Jeff Arch joins the Spotlight this week to discuss his debut novel, Attachments
Author Name: Jeff Arch
Book Title: Attachments
Book Genre: General Fiction /Literary Fiction
Release Date: May 11, 2021
Welcome, Jeff! What sparked the idea for Attachments?
I think it’s probably true that people who went to boarding schools are either fiercely loyal, to the place and their memories of it, or fiercely the opposite. I went to a place for two years much like the school in the book. One day, almost twenty years later, I drove up there on a whim, and looked up a teacher who had been really influential. I didn’t even know if he was still there, but he was, and he and his wife and I spent the afternoon together. We were able to talk about some things that would have been off limits when I was a student, and while I was thinking about it all on the way home, the basic elements of this story just sort of dropped into my lap. I had the three best friends and the teacher, and built it all out from that.
What was it like to make the transition from screenplays to a novel?
I think I liked it a lot better this way, than going from novelist to screenwriter, mainly because there’s a level of discipline and economy that you just can’t play with. In a screenplay you’re locked into an industry-established standard of length—and so whatever story you have to tell, you’ve got a hundred pages or so to tell it in. You have to learn how to say a lot with a little. In a novel, you can get off the highway here and there, you can go to some interesting places that there just isn’t time to do in a movie, when the clock is always running. Plus there’s the freedom in a novel to get inside someone’s head, to think along with them and all, when in a movie script you can only show behavior—only what you can see or hear someone actually doing, and you have to make the reader understand their reasons for doing things without having access to their thoughts. But even though screenplays seem to have a lot of these restrictions, I still find a lot of freedom within the form—and it’s actually great training for any storyteller, in any medium, to be able to do what screenwriters have to do, which is to be able to boil a story down to its absolute essence, and then make it feel like it’s full and complete. With the novel I had all kinds of freedom, and I went all kinds of places with it—I think my first pass through it took almost six hundred pages. Fortunately, editing is my favorite part. The hard part, for me at least, is coming up with a story in the first place that I can tell coherently from beginning to end. Once that’s done, when the whole story is told but it’s still an absolute mess—that’s when the fun starts for me.
Do you see this book becoming a movie?
I’d love it to become a movie. I’m working with someone now to make that happen. Fingers crossed.
The story is told in alternating voices and two different time frames. How did you choose an approach like that?
I had a friend in high school who wrote a short story, and he used the alternating voices thing. I loved that technique and filed it away in case I ever got a chance to use it some day. When I got the idea for this book, I remembered my friend’s story and those alternating voices and it just seemed the perfect marriage of what this story was and how it needed to be told. Thanks to Facebook, I found the guy again, and when the advance review copies came out, I called him and told him about the book and asked him if he remembered that story he wrote, almost fifty years ago now. He said he did, that he’d won some award with it, and that he’d gotten the technique from William Faulkner. So we both stole from the best. I wonder who Faulkner got it from.
What’s your favorite part about writing/being an author? What do you find challenging?
Almost any writer will tell you this: we don’t like the writing so much as we like having written. Reading our own work, getting it just right, and having other people read and respond to it, that’s great. Writing it in the first place has its moments, but it’s really just a grind sometimes. The most challenging part for me is working through the parts of the job I don’t like, to get to the parts I do. I’m one of the ones who loves rewriting, and I’ve done my own editing since day one. I wouldn’t know how to let someone else edit my work. I’ll take suggestions and feedback till the cows come home, but the editing process is mine.
If you were speaking to someone who hasn’t read your writing before, why should they want to read Attachments?
I think we all get to certain points in life where we look back at the roads we took and wonder what might have happened if we hadn’t made those choices and made different ones instead. Also, by a certain age we’ve all experienced the death of someone we love, and who really mattered to us. And at every stage, whether we admit it or not, we could really use some guidance—and if we’re lucky enough, the right person shows up with the right guidance, and those are the people we remember forever. We remember the people who hurt us and the people who helped us. And maybe the biggest part of growing up, of becoming a full human being, is learning how much of our own happiness and well-being depend on whether we’re willing and able to let go of the things we’ve been clinging to all this time—not the things that other people did to us, but the hold that so many of those things can have on us emotionally, even physically, years and decades after they actually happened. And what ‘Attachments’ is, is a story about these very things, the messiness of life and the stuff it takes to come through all that with your heart and your dignity and your relationships intact. It’s a story about people who are going through those exact experiences, and dealing with them in the now. So, for anybody who resonates with that, here’s your book.
What about the writing/editing/publishing process has been the most surprising to you so far?
It probably shouldn’t be surprising, but there were certain things I just could not get these characters to do, no matter how much I might have wanted to, even when there might be something really lucrative on the line—I just couldn’t get them to budge on certain things. One publisher pretty much offered the world, if only I’d set the story at a college instead of a boarding school, for marketing reasons. And I gave it a try, I’d have been crazy not to—but these characters were having none of it. It was like they wouldn’t even be in the room for that discussion. And the thing is, If you’re doing your job right, it’s always going to be that way to some degree—if your characters don’t take on a life of their own, and start surprising you with some of the choices they make, that’s usually a sign of trouble. In fact, at some point they should stop being ‘your’ characters at all, if they’re going to come off to a reader as real people. So at best it’s some weird kind of collaboration between you, where maybe you created them, but if they’re to come to life then they have to do what all real people do, which is to do what’s best for them even if it’s not what’s best for you, and even surprise the hell out of you sometimes with some of the stuff they try and pull. And the people in ‘Attachments’ surprised me all the time. I had no idea what they were going to do next, and in every single case, their ideas were better than mine. And thank God they didn’t want to be college kids. Thank God they refused.
