03/28/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Silver Streak in His Golden Years: Gene Wilder's Latest Novella

Gene Wilder is out with a new book. The Hollywood icon beloved for the characters he played in "The Producers," "Young Frankenstein," and "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," not to mention the series of comic escapades he made with the late Richard Pryor through the 1970s and 80s, published his first book in 2005. The autobiography, "Kiss Me Like A Stranger," (2005) is a short, breezy read, free from the "he said, she said"s one expects from celebrity tell-alls. The book was a success: his combination of honesty and gracious acceptance meant that it was never vicious, even as it candidly chronicled his tumultuous relationships.

His next effort, "My French Whore," (2007) was an even shorter read but was packed with action. It's hero Paul Peachy, a simpleton from Milwaukee, discovers unexplored depths when he is captured by German soldiers in the First World War and passes himself off as top spy Harry Stroller. The Germans give him Annie Breton, the "French Whore" in question, as a prize and Peachy promptly falls in love. Just like his memoir, "My French Whore" unabashedly describes sexual desire and revels in the thrill of a budding relationship. Wilder brings the same sensibility to his latest novella, "The Woman Who Wouldn't". The year is 1904 and Jeremy Webb, a famous violinist, is at a retreat in Badenweider, Germany, recovering from a nervous breakdown he had mid-concert. There he meets a beautiful Belgian, Clara Mulpas, who rebuffs his every attempt to flirt with her. Clara, it turns out, is carrying her own dark secret.

I spoke with Gene Wilder about this new book which, in a way, is a romantic re-imagining of his marriage to "Saturday Night Live" actress Gilda Radner who died of cancer in 1989.

***(Warning: Spoilers Follow)***

DG: I was going through some of the reviews of your last book, "My French Whore," and the term "brave coward" keeps coming up over and over again.

GW: That certainly was true of "My French Whore" but it has nothing to do with "The Woman Who Wouldn't." Actually, in "My French Whore," that's the name of the play that he acts in -- "A Brave Coward." And then it turns out that is what happens to him because he a coward and then he becomes very brave at the end. But that has nothing to do with "The Woman Who Wouldn't."

DG: But your protagonist, Jeremy, is a musician who has a breakdown and is sent to an asylum but refuses -- for much of the book -- to face the prospect of actually being crazy.

GW: Hmm... I never though of it that way, no.

DG: I just finished reading your autobiography, "Kiss Me Like A Stranger"...

GW: Ha! Well, it might apply to that.

DG: Umm, well, far be it from me to suggest anything untoward, but your description of yourself in that book... and then your descriptions of your protagonists in your two others: they all seem to be men who are overwhelmed by their flaws and are obsessively concerned with wanting to fix them.

GW: I wouldn't put it that way. I've always written... I've written a lot of screenplays and they're mostly romantic, but they always seem to be about misfits who find each other and fall in love. I'm not saying so much with Richard Pryor, although it could apply in that case too. But certainly the ones with Madeleine Kahn -- "Young Frankenstein" and "Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother."

DG: But you let your misanthropes redeem themselves. Unlike Molière...

GW: I think so, yes. In "My French Whore" he knows that he is going to be caught eventually, so it's only a matter of time. But he'd rather go back and be with her 'cause he's found love for the first time in his life, rather than have the easy road back to France. In this last book, in "The Woman Who Wouldn't," all he wants is to be a ladies man and have a conquest. A nice one, a polite one... one night, one week, one month, whatever it would be. But then he finds out that the woman he wants to have the conquest with is dying of cancer and it changes his life. And in that respect I suppose it gets a little personal, autobiographical in a way.

DG: You're referring of course to Gilda Radner. Do you mine through your memories when you write about Clara, or do you put them aside and try to create someone completely new?

GW: I tried to create something new. In this case, that love causes her to have a remission. Yes, it does! It happens once in a while, a spontaneous remission! And if she hadn't met him and if Jeremy hadn't met her, it wouldn't have happened. But then, she gets this great infection, and since she gets pregnant, umm... I dunno.

DG: So the pregnancy forced the cancer into remission?

GW: It's not the baby who forced it back. Her infection was from the cancer. But when she got another infection, when she was sick and high temperature. That one, the army that was fighting the first one couldn't stop, so it took over on the second one too. And, umm, I was thinking of making it more involved with the baby but it didn't... I don't know. That's going on medical grounds I didn't want to enter.

DG: Yeah, you don't want people thinking there's an alternative treatment.

GW: Ha! Yeah, just have a baby and your cancer will go away!!

DG: Okay. Well, we were talking a little bit earlier about screenplays -- and you have written many screenplays in your life. But, do you have to put yourself in a different frame of mind when you write a novel, or does thinking about your book like a screenplay compliment the process?

GW: Well, they're really two different fish. When I write a screenplay, I'm only thinking about what would happen if the soundtrack were cut off. Would the story still go on? In a book, it's quite different. Except I can't help thinking of it visually, because I'm a director too. And so I like the audience to be able to visualize the story that's going on. But there's also language, and I'm more and more concerned about not overdoing my prose talent but just to write it simply, and have the audience be able to follow it as if I'm talking to them.

DG: Now, both of your novels are set in the early 1900s and happen in Europe. Well, the protagonists start out in America and end up in Europe. Why is that?

GW: Well, in the case of "My French Whore" it's because I had that idea 28 years earlier. I was in Paris, I was very lonely, and I had this idea of this love story and I thought I was going to play the part. And I wrote it for myself and it turned out to be a bad screenplay, but a good story, though.

DG: Why was it a bad screenplay?

