For many of us, the calling to the expat life is not really a calling at all, but more of a vague (albeit rather deep-seated) need to escape our surroundings in search of adventure. We have no idea of what we’re looking for until we’ve arrived at a place and put down roots. Even then, we still have the mentality of drifters, and it take us a while to access our muses.
My guest today, the screenwriter Tim John, does not belong in that mould, as soon becomes clear from the first few pages of his new book, Adventures in LA-LA Land, an account of the seven years he spent in Los Angeles with his wife, Jenny, and their two young daughters.
You see, Tim plunged into his particular expat adventure with the script already written, both literally (he had a project in the works) and figuratively. Heading for Hollywood was Plan B after he lost his job with a London advertising agency during the recession of the early 1990s, and started dabbling in screenwriting.
The late Christopher Hitchens, another English writer who chose to be based in the United States, once described LA as a city “mostly full of nonsense and delusion and egomania.” But in the script Tim had written for himself and family, it was LA-LA Land—a place where they could have it all, great climate, a house with swimming pool, and (hopefully) big money.
So did Hollywood feed Tim’s creative muses (and fill his coffers) in the manner he expected? You’ll have to read the book to find out. I read it, and found myself surprisingly moved by the story of a man who lives for the movies. In fact, the pace can be likened to that of a roller coaster ride—fun but also harrowing at times.
On that note, it’s time to welcome Tim to the Displaced Nation to talk about his book. And just a heads up: Tim will be “screening” the comments for the person who leaves the best pitch for why they’d like to read it. That lucky individual will be under contract for a free digital copy!!!
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Hi, Tim, and welcome to the Displaced Nation. Can you tell me why you decided to write a memoir about your years in Hollywood?
I’d read so many books about how to write a Hollywood screenplay, but never found one that also told you what it was like living there, so I decided to write my own, based on the seven years I lived there with my wife and two daughters.
Have you thought about turning it into an actual script for a movie?
I would love to turn it into a screenplay, too.
I understand you lived in LA from 1991 to 1998. I’m curious why you produced the book so long after the fact?
I’m not really sure why I waited so long to write it, possibly because I’ve been doing more and more teaching over the last couple of years and I’m often aware that students often don’t get taught important skills that are crucial to being successful as a screenwriter, such as being able to pitch and how to balance writing life with social life and family life. I thought that relating my experiences could be useful for others. If nothing else, they could learn from my mistakes as well as my successes!
In the end, the movie (of my life) was about…
Has your perspective on the experience deepened with time?
I suppose gaining some distance in time and geographically helped me to see Hollywood from a more objective perspective.
What impact did your writing about the experience have on you?
Definitely part of it was cathartic, to process the bizarre experience.
You worked in advertising for a while. When exactly did you catch the movie-making bug?
I worked a copywriter and then as a creative director—both of which are extremely useful if you want to go into film as they teach you so much about writing for a particular audience and how to write pithy dialogue and how to edit, etc. I always loved film mainly because it was such a great escape. As a kid, The Jungle Book was a big favorite. Mutiny on the Bounty and Lawrence of Arabia got me pretty scared, as did that spider in Doctor No!
Yes, I recall your mentioning in the book your fear of spiders when you found yourself face to face with a black widow at your house in LA. I’m still shuddering at the thought of being bitten by a brown recluse, by the way!
Was there a single epiphanic moment?
Your book is chockerblock with what we like to refer to on this site as “displaced moments” as a result of your encounters with not just deadly spiders but also shrieking peacocks, rats, snakes, and even some neighbors who believed in extraterrestrial burglars—and that’s before we get to the highly venomous creatures who populate the Hollywood film industry. Does any one moment stand out as your most displaced?
Wow. There were many moments when I thought “What on Earth am I doing in this bizarre place?” One that sticks out in my professional life was that time I went to pitch to Disney and the exec said “Great to meet you guys, we’re looking for some comedy writers” and I self-effacingly said: “Then you should meet these guys I play tennis with—they’re hilarious.” None of the execs could see I was joking and at the end of the meeting, the development girl took me aside, discreetly handed me a business card and said: “If you continue to have self-esteem issues, see my shrink—she’s fabulous!”
