October 14, 2020

Writing Division Professor Howard Rodman wins USC Associates Award for Artistic Expression

Howard Rodman, professor in the John Wells Division of Writing for Screen & Television is a recipient of a 2020 USC Associates Award for Artistic Expression. The awards, described as “the highest honors the university faculty bestows upon its members” are given for achievements in and out the classroom in categories that also include Creativity in Research and Scholarship, and Excellence in Teaching. Rodman’s recognition for Artistic Expression is for the success of his novel, The Great Eastern, which was released in June 2019 to critical acclaim. Rodman will receive his USC Associates Award at a virtual ceremony on October 22nd.

He answered questions about his book, the award and his versatile writing life.

The USC Associates Award for Artistic Expression is given in recognition of creative work, in your case your book The Great Eastern which was published last year. What is the book about and what inspired it?

The Great Eastern is a sprawling, lavish anticolonial adventure novel, set in the 1850s-1870s in New York, London, Paris, India, and the North Atlantic. Pitted against each other: the two great 19th-century anti-heroes, Captain Nemo and Captain Ahab — one who lives beneath the waves and hates everything upon them, one who lives upon the waves and hates everything beneath. Caught in between: the very real-life Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the preeminent civil engineer of Victorian England, here kidnapped, pressed into service to build Nemo his submarine, then to join him in his battle against the modern world. The events of the novel extend from the Indian Rebellion of 1857 to the Paris Commune of 1871, tracing a thread of rebellion that can still be seen today.

It was inspired by my childhood obsession with, and immersion in, the works of Jules Verne; my lifelong love ofMoby-Dick, which I consider to be, hands-down, the great American novel; and a chance encounter with a reference to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a name so wondrous it just had to be in a book. It was also inspired by research into the laying of the transatlantic cable, and the role of telegraphy in cementing colonial rule in the 19th century, and its parallels with the internet of the 20th century.

I'm delighted that the book has been finding its audience, and am honored beyond imagination to have received praise for it from Walter Mosley, Jonathan Lethem, Steven Soderbergh, Janet Fitch, Jake Gyllenhaal, the late Ricky Jay, et. al.

Your classes at SCA are renowned, what got you interested in teaching and what have been your favorite screenwriting classes to teach at the School?

That would be like asking me to choose among my favorite children. I love teaching MFA Thesis, a two-course sequence in which the students start with the wisp of an idea and leave with a polished, accomplished screenplay. I'm teaching fundamentals to first-year undergrads at the moment, and leave every session so damn impressed by the students, their imagination, their work, and their resilience in an age of COVID. From time to time I teach lecture classes — I've taught the screenwriting of the Hollywood blacklist era, and the screenwriting of Joel & Ethan Coen — and I find the larger, performative classes a great counterbalance to the more intimate seminars.

You are also known for your work with the Writer’s Guild of America West. What advice do you give your students about the role the union can play in helping further their careers?

In the same way that we wouldn't have weekends were it not for the labor movement, without the Writers Guild of America writers would not have minimums, a health plan, a pension plan, fair credit for their work, or compensation for the re-use of our work across platforms. I'm proud of my work with the WGAW, starting by co-founding its Indie Caucus in the 1990s and culminating in being the Guild's President. The Guild exists to leverage our collective strength as writers to accomplish what no one of us could on their own. The recent battle with the large agencies over the institution of packaging is only the latest example of the power of the writing community.

In 2013 you received the Chevalier de l'ordre des arts et des lettres (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters) and was recognized for your promotion of French culture and filmmaking in the United States. What is it about French culture that inspires you?

From the first moment I set foot in Paris in the summer after my junior year of college, I felt at home. Generations of Americans, from Ben Franklin to James Baldwin, came to Paris to understand what it meant to be an American, and more personally, to understand just who they were. I feel myself part of that tradition. In France I feel appreciated because of who I am, not in spite of it. More about this romance with Paris, and my long conversation with an essential, idiosyncratic Parisian bookseller — a conversation that largely inspired the novel — can be found here

You are a versatile writer, known for both your screenplays and novels. How do you know in which medium to explore a story idea?

Some ideas just seem to be novels — they demand the kind of voice and interiority that films and television, by their very nature, cannot deploy. A novel affords the writer the ability to really get inside characters' heads, and the real estate to develop large themes, to indulge in detours and tangents.

Other times I'll start with an image, and usually that becomes a screenplay. I find the rigidity of the screenplay format, its rules and conventions, are — counterintuitively — liberating. Screenwriting will make you agree with André Gide that art is born of constraint.

I'm currently adapting The Great Eastern as a limited series, and in the process learning lessons — at once painful and glorious — about the differences between the two mediums. In short: you can't just pour amber over a book, slice it up, and voila, have a screenplay. And if in writing one must kill one's darlings, in adapting one's own work, an army of darlings must be slaughtered daily. I'm trying to take a Marie Kondo approach: tossing the novel over my shoulder and saying, "thank you for your service."

Is the book available beyond Amazon?

The Great Eastern can be purchased from Amazon, here; and for those who don't care to make the world's wealthiest man incrementally wealthier, the collective of indie bookstores, Bookshop.org, will sell you the book here.

To attend the USC Associates Awards livestream go to https://t.co/LyTYwB76nQ?amp=1 on October 22 at 5pm.