Sera Gamble on Rejection, Writing, and the Surreality of Having 50 Million People Hear Her College Poetry
Jessie Gaynor Talks to the Showrunner of The Magicians and You
In addition to being the showrunner of two television adaptation of novels—The Magicians and You—Sera Gamble is a poet whose work has been published in Nine Mile Magazine, Tinderbox Poetry Journal and Sky Island Journal. She spoke to me about balancing multiple creative forms, using her poetry as character development, and the inevitability of rejection at any stage of a writing career. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Jessie Gaynor: I’d love to hear a little bit about your trajectory as a writer. What genre did you begin with, and what are the genres you’re working in currently?
Sera Gamble: I think poetry really came first, when I was a child and especially as an angsty teenager. I think I’m one of those people that’s kind of always been a writer. I was born into a bilingual household, and I feel like technically English is my second language, although I very promptly lost Polish because no one on the playground was using it.
But I think sometimes when you’re moving through more than one culture and language at a really young age, you develop a sensitivity to the nuances and possibilities of language. I think that’s something I was very attuned to, very young, because I was communicating with people for whom English was their second or third or fourth language in my own home.
I wrote for pleasure as a kid. I was full confessional, Sylvia Plath at 15. And then I was also doing different kinds of performing. I was an actor and a dancer and studied theater in college and kept studying poetry just kind of on the side. The screenwriting came in as I was leaving college and going, how does one break in to Hollywood? I started writing material for myself.
And I think I have to credit just reality as like a huge factor in making me a TV writer because that was the route for me where I could see a steady income and health insurance. Luckily, I love it. But you know, we have to tip our hat to capitalism there also.
JG: As you’re currently working as a showrunning for You, and writing poetry as well, how do you find that the disciplines inform each other? Is there an amount of compartmentalizing that goes on?
SG: In certain ways, I’m inhabiting a very different part of myself to be, especially a television showrunner, than a pure writer in any form. The job of somebody who’s running a TV show is so much about producing and just dealing with a lot of people and a lot of budgets—the financial realities of shooting a show. So that’s a completely different set of skills than even writing
But it lives alongside myself as an artist. When you think writing a screenplay, having well-observed dialog and characters that are drawn in a deep way, that is certainly a huge part of what makes something good.
But fundamentally, your job when you’re writing a script is to tell a story through action and conflict. You’re telling a story that is possible to bring to life. Action becomes like the central spine of everything you’re writing. There are very few times you find me putting a curlicue in the script just because I want to go off as a writer.
Much of what I’ve worked with or worked on for the last eight years of my career are shows that are adapted from novels. Both The Magicians and You started as novels and even in adapting novels where a lot of shit happens, my job is always to say, okay, but something has to happen pretty much immediately. I can’t hang out with these people first. I have to hang out with them as life or death is propelling them out the door that morning.
JG: So all the projects for which you’ve been the showrunner, including Weetzie Bat, which you’re currently developing, have been adaptations of novels. What kind of collaboration has gone on between you and the books’ authors?
SG: It’s different every time. Not every author has the same relationship to seeing an alternate universe version of their baby. But in all cases, I invite the author into the initial creative part of developing the show, especially as we’re working on the pilot, because they’re the world’s foremost expert in this.
I’ve been so lucky because Lev Grossman is a just a wonderful, thoughtful, really kind man and writer. I don’t always agree with him, even in terms of what we like as fans of fantasy but his notes made the show better 100 percent of the time.
And Caroline Kepnes has experience as a television writer—she even wrote an episode in season one—so her book actually like it felt like it was written by somebody who had written scripts that I really got inside of it. I was like, Oh my God, she’s giving me all these little gifts of things that will help.
JG: In the first season of You, a poem that the character Beck reads is actually one that you wrote as a student. I wonder if you could talk about that choice to put your poetry out there to such a huge audience as part of the character’s development.
SG: I disconnect the part of my brain that thinks about how many people could be watching a show when I’m writing it. I actually didn’t think for a minute about how many people might watch it. Executives would call and tell me that the number was 51 million in the first month or something like that, I didn’t even know how to think about that.
I wrote that script with Greg Berlant, and as we were kind of working through drafts, translating back from the book, which is very strictly in the point of view of Joe, so there’s more judgment of Beck in the book.
For the show, you had to build the character in a more objective way. And Greg said to me, I think what this character needs is like just more of you. I don’t know what they are, but just pour more personal things into her. Just like, could you bleed a little bit?
So she was always a writer, but that was when we made her a poet and sent her to the fateful open mic night. And I didn’t want to comment on her ability as a poet. I didn’t want to make her, like, a bad poet. I couldn’t make her any better of a poet than I am. I felt like the most authentic thing to do would be to go back and find a poem I had written when I was about her age and in a similar kind of state of mind and place in my life.
