Lexicon Exclusive

The X-Files Lexicon’s interview with Gabe Rotter about “Kitten”

The X-Files Lexicon's exclusive interview with Gabe Rotter about "Kitten"
Conducted on (2/21/2018) By Katie Bolton Moeller
Introduction and footnotes by Matt Allair

Few have gotten the privilege of working for Chris Carter for nearly two decades: Brad Follmer was still helping Mr. Carter in 2005 when The X-Files Lexicon had the good fortune to reach out to them. We had conducted an interview with Gabe Rotter in 2011, and we have watched his career progress to becoming the Director of Development for 1013 Productions, and becoming a co-producer for, first, The After, and then season 10 of The X-Files, and now the writer of the episode “Kitten”, a stand-alone showcase for Skinner and Mitch Pileggi, and the star billing of Haley Joel Osment from The Sixth Sense and A.I. – Artificial Intelligence fame. But Gabe has continued his co-producer role this season and offers a unique perspective about the inner-workings for season eleven.

But this interview was conducted by Podcast host Katie Bolton Moeller, and she offers a fresh approach to the interview that is rarely seen for The Lexicon. Mr. Rotter was not only open, but generous enough to share some behind the scenes images about the episode that we present here. Gabe has remained a generous advocate for The Lexicon, and I recall speaking to him in 2016 during the red carpet premiere, it’s a moment personally I won’t forget as it demonstrated his willingness to give me as equal attention as he would to Vince Gilligan, for example. Please enjoy as this unfolded…

Katie: Hey Gabe, thank you so much for talking to me.

Gabe Rotter: Thanks for talking to me.

Katie: So we’re talking about Kitten, the episode that you wrote most recently. And definitely the most talked about by the fans this season. Why do you think fans are responding to it so much, do you think it’s all about Walter Sergei Skinner?

Gabe Rotter: I do, yeah, I think Skinner’s this character who, you know I would put him in among the most beloved TV characters of all time, certainly for me. And he’s a character who we actually don’t know that much about. And so, I think there was a hunger from longtime fans to know more about this guy that they’ve come to love after all these seasons.

Katie: I think it’s in no small part due to Haley Joel Osment’s performance. I think that’s a big part of what people are talking about too.

Gabe: I hope in a good way.

Katie: Oh yeah.

Gabe: Okay, good!

Katie: It seems like people are really opening their eyes to the new Haley Joel Osment .

Gabe: Yeah. Haley is absolutely incredible. He totally delivered in this episode and he’s just a joy to work with. We were very lucky to get Haley. He was fantastic.

Katie: Yeah, and you’ve mentioned in other interviews that he really fought for the role, even sending in an audition tape?

Gabe: Yes, you know, a lot of very successful actors won’t put themselves on tape, they’re what’s known as “offer only,” so in a way, even if you know and love their previous work, you’re kinda just stuck imagining how they might handle the particular role you’re casting. And when we were casting the role of John and Davey James, there was Haley, but also there was another guy, a young actor, who put himself on tape who was really interesting, really compelling, a little bit different than I had imagined for Davey and John, but everyone was sort of gravitating towards him. But I liked the idea of Haley, and at first not everybody else necessarily saw it. That is, until, he put himself on tape by his own volition, we hadn’t even asked him to. And the tape just blew everyone away. So I think it’s safe to say this other actor might well have gotten the part had Haley not put himself on tape and just kind of won the role.

Katie: Did you have him in mind when you were writing the script?

Gabe: No, I didn’t. He was an idea on a list of other names, from our casting director Rick Millikin, and uhh, just one that stuck out that I thought could be interesting and bring some, you know, name recognition to the part. You know, I ‘m not a fan of stunt casting but he felt like a recognizable name that wasn’t stunt casting.

Katie: I feel like X Files historically over the years has had a few not necessarily stunt castings but interesting people to pop up, Like Burt Reynolds springs to mind.

Gabe: Burt Reynolds, Peter Boyle, Garry Shandling, Michael McKean.

Katie: Yeah, when you were writing the script were you inspired by any other performances/characters in existence?

Gabe: You know, I had been listening to the podcast, S Town. I had listened to that shortly before I pitched the story to the writers’ room and I would say that that colored my process. I just thought that was a really rich and interesting world, umm, and so, that’s where it sort of sprang from.

