Ehrich Van Lowe, known as ""E" to his friends and fans, is a television writer, screenwriter, playwright, author, and producer who has worked on shows such as The Cosby Show, Even Stevens, and Homeboys in Outer Space. He has been nominated for an Emmy and an Academy Award. Van Lowe stepped into the young adult fiction genre with his novel Never Slow Dance With a Zombie, a horror novel with a comedic twist. It has sold over 43,000 so far, was a selection of the Scholastic Book Club, and a nominee for an ALA Award.
Most recently, White Whisker Books brought out his Falling Angels Saga with Boyfriend From Hell and Earth Angel. A young adult paranormal romance, the series covers the story of 15-year-old Megan Barnett, a mathlete in Arizona who gets involved in a major struggle between heaven and hell where life as we know it is at stake.
His involvement in so many forms of writing may have to do with earning an MFA from USC’s Master of Professional Writing Program. I met Ehrich over twenty-five years ago in that program. Here he discusses his career and what it takes to be a working writer today.
Christopher Meeks: What were you writing as a young man, and what was it that brought you to a graduate writing program at USC? Was your goal to be a television writer and producer?
Van Lowe: I’m from New York City. I grew up wanting to be a novelist and a playwright. In my youth, I wrote very dark short fiction, poetry, and plays. I chose USC because while I was certain of what I wanted to do with my career, I thought being exposed to other disciplines might be helpful. I was very fortunate to be accepted into USC, where we were not only exposed to other forms of writing, but we learned how to turn our creative works into careers.
When my first novel was published back in the mid 80s, the advance was rather paltry. I realized if I wanted to write full time, I needed something that paid better. A friend told me that TV writers got paid pretty well. I knew nothing about writing TV at the time. Nothing! I didn’t even know what a sitcom script looked like. I didn’t watch TV. I went to the USC library where I was able to read a few sitcom scripts and see the format. Once I had the form down, I started watching TV and writing spec scripts.
The road to my first job, which was on He’s the Mayor, was long and arduous--at least it seemed so at the time. I wrote many specs (11), couldn't get an agent. Someone at Norman Lear's company had me in because I was black. She liked my work. She said they couldn't deal with me without an agent. She gave me the names of three agents, all who would rep me because I was recommended by her. I interviewed two of the three and chose one. As it turns out, Norman Lear's company didn't hire me (at least not then). I got the job at Universal. It seemed like a long, long journey. But looking back, it wasn't. I graduated school spring of 83. Summer of 85, I had a job writing TV for Universal. Ehrich Van Lowe and zombies
The Master of Professional Writing Program at USC when we attended in the eighties was designed to focus only on genres that one could make a living at in writing, and we had to write three theses in three different genres to get an MFA. I wrote a novel, a stage play, and a screenplay. The idea then was that being adept in multiple forms would broaden your career. Has it been helpful and if so, how?
Yes, back then there were very few poetry classes because you couldn’t make a living off it. Like you, I also wrote a novel, and screenplay, and a stage play for my theses. While daunting, the interdisciplinary writing helped me quite a bit. The most important thing it did for me was prove to me that I could finish longer works. I believe that not completing one’s work is the biggest reason many good writers don’t have careers.
I also learned to finish three things in three genres in a relatively short period of time. I developed the muscle to turn out many pages every day. Now, I’m never concerned about completing something. It never crosses my mind if I will finish. The only question is when. That’s a powerful tool for a young writer, knowing you are going to complete the work you begin. I acquired that tool at USC.
You were telling me that early in your television career when you were on Knight Rider, you learned a lot about pacing. What was it you learned and how has that served you in all you’ve done since?
Knight Rider was my second job in television. When I wrote my first script for that show, my bosses had me in to discuss it. They told me all my exposition, while good, did nothing for an action show. All my life I had learned to write dialogue and inner thoughts. They told me to forget about dialogue and inner thoughts. Start a fire and spend the rest of the time trying to put it out. Everything needed to be based on a character’s actions, and I needed to get it going in the first three pages. No big setup, just start the fire.
So, I had to learn a new skill: how to move a story along without dialogue. Today, as a novelist, I now have introspection, dialogue as well as pacing in my tool kit. And trust me, when a reader is reading your manuscript it is important to keep the pace lively so the reader won’t stop. If the reader can’t put your manuscript down, you will probably wind up published.
The Cosby Show was unlike any other sitcom on TV at the time that you came to work on it. How did the show change you as a writer and/or as a human being?
I had been writing sitcoms for a few years when I came to The Cosby Show. I had developed the sitcom skill of writing setups and jokes. Mr. Cosby, however, didn’t like jokes in the script. “How can I write funny without jokes?” I asked him. “Humor,” he responded. I had grown up listening to his record albums. I suddenly realized as funny as they were, there were no jokes in them. He observed his life and told it to us with humor. So, on The Cosby Show a new tool was added to my tool box—writing humor. I can’t say working on the show changed me as a human being, but it definitely changed my career.
