how-to by Lincoln Michel

Novelist Amelia Gray on writing for Mr. Robot and Netflix’s upcoming Maniac.

reading time 5 minutes

Amelia Gray is the kind of writer who can do anything. She’s published five books of fiction ranging from the historical novel Isadora to the collection of surreal fables Gutshot while also having a career writing for advertising and marketing. Now, Gray has started writing for the small screen, joining the writing rooms for the acclaimed Mr. Robot and the upcoming Netflix show Maniac. I talked to Gray about collaborative writing, audience expectations, and challenging yourself as a writer.  

Lincoln Michel: You’re the kind of writer who does a million different things. You’ve put out several books on FSG, one of the major publishers. You write short stories. Now you’re working on big TV shows. You’ve written for the upcoming Netflix show Maniac and you’re going to be writing for the new season of Mr. Robot. How did you get into TV writing?
I didn’t come to Los Angeles with the idea that I would write for television, but I have always been curious about the form. When my friend Patrick Somerville came out here, he was writing on The Bridge,  and then he wrote on 24, and then he got in the [writer’s] room on The Leftovers. I kept talking to him about what it was like. I think in hindsight I was always sidling up to it. I started off writing spec scripts to see what it felt like. There always seemed like a barrier to entry that felt pretty steep and it was lucky that my friend Patrick was in it and that he asked me if I’d be interested in trying to write on Maniac. It was important to prove that I could do it when I came in because it’s a really different form than novel writing. The story of my career is always sideling up to something and admitting I want to do it and then pursuing it relentlessly until death.

What’s different about the collaborative process of TV writing as opposed to novel writing?
There is the stuff you might assume, which is that you’re sitting around a table and you pitch ideas that you believe are true in your heart and then your boss very unromantically kills them because he doesn’t believe they’re true in his heart and you move on. But the thing that really struck me is how TV really requires stress-testing ideas and character motivation — against future plot point, past plot points, characters in the past. And then the real and present sense of the audience and audience expectations is totally different from what I’m used to.

How so?
When I’m writing fiction, I am really trying to push the audience away because I’m trying to push myself to do something that I wouldn’t expect from myself. It’s really different with an audience, with a show that has a strong and vibrant Reddit following. It’s kind of a push and pull to keep your viewers in mind.

Amelia Gray

How does your literary background influence your role in a writing room?
As one might expect, I’ve turned out to be the writer in the room that’s pitching strange ideas, and the kind of offsides ideas. I’m constantly trying to challenge myself and to challenge the material and to do something that is cool and says something, means something. Both Maniac and Mr. Robot are shows that have something really vital and important to say right now. It’s a real treat to get to work on that.

Could you describe the process? When you start out, do they have a rough script for the season and then different people write episode scripts? What parts happen around the table and what parts are private?
It’s a good question because it’s always really different from show to show. For Maniac, Patrick [Somerville] had the first three of ten scripts written when we came into the room. So we were working from this foundation of characters that we’ve already met because we’ve read the scripts. Now we sit around and come up with some sort of blue sky ideas. Let’s talk about big ideas in the show. Mr. Robot had three seasons under its belt when I came in. So you already have this frame in both cases. But you can still do a lot. It’s sort of like buying a house in various stages of completion and then, you have to work with the bones you’re given.

What kind of leeway do you have?
For Mr. Robot, we came in and [creator] Sam Esmail said, I know these kind of larger plot points that I want to hit in the season. I know what I want these characters to do and I know where I want it to end eventually. What can we talk about? And then it’s like, well, what can we talk about that matches what’s happening culturally? Mr. Robot is about mental illness and it’s about race and obviously the Internet and technology and money and power. And so you get all this great stuff that’s changing really rapidly in America and kind of spring boarding off of that.

How does that work in practice?
Like, OK, does this article that I read make me think of something that we could do for Angela? Is this an interesting moment for [Mr. Robot characters] Darlene or Elliot? You start out with these blue sky ideas, things get written down on the board, and then you make a very, very rough outline. Then you fill in that outline and then you change it. Eventually you as a singular writer get a script that you go off and write by yourself. Or maybe you write it with a partner. Then you come back and it’s workshopped. And then it’s rewritten. And then your boss rewrites it. And then it goes to the network. And then they have notes. It’s a real rock tumbler, you know.

Amelia Gray

When you write fiction and novels you go through revisions too. With TV, is it just so many more revisions?
Oh yeah. It’s crazy revision.  Gosh, it makes fiction feel like a wide open field, which is good and bad. With a TV show, everyone is weighing in on it. You’re like, this is something we made. We did this, good or bad, here it is. With a novel, it’s like, my editor had useful and brilliant comments. My agent has really great thoughts. The two or three readers I gave it to have some thoughts. But that’s not a lot. And it’s only got my name on it. And that’s a crazy feeling. In the way that I like to keep everything in balance. I like to balance those two very disparate modes of working.

You’ve had a very interesting career. Have you had a particular approach to navigating it?
I love this question because I feel like I was not prepared to navigate a writing career when I started. But as a result, I think it, it helped me find my own way in a world that was, and is, rapidly changing. For me, that always meant: what kind of other work do I to support the central goal, which for me at the time was short stories? I realized I could do long form, low cost SEO marketing, which existed at the time. That I could do totally in detachment in a way that helped me work. I tried really relentlessly to prioritize the writing. As I wrote more and more, I found the different things I was writing were taking different forms. I just tried to go with it. To think of it in a positive way. To go towards the idea, rather than trying to mangle or wrangle the idea into what I felt that it needed to be. Writing for me is about giving myself permission and giving myself a break over and over again forever until I die.

Go to Amelia Gray’s website to read an assortment of her writing. Maniac, starring Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, is set to premier on Netflix later this year. 

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