Katie: There are a lot of really great podcasts like that that have sprung up, um, in the wake of X-Files, I think that uh dwell in the dark places of the human psyche, and that show how truth is stranger than fiction.

Gabe: Yeah! If you have any recommendations, I’m all ears.

Katie: Yeah, so um, I loved that in the episode we got a tagline change which is always very cool when that happens. A war is never over, which is I think one of the most poignant tags we’ve ever seen.

Gabe: Thanks.

Katie: I love it. I think it communicates one of the major themes we’ve seen on the show over and over and over again which is this mistreatment or poor treatment of veterans during and after the war. And you know, in the X-Files land, it’s typically like physical and or emotional fallout from war that you would normally see, but then that is catalyzed by these experiments that are directly from real world projects like MK NAOMI.

Katie: Did you come up with that tag or is that like a sacred Chris Carter [rule]?

Gabe: (laughs) No, I came up with the tag and I pitched it to Chris and he thought it was a cool idea so we went with it. This season there are a few, not every episode, but several of the episodes actually have new taglines. Some really interesting ones.

Katie: Yeah! It’s always exciting as a fan when that happens you know this is going to be a special episode.

Gabe: That’s kind of fun isn’t it? I think so too.

Katie: Yeah! Yeah no definitely, and you always get these really neat turns of phrases that um sort of sum up the things on the show that we see over and over again.

Gabe: I think so too. It’s one of those little touches that long-time fans appreciate.

Katie: Do you think - I was also thinking that it was also a commentary on Skinner too. That, you know, he signed up for this fight. We make it—you make it a point to show us he signed up for this fight um and it never ends. It just kind of keeps taking different forms for him.

Gabe: Absolutely. That's a really good observation. And, and that's, that's really the crux of what I loved about it too.

Katie: Yeah. You're going to get that with all the characters actually, even um, Kersh, we have to talk about Kersh. We’ll definitely get to Kersh. But I felt like even with him! He, um, he's so, uh, he's so dry. He's so bitter and, you know, he doesn't even answer their questions. He's so salty with Mulder and Scully.

Gabe: He always has been.

Katie: Always. Totally, and I just wondered if maybe he himself, wasn’t also a little bit. I'm feeling that, you know, that, that what he says to them about skinner, uh, you know, sort of sacrificing his career by his involvement with the X-Files. I wondered if Kersh maybe wasn't feeling a little bit of that. Like he's still a deputy director after 16 years.

Gabe: (laughs) it’s true! I know.

Katie: He hasn’t moved up!

Gabe: I thought about that afterwards. I never thought about that during the writing of it or shooting of it, believe it or not, but it's true is that he's, uh, still the deputy director after all these years and I wonder if that has something to do with Mulder and Scully. It has to, right?

Katie: Yeah. But he's like, it's your fault that I'm sitting here.

Gabe: Right — his bitterness towards them springs from that. It’s fun to think about the complicated history of all of these characters.

Katie: Yeah, definitely a lot of fun. Was such a pleasure. What a treat to have James Pickens pop up unexpectedly like that.

Gabe: It was a treat! I felt like, you know, we didn't get him last, season, and Kersh is just a guy who everybody loves to hate. Another classic, fan-favorite X-Files character. So it was fun that he was able to fly in and do it.

Katie: Yeah. I wondered, because the last we saw of him was at the end of the Truth and there's some sense that, you know, he might be, things might be a little bleak for, for him after helping Mulder escape. So I loved to find out - nope. He's still just sitting at that desk.

Gabe: (laughs) Still there! Still cranky!

Katie: So, good times with Mr Kersh. But uh, I actually, I had a question - so I loved, that “Kitten” is, John James’ call sign on the show and, I wondered, in making that the title, I wondered if you were maybe trying to say something, that, you know, he was, he was called kitten as in he was harmless as a kitten until his experiences in Vietnam made him a Gomer Pyle level killing machine.

Gabe: My backstory that I came up with for why he was called Kitten was that, yeah, he was weak and soft and kitten-like when he was drafted. Scared of his own shadow. Sorry to use a crass word, but he was a pussy. He was mocked. They gave him the moniker Kitten as a disparagement. He was kind of the joke of his platoon. But instead of crying about it he went out and got a tattoo of a kitten on his arm. He wore it proudly and it made everybody kind of love him. He won them over. After that all the guys in the platoon kind of love him and look out for him and take care of him.

