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Most Creative People

An Oscar-Winning Screenwriter Traces His Artistic Path

William Monahan's reassuring advice for young artists everywhere.

An Oscar-Winning Screenwriter Traces His Artistic Path
[Photos: courtesy of A24]

William Monahan was born and raised in Boston. A journalist, novelist, and screenwriter, he came to wide attention for his Academy Award-winning screenplay for The Departed, the 2006 Martin Scorcese crime drama set in Monahan’s hometown. Since then, Monahan has written several other films, including Body of Lies (2008), Edge of Darkness (2010), and The Gambler (2014). He assumed the director’s chair in 2010 for London Boulevard, a role he repeats (along with screenwriter) in the new film Mojave, featuring Oscar Isaac as a roving serial killer.

Fast Company caught up with Monahan to learn more about his origins and growth as a writer.

FAST COMPANY: What’s your earliest memory of wanting to be a writer?

WILLIAM MONAHAN: I became an obsessive reader very early. When I was extremely young, probably 4 and a half, I read Treasure Island. Over the years I read it obsessively, cover to cover, possibly a million times. And I think one day I made the simple connection that somebody had written it, that it wasn’t just this artifact there for my pleasure, that someone had constructed it, probably with the same sort of pleasure I got reading it.

William Monahan

How old were you when you made that connection?

Probably six. Things come together in a very accidental, but kind of fated, way. You’re looking at a book in type, but behind the typeface is an entire created imaginary world. Then one day you go up to the attic and find an old typewriter there, start to mess around with it. "Oh my God, this puts down type. This is what makes a book." I don’t think now with computers, kids can have their minds blown quite as much as by finding an instrument that puts down typescript.

Was there one moment you knew you were a writer?

When you become any sort of artist, it’s not a single epiphany, it’s a rolling epiphany. It’s a slow, dawning realization that this thing you’re becoming attracted to and seems to be natural for you is also going to result in some sort of alienation. You realize this love you have is probably going to end up making you a little different. The most critical moment to me, though, was waking up in an attic room in my grandparents’ house in Gloucester, Massachusetts. I felt extraordinarily happy for some reason, happy and charged up, and I immediately ran over to my table an started writing things. I was between 6 and 8. The wind and light just did something. I remember that day being almost like a religious experience, but about literature. I had a sense of security, a sense that everything would be all right, a sense that I would do what I wanted to do.

As you developed as a writer, what was an early lesson you learned?

As a teenager you do experiment, and you get down silly paths. Most first novels tend to have the protagonist as some sort of idealized self-projection of the author. That’s why first novels are sort of a joke. Here’s Jim the writer, and he grew up in Scarsdale, and his first novel is about a young writer like Jim growing up in Scarsdale...but you know what? In the novel, Jim gets all the good lines. You see why it’s absurd and unethical. As a young man I realized this was not the way to go. Fiction can’t be telling lies about yourself, it can’t be a matter of projecting a better self.

What was the first moment you felt confident sending your writing to a publisher?

I was 20. I was onto a novel. I wrote what I estimated to be about half, and I sent it in—what used to be called "over the transom"—to a large American publisher. I had no agent, I had nothing, just the address of a publishing house. Two weeks later they wrote back asking for the rest of the book. I was so naïve, I didn’t know this wasn’t normal. I made the decision not to finish the book because I fell out of love with it and figured I had to live a little more before I completed a book as ambitious as that one was. But I finally sorted out, by that first letter and through subsequent correspondence, that I was onto something and that the reaction to my work had not been usual. That’s when a sort of confidence came into place, as well as the ability to wait, to wait to get it right.

Was there ever pressure from your family to become something else?

Not really. I was the oldest child, and you tend to be treated a little bit like a prince. At one point in my early 20s, when I was dealing with that publisher, my father knew I had stepped away from school for a little while and was concentrating on this. What he did was brilliant. He said: "I don’t know what you’re doing, but I think that you do, and I’m going to help you." So he put me on what I call "the Guggenheim" for a couple of months.

How do you view other writers—as peers, competition, or both?

Writing is about hitting certain marks of achievement that you can only know about if you have observed other people’s achievement. So you have to look around and see if you’ve gotten there. You do have to test yourself against others. But I never engage with critics. I tend to have a warlike personality, and people advise me generally not to fight with people in public. You have to sit back and allow people to say what they’re going to say, take your lumps or your praise, and never engage, because it degrades the profession, and it degrades the person who does engage in some petty brawl.

Why do you write?

I write because I’m a born writer. I’m good at it. I have the advantage of being paid for it. If I was a bridge architect, I’d be building bridges. I just happen to be a writer.


This interview has been condensed and edited.

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