As a creative partner of the famously experimental filmmaker David Lynch, Mark Frost has seen storytelling pushed to its limits. He and Lynch broke television barriers in the early 1990s with Twin Peaks, and are pushing those limits even further with their reboot of the series, which wrapped its season on Sunday night. Frost, who has written a number of novels and nonfiction books on golf, released The Secret History of Twin Peaks (Flatiron Books) last year. He will also memorialize the new Twin Peaks run in the forthcoming Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier (Pan Macmillan, Oct.). We spoke to him about writing for the difference between writing teleplays and novels, and how network TV has evolved over the past four decades.
You’ve written for multiple network shows, including the original run of Twin Peaks and Hill Street Blues. What was different about working for network TV and working for cable TV? How about writing for TV in the 80s and 90s vs. writing for TV now?
In the 80’s and early 90’s, network TV was owned and lockstep-controlled by three corporations, with zero interest in deviating their creative or business models from what had long been an immensely profitable status quo. Industry innovation occurred in small increments, if at all, which is one of the reasons why Twin Peaks detonated like a hand grenade. It offered a radical vision of what the viewing public might be able to handle, narratively and mythically, and established that such a hunger in audiences existed. While broadcast networks today remain as rigidly constrained as ever, the ever-expanding cable and streaming distribution system—a host of niche channels targeted at, and satisfied with much smaller audiences – has resulted in a creative gold rush unlike anything in American pop culture history. It’s a great time to work in narrative storytelling.
You’ve also written a number of novels, as well as a few nonfiction books on golf. What lessons have you learned in TV writing that you brought to writing books?
My first passion was narrative prose—both fiction and nonfiction—so that probably informed my work in TV more than the other way around. TV teaches you professional discipline, and a ruthless demand for brevity and clarity, [which are] indispensable qualities in any writing career.
What are the big differences, for you, between writing for television and writing books?
I write books whenever I find a subject or story that calls for a more expansive narrative, which I’m then free to explore without anything like the creative constraint or impedance of writing for the big or small screen. A great editor—and I’ve been blessed with more than my share—offers a dispassionate, empathic eye toward the realization of whatever you’re working toward, and to a degree mitigates the solitude of the work. A skilled producer or studio executive can occasionally provide something like the same, but their motives are usually compromised by factors well out of a writer’s control, and is seldom exercised in the writer’s best interests. In other words, there’s your work, and there’s work for hire; a writer needs to be familiar with the differences, and act accordingly.
What made you decide to write The Secret History of Twin Peaks? How necessary is the book to understanding the show, and especially the new season? Why?
I wanted to write this book during the original run, but I was too busy running the show and never found the time. The intent is to offer readers—and viewers—a richer historical and narrative context through which to view the show, both then and now. Twin Peaks is an immersive world, and this was my effort to expand it narratively and chronologically.
Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier publishes on October 31. What can readers expect from the new book (that you can tell us)?