Novelist, Screenwriter, Playwright
Sherwood Kiraly ‘72 did not come to Knox intending to be a writer, but a
defining moment came as an assignment in Professor Sam Moon’s
scriptwriting class during his first year.
“There were just a few of us in the class, and we each wrote a one-act that was performed in studio theatre,” Kiraly says. “The students who came really, really liked it. I had to keep going because that was such a vivid experience.”
Kiraly went on to write three more plays that were produced while he was a student at Knox and formed a sketch comedy group that performed its own material on campus and at other colleges in the area.
“It was kind of hellish. You’d make up your material then have three guys asking what’s so funny about that -- we would get a little sore at each other,” he says. “But then we would go on stage and be totally dependent on each other, and it would bring us together. In the end we were so euphoric; we would agree to do it one more time.”
Kiraly was inspired by the passion of his professors at Knox. Though he didn’t have a course with Professor Robin Metz at the time, Kiraly remembers when Metz visited his apartment to meet with another student. The experience left a lasting impression because Metz was so passionate about writing. Along with Moon, Metz helped convince him that it was important to not just write well, but that the content of what you wrote was also important.
Still, Kiraly did not immediately turn to writing. After leaving Knox, he pursued acting but stopped after a couple of years because the auditioning and personal rejection became daunting. Instead, he turned to a newspaper syndicate, where he edited Ann Landers, Erma Bombeck, Roger Ebert, and others over the course of 16 years. When the syndicate was sold, Kiraly decided it was time to write for himself. His editing skills came in handy, and he relied on the rewriting process, demanding high quality work from himself.
“A day [of writing] can be pretty much wasted, but if you can say, ‘Well, that phrase is ok,’ then you can keep going. Maybe the next day you catch lightning in a bottle and you have a good page or a good scene. You still veer most of the time between ‘I’m great!’ and ‘I suck!’ You don’t get to ‘I’m really good’ until the eighth rewrite. Until then, you have to rebuild the piece and maintain your self-esteem bit by bit, brick by brick.”
Kiraly’s hard work came to fruition; he remembers another defining moment in his life when he got a call from his editor. “Our newborn daughter was sleeping in a crib when the call came, and I told her they took the book. That was an absolutely unforgettable day.”
That book was California Rush, a humorous look at the sport of baseball and the men who play it. He has since written three more books of comedic fiction and has adapted two of them for the stage. He has also written two screenplays based on the books. One of them, Diminished Capacity -- a story about Alzheimer’s, baseball cards, and going home again -- was released in 2008 and is the first film developed by the renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The movie stars Matthew Broderick, Alan Alda, and Virginia Madsen, and was an official selection at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.
"I'm terribly fond of it and terribly fond of the actors who were so generous," he says. "To me, it's a little miracle. It's 87% of my dream come true. That's a huge amount for a novelist to be able to say about a movie of his work."
After returning to Knox for an Honors defense panel and sitting in on one of Metz’s classes, Kiraly is now taking his experiences into the classroom as a visiting instructor in English and theatre and writer-in-residence, teaching courses in fiction writing and playwriting.
"I love being back. I can appreciate Knox a lot more now. This is the place that allowed me to express myself artistically to the absolute limit of my ability. It gave me the audience, the training, the venue, and the exposure to go out on stage and die or succeed. The groundwork for anything I've done artistically was born here."
Kiraly is teaching students to find, as he has, their own artistic space. He encourages self-reflection and questions such as, "Where do I fit? What ground do I stand on where no one else stands?" He believes students can look at their own lives for inspiration because everyone has stories to share.
"Everyone's carrying around all these stories, and to you, well, they're old news, but to someone else, they're not. Students think, 'I have nothing to write about; I've never done anything,' but it's not true."
Kiraly is energized by his work with students. Though cautious about making generalizations, he finds Knox students exceptional in their love of learning. "That eagerness to learn, the lack of cynicism with which they approach writing, makes Knox students special," he says.
"The students, they invigorate me ... [It] can be exhilarating, electrifying, when all anyone in the room is concerned about is, 'Is this good? How can we make it better?' That's fun. We might not get the answer, but that’s fun." he says. "This is what I like about it so much, because we're talking about writing all the time … I'm thinking about it all the time, so when break comes, I'm revved up
and ready to go."
Read more about Sherwood Kiraly in his faculty profile and The Knox Student.