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Iris Rainer Dart

Though Iris Rainer Dart is often introduced at parties as “the woman who wrote Beaches,” this veteran TV writer, novelist and playwright has given us much, much more than one Great American Tearjerker. After studying theater at the renowned Carnegie Mellon University, Dart moved out to Los Angeles; first she arrived, and then she arrived, building a successful career as a television writer throughout the 1970s.

In the last 28 years she has published nine books, including Boys in the Mailroom, Til the Real Thing Comes Along, The Stork Club and When I Fall in Love. Her newest book, Larry: The King of Rock and Roll (Putnam, 2007), is her first for young readers, about a music star of the canine persuasion. Dart is now hard at work on a musical for the stage – the story of a Yiddish film and theater star and the generations of Jewish women who follow in her historical footsteps.

Most of your novels are centered on Jewish characters; is your own Jewish identity as strong as your writing suggests?
Absolutely. In fact, I was a religious school teacher when we first moved [to Pebble Beach, California]. In Los Angeles it was easy to be involved with the huge Jewish community, and I was worried in this new community, where there weren’t a lot of Jews, that my daughter wouldn’t understand her identity. When the religious school teacher at our new synagogue quit they asked me to fill in, and I wound up doing it for years. 

Has the Jewish cultural dynamic in your upbringing influenced what and how you write?
Unquestionably. I grew up in a household where both my parents were immigrants – my mother from Russia father form Lithuania – and they spoke more Yiddish in my house than English, so it was just a completely a part of who I was. My current project is a musical play, tentatively titled Laughing Matters, about a woman who was the star of Yiddish films and stage in Poland between the wars. The story goes back and forth in time between 1930s Poland and 1970s New York, where she’s a bubbe trying to pass the stories of the Yiddish theater on to a grandchild, though the child's mother isn't interested.

Some reviewers describe your books as easily digestible and at the same time very honest and real. Is this a deliberate paradox?
I do take the advice that Salinger offered, which is “Write what you want to read.” I like authors who are very straight-ahead, who basically say to you, “Here’s what happened,” and then tell you the story in a very easy-to-understand way. I probably write that way because that’s what I like to read.

Your novel When I Fall In Love explores the struggles of two characters with physical disabilities. Were you inspired to tackle this issue by someone in your life?
When I worked on “The Sonny and Cher Show,” a writer came on the show named Nick Arnold who had cerebral palsy, he was very disabled, and I was afraid that I would be uncomfortable. But by the end of his first day I was madly in love with him because he was so brilliant and funny and easy to be around, and I remember thinking that was a story I wanted to tell. In later years I met my husband, who had two brothers who both contracted polio in the 1950s. One was on crutches and one was in a wheelchair in all the years I knew them. Justin Dart, Jr. was a huge advocate for the disabled – he was one of the people who lobbied for the Roosevelt Memorial to show the president in a wheelchair. He was very inspirational to me and we were very close. One newsletter for the disabled reviewed my book and wondered how I’d understood the mind of the disabled person so well, until they looked at my thanks page and saw that Justin was my brother-in-law.

What brought about the switch from writing mainstream novels to one for young readers with your latest book, Larry: The King of Rock and Roll?
One night I was on the phone with my close friend Joyce Brotman, lamenting that I would never finish a song for Laughing Matters. She joked, “What if Stuart Little” – that’s my little Maltese – “finished for you?” The idea evolved and we wrote the book little by little. When we were finished I sent it to my agent and she sold it to Putnam. Now that I’m a bubbe I feel that I need to write children’s books so my grandkids will have something wonderful to read.

You write with humor and also about it – what has comedy meant in your life?
Everything, and I don’t say that to be vague. It’s just a very strong weapon in my arsenal. My mother had the greatest sense of humor of anyone I knew; she always made me laugh. I couldn’t go away to college, I had to live at home because we couldn’t afford dormitories. Everything we had was totally scraped together, and humor helped me get through that. Then I lost my father when I was a senior in college. When I moved out to Los Angeles I was eeking out a living – I took every possible job there was – and I never looked back on any of it as having been bad, because I had the humor. The yiddishkeit, to me, is one of the great secrets of the Jewish people, because it’s filled with warmth and humor, even in the worst of circumstances.

