Interview: Maren Curtis

Maren Curtis“I appreciate that words can have immense power. That is why terrible human beings try so hard to control and shut down the people who write and speak them. They are terrified of truth. I’ve also come to the conclusion that although humans are not a great species, compassion is a choice and I’m going to choose it.” — Maren Curtis 4/15/21


Who is Maren Curtis?

Maren Curtis is an Oakland, California-based screenwriter who is working on her first novel. Among other successes, her feature screenplay, “Let ‘Er Buck”, was the feature winner of the 2021 ScreenCraft Family Screenplay, and her short film “The Legend Of Stella” has been featured in festivals in both the U.S. and Canada. Maren’s background also includes work in international aid and environmental consulting. I got to know Maren when she lived in Portland and participated in a local writing group of which I’m a member. She’s a smart, insightful writer and a kind, big-hearted human. I always come away from reading Maren’s work feeling like I’ve learned something new to apply to my own craft.


The Interview…

J: Where are you from originally… where’d you grow up and what was it like growing up?

M: I was born in Las Vegas, Nevada, and I grew up thinking of myself as a third generation Nevadan, because both sets of grandparents were there too. I was a teenager when I realized that, in fact, I’m the only native Nevadan in my family. The most common reaction from people when I say I’m from Vegas is that I must have had a crazy childhood. But our suburb, Henderson, was heavily Mormon. So, not crazy in the way that people think. Plus, when you’re a kid, everything is normal until something happens that forces you to recalibrate your concept of normal.

I grew up surrounded by family and being part of a tight-knit community, but it felt lonelier than it seems like it should have been possible to feel. I was the youngest of five and I tended to get lost in the shuffle. There was a well-known trope about Mormons forgetting a kid at church and not realizing till they got home. But it really happened, I got left behind twice that I remember. I think my parents didn’t love being parents and they were pretty over childrearing by the time they got to me. That’s both good and bad – I never really bonded with my mom, but I got beat less than my older siblings. I was bullied by two of my brothers, though, so I guess they made up for any inequities in abuse dished out by my dad.

What I associate most with my childhood is the desert. Mom didn’t care where we were in the afternoons as long as we didn’t disturb her piano students. We had a big yard with all kinds of fruit trees and a giant eucalyptus. I’d climb the trees and read until I dozed off or have gladiator battles with the different types of ants in the yard or find things for our pet tortoise to eat. We were on the edge of town, the paved roads ended at the elementary school, so if I had friends to play with, we’d hunt for desert roses or pick cattails or catch lizards. Dad was a geologist and a scout master so there were lots of hikes and camping trips.

I feel like that was a really long answer…

J: That’s a wonderful answer. I got a very clear sense of what life was like for you growing up. What seems especially interesting to me are the similarities to my own childhood… dirt roads, bullied by older brother, spending time alone, reading, freedom to roam, insects, wildflowers, nature, loneliness. That life, combined with my natural inclinations, turned me inward. I kind of withdrew from the world and began to spend the majority of my time living within my own thoughts. How did your life affect you… intellectually or emotionally? Do you think it influenced your eventual efforts to become a writer?

M: Absolutely, my parents both had advanced degrees and being smart, especially book-smart, was highly valued. We weren’t rewarded for getting As, we were expected to get them and there was a problem if that didn’t happen — unless it was PE. That, combined with the fact that by 3rd grade, I didn’t have any friends, made it easy to turn inward. In 4th grade, Emily Dickinson was my idol. Books were my only sanctuary so it’s only natural I would have tried to write something of my own. It was one of the few areas of my life where I got any positive reinforcement.

J: Oh my… fourth grade. That is interesting. I don’t remember having an idol until I read Romeo and Juliet… maybe around sixth grade. Then I was hooked on Shakespeare’s plays but not so much his poetry. I think my first favorite poet to read was Keats, at least until poetry really opened itself to me as a possible path of self-expression. That was high school. I’d love to hear more about your writing evolution, but first, your comment about positive reinforcement has me wondering if our paths in life are shaped by the reinforcement we receive along the way. PE obviously wasn’t emphasized at your house, but what if it was success in PE rather than literary scholarship that your parents demanded. Would you be a volleyball coach today do you think? Is this a nature vs. nurture argument?

