Dateline: Somewhere between Portland and New York, Elite Access Compartment, United Airlines Flight #485 Z.

I’m currently on a plane, en route to the glitzy premiere festivities for Mildred Pierce, the HBO mini-series based on the book by James Cain, directed by Todd Haynes, starring Kate Winslet, and which I helped adapt to the screen.

I believe I was on a plane the first time I read Mildred Pierce, come to think of it. I was on the way home from a wedding in 2004 or so, and having a little noir kick of late, thinking the genre might have some bearing on the novel I was at the time contemplating (and which I’m only now bringing to some closure). I’d read some Hammett, which seemed kooky; Highsmith, which seemed cynical; Graham Greene, which was too Olympian to learn anything from. I’d already read Cain’s most famous ones, Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, and had come away impressed by their artfulness—the lurid expressionism they packed into their terse sentences, their “unputdownable” (a coinage of critics at the time) pace. Way before Ballard, here were people fucking in the wreckage of car crashes. Here were people cheating, scheming, double-crossing in ways that put contemporary depictions of such vices to shame. Here were some stripped-down, but incredibly sophisticated, books.

I wasn’t prepared for Mildred, though. Contrary to the jacket copy (“the story of a bitch!”), within 10 pages I could see this was not “hard-boiled” in the least. If anything, this was an openly literary endeavor (as if the crime books were not), the portrait of a middle-class woman struggling to feed her family in Depression-era L.A., and keep her torrid, cruel elder daughter, Veda, close to the breast. The sex depicted in the book was frank, the relationships natural, the economics precise. And more than that, the sentences were incredibly limber, tumbling out with clear relish for the highs and lows of American language. The prose had Cain’s saltiness, for sure, but the music here was grander, looser, more nuanced.

Come to find, the tight-lipped, tough-guy persona people most associate with Cain only accounts for a small fraction of his writerly identity. He was a prolific, long-form journalist and Op-Ed contributor long before his novel writing days, publishing in Mencken’s Mercury and Lippman’s New York World, even doing a stint as managing editor of the New Yorker. His father was an academic and his mother an amateur opera singer. He was, in other words, what was known at the time as a highbrow. But unlike Mencken, his close friend and mentor, he was not a snob about it. He wasn’t aiming to expose the Babbits of the world like Sinclair Lewis. He had no ax to grind with the shallow people of Potsville like John O’Hara. He was simply a great connoisseur of the American vernacular (“the Vulgate,” he called it), turning his perverse, but ultimately unmalicious imagination toward the tabloid exploits of his fellow citizens. It makes sense that he came into his fictional voice only after heading West, and arriving in a land of relative equality and self-reinvention compared to that of literary New York.

Anyway, I was pressing the book on people for awhile, among them my dear friend Todd Haynes, and he soon hatched the idea to adapt the book into a mini-series. Much to my amazement and joy, he invited me to help. It’s hard to believe this has been considered “work” the last couple years. Hanging out with Todd is never work. And in this case the adaptation process was not even super-arduous, either. Cain’s novel, already steeped in film ambiance, broke down fairly easily into script form, falling into five hour-long parts, and although there was enormous tweaking and reshaping to do, along with some wholesale invention, particularly in the final third where the book’s action reaches a terminal velocity, we were able, I think, to remain fundamentally faithful to the text. I have yet to watch the Michael Curtiz version with Joan Crawford—I’m always too put off by the gun in the first minutes to keep going—but from what I gather our version is pretty different, to say the least. Flying to the premiere, I’m pleased to report that an honest collaboration between two of my favorite artists, Cain and Haynes, has occurred.

People often ask if I was on set much. The answer is no, I wasn’t, though I did visit once. As it happened, that day’s shooting schedule included one of Kate Winslet’s big sex scenes (one of many, actually: this is HBO, after all), and dear reader, let me tell you, it wasn’t what you might think. The day’s shooting occurred in a gigantic hangar in the former Navy Yards in Brooklyn, and the day’s beach house location was recreated inside a huge plywood box. I didn’t see anything that happened. The monitors were all taped off and only the director and cameraman were allowed inside the set’s walls. Thus, my triumphant visit mostly consisted of sitting in the hangar, listening to the sounds of Kate Winslet and Guy Pierce simulating passionate first-time sex.

It was a good afternoon, though: if nothing else, sitting there outside the box, I found myself in the presence of about as apt a metaphor for the writing life as I’ve yet to encounter.