That makes me think of Johnny Carson’s line: “In Hollywood if you don’t have a shrink, people think you’re crazy.” And I think the Northridge earthquake of 1994 displaced you and your family rather literally.
Yes, the whole house rattled and creaked for over forty seconds and there were waves in the pool.
Ah, the pool… You also talk about how much you loved the weather, having a pool, and taking drives to some fabulous scenery. Can you pinpoint your LEAST displaced moment, when you felt you were born to be in LA-LA Land rather than your native UK?
There were so many great moments. Personally, living in that sunshine, with a pool, a hot tub, etc., along with plenty of money and also plenty of free time (even though you’re constantly thinking of ideas to pitch), seems like a dream for anyone who’s come from the UK climate and ever struggled to make ends meet. It’s like living in a vacation—until you realize it will all collapse if you don’t sell your next idea, and you’re going to have to sell it far sooner than you expected because the cost of living is very high, especially when you factor in things you’d never had to pay for before, such as earthquake insurance. Never forget that “writer” is only one letter away from “waiter”.
Professionally, when you get to chat with famous stars and talented directors and they take your comments seriously—that feels unreal but also great. Probably the greatest moment for me was just before I moved to LA, being able to go to the tenth birthday party for George Harrison’s film company, HandMade Films. For anyone English, I think having a chat with a Beatle tops it all.
What did you and George chat about?
I’d worked on two screenplays for his company, so we talked about that. The funniest thing, I thought, at the company’s birthday party, was when George and Ringo joined the band playing on stage. If anyone requested they perform a Beatles’ song, George said: “I don’t know that one.”
In the end, the film was about spirit…
I understand you found LA a culture shock.
Wow, there are so many things that are culturally different about living in the UK and living in America, especially in Hollywood, which many Americans find totally unreal, too. Ones that really stand out: the almost constant sunshine for a start. The smog levels on bad days. The way so many Americans are so welcoming, where so many Brits can be snooty and suspicious. The way so many Americans are optimistic and so many Brits are pessimistic (or maybe more realistic than many film people). I never forgot that Hollywood has been described as “the only town where you can die of encouragement.”
I know you decided to leave LA in part because of your mother’s health and in part because of your daughters’ education. The family, particularly your daughters, didn’t want to go. What were the biggest adjustments?
Tiny parking spaces, terrible weather, high cost of living but a wonderful sense of humor. I did miss my irony in LA. We also hadn’t realized quite how much UK house prices had rocketed during the period when we’d sold ours to live abroad!
What do you think were the chief benefits you and your family derived from being Los Angelenos for a time?
I’m sure that our seven years in LA and coming home taught us all to adapt to change. My elder daughter had enjoyed an ice skating career in the US, which didn’t continue in the UK. But at least she learned that if you set goals and envision yourself achieving those goals, it will seriously boost your chances of success. The rest of us learned that you can probably have all the things you’d like in life—you just can’t have them all at the same time!
Looking back, what was your single most professional achievement during your time in LA?
Not one single thing; rather, it was learning the craft and how to work with industry people sufficiently well to be able get regular work from the studios (but not all the time!).
How do you make a living these days?
Right now, I’m rushing out to give six hours worth of lectures on dialogue to students at Bournemouth University. I also teach on and off about creative writing in general and about writing for advertising, at various universities: Bournemouth Uni, where I teach part of the MA in Advertising, at Southampton Solent, where I do some spots on Advertising and some on Screenwriting, to students at all levels, and at the Arts University in Poole, where I teach adult classes in all sorts of writing. But teaching is just part-time. I also do some freelance copywriting. And most of my time goes into writing screenplays still!
Do you still feel like a Los Angeleno in some respects?
Only in that I have several great friends in LA and I feel totally at home with film industry people. I probably see myself as neither totally British any more or completely Californian. I’m obviously some sort of mongrel.
Writing for publication: A different animal?
Moving back to the book: what was the most difficult part of the writing process?
