A television writer turns to novels for the first time
Last year was a challenge for Joshua Senter† As a television screenwriter, he was looking forward to returning to work in 2020 after a protracted dispute between the Writers Guild of America and the agencies representing screenwriters. “Then Covid happened and everything stopped again,” he says. With limited options in Hollywood, and with a story to tell, he started writing prose instead of screenplays.
“Writing a novel, especially in 2020 and 2021, has been a blessing,” he notes, and while Still the night call— the story of struggling Missouri dairy farmer Calem Honeycutt on what he expects to be the last day of his life — seems a long way from Senter’s work on shows like The L-word and Desperate Housewives, he sees a common theme in his work. “I like to tell stories that no one else is telling,” he says. “Before Desperate Housewives, there really was no such series. Before The L-wordthere really wasn’t a series like that.” He knew that Calem’s story was another story that could bring a unique voice into the mainstream.
Senter was touched to hear of farmers suffering both emotionally and financially as the early 2020 shutdowns made their already troubled businesses even more desperate, leading in some cases to suicide. Given his own experiences with mental health issues and life on a farm, he knew this was a story he could tell. Kirkus Reviews agrees, writing: “Senter’s impressive novel is a truthful, honestly told tale that gives a human face to a region steeped in tradition, brimming with natural allure and struggling with the constant threat of being swallowed up by the latest business entity.”
Calem’s narration is lively and self-aware:
I’ve never been to college or even trade school, and I won’t say graduating from high school around here is an incredible achievement. I’m not a brilliant mind, but I’m not just any dumb asshole either. I understand the people here and life here in a way that someone with twenty college degrees never could. I know what the shape of a cloud and the moisture in the air say about the coming weather without ever turning on the TV. I know when it’s time to cut hay for balers or when to move the cows so they don’t overgraze a pasture. I understand heifers better than most vets. I see the way they walk and the brightness in their eyes and know if they’re down or if they’re feeling good and how that means they’ll behave overnight.
Like its protagonist, Senter is a native of rural Missouri who grew up on a 1,000-acre farm. But, he emphasizes, “one of the ways in which… [Calem] thinking about the world is not the way I think.” Unlike Calem, he left Missouri to study filmmaking at university and lived on the West Coast for many years. Instead of living away from his parents, he has been estranged from them since he came out as gay. “They kicked me out of the family,” he says.
For Senter, write Still the night call was not only a way to be productive during an industry recession, but also a chance for him to come to terms with a place he loves. “I started writing this book and it was terrifying to do and it felt so good,” he says. “It was healing for me to write about the Midwest.” The distance, both physical and emotional, gave him the right mindset to construct the setting of the book. “Right now, living in Los Angeles, it’s very difficult to write about Los Angeles,” he says. “I do better when the time is up.” His memories of Missouri allowed him to build up the book’s rich and detailed sense of place.
Senter’s writing is also shaped by his screenwriting training – what he describes as “the clear narrative structure of Act 1, Act 2, Act 3” – and the books that shaped him. He describes the writing process Still the night call as “canalize my inner” Catcher in the Ryereferring to one of his formative lectures, but he also explains that he didn’t discover JD Salinger or most of the other well-known authors until after he moved to California. “Until I left home, I wasn’t allowed to read any literature that wasn’t Christian or the Bible,” he says. He is currently reading eg by Joy Williams, calling Barbara Kingsolver his “all-time favorite author.” Her work is always close by, he says. †The Poisonwood Bible is on my desk because I never know when I might have to pick it up for inspiration.”
For his own novel, Senter admits that he was “terrified” to share the finished product with the world, so he first turned to his harshest critics: “I gave the story to some of my closest friends who I knew would love me.” would judge very harshly.” Their reactions assured him that the book was ready to be published, so he decided to self-publish the book so that the book, with its current relevance, could be released quickly. [it] had to come out now,” he says, adding that he wanted Calem’s story to get into the hands of readers, not in the year or more it would take according to a traditional publishing timeline, but immediately. “I feel like it’s best for me to just send it out into the world.” Self-publishing also gave him a sense of ownership over his own words. “You always write for everyone,” he says as a screenwriter who works on television programs. †Still the night call is all mine.”
Sarah Rettger is a Massachusetts author and bookseller.