«How about writing for the movies?» My lover, Gail, and I had just gotten teaching jobs in Los Angeles and a famous Hollywood screen agent, Geoffrey Sands, had my phone number before our furniture arrived.
«I want to finish my next book,» I said. «And learn to surf.»
«What did they pay you for your book?» said Geoffrey.
«You could make that in a day,» Geoffrey Sands said to me.
«What’s your salary?»
«A year?» he said. «You’d make that in a week. Add it up. Do you know how hard it is to live in this town on less than $500,000?»
«I don’t go to the movies,» I said.
«All the better. I see you don’t have an answering machine. What do you type on?»
«You’re crazy,» he said. «You’re a caveman. But you wrote a funny book.»
A week later he sent me an answering machine, a desktop computer, and the screenplay of a classic movie he’d represented, Bull Durham.
«What’s it about?» said Gail.
«Sex and baseball,» I said.
«How original,» she said. «Should we rent it?»
«No,» I said. «Reading it was hard enough. Want to read it?»
«Can I skip through the baseball?»
«They have sex while playing baseball,» I said.
In a week I had an appointment to pitch a mini-series at HBO.
It was on a movie lot. In the coming months, on the way to pitching movie ideas, I walked through the sets of America’s dreams. Chinatown. Batman. Star Wars. Some Like It Hot. I shook the hands of a dozen stars I couldn’t name. The HBO office was in a doublewide trailer on the lot of Fox or Paramount or MGM or Universal or somewhere. A kid in his twenties answered the door. «Great book,» he said. He took me into a room where a guy in his forties sat behind a messy desk and talked on the phone. «This is Rosenthal,» the kid said. The older guy gave a slight wave without raising his head, then went back to shuffling papers and talking.
«Tony Ackers,» said the kid. It was some name like that. «He produces everything. Don’t worry, he’s listening. What was it like shooting heroin with those black guys?»
«I didn’t do that,» I said.
«It’s in the book,» he said.
«I made it up.»
«Fiction isn’t made up,» he said. «It’s autobiographical.»
«My neighbor shooting cannon balls from his porch, that’s true,» I said.
«That’s unbelievable,» he said. «Have you seen A Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy?»
«I read a little of the book,» I said. The older guy had yet to look up.
«That’s what I envision,» the kid said.
«In my next book my hero is an interplanetary garbage man,» I said to him.
«I don’t like that,» he said. «It doesn’t work for me. Let me think about this and get back to you.» We shook hands. Tony didn’t say good-bye. I never heard from them again.
That happened a half-dozen times before I ended up in front of a woman executive at Fox who pretty much put me through the same thing minus the kid. She read scripts and talked on the phone while I pitched some of my ideas and she shook her head. «The world isn’t ready for homosexual basketball players,» she said without looking up. «Besides, we did a sports movie last year.»
«Hasn’t everything already been done?» I said. «Isn’t it about the writing?»
With that, she actually looked at me. «Here’s a movie idea. Give me four tits, two asses, and a funny guy in between. Can you write that?»
Was that an idea? I didn’t know if I could write it. Why would I want to write that? Why would anyone want to write that? Why write it at all? Thinking about it, was there a person who actually wrote that stuff? Couldn’t you just get four tits, two asses, and a funny guy and turn them loose in front of the camera? Was there somebody better at writing that stuff than somebody else?
«Yes,» said Geoffrey. He’d agreed to meet Gail and me at a bar on Sunset. «It’s about the money. All great writing sells. Stick your genius in between the lines.»
I figured that «between the lines» was an industry euphemism for some real place.
«Your pitching sucks,» he said to me. «You’re ruining my reputation.»
Then Gail walked in.
«Jesus Christ,» he said. «With that on your arm you could sell anything.»
So I went back out, this time with Gail. And Geoffrey was right. We did a lot better. You know, she was the brains and I was the beauty. We started getting call backs to develop our ideas. We sat in front of producers. There was always a pretty blonde or a cute boy to whom the producer said things like, «That sounds like a great part for George Clooney. Get him on the phone.» The assistant left. Came back in. «Cal Will Smith, then try Depp.» After a few months of that I wasn’t getting much of my own writing done, or surfing.
Then a producer’s assistant called and asked us for our birthdays.
«How sweet,» I said to Gail. «We’ll get birthday presents. You see? They’re human!»