Katie: That’s so great. Where did the other call signs come from on the show, I was wondering about that., actually, like Banjo, trigger?

Gabe: I wish there was some really cool answer but the truth is — nowhere in particular. We needed some very clear nicknames so that Mulder could make that classic Mulder leap and connect the dots from Banjo to Trigger to Kitten and realize that Kitten was a person’s nickname, not just some nonsense the crazy guy on the street was mumbling about. I’m sorry to say there's no great significance behind them beyond it being a story point.

Katie: They're all fun. I'm always, I'm interested in that. My Dad was in the air force, so I love, I've always loved the genesis of a call sign, you know, mythology of the nickname.

Gabe: Yeah, it's fun, isn't it? I never had a cool nickname.

Katie: I think it's like another world that we go into when we see these movies or TV shows about the military like this. Especially like, uh, you know, Vietnam story. It's a part of the special world is that everybody has a different name and stuff.

Gabe: All the character’s actual names in the episode come from people I know, friends, people I grew up with. Dr. Wegweiser, Sheriff Stenzler, etcetera.

Katie: Can you talk about at all the concept for the design of the monster? I thought that it was such a cool, such a cool looking monster and I love that we got it, at first he was in a hallucination and then we later we see there's actually, uh, John or probably Davey made the suit.

Gabe: Yes, exactly. The design of the monster is all mostly due fully to Bill Terazakis, our makeup effects wizard. He's a really dark, dark, dark man. In the best possible way. And so good at what he does. You know, in the script I had written that it had some combination of animal skulls, and pelts and fur and yeah, as you said, the real monster we see in the woods of Kentucky is Davey’s sort of interpretation of what his father had told him these monsters looked - the ones he “saw” in Vietnam. This monster is Davey’s backwoods DIY assembly of his own version of it. I had sent Bill just a few reference photos of things that I thought looked creepy while I was writing it and he took those ideas and ran and pitched a few different concepts and we finally settled on one that everybody thought was pretty creepy. It was really creepy to see this guy in the costume standing in the woods. I’ll send you a picture I took.

Katie: Yeah! Very cool. That'd be great. Yeah, I love it. It's like a reminiscent of like some ancient cattle God skull or something.

Gabe: Yeah, totally. I found a costume somewhere online - I don't even know where it came from. Of this super creepy mask this guy had made out of a goat's skull, It really freaked me out and I thought this, this is kind of a cool starting point for some kind of nightmarish monster.

Katie: Very cool. It's like, so primal, you know, you get the sense that um, something to do with maybe the, you know, Vietnam or is this some kind of like water buffalo or something like rising up to get vengeance for the ills that were wrought on the land.

Katie: It's just really cool to talk to somebody who started out as a, you know, PA back in the day. I was reading in another interview,and then, you were a producer on the revival. And now, and then you were in the writers’ room last season and now, you've written an episode and I just wondered, how did you get Chris Carter's attention back in the day?

Gabe: I worked my ass off.

Katie: (laughs) That old chestnut.

Gabe: That’s really it. I honestly, I came out of school just hungry and I wanted to, I wanted to be in the business so badly and so I really worked my ass off. I just tried to do everything faster than it should sensibly be done and more thoughtfully, you know, I tried to be impressive in that regard. I just, every day I made sure to show the writers and Chris and Frank and the producers that I really wanted to be there. And I think they all took note of that. And so I was then lucky enough to get promoted to writer's assistant, which was really the dream job because, at that time, it was just a murderer's row of writers on staff, you know, Vince Gilligan, Frank Spotnitz, Tom Schnauz and Greg Walker and Steve Maeda and Chris obviously, and John Shiban and Jeff Bell. Not only super gifted writers but really nice guys to boot, and it was a really formative experience for me to be able to read everything as they wrote it and study it. I really studied what they were doing. I had the luxury to be able to read the scripts and then watch the episodes soon after. I did that for season nine and then when the show ended I went and did this little film school thing, which was a total waste of time and money, [laughs] but I just kept going back to my X-Files scripts and reading them and rereading them and realizing that that's where I was really learning.