GW: It was my first one, and I didn't know how. But I did tell the story. The story came through, but the screenplay would have folded on page 4. 28 years later -- when I knew a lot more about screenplays -- I had written the first draft of "My French Whore" as a book, and my old boss at 20th Century Fox, Alan Ladd Jr. had read that first draft and said, "I'd like to do it as a movie but only if you do the screenplay." So I wrote the first draft of the screenplay while I was writing the second draft of my book. And actually the one helped the other. Strange to say, but there are one or two scenes in the screenplay that I didn't have in the book. And I called my editor and said "What do you think what do you think?" And she said, "Yes, put that in. That would be wonderful in the book." So I did. In that respect there's a great connection between them, but when I was writing "The Woman Who Wouldn't," I wasn't thinking about screenplays, 'cause I don't think that would be a good movie although I hope it's a good book. But I do think that it's... I wanted to make it visual too! I mean, just so that the audience can picture what's going on.

DG: A lot of reviews have said that it's impossible to think of any of the main characters or the scrapes they get into without picturing you.

GW: And that's not by accident. In the first one yes, but in "The Woman Who Wouldn't," no. But I didn't quite answer and maybe this will answer both questions. When you asked about period: in the first one it had to be because I didn't want to set it in the Second World War. I wanted it to be in the First World War. Because I didn't want to have to be tied down by authenticity of the Second World War and how soldiers would talk and behave and all the swearing that would go on and things like that you see in all the Second World War movies now. Umm... I wanted it to be a little more innocent than that. And I could use comic characters, and I didn't want to do that in the Second World War. So that was 1918 and that's the reason why I did it there. As far as "The Woman Who Wouldn't"... my favorite writer is Anton Chekhov. And when I started writing, and Jeremy has a nervous and they wanted to send him to... now I didn't know to where yet. And then when I did my research I found that Anton Checkov was at Badenweiler, Germany, at the heath resort there -- the spa. And I thought, wouldn't it be nice for me to write about Anton Chekhov who I love. And since he was there, actually that's where he died.

DG: It was actually pretty sad reading your book. Because there are all these cameos from Chekhov right before his death and you describe him as such a jovial, optimistic person. But then he dies a year later.

GW: Actually, it wasn't even a year after, it was the same year, 1904. There are two different dates and I couldn't figure out the discrepancy until someone explained to me that it depended on which calendar they were using back then. One said July 15 and the other one said June something. But it was the same date. And he dies soon after Jeremy and Clara leave. Because they left, I believe, in May. And he died in July. So I thought, if Jeremy is reluctant about going to Germany for any kind of a cure, and then they mention that Anton Chekhov is also a client there, then it would convince both of us, Jeremy and me, to have it set there. And that's why I chose the date, 1904. And I wanted him as a character.

DG: How did you go about writing Chekhov as a character?

GW: Because I read so much Chekhov and I read his letters, so when I have him talking he's not saying my words... well, of course, he has to. But I'm only saying things that he has said.

DG: Well, barring Chekhov, do you see "The Woman Who Wouldn't" as having the happy ending "My French Whore" didn't?

GW: Yes, I had another ending in mind at the beginning, but I said no, it's too sad. And I just did a sad book. So I thought, wouldn't it be wonderful if because of their unique circumstances of love and the cancer and everything, if she pulled through. And then I had to look up how she'd pull through to that spontaneous remission and why and how does that happen and things like that. But I didn't want it to be sad, I wanted it to be happy.

DG: So, do you have a particular audience in mind when you write your books?

GW: I went to a book signing last night at the Borders book shop in Caramel Mountain. I had never been there before. And there were people who had come at 8 in the morning to get a number. And when I walked in -- I'm used to big crowds, but not this big -- it was overwhelming. And here's the answer to your question. When it started, we saw one of the parents carrying a baby. I said , "How old is that baby? It looks so young!" -- "Three months." Then I saw another parent carrying a baby. "How old is that baby?" -- "Five weeks." So there were kids, then there were the parents of the kids, then there were the parents of the parents, and then there were the parents of the parents of the parents. I mean, I had generations! And happened at every book signing! When there were people in their late 70s early 80s, then in the 60s, then in the 40s and then as teenagers or young married couples in their 20s. Age was spread across the board, and that's a nice thing. But... well, I suppose, I have an ideal. Probably a woman involved, who is reading the book and crying afterwards. My memoir, it used to be called "I Lean Towards Women", and I thought it was a stupid title because it sounded like a man who had one leg shorter than the other. Then I remembered what Gilda had said 3 weeks before she died "I have a title for you" and it didn't make any sense to me till 14 years later!

DG: Your film career is so much longer and more prolific than your career as a novelist. We talked earlier about how you realize that many readers picture you -- Gene Wilder the actor -- when they imagine your protagonists. And you said you realized that they were doing this and it wasn't by accident. Do you think you'll ever write a book in which the character is completely unlike you?

GW: No, no. Because it took me so long to learn how to put myself, a part of myself into each character. My emotions, I mean When I was first influenced by Stanislavsky, he would say: "You're not Hamlet, Paul. And you're not just Paul. You're Hamlet Paul, you're Paul Hamlet. And you have to find yourself in the character." Well, when I write I probably put three-quarters of myself into it. So no, I don't want to ... I think that there's something they like about, they recognize me in it. The difference between Leo Bloom in "The Producers" and Frederick Frankenstein in "Young Frankenstein" -- one is a quiet frightened mouse, and one is a tyrant, or trying to be a tyrant but he's really not. These are two different aspects but I have both in me and I think the audience sees those two different aspects. I guess so.

DG: Do you ever think about turning your books into movies?

GW: Well, Alan Ladd Jr. is going to do "My French Whore." But I wrote the screenplay of it. I don't know when the film is going to happen. We would have to find the right director. But I'm not going to be acting in it. I have of the approval the actor, the actress and the director and I don't need anything more than that.