The hardest part was the guilt I occasionally feel for what I see as building up all the family’s hopes by showing them a few years of a dream lifestyle, then waking them up from that dream by saying we have to go back to the harsh reality of living back in the UK. BUT, as mentioned, the family all feel really lucky to have had those seven great years and have made all those extra friends without staying away from their old friends and family for so long they felt like strangers. (That’s what they tell me anyway. I have an extremely supportive family!)
Why did you decide to self-publish?
Because I’d had two books published by a big publisher many years ago and never felt they did much to promote them. My agent said most publishers only push big brand names and my wife had a friend who did very well self-publishing a memoir, so I thought I’d give it a go.
What audience did you have in mind for the book, and has it been reaching those people? Is it mainly for wannabe British scriptwriters like yourself, or do you think it has broader appeal—for instance, to any Brit who might be thinking of living in America?
I hope the book will appeal to anyone who likes a laugh, to anyone who is interested in a family fish-out-of-water story and to anyone who wonders how you can make it in the film business. There’s plenty in there about the American school my wife taught in, the ones the kids went to, about my eldest daughter making it as an ice-skating champion… It’s by no means just about the movies, but, as I mentioned earlier, it will show you far more about how to make it as a screenwriter than books that simply tell you about the script, the formats, and nothing else.
Of all the advice you transmit to wannabe Hollywood screenwriters, which is the most important?
Make sure you enjoy the writing process as much as possible. Don’t pin everything on whether you sell it or it gets made. Enjoy the small triumphs, such as writing a great scene or even a great line of dialogue. All the little triumphs can add up into a pretty rewarding experience. And never forget that you may well learn more from your mistakes than from your successes.
What’s next for you in terms of creative projects?
I’ve just finished a UK thriller “Living in Sin”; I’m currently doing a re-write for a sci-fi project for a Californian director, and I have a UK drama that I wrote written with a writing partner, Jon Rolls, for which the producers have just this week started looking for a top director and cast—I’m still going for it!
10 Questions for Tim John
Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing—and in your case, also film-watching—habits:
1. Last truly great book you read / film you watched: Paper Towns, by John Green; The Way Way Back (2013), directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.
2. Favorite literary / film genre: It varies enormously but I’d say “comedy drama” for both (eg, Little Miss Sunshine).
3. Reading/film watching habits on a plane: I only ever read paper books and magazines. Generally I watch films on long flights—but nothing involving flights in danger. I’m a nervous flyer. I can never sleep.
4. The one book you’d require President Obama to read, or film you’d require him to watch, and why: War and Peace, so he’s fully aware what Russians can do if stirred up. No films to recommend—I’d rather he kept his eye on world news!
5. Favorite books/films as a child: The Secret Garden; The Jungle Book and Bond movies and then Paper Moon when I was slightly older. Also the musical Oliver.
6. Favorite hero/heroine in fiction/film: Heroines: Victoria Wood as a writer; Kathy Bates as an actress. Heroes: No book heroes apart from Bilbo Baggins (when I was ten); in film, the cheeky little boy in Cinema Paradiso and later Léon in the film of that name.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Woody Allen, as I’m nearly always amazed at how inventive he can be and how, against the odds, he so frequently gets cross-genre movies to work, certainly during his Crimes and Misdemeanors period.
8. Your reading/film-watching habits: I don’t read that many books as I find it hard to give authors the benefit of 50 or 60 pages to get into it. I far prefer books that grab me almost immediately, but with their style and outlook on life, not with purely mechanical plot like Dan Brown or John Grisham. I find those stories generally too thin to keep reading. I frequently start books and leave them if they don’t hold my interest. As far as films go, I go to the cinema at least once a week. I also watch endless boxed sets: generally US drama such as Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire, House… I really got into The Bridge and Spiral. My worst DVD marathon took place in the early series of 24, when I watched 13 episodes over a single weekend.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: On Mermaid Avenue, a great American novel that I’ve optioned and written a screenplay from.
10. The book you plan to read next / film you plan to watch next: The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green; currently, I don’t have any films I’m looking forward to watching.
