Our summer intern Natalia had the chance to ask playwright Michael Hollinger some questions about Ghost-Writer. Here’s part one of a two-part interview.
What made you to decide to start writing plays? Had you always wanted to do so, or did the inclination come after your prowess as a musician?
I identified myself as a writer from a rather young age, writing poetry primarily at first. (“Fewer words,” as Mrs. Woolsey says in the play.) But I was attracted to the play form early on, as my family was heavily involved in a community theatre in my home town — acting, building sets, etc. I “ran lines” with my mother as she learned roles (something my own son is doing with my wife Megan downstairs as I write this), which acquainted me with the conventions of dramatic writing so that it was a very familiar form by the time I started writing short plays as a teenager.
How does being a musician inform your writing?
I think my sense of plays as an interplay of voices is enhanced by my experiences playing chamber music; I believe plays should be aurally satisfying even if you don’t understand the language. Musicians also study form more rigorously than theatre artists do: What’s a concerto? What’s a symphony? What’s a tone poem? What’s a sonata? What’s a cantata? What’s a song cycle? There are models for all of these forms across the centuries, and, in my experience, musicians — composers in particular — tend to be more aware of the constraints and possibilities inherent in each. Consequently, I’m very interested in the form of each play, its structure, sequence of “movements,” how the various characters, like instruments in an ensemble, are brought in or out to produce a certain effect. Studying viola seriously also helped me acquire greater detachment in the revision process. When you practice a difficult passage over and over, you can’t waste time beating yourself up about a clumsy shift or flat note. You just have to observe carefully and do it again and again, striving to get closer each time. This taught me a certain discipline with regard to revision — a combination of rigor and patience.
What was the inspiration for Ghost-Writer?
A few years ago I ran across an anecdote about Henry James and his secretary, who typed as he dictated his novels and stories over the course of years. According to the anecdote, when James died the secretary claimed to continue receiving dictation from her late employer. My mother had died shortly before I encountered this story, and, through conversations with my father, I began thinking about “the presence of absence” — that is, the power that a departed loved one holds over us, and how we negotiate the space left by that person. As the play continued to develop, I also found myself looking at the nature of creative process itself, that mysterious combination of craft and what most people would call inspiration.