M: It’s funny you chose volleyball as the example — I remember getting hit in the head three times in one class during high school and I missed out on a friendship when I was an exchange student in Germany because one of my classmates thought all American girls must be good at volleyball. She was so, so disappointed when she invited me to come play a match with her team.

I do think it was way more nurture than nature. I grew up knowing I was genetically predetermined to be bad at sports so I never tried. But two of my brothers loved playing soccer and were good at it, they just weren’t encouraged to do it. In fact, one eventually quit because my parents never went to practices or games and he got sick of being the kid who always needed a ride.

By my 20s, I decided to see if being bad at sports was just a story I told myself. I took dance classes and jujitsu, and I joined a women’s recreational soccer league at age 25. I had panic attacks about how bad I was that first season. In fact, I only kept going because my team had trouble fielding 11 players and I didn’t want them to have to play down a man even though I was about as useful as a cone on the field. I got better. But not without unpacking a lot of self-confidence, fear of failure, and inferiority issues.

There’s certainly nature involved too, though, so I don’t think coach would’ve been in the cards for me. I don’t think I have sufficient competitive drive to win, and that certainly wasn’t for lack of competition being encouraged at home.

J: Okay… that most entertaining tale cemented my belief that everything we do truly is a combination of nurture (the way we are taught) and nature (the way we naturally learn and express ourselves). So in your mid-twenties you were playing soccer and dancing with newly discovered confidence… were you also writing? Or expressing your creativity in other ways? Where was life taking you at that point?

M: I was not writing. After being forcibly evacuated from my study abroad program in college, I decided writing was stupid, vain, and worse than worthless, because I could be doing anything else. I’ve long since mellowed out and am actually sort of baffled about the logic that led me there, but I remember I felt very strongly about it. I basically have the last poem I wrote before I left for Macedonia at 20 and then I didn’t write anything again, except sporadic journaling and letters to my Aunt, until my first screenplay in Oregon when I was 28.

During that in-between period, I was really committed to international development and worked for different USAID contractors. I was living in D.C. and going dancing a lot and loving how the city was both cosmopolitan and provincial while trying to figure out how to get overseas without having to get a Masters degree. D.C. is filled with people who pride themselves on being overworked and you have to party pretty hard, too, otherwise you don’t get the opportunity to let everyone know how hard you’re working. As much as I make fun of it now, I really loved it while I was living there.

J: Wow… there’s so much history and emotion packed into those words, I’m not sure what to ask next. I will admit my initial thought was a flashback to the first time I read one of your screenplays… the one about Latin American revolutionaries. It was awash with revolutionary fervor, and I was so impressed. Anyway, here’s a string of questions that just came to mind for you to touch on if you wish… Why were you in Macedonia and what happened to make you leave? What brought your USAID work to an end? And finally, how did you end up in Oregon?

M: I was determined to do a year abroad in college, but I needed scholarships to afford it. I had wanted to go to Italy, but I got directed to a professor who ran an East European studies program. He walked me through the national security scholarship program and at the end I ended up with a pretty cushy full ride for Macedonia. It would never have occurred to me to choose the Balkans, but I really, truly loved it there. Unfortunately, that year was 1998-99 and in the Spring, when I was finally getting good at the language and really settling in, we (NATO) started bombing Serbia and Kosovo. Macedonians were terrified they would be pulled into the conflict – the military police were rounding up everyone who had done their mandatory service, my professors were convinced that they’d see fighting, protestors set the U.S. embassy on fire. (No one was hurt.) The other girl in my program and I really wanted to stay and see it through, but the University was worried about liability and told us they’d expel us if we didn’t come home. It was really hard to leave friends we’d become close to who were anxiously trying to get updates from relatives in Serbia and Kosovo. It felt awful. Even our Albanian friends were skeptical, ‘They care now, but they’ll lose interest and we’ll be left to rebuild and pay the price. This isn’t a part of the world that forgets.’  Anyway, I could go on and on, but basically it felt like Clinton’s PR war of distraction ruined the lives of everyone we cared about and coming home to a party school where kids didn’t know or care what was happening left me pretty messed up.

