Interview with Chaya Weiner
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 Jeff Raz.
Jeff Raz is an acclaimed author, playwright, stage director and performer (he has starred on Broadway and with Cirque du Soleil as well as a global communications consultant. His first book, The Secret Life of Clowns, was launched at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.; his second book, The Snow Clown, has been the subject of a series of workshops and interactive keynotes since it was published last year. He is currently working on his third book.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
When I went on tour with Corteo, one of Cirque du Soleil’s traveling tent shows, I knew the experience might make a good book. I kept a journal and then, after 500 performances, I started to shape it into a manuscript. I got bored after one draft. Not a good sign.
Having read some books on writing by Anne Lamott, Walter Mosley and others, I knew I had good writing habits from my playwriting days; what I needed was some distance from the material. So I put the Corteo journal down and started a different book describing the pedagogy of a clown school I had founded and directed for a decade. It was so boring I couldn’t even finish the first draft. A really bad sign.
Five years later, I finally got the idea to meld the story of my Cirque du Soleil tour with the story of my school using a pair of first person narratives. The great acting teacher and writer Konstantin Stanislavski inspired me to tell the school narrative from the point of view of a student; the other section was from his teacher’s story as he tried to follow his own theories in front of thousands of Cirque du Soleil fans every day. I stayed interested in this book for a dozen drafts and The Secret Life of Clowns: A Backstage Tour of Cirque du Soleil and The Clown Conservatory launched at the Smithsonian two years later.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
All of my novels, and a number of my plays, take the events of my life as their raw material, a type of autobiographical fiction. This means I spend a lot of time with stories from my career. Here’s an interesting one from my time working with the Artists Diversity Residency Program at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln (excerpted from The Snow Clown: Cartwheels on Borders from Alaska to Nebraska).
‘Yes, good one.’ I write k-i-k-e up on the whiteboard under ‘hook nose’ and ‘killer of Jesus.’ In the next column over, we’ve got ‘rag head’ and ‘terrorist’ and the final column has ‘redneck’ and ‘white trash.’
‘Let’s get some more.’
It’s Monday morning, week four of my Nebraska tour, and I’m on to a new project: working with seven students to write and perform a show that celebrates Easter, Passover and Ramadan all at once. We have one performance, Sunday night, and a week to write and rehearse.
‘We need to get the ugliest language, the words that have powered crusades and bombings and gas chambers; we need those words out in the open before we start looking for common ground.’ Most of the students are nodding, so I go on. ‘We have to be honest with each other, and ourselves, about the power these words have over our thoughts and feelings. And then we have to forgive each other when we offend. Luckily, we’re in Nebraska so we know everything will stay polite.’
A couple of the small-town kids make sarcastic remarks about ‘Nebraska Nice.’
‘No, no, nice is good. In San Francisco, for all of our tie-dyed grooviness, we like nothing better than a rip-roaring political fight. Not helpful for what we’re trying to do here.’ I point to our lists on the whiteboard. ‘Our job is to politely talk about really nasty, gnarly, vicious ideas, tell each other stories, write a play from those stories and perform it on Sunday night. Easy.’ They smile and we spend another hour on our lists, laughing at some words, getting very quiet when a slur hits home.”
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?
Seven years into writing my first book, I proudly handed a draft to my editor. Doug Cruickshank read the manuscript and said, “We can work with this. It’s a good outline.” My jaw dropped. I had thought is was a next-to-final draft. Doug quickly added, “Don’t worry, I’ll walk you through the process. First, you need to add some details about the places where your characters go, the clothes they are wearing, that kind of stuff.” I said, “But that’s what the set builders and costume designers do.” Doug laughed and gently reminded me that I was writing a novel, not a play.
I learned to write fiction from this mistake, thanks to Doug, and I also saw how blind one can be when attempting a new skill; for many years, and many drafts, I had completely missed the fact that I was relying almost entirely on dialogue in a form that also needs description.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I’m knee deep in the (hopefully) final few drafts of my next book, tentatively titled, Love Death Circus. A show I directed is going to London soon and my latest play Monkey King – An Adventure is opening in Los Angeles early in 2020. It is my adaptation, with music by Johannes Mager, of an epic Chinese story and my favorite scene, which is true to the original Ming Dynasty manuscript, is all about farts.