Gabe: And so I called Chris and I said, hey, I don't know if you’re doing anything at the moment, but if you need a personal assistant part time or anything, I'm available. And he said, sure, that'd be great. Come on, come on over and we'll work it out. And so, that's what happened. And I ended up working for him for a very long time. During that time I wrote two books that were published by Simon and Schuster and that was a really nice part of working for Chris, that I could come home and really sit down and WRITE for several hours.

Gabe: e weren’t in production at that time, it wasn't like I was working long hours. And this was before I had kids. So I got to come home from work and then sit down at my desk and write. And that's what I did. And I think I just improved that way. I just kept writing and writing and writing and I would give stuff to Chris over the years and he would be very honest with me, which I both loved and hated. It really made me a better writer. And our relationship sort of evolved to the point where there was a creative dynamic between us and so, you know, he backed me on a couple of projects that I went out with and stuff like that. And he continues to be very supportive. So it’s been really tremendously rewarding.

When the show was coming back he brought me on as one of the writers and I almost got an episode last season. I don't know if you've ever heard that story, but Chris said, “why don't you just go ahead and write an episode and I'll try to get Fox to do one more — a seventh episode.
So I wrote an episode with a guy named Brad Follmer, who was another former assistant of Chris’s. Brad’s a really great and very smart guy. We wrote a really fun, weird episode, and Chris liked it and Fox liked it and it was like ready to go. It seemed like it was going to happen. I remember a point where Fox asked, “can we announce this tomorrow at 11:00 AM?” I was like, “great”. And then literally at the eleventh hour there was a scheduling thing and it ended up that we couldn't shoot a seventh episode. So it didn't happen. It was a bummer. But, I was lucky enough to get an episode this year, and Brad was on our staff as well, so, you know, it turned out OK.

Gabe:I just realized I just spoke for like six minutes without taking a breath.

Katie: No, thank you. It's, it's really. I mean, that's, I just really want to know what it was like in that writers room with, as you called them, the murderer's row of basically the guys who invented the TV era that we're living in, in my opinion.

Gabe: Correct,it’s really true in a lot of ways. I'm sure you've heard how the X-files didn't necessarily have a traditional writer's room, like a lot shows have, so it wasn't like every day I was, you know, sitting and breaking stories, but I was lucky enough to go to the meetings where they did break the stories and just see how their process worked. How they boarded their stories on a bulletin board beat-by-beat. And between that, and reading the scripts obsessively and just writing writing writing, it taught me what I needed to know. About the shape of a story and the formula of it. Whenever people ask me how, you know, what's the best way to learn how to write a screenplay. I say just read, read, read, read, read everything you can read, every screenplay you can get your hands on because that's the very best way to learn in my opinion. And then practice. It sounds simplistic and obvious but it’s the truth. The nuance of it is really all on the page and reading and repeating is how you learn that. Literally doing it over and over again, writing the index cards and putting them on the board. You know, that's how I learned how to write a screenplay.

Katie: Yeah, it's, it's a special - I think it's a special way to make TV that they were doing, especially back in the - back in the old days before I think there was like a real - the criterion level of the episodes we're seeing today. And like the, the thing that really speaks to me is that there's always a story that's on the surface that's a case that's being solved, but then there's always the story below the surface that speaks to the character's emotional arc that is, you know, not so not so straight-not so overt that you have to pay attention and feel with your emotions more than like, you know, your rational mind, like putting the pieces together. But it's both things happening at once. And I just, you know, the, the. I think that the miracle of those TV episodes is hard to compare to even things we're seeing today.

Gabe: That's true. There's a magic about it that, Chris will credit David and Gillian for a lot of it, and of course they are a major part of it, but it has everything to do with not just their chemistry, but just the sort of serendipitous alchemy of EVERYONE on the show. The writers, the producers, the cast and most of all the crew who worked their fucking asses off doing long, cold, rainy days 11 months a year for many, many years.

Katie: Yeah, definitely. You can really feel it once, like everybody kind of kicks it into high gear. I'd say like third season, even like end of second season, third season, fourth season. It was like, OK, we're cooking with gas. Everybody is really, you know, on their A game, with like episode after episode of beautiful writing.

Gabe: I mean these guys work. I didn't get it the first time I worked on the show. I didn't get to work with Jim Wong and Jim WongGlen Morgan and Darin Morgan and I'm so happy that I got to work with them these two seasons because they are just amazing. They're just on another level. They there, they just know how to tell a story and they see things differently. Having done it for a long time at a very high level they can see the faults in a story and they've got ways to fix it and suggestions on how to make it scarier or creepier or better, weirder, funnier, and I just, I think the world of those guys.