How are you adjusting your writing process during a pandemic?
The process never changes. Get in the chair and stay there until it’s time to get up.
What are your interests outside of writing and reading?
All quiet stuff. Time with Michelle, with family, we have two dogs and live at the beach so I’m out there a lot. Before Covid I spent a lot more time at the pool than I do now, and I miss that. But the backbone of everything, I’ve been practicing some form or martial arts since the 80’s—starting out with Tae Kwon Do, then I added Tai Chi in the 90’s and most recently I’ve been taking a pretty comprehensive course in medical Qigong. That includes a lot of focus on philosophy as well, and the wisdom texts. I’ve had a steady practice since I was about thirty, and I mean to keep it going.
Are you working on a new project? Please tell us about it.
I’m working on a scripted TV series called “Tiny Houses (the Ballad of Amy and Mike).” It’s a romantic comedy, and it’s both more romantic and funnier than I’ve had a chance to be before. I get to spread the story out over eight episodes, instead of a ninety minute feature. And it has that same yearning quality that ‘Sleepless’ did, but this time it’s actually more agonizing because unlike Sam and Annie, Amy and Mike are together all the time in this one, instead of not at all, and even though it’s so plain as day they’re perfect for each other, they just can’t stop messing up their chances. I’m having so much fun with this one!
How are you adjusting to promoting your book during a pandemic?
Initially I thought it would be great to do the whole thing over Zoom and other platforms. Not that anyone wanted a pandemic, but most writers will tell you it was glorious to not have to make up reasons to stay home, when we didn’t want to go out in the first place. And so the idea that a book tour can be one more thing you can do from home, that seemed like a real gift. But no matter how convenient it’s going to be, the closer we get to the release date, the more it doesn’t feel right to be doing it this way. Doing this by computer will only be a reminder that something very wrong happened, its effects will be felt forever, and millions have died, most of them needlessly. That sure does cut into the celebration side of all this.
Where can readers find you?
We’ll have a website up by the time you read this, which I guess will contain whatever people want to know. I’m on Facebook and Instagram, and even though it’s supposed to be the easiest thing in the world, I still haven’t really figured out Twitter. I’ve taught at workshops and conferences all over the place but mostly now everything’s centered around the Story Summit (www.storysummit.us), where we have two week-long live conferences a year, plus an extensive online writers’ school that has courses year-round. It was founded by David Kirkpatrick, who used to run Disney and Paramount, and while it started out heavier on screenwriting, we have a lot of novelists and memoirists aboard, and excellent mentors in each area. The bit we’re most excited about is how many people we can bring in through foundations that are set up to pay their way. One thing about week-long conferences in beautiful resorts is that they tend to cost money, and we’re taking that obstacle away by providing no-strings scholarships to deserving writers who no longer have to be shut out financially. I’m so glad to be able to be a part of this.
Thank you, Jeff! Attachments launches on May 11 and is available for pre-order now.
At a boarding school in Pennsylvania, a deathbed request from the school’s dean brings three former students back to campus, where secrets and betrayals from the past are brought out into the open—secrets that could have a catastrophic effect on the dean’s eighteen-year-old son.
Told in alternating points of view and time frames, Attachments is the story of best friends Stewart (“Goody”) Goodman, Sandy (“Pick”) Piccolo, and Laura Appleby, the girl they both love. The friends meet in 1972 at a boarding school in coal-country Pennsylvania where they encounter Henry Griffin, the school dean, whose genuine fatherly interest and deep human bond with them is so strong that when he has a severe stroke almost twenty years later, he uses what could be his last words ever to call out their names.
Attachments is a puzzle—and the only one who knows how all the pieces fit is in a coma. In the process, longtime secrets are unearthed, revelations come out into the open, and Young Chip Griffin is about to learn something he may or may not be able to handle.
“Prior to reading this wonderful book, I had only known Jeff Arch’s body of work as a screenwriter, most famously for his Oscar-nominated ‘Sleepless in Seattle.’ Now, with “Attachments,” Jeff brings his deep humanity, his unique and unmistakable voice, and his cinematic economy of style to this powerful story of love and betrayal and the possibility of forgiveness. With meticulous plotting and masterful language, he brings life and light to characters as real as they are unforgettable.” —David P. Kirkpatrick, former Production Chief, Walt Disney Studios, and President of Paramount Pictures
“[A] really clever plot….and Arch works it like a maestro. Fine writing, memorable characters, depth of feeling, and gripping drama—a real keeper.” —Kirkus Reviews, STARRED review
“There are plenty of novels about childhood friends and lovers, brought together in adulthood, only to learn explosive secrets about the others and themselves. But Jeff Arch’s “Attachments” transcends them all. Why? Because you’ll care about his characters, flawed though they are, really care, and because there’s a deep humanity and compassion running throughout the story. Letting each character tell his or her own tale, Arch has created people, not mere plot holders, and you’ll follow them eagerly as they move through love, loss, acceptance and forgiveness. I loved “Attachments,” and my only regret is that I didn’t write it.” —Jane Heller, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author
Jeff Arch grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he spent two of his high school years at a boarding school much like the one depicted in Attachments. In the ’70s, he studied film/tv/theater production at Emerson College in Boston and then moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a concert lighting designer and toured the country with national rock and reggae acts while teaching himself to write screenplays on the side. Years later, married and with a young family, he was teaching high school English and running a martial arts school when heard the call to write again; in 1989, he sold the school he’d built, rented a small office, and gave himself one year to write three screenplays.