With the help of my publicist Nancy Balik FitzGerald, I am doing a lot of book events, interactive keynotes, classes and webinars based on my writing, including a series for the International Association of Business Communicators. My work with the consulting firm Stand & Deliver takes me around the world helping executives build their leadership communication skills for speeches, conversations and meetings. Next year, I’m planning to use my blog posts as the raw material for a business book on leadership.
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 example?
I was an actor before becoming a playwright so I often spoke the lines as I typed a new play. This makes sense since playwrights have a lot in common with wheelwrights; we put raw materials together (wood and metal or words) to make tools (wheels or plays) for other people to use (wagoneers or actors). I’ve kept this habit as a novelist, reading my drafts out loud to myself and then, when the book is published, doing a lot of live events so I can read sections to an audience. This helps keep my novels “sounding” like real life.
When my wife and I were first married, I was playing Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and writing an adaptation of Oedipus Rex. When Bottom turns into an ass, Shakespeare famously gives him words that an actor can turn into a donkey’s bray, like “neighbor.” I got the idea to give the Shepherd in Oedipus words that let him baa like a sheep, like “bothered.” As you might imagine, my wife started questioning her taste in men while I was writing, and acting out, this scene. Now I have an office in a converted tool shed in the backyard so my wife doesn’t have to listen to me write.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
One of the workshops I did with Artist Diversity Residency Program was at a high school in Omaha. The student body president was gay; he’d been bullied badly at another school, transferred to this school and a year later was elected to student government. A huge success story until he killed himself a few days before my visit.
As I was starting my class, a group of cheerleaders in full uniform came into the room, held up a rainbow ribbon and asked, “Are you going to wear this or are you a fraud?” I wore the ribbon, we spent the class talking about the young man who had died and I later attended the memorial service with over 1000 students, faculty and families.
I wrote a fictionalized version of this story in The Snow Clown and then tried to image what might have happened when the head cheerleader went home that evening:
Brenda Thurston’s throat is sore from cheering. Her mom makes her tea with honey and lemon, which she takes to her room. The house rule is ‘food and drinks in the kitchen only’ but her mom doesn’t say anything; she knows it’s been a tough day. Danny’s dead. All the rainbow ribbons and marching around and leading cheers have kept Brenda from thinking those words.
Danny is dead.
Brenda shakes her head hard, trying to keep an image of Danny hanging in his closet from creeping in behind her eyes. It doesn’t work. She sobs, taking big gasping breaths between quiet tears. Her mother comes in and sits by her little girl, her perfect cheerleader now crumpled on her bed looking frail and tiny. She can’t think of anything to say. Mothers are supposed to know what to say but she’s got nothing.
‘It’ll be OK.’ Well, no, it won’t be OK. The boy is dead.
‘Tomorrow is another day.’ So what, another day to cry and feel guilty?
She sits and strokes her daughter’s hair. Brenda was Danny’s friend, right from the start, the odd couple of Omaha North, the Cheerleader and the Queer. At first, girls were cruel, calling Brenda “fag hag” and “lesbo,” which only made Brenda mad — she’d always been stubborn that way. But as Danny made friends and become popular and then, amazingly, got voted class president, Brenda pulled away. They’re kids; this happens. They were an odd pair to begin with. Now there is more than enough guilt to go around.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
After reading The Snow Clown, I hope folks take away some of the joy and excitement that come from being a stranger in a strange land, even when everything is not all rosy (and it never is). Lauretta Charlton, the Race/Related editor of the New York Times, puts it this way:
“What would it take to bring us all closer together? That could make us less afraid of the things and places and people we do not know, who may look and act differently. And have a little more patience and empathy for the lives and experiences of others.”
The NY Times gives readers the news, the context and the history we need to understand our world; I give readers stories and, embedded in those stories, some techniques for cross-cultural communication, techniques for deep listening and radical curiosity, for the art of storytelling and building the trust necessary to have hard conversations that address, head on, the pre-judgments we all make of each other. If folks who read my books start having more good conversations about tough subjects like race, gender, religion and politics, I will be a happy author.
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?
