Chas Halpern has made a living writing marketing copy and writing & directing videos, mostly for global tech companies (Google, Oracle, Cisco, Intel). He is also a screenwriter. Awards include top honors at the international Script-to-Screen Festival. He also wrote a PBS documentary which was shown internationally. He has written for a Disney Channel series, and a dramatic comedy he wrote has been optioned and is currently in development.
“Laughing at Ourselves,” an interview with Chas Halpern
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Phoebe Nguyen. Of the process, she said, “Chas Halpern’s novel, The Physics of Relationships, is a fascinating exploration of aging, marriage, and female friendships. Full of humorous and poignant introspection, his main character springs to life, finding a lasting home in the hearts of readers. Chas’ dedication to authenticity and storytelling is evident in both his novel and this interview.” In this interview, Chas Halpern talks about the intricacies of marriage, and the nuances between humor and comedy, and shares advice for those embarking on their writing journey.
Superstition Review: Humor plays such a significant role in your novel, notably in the witty dialogues and Lexi’s moments of self-reflection. Could you tell us about where you draw your humor from as a writer?
Chas Halpern: I’m not sure one “draws” their humor from any particular source other than life itself. My humor is simply a reflection of how I view the world around me. Since life is both comic and tragic, I suppose my reaction to the tragedy of life is to emphasize the comic. It’s a choice, but not one I made consciously.
We live in an age where every tragic event, whether manmade or natural, is reported to us in detail from everywhere in the world. We’re subjected to an onslaught of bad news that we, as humans, aren’t built to absorb. Humor helps to buffer the onslaught. That’s probably why I leaven my stories with humor and why I write happy (or, at least, hopeful) endings to my stories.
I’m glad you chose the word “humor” to describe my writing. I distinguish humor from comedy. Comedy (broad comedy), as I under it, relies on exaggeration, incongruity, slapstick, inappropriate or infantile behavior, sarcasm, ridicule, or crude imitation. Humor, on the other hand, comments on people and the human condition. The closer it is to revealing a truth about human nature, the more it makes you smile. You could put it this way: In comedy, we laugh at someone else. In humor, we are, in essence, laughing at ourselves.
SR: How did transitioning to your role as a father influence your work and the way you approached writing the relationships between Lexi, Tasha, and Danielle?
CH: As a father, I am a concerned parent, verging on the maternal. The main character, Lexi, is basically 2/3 me and 1/3 my wife. Tasha, Lexi’s daughter, is not a replica of my child, but I certainly borrowed some elements of their life to describe the character. Yes, let’s face it. Writers are thieves of experience.
As for Danielle, the young woman who shows up at Lexi’s doorstep, Lexi’s reaction was simply a translation of how I, myself, would react to her. I think the main traits of a writer are empathy and imagination. You imagine a particular situation. Then your empathy for your character informs how you write their reaction to the situation.
SR: You have created such an authentic and endearing main character. The stunning and captivating exploration of female relationships in this novel are complex and yet full of love. In what ways have the important women in your life shaped this novel?
CH: I’m kind of an oddity. I have lived my whole life surrounded by women I love and respect. I grew up with a single mother and two older sisters. I married a woman and we adopted a daughter. I’ve never had a close male role model in my life. What I’ve learned about men comes from work associations and friendships. It’s almost more natural for me to write about women than men.
I am envious of the female friendships that I’ve observed. Generally speaking, women have closer, more intimate relationships than men. They communicate more often. And they discuss their feelings. That is rare among men. Men will gladly discuss sports, politics, finances, business…but feelings? Almost never. I realize I’m describing a stereotype. But that has been the truth of my personal experience.
SR: I found your choice to blend friendship, companionship, and subtle romantic undertones in the relationship between Lexi and Amy to be intriguing. Could you speak more about the creative decisions that guided the development of their friendship?
CH: My child identifies as queer and non-binary. They have taught me a lot about the spectrum of gender identity and sexuality.
With a better understanding of the broad, nuanced range of sexuality, I came to realize that a woman who has lived a life as a wife and mother might still be open to a lesbian experience; especially (as in the case of Lexi’s best friend, Amy) if they are seeking the love and tenderness their marriage is not offering them. For obvious reasons, Amy is tentative in her approach to Lexi. Hence the ambiguity in their relationship.
SR: Delving into Lexi’s later-life relationships, I particularly appreciated being able to see the moments where she was building a friendship with herself. Can you share the steps you have taken to connect with and nurture your own personal solitude?
