James Franco Talks Fiction Release 'A California Childhood': 'It's Slightly Unconventional' (Q&A)

Insight Editions/Strand Bookstore

The actor explains how his writing pursuits helped him strategically adapt William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying" for the big screen.

Though James Franco’s latest hardcover features photos of him goofing around while on summer vacation as a kid, don’t be fooled: A California Childhood is not a memoir. Quietly released by Insight Editions in June, the book is 154 pages of pictures (including the one below, Franco on left), poems, paintings, short stories, diary entries, scribbled notes and high school transcripts. Not even Franco explicitly states what the book really is – the introductory proviso reads, “I’d make the claim that this is fiction, but what isn’t nowadays?”

Regardless of what genre the book falls into, Franco stresses that his book projects are pacifying a long-neglected need to generate creative works he can completely call his own. “As an actor in mainstream film, I’m asked to be part of a bigger machine: I’m usually asked to help tell a larger narrative, and I’m not supposed to, generally speaking, break the fourth wall – I’m supposed to seamlessly fit into that world,” he explained of his love of literature during a conversation with renowned poet Frank Bidart at the Strand Bookstore in NYC on Friday. “That means I’m servicing other people’s projects – that’s fine, I accept that. There’s a lot of satisfaction in that, especially when you act in good movies. But that meant that there was another voice, another side of me that needed an outlet, a space to say all the things that I wasn’t able to say with these performances. So I went back to school and one of the things I was doing there was seeking: what are these outlets?”

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Building on the self-destructive, suburban idleness captured in his 2010 collection of short stories Palo Alto, Franco explores youth’s confusing disillusions in A California Childhood – of conformity, sexuality and mortality, among other things – with both an immediate teenage angst and many retrospective realizations. After penning pages that range from ethereal freeform poetry to short stories with the scatterbrained narration of an adolescent boy, Franco says that his writing pursuits are what renewed his passion for acting (he admitted that he was sometimes a pain to work with on set because he would overstep his job description by wanting to direct and create) and helped him strategize new filmic approaches to direct and star in his upcoming big-screen adaptations of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (completed) and The Sound and the Fury (announced).

The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Franco before his discussion with Bidart to delve into his literary influences, aspirations and intrigue with Faulkner.

The Hollywood Reporter: There are so many different materials on the pages of A California Childhood.

James Franco: That’s what I like about this – it’s truly a collage on many levels. It’s a collage of mediums: fiction, poetry, photographs, photographs of paintings. But then it’s also a collage of work from different time periods: I include paintings I did when I was very young, paintings I did in high school, paintings I did in the past year. All of the writing is more recent, around the time I did Palo Alto. But there are fragments of things, like my college essay, to do what the images are doing – to show images of all periods of my life.

THR: You mention in the introduction that you mix materials to blur the line between reality and fiction. What influenced you to do so in this way?

Franco: It was a gradual evolution. When Palo Alto came out, I remember talking to my literary agent at the launch party and being excited – it was my first book, I had just finished my graduate writing program, and it’s what everyone is aiming for. I was very happy with the book, but I also felt like I was entering a new world, and I was experiencing the routine of that world. For example, in the movie world, there are certain routines and forms: Movies are expected to be about 90 to 120 minutes, if it’s mainstream; it should have a narrative, and there are certain expectations there. And also, how they’re released – they’ll come out in theaters, DVD, and you do press and promote them in a specific way.

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With the book, it was like, here’s this new thing. It sounds obvious, but when you’re going through it as an author, it’s like, oh, OK, right. You get the galleys and approve them, you have to do notes a certain way, it’s expected to be more or less formatted in a certain way, and then you send it out to people to preread it and do early reviews, and this kind of thing. I felt like, great, but what if I wanted to do something that didn’t quite fit into that form, and because it didn’t do that, it would be hard to define? I wanted to make something that was hard to define – Palo Alto is “a book of short stories,” but if I did something that included pictures, fiction and nonfiction, poetry, in ways that sometimes is maybe hard to draw the line between them of what’s what, I thought, that’ll be something that will have a lot of energy because it’s slightly unconventional.

THR: What authors did you look to for inspiration?

Franco: W.G. Sebald used photographs in his fiction, and also blurred that line between fiction and nonfiction. He’s definitely a huge influence. Also, this book by the artist Allan Kaprow called Happening. What he was trying to do in that is document the happenings that were never filmed – maybe a couple were secretly filmed, but the idea was that these will never be filmed, they happen now [snaps] and then they’re gone. So there is just photographs and his writings about the happenings, and I liked that. It makes it a little keyhole into something; you get two different axis points, photographs and writing, but you don’t get the full thing. Also, I liked how he presented like forty photographs up front – you open the book and it’s just photographs, and then it gets to the writing. That’s how we consciously designed this.

THR: You also mention Hemingway, Kerouac and Faulkner by name in the text of the book itself.

Franco: I would say those are just the general influences – when I was young, those were the big authors that I read, and some of the first authors I read seriously when I got very into literature. Those are just an influence all the time, that are a part of me and what I think about when I think about writing.

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I would even say Palo Alto started out as a conscious effort to do something like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, where there are different voices and they’re all helping to tell an overarching story, but they also have their individual struggles and many stories within it. Ultimately, I kind of got rid of the overarching story in mine, and I ended up with individual voices that are loosely connected, but not in the way that the story of As I Lay Dying is connected.

THR: So then Palo Alto can somewhat be considered another Faulkner-related project of yours, in addition to As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury. What is it about Faulkner that intrigues you so much?

Franco: There are many reasons I’m drawn to him. He’s one of the first authors I read that I was just drawn to, and it was not necessarily because of the subject matter – or at least not that alone. It was because of the way he was writing about it, and that I couldn’t quite grasp everything at first. I like this idea that there were multiple levels – there was a level of immediacy and passion that really affected me, but also this other complex level structurally. Grammatically, very complex things are happening; it took time to figure it out. It became a puzzle, like an artistic puzzle. It’s not true for all the artworks that I return to, whether movies or books, but in a lot of them, one thing that’s consistent is if it has enough mystery that it makes me want to come back again and try and understand it again, and years will go by and I read it again and understand more. I really appreciated that too.

All of that is my love of it as literature, but as far as far as adapting it into a film, I saw it as a great opportunity to experiment with filmic storytelling. He was writing in a very experimental way and structured his book in an unusual way, and if we adapted that, it would create a challenge. If we were going to be loyal to at least the spirit of the book in our adaptation, it would mean not only capturing the narrative. I think that’s why people say a bad book makes a better movie and a good book makes a bad movie. In general, I think that’s because what people consider great books are not just because of the subject, but how they’re written. We needed to figure out how to adapt the style of the writing to a filmic style. That’s what’s exciting – looking for new approaches.

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THR: Between acting, directing and all your other projects, will you continue writing books?

Franco: Yeah. I have a couple books coming out. I have a book in October coming out with Amazon called Actors Anonymous, and that’s a novel, but it has a pretty unusual form. In April, I have a poetry book with Graywolf called Directing Herbert White, which is a title based on a short film I directed, which was an adaptation of Frank Bidart’s poem.