It solidified my decision to pursue international development. I knew I would move to DC when I graduated and hoped that I’d end up in an overseas position shortly after, but it didn’t work out that way. It’s a very over-educated field and you couldn’t really get posted overseas without a Masters. I wasn’t ready to commit to more school. Plus the projects I was supporting from the home office were disheartening. They were mostly ineffective and many felt like they’d been funded in exchange for political favors from the foreign governments. A lot of the expat staff was really shady or just in it for the lifestyle – lawyers that probably would have been disbarred in the states, people who spent as much time trying to milk the post benefits as they did working. In five years of development work I had one good project (and it was an amazing project) and the USAID officer in charge decided to end it because “it doesn’t look like projects we’re doing anywhere else.” I remember hearing that news from the Chief of Party and thinking, “No shit. This one is actually helping people.”

Around the time that project shut down, I was also in the 3rd wave of all my friends moving away. A lot of people work in DC for just a year or two and then move on to the next rung in their career ladder. So you lose a bunch of friends every couple of years. That third time I was wondering why I was staying. Plus I needed to break up with my boyfriend and moving away was my most effective break-up technique. I picked Portland because I’d visited once for a tango festival and felt like it was a city I could like. I moved without a plan, but enough side gigs I knew I’d be okay. I definitely thought I’d do way more dancing than I ended up doing.

J: That was a remarkable series of events you experienced during those formative years… lots of serious topics deserve to be illuminated. So I’m not really sure why, but I’ve kind of fixated on the dancing part. I simply had no idea you were a dancer at heart. I’ve always loved dancing, but I haven’t done it publicly for years and years. I’m more of a get high and dance in the living room kind of person now, but when I was in high school, my mother, who was remarkably eccentric, enrolled my older brother and me in a ballroom dance class in a slightly larger nearby town. My brother was stiff as a board, but I loved it. I was by far the youngest kid in the class, but the older girls would always ask me to waltz with them. The waltz was definitely my favorite, but I never learned tango and I’ve always been intrigued by it. What’s it feel like to tango?

M: Tango is a really unique partner dance, partly because of the close embrace, but also because it is what tango snobs like to call “true lead-follow.” There is no ‘basic’ move, the kind of home base step you do in other partner dances until the lead leads something. So when you enter into the tango embrace, the first thing you do is connect to your partner – just stand still and feel until you’re on the same wavelength. A good partner connection is like speaking a secret, physical language — it may or may not look fancy to outsiders, but you are definitely deep in a wordless conversation — ideally one that also has musicality and you’re both as attuned to the song as you are to each other. I miss that sensation, the physical communication – it was exhausting and thrilling at the same time. I love it, but I definitely had to learn to be a dancer – it wasn’t my native state. I was terrible for a long time and I don’t think I would have stuck with it if I hadn’t been living in a house full of dancers.

J: Okay, the tango sounds kind of incredible, as well as incredibly intimidating. So I don’t think tango is for me, but I now have a much better understanding and will be watching for what you’ve described. Sounds intense as hell though, and I can see why some people would love it. But let’s jump back to your move to Portland. You had side gigs and you were in the mood to dance… what happened? Were you able to fill your needs for creativity?

M: The dancing never really happened like I thought it would. I went out a fair bit when I first arrived in Portland, but before I got to build friendships in the dance community, I fell in love with someone who isn’t a dancer. We started whitewater kayaking together instead. That’s a whole other different kind of intense.

I had actually started writing again a little before I left D.C. I guess my disillusionment with the international development community freed me from the self-imposed ban on indulgent stuff like writing. Plus my boyfriend there was perpetually reinventing himself and his second-to-last incarnation before we broke up was a film director. He wasn’t really a writer and neither were the guys he started working with, but I was around a lot of their conversations and listening to them dissect story made me realize how much I missed writing. I had a copy of Final Draft because I’d used my faculty discount (I worked at the University of Maryland at the time) to buy it for him. I finished my first screenplay a few months after I moved to Portland. I’ve never re-read it. I’m sure it was terrible. But I liked screenwriting. All the rules and constraints made it feel very safe and doable in a way that the wide-open world of fiction did not.

