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Rex Pickett

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

Posted: 03/20/2012 12:17 pm

One would think that after the debacle that was my experience with St. Martin's Press on a book (Sideways) that became a huge sensation as a movie -- winning hundreds of awards, and their not doing any promotion or marketing, leaving tens of thousands, if not millions, on the table -- that I would never write another book again for a traditional publisher. One would think.

After the Oscars, the official close of the film awards season, I was suddenly hot. Everyone wanted something from me. My Endeavor agents wanted me to write TV; my manager wanted me to do an Anthony Bourdain-like show that would take me into different wine regions; wine festivals and other wine organizations wanted me to be master of ceremonies at their various events; women who wouldn't look at me now wanted to bed me with no compunctions; my alma mater (UCSD) offered me a visiting professorship in creative writing; and... my publishing agent, Dan Strone at Trident Media Group, wanted me to write another novel. At first he and my Endeavor book-to-film agent nixed the idea of a Sideways sequel. They thought it would not secure my "literary" future. Possibly true, but the real reason, I now believe, is that I didn't own the film rights to the now-iconic Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) in any future iteration of their characters. But I didn't know what I wanted to write next. Because I write from such a personal place, and had so sucked the marrow of my own soul for Sideways, I wasn't sure I had another novel in me.

My screenwriting agent at Endeavor (now WME), Philip Raskind, had read a script, The Road Back, that I'd written in 1993. It was about a young, arrogant, brilliant music video director (based on David Fincher, whom I worked with on his first feature, Alien III) whose mother suffers a devastating stroke. It forces him to deal with his family, comprised of two lame brothers, one of them who larcenously uses the mother's infirmity to, more or less, gut all of her savings. Through a series of circumstances, the Fincher character ends up on the road with his wheelchair-dependent mother, her black nursemaid and the mother's rascally Yorkie terrier. It was a moving, personal, and emotional script. It'd been optioned for five years and never made. The rights were now back in my hands. Raskind brought it to Strone's attention, he read it, and then beseeched me to consider novelizing it. I didn't want to. He cajoled. Though never stated, it was clear he wanted to cash in on my ephemeral heat. He said to me at one point: "You have two choices: you can either go off and write something and hope that they'll be around when you re-surface with your next book, or you can write up a one-page proposal and see what I can come up with." He was doggedly persistent.

Still very doubtful about novelizing The Road Back, I wrote the one-page proposal just to humor him. A screenplay is basically a montage. Imagine a novel as a huge body of water and a screenplay like a rock skipping deftly over that body of water. A novel is getting into that water waist-high and wading through it, step by step by laborious step. They're too entirely different animals. I didn't think The Road Back lent itself to the novel form. Dan did. I wrote the one-pager. Jordan Pavlin, senior editor at Alfred A. Knopf, also did, even though, it became apparent, she was unaware that it was based on an existing screenplay. They offered $75,000, half upfront, half upon "acceptance of manuscript" (remember those words, dear reader). Compared to what I could have made as a screenwriter, this was peanuts, and I told Dan as much. He countered with: "But it's Knopf, the crème de la crème of the publishing world, the darling of Random House." I grew up on great literature and knew damn well how many great authors were under their imprint. Despite the pathetic (relative to what I could have made in screenwriting or TV) amount, I have to admit I was flattered. Still, I kept imploring myself: did I really want to revisit a script I'd written nearly a dozen years ago, rake over old bones, and novelize it? Novelizing the story about my mother's stroke was going to be hard, it was going to take me through the quotidian details of what I experienced with her and my two brothers. It was an ugly decade in my life. It was going to be painfully personal, something in a screenplay I could, as I said, skip over, as it were and not have to roll up my sleeves and get down in the ditch with this very emotionally difficult time in my life.

Now that he had an offer on the table, Dan pressed for an answer. Trident Media has an eclectic roster of clients, but I wouldn't say it's a boutique literary agency by any stretch of the imagination. A deal with Knopf would have certainly raised its profile, as well as mine, in the literary community. Still, from a writing standpoint, I was circumspect. I had spent the better part of seven years writing two novels, one unpublished, and I now had opportunities to cash in on the success of Sideways, and I had an agent imploring -- no, pushing me hard -- to write another novel. Dan wanted to do a deal. (Advice to aspiring writers: remember, agents are not always looking out for your best interests; they're often trying to cash in on your success and don't really care what it is you're facing when you ink that contract.)

Even with all the pressure on me, my heart told me not to do it. It was going to be at least three years out of my life. But, after my horrible experience with St. Martin's Press, and believing that I would find my Max Perkins in Jordan Pavlin because, after all, she worked for top tier of literary publishers in Knopf, where they treated writers with respect, I was leaning in the direction of saying yes. I believed it would buy me a certain degree of security, and that I would be able to say for the next three years that I was writing a novel for Knopf. It would vouchsafe to me the cachet I had never had as a writer before.

In a weak moment, after much inveigling, I caved to my agent's entreaties. I have made a couple horrible, irremediable decisions in my life, but this decision to accept the writing of The Road Back for Jordan Pavlin and Knopf would go down as the worst I have ever made. It nearly killed me. I am still struggling to crawl out from under what happened to me with Pavlin (now co-president) and Knopf. Never in my life have I been treated so humiliatingly. Never have I suffered such ignominy. I have rued that day in the summer of '05 that I inked those documents. And this all happened to an author who was coming off the blockbuster success of Sideways, an author who had suffered for years to reach that pinnacle of achievement, an author who could have, within reasonable bounds, called his own shots, and fashioned a secure life for himself. Instead, with a persistent, money-seeking agent, and a publisher who ostensibly appeared to respect all writers, I turned down numerous offers and opted, against my better judgment, to go down the romantic path of literary fiction... and ended in a Hell that even Satan would have reared back from in horror.

 

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