I wish I could give more answers, but I've tumbled headlong from strike mode to work mode. I will say "Thank you." (I know I've said it in my blog, but it bears saying again.) Your support during the strike has been amazing -- it's made an enormous difference in morale. The new contract's about to be voted on for ratification, and SAG's has yet to come up for negotiation, so I can't absolutely say all the trouble's over; but in terms of being back at work, at least, things look promising.
Whatever happens next, you should know you've got fans in LA.
Q: What's the status of the 2007-2008 season of House?
A: We're working hard to get four episodes out, after which we'll just keep rolling into the next season. Production should start up in a couple of weeks.
Q: With the strike, the writers couldn't work. However, I somehow doubt that you've spent these months vacationing! Can you share with us some of the things you've done during the strike?
A: I've done strike work – I've answered phones at HQ, taped signs, and done general work for United Hollywood (UnitedHollywood.com, the website for collective writer information during the strike – and, hopefully, for continued writer networking going forward). I also began research for a novel that I've had in mind for years; there was one big sticking point, but I had a breakthrough on that a few months ago. The solution means I've now got an endless amount of background reading, though.
Q: In your opinion, what are the right and wrong reasons to become a television writer?
A: Well, the first wrong reason would be money. If you're an intelligent person and your aim in life is money, there are easier ways – ways that would be kinder to your blood pressure, general health, and family life. Television will give you a life out of balance, I'm telling you that right now. So you'd better love it for itself (to circle around to the right reason). The rat-tat-tat of dialogue should make your heart race, and you should be open to spending a significant amount of time with the same characters.
Q: If you could write for any television series in the history of the genre, except for one already on your resume, what show would it be and why?
A: Off the top of my head -- Buffy, X-Files, Blake's 7, Hill St. Blues, Wiseguy, Due South. Of course, this is in my mental alternate universe where (a) I don't have to go back in time like the Life On Mars guy and (2) I can completely re-direct the arcs of some of these shows from season two on, and bring them to Dorisland. (I won't say which shows those would be. But I will say that I thought the ultimate episode of Buffy was phenomenal, and it made me cry.)
Q: How does one become a writer for a particular show?
A: This question was originally "how does one become a House writer," but my answer applies generally. Your agent sends a sample of your work to the show in question, and if you make the short list, the showrunner meets with you to get an idea of your working style. If it's an established show, they don't necessarily expect you to have watched it regularly, though you'll certainly make a better impression if you've done a little research. (Assuming you have time; it's not unusual to suddenly get a call from your agent saying, "Can you meet with So-and-So tomorrow at 10:00?" And it's not a show you've ever seen or a pilot you've read, and you're panicking, because not only should you know something about it, you should have analyzed and understood it and have things to say -- so good luck with your next few hours.) In the case of House, I'd watched every episode, and could say, during the meeting, "I love that Wilson's a liar, but he's sincerely a good friend," and other stuff that showed I'd actually been paying attention.
It's always great to have a chance to write for a show you really love. There may be times when you need to just be grateful you're working; a writer who's starting out, for instance, may not have a lot of choices. And if you end up on a show you're not enthusiastic about, you have to analyze it until you can find an angle of approach in your writing that *does* excite you (because lack of enthusiasm means lackluster writing; it's not a job where you can fake it to get through the day). But a show you love from day one is a gift.
Q: How do you go about developing a story? Do you start with an illness and work everything in around it, or do you start with a story surrounding the main characters and find an illness to plug into that story?
A: All of the above. I tend to prefer starting with a character and an interesting situation, and finding an illness that matches; but other times I'll have an illness in my back pocket that I've been looking for a chance to use. And sometimes a character idea and an illness meet in the middle.
Q: How do you keep character consistency? Is it really just one writer for each script or do all the writers give their input?
A: In discussing arcs, all writers give input; then people go off and work on individual stories. Sometimes small groups will form to work on a particular story, especially if time is limited. By the time we get to the stage of a production draft, David Shore will have taken his pass at it, and we'll have gotten notes from the other writers. Generally, in television, there's never an episode on screen in which every word was written by the same person, unless it's the showrunner – and even they'll get notes.
Q: Do you have any plans to go back to writing novels, or for working and/or creating another television series?
A: I always have plans to go back to writing novels, and I never have time to make them come to pass. This bothers me at least twice a day.
I have three ideas for television series that it would thrill me to make – one I've been playing with for at least twelve years. (I know that one in such detail that I could give you the music video accompanying a character death in season six.) There are two problems: first, it's difficult to sell a pilot and get it picked up as a series; the odds are overwhelmingly against you. Second, it is even more difficult to sell a series you really long to do. More often you have to go with what a studio and network feel is a saleable idea, and that generally means something simple that everyone has seen before and requires little explanation. Mind you, that's not a terrible thing – a good writer can take something simple that you've seen before and create an interesting, watchable series with characters you care about. It won't give either you or the audience the same kick as a more original idea, but it can be fine, quality television. At some point I want to write an essay for my blog about where I think the "thrill of the new" comes from in terms of entertainment, how the biggest successes use this technique, and why the very rules the networks follow work against it.
At this point, my dreams could all die stillborn. But they're why I moved to LA and why I'm still here.
Q: If you could write an alternative episode of House, e.g. film noir, Victorian, crazy flashback, musical, etc. – what would you want to write, and why?
A: I'm attracted to the Victorian, but it might be too close to Holmes and Watson, who've already staked out that milieu. Film noir is, I think, too difficult to make tonally real in the world of House. This may seem counter-intuitive, but I actually think a musical episode would fit better. I wouldn't mind writing one of those – or, failing that, asking Joss Whedon to write one. (Er, we do understand that this answer, like all my answers, simply reflects my own thoughts and has nothing to do with any plans at House? Don't count the weeks till the musical episode.)
Sara Hess once suggested to me that somewhere about year seven, when the audience is tired of the show, we do a deliberate jump-the-shark season. House's evil twin shows up. Wilson's evil twin shows up. We learn that whenever Cameron was talking about her dead husband, it was actually a different husband; she's a black widow who's married a dozen men for their money and then murdered them. We find this out the morning after her wedding to Wilson. I told Sara, "The thing is, I'd watch that season." "I'd watch it too," she said; "It'd be awesome!" House adopts a ward, who turns out to be Cuddy's child from that bout of amnesia in her twenties. Halfway through the season, without explanation, we develop a crossover in which the crew of the Enterprise finds themselves stranded in Princeton in 2010.
What can I say? You've got to love television to work in this business. Which is why Leonard Dick can tell you the three different and mutually exclusive ways Oscar and Felix were supposed to have met on The Odd Couple. And if someone says, "It's like that episode of The Twilight Zone with William Shatner," someone else will say, "William Shatner was in more than one Twilight Zone."
Besides, glittering genre clichés are my passion, and I don't mean that in a campy way. I also don't mean it just in terms of television -- when I'm writing books, I love to strap on an archetype (they've got powerful motors, just listen to 'em vroooom) and individualize them, make them as real as possible.