Randall Wallace is an American screenwriter, director, producer, and songwriter, who came to prominence by writing the screenplay for the 1995 film Braveheart. His work on the film earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay and a Writers Guild of America award for Best Screenplay Adapted Directly for the Screen. His other films include The Man in the Iron Mask, Pearl Harbor, We Were Soldiers and Secretariat. Randall Wallace also wrote the lyrics to the song Mansions of the Lord, which is featured in the movie We Were Soldiers and was the closing hymn at Ronald Reagan’s funeral.
In much of your work, perhaps all, I find the heroes all display a tenderness not often found in books. Is that part of your mission? Do you have a mission statement? If so what is it?
I have a mission statement in a certain way. It’s more of an approach. It’s that if this story doesn’t move me, if this story doesn’t speak to my heart, it can’t possibly speak to anyone else’s. So all I know how to do is to tell the story that inspires me, to tell the story that matters to me, and then to trust. As I say in The Touch, you offer your hand to God and whether God uses it is up to Him.
Did your screenwriting experience help or hinder you as a novelist and in what way? Do you have some practical advice for those of us who don’t know the first thing about screenplays … how thinking big screen can help us tell a sensory story?
Being a screenwriter has helped me with my novels. It’s interesting that I became known as a screenwriter before I was widely known as a novelist, but I was a novelist before I was a screenwriter.
I write in a visual way, but I also make movies in an internal and an emotional way. When I’m doing a film like Braveheart, I want to find those moments that make me have goose bumps, that make me weep or make me laugh, that make me feel joy and victory. And to do that, I think we’ve got to experience all the elements of a human life.
Well, that’s the way I write a story when I’m writing a novel like The Touch. I want to take the reader through the life of the character. I want them to know what that character is going through even when they’re not saying a word, what the character’s heart is doing, and let the reader have that insight into the secret life of the character so that they can feel what a young surgeon is going through when he knows that the only thing between life and death for that patient is as narrow as the blade he’s holding in his hand.
And for a young woman who looks at this guy and knows that the life she’s trying to hold on to is worthless unless she has love and faith, and she finds it through him, a gift even greater than life.
We’re told to dream big. What is your dream as a novelist?
My dream as a novelist is to write the kind of story that someone else would feel spoke for them. There was a great thinker from Lebanon named Kahlil Gibran. When I was in college, I read a story he wrote called The Prophet. He was a deeply religious man. And he said, “A great singer is he who sings our silences.” And I hope, in some way, in my stories, that I am singing the silences of someone else’s heart.
What surprises you the most when you sit down to write and hit that sweet spot?
What surprises me most when I sit down to write is that I never know what’s going to happen. It’s never the case for me that a story unfolds, or even a day’s writing, a page, a line unfolds just the way I expected it to. It’s like I’m the first audience of the story and I am discovering the story for myself the first time.
Novelist or screenwriter, which process scratches the itch the best, and why?
The great thing about writing novels is that you get to take the reader inside the character’s lives. The great thing about writing movies is that you get to boil down the experience into a real clarity of what the audience can hear and what they can see the character do. And this makes for a union of all the great aspects of art. A movie is pictures; a movie is sound, music. But with a novel, you get to experience all of that inside.
I wanted The Touch to be a reading experience that took the audience into a life experience in which you felt that you were going through the joy of new love, the tragedy of loss, the fear of failure, the absence of faith, the rekindling of the hope that love and life could be vibrant again in what you were doing. I wanted to give the audience all of that from the inside experience—not that you’re watching a character have those experiences, but that you are having them yourself when you’re reading The Touch.
Far different than the sweeping epics Braveheart and Pearl Harbor (besides the fact they were screenplays and this is a novel), what sparked the idea for The Touch?
I was inspired in writing The Touch with the idea of having a gift. Braveheart was my first feature film and when it became a success story, I also understood that success could be one of the most dangerous challenges that I’d ever faced; that to have a gift, even if the gift is of where you happen to be in your life—not even a question of your own talent—but to have that gift of time and place means that God has entrusted you with something. And the question was how freely you could give it, whether you could keep it by trying to hold back or whether you gained it by giving. As the Bible says, you gain your life by losing it.
I wanted to explore that part of life. In my other stories—Braveheart, Pearl Harbor, We Were Soldiers, even in Secretariat—there’s a sense of struggle and tragedy. I wanted to have this story be one of affirmation, be one of joy, be a story that when we read it, it was as if we were hearing the “Ode to Joy” sung by a great choir.
Did anything unusual happen during the writing of The Touch?
During the writing of The Touch, I experienced a new ambition for writing novels. I wanted this story to be almost like a poem, like a song, like a movie that was highly efficient, a story in which every word mattered and that the reader could be right there every minute. There was no filler. There was nothing to scan over; you are right in the story from the very beginning in every page. Every word was something that went right to your heart.
You reached that goal for The Touch. It’s one of the most beautiful stories I’ve read. What’s the best advice you ever received as a writer?
The best advice I ever received as a writer was something an old writer told me as a kind of joke. He said, “Do you know what the hardest thing is to write on a page in human history?” And none of us knew what the answer was, and he said, “It’s to sit down with a page and write on that page, page 1.” And so I always believed in jumping into the story, and what that’s given me as a writer is a sense of adventure and exploration that the story is unfolding in front of me, to jump in and to see where it leads me.
Do you have any parting words of advice for aspiring novelists or screenwriters?
For an aspiring novelist, what I would recommend is that you follow your own heart, your own story. You are made in a unique way. God said, “This is you. This is your time.” But who that is is something that you can discover. I believe writing is an act of faith. Writing is an exercise in believing that something great can happen, even though we don’t know what it is. It’s an exercise in miracles. So what I would say to young novelists is believe in the miracle. Be open to it. You don’t know what’s going to happen, but you know for sure, if you don’t try, nothing’s going to happen.
Andrew Jones is a young doctor with an amazing gift; his abilities in surgery are astonishing. But when he cannot save a young woman at the scene of a fatal car accident, Jones abandons his gift and shuns the operating room.
Lara Blair owns a Chicago-based biomedical engineering company developing a surgical tool that will duplicate precisely the movement of a surgeon’s hands, eliminating human error during surgical procedures. Lara has pursued the best surgeons in the world to test this tool and all of them have failed.
Discovering Andrew’s unique surgical skills, Lara is determined to work with him. But Jones wants no part of it until he discovers the urgency behind Lara’s work . . . and somewhere, somehow, he must find the courage to trust The Touch.