Katie: Yeah, I actually got to meet Glen Morgan last season I was doing, I did a press thing and got to talk to him for a little while and he was easily one of the nicest people I've ever met in entertainment.

Gabe: Well, he is, and you know, there's something to say about that because it’s easy to NOT be. It's easier to be inward-looking and not be super kind and outgoing and generous with your time and input and he’s just all of those things. I really, I feel blessed to have worked with all of them and I hope to work with them again. And by the way, Glen’s wife, Kristin is also super, super smart and a terrific writer. I'm excited for you guys all to see the episode that she wrote with Shannon Hamblin because it's, it's a really special, different kind of episode. I think it’s really good.

Katie: When is that one coming down the pike?

Gabe: Um, I forget the date, but there's three weeks off between my episode, and theirs because of the Olympics… It's a really cool, weird kind of just original episode. Shannon and Kristin did such a great job and Glen did a beautiful job directing it as well. They’re all very good, good directors, not just good writers - Jim and Glen and Darin. Jim is a terrific director, as you saw in episode five, but also the second episode that he directed later this season is, I think one of the better ones of the season. And of course Darin Morgan needs no introduction.

Katie: Forehead Sweat!

Gabe: He’s on another level.

Katie: Yeah, he is for sure beaming information from somewhere very far away.

Gabe: He is. Being in the writers’ room with him and listening to the ingenious way he comes at things is a joy. I wish he would create his own show because it would be special.

Katie: Yeah. Does he ever -I feel like I only ever see him write for the X-Files.

Gabe: No, no. He’s written on many other shows. But I think the X files is the perfect show for him.

Katie:Yeah. Cause he balances the dark humor, so delicately.

Gabe: I'm sure Chris would credit him as the one who kind of realized the potential of what the show could be. He's kind of the first one who started doing these quote unquote funny episodes, but really also just poking fun at the show itself while, you know, telling just a really, really clever and multi-layered story.

Katie:Yeah. So, um, uh, what's going on at 1013 these days? Um, are you guys developing anything?

Gabe: The company is not necessarily actively developing anything, but we are all sort of deciding what we want to pursue next. I’ve written a couple of specs that I’m currently trying to sell. Chris may be involved with those some capacity. So, you know, we'll see.

Katie: That's where you like to live? In the screenwriting world?

Gabe:It's funny when I wrote those books years back now I had just gotten so sick of writing kind of mediocre TV scripts and feature scripts and I thought I just can't do this, like rigorous formulaic thing anymore. I’m going to go write a book. I wrote a book and then I wrote another book and then I just got to the point where I was like, I can't keep writing these books. I feel like I can, I can like bang out a screenplay really quickly. But a book is just such a, such a long arduous schlep to get there. Such a long haul and the payoff is, you know, not great if it doesn’t hit big. So, um, yeah, I guess TV is my medium of choice.

Katie: Did you always want to be a writer?

Gabe:I did. You know, it's funny. I didn't really know exactly. I knew I wanted to be - I knew I wanted to tell stories. I didn't know exactly what that meant when I was a kid, if that meant being a writer or director or producer. I didn't really understand what these things were and even through college I still didn't really figure out exactly what I was or what I want it to be. And so after college is when I really got serious about putting pen to paper or hands to keyboard I should say, writing writing writing, and once I started doing it, I realized that that was what I should be focusing on. You know, I always, I always read and wrote and made little movies when I was a kid. I wrote a lot of stories that - I think I realized I wanted to be a storyteller when I was in fifth grade. I wrote this one story that my class went crazy for and my teacher had to keep reading it to the class several times during the school year and I realized I loved, I loved the feeling that I was entertaining my friends with something that came from my imagination. I still didn't realize that I wanted to be a writer, per say. I just knew I loved telling stories. I don't know if I answered your question again.

Katie: Yeah, oh yeah you did. Thank you. It’s always interesting to me to hear the path of, you know, somebody, especially somebody who's, who's making it, who's, you know, ascended to that next level. So I'm, especially today where there's no path, you just have to figure it out and forge the way ahead.

