Cathy Belben (writer)
It's always hard to be the new girl. Just ask Jackie or Gia. The former figured prominently in "Blast from the Past," the first episode co-penned by Cathy Belben, the newest addition to the crackerjack Veronica Mars writing staff. You may remember her from such shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Look! An Enchilada! Or you won't: Cathy's new to the world of television, and she's never even seen Look! An Enchilada! How she broke into said world would make a good television show in and of itself.
After resolving some technical difficulties (the kind to which Cathy responds, "Oh, fudge!"), Polter-Cow and wyk asked this librarian/writer all sorts of interesting questions about books, unicorns, and Arrested Development. They also found time to learn more about what goes into writing a show as complex and intricate as Veronica Mars, and they discovered the answer to the one question everyone was asking after "Blast from the Past." No, not that one. The other one.
Polter-Cow: Thank you for interviewing with us.
Cathy Belben: Sure!
P-C: So I guess we'll start out easy, 'cause I'm sure you've told this story a dozen times, but there are so many fans who don't know. How did you go from being a Washington librarian to being a writer for the best show on television?
Cathy: Well, about eight or nine years ago I read Rob's book Rats Saw God. This was when I was an English teacher. And I e-mailed him to say, "I love your book, um, you know, I'm an aspiring writer, um, writing fiction, and any advice you could give, I would totally appreciate it, etc.," and he wrote back kind of a standard response to a fan letter, but because we were both from Washington (originally, he was from Washington), he asked me some questions about where I lived and things like that, and so we just sort of began corresponding back and forth a little bit about people that we both knew in common, and about writing, and eventually he agreed to read a couple of short stories that I'd published and liked them, and he's just kind of been encouraging me ever since with my writing. When the pilot was sold for the first season, he asked me to come write for him, and, um, I turned him down, because I didn't want to move to Los Angeles. And then it got picked up for the second season, and then he asked again. So lightning struck twice, but this time I was smarter and said yes, I would come down and write.
P-C: So what struck you so much about Rats Saw God?
Cathy: I absolutely loved the voice. He's really trying to do some things with that book that I was trying to do with my own writing, and just being really honest with teens and not necessarily writing a book that told an important life lesson so much as a book that told a true story that was funny and complex enough to really be engaging, and just had a character—a main character, especially—that was really likable and yet not unflawed. There's also—like Veronica Mars, there was a lot of mystery to it. Have you read the book?
P-C: Oh yeah, I've read it. I actually read all his books this summer.
Cathy: Yeah, so there was a second—there was Steve telling his story, and so there was sort of a mystery about why he'd left Texas and gone to California and gotten really—
P-C: Right, there was the whole, the two different timelines—
Cathy: Yeah, yeah, they were like—
P-C: They referenced each other. But what about Slave Day? I think Slave Day's my favorite.
Cathy: There's a whole other story connected to Slave Day. That after Rob and I had been corresponding for a year—I guess it was, well, close to a year—he published Slave Day and sent out this blanket announcement to everyone he knew that he was going to be doing the first reading for it at a place called BookPeople in Austin. And it was not a personal invitation for me to attend, but I'd had this really crappy week at work, and so my friends said, "You should just go. Just treat yourself to a weekend in Austin. Go to this reading. Meet Rob, since you've admired his writing for so long." And so I did. I hopped on a plane and flew to Texas and showed up at his reading basically—well, I called him first and told him I was gonna be at the reading that night, and of course, even if you ask him, his reaction was he was incredibly stunned. But it was awesome! I hung out with him and his girlfriend, and I had a friend in Texas that I was able to stay with, and, um, I don't know. I think I convinced him that I was serious about writing and about my belief that he could be a good mentor for my writing.
[Editor's note: Book us a ticket because, Rob, here we come.]
P-C: I think you'd fit in well with this fandom. We're those kind of people who would do that. "Yeah, crappy week, go see Rob."
Cathy: And I think that there's a kind of—there's a certain...like there's some people who go, "That's the most bizarre thing I've ever heard. You're a stalker." But I think that I knew him well enough from his writing—and I know that this is true now because I know him even better, that he's the kind of person that welcomed that kind of friendship, that it might have seemed a little weird, but he was completely....You know, I don't think he wants all his fans coming and hopping on planes to come visit him now, but we'd established sort of a friendship, and it was just...I don't know. It was just one of those things that I just did out of the blue, and I did love the book.
[Editor's note: D'oh. Nevermind.]
P-C: I actually didn't realize that you read, before Slave Day came out, you read it when it was still brand new.
