‘Paper Chase’ author John Jay Osborn’s novel ideas just pop into his brain
By Lou Fancher
A novel can be triggered by an idea as simple as, “Someone oughta write a book about this.”
That was the impetus behind Bay Area-based author, screenwriter and University of San Francisco law professor John Jay Osborn’s new book, “Listen to the Marriage” (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, $25, 247 pages). The slim, swift-reading novel narrates the story of Gretchen and Steve from the perspective of Sandy, their marriage counselor. The San Francisco couple with two young children have confliciting lifestyles and poor communication skills that put their marriage in serious jeopardy. The action takes place entirely in Sandy’s office, but dialogue, plot lines and symbolism transport the experiences to psychological and even metaphysical realms.
Forty-seven years ago, while attending Harvard Law School, Osborn wrote 60 pages of his first and best-known novel, “The Paper Chase.” Osborn’s fictional chronicle of a Harvard Law School student and Charles Kingsfield, a near-villainous law professor, was published in 1971 and adapted to film in 1973. Actor John Houseman (as Kingsfield) won an Oscar. “Paper Chase” also became a television series, leading Osborn to screenwriting before he turned full-time to academia. Osborn, 73, is the author of five novels and several screenplays. He and his wife, Emilie Osborn, have been married for 50 years and have three adult children and five grandchildren.
Osborn, like all writers of fiction, is also a very convincing liar. “I have no idea how I started writing,” he says in a phone interview. But three minutes later, he says about “Paper Chase”: “It was suddenly there in my brain. I thought, this is an important story, so I wrote it.”
His new book also was stirred up by a reaction he had to “a dearth of books” in which characters actually change. “Ninety percent of the stuff you see in the media; the characters are completely static. Someone wants to kill them, they have to run or hide, but it’s rare that characters change,” he says. “This whole damn book is about people who actually learn new skills.”
Another half-lie told with conviction: “I don’t know how to write anything other than what I’ve processed personally. A lot of authors write about things that happened in the 1800s. I would never write about that. I don’t trust it: Why would I write about things I know nothing about?”
But “Listen” is told from the perspective of a woman, a viewpoint Osborn agrees is foreign to him. “It was wonderful to give myself permission to write from the character of a woman. It was freeing. Why not? I’m contradicting myself: I’ve never experienced being a woman, but it was great. It was cool. If I’m not going to have a good time writing a book, the reader won’t have a good time.”
Osborn and his wife in real life were definitely not having a good time 34 years ago. Struggling, they separated. During four years of counseling, they discovered there are “no deals, no you do this, he does that” in a marriage. They began to repatch, repair, replace and build a new marriage.
In “Listen,” Gretchen is an English professor, an East Coast Jew with no identifying accent who curses and speaks in metaphors. Steve is the literalist, predictably, a lawyer befuddled by his wife’s lyrical words. In early counseling sessions, Gretchen is volatile; Steve is depressed and like “a cracked translucent china plate… porcelain so thin you could see your hand through it.” Sandy is the decision maker, guiding her small class of two students with a teacher’s touch, much like Kingsfield—or Osborn with this book. “Kingsfield, though, was a jerk,” says Osborn. “Sandy is a good person. She’s there to help people. Sandy changes: Her arc is about gradually liking these two. It’s terribly important. It’s a metaphor for the whole book. She comes to like them, and they come to like each other. It’s all connected.”
When beginning a novel, Osborn knows the end before anything else, typical of a lawyer who never asks a question in court to which the answer is not already known. “In a book, you have a bunch of different strands, like highways that have to intersect,” he says. It sounds methodical: A to B to C. But that’s another deception, because Osborn writes scattershot. “I have an idea for a chapter that’s in the middle of the novel, so I’ll write that. Then one that’s in the beginning or end. I write what I’m thinking about.”
He wrote for one year to complete the novel’s 31 chapters. A second year and eight iterations later, he was finished. “Sitting down, writing it in six weeks, that is not me,” he admits. The book’s page-turning drama, he suggests, is driven by a race: Will the characters learn enough in time to stay together?
Asked about Listen possibly becoming a film, Osborn says he thinks a play might work best. With one setting and a limited cast, he says, “It would be so simple to stage; everyone would want to do it.”
Regardless of future adaptations, Osborn says there’s a possibility that another novel involving Sandy might be “suddenly there in my brain.” Liberated in some ways by having written outside of his male experience, he’s intrigued. “Did Sandy have kids? What’s her relationship with her husband? She got bigger and bigger as a character. I don’t think I’m done with Sandy, although I’m done with Steve and Gretchen.”