Half of the Coen Brothers filmmaking team–the brother act responsible for Blood Simple, Rasing Arizona, Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski—Ethan Coen recently added "published author" to his résumé with the release of a short-story collection called Gates Of Eden. Coen recently spoke to The Onion.
The Onion: How long have you been writing fiction?
Ethan Coen: A long time. How long would the oldest of these stories be? At least 10 or 12 years. A couple of them have been published in magazines, most of them not. But I've been sort of writing them as we've been working on movies. They really range in age from that long ago up to the recent past.
O: So your writing juvenilia probably predates your movie juvenilia.
EC: Yes, although, man, I've got plenty of movie juvenilia in the form of Super 8, too. That would be a hard one to call.
O: What's the oldest story in this book?
EC: The oldest is the one with the private eye getting his ear bitten off, "Fever In The Blood."
O: There's not really a distinct style to your writing; you jump back and forth between a lot of different styles. Do you find that liberating or easier to do?
EC: Fun to do, anyway. That's probably a reflection of the fact that they weren't written at one go, but sort of range in the time in which they were written. But also, yeah, you do something, and just to keep yourself entertained and amused, you want to do something different next. Also, not that these were written with an eye toward being collected or published together, but it's nice to hear that they come across as being different, because the danger of doing a collection of stories is that at a certain point they can have a feeling of grinding sameness. I'm glad they don't.
O: Do you see a development in your writing in terms of style, or is it more consciously trying to try on different styles?
EC: Umm… The latter. Yeah. I don't see a trend in any particular direction. I sort of like hopping around different kinds of characters in different sorts of stories.
O: A couple of them read like radio plays.
EC: Well, three of them are radio plays, no bones about it. Just dialogue and sound effects. Which is an interesting form. I don't quite know why I find it interesting, or why they were conceived that way, because I don't listen to [radio plays]. Nobody produces them anymore. It's an interesting medium. It's interesting to think about how to put a story across that way.
O: Did you ever think about producing these stories as radio plays, if only for your own amusement?
EC: I'd really like to. They made an audio book of people reading the stories, and I talked to the publisher about producing the radio plays. It didn't work out, just because I didn't have time to do it by the time they needed it for their publication date. It would be fun to do.
O: There are a lot of Minnesota stories in the book. Are those from the Fargo period?
EC: No. There are [a lot of Minnesota stories], but they sort of run the gamut in terms of time, as well.
O: What kind of influence does Minnesota exert on your work?
EC: I don't know. Obviously a strong one. It's where I grew up, and by virtue of that, it's the setting of some of the stories. Your whole childhood, the whole setting thing, it runs deep. What can I tell you? It's a natural thing to write about where you grew up. It's a place in a deeper way than some place you might adopt as your home later. It's easy to write about.
O: With Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink, there was some criticism of your portrayal of Jewish characters. Valid or not, it seems that some of those would be applicable to Gates Of Eden, as well. How do you generally respond to that?
EC: Oh, I don't know. It's a legitimate question, but I just have no sympathy for it. Some people, when you talk about their ethnicity, even if it's your own ethnicity, it's sort of verboten to do anything except for the most sympathetic… I mean if the character is of a certain ethnicity but not completely sympathetic or attractive, they feel offended. But that's, you know, their problem, really. I don't know how to address it. I understand people's sensitivities, but that doesn't mean I have to share them. I just don't.
O: Those films also came out in the early '90s, and that seems like a time when any portrayal of ethnicities or minorities that weren't saint-like were…
EC: Right, it's especially unusual in movies, because they have to appeal to a wider audience. Studios are especially pandering about not wanting to offend anybody's sensitivities. That's still the case.
O: Do you find it less of a problem now? Because you had Jesus [John Turturro's Latino pedophile character] in The Big Lebowski.
EC: Nobody seemed to complain about that, that's true. And we didn't hear from any handicapped people, even though we dumped a crippled guy on the floor. Maybe you're right. Although with most Hollywood movies, still, if there's a bad black guy, there has to be a good black guy. Which, again, is stupid and pandering [with regard to] people's race and ethnicity. But what are you going to do?
O: There are a number of gangster stories in the book. What's the continuing appeal of gangsters for you?
EC: I like crime stories just because they're dramatic. Crime is drama, you know? Even comic drama, but still… The gangster stuff is [from] that and my fondness for pulp, hardboiled American fiction: Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, though they wrote more about private eyes than gangsters, per se. James M. Cain, that period of popular American writing. I've always been drawn to that.
O: Your movies are carefully constructed to share the credit equally between you and your brother. Are you afraid that this will shift the balance away from that a little—that someone might say, "Well, Ethan's the writing talent behind the Coen Brothers"?
EC: No… Um… No. [Laughs.] For me, it's very separate. I guess it's possible that people might misconstrue this as a sign that I'm the one who does sole writing on the movies, even though we're co-credited for it, but that would just be a mistake. It's not a mistake I anticipate people making.
O: The movie you're working on now is an adaptation of a novel, which is the first time you've done that. How is that process going?
EC: It's really interesting. Because it's an interesting book, To The White Sea, [Deliverance author] James Dickey's last novel. I hope we… It's by no means certain that we'll be able to make the movie. It would be an expensive movie to make for the studios. Hopefully, it's what we'll do next. It was, for the obvious reason that it was an adaptation, a different thing from writing our other scripts. But it's also different because there's no dialogue in it. It's in effect a silent movie about a tailgunner in a B-29 who gets shot down over Japan, so for the balance of the movie he's in Japan trying to make his way from the main island to Hokkaido, the north island—and, for obvious reasons, not talking to anyone.
O: Do you have a novel in you, or do you have time?
EC: I don't and I don't. [Laughs.] I don't think I do, and I'm sure I don't, to answer the two questions in order.