Describe the experience of working with Sonny Bono & Cher, and your other work in television.
It was wonderful. I always joked that I couldn’t believe there was a paycheck at the end of the week. I would have done it for free, it was so much fun. It was a lot of pressure, a big staff, and sometimes we were there very late into the night. But a friend once told me, “Do something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” That’s something I wish for my children. I also wrote a lot of television pilots, I adapted a Sidney Sheldon novel for a mini-series, I wrote for “Chico and the Man,” “The Odd Couple,” “The John Davidson Show.” I did every format, from jokes to long form.

Which do you prefer – novels or TV?
I don’t like writing for the screen, and one of the reasons is that when you’re writing a movie the studio owns the copyright and they’re able to dictate what it should be and who your collaborators are. Garry Marshall, when he was directing the movie Beaches, said to me, “You know, when you have a writer, a director, a producer, a studio, and a star, none of you is making the same picture.” And what he meant was the collaborative process creates its own product. One of the reasons I first wrote novels was because I’d been in a room with 12 guys for so many years and I figured it was time for me to be on my own. Now I’ve had sort of a late-in-life career change – I’ve fallen in love with musical theater – and I’m back in a room with collaborators writing Laughing Matters, but the difference is that the final product rests in the writers’ hands. That’s why I love the theater – it stands a better chance of being what I hope it will be.

How did the success of the Beaches film adaptation change your career?
I guess you could say that it put me on the map, though Beaches was my second book. My first, The Boys in the Mailroom, was a tremendous success. It became an Aaron Spelling miniseries and a New York Times bestseller. But it seems as if everyone knows Beaches, people introduce me as “the person who wrote Beaches,” and I’m grateful for that.

How true was the movie to the book?
The movie was true to the spirit of the book. I was on the set of the movie while they were shooting a scene that I never would have written, and I was trying not to show that it bothered me. Bette Midler asked me what I thought and I said, “It was good.” She said, “Oh Iris, do you get upset every time we shoot a scene that isn’t in your book?” And I said exactly what I felt at that moment: “Honey, you are starring in the movie of my book. How bad could it be?” Did they change things? Yes. But ultimately the film was about having a friend who helps you out in this world with laughter and dignity, and that’s the story I wanted to tell. So if they veer off a bit, it doesn’t really matter. My version of the story is in the library, the collaborative version is on the screen. Why shouldn’t that be okay?

Does your experience writing for television ever influence the way you write for print – for example, writing a scene with an eye toward how it would work on screen?
I’ve been accused of that. Someone even said about Larry: The King of Rock and Roll that it’s so obviously written to be a movie. Did we think it might make a cute movie? Absolutely. And we know how to think in that concise way that makes a good screenplay.

Which writers do you admire?
Philip Roth; Doctorow; Isaac Bashevis Singer – those are my top three. They write very much in the straight-ahead style that I like. Now that I’m in musicals and theater, I love Terrence McNally’s writing very much. I was big fan of Lillian Hellman’s writing. [I’m] Crazy about Wendy Wasserstein – actually more a fan of her life than her writing, because she was so gracious and philanthropic.

Do you ever go back and read your own novels from years ago?
Occasionally someone will ask for a copy of something and I’ll pull it out and open it, and I’ll kind of get caught up in it in a funny way. It doesn’t feel like something that I wrote. One of my favorites of my books is ‘Til the Real Thing Comes Along -- it’s the story of how I met my husband. I get a kick out of reading about my own life, fictionalized, and the struggles I had as a single mom, dating, until I finally met my prince.

Which work are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of the play I’m working on now, because I’ve written the book and the lyrics, and the story of Laughing Matters is the statement I’d want to leave behind if I were to exit this world tomorrow. It really is about the gloriousness of the Yiddish culture and how crucial it is, with this generation dying out, to pass it on to younger generations. That’s why I am my grandchildren’s bubbe, and not a grandma or a safta. Passing on the Yiddish culture, to anyone of any younger generation, is the greatest act that I can perform at this point in my life.

Is there a work you wish you could un-write or do over?
I wrote The Boys in the Mailroom because at the time nobody thought a story about two little girls who meet on the beach was commercial enough. So I wrote the trashy Hollywood novel, and then people thought Beaches would sell. But The Boys in the Mailroom certainly helped establish me.

What’s in the future for you?
We’re hoping that Laughing Matters sees the light of day sometime in 2008. Some of the people who’ve seen it feel it will be the Fiddler on the Roof for the Baby Boomer generation. I hope that’s true. The music is wonderful, and the story… if you think you cried watching Beaches, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

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