An interview with William Peter Blatty

William Peter Blatty was perhaps best known as the author of The Exorcist and the writer/producer of the 1973 film based on that novel (he won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay). An accomplished screenwriter and novelist, he authored novels such as The Ninth Configuration, Legion, and Demons Five, Exorcists Nothing. He also directed the film versions of Legion (aka “Exorcist III”) and The Ninth Configuration.

I conducted this interview with him when his short novel, Elsewhere, appeared in the 999 anthology.

Q: How did you become involved with the 999 anthology?

A: My best recollection is that I received a letter from Al Sarrantonio, the editor who was putting the book together, asking whether I had anything in my “trunk.” I had recently completed Elsewhere, which I had begun with the intention it be a full-blown novel, but, as these things so often happen, the story had a mind of its own and it came out to just 100 pages, too short for publication on its own, but I felt that expanding it would simply destroy the pace and eventual impact of the ending. So when Sarrantonio’s letter arrived, it seemed happily providential.

Q: At one point early on in Elsewhere, you describe the main character Joan Freeboard’s voice in the following manner: “…in her accent one heard organ grinders strolling through the tenements, the flapping of a wash hung out to dry upon a roof.” That particular passage is reminiscent of the way you described your mother in I’ll Tell Them I Remember You. Was the character of Joan Freeboard in any way inspired by your mother?

A: Not by my mother, but by my childhood, which I once described as “comfortably destitute.” I wanted in a stroke to let the reader know that Joan — the ferocity of her will, her obsessive drive for money and material things — were formed by an impoverished childhood.

Q: It’s always seemed to me that The Exorcist, The Ninth Configuration, and Legion formed a sort of “unofficial” trilogy — with The Ninth Configuration serving as a thematic bridge between the more overt horrors in The Exorcist and the intensely introverted struggles of Kinderman in Legion. Do you view the three novels as a trilogy? If so, why? And if not, why?

A: Yes, they form — at least in my mind — a trilogy. Taken together, they are all about the eternal questions that nag at Woody Allen: why are we here? what are we supposed to be doing? why do we die? is there a God? The Exorcist approached this last question, which is the heart of all the others, by seeking to confirm the existence of “demons” and the power of religious faith to deal with them. The Ninth Configuration approached the problem via what I call “the mystery of goodness”: if we are reducible to matter without spirit, to soulless atomic structures, then we ought to be always rushing blindly and irresistibly to sereve our own selfish ends. Yet how is it that there is love in this world — love as a God might love — and that a man will give his life for another. The astronaut Cutshaw’s search for irrefutable proof of such pure self-sacrifice forms the underlying plot. But then in Legion, Ivan Karamazov’s greatest barrier to religious faith — the suffering of the innocent: the “problem of evil” — is met head-on by Lt. Kinderman.

Q: Is there any significance to the fact the the main characters in those three novels — Karass, Kane, and Kinderman — all have last names beginning with the letter “K”?

A: No, although it’s bemusing to note that all of Patient X’s victims in Legion had names that began with K. I chose “Karras” because it held an echo of caritas, or love; “Kinderman” because of his basic kindness; and “Kane” for the hard C of Cain, the primal murderer.

Q: Though both actors gave (in my opinion) exceptionally fine performances in the role, do you have a personal preference between Lee J. Cobb’s interpretation of Kinderman and George C. Scott’s? Which actor came the closest to embodying the Kinderman in your head?

A: I would like to have seen the two styles combined into one. Each man gave a superb performance.

Q: I know from previous interviews that you were “compelled” (a euphemism, that, I know) to change the ending of Exorcist III so there would be more horrific action, but when you describe your original ending — Kinderman shoots Karass, then the shot of the bird flying across the face of the setting sun — I was struck by the fact that the incredibly moving “Hurrah for Karamozov” coda in Legion seemed to have never been considered for the film. Why did you choose not to use it?

A: In the novel, the coda was needed to put a button on what the novel was all about — Kinderman’s rescue of God’s goodness via his theory of “The Angel,” which hypothesized that the fall of man was premundane; that before the Big Bang, mankind was a single angelic being who fell from grace and was given his transformation into the material universe as a means of salvation wherein his legion of fragmented personalities would spiritually evolve (“Can there be a moral act without at least the possibility of pain?”) back into the original single angelic being, back into himself, a process foreshadowed on the opening page of The Exorcist (“that matter was Lucifer upward groping back to his God”).

I feel obliged now to quote from A Man for All Seasons: “I trust I make myself obscure.” Dear God, what a wonderful line! Meantime, all on its own, I felt no place for the coda in the film, for the film had Kinderman firing a bullet into the brain of Patient X and between that moment and a coda, we would have had a need for an investigation and a trial. The film had to end where it did.

Q: Will Elsewhere be your next film project as writer-director?

A: Oh, I do hope so! Very much.

Q: Can you tell us anything about the production (cast, possible release date, etc.)?

A: At the moment, there are no concrete plans. I do have a script and a cast in mind, but we are presently in the process of arranging financing.

