Paris Qualles is best-known for his award-winning screenplay of The Tuskegee Airmen. He is also however the winner of two Humanitas Prizes across his accomplished career.
These Email Interviews were originally done for the Writers Guild of America website. A series of standard questions about the craft of writing would be emailed to the subject who did all heavy lifting. Occasionally, a specific question or two would be added to flesh out the interview.
Edited by Robert J. Elisberg
Paris Qualles has had a very diverse writing career, largely for television. Most recently, he adapted the classic Broadway play, A Raisin in the Sun, for television. His TV movies include the acclaimed The Tuskegee Airmen for HBO, as well as The Rosa Parks Story starring Angela Bassett, the post-Civil War drama A House Divided, The Ditchdigger's Daughters for the Family Channel, Profoundly Normal, and Silent Witness on the USA Network.
He has twice won the Humanitas Prize. One for his TV movie, The Color of Friendship, which also won the Writers Guild of America Award. The other for A Raisin in the Sun. For The Tuskegee Airmen, he received an Emmy nomination as Outstanding Individual Achievement in Writing for a Mini-Series or Special.
Qualles has also written for series television on such wide-ranging shows as China Beach, Law & Order, Quantum Leap, Equal Justice, The Heights, Lois and Clark and M.A.N.T.I.S.
In addition, Qualles wrote the feature film, "The Inkwell" and write the pilot episode for the television series, The Cape. (The 1996 military drama, not the recent same-titled adventure series.)
>>: Were there any movies, TV shows or books that first got you interested in writing?
PQ: I would have to say books were the engines that drove me to write. Growing up I was a science fiction fanatic, beginning with comic books gleaned from customer discards I scavenged from a newspaper route. Later, I discovered the public library and vastly more literate sci-fi (Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke). The central Jersey shore in the 1950's wasn't blessed with an abundance of movie houses so I rarely got to see theatrical features until high school. Television, when the old Sylvania worked, didn't offer much attraction. I do admit to remembering more than a few Andy Devine's, Amos and Andy's and National Geographic specials on Pygmies. You figure the connection.
>>: When you write, how do you generally work? Do you have any specific kind of music playing or prefer silence?
PQ: I'm a morning writer. From 7am to mid afternoon is prime time for me. After that, I become embarrassingly easy to distract. The mind starts to wander and look for diversions--a reason to quit writing. At that point I either relent and turn the computer off or boot up a mindless computer game. My wife and kids can usually tell when it's okay to invade my sanctum when they hear rocket fire and the SPLOOTS of a mutant pig-cops splattering in 256 colors.
Music? As much as I love a good jazz ballad, music is just another name for "distraction". If I could somehow write in a full immersion tank, I'd do my best work.
>>: What sort of characters and stories interest you?
PQ: People interest me. Simple people doing extraordinary things, extraordinary people doing extraordinary things, extraordinary people doing simple things. Forget fiction, the interaction of billions of people on our planet over the span of time have endowed storytellers with a myriad of possible stories--stories that reveal the human animal for the complex, flawed creatures that we are.
Technology in the second half of the Twentieth century has given television, and to a lesser extent, feature writers an enormous stage with which to strut their stuff. I can write a banal episodic (and have, more than once) to be seen, within weeks, by millions in the U.S., then barely two years later, that same episode is beamed via satellite to a rural village in Zimbabwe. Progress, or cultural genocide--unless you're French, you be the judge.
>>: How do you work through parts of a script where you hit a roadblock in the story?
PQ: I believe in the sanctity of the Story. If you spend the necessary time and care in constructing the structural elements of the outline, you shouldn't encounter any insurmountable surprises when writing the script. If you hit a serious roadblock, odds are, you shouldn't have been on the road.
>>: Do you have any specific tricks to help, or just tough it out?
PQ: Again, revisit the story. Anything less and you're compromising the integrity and/or credibility of the piece. Go back to the outline and see where it went astray.
Chances are, the derailment probably occurred at least an Act before the block. Usually the worst thing you can do is to bull ahead without a clear understanding of what went wrong. The one possible exception is if the block is dialogue. As long as you're not trying to force a voice into a character that they're strongly hinting to you they don't have, I find it's often best to either quit and give the work some air, or continue. In all likelihood, if your character is sufficiently fleshed out and you've done the necessary research for the period, the words will come on the next pass.
>>: What is your most memorable experience as a writer?
PQ: As shameless and egotistical as it may sound, my most memorable experience was seeing "Written by" followed by my name for the first time. Never mind that it was for a Third Grade class project and the production was more improvised than scripted. Later, as the credit rolled in a crawl or appeared on a Playbill, I felt validation. No longer was I a closet writer or pretender to the profession.
>>: Was there any particular writer who acted as a sort of mentor to you?
PQ: There were two. Carl Sautter, who's now deceased, taught me the importance of structure. He also gave me the confidence that I could make it in the business.
The other writer, and he might be surprised to hear this, is Ed. Weinberger (Taxi, Mary Tyler Moore Show, Dear John). Ed. gave me my first break as a staff writer on a series. Beyond that, it was his passion, meticulous attention to research and eye for detail that struck me. Those three elements plus a modicum of talent will take you places as a writer.
>>: Why do you write?
PQ>> Paraphrasing Imamu Amiri Baraku (Leroy Jones) who wrote in his play The Dutchman, "Bessie Smith sings to keep from killing people". My purpose, though less extreme and newsworthy, comes from the same emotional core. It allows an expression of "feeling" that has no other outlet.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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