So I sat there and watched about 35 actresses just perform that poem. And I sat next to some very tough executive producers who were making the pilot with me, and I got to have that wonderful thing that happens sometimes at poetry readings where you can feel the people in the audience getting emotional. And that was incredibly satisfying.
At UCLA I took a workshop with the poet Stephen Yenser. He was a very generous teacher. And I had read his award-winning collection of poems, which I think he had published in his fifties. And I asked him why he waited because he had been a poet for his whole life, I think. And he said, you might as well make them pretty much perfect because so few people will ever see them. He had a perfectly Zen understanding of the fact that poetry is an art form with a comparatively small readership.
I didn’t like that idea that it had to be so small. And so he was the first person I thought of. And in fact, the poem was the first thing I thought about when they told me that over 50 million people had watched it in that month. The first thing I thought was, oh, my God, Professor Yenser will never believe it.
JG: The first season of You includes some great scenes of Beck’s MFA workshops. The Blythe character in was just so recognizable to me as type, as was Beck’s very relatable insecurity around her. What are your own experiences with the literary community?
SG: The college workshop was my basis of understanding at that time for what those workshops were. And there are other writers on our show like Kara Lee Corthron, who is a novelist and a playwright and has been in her share of workshops, I think even taught some.
But I’ve always had a slight essential tension with what you might call a literary community. I’ve taken a number of workshops during the pandemic on Zoom. I started writing it again and then I realized all of these amazing poets were teaching class on Zoom and it didn’t matter what city they were in. I could just like study with them. It was amazing.
But a comment that I’ve gotten from my whole life from people in workshops is Your work is so accessible, your writing is very accessible. And I don’t actually think they always mean it as a compliment.
I think that’s a coded way of saying that I’m aiming for a more—I don’t even know what the word is—maybe populist, or commercial audience. But I don’t have a judgment about the audience. Full stop. I feel like I’m talking to whoever wants to talk about this, and I come to it with the presumption that the person I’m talking to with my work is really smart.
My burning desire is to communicate really clearly with you. I want to say something in a way that touches something inside you, that relates and resonates with what’s going on inside of me. I want to understand you better, and I want you to understand me better. So I don’t have any desire to encode this in a capital I important language or even, necessarily, forms. I just want to tell the story as directly to you as possible so that you feel all the stuff and you think all the stuff.
JG: I was definitely someone in my MFA program who got the not-intended-to-be-complimentary: Wow, it seems like a lot of people might like this.
SG: Ultimately, the archetype of the person who is deciding all of us is a middle-aged, straight white man with a higher education. And listen, he’s totally invited to the party, and I know many who are great, but he is not more important to me than other people in the audience. He’s just not.
JG: A few months ago, you posted on Instagram a rejection email, along with some advice on rejection, both from your position as a poet and as a show runner. Can you talk a bit about how your relationship to rejection has evolved throughout your career?
I get rejected constantly. I think you have to gird your loins for rejection. If you’re going to do anything in any form of the arts, it just takes a long time to be good. You’ve just got to know you’re going to have to push.
I think the thing that has been interesting to me in the last few years is that, especially since I became a showrunner, when people follow me on social media, they tend to comment like my success in this feels like means that I now have graduated from the kind of experiences that they have as a writer, and that isn’t true. So I kind of wanted to say good news-slash-bad news. It actually kind of never changes. You shouldn’t feel discouraged about where you are because all you’re doing is having like really great practice for when it’s the same, but you also can pay your bills.
I’m not trying to underplay how much it helps to get some positive reinforcement, to get a win, but I don’t post like, 1%, of the rejection that I get. I have shows that I failed to get on the air, pilots that I wrote that didn’t go. And if I’m posting upper-tier, personalized rejection, you’ve got to know I’ve gotten like, 15 form letters, that are just like, sorry, you’re not for us.
I was a little taken aback that it was so unusual to people that I would say that, but it’s just not helping anyone for me to pretend that I always win—I don’t. That’s not what the life of a writer is.
JG: It’s just so easy to believe that you are alone on Rejection Island as a young writer.
SG: Yeah. And I recognize that I’m having a conversation with you from a house that I bought with money from writing. It really was harder when I was living in a shitty rental house in Van Nuys with roommates, and I had to work like a lot of jobs and just figure out when I was going to write. I don’t pretend those are the same thing.
But I was just trying to be, for these young people, the eccentric writer and who’s like, I was you and it’s okay. It’s really okay. Other people don’t get to tell you whether you’re a writer. Only you get to decide.
Header photo by Maarten de Boer.