Tuesday, August 17, 2010

THE LONG JOURNEY OF A BOOK

Hi folks—thought I’d switch it up a bit by talking about the twisted path a book sometimes takes to publication.
Yesterday, in chatting with an acquaintance at a publishing company, I mentioned that my agent Chip MacGregor was about ready to start sending out my memoir, Adrenaline Junkie, and wondered if perhaps her house might want a look-see. She said—absolutely, send it along.
Hopefully, they’ll take it or someone else will. If and when it achieves publication, it will have traveled a long and twisted road to borrow from some pertinent song lyrics.
Ten years ago, I had a publishing contract in my grubby little hands for this same book. It had a different title then. It was titled My Secret Life. The reason it was titled thusly was because at the time, very few of my acquaintances knew of my checkered past the memoir covered—my time as a criminal where I committed over 400 burglaries as well as strong-armed and armed robberies, the years spent in prison, as well as my other “careers” which included working for an escort service serving older wealthy women as their “date,” using and dealing drugs, being involved in high speed car chases with the cops (I outran them, in case you’re interested), shootouts, being married five times, living with one of New Orleans’ top call girls and participating in “gigs” with her involving one of NOLA’s most prominent politicians, having that same call girl girlfriend stabbing and almost killing another girlfriend, as well as shooting at me and trying to run over me with the car I’d bought for her, being a top hairstylist with a show on fashion and hair on Cox Cable in New Orleans, working for some of the top salons in the country, including being the styles director at Snobs in NOLA and working at many other leading salons in New Orleans and California, being homeless… the list goes on. None of my friends at the time knew of any of this. I was teaching creative writing at some pretty good schools, including the UCLA Writer’s Program and being Writer-in-Residence for three years at the University of Toledo. After my release from prison (Pendleton, in Indiana), I’d gone to college and obtained a B.A. from Indiana University and then my MFA in Writing from Vermont College. I had several books published and was considered a “respectable person” by everyone I knew. I figured at the time it was best to keep my past hidden. I didn’t realize that my past was actually an asset and not the negative I assumed it was. I just assumed that if people knew how bad of a citizen I’d been, I’d be unable to get a decent teaching gig or get my books published. I later found out it helped, rather than hurt.
Which is why I’ve changed the title to Adrenaline Junkie because that's really what my life had been all about.
Anyway, at the time, I was on a roll. I’d had three books published on the beauty business (still selling well—every year I still get a royalty check for a couple of thousand bucks for books published in the 80s), as well as my first novel, The Death of Tarpons, which won a Special Citation from the Violet Crown Book Awards and was nominated for a slew of other literary awards, and a collection of my short stories, Monday’s Meal, which was also a finalist for the Violet Crown and which garnered a rave review in The NY Times, comparing me to my hero, Raymond Carver. Both had been published by the University of North Texas Press (UNT). And, I had just sold my third book to them. My memoir. Both UNT’s publisher, Fran Vick, and the Managing Editor, Charlotte Wright, had loved it and had taken it to the Board of Regents and gotten it okayed and a contract sent to me.
This is when things began to get hinky.
A couple of weeks after I signed the contract for My Secret Life, I went out to California for pitch meetings. I was teaching at the time for the UCLA Writer’s Program, and one of my students, Barbara Bennett, was married to a top manager, Paul Bennett, and Paul had agreed to become my manager for the screenplays I was writing. I’d just written one in two days (literally) which had become a semifinalist in the Academy’s Nichol’s Awards, and even though Paul dealt strictly at the time with above-the-line talent, took me on as his first below-the-line client. We had a great meeting and during it, I passed on my good news that my memoir had just sold and I was in the process of working with an editor at UNT on the rewrite.
Paul was a former Vice-President of HBO (Paul was the guy who created the Comedy Relief specials), and had a couple of years before resigned and become a manager. However, he still had many contacts at HBO. That night, he sat down to read a few pages of it, and, as I found out the next day, he’d ended up staying up all night as he said he couldn’t put it down. At our meeting the next day, he told me how much he loved it and he said he thought perhaps HBO might be interested in it and would I mind if he showed it to them.
Duh…
He gave it to the president of HBO Films, and the next day this guy (sorry, can’t remember his name) called Paul and said he couldn’t put it down either. If anyone knows anything about Hollywood they know these guys never read anything. For him to do so was remarkable in itself. He told Paul that they (HBO) wanted it and to not even show it to anyone else. He compared it to the bestselling book and subsequent movie, Permanent Midnight, and said, it was: Permanent Midnight but with balls.”
Suffice to say, I was in Seventh Heaven!
I went back to Indiana and with renewed energy worked on the rewrite. Then, Fran Vick retired as the publisher of UNT and Charlotte Wright resigned to take the position of Managing Editor of the University of Iowa Press, a position she still holds. I was working with an independent editor UNT had assigned to me for the rewrite and things were going well until about a week after Fran and Charlotte had left the publisher.
And then… weird things began to happen. The first thing was my editor stopped returning my emails and phone calls. Concerned, I began calling the new editor, only to find he was always “out of the office” or would “return my calls as soon as he could.” This went on for a couple of weeks and by now I was in a bit of a panic. Finally, I got through to him and he said he was sorry but he couldn’t find a contract for my book.
What th!?
I had a copy of our contract but my bookkeeping system isn’t the best—actually, it’s a mass of clutter—and I couldn’t find it.
I called Charlotte at the University of Iowa immediately. Told her what had happened and she said she’d been getting other calls from writer’s she’d signed and she said what had happened was the new editor wanted his “own” stable of writers and was doing the same thing to everyone else. She said, yes, I did have a contract—she’d signed it and so had Fran and the Board of Regents, and she could get me a copy… but, did I want a publisher who didn’t want me or my book to publish it? I reluctantly agreed and didn’t pursue it with UNT any longer.
My thought at the time was to hell with them—I’d just find another publisher. But, as so often happens, life and circumstances interfered. I got caught up in other projects and the mss languished in a drawer and eventually I forgot about it. I got a new agent and told him about it and he suggested we sell one of my novels first and then we’d offer it to whoever took the novel. Sounded good, I said, and that’s when the slide into hell really took off.