But Geoffrey said our birthdays were used to check our horoscopes. There were bad omens and we were dropped.
«Check your horoscopes! Give fake birthdays!» said Geoffrey.
«The learning curve is tough,» I said.
Finally an actual producer from Paramount called. «I want the Mormon polygamy thing,» he said.
«Okay, great,» I told him.
«Write it up and send it to me.»
«What am I writing up?»
«Don’t we get paid?»
«Trust me,» he said.
I never trust anybody who says «trust me.» And at least Geoffrey had already told us never to write anything before we were paid. I called him and told him we didn’t want to pitch ideas anymore.
«Everybody in the world wants to be doing what you’re doing,» he said to me. «I meet dozens of novelists every month and all they want to do is be in Hollywood.»
In the meantime, my agent in New York called and asked me how my next book was going.
«How’s life out there with the stars?» she said.
«I’m a white dwarf,» I said.
«Is that better than a black hole?»
«I’d prefer to be a black hole,» I said.
In Los Angeles, if you tell someone you’re a writer, they want to know what movies you’ve written or what TV show you work on (TV shows are written in writing rooms, by committees). If you say you’ve been to a reading, they think you’re seeing a psychic. The entertainment section of the LA Times runs everyday, with full page movie ads and dozens of reviews of TV shows and movies; some are reviewed again and again. Often more time is spent on how much money a movie makes than what happens in it. Movies based on books often do not mention the author and, if by chance someone alludes to a literary circumstance, they refer to the movie, not the book. And usually what they’re referring to didn’t happen in the book. The LA Times Book Review shares a small fold out section in the Sunday paper and only spits out a couple book reviews a week; usually it’s a book about some celebrity.
So I figured I’d give the movies one more shot. Cowboy poetry was all the rage and Gail and a friend of hers had written and published a literary send-up of two cowgirls corresponding to each other via cowgirl poems. I read a bunch of books on screenwriting, set the cowgirl book to plot points and wrote a screenplay, a romantic comedy. I thought it was hilarious. Funnier and sexier than Bill Durham. I sent it to Geoffrey. After two months I called him.
«Are you, crazy?» he said to me. «Nobody’s going to pay twenty million for this.»
«Twenty million?» I said. «How about twenty thousand?»
He hung up. He was through with me. But a friend of ours named Mari, who was also flirting with the industry, read my screenplay.
«It’s idiosyncratic, but I’m sleeping with a Hollywood producer at Sundance,» she said to me. «Let me give it to him.»
«A Hollywood producer?» I said. «I thought Sundance was independent.»
«Don’t be a fool,» she said. «You think they pay for it with bake sales?»
A week later I was a finalist at Sundance. A week after that Mari broke up with the producer. A week after that my screenplay was rejected by Sundance. That was some time ago. Since, a few of my novels have been optioned for movies, but I always refuse to write the screenplay. I tell them, «Take the book. Do what you want with it. The book is the book.» And that’s pretty much how I feel about it. I mean, have you ever seen a Hollywood movie and said, «Boy, I wish I’d written that!»
Living out here, I still run into screenwriters and directors and producers all the time. Inevitably they shake my hand and say, «I wish I’d chosen to do what you did.»
And I say, «I wish I had your money.»
But I don’t think they could choose to do what I do, anymore than I could choose to do what they do. Hollywood is a world upside down from mine. Sometimes I write hundreds of pages to find an idea. I don’t even use an outline, let alone a storyboard. Issues of depth and complexity aside, my writing process is completely different from that world, private, contemplative, and about words, not pictures.
All artists and writers live with market challenges, not just the ones who live in Los Angeles. And though the popular appeal of movies and television likely reflects the fact that people don’t read, in the end movies and TV aren’t our competition. Our competition is Garcia Marquez, Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf.
Which leads me to my last story. Some years back, when I was teaching introduction to fiction, a nineteen year old student of mine said to me, «Hey, I know you. I read one of your books.»
«Which one?» I said.
«The one that’s in New York now.»
«The unpublished one I just finished?»
«Yeah,» he said. He told me that before a New York editor could take a novel to the publishing house’s marketing committee, they sent it to Hollywood where the studios hired readers to recommend whether or not the book would make a good movie. That was his job. In front of me stood my ignorant, teenage student who had decided whether or not my book would be considered in New York.
«Did you like it?» I said.
«Nah,» he said, «it didn’t work for me.»