by Lori M. Myers, Senior Interviews Editor
You’ve seen those Lifetime movies, right? You know the ones. The character is dying atop crisp white sheets while birds chirp outside and spring is blooming. There are a few tears, lots of hope, and romantic mentions of love and loss.
No way that happens in author Dan Marshall’s world. His memoir, Home Is Burning, about him and his siblings caring for their dad while he battled it out with Lou Gehrig’s disease and their mom with cancer, is nitty gritty reality at its harshest, complete with poop scenes. It’s been described as hilarious, horrible, provocative, and unapologetically crude. And that’s exactly what Marshall was aiming at.
Marshall is a Los Angeles-based author and screenwriter originally from Salt Lake City, Utah, who graduated with distinction from University of Southern California’s MFA screenwriting program in 2011. While studying, he assisted and taught undergraduate classes with screenwriting legend Mardik Martin of Raging Bull fame.
Lori: How did this first book of yours start off?
Dan: I had written the material as a blog while I was going through this with my family. Then, after my dad passed, I decided I needed to stop writing about death and dying for a little bit, so I focused on writing screenplays. I ended up at USC to get my MFA in screenwriting. That was my focus for a couple of years. But, after I graduated, my brother suggested that I try to convert those old blog posts into a book. I decided I was finally ready to revisit the material. I had about 900 pages worth of material from the blog, so I started the arduous task of trying to figure out what I was trying to say with the blog—or if it was just a bunch of fart jokes—and then organizing the material into a book.
Wow! 900 pages! How did you decide what to leave out and what to include?
Well, the blog was very raw and unfiltered. My first goal with the blog was to make people laugh, so I was really trying hard to be funny. There wasn’t much heart in the blog. Just lots of scatological humor. So much of the material wasn’t usable.
And what about revising all of that?
I guess I really started to narrow things down when I started to think about what the book was actually about, what I was actually trying to say among all the poop jokes. Once I realized that it was really a story about a selfish asshole finally being forced into adulthood through a tragedy, my revision process became easier. I also realized it was a story about that fine line between hope and denial. My family had a hopeful attitude. We legitimately thought we could fight Lou Gehrig’s disease and win. But you can’t beat Lou Gehrig’s disease. So the book became a story about a family finally accepting death and realizing that some things can’t stay good forever.
Once I realized that it was really a story about a selfish asshole finally being forced into adulthood through a tragedy, my revision process became easier.
Your approach to this memoir was raw as opposed to sappy. Why that choice?
I wanted the book to give a real, almost journalistic look at death and dying, and what a family goes through when they’re losing a loved one. There’s a lot of ugly shit that goes on during death. It isn’t all hallmark cards. Everyone’s emotions are elevated. Everyone is sad and on edge. I wanted to try to capture that. I also wanted to write about some of the gross stuff people don’t like writing about. When you’re taking care of someone who is effectively paralyzed, about 60 percent of the care you do for them is bathroom stuff. It’s gross, but it’s part of it. I didn’t want to shy away from anything just because it was ugly or uncomfortable.
Yes, we do tend to romanticize death and dying. What sort of feedback are you getting on your sort of “gross” approach?
I generally think that people like how honest and open it is. I don’t sugarcoat anything. Dying and death sucks. It’s not a fun or easy process and we aren’t on our best behavior while dealing with an intense situation. So, a lot of the feedback so far has been positive. A lot of people in their twenties who have dealt with the loss of a parent really connect with the material, and that’s who I really wrote the book for. I know I would’ve liked to have read something like Home is Burning while going through all this with my parents.
What’s next on your plate? Any screenwriting projects in the works?
New Line purchased the rights to Home is Burning and hired me to write the first couple of drafts. Miles Teller is attached to play me. So, I’ve been working on that. I also have a project called F**K Me, I’m Paralyzed about a friend helping his friend who’s in a wheelchair try to get laid for the first time since his accident. It’s sort of Superbad in a wheelchair. We’re hoping to shoot that in the spring.
I didn’t want to shy away from anything just because it was ugly or uncomfortable.
Congrats on all the film possibilities. When not writing, what do you like to do? Hobbies? Travel?
I watch an unhealthy amount of basketball. I really love that sport. Dunks in particular are really awesome. I’m also into pinball, not to brag. I go for runs and try to stay active. I’m not a big fan of traveling.