INTERVIEW WITH BARBARA HALL
Barbara Hall is a veteran TV producer (Judging Amy, Joan of Arcadia). What’s more, she’s also an accomplish novelist. What’s more she’s also a recording artist. I get exhausted just thinking about it.
I’ve known her ever since my college days at James Madison University, when I was in the theater department and she was in the journalism department, both lumped together in something called Communication Arts. A rather ungainly combo, but one that proved fortuitous.
Barbara started her television career before me, as a writer on the classic sit-com Newhart. It was Barbara who taught me what a ‘spec script’ was and how to write one. She helped me through the first steps of what became my writing career.
She left comedy writing behind for dramas like I’ll Fly Away and Northern Exposure. She created and ran two classic shows Judging Amy and Joan of Arcadia. She somehow found the time to write novels like A Better Place and A Summons to New Orleans.
Recently, Barbara has branched out into music, as a founding member of the alternative country rock band The Enablers, with whom she has released two albums. As a solo artist, she released her debut, Handsome, in 2005 and second CD, Bad Man, in 2013.
No matter how much I accomplish, Barbara Hall will always make me feel like a lazy bum.
By the way, since we did this interview, Barbara created the hit show MADAM SECRETARY which is now in its second season.
What is your writing routine?
It depends on what I’m writing. I write novels in a quiet space, usually early in the morning or late at night. I can’t seem to write prose unless the world is turned off for me. So no music. Nothing but me and the computer. That part is mostly typing. I let an idea gestate for a very long time before I write it so by the time I sit down, it is mostly worked out in my head. It’s safe to say that a lot of my prose writing takes place during long walks, in the car, at the gym or in the shower. My television writing routine is odd. I like to write with the television on. Something about the rhythm of people talking helps me write dialogue. I don’t actually watch or listen to the TV—it’s just there as a backdrop. I usually write songs with the guitar in my lap. I noodle around a little and then something starts to happen. Sometimes I do this with the TV on and the sound turned down. I have a very odd process. I don’t think it’s very helpful to anyone. I guess the point is that it doesn’t matter what your process is—just write.
You’re a novelist, a recording artist and a TV producer. What’s wrong with you?
Funny you should ask. I used to answer this question by saying, “It’s a mental illness.” I do think that early in my life I was compulsively driven to work all the time. I had a lot to say and I had this panicked sense that I wouldn’t get to say it all. I’m also blessed or cursed to be equally interested in all these formats. It helps that I’m a classic introvert. I don’t particularly like parties. If you add up all the party time I’ve missed, that leaves a lot of space to compulsively create stuff.
You started writing for multi-camera comedy. What changes did you have to make to transition to one-camera drama?
I became a comedy writer because I love comedy and am driven to be funny. But when I began my career that way, I didn’t like the comedy writing process. I didn’t like room writing. All my best ideas come to me when I’m alone. So I didn’t leave comedy because I lost my sense of humor. I left because I longed for that process of sitting alone with a computer. I have a heightened sense of drama—one might call it hyperbole or emotionalism—so I was able to use that. The biggest adjustment I had to make was finding a way to work my drive to be funny into the dramatic format. I was lucky to work on lots of dramas which also had humor—eg. “Moonlighting,” “Northern Exposure”—and when I got the chance to create my own, I made sure there was an equal mix. The ongoing adjustment for me is trying to find a place where I can do both. I find myself completely out of sorts on drama shows which don’t include heavy doses of humor. Those shows never look like life to me.
Say you’re writing the same scene for a teleplay and for a novel. How would you approach it differently?
Well, the glib answer is that I’d write one in Word and the other in Final Draft. But it’s more than that, of course. The novels I write are mostly driven by an internal voice so there’s a lot of interior monologue and probably way more description than I’d ever put in a screenplay. When you’re writing a novel, you have to make someone see the scene. You don’t have the advantage of showing it to them. When I write a TV script, I think a lot about how to put action on the screen so that people aren’t just talking about it. But when people do talk, I make sure the language is economical. Characters can yammer away in novels. Saying a lot with very little is essential in screenwriting.
What was your first paying job as a writer?
My first paying job, technically speaking, was when I got a $10 check from American Girl magazine for a poem I wrote. I was fourteen. A year later I got a $15 check for a poem from Teen Magazine. In college, I was paid to be a features editor at The Breeze—the newspaper at James Madison University. I can’t remember how much but it seemed like a lot at the time.
What was your first job in television?
My first job in TV was a freelance episode of “Family Ties.” I had just written a novel which got great coverage at a big TV agency. An agent asked if I’d like to write for TV and I said sure. (I was 22. I would have written for cereal boxes). I pitched some stories and they bought one and I wrote it and it was well received. After that I got a script on Newhart and eventually became a staff writer there. It was a different time and my story generally isn’t helpful for people trying to break in today.
Who was your favorite actor you’ve every worked with?
That’s tough if you’re asking me to pick one. I had the privilege of writing for Ruth Gordon on an episode of Newhart—that was just one of those hard to believe moments. Newhart was one himself. Truly a great experience. But I think I’ll go with Sam Waterston (“I’ll Fly Away”). It was early in my drama TV career and he taught me so much about both acting and writing. He’s a gentleman and a scholar. I also had a blast working with Amy and Tyne on “Judging Amy,” and the whole cast of “Joan of Arcadia.” It’s probably easier to list the actors I didn’t enjoy working with. I disavow the notion that writers and actors can’t get along. I’ve gotten along/had fun with/learned from just about all of them.
How do you fit novel writing and TV producing into one life-time?
Again, missing lots of parties. I don’t know how exactly but my work life has timed out perfectly. I was always able to write novels in between TV projects. It’s one of those things where I look back and can’t entirely understand it. It just worked out.
How has being a parent affected your writing?
Being a parent has influenced my producing more than my writing. It taught me how to be patient and to be the calmest person in the room. It taught me to listen and not to speak until I had absorbed other points of view. It also taught me how to recognize when I was being played. Producing is really exactly like being a parent—you just try to occupy the high ground and be the best authority you can be. As far as writing is concerned—I probably write kids, teenagers, and now young adults much better than I once did. My daughter keeps me current and exposes me to a lot of different ideas and points of view. And, of course, she keeps me current with music.
You’ve worked on many awesome shows. What was your favorite?
I have to say my favorite was “Joan of Arcadia.” It really brought everything together for me. My original idea (if you don’t count, you know, Joan of Arc), a great cast, a supportive studio and network, a big immediate popular response, a lot of feedback from people who seemed to be moved in a really substantial way. We had a great time doing it and received a lot of validation, including an Emmy nomination for best drama series. I wish it had lasted longer but otherwise there’s nothing I regret about it. It was perfect.
If you had to choose between TV producing, writing novels or music, which would you prefer?
I would prefer not to choose. I spent many years thinking about distilling it to one thing or another and eventually I realized that I really need all of them. If I only wrote novels, I’d get too lonely. If I only did TV, I’d get too frustrated. If I only did music, I’d get too poor. That said, lately I am putting TV in the forefront. Given how much the landscape is changing, I’m excited about trying different things in that medium. In terms of creativity, I just see it as a big sandbox and I want to play with all the toys.