Cathy: Actually, I flew down there, and I bought the book at the reading, so I hadn't read it yet; I'd just read Rats Saw God.
wyk: Have you ever done anything that crazy before? Just, "Oh, I'll just go on a plane."
Cathy: No, because I'm not a very impulsive person; I'm truly a very calculated risk-taker. That's why I didn't come down to Los Angeles the first time he asked me to come write for the show; I was just so terrified about picking up my life and moving. And it took me a year of people saying, "You're crazy. If he ever asks again, please do that. You need to go." And so I got smart the second time around. But, no, I don't generally do very impulsive things like that. It just...I don't know, it was just one of those things where it just felt like the right thing to do. And I knew I'd never forget it, you know? I knew it would be something that, even if we hadn't ended up remaining friends and staying in touch, it would have been something that I never would have forgotten, that I would have been able to say, [this-one-time-at-band-camp voice] "This one time, when I was young, I did this really wacky thing, and..."
P-C: So, you didn't own a television for fifteen years, apparently.
Cathy: I actually owned a television, but I didn't have any....I didn't get any TV reception. So I didn't watch TV; I just rented movies occasionally, but I didn't have access to Veronica Mars for the whole first season; Rob sent me the DVDs so I could catch up.
P-C: So the writers and staff and crew have kind of all spent their life in television. They've worked in television for so long. Do you feel kind of, I don't know...isolated from them? Like, you're, you know, [sad-TV-less-Cathy voice] "I've never seen a television show in so long."
Cathy: Well, the big joke is that at the table there's a lot of discussion about pop culture and music and movies and TV shows, and people will reference things a lot, you know. And the joke is, everybody just kinda laughs if I ask—well, if they reference a TV show, I'll say something like, "Was that, you know, before 1991 or after May of 2005?" Because otherwise there's this big hole in my television viewing world. But I think mostly people just think it's funny. And I've caught up, believe me. I subscribe to Entertainment Weekly, and...
P-C: What do you watch now?
Cathy: Arrested Development.
[Editor's note: NOT FOR LONG. *cries* Also, is everyone on the staff a fan? Why haven't there been any crossovers, come on!]
P-C: Oh, good, did you watch the two episodes last night?
P-C: So funny.
Cathy: There's only, like, one TV show, other than Veronica Mars, that I would want other people...that I would know that somebody shared my sense of humor and my sense of what good quality writing is. It would be that show. I also watch....I watched Six Feet Under while it was on. I love Rescue Me, which is on hiatus right now, but....That's the FX show about the firefighters.
Cathy: And I just, I think Denis Leary is very edgy and...I was married to a firefighter for four years, so I am very familiar with that sort of firefighter culture. So it feels very familiar, and I like that.
P-C: So, I guess before this new television watching of the now, what were your favorite television shows, like, before your TV hiatus? What's influencing your writing now?
Cathy: Like what TV shows are influencing my writing, or...?
P-C: Both, 'cause you weren't a big TV watcher, so what are your influences as far as television goes, since you're writing a television show now?
Cathy: Oh, probably books...and pop culture...and music. I think that's one of the things that I hope will make me a better television writer, is the fact that I don't have a lot of....I'm not influenced much by TV, so the scripts I write aren't—I mean, that's good and bad, because so far my writing for TV has been less sophisticated than I'd like, and yet, I'm not very influenced by the things that are going or that have gone on on the screen. So my Veronica Mars scripts aren't gonna look like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
P-C: Right, no one can blame you for ripping off a show because people can say, "Hey, she hasn't seen it."
Cathy: I mean, yeah. And so occasionally, I'll pitch an idea, and then everybody will be like, "But they already did that on The O.C." And I'll be like, [I've-been-living-under-a-rock voice] "What's The O.C.? I've never heard of that..." Or, "They did that on Buffy," or, you know, "We can't have a librarian named Giles." Or, whatever, those are stupid examples.
P-C: So, would you like to have a librarian on the show? Are you trying to push—
Cathy: I would love to have a librarian on the show! And I'm not gonna disclose any of my secret story ideas, but I totally have some ideas to pitch about things that could happen in or around a library. One of our problems right now is that we don't have a library set...so we would have to build one, or we'd have to build something that resembled a library set in order to have a story that took place in a library. But I think it's rich fodder for investigation.
P-C: Oh yeah, she's gotta do research somewhere.
Cathy: It was one of the things I joked with Rob about when I first watched the first season of the show, 'cause I was like, [whiny, this-show-desperately-needs-a-librarian voice] "She's an investigator, and she hardly ever goes to the library!" I mean, we see her in the library for, like, one or two episodes.
