Lucy in the sky 

Author Pete Fromm takes us behind the scenes of As Cool As I Am

In As Cool As I Am, Missoula-based writer Pete Fromm introduced his readers to a young tomboy named Lucy Diamond. The story of Lucy's sexual awakening and struggle with family tension was published 10 years ago, and Fromm won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Literary Award for the book. (He also won the same award for three other books, including his memoir Indian Creek Chronicles.) This week, the film version of As Cool As I Am screens in Missoula for its Montana premiere as a benefit for Planned Parenthood, sponsored by the Montana Film Office. The adaptation stars Claire Danes and James Marsden as the parents and Sarah Bolger ("The Tudors") as Lucy. In anticipation of the screening we talked with Fromm about the book-to-film process, surprising scenes and how he learned to write like a girl.

For somebody who has read the book, what might they expect from the movie?

Pete Fromm: In the book, Lucy, the main character, has a shaved head through much of it. But they couldn't get an actress who wasn't filming something else at the time, which prevented anyone from shaving their heads. That's actually a bigger change to the story, but something that they knew going into it. And so there's stuff like that where real fans of the book will say, "Oh my god she doesn't have a shaved head." But often there's real reasons why that doesn't work.

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Were there parts of the movie that stood out to you as exciting or surprising?

PF: I went down for just a little bit of the filming so my sons could be extras in it. That was a gas. The [filmmakers] were showing me a scene from the daily shoots ... where the mother and daughter are maybe going to split up, and so Claire Danes and Sarah Bolger were in it. Sarah got a lot of the camera time and she choked me up. And so I was kind of patting myself on the back, like, "Man, that's a hell of scene you wrote!" But then I went back and looked for it in the book and realized it wasn't in the book. [He laughs] So, I said, "Oh. I'm maybe not so cool."

What brought you to the character of Lucy?

PF: It's such a stupid story. Almost all of them are because the stories start with nothing and then you see where it goes. I was working on another novel of mine that was translated into French this year. I was on a tour with my publisher at the time, who is a good friend now. The [French audience] asked what the origin of this story was and I told them this completely coincidental, inconsequential [backstory]. When I finished, my publisher said—[Fromm goes into a French accent]—"Don't ever tell that story again. In France they want you to be a genius, not just some idiot who follows something."

The story behind As Cool is that I once worked with a park ranger who would say all these old sayings like, "That'd be icing on the cake," but inadvertently he'd screw them up ... The first time I ever heard him do it he said, "Wouldn't that just be the gravy on the cake?" He did it constantly. I decided to write a story where somebody does this but it quickly became impossible to make it believable that somebody would do it without knowing they were doing it. So then I had to have a guy doing it on purpose. I decided maybe he's a dad who's never home but when he is home he tries to make things constantly over-the-top, goofy and fun ... while avoiding everything that goes along with having a family. I thought it would be more interesting to tell it from a kid's point of view, and more interesting if the kid was a girl. So I wrote a short story called "The Gravy on the Cake" and Lucy was born.

When people talk about your book they always bring up the fact that you're a man writing from the point of view of an adolescent girl. Was that as hard as people make it out to be?

PF: What I should say, and what my French pal would say is, "Yes, tell them it was incredibly difficult and you sweat blood when you write." I think that's what a lot of writers throughout the ages have said when really what they do is sit around and play with their imaginary friends. I sit alone for most of the day—about 365 days a year—and make stuff up. You get good at it with practice. For Lucy's character I talked to high school kids and my friends' kids and I went to Planned Parenthood. But, mostly, I think if you can put yourself into that person's skin and you work to make the emotions true, the emotions are kind of universal. In that sense the genders aren't that different. When you read really bad writing with a guy writing poorly from a woman's point of view it can seem really misogynistic almost—it comes off as a stereotypical woman and there's no such thing. You can blow it, for sure. But also you can piss people off just for trying.

There's a panel discussion after the film with you, screenwriter Virginia Spragg and director Max Mayer. What will you talk about?

PF: There will be a lot of questions about the process going from a book to a movie. When I used to go to read it at a literary circle or at a conference or a reading there's a real anticipation—almost like sharks in the water. Jim Crumley used to say that the best thing that can happen to you is you get an option for your book and the worst thing that can happen is that they make the movie. I think a lot of writers anticipate that. So people want stories about how much [the filmmakers] fucked it up or how much you hated it. But these guys were fabulous to me. When we were down there for the filming ... I expected to be the tourist. I warned the boys we are nobody, we are not big shots. I said, "Stay the hell out of the way." But when we broke for lunch Claire Danes came down and sat with us—she knew who we were—and she was there, being cool. I don't have bad experience stories.

What do you have coming up next?

PF: It's a big fat love story. A couple of river runners meet on the Snake River and fall for each other big time. They end up getting married and starting their own white-water business in Oregon as she's started to develop signs of something that turns into MS. So it's their life story together.

Will Lucy ever show up again?

PF: I had sketched out plans for much more of the story and then it kind of reached an ending that was a surprise for me. I was like, "Oh shit, that's the end of the story." If it had sold a gazillion copies and they said, "I'll give you a gazillion dollars to write a sequel," I probably could have done it. But this isn't something that anyone but Stephen King does for money. My interests shifted to the next story rather than continuing one that I felt was finished.

What kind of films do you like to watch?

PF: God, I hate to sound like I'm wearing a beret but I like small French films. I can do without all the action stuff—I don't need explosions and car chases. I like an emotional drama. When you're constantly editing your own stuff you're pretty much ruined for watching for entertainment sake. I'm always muttering during movies, things like "Oh, that was unearned emotion," or "that was shitty dialogue." Get a couple of people into an emotional situation where you don't see how they're going to get out of it and then play it out—that's the kind of stuff I like.

As Cool As I Am screens at the MCT Center for Performing Arts Sat., Oct. 26. The benefit for Planned Parenthood begins with a reception at 6 PM featuring music by Baby & Bukowski, followed by the screening and panel discussion at 7. $50–$75. Call 830-3483 for tickets and info.

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