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Feature: What he really wants to do

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter   |   April 15, 2005 at 5:16 PM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, April 15 (UPI) -- Matthew Carnahan, a Hollywood writer who lives with Oscar- and Emmy-winning actress Helen Hunt, has turned his attention to writing novels -- following in the footsteps of other successful movie and TV writers including Stephen J. Cannell and Robert Crais.

Cannell, the Emmy-winning creator of such TV hits as "The Rockford Files" and "The A-Team," has written a series of best-selling novels including "Riding the Snake," "Final Victim" and "Vertical Coffin."

Crais, who wrote for such TV series as "L.A. Law," "Miami Vice," "Hill Street Blues" and "Quincy," has turned out best-sellers such as "L.A. Requiem," "Sunset Express" and "Hostage," which was recently adapted for the screen starring Bruce Willis.

Carnahan, who has just published his first novel, "Serpent Girl," is best known as the creator of the NBC TV series "Trinity" and as a writer-producer on the Fox police drama "Fastlane" and the ABC drama "Thieves." With John Philip he wrote and directed the 2001 documentary "Rudyland" -- lampooning former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani before Giuliani gained national stature in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

His grandfather Kenneth Carnahan was a San Francisco book critic who entertained such literary giants as Ray Bradbury and John Steinbeck at his Bay Area home, and Carnahan was mentored by Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman when he was a student at New York's Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre after Woodward saw his first off-Broadway play "Diary from Avenue B."

Apart from all of that silver-spoon, Hollywood-name-dropping kind of stuff, Carnahan has also breathed the less rarified air where regular people live and work, holding down 77 different jobs by his count -- including deckhand, adult-book-jacket writer, circus hand, typesetter and chef.

He also founded and directed his own theater company in New York, the Red Earth Ensemble, and received the Chesterfield Fellowship from the Writer's Film Project -- a project sponsored by Paramount Pictures that originated within Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment company to encourage young screenwriters.

His short film "Mailman," produced by Sandra Bullock, premiered at Sundance -- as did his feature directorial debut, "Black Circle Boys." Plans call for him to adapt his play "The Knees of the Cellist" for the big screen, and he is creating two new TV series -- "Dirt" for FX and "Bond Street" for NBC.

And yet, with all that, Carnahan said writing the novel "was always kind of the Holy Grail for me." In an interview with United Press International he acknowledged that writing "Serpent Girl" involved some economic sacrifice.

"I'm a guy with two kids and a mortgage, and I generally write film and television to pay my bills," he said. "And to embark on writing a novel is a multiyear adventure for which, certainly at the beginning, you're paid very little."

And that's just for the writing part of the enterprise. After that, the author has to hit the road to promote the book -- a time-consuming proposition during which it is even more difficult to be productive in better-paying ways.

Carnahan said he had to set "Serpent Girl" aside for months at a time to take other movie and TV jobs, but even at that he said he missed out on a considerable amount of opportunities because of the book.

"I would say that the fact that it was an economic gamble is simply an existential truth," he said. "Really, I embarked on it for a soul-satisfying purpose, rather than an economic one. At that level, it has paid off a thousand-fold."

For example, if he hadn't written "Serpent Girl" -- a crime caper set largely in the world of a low-budget traveling circus -- Carnahan might never have had the pleasure of such established novelists as Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard say such nice things about his work.

"Carnahan writes with a brisk and winsome depravity and a talent for making you laugh out loud," said Hiaasen.

"Carnahan can write," said Leonard. "He mixes real freaks with freaky West Coast dopers, gets them talking, threatening each other -- and it works. I didn't notice any wasted words."

That kind of praise is enough to turn a writer's head.

"Oh, yeah, I was shocked and delighted to get praise from my heroes," said Carnahan.

The first blurb he saw on Kirkus Reviews -- "because it became part of the press package," he said -- compared him to legendary American writers James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

"I just about crapped myself," he said. "I take it all with several grains of salt, but you don't hate to hear it."

Carnahan is working on his second novel, fitting it in between TV writing assignments.

"I love writing television," he said. "It's an exciting time, especially with cable -- HBO, Showtime, FX. It's an auspicious moment."

And how does his agent feel about him taking so much time away from TV writing to satisfy his soul? It depends on which of his agents at Creative Artist Agency you ask.

"My book agent is really happy about it," he said. "The book-to-film agents are thrilled about it. The rest of them, probably not so much."

--

(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

© 2005 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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