P-C: It's all computers now.
Cathy: It's all computers. But when I was a librarian, that was a huge part of my job, was maintaining a school webpage—which is still up, you can still find it—and teaching kids how to find things online and use the Internet effectively and do research on the Internet that...complement to the book research as well.
wyk: So when you said your writing isn't as sophisticated as you liked, could you tell more about that?
Cathy: Well, I think that it's mostly just my script writing because until I got this job, I'd never written a script before.
Cathy: And when I say sophisticated, what I really mean is tight. I had been writing fiction, and I'd write a lot of essay and nonfiction stuff, and I can do what I want with the words. And I can really take as many words as I want to say something. Whereas on a script, everything has to be so...compact. Especially on our show, because we often have so many things going on, and a scene might only be five or six lines. And it wasn't this bad, but it felt like the first time I turned something into Rob, I had things like, [hooked-on-phonics voice] "Veronica walks in the room and says hi. 'Hi.'" You know? That I had characters....There's so much more assumption that you can make when you write a screenplay; there's so many more things that you can just take for granted. The reader's gonna understand that you don't have to explain, that you can just show, and I think—
wyk: It's funny you said "reader's."
Cathy: Did I say "reader's"?
Cathy: [pretend-I-didn't-say-that voice] Oh my gosh. Viewer's. You know that you don't have to explain because the viewers can see. Or if they're reading the script, they can just read along. Because I think that that's one thing that I'm struggling with, is getting to the point where I don't feel like I have to explain so much. Maybe it's the teacher in me.
P-C: Well, then, what do you think are your strengths or trademarks? The next time we see a Cathy Belben episode, what should we expect?
Cathy: [chuckles] You know, the one thing that I think is interesting about this show is that we all manage to achieve a....I don't feel like I can watch a show and know who wrote it. Like, because I feel like we do a pretty good job of achieving the certain voice that is just Veronica Mars. Although I can almost always tell when a joke is Diane [Ruggiero].
P-C: It's funny, we were discussing that earlier today, how we—there doesn't seem to be as much, I don't know, writer flair. Like you said, you can't tell who wrote an episode of Veronica Mars whereas a lot of us are Buffy fans, and with a Buffy episode, you can almost always tell who's writing it.
P-C: And so with Veronica Mars, it's kind of...you've got a very, um...ubiquitous—not ubiquitous...universal voice.
P-C: And, well, the other people we mentioned are Rob and Diane; you can always tell when Rob or Diane are writing something.
Cathy: Yeah, there was a quote in this week's TV Guide from the show; Veronica must have said something like, "The only way I could make $2000 a week at the Hut is if they installed a pole." And I was like, without even thinking about it, I was like, "That's Diane right there." That's just something that Diane would say. That's just part of her sense of humor.
P-C: On the subject of stripping, I guess, we came across a picture of you in a tiara.
Cathy: [slightly confused voice] What's that?
P-C: We found a picture of you in a tiara.
Cathy: You have a picture of me in a tiara?
P-C: Yeah, I found it on that webpage you were talking about.
Cathy: [oh-that-totally-makes-sense-now voice] Oh, okay.
P-C: Yeah, so there's a whole skiing team about those?
Cathy: Yeah. Just one of my hobbies is running and weightlifting and doing athletics. And for several years, for about ten years, I organized a team for that relay race in Whatcom County. This is actually the first year in almost a decade that I didn't do it because I was on the road, driving to Hollywood. Yeah, I was a runner.
P-C: Are you gonna make Veronica wear a tiara?
Cathy: How cool would that be? [here's-a-brilliant-idea voice] I really think we need to work more unicorns into the show myself.
P-C: There are a lot this season; it's really coming out as a theme.
wyk: Who came up with the unicorn references?
Cathy: I think it was John [Enbom], but I'm not sure. Unicorns are just kind of kitschy and funny...and in some ways, it's just so un-Veronica.
P-C: And when you get to make up a store like Unicornucopia, I think that's worth it.
Cathy: I know; I wish I'd made up Unicornucopia. That was John. God, I love John. All the stories get broken in the room beat by beat, so sometimes a specific—usually not, but occasionally a certain line or something that we come up with that we think is particularly clever will make it into the script even though it's not...even though the writer who suggested it isn't the writer assigned to that script. Does that make sense?
Cathy: So oftentimes the names of characters will make it from the room to the script, or something funny like Unicornucopia will make it in.
[Editor's note: Unicornucopia. Hee. It's still funny.]