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The (Un)Romantic Path of Literary Fiction: Alfred A. Knopf (Part II)

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In the summer of 2005, I signed a deal with Alfred A. Knopf, the literary division of Random House, to novelize The Road Back, a screenplay I had written in 1992. The screenplay was about a young, arrogant, music video director who is forced to confront his family when his mother suffers a devastating stroke that has left her wheelchair-dependent. In a fictional set of circumstances he ends up on the road with her, her caretaker and her Yorkie terrier on a tragi-comic road trip from San Diego to Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Much admired, optioned five years to sundry Hollywood entities, it was now going to be a novel.

My girlfriend at the time was an attorney in civil law. She read the very short contract with Knopf. She pointed out a clause that had to do with the second payment, the one when you turn in your first draft. "Upon acceptance of manuscript." That clause disconcerted the lawyer in her. In addition, the way the contract read, if they -- Jordan Pavlin, the senior editor at Knopf who bought the book -- didn't like it, not only could they refuse to make the payment, I would also be liable for the 50% up-front advance. I called both my agents, Dan Strone at Trident Media and Brian Lipson at Endeavor, and they quickly reassured me that this was just boilerplate language and that it was rarely exercised. It was put in place, much like kill fees are in all magazine contracts for freelance writers, in the event I turned in something unintelligible, or clearly didn't even try, they informed me. I reluctantly signed the contract. Never in my wildest dreams did I believe, after the stratospheric success of Sideways, that clause would be used against me.

In Hollywood, all screenplay contracts specify time-frames. Usually you're given a certain amount of time to finish a first draft, at which point you're paid. The company who hired you is then given a certain window of time to respond. If the contract calls for a second draft, you're paid to start, then paid when you finish, regardless of the subjective opinion of what it is you've written. It's all regulated by the Writer's Guild of America, West, of which I'm a member. Abuses do occur, and rules are frequently bent, but in no way are you ever not paid. A studio or production company would be a fool to flout this because they would be placed on a black list. In the publishing world there is no such union as the WGA. You are on your own. However, with powerful agents like Strone at Trident and Lipson at Endeavor I doubted that a publishing company would ever screw one of their authors.

It's my understanding that when you sign a book deal you have at least a honeymoon call with your new senior editor. That call never came. I never placed it because I was afraid I would be tempted to do what writers often tend to do: spill their doubts and anxieties about a project. Still, I thought it was weird. We had just signed a deal, and Jordan Pavlin never called to introduce herself as my senior editor and to congratulate me, let alone reassure me that I was in good hands, that there would be an open line of communication. I may have written her an e-mail, but if it was returned it was brutally short. I was starting to get the feeling that I was, indeed, on my own.

I struggled to wrap my imagination around the novelization of The Road Back. As I wrote in my previous blog, a screenplay is like a stone skipping across the lake of a vast idea, replete with characters and narrative twists. A novel addressing that same vast lake, step by quotidian step, must needs wade hip-high through that water. My mother's stroke was a real event in my life; it devastated, then destroyed, our family. Sideways was a personal novel, but I was able to find the comedy in my then current despair, and made it entertaining. The Road Back was even more personal, but there wasn't much humor to be wrung from it. Worse, the script was about a music video director. When I wrote it, music video directors like David Fincher (The Social Network), whom I modeled the character on, were very much in vogue. By '05 their names, and profession were now quasi-passé. In addition, in a script you can get away with not knowing everything about a character's occupation, his daily routine; in a novel, you can't. I had no interest in researching a music video director. My misgivings about novelizing an old screenplay were growing alarmingly more palpable. I started to curse my agent for twisting my arm to ink a deal with the supposed crème-de-la-crème of the publishing world, damn the idea, to hell with the writer who now had to deliver, just sign the deal. Or as one agent once said to me when I caviled that I was having trouble deciding whether to sign on the dotted line: "You're the writer, you'll figure it out."

I'm not like a lot of writers who write every day. I usually wait until an idea builds up inside me so that my brain is a microcosm inhabiting the entire world: characters, storyline, etc. Then, I go. But I was sure of one thing and it was stopping me: I didn't want the main character to be a music video director circa the early '90s. Many times I wanted to call Jordan and talk it through, but, as I said, we had never established a line of communication, and, with each passing week that I delayed beginning, I started to grow increasingly worried that I would be evincing a sign of uncertainty about the idea. I felt increasingly islanded, not succored, by my publisher.

I had never experienced "writer's block" in my entire life. If an idea -- screenplay or novel -- wasn't working, I just abandoned it and started on something else. In addition to having a contract with a major publisher hanging over my head for an idea that I had had doubts about going in, I was also aware, since the success of Sideways -- which I wrote when absolutely no one was looking over my shoulder -- that myriad eyes were now peering into my screen. Or so I paranoically imagined. I asked my agent to request an extension. It was granted. I asked for a second; it, too, was granted.

Then, in desperation, I had a veritable fulguration of the imagination: Having had success writing about a character who was so close to myself, I would make the music video director me, post-Sideways success and all that the perils of celebrity entailed. My mother's stroke, albeit having happened in another era of my life, would be the via regia that pulled my first-person character out of the hedonistic life I had found myself magnetically drawn to. Galvanized now in a way I hadn't been before, in a blazing six months, facing eviction from my rent-control apartment, I wrote a 175,000 word (long by today's standards) first draft. I poured in everything -- the over-indulgent night life, the hangovers, the wanton sex, my mother's stroke, my brother taking over her care and squandering her life savings, her near death from a heart attack, congestive heart failure. It was the most personal piece of writing I had ever produced. Borderline confessional, but still fictional in many ways, it felt like a veritable artistic catharsis when I was finished -- my second redemption novel, or so I believed. I went through it, assiduously revising and making corrections as I always do, but still felt the same sense of exhilaration when I was done. I sent it to my agents. It was forwarded on to Jordan Pavlin at Knopf.

A month went by. Nothing. Nary a call, or an e-mail. Not even a progress report. Two months. Three. Four... By now, I was convinced I had written a total piece of shit. It was too personal, too transgressive -- yes, it had a fair amount of sex and drinking in it, but barely enough to make Henry Miller blush. All I was hoping for was some input. No stranger to revision, I was ready to roll up my sleeves with Jordan and write and rewrite. All I wanted was some kind of response. Anything, but this maddening silence. My agents had read it, but like most agents today, they offered little or nothing. Everything was hanging in the balance with Jordan. Five months!!! Nearly half a year. I had poured my heart and soul, everything into this personal, albeit fictional account, of my trials and tribulations with my mother's stroke. Still, nothing. The heartlessness of the non-response was astonishing. My agent's hands were tied. We could only wait, he said to me repeatedly.

I have joked many times in the countless publicity events and personal appearances that I've attended over the years that when I wrote Sideways if I could have afforded a gun I would have shot myself. Now, I mordantly realized, I could have afforded all the armaments and necessary ordnance it would take to easily end my life. I was being treated, once again, like the scum of the earth, a fate I thought I had been liberated from since the success of Sideways. And like most writers, who have a habit of beating up on themselves, I started to believe, once again, that I had not only disappointed Jordan of the great Knopf, but the fans of Sideways who were waiting for my next novel with hopes that it would be just as funny and heartbreaking as its predecessor.