Q: A lot of people aren’t aware that you began as a comedy writer (A Shot in the Dark, The Great Bank Robbery, John Goldfarb, Which Way to Mecca, Jack?); with your most recent novel, Demons Five, Exorcists Nothing, and now with Elsewhere, you seem to be injecting more and more of your literate yet caustic humor into your horror (witness much of the humor in the first 30 minutes of Exorcist III); is this a direction you see your future work pursuing? Why do you think a lot of reader and filmgoers are so hesitant to accept humor in “serious” horror?

A: I can only say that my roots are in humor, and even in the heavier work the humor tends to lend a greater credibility, a feel of real life. I have a warm, funny book in mind, a “life after death” twist on a kind of Catcher in the Rye (Doc Savage Never Died), but first I must complete a work of many years, Dimiter, a theological thriller. And the sad truth is that nobody wants me to write comedy. The Exorcist not only ended that career, it expunged all memory of its existence.

Q: One of the things I’ve noticed about your visual style as director is your tendency to place scenes within settings that — like that wonderfully eerie castle in The Ninth Configuration — seem to be an almost organic extension of the emotional turmoil being experienced by your characters. Was your style — very much unique to American films — influenced at all by some of the things Robert Wise did in The Haunting? What directors have influenced you as a filmmaker?

A: I’m not aware that I was consciously influenced by any director, though these things often happen unnoticed, submerged in the unconscious. I was certainly hugely impressed by Robert Wise’s The Haunting. And now that you mention it, I never forgot how his static low angle shots of the empty staircase at night gave me the willies. I can still see it. My style is to create an atmosphere by introducing each new important location with a quick montage, a mosaic of individual features of that location. So, yes, now that I think about it — that staircase shot might have been its inspiration.

Q: Comparisons between Elsewhere and The Haunting of Hill House are probably going to be inevitable. Did Shirley Jackson’s novel influence you as a young writer, and is Elsewhere perhaps your nod to that influence?

A: I didn’t read The Haunting of Hill House until sometime early in the 1990’s. Someone at Columbia Pictures had asked if I would be interested in re-doing Wise’s The Haunting but with a “ride the audience had never taken before.” It was then that I read the novel and thought it a classic of psychological suspense that should be revered in the retelling. Columbia and I parted, but then years later I thought of the “ride,” which made it a totally new and different work, though it contains an easily identifiable homage to Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece.

Q: Who were your other inspirations when you were starting out as a writer?

A: My favorite authors were quite diverse: Graham Greene, Dostoyevski, Robert Nathan and Ray Bradbury. And in the early years my hero was S.J. Perelman. Not much scary there, is there?

Q: Which horror writers have you read?

A: I have never read horror, nor do I consider The Exorcist to be such, but rather as a suspenseful supernatural detective story, or paranormal police procedural. As a boy I did read ever ghost story ever written, along with all of P.G. Wodehouse, a balance of opposites that has continued in my work. Horror does not interest me, and so I know little of its practicioners, old or current.

Q: What is your work style? For instance, do you have any routines you need to go through before you sit down at the keyboard to write, are you a binge writer who goes twelve hours without a break, do you stick to a schedule or make yourself write X number of pages a day? What tools do you use to write?

A: Well, when the going was good there would be lengthy fallow periods, and then long spells of intense activity, relentless, starting usually at ten or eleven at night and lasting through dawn, every day, with no time off, until whatver I was writing was finished. That habit, along with the four packs of cigarettes and gallons of coffee that fueled it, is long since gone. Now it’s early morning until three or four, and then the mundane chores that never cease to dog our steps. For the record, I now use a computer, which I have found to be tremendously liberating. It’s a Mac.

Q: Given your personal experimentation with recording disembodied voices (presumably those of spirits) while you were doing research for the novel Legion, how has that affected your personal outlook/spiritual views? Do you ever feel yourself becoming unnerved or self-conscious knowing that ghosts could be around wherever you go? That you might never be truly alone?

A: At the risk of sounding like a man who should be put away in a nice quiet place where no sharp instruments are to be found, let me assure you that I have become so confident of the existence of a spirit plane that coexists right beside ours — an Elsewhere if you will — that I rarely ever think about it any more. It’s just part of ordinary reality. And, no, none of us is ever truly alone. This can be harder on the ghosts than on us. Once, when I was “voice recording” at my home in Greenwich, Connecticut, I heard on tape playback a female voice saying quite clearly, “This is boring, I’m going over to Paul Newman’s.” Newman’s house was in nearby Westport.

Q: Do you, like the character of the screenwriter in Demons Five, Exorcists Nothing, get most of your ideas and inspiration from a giant invisible parrot, or do you rely on more esoteric things, like imagination and hard work?

A: Based on my answer to your previous question, you may fairly conclude that it’s probably a giant invisible parrot.

Q: Any other thoughts on any other topics you would like to share with readers?

A: No. Only that it’s pleasant to have had this time with you.

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