You went onto write and produce the critically acclaimed television series, Where I Live, which is based in part on your own upbringing. How was that show a culmination of all you learned? How did its cancellation after two years affect you?
The show was about me growing up in New York City. It was a bit like a stage play (my roots) and yet it was a comedy with character (like Cosby). The jokes were sparse, and the humor was good. It was a fair culmination of all I had learned up until that time. I was quite proud of the show.
While I was doing the show, I was asked to produce another show for another network and studio. The show was called Roc. It starred Charles Dutton, Rocky Carol, and Carl Gordon. I had seen the three of them in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson on Broadway a few years earlier. So, to be writing for the stars of an August Wilson play was an honor—a chance to write little plays for theater actors. I wrote and produced this show while I was doing Where I Live. My first and only season producing the show it was inducted into the Museum of Television’s hall of fame. Another amazing honor.
None of this would have happened if I hadn’t written and produced Where I Live. Where I Live was the key to all that came after it, so when it was cancelled I was a bit upset, but by then the studio was offering me a huge deal to set my company up there to create shows and consult. That deal made me financially independent. I would like to have done more meaningful work, but I can’t complain.
Sitcoms died for a while. Is the genre coming back?
I don’t think so, but every network exec I talk to says it is. They say sitcoms will be around for a long time. However, to me, they’re like vaudeville. The genre’s time has come and gone. It will be replaced by shows like Modern Family, shows that may be billed as sitcoms but aren’t loaded with lame jokes. Modern Family is a comedy. I believe (hope) sitcoms will be replaced by intelligent comedies.
You sold your first short story while a graduate student. Then you sold a lot more, making good money on the side while going to school. After years of television, you’ve returned to fiction, and you love to write young adult books. Your first book, Never Slow Dance with a Zombie, was published last year and did incredibly well and quickly. Why fiction again and why young adult?
My first week writing for television I knew I was going to return to writing prose. I realized while TV was exciting, I liked books and plays better. Going back took longer than I thought. I was having fun and making money doing TV.
When I developed Even Stevens (another award winning show, by the way), I got a taste of writing for young people and liked it. I tried to sell a teen comedy to Disney back in 04. When they didn’t buy it I told my agent I would write it as a book. Then I went on to produce The Tom Joyner Show. When the show wrapped in 06, I decided I’d had enough of TV for a while and started writing the YA book, which had nothing to do with zombies or anything paranormal. At the same time, I had this crazy zombie idea that wouldn’t quit. I was much more excited about the new idea than what I was writing. I did something I don’t normally do: I put the novel aside and wrote Never Slow Dance With A Zombie. So far, I haven’t gone back to the original novel.
What’s similar and different about writing books compared to writing for television?
I don’t know. It’s all the same to me. I have one goal when I write. I remember the things that made my skin tingle when I was reading books as a child; I conjure up the excitement I felt watching TV with my brother. And when I write, I am trying to write to those feelings.
I am more interested in how my audience feels than how I feel. I am even more concerned with their feelings than the words. I think: “This may be fun for me, but my audience is getting bored,” and I cut. Or I think “That’s a great moment. If I had read that when I was a kid my skin would be tingling.” And I smile. I have often asked young writers “Where’s the audience in this scene?” They have no idea what I’m talking about. I’m such a pleaser, such a glutton for audience praise. When I am writing, no matter what form, all I think about is them.
You teach graduate students occasionally. What if anything do you see differently in the students from when you were in USC’s program? What are a couple of things that you try to convey about writing that the students are or are not receptive to?
I don’t really see a difference. They are hungry and scared, just as I was. They try to pretend not to be scared (just as I did), but I know they are wondering if they have what it takes to have a career as a writer, and that’s a fearful place to be. So they’re just like you and me when we were at SC. Times have changed; little things have changed, but the desire to be heard is the same. It’s timeless and universal. Every new writer wants to know that someone out there is interested in what they have to say.
I tell all my students, even the weakest and the laziest, that they can succeed. I believe this to be true because I have no great skill, no great talent; I am not an artist. If I can find success, the door is wide open.
What do you hope to accomplish in the next five years?
I have three more YA novels coming down the pike, and I am collaborating with a fabulous illustrator on an art deco zombie novel that I’m very excited about. I’d like to use my producing skills to help turn the books I write into movies or TV shows. Doing that would allow me to use all of my skills.
The movie deal for Never Slow Dance With A Zombie recently fell through, and I told my agent rather than wait for another studio, I was going to try to put the movie together myself. So, for the next six months at least, while I’m writing, I will be working on the movie deal. If you hear about the Never Slow Dance With A Zombie movie musical coming to a screen near you, it means I’ve succeeded.
I am often asked to get back into TV, but so far the right opportunity hasn’t come along. I am happy with what I’m doing. I get up in the morning and I write. That was my goal starting out. You can’t beat that.
NOTE: Van Lowe's novels, Boyfriend From Hell and Earth Angel, are now out as a book and ebook. Click here.
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