Stu Krieger Pens a Novel, ‘That One Cigarette’
By LAUREL BUSBY
Stu Krieger exudes a sunny warmth that envelops the characters and world of his first novel, “That One Cigarette.”
The book, which imagines a world where a chance event interrupts the assassination of Pres. John F. Kennedy, follows four families and the changed world that results from this shifted event. Not everything changes as the novel’s world connects to our current reality in numerous ways, but the alterations create a world that readers might find uplifting.
“There’s ultimately a sense of optimism and hope for the future,” said Krieger, a longtime Palisadian. “My editor said, ‘I really needed that right now.’” Krieger hopes that other readers emerge from the novel remembering that “there’s more good in most people than not. Kids get so overwhelmed and so convinced the end is near. There’s a lot of light in the world. You just have to look for it.”
For Krieger, a father, screenwriter, and UC Riverside professor, the novel was also a joy to create in part because writing is always fun for him. However, previously he had written projects for television and film, including the Steven Spielberg-produced animated movie “The Land Before Time,” the Emmy Award-winning miniseries “A Year in the Life,” and various shows for the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, which inevitably featured multiple deadlines and a number of people overseeing his work.
This time, he was the ultimate authority, which was both creatively freeing but also meant that all responsibility rested on him.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Krieger said. “The freedom and joy was ‘it’s all me’…. Nobody was dictating, but at the same time, when I did hit send on the file … ‘it’s all me.’”
The novel, which spans 45 years of time, approaches its subject matter in a realistic manner. Details of pop culture and common household practices of the various times make the environment specific and relatable to anyone who lived during those eras.
The characters, who include American families and an Iraqi family, are warmly presented, and their alternate history line connects to the current timeline in intriguing ways.
“This was a very deliberate calculation,” said Krieger, who moved with his wife, Hillary, and two now-grown children, Gus, 34, and Rosie, 30, to Pacific Palisades in 1990. “I’m somebody who believes certain things are supposed to happen no matter what. My wife and I believe that if we didn’t meet where we met, then we would have met somewhere else.” So, in the novel, “some things change, and some things don’t.”
The 1963 Kennedy assassination has long fascinated Krieger, who was 11 years old growing up in Rochester, New York, when it happened, and he said that he has since read 100 books on the subject.
But while this event captivated him, an optimistic outlook, which is also in some ways a part of the Kennedy era, is important to him. Almost four years ago, he gave a TED talk called “Choose Joy,” about the importance of making choices that bring joy into one’s life. This talk actually led him to his publisher, Harvard Square Editions, and it’s a vital part of who he is.
As a teenager, Krieger developed a potentially deadly illness called ulcerative colitis, which had a strong psychosomatic component, and he had to change the way he was thinking in order to address the painful bleeding in his colon. Moving to California in 1973 was part of choosing joy as he was determined to become a screenwriter who wrote movies that brought happiness to kids, just as Disney movies had made him happy as a child.
The current 361-page book went through a number of iterations during his years of working on it. The first draft was over 600 pages, and then he reluctantly stepped away from it when he became the chair of the film department at UC Riverside for four years. In 2016, he stepped down from that position and came back to his novel, whittling it down to about 450 pages and then working with an editor to get it to its current length.
The entire process of both writing and editing was a pleasure for him, and he noted that his work as a teacher helped inspire him.
“I couldn’t have written it before I was a teacher,” said Krieger, who is still on the UC Riverside faculty. He repeatedly taught his students to be proactive, creative and present in finding their paths in the entertainment industry. “Every single person you talk to did it differently. You’ve got to find your way.” This inspired him to think, “Remember what you told them, maybe you should apply to that to yourself.”