Damon Wayans is known for many things. His hilarious work on the 1990s sketch comedy show In Living Color. The endearing dad he embodied on My Wife and Kids. His best-selling nonfiction book Bootleg. He is not known as author of serious fiction. His new book—his debut novel—just might change that. In Red Hats, Wayans writes about a middle-aged woman who struggles with her life as a recent widow and estranged mother until she meets a group of friends who, quite unexpectedly, change her life forever. He spoke with Oprah.com about writing fiction, getting inside the head of a woman and his science-fiction plans.
Rachel Bertsche: You've been on camera for years and had a best-selling nonfiction book, Bootleg. Why did you decide to write fiction?
Damon Wayans: With Bootleg, yeah that was a best-seller and it was fun, but I kind of felt like I cheated because it was just stand-up and, you know, that's easy.
RB: For you, maybe.
DW: Well, yeah, for me. I wanted to tell a story, and it took me a long time to figure out what that story was, but a series of events—mainly just being bored creatively—led me to say: "I've got to do something. I want to do something different and fun."
RB: I think a lot of our users struggle with that—the desire trying to do something new and get out of a rut. How are you able to tap into that? What would be your advice for someone who feels similarly bored?
DW:You have to have a discipline, you know? Most people are bored and they don't do anything to try to unlock that creativity. Figure out what inspires you. Go to the museum, go online. There's more than porno online. You can look up some really wonderful photographers or artists and figure out who inspires you. Pick a person. That's what I try and tell my daughters. I really think that you have to have someone or something that is your muse that takes you out of your cycle of noncreativity.
RB: Do you have a muse?
DW: Yes, the red hats. My mom. I've seen the change in my mom from being associated with the Red Hat Society. My mother raised 10 children, and then they all left. Half of them moved out to the west coast, so she's lonely. You know, you don't have friends and you sacrifice all that by raising children, and to now have friends...we've told my mom: "You can go anywhere you want in the world—we'll pay for it. You don't have to do anything except show up," but when you don't have someone to share those experiences with...my dad is not really an adventurer, so it's like: "All right, you got the red hats. This is beautiful."
RB: Did you talk to your mom about her life and the society before you started the book?
DW: My mom hasn't even read the book yet. I read her the dedication, but I didn't let her read the book because I wanted it to hit the stands first so she can't guilt me into not releasing it. She'll think, "Oh, you're talking about me and I don't want them to think that I'm talking with you about my girlfriends." I'm like: "Ma, it's not like that. It's a different story; they just happen to have red hats." It's not about really the whole Red Hat Society; it's about friendships. It's about taking a character and stripping her of her belief system and then rebuilding her step by step. The theme of this book is if you want to be loved, be lovable.
RB: How are you able to write a female character so well?
DW: It's not about getting into the brain, it's about getting into the feelings. My granddaughters, my daughters, any female friend I have, they have this need to be loved and appreciated. So if you know the overall objective is to be loved and appreciated, what stops it? What prevents that? Then I start breaking it down like I would any character I'm going to perform. I think, "Okay, what are the obstacles?" Because the obstacles are counter to the overall goal. With Alma, she's bitter, she's abrasive, she's an angry woman. Those things stop her from being loved, from being lovable, actually. Then it's like, all right, how do you strip her? How do you heal her? And as part of friendship you've got to confront all these different emotions and feelings, and you know, it's almost like the story of Job—all these things she loses to get to rock bottom so she has to depend on other people.
RB: You mention you approached Alma as you would any of your characters. So much of your career has been watching and observing and telling the truth of things. Was it hard to create your own story when you're usually observing what's around you?
DW: It's the same thing, really, except without the punch lines. I had to really wrestle my pen to not put in jokes because my nature is to fill that void with humor. But what happens when you tell a joke is sometimes you forsake the character. It's like, this character really wouldn't say that or shouldn't say that because it compromises, you know, that belief system.
RB: So why did you decide not to write a funny book?
DW: Just for a challenge. I've done television. I have two shows in syndication. I've done movies. I've written films. The other thing is I love writing. I write every day. I keep a journal, so I think to myself, "What could I do 10, 15 years from now when I'm too old to be in front of a camera, or I'm too vain and don't want my wrinkles showing or my stomach is poking out?" Those kind of things deter an actor from wanting to be in front of a camera, but what I love about writing is I can go anywhere in the world and write. I'm free to live life and be creative.
RB: What was the best thing about writing Red Hats?
DW: The end! This kind of story I could keep going on. It doesn't have to end, because the characters merge and the stories continue. I hope to write a few more of the books.
RB: Do you have anything left on your list? You've done fiction, you've done nonfiction, you've done TV and movies. What's left?
DW: Sci-fi. I wrote a sci-fi movie, and I just got feedback from it. They said: "It's not funny enough for Damon. We like it; it's great writing, but it's not funny enough." That's why I'm hoping Red Hats is successful, so that people can not associate me with funny.
RB: Is it scary for you? To do the serious stuff?
DW: Oh no, no. The serious is fun. I love drama. I think that most comedians love the drama—they're just afraid of the silence.
Printed from Oprah.com on Monday, March 10, 2014
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