The novel he was sending out, ended up in an auction, and it got down to between St. Martin’s and Random House. St. Martin’s final offer was $50,000 and Random House’s was for $45,000. My agent said it was up to me which to take and I decided to take the lower offer from Random. Biggest mistake of my life! I won’t go into it here (a later post, perhaps), but I was in Seventh Heaven, especially since they were going to bring it out simultaneously in paper from Ballantine Books and in hardcover from Random House. I was told it would be an instant bestseller because of the number of copies they were publishing.
Then, a week after I signed the contract, Random House was taken over by Bertelsmann and several other things happened, and they dropped the novel. I won’t go into all that in this post, but may in a later one. Briefly, it severely affected my life—financial and otherwise—and I’m still trying to recover from all that transpired from that fiasco.
But, my memoir really got buried then! It languished in a drawer until about a year and a half ago, when I decided to work on it again. I rewrote it extensively and when I was taken on by Chip, we decided it was time to send it out and that just happened yesterday.
Anyway, that’s part of the torturous trail this book has traveled! Keep your fingers crossed for me—I’d really appreciate it!
I just thought this might be instructive to other writers. As they say in Hollywood, don’t celebrate until the check clears!
I’ve had my share of setbacks in my writing career, but I’ll always maintain the same philosophy, through good and bad. Just keep writing. The writing is what it’s all about, anyway. The journey’s where the real fun is and everything else is just what happens in life. There are no guarantees and no one is entitled to an easy life. If we don’t have some rough patches, how can we expect to appreciate the good times? As my Canadian friends say and which I think is great advice for life: Keep your stick on the ice.
Blue skies,
Les
Here's a brief excerpt:
            On my first night in Pendleton, in quarantine, I laid on cold steel slats, no mattress. There had been a riot two days before our bunch got there and the inmates had burned everything combustible, including the mattresses. The pillows, too, were gone. They did give us a thin Army-blanket that you had to lay over you in a diamond shape if you were taller than five-ten. I beat that by two and a half inches.
            When I woke the next morning, there was a dusting of snow on my blanket, down at my feet where the blanket had slipped off. My toes were white. Well, the tops were white. Underneath the snow, they were blue. The rioters had busted out the windows as well. Quarantine was in the only cellhouse that had windows to the outside. This was on the thirteenth of February and it also happened to be my birthday. Didn't look like there was going to be any cake or presents.
            The Superintendent announced to the inmates, “You people busted up everything and now you have to live in it. I’m not giving you anything and I’m not fixing the windows, etc.”
            He didn’t either. It was one cold spring. A shitload of guys came down with pneumonia and worse. I don’t know whether anybody died. There were rumors that some did, but then we didn’t exactly have the N.Y. Times to check to see what was really going on. In movies, somebody farts in prison and in six minutes the entire population has the details. In Pendleton, you could have a guy get exed three cells from you and you might not ever know about it for a month.
            Pendleton, at that time, was one of the baddest joints in the country. During the years I spent there, then-President Johnson had commissioned a study on penal institutions. One day, a bunch of us were sitting around watching the only TV in the cellhouse (black and white) on a rec night when Johnson came on to report their findings. He said the study had shown that Pendleton was "categorically, the single worst prison in the U.S." We all stood up and cheered like he was talking about our football team and we'd just won the Rose Bowl or something.
            It was bad. During my stay, I lived through eight riots, not counting the one that had just ended when I arrived, but for which I paid for with snow on my toes and a few other discomforts.
            I'd seen a lot of things before this, but there are things that happened in Pendleton that I'll never be able to talk about. There were some good things too. I made friendships that were stronger than any I've ever had before or since.
            My first week out of Quarantine was my first taste of what prison was like. The guy in the cell next to me, a black guy, had been slowwalking a debt of a carton of Camels to this guy. That night, the guy who was owed the cigarettes walked by his cell and threw a beaker of acid in the black guy's face. He'd gotten the acid from some inmate who worked in I.D. (Identification Department). That was where they printed and photographed all new inmates. It was some kind of acid they used to develop pictures.
            My next-door neighbor lay in his cell and screamed all night. We were on the second tier and just below us I could see the hack at his desk. He never moved or even looked up all night. Just kept sitting there, reading his comic book or whatever. Toward morning, the only sounds coming from my neighbor's cell was little tiny whimpers. When they let us out for breakfast they must have come and dragged his ass out, because he was gone when we came back to get ready for work.
            A few weeks later, the black guy came back from the hospital. Obviously, he hadn't died. He might have wished he had. Half the skin on his face was turned a permanent blotchy pink, the color of bubblegum. He'd lost one eye completely and most of the sight in the other.
            You could get just about anything in the joint you wanted except a girl. That was at a time when they hadn't yet gone to female hacks, so it may be different these days. Although there were guys in there you'd swear were girls and after you'd been in awhile, that's the way you saw them. They went by women's names and you thought of and referred to them as "her" or "she." Any drug you wanted, long as you had money, you could score. Drugs were everywhere. And we ran (shot up) everything. I even knew guys who'd run aspirin and claimed you actually got a high from it.
            One night, a couple of buddies told me they'd scored some embalming fluid. They swore it was the best high you could get. I figure they got it from some inmate who worked on the burial detail. If you died and nobody claimed your body, they had a little cemetery just outside the walls for your final resting place.
            I was all set to shoot up with them, but we had a shakedown at my cellhouse when we were coming in from work and all of J Block was shut down until morning. These two guys from H got out to the gym, where they ran the shit. Killed both of them. That was one time I was happy to have been in a cellhouse shutdown.

