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Actor, Comedian Steve Martin Speaks on His Written Works

Candace Braun

In his first ever visit to Princeton University, actor, playwright, and fiction writer Steve Martin spoke to a capacity audience of students, faculty, and Princeton residents at McCosh 50 on Wednesday, September 5.

Mr. Martin, who recently turned 60, doesn't look a day older than when he filmed Father of the Bride more than a decade ago. While his hair has been white for as long as most audience members can remember, his face shows no lines to mark his work of more than 30 years in movies like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, and his numerous guest appearances on Saturday Night Live in the 1970s.

But Mr. Martin came to Princeton to speak not on his many claims to fame as an actor, but on his written works.

"I like to think of myself as an insecure writer," he said, noting that he never writes anything under contract, since he writes for himself, not a publisher.

Pulling out a large stack of papers, which he assured his audience was in large type and double spaced, he put on his glasses and began to read from some of his works, which he said have gone from comic, to serious, to turgid over the years.

"You may feel a sense of impending doom: this is because you're about to die," he read from "Side Effects," a piece he wrote in the 1990s for The New Yorker that pokes fun at the side effects of prescription medication. He continued: "You may begin to have a growing sense of dissatisfaction with life ... join the club."

Mr. Martin also read from a play called Zig Zag Woman, where he used lines such as "love is a promise delivered already broken," as well as metaphors for relationships like "we met in an elevator going down."

Among Mr. Martin's more recent works is Shopgirl, a novella published in 2001, which he told his audience he didn't conceive as a movie, but which will be released in theaters later this month, with him as one of its stars.

"When I finished it I said, 'Ah, finally, this will never be a movie,'" he said, adding that the biggest problem he encountered while transforming the story into a movie script was creating dialogue for the characters, since much of the story is told through the inner thoughts of the characters.

While he was able to sketch out five distinct scenes for the film, the first ten minutes contain no dialogue, he said.

"This is the first time I've attempted something of this length," he said, adding that he felt "nervous and naive" about his ability to write a book, as compared to his previous writings, which mostly consisted of short stories and plays.

Mr. Martin said that when he first wrote Shopgirl, he wanted to convey his characters and their surroundings through their thoughts and personas, as an omniscient narrator.

"I decided I'd never lie, and that I'd never make these characters do something because I needed them to," he said of his approach to writing the story which, while humorous in part, addresses one character's quest for love in a bittersweet way.

When asked if he identifies with the character of Ray Porter, the role he plays in the film, Mr. Martin said: "As a writer of all of the characters, I am in essence part of all of them."

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