I’m thrilled to interview Janine Nabers, one of the Dietland writers and producers — and someone who is a complete joy to work with. Besides being an in-demand television writer, Janine is an acclaimed playwright. She’s a graduate of the Lila Acheson Wallace Playwriting Fellowship at Juilliard and winner of the 2014 Yale Drama Series Prize for her play “Serial Black Face.” She was recently awarded the Fadiman Award from Center Theater Group in LA for her upcoming play about “The Peterson Show.” She is also the librettist to an upcoming Sylvia Plath musical called “Mrs. Hughes.” Janine is currently developing a TV show with Paramount.
SARAI: You wrote the sixth episode of Dietland, when Plum is in the basement of Calliope House and encounters the notorious “porn room.” This was one of the most difficult sections of the novel to write, and I imagine writing the script was similarly difficult. What challenges did you face writing this episode?
JANINE: Being a playwright, I think writing the basement episode was less daunting to me than others, but it was still pretty freaking hard. Our writers room re-broke that episode maybe seven or eight times. And then it was just me in a room writing it. By then my contract with the show had ended and all the writers were off writing. So it was a little isolating. There were a number of pieces to the puzzle of Plum that still hadn’t been worked out. In the end it was a lot like giving birth to a whole new person.
Up until episode six Plum has had so many forms of feminist agenda thrown at her and then she literally gets punched in the face. I was racially attacked on a street by a man in 2016. It was one of the most traumatizing experiences of my life. So I think writing that episode gave me closure in a lot of ways. And I think, like Plum, I walked away with a whole knew perspective of life and self-preservation in a world that’s filled with violence. Be it physical or sexual.
And then there’s the porn hub! I’ll be the first to admit that I love porn, but I also understand that brutality in porn has influenced the rise of sex crimes in a big way. So Plum watching a woman being hit like she was on the street but enjoying it as an act of sex brutality, obviously that is a trigger for her… Plum walks out of that basement feeling like she finally has control of her body and her mind. And that’s a powerful thing. Now the viewers will see Plum form her own opinion of her body, feminism, porn, and so on. Plum is just getting started. And it’s exciting that I got to write her turning point.
SARAI: You’re a playwright and a television writer. There are obvious similarities between these genres, but I’m wondering about the key differences from the perspective of a writer.
JANINE: Playwriting is all yours. It’s a story only you can write. And the characters will never, ever be recreated because it’s your actual DNA on stage. TV writing is all about putting several brains together and telling one story. It takes a village to tell five seasons of one show. And every episode is filtered through the voice of the show’s creator. I love both forms of storytelling so much. And I think they are both skill sets that not everyone can master. Some people have a really hard time writing in someone else’s voice. I love it. But I also love walking away every once in a while, locking myself in a room and writing a story for an audience of only 200 people.
Playwriting is so wildly creative. It gives you a voice that’s easier to stand out. It’s what got me into Hollywood in the first place and TV writing will only make my plays more accessible. It’s a win win.
SARAI: As a woman of color in an industry with a long history of sexism and racism, do you think things are changing for the better? There’s a widespread assumption that the industry is growing more diverse, but I’m wondering how you see it.
JANINE: A Black friend of mine said it well when he said, “equality looks like imbalance.” So while there is progress being made by adding more diverse writers in Hollywood, I think a lot of people are under a false assumption that there are TV rooms overflowing with minority writers right now. And honestly, it’s just not the case. Yes, progress is being made. More minorities, women and queer writers are getting writing jobs. But equality is a long, long road ahead. White men are still the majority. And they will be just fine.
You know, it’s interesting. I’ve worked with Marti on and off for most of my television writing career and I’ve been lucky to have a lot of female bosses in the last 4 and a half years. So I’ve been fairly sheltered from a lot of industry BS. (Which is why I love working for her). :) But I have worked for white people who hired me for reasons where I feel like my Blackness was exploited. I get that there are a lot of powerful White showrunners trying to tell minority stories that intrigue them, but in two very specific cases I felt like I was only in the room so that very out of touch white people in power could get their story on the air.
BTW - It’s really cool to be “trending” in Hollywood. And “otherness” is all the rage right now. A lot of minority writers like myself are being hired to hold the hand of White people who are not equipped to write the stories they are being paid millions of dollars to write. “Tokenisim” is a huge part of racism. And I really wish more liberal people in this industry understood that.
Connect with Janine on Twitter: @J9Nabers
And check out this article about Janine and other playwrights working in TV.