September 2016 | Kemper Donovan JD '04

Kemper Donovan JD '04 (Author, The Decent Proposal)

by Terence O'Toole Murnin

In a world where dating now often means swipe left or swipe right, Kemper Donovan creates an old fashioned romantic comedy set in Los Angeles, one of the most unlikely places to find true love.

Kemper Donovan sounds like the name of an indie-rock band you may have seen at Coachella, and the actual guy—impossibly handsome—looks like the leading man in a Hollywood rom-com. Possessing a resume that includes an undergraduate degree from Stanford followed by Harvard Law School, he “retired” from law at the age of 25 to pursue a 10-year stint at Circle of Confusion in LA, where he represented screenwriters and comic books.  Donovan is currently sporting the hat of published author, and his debut novel, The Decent Proposalwas recently named the “#2 Summer Beach Read” by Cosmo.

“I’ve always been a late bloomer, and I didn’t start writing until I was 30,” demurs the 37-year-old Donovan, “but I was at the point in my life where I knew I had to start something. I thought, ‘I better keep churning because time is not on my side.’”

While Donovan readily admits that he has always struggled with dating (“I’ve never been on dates more than three times with the same person”), The Decent Proposal is not necessarily autobiographical.  It is actually the culmination of a variety of experiences among himself and friends that he has woven into a high-concept romantic comedy decidedly at odds with the online world of and apps like Tinder, where the illusion of dating is experienced as infinite choices in a sea of endless hook-ups and countless throw-away experiences.

“Dating used to be a more ritualistic experience,” laughs Donovan. “The Decent Proposal looks at what happens when two people are forced to stick together in an old-fashioned way. At its core, dating is hard, especially in our current plugged-in contemporary world where no one is ever offline. At times, perhaps being stuck with the right person may not be the worst thing.”

In a strange twist of fate only believable among the helpless romantics of this world, during the process of writing The Decent Proposal, Donovan actually met his future husband:

“He’s the first and only person I fell in love with,” beams Donovan.

It’s this type of yearning for the past coupled with a sense of ease in contemporary Los Angeles that makes Donovan – and his writing – superbly unique. On his Twitter account (@KemperDonovan) Donovan unabashedly states, “If I could go back in time to any year it would be 1848, hands down.”

“1848 was the start of the woman’s rights movement at Seneca Falls and the Spring of Nations and political upheavals throughout Europe,” notes an invigorated Donovan. “The Victorian literature that sprung from this epoch like The Woman in White  and The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins continues to inspire my work to this day.”

Donovan’s own life has been like a Victorian fairy tale in which a combination of dreams, desires and persistence has brought him to this point as a working author, now writing his second book. A self-proclaimed “flailing 22-year-old,” Donovan went to law school because he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, but at Harvard Law he ended up meeting some of his best friends.

“Law school does not prepare you to be a lawyer, but it makes you career-focused, and I realized then that my career path was not one of being a lawyer,” explains Donovan.

Instead, Donovan wrote a query letter to Lawrence Mattis, himself a former lawyer and a partner at management-production company Circle of Confusion (made famous by The Matrix), explaining why Mattis should hire him. As fate would have it, Donovan landed the gig—but instead of his intended New York journey, the offer was for a manager position in the LA office. Donovan took the leap of faith, and his first script plucked off the slush pile ended up turning into the feature film Hanna with Eric Bana and Cate Blanchett.

“After initially balking at the idea of coming out to LA, I fell in love with Los Angeles, and it’s been an incredible 12 years,” reflects Donovan.

Donovan enjoyed the process of creative development, but he also felt that “the clock was ticking” in regard to becoming who he really wanted to be as an adult. As his work role transitioned into foreign licensing for comic books, he began to write on the side.

“I had dabbled in screenwriting,” reflects Donovan, “but I had never really considered myself a writer. Writing is so difficult, and you always have to be prepared to throw out everything you’ve done the previous day to honestly confront this sobering truth.”

To combat the brutal realities of encountering the blank page on a daily basis in his new role as a novelist, Donovan took on even more personal adventures – adding violin playing and running marathons to the mix. 

“Playing the violin and running put my brain in a different space,” relates Donovan. “Now, I have pursuits in my life that are very satisfying on a visceral level. If you run this far, or practice for this long, you can hit milestones that are a comforting counterbalance to the vagaries of writing on a daily basis.” 

Donovan would love to see The Decent Proposal turned into a movie, and he’s also eager to return to the solitary nature of writing after years of working on promotions and marketing (the novel sold in August 2014 and was released in April 2016). 

“I admire artists who are able to do it all, as the things you have to do outside of writing are impossibly distracting,” smiles a world-weary Donovan. 

And so it goes as the sun rises on another perfect day in LA that finds Donovan running next to the beach in Santa Monica, hard at work on his next novel, but tight-lipped as to the subject of the new work.

“I never knew what I wanted to do, but I passionately believe in following your instincts,” relates Donovan. “No one is really doing their dream job, especially in this town, but if you take small steps, and open yourself up – even bumble around for a time – the incremental steps can lead you to where you’re supposed to be,” informs Donovan, now sounding like the ultimate Hollywood life coach.

A decent proposal indeed, and like a proper romantic, Donovan fades into the distance, leaving traces of footprints in the sand.

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