About a month ago Emily and I were listening to the Leonard Lopate show; in the section of the show we heard, Lopate was interviewing Nora Ephron. About halfway through, they were talking about screenwriting, when Ephron, as an aside, said: “I once read this thing by a writer named Harry Crews who said that he had learned to write because he read Moby-Dick, and then he typed it five times.” Lopate was skeptical. I’ve transcribed the quote in its immediate context—this is from around 18:30 or so, if you listen to the MP3 (caveat emptor: I’ve separated out some overlaps, cleaned up some stutters, and made a best guess or two at a word):
Ephron: I was, at the time, going out with my second husband, Carl Bernstein of Woodward and Bernstein, and—my poor, misbegotten second marriage—but in any case, before it went just into, into hell in a handbasket, they were, they had sold All the President’s Men to the movies, and the script had come in, and they weren’t too happy with it, so we all worked on it a little bit, and—of course, I should never have done that; I didn’t know it was against the law—but it was a screenplay by William Goldman, who’s a brilliant, brilliant screenwriter. And you know, I once read this thing by a writer named Harry Crews who said that he had learned to write because he read Moby-Dick, and then he typed it five times.
Lopate: Wow. Couldn’t he have picked a shorter novel?
Ephron: I don’t know. And was he telling the truth? I don’t know. But the thing is that if you…
Lopate: He’s a fast typist, I hope.
Ephron: If you rewrite a William Goldman screenplay, you learn a huge amount just by typing his words.
Lopate: Although it’s interesting that one of the things that people remember best about the story—”follow the money”—is William Goldman’s. It’s not…
Ephron: That’s right.
Lopate: It’s not in the book.
Lopate: It never happened.
Ephron: I know. That’s true.
I have no idea what she means about illegal screenwriting, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish; I was curious to find where Crews had written this business about transcribing Melville five times! I asked the inimitable Maud Newton, since she’s written on her site a few times about Crews, whom she studied with at UF; she said that didn’t sound quite right, but noted that Crews has talked about his use of Graham Greene’s work as a model (which Maud mentioned on her blog here). Then I remembered a post of Maud’s from this past summer, where she transcribed part of an episode of Studio 360 devoted to Moby-Dick, in which Ray Bradbury, reminiscing about writing a screenplay based on Moby-Dick for John Huston, talked about reading the book “80 or 90 times, […] some sections 120 times.” So perhaps Harry Crews did type out Melville—or perhaps Nora Ephron is simply an avid Maud Newton reader, but one who takes bits and pieces of anecdotes and fuses them, unwittingly, into grand new hybrid creatures, as I do all the time in my mind (which a friend once referred to as my centrifuge)?