With his “It Won’t Always Be This Great” novel drawing widespread acclaim, former “Seinfeld” writer Peter Mehlman acknowledges he’s getting nibbles from Hollywood types interested in turning the darkly comedic tale into a movie. His feeling on that: “If that happens, fine, but the goal was to write a novel — not to write a novel and have it adapted into something else.”
Hailed by L.A. Weekly as “the Great American Jewish Novel,” “It Won’t Always Be This Great” has at its center a couple in an enviably strong marriage — it is that great — an interesting feat from an author who has never been married himself. How did he manage it?
Mehlman says, “First of all, I am very opposed to the theory that you should write what you know. If you’re writing a novel, I think it’s great to make it all up. You get to exercise your ability to empathize, to put yourself in the position of these characters and think how they think. A friend of mine said, ‘Alyse is probably your dream girl. Don’t be embarrassed, she’d be my dream girl, too.’
“What I really liked was writing a novel about a marriage that works. It’s like a genre that’s unexplored — a good marriage, who writes about that?” he asks. Mehlman admits he had moments when he was going to have his protagonist say something negative about his wife, “but I ended up liking her so much I couldn’t do it.”
Meanwhile, Mehlman’s on a roll, nearing completion of his follow-up book — one he says is “completely different and fantastic.” “Seinfeld” may be forever labeled as a show about nothing, but Mehlman’s “Deep Down Iola” is absolutely about something.
“It’s about a 17-year-old high school girl in the South, who knows for a fact that in a previous life she was Sigmund Freud. It’s really fun. She looks back on her previous life like it was sheer misery, just being involved in people’s problems all the time.
She just wants to lead a happy life, and yet she is constantly called upon to, like, talk people down from ledges.”
Titled “Deep Down Iola,” the new novel began life as a television idea.
“I had the idea, and at one time I pitched it as a TV show,” reveals the brilliant writer with the singular point of view. He goes on, “And just for the sake of the networks, I tried to get down to their level. I said, ‘It’s kind of like “My Favorite Martian,” except instead of Ray Walston, you have a like, a really beautiful girl.’ The networks basically felt the audience wouldn’t know who Freud is. I kid you not.”
These days, Mehlman is appreciating the solitude of writing prose. He points out that he started his professional life as a journalist, and TV writing was actually move of a side trip for him.
“The reason I lasted on ‘Seinfeld’ was because — even though you had a lot of collaboration, especially with Larry [David], at the same time it was up to you to come up with the story yourself. Sitting in a writers’ room, I couldn’t have been successful at it. I don’t think my process lends itself to collaboration. I don’t keep regular hours. I work when the spirit moves me,” he says.
Although he crosses paths with former “Seinfeld” colleagues from time to time at industry events and such, he doesn’t particularly stay in touch. “I’m very much for moving on,” Mehlman notes. Yet he can’t help enjoying the fact that 17 years after the series left the air, it’s still being watched in reruns — now including Hulu.
Why does he think the classic sitcom holds up? “I think it’s because the situations are so human and so universal. The most flattering thing people say is, ‘I had such a Seinfeldian moment today.’ The situations in the show are timeless. They’re not necessarily tied to the ’90s. A lot of those situations could happen today.” Mehlman acknowledges, “Obviously, there would be changes with cellphones and things like that. But the situations could happen today, they could happen in the ’60s. It’s people trying to muddle through life.”
Something Dr. Freud would no doubt appreciate, wherever she is.