CH: I have been married for many years. It is hard to imagine my life without my wife. As you get older, however, you are forced to confront the reality that, eventually, one of you will die before the other. You will be left alone. And in that situation, you will either need to come to terms with your aloneness or simply die from grief. (Yikes! Where’s my humor when I need it?) I wrote The Physics of Relationships partly as a way to deal with this issue. You have to get re-acquainted with yourself. You have to befriend yourself. You have to be happy with your own company.
If I were widowed, I might not deal with the situation with the same grit and humor that Lexi does. But I can hold her up as role model and so can my wife. I dedicated the book to my wife. (In case you’re wondering, “Pouké” is her nom d’artiste.)
SR: Marriage themes are prominently featured in this novel, with Lexi and Greg and her following marriage to Laurence, as well as Amy and Phil. Each provides a unique perspective on what makes an enduring partnership. Can you share your creative process and inspiration for exploring these diverse dynamics in your writing?
CH: My personal experience is that marriage has led to great contentment. If you can find the right person to spend your life with, a life-long commitment is worth whatever sacrifices you might make in terms of personal freedom. At the same time, I’m not judgmental of others’ decisions. You can’t be a writer and be judgmental.
Most of my close friends have had long-term marriages. Each relationship is unique. Each relationship has its own little issues (along with its joys). I drew from my personal experience in describing the marriages in my novel. But much of it is derived from my imagination. The relationships were not modeled after any specific person’s marriage.
I think it’s true of most writers that they can’t really pinpoint their inspiration. When you write, you put yourself in a vulnerable, receptive mode…and things come up unexpectedly. Where do these ideas and impulses come from? Our subconscious? Past lives? The Muses? Who knows?
SR: As someone with a history in screenwriting, directing, and writing novels, you have so much rich experience in storytelling and narrative technique. What advice would you give to a younger version of yourself, who is just beginning his career as a writer?
CH: In regards to storytelling and narrative technique, I don’t really believe in formulas. I hesitate to tell others how to write. Personally, I start with a question, something I’m struggling with, and use the story to explore that question. In The Physics of Relationships, I began with the question: How do you lead a life after the death of a spouse? Then I asked myself: What would happen if I died and my adult daughter moved back in with my wife? Eventually, I replaced the daughter with a friend of the daughter.
When I began writing, I had no idea how it would end or even what would happen along the way. As the characters came to life in my mind, they led me through the story.
As for general advice to those starting their writing journey:
- Please yourself. If you try to please others, you will fall into mere imitation.
- Learn to accept criticism that resonates and discard criticism that doesn’t.
- Believe in yourself. Continue writing, no matter what others say. Don’t be discouraged.
- Writing is a never-ending journey. You will keep learning. You will get better over time, but you will never reach perfection. The search for perfection leads to writer’s block.
- Expect failure. Failure doesn’t mean you don’t deserve success. It simply means you haven’t yet found your audience.
- Keep writing! Persistence is just as important as talent.
- If you are truly a writer, it means writing chose you, not the other way around. It’s a blessing and a curse, but don’t try to resist. As a superhero villain might say, “Resistance is futile.” You will only be squashing an important part of who you are.
SR: I am genuinely excited about your work and eager to see what you will create next. Could you provide us a glimpse of what we can expect next from you as an author and perhaps share any insights about upcoming projects?
CH: I have written six other novels in various states of development. I’m going to be working with an editor on a novel tentatively titled A Handful of Clouds. It’s about a divorced couple who share custody of a troubled teen daughter. Their daughter’s problems cause the couple to re-examine their relationship. The novel has a very similar tone to The Physics of Relationships… serious issues handled with a light touch and some humor. The novel is divided (in alternating story lines) between the woman’s point of view and the man’s point of view. You could call it a “she thought/he thought” dialectic.
In addition to character studies, I’ve also written a couple of futuristic thrillers. My novel, Humans Anonymous, is a near-future story that explores the impact of A.I. on society. Here’s the logline:
In the near future (when even professionals are being replaced by artificial intelligence), Roxie, an out-of-work pilot, risks everything to save the life of her five-year-old niece who has been refused treatment for a life-threatening disease by the impersonal algorithm that controls the healthcare system.
The book is currently being reviewed by two literary agents, one here in the US and one in London. Wish me luck!