An Interview with Pat Pujolas

Pujolas-final
Pat Pujolas, author of “Jimmy Lagowski Saves the World”

Nominated for a XXXVI Pushcart Prize, Pat Pujolas has been published in Outsider Writers, Connotation Press, Heartlands Today and Writer’s Digest. He’s also written two episodes of MTV’s animated series “3 South”. But he came to our attention because he’s a copywriter of the first order, having honed his chops at Brokaw, JWT and McCann. To find out how those chops helped when he attacked his first novel, “Jimmy Lagowski Saves the World”, which came out in March of 2012 (you can read our review of it here), read on… 

why?

Agency Review:

Why a novel? Why fiction? On one level, this seems like a long way from the work you’ve been doing for most of your career. Wasn’t the endless hamster wheel of copy changes and client rewrites enough of an outlet for your creativity? Or, was that break from what you usually do precisely the reason you wanted to try it? And have you been writing fiction throughout your advertising career?

Pujolas:

Writing is writing; I don’t see much difference between copywriting and fiction writing. Feels like the same wheels are spinning; the same rules apply; and the same people are good at both. The biggest difference for me is separating occupation from passion. Advertising offers a generous and consistent salary; but in return, you must comply with the sort of hamster-wheel changes you mentioned above. Fiction writing, on the other hand, offers little in the compensation department, but allows you to tell the story exactly the way you want it told.

Agency Review:

Okay, I’ll buy that to a degree, because beyond the remuneration, there’s a creative difference. When writing fiction you can follow where the story takes you – like Michelangelo’s statement that he lets the marble tell him what the sculpture is going to be. But in advertising, you’re much more proscribed. The tv spot ends at 60 seconds, and generally with a product shot. The print ad doesn’t run to 7000 words and 10 pages. It’s like “here’s the punch line, write the set up”. Fiction doesn’t feel that way to me, and I would think it would use different parts of your brain. No?

Pujolas:

You make a good point. And actually I liked your response better than my initial answer. The freedom you mention is a big, big difference. Because although in fiction I always start off thinking, “I know where this is headed,” the truth is, I’m rarely correct. Or even close. Fiction writing allows you that kind of flexibility, to change the outcome entirely and let the process determine the end result, versus “Here’s the punchline, write the setup.” Hopefully our friend Mikey would agree.

cons

Agency Review:

In the review, I write about how advertising writing pulls writers towards certain tropes and structures – short, “clever”, bursts that usually have some sort of punch line or “closer.” Did you experience this pull, and if so, how did you fight against it? And if you didn’t have that particular experience, were there other expectations or impulses from advertising that you had to get past to write this book?

Pujolas:

Are you asking if I picked up any “bad habits” in advertising? I’m sure I did, subconsciously. Hard to say what they are right now. Maybe writing in fragments. Using staccato. But really, the biggest mistake most copywriters make when switching to the fiction realm, is attempting to dramatize the advertising world. Unless you can put together a show like “Mad Men,” my advice would be to choose a different subject matter. Most of advertising is spent staring out a window, which is 180 degrees from interesting, and probably another bad habit I picked up in my career.

Agency Review:

Perhaps I’m projecting. I just am aware that when I’m writing, say, several of these reviews in a row, and then am asked to write banner copy for a client, for the first several hours I find it hard to be articulate in fewer than 300 words. That’s not so much a “bad habit” as just a mode of writing, a style, a form, a way of thinking that works in one place and not necessarily in another. So I was curious if you had trouble re-orienting, or thinking like a novelist and not an ad-man.

Pujolas:

Re-orientation can be tough. I recently attended a panel at AWP called, “This is Your Brain on Fiction.” Not only do writers fall into their own “style habits” but when reading other authors, they tend to (subconsciously) pick up the other author’s voice and style as well. Like a chameleon. So if you’re thinking and studying great advertising all day, your brain will be in that mode. But on the flip side, if you’re reading great fiction, your brain will be in that zone. So I guess the question is, “What can writers do to interrupt and disengage from one mode to another?” I’d imagine the answer is new experience: giving your brain stimulation in areas outside the verbal center: art, music, food, exercise, travel, monkeys, bacon, stapling, whatever works for you.

pros

Agency Review:

There’s the other side of that question, of course. Because while there are differences between different kinds of writing, there’s still overlap. It’s still writing. So, do you feel that there were certain skills that you had developed over your career as a copywriter and in advertising that helped you write “Lagowski”? Things that you brought to the table that perhaps other writers wouldn’t or don’t?

Pujolas:

Yes, yes, yes! Absolutely. I believe all advertising copywriters have at least one major competitive advantage over other kinds of writers; and that is variety. In advertising, you must learn to master different styles, templates, lexicons, voices, structures, and subjects. Too often, fiction writers can get stuck in the same voice, telling the same story, over and over. Advertising teaches you to re-invent yourself and your writing style; the result is more interesting prose.

