On a whim, Juliet McDaniel decided to enter an online writing competition. She put together 25 pages of an outline, sent it off, and thought, well, that’s that.
Until, that is, she began to see her outline getting voted up and up through the different rounds, all the way into the judges’ hands and she was told that she had won.
The Launch Pad Manuscript Competition is sponsored by Hollywood news site The Tracking Board and publishing platform Inkshares, among others (which includes Ridley Scott’s renowned movie production company, Scott Free, by the way). The site offers screenwriters a way to get their work seen by movie and TV producers; and since 2016, it has also offered writers a chance to get books published.
Having been a screenwriter for almost two decades, McDaniel was familiar enough with Launch Pad, but actually winning a chance to have a novel about her spunky protagonist Maxine published? Well, frankly, that was scary….
“I had absolutely no idea what I was doing when I entered the contest. Maxine and her story was an idea floating in my head that never felt quite right for a screenplay, so two days before the contest closed, I decided to try writing her as a novel.
“The contest winners were selected in rounds and I kept thinking that I wouldn’t make it to the next round. It was the second most wonderful surprise of my life to learn that it won best comedy. (First best surprise of her life? Learning she was pregnant with her son, of course.)
“I felt honoured and then quickly terrified because that meant I needed to finish the book!” she says in an e-mail interview from the United States where she lives with her son and partner.
The following is a Q&A with McDaniel about her debut novel, Mr & Mrs American Pie (reviewed here), that was released on recently by Inkshares.
is set in 1969, and around a beauty pageant. Your grandmother was crowned Mrs Minnesota 1956. Is protagonist Maxine Hortence based on your grandmother?
I am very happy to say that Maxine and my late grandmother couldn’t be more unalike! Their personalities and behaviour have nothing in common with each other, which is a good thing, let me tell you!
Unpleasant things happen to Maxine. Why does it seem easier to address not-so-pleasant topics in comedy?
I think that if we are able to laugh about our problems then we can be put at ease enough to start talking about how we – as a society – can get to fixing those problems. This is exactly why I love comedy so much. It puts us at ease.
Did you set out to write a novel with comic undertones?
Definitely! I think that in our real day-to-day lives, there’s a great natural balance between drama and comedy. When I look back on the really difficult times in my life, no matter how bleak things got, there was still a little bit of humour there. I think it’s human nature to look for the humour and sort of cling to it to help us get through difficult times.
The novel is told through the perspectives of three characters, Maxine, Robert and Chuck – why three viewpoints?
I did this for a few reasons. First, I think a book entirely from Maxine’s perspective would be too overbearing. She’s a very strong personality and the readers need an emotional break from her.
The other reason is that Maxine is very good at lying. Some of this is intentional, with her lying to get her way.
But there’s also a lot of unintentional lying to herself. By switching the story’s point-of-view to that of Robert and Chuck, it lets us see these instances where she’s lying to herself more clearly.
I also think that the best way to really crawl into the mind of a character is to tell the story directly from his/her point of view. It lets the audience see directly through the character’s eyes and with all of the character’s past experiences shaping how their world is seen.
As readers, we might know that historically-speaking, the world of 1970 was very unkind to gay people. But by letting the reader walk around inside Robert’s head, we get to experience more directly what it felt like to be a gay man in 1970.
Maxine is loud, brash and confident. How much of Juliet McDaniel is in Maxine? Is Maxine your alter ego?
Maxine is the fearless, gusty woman I’ve always wished I was more like. She’s sort of like an imaginary friend I call upon to give me courage whenever I’ve had to do something nerve-wracking like speak in public.
As much as I’d love to say that she’s my alter ego, I think the people closest to me in life are grateful she’s not!
In the age of the #MeToo movement and women taking a stance over their rights, do you think beauty pageants demean women?
I do find them demeaning. As much as the pageants and contestants say the pageants are all about honouring women for their brains as much as their beauty, I don’t see the pageants achieving that balance. The focus is far too much on how a woman looks rather than her mind or character.
The swimsuit portion of the contest really troubles me since that is entirely about judging these women on rigid, often unobtainable, physical ideals.
Do you think we have progressed since 1969 in how society views women?
I don’t think that we’ve come as far from 1969 as we’d like to think. While beauty pageants aren’t as popular as they once were, women are still very much judged along strict gender lines. If anything, it’s more of a challenge for women today since we are also expected to have this nearly impossible balance between our careers and family.
We’ve moved from beauty pageants to Instagram and lifestyle blogs. There’s still a competition of sorts to have the most perfect-looking home, to offer our kids the most idealised healthy lifestyles, and to stay perfectly fit well into our 40s – and within weeks of having a baby! The idea of “the perfect wife and mother” hasn’t left us at all. It’s merely changed form.
You wrote a screenplay, QWERTY, that was made into a movie (starring Dana Pupkin). How different is writing a screenplay from a novel?
Screenplays and novels are both equally difficult. For me, the biggest challenge was switching gears in how I approached the story. I wrote screenplays for 17 years, so it was a format I felt very comfortable in.
The focus on a screenplay is all about conveying who your characters are through their dialogue. With a novel, dialogue isn’t enough. Novelists get to take readers deeper into the minds of the characters. This was daunting at first, but I’ve come to really love it.
There’s also a chance to play with the language more in a novel than a screenplay. Maxine is a person who focuses on the small details of the world around her, and I got to show that in a novel in a way I never could in a screenplay.
For example, in a novel, Maxine can sit at a luncheon table and recall all these past moments in which her friends were less-than friendly.
In a screenplay, those friendships need to be short-handed in the dialogue.
In QWERTY, your protagonist Zoe enters the National Scrabble Champion-ship. In Mr & Mrs American Pie, Maxine enters a beauty pageant. What is it about these not-so-mainstream events that fascinates you?
This is such a great question – I’ve never seen the similarities between the scrabble champion-ship and the beauty pageant!
I think I’m someone who loves the way competition brings out the extremes in people.
We can all relate to the desire to be best at something or win something.
My fascination with Scrabble came from learning that the national championship was broadcast on (sports channel) ESPN.
I thought it was wonderful that ESPN was giving just as much credence to a mental competition as physical competitions like baseball or football.
I’ve also always been someone who notices the quirkier things in life. Since I was a little kid, I’ve “spied” on people, listening in on overheard conversations at restaurants or on buses. When you do this, you tend to hear things out-of-context, and that’s always sparked my imagination. This is probably why so many of my characters appear to be “weirdos” at first glance.
You have penned a movie that got made, and you wrote a novel that got published. What is next for Juliet McDaniel?
More writing! I still have lots of imaginary friends in my head whom I’d like to share with the world.