8 comments:

Michelle said...

That was sad, so sad. Raw, too! Wasn't writing it like reliving it? It sounds exhausting.

I agree. This will be a best-seller. Good luck to you!

Les Edgerton said...

You're so sweet, Michelle. Thank you. I don't know if it'll be a bestseller or even close to it, but I hope it finds a publisher!

Paul Greci said...

Wow, Les! Your memoir would definitely keep me turning the pages thru the night. And it's not just about the intense experiences you've had, it's the way you write about them!

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Paul. Yours and Michelle's comments mean a lot. Hope a publisher or two hears you...

Sally Clements said...

Les, I read your blog post last night and was so affected I didn't post, not wanting my response to be quickly fired off. I thought about it for hours. Then read it again this morning. What you went through there must really have been a hell on earth. Its so inspiring that you've lived through it, and by writing about it so eloquently, the predominant emotion that it leaves the reader with is hope. You lived it. You always sign off with blue skies. Its inspiring. Thanks for sharing, it must have been hard to go back in your head.

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Sally. It was hard to go back and I had to let some distance take place. Actually, there's a seminal event that's in it, that was a lot rawer than that little excerpt I posted and that's what took the longest to get distance from. And, I had to wait until that happened before I could write it. If it gets published and you read it, you'll see what I mean. I can't even talk about it here until it comes out and then I think I'll be talking about it a lot.

Thanks for your comment--it amazes me that an experience of mine could affect another even the slightest!

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

Cool, Les. I'd read it. :)

Glynis said...

Thanks for sharing such an emotional time in your life Les.
The manuscript must be exhausted with the journey it has travelled. It is definitely time for it to find a final resting place. On a bookshelf. Good Luck.