Interview with Jeremy Kagan, Author of My Death: A Personal Guidebook
Jeremy Kagan is an internationally recognized director/writer/producer of feature films and television and a tenured professor. Some of his feature credits include the box-office hits HEROES, the political thriller THE BIG FIX, THE CHOSEN (2 time Grand Prize winner),and THE JOURNEY OF NATTY GANN (Gold Prize Moscow Film Festival). Among his many television shows are KATHERINE: the Making of an American Revolutionary and HBO’s CONSPIRACY: THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 8 (ACE Award for Best Dramatic Special). His film ROSWELL,THE UFO CONSPIRACY garnered a Golden Globe nomination and he directed the pilot for the hit series DR. QUINN: MEDICINE WOMAN. Other television films include, for Showtime COLOR OF JUSTICE about racism and BOBBIE’S GIRL about a lesbian couple and CROWN HEIGHTS about the 1991 riots, which won the Humanitas Award for “affirming the dignity of every person.” Kagan has won an EMMY for Dramatic Series Directing and directed “West Wing” and Spielberg’s ”Taken.” He has made films for The Doe Fund which is the most successful program in America helping the homeless and for The Bioneers which organizes leaders in ecology and social justice, and TreePeople. Professor Kagan teaches graduate courses at USC in directing and has created the Change Making Media Lab, which has made projects on cancer prevention, obesity and ADHD. Kagan has served as the Artistic Director of Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute and is on the National Board of the Directors Guild and Chairperson of its Special Projects. His books DIRECTORS CLOSE UP, Vol. 1 & 2, are published by Scarecrow Press. A Graduate Fellow of the American Film Institute, he has an M.F.A. from NYU and a B.A. from Harvard University. He has taught master seminars on filmmaking in Hong Kong, Hamburg, Hanoi, France, Lebanon, Israel, Ireland and India. You can visit Jeremy Kagan’s website at www.theneardeathandlifeofjeremykagan.com.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I am an enthusiastic optimist. I believe things work out as they should and that regret is a waste of energy. I like to be busy and have a wild imagination and an intense dream life. I love to play music and to draw. I am a semi-professional clarinet player and you can see some of my art in my e-book as well as on this website – www.parshas.weebly.com. I also am a filmmaker and have been for four decades having directing 9 features and 15 television movies and won Emmys for my TV series work. I also am a full tenured professor at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California where I run the Change Making Media Lab which makes advocacy film for NGOs and I have edited two books on filmmaking called DIRECTORS CLOSE UP. I am married and have a daughter who just had her first daughter. Call me BabaJ.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Mt.Vernon, New York and went to high school at Horace Mann in the city and then to Harvard as an undergraduate and NYU for graduate studies and the American Film Institute when it first started. I have spent a lot of time in schools.
What is your fondest childhood memory?
When I first got on a horse and realized that I could actually ride it and make it stop and go when I wanted. There were some early sexual encounters that were pretty sweet as well.
When did you begin writing?
I started creative writing when I was in junior high. I think I had fantasies of being a writer and I started a novel and got through about two pages and that was that. In high school, I joined the newspaper and became a journalist of sorts and was particularly good at interviews and became, as a senior, the editor of the paper. But it was visual storytelling that interested me more. I became a filmmaker and most of the writing I have done up to this e-book has been screenplays, and some of these I have made into films.
Do you write during the day, at night or whenever you can sneak a few moments?
I don’t keep a schedule writing, though I have had screenwriting assignments where I had to deliver the project on a certain date. I dream scenes and some dialogue and write when I am moved to. I do binge writing, where I force myself to keep at it to get it done. And then I feel I am finished. Wrong. I realize that writing is re-writing.
What is this book about?
Life and death. My life and death. I had what is called a near-death experience and this is the retelling of that experience. I was totally unprepared for it. I’d never heard of a NDE, and up to then was little concerned with the idea of my own dying. This book, set in the context of my own personal story, is meant to be a launching pad for the readers’ reflection on their own lives and inevitable deaths. This book is about learning to live with death, learning to appreciate the miracle of living, and hopefully be a preparatory document for the journey that we all are taking.
What inspired you to write it?
The inspiration for this book was the experience itself. It was also the recognition that the experience was a gift, and gifts are meant to be shared. After this totally unexpected occurrence, I sought out a number of spiritual leaders who could give me some context for what I had undergone. One told me, “You have been graced with something that many mystics seek their entire lives.” I think when I heard that, it too became an impetus to find a way to communicate to others what I had gone through and was learning.
Are you a member of a critique group? If no, who provides feedback on your work?
Over the years of writing this particular manuscript, I have asked some of my friends who are writers and teachers to read it. Because my professional work is in a creative field, I have access to a number of skilled authors, and many have been willing to take the time to advise. Sometimes I listened, sometimes I didn’t.
Was the road to publication smooth sailing or a bumpy ride?
I think I went through the normal process of seeking publication. In naïve excitement I sent an earlier draft off to publishing houses that were inclined to put out books of this kind of philosophical and paranormal nature. I received rejections, and some were still encouraging. I continued rewriting and rewriting. And then a couple of years ago I realized I wanted to include illustrations in the manuscript. I also realized that this would make for a very expensive book, so I sought other venues. In a sense my timing was good, because e-books were beginning to become easier to assemble and distribute. With over 150 illustrations all in color, this became the most economic way to get the message out. I found Balboa Press, which is part of Hays House, known for these kinds of books. They charge a fee for their services, but in the process provided extremely helpful editing of the images within the book.
This is a website for my work www.theneardeathandlifeofJeremyKagan.com. Check out the 5 minute video on this site that was a TEDx type talk about my near death experience. Also on this site you will see clips from some of my feature and television movies as well as links to my other books.
What is one piece of advice you would like to share with aspiring authors everywhere?
Keep at it. I like the Beckett quote: Try, fail. Try again, fail better.
What is up next for you?
I hope to be able to put some energy into publicizing the e-book, but what really is up for me next is a film that I will be directing called SHOT which is the story of what happens to an innocent bystander who gets shot and the young kid who unintentionally shoots him. You can check out what’s happening with this project by going to the website YOURSHOT.ORG.
Is there anything you would like to add?
My motto of the week is: facts inform but stories transform. And, a recommendation from my book – lighten up.