A big challenge for me was finding the right way to introduce my books to the public. My mother-in-law, Ethel Sherman, helped me get started. She was sitting in the La-Z-Boy recliner in my living room, we were talking about my soon-to-be published debut novel and she asked, “Who’s going to read your book? What’s your marketing plan?” I didn’t have a marketing plan so I made one up, “I have three different sets of readers: First are circus performers, circus teachers and their students; second are performing artists of all kinds, teaching artists and their students and, finally, circus and theater lovers, particularly fans of Cirque du Soleil.” She was impressed, I was relieved and quickly excused myself to write down my new marketing plan.
The Secret Life of Clowns launched at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s tribute to Circus Arts. I had consulted with the Smithsonian for over a year, helping to plan the 10-day festival, and they scheduled a series of book readings in the Marketplace. My first reading was a total bust – I was tucked away in a corner of the big store, there were no seats for the audience and no announcement. Since I knew that 600,000 folks in my target audience were going to attend the festival, I had to make sure I connected with them. For my next reading, I worked with the manager to set up a mini theater right near the front door. One of the salespeople announced the reading while I juggled to attract attention. It went much better and we kept that approach for the rest of the festival.
But there were still thousands of visitors out on the National Mall watching shows, taking workshops, listening to panel discussions and not buying my book. Since I was the host of Clown Alley, a small tent that was packed with circus fans for six hours each day, I decided to read a paragraph or two from The Secret Life of Clowns whenever there was a quiet moment. This gave the audience a different way of experiencing the art of clowning and helped me set a Folk Life Festival record for book sales. I’ve used this same technique outside of the Smithsonian — well planned book events mixed with readings, classes, keynotes and even webinars outside of traditional book venues.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
One of my first professional acting gigs was in a noir detective play. The director asked me to read some Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler to get in the mood. I ended up reading everything they wrote and continue to be inspired by different styles of crime fiction. For my new book, Love Death Circus (working title), I’ve been inspired to push the limits of reality by Carl Hiaasen’s outrageous detective novels and then brought down to earth by a number of books that talk directly about death and dying.
For my play Father-Land, I got a lot of inspiration from a book of interviews with the children and grandchildren of Nazis called Born Guilty (scenes of the play are in The Snow Clown). As I mentioned before, Stanislavski’s trio of acting books gave me the structure for one thread of Secret Life of Clowns.
How do you think your writing makes an impact in the world?
The Secret Life of Clowns has made an impact on the way circus arts, particularly clowning, and other performing arts are being taught. Quite a few of my consulting clients, who work in boardrooms rather than circus rings, have used ideas from the book to inform their approach to learning and development, on an organizational level as well as a personal level.
The Snow Clown has sparked a lot of exploration of diversity and inclusion, often focused on how to facilitate cross-cultural conversations. Members of the International Association of Business Communicators are using my ideas to facilitate conversations about internal communication within global business teams, doctoral students at Southern New Hampshire University are using them to help create self-refreshing organizations, members of the Commonwealth Club, the Marin Jewish Community Center, Creative Mornings and others are telling personal “stranger in a strange land” stories that open up discussions about the nitty-gritty of inclusion.
Here’s an impact that surprised me: I was selling books in the lobby after a performance of Tandy Beal’s Joy at the Hammer Theater in San Jose. A boy about 10 years old put his hand on The Snow Clown and, without looking at me stood there gently rubbing the cover. His mother said, “He loved your last book. We’ll take this copy of this new one.” I mentioned that The Snow Clown had some language that might not be appropriate for a child but she waved off my concerns. She paid, I signed the boy’s copy and he hugged the book to his chest. As he slowly walking away, his mother whispered, “He doesn’t read; he just wants to take a piece of you home. You make him very happy.” All my stories and ideas and carefully constructed sentences didn’t mean anything to this boy. It was the physical book, an artifact of his connection to a big sweaty clown, that made an impact.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Readers see things that writers don’t. When my first book came out, I sent a copy to the business writer Chris Ertel (Moments of Impact). A few weeks later Chris sent me a long, lovely email that included this sentence: “Among the many things I appreciated was the emphasis on learning and development.” To me, Secret Life of Clowns was all about clowning and circus; learning and development, certainly in the corporate sense, never crossed my mind.During one of my first book readings of The Snow Clown, a man in the audience pointed out that an scene about a performance in an Eskimo village, that I thought was just a humorous way to establish a ‘stranger in a strange land’ motif, was the starting point for, and central to, my bigger theme of cross cultural communications. Who knew? Now I use both of these ideas, and others I’ve heard from readers, in the workshops, trainings and keynotes I do based on my books.
