehensive reader. To create compelling prose, it helps to have read widely and deeply.
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adrian Maher. Adrianwas a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, and a freelance journalist for UPI, Newsweek, Time Magazine and the L.A. Weekly. He has written, directed and produced dozens of television programs for Discovery, History, National Geographic, ABC, Fox, MSNBC and Travel channels. Maher has also taught investigative journalism and documentary film production as an adjunct professor at Chapman University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from the University of California at Berkeley and a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
I’ve worked as a newspaper and magazine journalist, an on-air television reporter, a radio host and as a writer/director of more than 100 hours of documentary television programming. At heart, I’m a storyteller who has worked in many genres and on a variety of platforms. My great white whale, my holy grail was to write a detailed comedic memoir about my time in Hollywood running with a group of subterranean party crashers who effortlessly penetrated Tinseltown’s most exclusive events. As a journalist, I’ve always felt the ultimate endeavor is to write a compelling, well-written, deeply reported, full-length book. After years of regaling friends and family about some of the outrageous characters involved and my own innumerable incidents and accidents, pitfalls, and pratfalls, I finally set aside a whole year to write my book: Uninvited: Confessions of a Hollywood Party Crasher. The final tipping point in my decision, was my young niece, who after hearing yet another anecdote, blurted out — “You’ve been telling us every year you’re going to write a book about all your wild tales, WHEN are you actually going to do it?” That night I came home and started writing the book proposal.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
While filming a documentary on Nuclear Submarines for the History Channel, I got to bunk on one, the U.S.S. Albuquerque, that launched out of a naval base in Groton, Connecticut. Once out to sea I had several moments of overwhelming claustrophobia trying to navigate the tight spaces within the submarine and at one point retreated to the more spacious dining area to catch my breath and spread my limbs. As I sat next to a wall I rested my head against it, but felt intense heat coming from within. I asked one of the officers why the wall was so hot and he elaborately explained that the nuclear reactor in the boat was only about 90 feet away, splitting atoms and generating heat of more than 2,000 degrees that was boiling water to create the steam that powered the boat. My kitchen seat was luckily separated by three layers of lead shielding on the other side of the wall that domed the reactor and protected the crew (and me) from the intense radiation. But I could still feel the heat coming through. It was surreal and completely unnerving to be sitting inside this long metal tube which was harnessing the full brunt of atomic power in such a small, confined space that was propelling the boat along. I still think about that moment to this day.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
I asked an author friend of mine, Charles Rappleye, who had written several comprehensive, hefty non-fiction works on American history for a tip or three before I started writing my book. He paused and said, “You’ve got to sit your butt down in that chair every day and pound that keyboard until you hit your daily word count.” I thought about his advice many times in later months, especially on those days I was hungover, or didn’t feel particularly creative or had other pressing domestic matters where the thought of writing something was torture. But it’s true. Once you decide to write that book, you’ve got to stay on it and not let your momentum flag or fail. Once you start succumbing to procrastination it can be lethal to finishing the work. I made it a point to hit at least 800 written words every time my butt hit that chair — at least five days a week.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I started writing the book employing a third person narrative using the crasher handle Sidedoor Johnny to conceal all my own party crasher antics under the guise of another character. But on reading my first few chapters there were endless “and Sidedoor Johnny did this and then Sidedoor Johnny did that.” It sounded ridiculous when I read it aloud to myself. Then an author friend said there’s nothing more powerful than a first-person narrative and that it was best to come clean and put my real name on the book’s cover. By taking that final step and owning my own story it was remarkably freeing and I never looked back.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I’ve created a detailed proposal for a documentary television series called Culture Games about a wide variety of sports played all over the world. Many of the games I’ve researched are completely unknown except to the local inhabitants but are fascinating and deeply revealing about a country’s history and regional culture.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
The Golden Globes Awards, next to the Oscar ceremony, is one of Hollywood’s most prestigious awards shows. Security is absolutely stifling as all of Tinseltown’s greatest stars in movie and television assemble in one venue, the Beverly Hilton Hotel, for a night of award tributes and after-parties. There are snipers on the hotel roof, Homeland Security and FBI agents roaming the perimeter and leashed German shepherds patrolling the hallways. In 2003, a friend and I decided to crash the awards show with a Steven Seagal celebrity lookalike as a means of stealth entry. With our faux Seagal in the lead, we were all able to ride his wake and Trojan Horse ourselves into the hotel where we spent the whole night eating lobster and hobnobbing with celebrities. It was definitely one of my most creative and outrageous capers considering it was only 14 months after 9/11 and the whole hotel felt like Fort Knox due to the oppressive security.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
Crash every opportunity! In my book, I mention that there are only about two-dozen hardcore party crashers in Hollywood. I often wondered why so many other L.A. residents weren’t also joining in the fun. The answer is that most people can’t handle the potential embarrassment — getting that tap on the shoulder or a poke in the ribs and getting publicly perped walked through the crowd and launched on to the sidewalk. (I also realize some are morally averse to any type of petty trespassing). But fortune really does favor the bold — it’s amazing how much adventure comes your way if you just go for it!
