Edward Burns could once mow a mean lawn.
During his summer breaks from college, his talents brought him to the East End, where he bused tables, cleaned swimming pools and, most memorably, landscaped the front yard of author Joseph Heller, who had converted his garage into a writer’s studio in Amagansett.
The men never spoke, Mr. Burns recalled last week during a telephone interview. But as he pushed his mower past that small room, he made a mental note, keeping one eye on the literary giant and the other on the half-cut grass: If he ever made enough money, he would live not far from here, writing in his own summer studio every day he pleased.
Since 1995—following the success of his film, “The Brothers McMullen”—Mr. Burns has done just that.
First, it was his kitchen in a Wainscott rental, then his home on Gerard Drive in Springs, and, finally, a screened-in porch at his house in East Hampton. There, last summer, he penned the entire first season of his police drama “Public Morals,” premiering Tuesday, August 25, on TNT—not to mention a part-memoir, part-textbook, “Independent Ed: Inside a Career of Big Dreams, Little Movies, and the Twelve Best Days of My Life,” over the course of several years, with the help of journalist Todd Gold.
The book has landed him a seat among 100 participating writers at Authors Night on Saturday in East Hampton, where he will co-chair the mass signing event alongside Robert A. Caro, Dick Cavett, Tom Clavin, Nelson DeMille, Christina Baker Kline and Lynn Sherr, as well as founders Alec Baldwin and Barbara Goldsmith.
He has his wife, supermodel and fellow author Christy Turlington, to thank for that.
“She had said, ‘You keep trying all these different things during your indie film career—you ought to think about writing a book, a how-to guide but also a cautionary tale,’” Mr. Burns recalled. “I thought it was a great idea, but, quite honestly, I did not have the time.”
The year was 2007. Mr. Burns was already looking ahead toward his next project, after releasing his film “Purple Violets” via iTunes—the first of its kind to go exclusively digital, he said.
“When we did press for that, 80 percent of the journalists said, ‘You’re crazy—people are never going to watch movies on their computers,’” he said, a smirk nearly audible through the phone. “It was a time when the writing was on the wall for indie filmmakers, that the golden age was coming to a close. The art house theaters around the country were closing, and people were no longer selling their indie movies at Sundance for millions and millions of dollars.”
It was a vastly different climate from the film world he grew to love in the 1980s, even though the Valley Stream native had always planned to be the next great American novelist—a fleeting dream, he realized, when he landed himself on academic probation at SUNY Albany in the fall of 1987. “I was not a great student,” Mr. Burns admitted. “My advisor called me and said, ‘Look, you have to get your GPA up. If you take a film studies class, watch old movies and write a paper on it, it’s a guaranteed easy A.’ I said, ‘Okay, I’m in.’”
The first film the professor screened was the 1960 comedy “The Apartment,” and Mr. Burns was so captivated that he had a revelation: Forget novels—he wanted to write movies. He took every film class the university offered and, just in time for his senior year, transferred to Hunter College’s film department.
One day in between classes, Mr. Burns was walking up Sixth Avenue and saw director Spike Lee ahead. He had countless questions for the director, he said, but couldn’t work up the nerve to approach him. In the years since, they have crossed paths—Mr. Burns is sure he recounted the story during one of their early meets—and it is a memory Mr. Burns always keeps in mind while addressing his fans and film students, whether its via Twitter or in a classroom setting.
After making a series of back-to-back micro-budget films —“Nice Guy Johnny” in 2010, “Newlyweds” in 2011, and “The Fitzgerald Family Christmas” in 2012—he set out on a publicity campaign, hitting every film festival, film society and film school that would have him.
“I have successes, and I’ve made some very costly mistakes and I’ve fallen on my face. I had all these lessons to pass on to young filmmakers,” he said. “A number of professors would say, ‘These are great stories—have you ever thought about writing a book?’ Every time I’d mention it to Christy, she’d say, ‘Yeah, I’ve been telling you that for years!’”
He laughed, and continued, “The credit has to go to Christy. She nudged me in that direction. She’s very happy with herself.”
This summer, Mr. Burns is back on his screened-in porch, working on season two of “Public Morals.” He writes every day on his laptop, a process that is never painful—though that is true only of writing fiction, he said.
“I have to admit, writing screenplays is a lot more fun, because you can lose yourself in a screenplay,” he said. “Having to go in and do multiple drafts on this book felt more like a homework assignment. I have no interest in writing another one. I’ll stick to the scripts.”
The 11th annual East Hampton Library Authors Night will be held on Saturday, beginning at 5 p.m., at 4 Maidstone Lane in East Hampton. Tickets are $100 and may be purchased at the gate. Author dinners will follow at various locations; tickets start at $300. For more information, call (631) 324-0222, ext. 7, or visit authorsnight.org.