Author Interviews
3:24 am
Sun May 5, 2013

Paul Rudnick On His 'Gorgeous' Adventure

Originally published on Sun May 5, 2013 4:38 am

Paul Rudnick has made a name as a playwright, novelist, columnist and screenwriter. Now he's turned his attention to the Young Adult market with a kind of Cinderella story starring a young woman named Becky, who's grown up in a trailer park.

When Becky's mom dies, she discovers a mysterious phone number. Calling it, she receives a mystical offer: A legendary New York fashion designer will make her three dresses, one each in black, white and red, and if she'll only wear them — and do everything he says — she'll become history's most beautiful woman.

The book's voices are diverse, funny and surprising. Rudnick joined NPR's Rachel Martin to talk about the power of fashion, the terrors of first seeing someone reading your work, and the high that comes from hearing an audience laugh.


Interview Highlights

On capturing the voices of teenagers

"[It was] shockingly easy. Shamefully easy, I would even say. When I first had the idea ... I tried a lot of different approaches. I even wondered, was this a play, or a movie or a book? And it wasn't until I began writing in the voice of Becky herself — in the voice of an 18-year-old girl — that the story really flew. So I'm not quite sure what it says about me, or what a mental health professional might conclude, but I had a blast."

On his favorite magical device in the story

"I guess because I've been enough of a fashion addict, and I've read enough issues of Vogue in my life, that I love the idea of endowing clothing, or high fashion, with the power that we almost wish it had. I think whenever anyone is getting dressed for the evening, especially if it's a Friday night or if it's an occasion or if it's a first date, you're hoping that what you look like will elevate you. Your outfit and your shoes and your makeup and your hair will send the absolute perfect message to whoever you're about to meet — even if you don't know who that is.

"So I love taking that final step, of saying, 'OK, you're gonna put on this dress, and it's gonna do everything you could ever hope for and beyond.' "

On whether that magic ever happens in real life

"It can work until you leave the house. [Laughs.] Or, what's shocking to me, is every once in a while, you see a photo — whether it's something online, on someone's phone, on someone's Facebook page — and you weren't aware that that photo was being taken, and you look OK! Or even better than that!

"And depending on what kind of mood you're in, you can say, 'Oh, you know, it was a trick of the lighting. It was because I was standing in just the right corner.' Or you could say, 'Oh my god, I guess for at least a split second, I looked like that!' I think that could kinda make your day."

On the pleasures of writing screwball comedy

"I think I come from a pretty funny family, where humor was always sort of a very important balance wheel, especially when things went bad. Sometimes a joke was the only weapon you had. In fact an early play I wrote, called Jeffrey — people didn't imagine that this play would be possible, 'cause it was a comedy set during the AIDS crisis. But again, I saw people all around me who had such great senses of humor. And humor was the only thing that could get anyone through a situation like that, often — you know, until medicine helped a little bit.

"And beyond that — it's funny, I never sit down and say, 'This is going to be comic; this will be a screwball romp.' That's kind of what happens. That's just the way my brain is wired, which I'm eternally grateful for. And I guess I also love the challenge of providing that particular breed of pleasure."

On seeing people respond to his work

"When they actually laugh — first, I'm incredibly grateful to the actors involved. But beyond that, it's an enormous gut satisfaction that I somehow can't imagine a writer gets from a serious work. (Although it's also deeply and selfishly satisfying to make a reader cry.) But when you say, 'Yeah, that joke worked,' or 'That character was funny,' or 'That hit a comic nerve,' it's a real high."

On first seeing someone reading one of his books

"I wanted to fall to my knees; I wanted to write them a check. I wanted to photograph them. I wanted that photograph to be turned into a stamp. I just couldn't believe it. I immediately assumed that a member of my family or a friend had paid them to do that. ... Or that if I looked too closely, they'd actually have hidden another book inside the cover of mine.

"There was some sort of insane high that I got, because I thought, 'Oh my God, someone is actually reading the book; they seem fairly far along in it, so they're gonna finish it. They seem to be enjoying it. And My God they paid for it.' I think it's every writer's secret fantasy."

On why he didn't introduce himself to that reader

"I let it be a private moment out of sheer paranoia. You know, because I didn't want to say, 'Oh, you know you're reading my book,' and have them say, 'Eh. Yeah, somebody gave it to me; I don't get it.' I thought it was safer, to let it — to keep the bubble aloft."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Paul Rudnick is a writer in all kinds of media. He's a playwright, an essayist, and a humorist who's written a lot for The New Yorker. And you've probably seen some of his popular films. He's written "In and Out" and "The Addams Family Values." But now, Rudnick is dipping his toe into a new literary world - young adult fiction. His new book is called "Gorgeous." It's a fairy tale - classic "Cinderella" format - except it starts in a trailer park with a girl named Becky.