For better or worse, I still wasn’t imagining that writing could be a real career, so when one of the side gigs gave me a full-time offer I said yes. I’m not sorry I made that choice — I found a niche there and had a great career. I learned a lot and was successful and valued. But it also meant that for 10 years, writing was an after-hours and weekend thing on top of a 50-hr/wk screen-based job. I finished two screenplays in a year before I took that job and then it took three years to finish the next one.

J: Whitewater is so intense that it makes me nervous just to stand too close to it, let alone experience it. You seem to be drawn to intensity… your travels, causes, endeavors. Where does that come from do you think?

M: I definitely don’t think of myself as someone drawn to intensity. My first instinct was to dispute it — I kayaked, but only as a Class 3 boater, I want to be an expat, but never got away for longer than a year, etc. But I do have an appetite for the deep end of the pool. I’m not sure where that comes from — maybe that’s nature. If it was nurture, it might have roots in growing up Mormon during the Cold War. It was church policy that members should have two years of food storage on hand and I remember feeling certain, as a child, that WWIII was a when, not an if – and a nuclear winter would follow. It was a pretty apocalyptic way to grow up.

J: That is a weird way to grow up… being taught to anticipate the worst situation possible rather than to just pay attention and learn to adapt. Maybe your experimentation with deep water was subconsciously designed to test the lessons you were taught. Regardless, I can relate to the idea of being drawn to deep water. It’s a way to discover new things and to test ideas. I was always drawn to that part of society that was viewed as the fringe or the dark underside of life. It’s the place where people who don’t fit in or aren’t included or can’t survive on their own end up. It was completely foreign to me, but completely fascinating at the same time because it included exactly what the brighter parts of life included but in stark relief. It was poetic. What have you learned from your forays into the deep end of the pool? Have they led to ideas, projects, enlightenment of any kind?

M: What have I learned? Oh man… a few years ago Oprah Winfrey published a book called “Things I Know for Sure” and I found the title hilarious. If I wrote that book, I’m not sure it’d even have enough words to be a picture book.

These days, I appreciate that words can have immense power. That is why terrible human beings try so hard to control and shut down the people who write and speak them. They are terrified of truth. I’ve also come to the conclusion that although humans are not a great species, compassion is a choice and I’m going to choose it. As much cruelty and suffering as we inflict on the world, love is stronger because we keep going and love is what keeps us going. If anything is going to save us, it’ll be choosing to love – our planet, each other, ourselves. As a writer it means I want to explore all those bleak, sad places but then find the light and the heart by the end of the story. Sometimes I pitch a story as being uplifting and then my readers tell me that word does not mean what I think it means. So I don’t think I’ve completely succeeded yet, but I’m working on it.

J: I like how you went from a clever, somewhat self-deprecating opening to a deeply profound statement of purpose in that comment. I also love that you’ve chosen love as the optimal path to light. Plus, I think you know exactly what uplifting means, and your readers might benefit from reading one of your uplifting stories. Okay, that’s me being an old fashioned romantic… maybe you’ve got some of that in you as well. Do you think your efforts to recognize pain and desperation then provide a glint of hope comes from your desire to help save the world or from somewhere else? Also, I know your emphasis has been on screenwriting, but do you think short stories or a novel could provide an effective medium to tell these stories? I know you’re at least considering a novel… right?

M: Your question comes at a good time, on a writing group call this week I was complaining about preparing for a pitch meeting and needing a thematic of who I am as a writer. Why can’t I just be a writer because I love writing? And one of the women in the group said, “But you do have a thematic, you write about how much we need each other.” It took me by surprise – but I really appreciated it and I love that it was so obvious to her. So, yeah, I guess I write because I want us to quit messing around and love each other.

I am in the middle of a novel and I’ve been dabbling in short fiction for the last year. I realized that I love the written word and my biggest frustration with screenwriting is that my words aren’t the final product. I love film because it demands collaboration, it is a collective work of art (despite how the industry idolizes perceived auteurs) and there are moments in filmmaking that have a beautiful energy arising from everyone being on the wavelength of a shared vision. But sometimes I also want my words to be the finished product, so I have to write books, too.