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Bravo, Tim! If we ever host the Displaced Oscars, something we’ve been threatening to do for some time now, you’ll definitely be receiving a statue.
So, any COMMENTS or QUESTIONS for Tim, or PITCHES for why you’d like to read the book? Don’t forget, there’s a free digital copy on offer…
And if you can’t wait to read the book or don’t win, Adventures in LA-LA Land is available from Amazon. Be sure to grab a copy! You can also visit Tim’s writer site, like his book’s Facebook page +/or follow him on Twitter.
STAY TUNED for next week’s (month’s) fab posts!
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really looking forward to reading your book! I also lived in Los Angeles for quite some time, and although I wasn’t a typical expat there, I came from the east coast, which is basically the same thing. Now I’m in England as an American, but feel like here is where it’s exotic and a dream world!
On another note, I was wondering if you ever considered making a book trailer of the book? You’ve kind of inspired my next post – I think it’s so important for a book to be as dramatic as the cinema. Good for you for going the self publishing route as well. I think it takes guts to do that, and actually makes the most sense now adays!
Thank you. No, I haven’t considered making a book trailer, but I would love to turn the book into a movie. How are you finding living in the UK as an American? Somebody who has made the same journey just tweeted me saying he missed the optimism in the LA air, where he could imagine “pensioners on surfboards”!
Changes in latitude change in attitude, aye? (Esp. the former for you, although it is finally raining buckets in northern California.) Your books sounds like something I would like to read – I’m going over to Amazon to see if there is a sample. Best of luck!
Yes, it was definitely something of an escape, (partly because I’ve always found cinema to be a great escape). There should be a sample on Amazon. Hope you enjoy it. Many thanks, Tim
What I love most about your book concept is that you didn’t stop at ‘Brit breaks into Hollywood screenwriting while experiencing quintessential Cali-LALA moments’ as some might. Making it about your family life as well takes the expat memoir to another, deeper level, even if it remains a comedy at heart. Being abroad with children exposes you to an entirely new layer of disconnection and difference, as we found while living in the Netherlands. Knowing you continue to make your living with words, I’m looking forward to reading your account. Sounds as though you took resilience to another level.
Thanks, Linda. Well we definitely did experience quite a few “Cali-LALA moments” as you call them, but many of them affected the kids as well. For a start, they felt obliged to pick up the local language because classmates announced quite early on “We’d like you a whole lot more if you didn’t speak with that stupid accent”. Nice. Welcoming. I don’t think they really meant any harm. And our girls sounded “toadally” Californian within days, then completely British when just with us. Their school was far more multi-racial than their old one in Surrey, which was good, and they were taught things such as saying no to drugs and learning about sex far earlier than they would have been here. This did cause some interesting moments, as when my eldest, then aged 8, came back from school one day and announced in no uncertain terms, the way kids so often do, that “If you want to have sex, then you have to use a Condo”. She may well have been right judging by the way some married locals behaved!
Yes, much of the book is funny, (at least I hope it is), probably because that tends to be my default position when things go wrong, and we certainly had times in LALA land when things went very wrong, such as losing our house.
Are you still in the Netherlands? Or was that just for a while? I don’t know it well, having only visited The Hague, Rotterdam and Amsterdam, but I’ve always thought it would be a great place to live – apart from the rain, which you seemed to get even more than us on my brief visits.
Many thanks for your comments. All best, Tim
That’s funny about the Cali kids not loving your children’s British accent as most Americans love them. Sounds as though your children learned valuable lessons on making their way through different groups while not losing their true identities. We repatriated last year after four (mostly) wonderful years in The Hague. And yes, it was a great place to live. We came back for family reasons (‘sandwich generation’ and all that), and are building a home base from which to plot and launch future foreign forays.
Hi Linda, I’ve only been to the Hague once, when I was pretty small, but I always like Holland and the people, so I can imagine it was great living there. Yes, “family reasons” play a big part in decisions, don’t they. Do let me know how I can send you a free copy of “Adventures in Lala Land”. All best, Tim