PAUL RUDNICK: Becky's mom dies and she discovers a mysterious phone number that she calls and she receives what will turn out to be a supernatural offer. She flies to New York where she meets to legendary reclusive fashion designer Tom Kelly. And Tom says I will make you three dresses: one red, one white and one black. And if you wear these dresses and if you do everything I say, you will become the most beautiful woman in the world. You will, in fact, become the most beautiful woman who has ever lived. So, Becky gives her answer and the rest of the book takes off like a skyrocket from there.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: The voices in this book are diverse and funny. I mean, the dialogue between Becky, or Rebecca, and her best friend Rocher - am I saying that right?

RUDNICK: It's Rocher or Rocher depending on what mood she's in. She's another girl from the trailer park who is named after the popular French chocolate, which her mother was quite in love with. So, Becky in fact mentions that. When Rocher is feeling a little bit good about herself, she becomes Rocher. But for every day, it's Rocher.

MARTIN: Don't we all? Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

RUDNICK: Exactly. We all like a little accent over some part of our name.

MARTIN: Was it easy for you to capture the voice of teenage girls?

RUDNICK: Shockingly easy, shamefully easy, I would even say. Because when I first had the idea for the actual storyline, I tried a lot of different approaches. I even wondered, was this a play, or a movie or a book? And it wasn't until I began writing it in the voice of Becky herself - in the voice of an 18-year-old girl - that the story really flew. So, I'm not quite sure what it says about me, but I had a blast.

MARTIN: What was your favorite magical detail or device that you wrote in this story?

RUDNICK: I love the idea of endowing clothing, or high fashion, with the power that we almost wish it had. That I think whenever anyone is getting dressed for the evening, especially if it's a Friday night or if it's an occasion or if it's a first date, that you're hoping that what you look like will elevate you. Your outfit and your shoes and your makeup and your hair will send the absolute perfect message to whoever you're about to meet - even if you don't know who that is. So I love taking that final step, of saying, OK, you're going to put on this dress, and it's going to do everything you could ever hope for and beyond.

MARTIN: It never works for me. It never works for me, Paul.

(LAUGHTER)

RUDNICK: It can work until you leave the house. Or, what's shocking to me, is every once in a while, if you see a photo, you know, whether it's something online, on someone's phone, on someone's Facebook page, and you weren't aware that that photo was being taken, and you look OK or even better than that. And you could say, oh my God, I guess for at least a split second, I looked like that.

MARTIN: In many ways, this book is kind of a screwball comedy, much like many of your movies, your plays. What about this kind of style of writing, screwball comedy, is such a satisfying prism for you to see the world through? Is your life funny in that kind of odd way?

RUDNICK: I hope it is. I think I come from a pretty funny family where humor was always sort of a very important balance wheel, especially when things went bad. Sometimes a joke was the only weapon you had. In fact, an early play I wrote called "Jeffrey" people didn't imagine that this play would be possible 'cause it was a comedy set during the AIDS crisis. But again, I saw people all around me who had such great senses of humor. And humor was the only thing that could get anyone through a situation like that. And beyond that - it's funny, I never sit down and say, OK, this is going to be comic; this will be a screwball romp. That's kind of what happens. That's just the way my brain is wired. And I guess I also, I love the challenge of providing that particular breed of pleasure, that when I'm - oh, the way I'm watching someone read one of my books on the subway - the few times that's happened or when I'm in the back of a theater and the audience is watching a play or a movie - when they actually laugh, first time, incredibly grateful to the actors involved. But beyond that, it's such an enormous sort of gut satisfaction that I somehow can't imagine a writer gets from more serious work. Although it's also, you know, deeply and sort of selfishly satisfying to make a reader cry. But when you say, yeah, that joke worked or that character was funny or that hit a comic nerve, it's a real high.

MARTIN: Do you remember the first time you saw someone on the subway reading something you'd written?

RUDNICK: I don't remember the exact moment. But it was years ago. And I wanted to fall to my knees, I wanted to write them a check. I wanted to photograph them. I wanted that photograph to be turned into a stamp. You know, I just couldn't believe it. I immediately assumed that a member of my family or a friend had paid them to do that. I then decided...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And planted them in your line of vision.

RUDNICK: Exactly. Or that if I looked too closely, they'd actually have hidden another book inside the cover of mine. But it was just - there was some sort of insane high that I got from it, because I think, oh my God, someone is actually reading the book; they seem fairly far along in it, so they're going to finish it. They seem to be enjoying it. And, my God, they paid for it. So, it's just, I think it's every writer's secret fantasy.

MARTIN: Did you introduce yourself or did you just let that be a private moment?

RUDNICK: I let it be a private moment out of sheer paranoia because I didn't want to say, oh, you know you're reading my book, and have them say, eh.

MARTIN: 'Cause you're in New York, you know.

RUDNICK: Exactly. Or say, oh, yeah, somebody gave me this, I don't get it. But, you know, I thought it was safer to let it keep the bubble aloft.

MARTIN: Paul Rudnick is the author of a new young adult novel. It's called "Gorgeous." He joined us from our studio in New York. Paul, thank you so much. It's been such a pleasure.

RUDNICK: Oh, thanks you so much. Me too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.