Agency Review:

That’s very interesting, and I completely agree with you. And yet, wouldn’t you say that certain agencies have very distinct voices? We could go back and point to Ogilvy and Bernbach’s ads as distinctive, but I think you could also make the case that a Crispin ad doesn’t have the same voice a Goodby ad does that a Mother ad does that a Droga5 ad does. So in other words, in spite of copywriters needing to develop the flexibility of a nubile teenage gymnast, they still end up in the same boat, in a sense, as the fiction writers you describe. What do you think?

Pujolas:

I definitely agree that agencies tend to have a similar voice; and to some extent, a copywriter’s job depends upon mimicking that voice, or at least understanding it. But we’re also talking about produced work here, those rare pieces that find their way into production; when you consider all the work that falls to the floor internally and externally, I’m guessing we would discover a vast and varied collection of styles, structures, and voices. Or at least, that’s the hope; that would be my advice to aspiring copywriters. Reinvent yourself on a daily basis, regardless of what others are doing around you.

structure

Agency Review:

“Lagowski” has an unusual structure – a series of interlocking stories linked by characters and events. How did it develop? Did it start with a couple of stories that you realized could fit together into one larger work (with some additions)? Or was it originally a longer, novel-length story whose chapters were becoming standalone stories? Or did you know that this was the way you were going to tell the story all along? In other words, did it evolve and if so, how?

Pujolas:

I carried this story around in my head for almost a year before I sat down to write the book. My initial goal was one chapter per month, which I published on my blog; although I consistently met that goal, I was also working full-time (as a brand consultant). And so I ended up spending more time in revisions than planned. So, to answer your question: yes, the story underwent multiple evolutions; the original climax of the novel was an elaborate courtroom debate, which spelled out everything in detail. But over time I realized my readers were smarter than that, and would appreciate being rewarded for their intelligence.

Agency Review:

I think when people read a book, even a really long one, there’s a sort of illusion that it emerged all in one go – even though we know logically that can’t happen. I’m not so much talking about revisions, as much as the idea that during the very act of writing it, you, the story, your abilities, changed. You know, like, you get 2/3rds of the way through and, you’re reading an early section and you think “What the hell kind of writing is that?”, and you go back and re-work it – which, of course, changes the later sections. So with that in mind, beyond the “I don’t want to spell this out for my readers” thing – what changed for you in the story, as you changed over the course of writing it?

Pujolas:

Now that you mention it, there was one other significant change in my writing style that occurred somewhere around the sixth or seventh month. Without knowing why, I switched from present tense to past tense. This may have been a combination of voice maturation and/or lifestyle change. The further away I got from advertising (or insert any stressful job), the more relaxed I became; I also began driving slower, checking email less often, and letting people cut in front of me at the grocery store. But ultimately, I can’t say which change happened first, or if the two are even connected.

the future

Agency Review:

In the review I mention Fitzgerald, Delillo and Rushdie as examples of ad folks who went on to become great novelists. But why aren’t there more? We’re all writers, we all have novels in our desks that we’re “working on”. The usual complaint is that there isn’t enough time, but do you think that the economic downturn (and corresponding agency layoffs) combined with the rise of custom printing will result in an avalanche of books? And is that a good thing?

Pujolas:

Don’t forget Sherwood Anderson and Joseph Heller! I believe the main reasons are (as you mentioned) time and money — and the inverse relationship between those two things. When you have the time (to write), you generally don’t have the money (to sustain yourself, let alone a family). On the flip side, if you’re making a decent living as a copywriter, it can be difficult to find the time to write anything else. You might even say it’s a “Catch-22” (sfx: groan). But in all seriousness, the biggest challenge facing any copywriter/aspiring author is acknowledging this obstacle, and then, figuring out a way to overcome it.

Agency Review:

Really? You really want to make the Yossarian pun? Okay…

Look I agree with you about time and money, but I think the bigger question that I’m wondering about is if the economic downturn forces the time issue on people (they suddenly have time that they didn’t have before), and the custom printing explosion makes it possible for a lot more people to publish than ever before – creating an avalanche of books.

Pujolas:

That is the hope. Self-publishing and independent publishing are alive and well; in many cases, they are indistinguishable. So now more than ever, writers can leapfrog over editors and publishers (who typically have their own “voice” as well), all the way to a polished, professional manuscript. The only caveat I would offer in this brave new world of books and writers: keep your success in perspective; sometimes it’s better to make a huge impact on a dozen people than to make a small impact on a hundred.

You can read our review of Pat’s book here, or order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here), or learn more about Pat here.

Illustration of Pat Pujolas by Mike Caplanis

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