After nearly 25 years as a soap scribe, Shelly Altman opted to retire as GH’s co-head writer in August; her material stopped airing this month. She explains, “Working with Chris [Van Etten, co-head writer] was just a delight. I love the show. But there are just too many other things I wanted to do. When it got to the last year of my contract, I thought, ‘Yeah, I think it’s time.’ ”
• Breakdown Writer, ANOTHER WORLD, 1995
• Associate Head Writer, AW, 1995-98
- Associate Head Writer, ONE LIFE TO LIVE, 1998-2011
• Associate Head Writer, GH, 2011-12
• Co-Head Writer, GH, 2012
• Associate Head Writer, Y&R, 2013
• Co-Head Writer, Y&R, 2013-15
• Co-Head Writer, GH, 2015-2017
• Head Writer, GH, 2017-2019
Soap Opera Digest: What was your relationship to soaps prior to working in the field?
Shelly Altman: My first experience watching soaps was a spin-off of ANOTHER WORLD called SOMERSET, which a few college friends and I watched religiously — and, in fact, [we] named our volleyball team after characters from the show, like, on the backs of our shirts. I really enjoyed the format, the continued nature of the stories. But when I graduated, I was working full-time and I wasn’t watching much of anything.
Digest: How did you land your first daytime job?
Altman: I had come from film and prime-time and I wanted a more stable life and schedule. A friend of mine who was a network executive suggested that I try writing for daytime. They were looking for somebody at NBC at the time. I went in and I was pitching a million ideas and I’ve never looked back! I was hired as a breakdown writer for ANOTHER WORLD [in 1995] and within six weeks, they made me associate head writer. At the time, it was co-head-written by Tom King and Craig Carlson, who has been my significant other for the past 13 years. So I’ve made a number of wonderful relationships through daytime!
Digest: How did you end up moving to ONE LIFE TO LIVE in 1998?
Altman: Jill Phelps, the producer at ANOTHER WORLD, moved to ONE LIFE and wanted me there. Jean [Passanante] was coming into ANOTHER WORLD [as head writer]. She and I had never met and she wanted to work with writers that she knew. There was a writer at ONE LIFE who wanted to leave, and our agents literally negotiated, like, a baseball trade. When Jean came, I was still there for a couple of weeks and the unfortunate and fortunate thing is that Jean and I instantly clicked. Several years later, she came to ONE LIFE as a breakdown writer and we said, “If we ever had the chance to head-write together, let’s jump at it.” Which, later, we did [sharing duties at Y&R and GH]. We really became besties. Another constant in my career, from the moment I started working at ONE LIFE, was Frank Valentini [GH’s executive producer]. I watched him rise up through the ranks; he watched me rise up through the ranks. It seemed fitting that I ended my career working with Frank again.
Digest: In your years as associate head writer, did you harbor head-writing
Altman: Initially, I didn’t. I’m an idea person. I can’t help myself. I always felt like I was a major contributor to any team that I was a part of, but I was also busy being a single mother raising two sons. I did not feel that I needed that extra pressure. But when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped at it.
Digest: Was it intimidating to take over as head writer on Y&R, a show you had only been working on for a few months?
Altman: It was an exciting challenge, I would say, more than intimidating. I welcomed it. Before you make any change like that, you watch the show, you read as many scripts as you can, you read the history and the bibles. I felt with Y&R, I got it, I understood it. I didn’t immediately jump into the head writer position there, which made it far less intimidating.
Digest: Shows move faster now, taping more shows in less time, than when you began. I’m curious if you feel that has had an impact on your job over the years.
Altman: Yes, I think it has made the head-writing job a little harder. Because there are hiatuses in production, they need more material to produce before hiatus, which means that the writers actually have to write more in shorter periods of time. There are a lot more what we call “six-packs”, where you’re writing six shows a week instead of five. Even though it’s just one more show, one more hour of entertainment, it eats up story faster, so you really need to have your next story in line a little sooner than you used to. There are also budgetary concerns that have changed over the years that have affected the writing. You have to be far more clever with your use of sets, and you have to be clever with your cast use, making sure that all the actors are working to their [episode] guarantees.
Digest: Has the age of social media and Twitter changed the job at all?