Gabe: Yeah, I mean I actually remember when I went in for my job interview at 1013, Mary Astadourian* was the one interviewing me and she said, so what's your dream job? What do you want to do? And I said, I don't know. Produce. Write. I don't know. She was like, you should figure it out. And so I pretty quickly figured it out.

Katie: Is this your first time sort of making the press rounds with the X-Files?

Gabe: To some extent. I did it a little bit last season, but this was more, it was definitely more this time around. It’s fun.

Katie: Yeah, it's very fun. I, the fact that there's more X-Files coming out, that, you know, that we're talking about this at all. It's like I feel like I'm living in a new timeline, a whole new timeline.

Gabe:I'm just relieved because they're really good this season. I'm really proud of them and I think people are enjoying them. So it’s a relief.

Katie: Yeah. Have you, uh, have you had a good experience with fans? What's the fan response been like?

Gabe:Like I said, I don't even look online because I can't handle it. I’m a delicate flower. I mean, uh, the reviews that have been sent to me have been nice and I think um, you know, I'm happy if the fans are happy. I don’t like to know when people say bad or angry stuff. When you think about how hard everybody — hundreds of people — work on these shows, and then people just tear it down online, it’s a hard pill to swallow. I have a thin skin and I need to work on it!

Katie: Someone’s always going to - haters, gonna hate.

Gabe: Haters gonna hate. People who have nice things nice to say will find you and say them to you.

Katie: Exactly. And I mean, I think the ratings speak for themselves, like the viewership speaks for itself. So. People are just really excited to have a Skinner episode to have, you know, a cool monster, you know, it just feels like it feels like an episode from the, from the OG run.

Gabe: Yeah. That was my intent. I hope I check those boxes because it was most important to me to do an episode for long-time the fans of the series, being one myself.

Katie: All right. Well thank you. Thank you. Thank you again, Gabe.

Gabe: Thank you.

Thank you again to Gabe for being so generous to Katie, and we hope for the best that his original projects can come to realization.

*Mary Astadourian was Chris Carter’s assistant, as well as Vice-president of Ten-Thirteen from 1997-2002

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Interview with Kristen Cloke and Shannon Hamblin
Interview with Gabe Rotter (2018)
Interview with the Deep State creators
Interview with Darin Morgan (2018)
Interview with Frank Spotnitz (2016)
Interview with Darin Morgan about 'MASMTWM'
Interview with James Wong
Interview with John Kenneth Muir, pt. 1
Interview with John Kenneth Muir, pt. 2
Interview with Garfield Whitman
The X-Files series premiere report
Recap of Exclusive 'My Struggle' Screening Event
Interview with Jerry Hardin
Report from Dragon Con 2015 X-Files Anthology Panel
Interview with Mike Joffe
Interview with Thierry J. Couturier
Interview with Vince Gilligan
Chris Carter talks about 'The After'
Interview with Sarah Stegall
Interview with Jeff Charbonneau
Interview with William B. Davis
Interview with Alex Gansa
Interview with Glen Morgan
Interview with Gabe Rotter
Interview with Amy Donaldson
Report from LAX-Files book signing
Interview with Erica Fraga
Interview with Howard Gordon (2011)
Report from Vancouver TV Forum
Interview with Gabe Rotter
Interview with Robert Shearman
Report from 'Believe Again' event
Report from X-Con 2009
Interview with Jana Fain
Interview with R.W. Goodwin
In Tribute to Kim Manners
Interview with Matt Hurwitz
Pemberton Set Report
Paley Festival Interviews
Interview with John S. Bartley
Report from Wondercon 2008
Interview with Howard Gordon
Q&A with Chris Carter
Interview with Doug Hutchison
Interview with Frank Spotnitz

Gabe: David has jokingly said that he thinks Darin Morgan hates him, which is so funny because - all that stuff so lovingly mocks Mulder.

Katie: Oh, definitely. Even in like Small Potatoes were Darin Morgan didn’t write it but he played the main character Eddie Van Blundt, like even in that, I mean, that's the ultimate where he takes on, takes over Mulder and is like, I can do this better than you.

Gabe: That might be my favorite episode, actually.

Katie: God, it's high on my list too.

Gabe: I love all the Vince episodes. I always have. I remember reading them back in the day. They spoke to me. I knew that THAT was the kind of writing I wanted to do.