- “Don’t worry, no one will read it.” This was the advice I got from Jake Breeden, another business writer and Chief Strategy Officer with Sapien. The manuscript for my first book had just arrived from the designer and looking at it made me realize that my words, which had been safely sitting in my laptop for years, were now about to go out in the world. I started imagining specific peoples’ negative reactions to certain chapters, sentences and even individual words. I was on a downward spiral until Jake said, “Don’t worry, no one will read your book.” I was shocked, then I laughed and sent the manuscript to the printer. Luckily, thousands of people have read The Secret Life of Clowns and I’ve only received one angry email.
- You will offend. At this same panic moment with my second book, The Snow Clown: Cartwheels on Borders from Alaska to Nebraska, I sent a note to my old friend Zofia Burr, a poet and Founding Dean of the George Mason University Honors College. I wanted her to assure me that while readers might think that the protagonist stumbled and was offensive at times, they wouldn’t think those things about the author, about me. Her reply: “Not sure what I am missing here… stumbling and offending goes with border crossing inevitably.” And, again, the manuscript went to the printer.
- A different language. As a stage director, I have to be “multilingual,” speaking differently to performers, musicians, lighting designers, costumers, etc. This should have given me a clue that the world of books also has its own language but it still made my eyes cross when we started talking about the difference between editing and copy editing, bleeds in the interior and cover, matte film lamination and 60# natural recycled 360 ppi text stock.
- The book is not the product. Holding a book in your hand, an object with weight and heft that has your name right there on the cover, can fool you into thinking that you are holding the end product. You’re not. A book is a means to a number of ends – joy for readers, spreading ideas, opening up opportunities for the author, etc. When I finally understood this, I started writing blog posts wedding the ideas in my books, which mainly come from a career on stage, with my experience as a global communications consultant with Fortune 500 companies. Along with the blog posts, I share my books and the ideas in them with interactive keynotes, trainings, book events and webinars.
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. 🙂
We’re doing this interview during the winter holidays, a time when helpful friends and social pundits warn us to avoid talking about politics or religion or anything else that might devolve into an argument. Good advice, perhaps, but only talking about safe topics is like only eating mashed potatoes – boring and ultimately unhealthy.
If I could start a social movement it would be to create a wave of respectful, exciting, joyful conversations about the truly gnarly, nasty, stomach-knotting subjects we are currently avoiding.
I know this is possible and I know how hard it is. At my in-laws for Thanksgiving, I was about to loudly and decisively correct an inane idea one of them was spouting. Luckily I remembered that I write about, and teach, a very different approach to conversations. I managed to listen, actually listen, to what this cousin was saying, rather than thinking about my retort, and found something that I could comfortably acknowledge, i.e. reflect back to her in a respectful way (she’s a teacher – her job is hard, under-appreciated and underpaid). Her face softened, the volume in the room lowered and, a few minutes later, we were treating each other like family again.
To be clear, this is just the first step – avoiding an unproductive fight by listening and reflecting back. It takes more techniques to then have a great, tough conversation; some of these techniques are embedded in the story of The Snow Clown.
“It’s not merely possible to preserve your relationships while talking with folks you disagree with, but engaging respectfully will actually make you a more powerful advocate for the causes you care about. The key to persuasive political dialogue is creating a safe and welcoming space for diverse views with a compassionate spirit, active listening and personal storytelling.”
Karin Tamerius and David Campt from an article that includes a clever DIY text conversation with Angry Uncle Bot.
Alexander Tolstoy, a Swedish colleague of mine, sums up their recommendation as:
1. Ask open-ended, non-threatening questions about the other person’s point of view
2. Listen and reflect back what they say
3. Agree where you can
4. When possible, connect with a story that shows you understand their perspective
5. Persuade with a story that shows how your views have evolved, how you have changed
Here are two organizations that are committed to these kinds of conversations:
The Sustained Dialogue Institute works internationally and defines dialogue as “listening deeply enough to be changed by what you learn.”
Partners for Collaborative Change fosters “authentic community engagement” and “love in action.”
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!
About the author:
Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field.