Altman: Definitely. It’s not only constant feedback, it’s instant feedback. It’s a fine line. You want to hear what the fans are saying; it’s so important and very helpful. On the other hand, on Twitter, is one person tweeting 100 times with different handles or are 100 people tweeting the same thing? There’s no real way of knowing. ABC had a healthy opinion of the value of reading all the messages. I think they did sort of take the middle road: “Okay, we need to listen, but at the same time we can’t be dictated by what’s going on [on social media].” I’ve been around long enough to know some people are just not going to like what you’re doing. Some stories are going to be more popular than others. I’m not saying every story we did was great; there were times you look and you go, “Hmm. Didn’t work the way we had hoped.” So I get it. To me, [criticizing a story] is totally a fan’s right. But if you still believe in the story, I think you’ve got to tell it. When we first put Franco and Liz together, there was an outcry about that. But we felt committed to it. We felt, “This is a good story and this is a story we just want to tell.” If you really, really believe in the story, you have to tell it despite negative criticism. But if almost out of the box it’s not quite working the way you had hoped and if all the fans are agreeing, you may be inclined to just rush it up and tell it more quickly.
Digest: As you consider the totality of all of the stories you have told, are there ones that stand out as personal favorites?
Altman: Yes, there are. And interestingly, they’re always the more human stories. I mean, I love wild plots. We are a genre of people coming back from the dead and that kind of thing, and I love it. But the story that I remember most on ANOTHER WORLD, it was actually a very simple story of a woman [Judi Evans’s Paulina] who had a baby and after giving birth, she didn’t lose the baby weight and dealt with severe self-image issues. I thought it was a very real situation, very touching. Most recently, Mike’s Alzheimer’s on GH. These are stories that not only affect one person, but all the people around them. Similarly, Oscar’s brief life and death. On ONE LIFE, Viki dealing with breast cancer. Those are the kinds of stories that I liked telling and those are the ones I remember most.
Digest: Are there stories you wish you had another crack at?
Altman: Oh, yes, for sure. What I regret most are the stories that we aborted because of some trepidation, stories that may have been controversial and because of pressure that came from various places, we put a pin in them. For example, I feel we did not do justice to the story of Aiden’s sexuality. There were many sensitivity issues there. I do feel that was a story we did not see to its fullest realization, and I regret that. Similarly, there was a story that we pitched and we started when Julian was in prison. He was beaten up; we saw someone with tattoos all over him. We were going to tell a story about Julian and others having to fight against a white supremacy group. That was all that was on the air, and then it was never told. Again, there were questions, there were concerns, which I understand, but I personally regret not fighting more for stories I believed in that I thought were important to tell.
Digest: In your experience, are the challenges of the job the same at every show, or do they present their own unique challenges? On GH, for example, you’re dealing with a main character, Sonny, who’s a mobster.
Altman: Every show is completely different in terms of the challenges that you’re faced with — like, completely different, in a surprising way. The energy and the way the stories unfold are different, even the length of scenes may be different. So they absolutely present their unique challenges, and that [Sonny example] is one very specifically. Obviously, THE SOPRANOS did it successfully for a number of years, but we’ve gone far more years than that. How do you continually tell compelling, emotionally gripping story for one of your main characters who is a mobster? And on shows where you still have a fair number of characters who are legacy characters, how do you tell story for them that hasn’t been told already?
Digest: GH has many more characters than the other shows that are still on. Was that harder or easier to work with as a writer?
Altman: A little of both. Jean and I were very committed to trying to blend more characters, do more crossover to honoring legacy characters and pulling them into the forefront. We actively set out to texturize the canvas and use as many characters as we could in each story. It is a challenge with that many characters. You’re also dealing with actor vacations. On GH particularly so; you’re dealing with actors that take very long vacations. Continuing their story in their absence, that was definitely a challenge. But yeah, keeping everybody relevant and active and in story when there are so many characters can be challenging. On the other hand, it helps tell story from within without needing to bring in more external characters. I think that’s always a desirable thing.
Digest: Is there anything that we have not talked about that you would want the readers to know about your run?
Altman: I’d like people to know that I absolutely love this genre. Any time I told a story it came from the heart. If I went amiss at times, well, that happens, but I never lost my love for the genre, for the characters who became real people to me in my mind and in my heart. I wish my successors all the luck in the world. I hope that they remain as happy as I was to do what we’re very lucky to do.