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.
1)Writing a good book is one of the hardest tasks you’ll ever do. I could never have predicted the many times I’d sit with my head in my hands outside my house on the sidewalk trying to figure out how to bridge a huge gap in my narrative. Some of the challenges are absolutely fiendish and writing a book (a good one) is one of the most arduous endeavors you’ll ever undertake. I love the famous Winston Churchill quote: “Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.”
2)To be a great writer, be a prodigious reader. Every great author I know is also a resolute and comprehensive reader. To create compelling prose, it helps to have read widely and deeply.
3)Devour three great books on writing — On Writing Well by William Zinsser, Do I Make Myself Clear? by Harold Evans, and The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White.
4)Ravenously research the subject before you start writing and then keep researching as new themes and issues arise. I wrote a book on Hollywood party crashers and I read and archived every newspaper article, blog, anecdote and tangential mention about the subject I could find. I also interviewed every crasher I ever knew.
5)Mine and record all your personal experiences. Plato said, “A life unexamined is not worth living.” I always knew I’d eventually write a personal memoir about my adventures as a Hollywood party crasher. With that in mind, whenever I came home, no matter how tired or stewed, I’d always write down a few lines about what I’d witnessed, bizarre anecdotes I knew were priceless or colorful dialogue I’d heard. After many years I’d accumulated a comprehensive trove of easily accessible material, and that made the writing much easier once I started. The wealth of evidence also made me step back and look at myself deeply, forcing a self-analysis of my motivations, psychology, and behavior. I learned more about myself than I had ever hoped to know.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or an example?
I’m incredibly organized and detailed. I’m also an archival pack rat which greatly helped the completion of my book. Sometimes I’d get stuck on some fine details of an event or incident but almost always had backup material related to the subject in my analog drawer files or in digital folders on my computer. Having a good handle on your materials at the beginning of writing provides a solid foundation as you hit the inevitable narrative snags ahead.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
I think great non-fiction is as literary as great fiction. As a big non-fiction consumer, my most profound inspiration is the epic series of biographical volumes on Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro. In journalism school, one professor always used to say “You can’t write writing.” You’ve got to first have the breadth and depth of rich material — deeply researched and reported content that is colorful, compelling and revelatory. Great non-fiction writing follows from that. As a compiler of mesmerizing material, a researcher of the first order, there is no one like Robert Caro. And I think that’s why his prose always soars.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’d continue expanding the work I do with my sister, Toody Maher, the Executive Director at the non-profit Pogo Park in Richmond, CA. For more than 14 years, Pogo Park has transformed and rebuilt abandoned urban parks into thriving, green playspaces for inner-city kids. The parks provide a sanctuary and stimulate young bodies and minds with enriched play equipment and recreational programs. I can’t think of a more compelling local movement that can be a model for California, the U.S., and the world.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Facebook Author Page: Facebook.com/adrianmaherauthor
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!