Q&A with Cynthia Whitcomb
Wilsonville resident Cynthia Whitcomb has written nearly 30 screenplays for television films and miniseries, penned several books on screenwriting, and been nominated for Emmy and Writers Guild Awards. Lakewood Theatre is currently staging her adaptation of novel "Parnassus on Wheels" by Christopher Morley.
Whitcomb recently talked to the Times about the play, her writing process and the elements of a perfect love story. Here's an abridged transcript of our conversation.
The Times: What drew you to "Parnassus on Wheels," and what made you want to adapt it for the stage?
Whitcomb: One of my closest friends is Goody Cable (known locally for owning the Rimsky Korsakoffee House in Portland and the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport), and she told me this is one of her favorite books. "Parnassus on Wheels," published in 1917, just a little over 100 years ago.
So I read it, and I fell in love with it. It takes place in 1910, New England, and it's about this woman who's fed up, living on a farm and selling eggs. And there's this little Irishman who comes through with a book chariot wanting to sell it.
She impulsively buys it and goes on the road, selling books to different farms in New England. This was 10 years before women had the vote, and this was a story about a woman taking charge of her own life and making her own decisions.
It's about that, and it's about reminding us how magical it can be when you first read really good books that transport us into other worlds. And it's also about a middle-aged love story, which you don't see very often. I just love when I get the opportunity to write about two people who have fallen in love and maybe have never been in love before, and now they're in their 40s and this happens.
That's a very sweet and tender storyline, and our actors are just so wonderful. The whole audience just falls in love with them.
The Times: So this story has a strong female protagonist. Is that something that's important and resonant with you and your work?
Whitcomb: Oh, sure, I love that. I've written about some wonderful women in my life. I've written about Eleanor Roosevelt in a TV movie, and I wrote about Calamity Jane in a miniseries called "Buffalo Girls." Angelica Houston plays one of them.
The Times: You've written so many plays and screenplays — is it difficult to turn your work over to a director and actors to interpret as they will?
Whitcomb: No. When you write a play, it's just words on paper, until you turn it over to a director and some actors. Until then, it's just something in your drawer. And to see them embody it and bring it to life, it's thrilling. It may not always be perfect, but I love this production (of "Parnassus on Wheels"). I wouldn't change anything.
And sometimes it's not 100 percent right. But you know, a living thing that's 90 percent right is still better than a dead thing living in your drawer. So I'm just always so grateful.
The Times: Going back to what you were saying about "Parnassus on Wheels" being a middle-aged love story — one of your recent books is "The Heart of Film: Writing Love Stories and Screenplays." What's the secret to writing a good love story?
Whitcomb: My book is really for any writer writing a love story, whether it's a memoir or a novel or a movie or a play. The rules about having people fall in love are the same. And they have four elements.
One of them is, you have to have a crack in the armor. In order for people to fall in love with each other, they can't just be perfect people who bump into each other and they're attractive so they're in love. There has to be that crack in the armor that allows people to fall through that crack — so vulnerability, whether it's emotional or physical.
Another one is, an opposing force that keeps them apart. If you don't have that, you just have people at the next table talking baby talk to each other in the restaurant that you just want to get rid of, you know?
The other two are, "why you," and the meet-cute. If you have those four elements — and obviously not in that order — then you're on the right track toward figuring out how to make the audience fall in love with the two people falling in love.
The Times: What are some of your favorite love stories?
Whitcomb: My very favorite is "Pride and Prejudice," and I'm very fond of the new version with Keira Knightly, I love that. If I was going to have to pick the book I would bring with me to a deserted island, and I could only pick one book, that would be the one I would pick, because it's so well-done.
The Times: You teach writing, so you have the opportunity to give advice to beginning writers often. What's something you wish someone had told you about writing when you were just starting off your career?
There has to be conflict in every scene, and all the way through. You can never have any time in your story where people are living happily ever after. You have to keep the tension, and the unanswered question of the plot, unanswered until the end.
To view showtimesand ticket info for "Parnassus on Wheels," visit https://www.lakewood-center.org.
To learn moreabout Whitcomb's work, and to view upcoming writing classes she is teaching, visit https://cynthiawhitcomb.com.