Saturday, April 2, 2011
MY MEMOIR AND THE STORY BEHIND IT - PART I
I’m going to talk about some deeply personal and painful stuff in this post, and it’s not because I want to solicit sympathy (I don’t!), but because there are a lot of writers who visit here and I’m looking for some writing advice.
Some background. Years ago, I wrote a memoir I’d titled at that time, My Secret Life. It covered my life from birth until about my forties when I met my wife Mary. I’d planned on writing a second one, covering the years from that point up until the present of wherever I was then. (I’m now 68.)
That memoir covered a lot of things. My criminal “career” in which I committed over 400 burglaries, my two-plus years in prison, my stints as a male escort, drug dealer, car chases with the police, several marriages, attending college and graduating after prison, getting my MFA, my career for thirty-plus years as an award-winning hairstylist, car chases with cops, womanizing, including going to bed with over 1,000 women, living with a call girl who stabbed one of my other girlfriends and tried to kill me several times, and a bunch of other stuff. Including my childhood. Which was miserable.
I sold the memoir to the University of North Texas Press. They’d previously published my first novel and my collection of short stories. Both books sold out and both books won prestigious awards and were nominated for a fistful of others. Flushed with joy at this sale, I went to Hollywood to meet my new manager, Paul Bennett, to talk over our strategy of selling the screenplays I was also writing. One had just finished as a semifinalist in the Academy’s Nicholl’s Foundation Awards (I wrote it, literally, in two days and it was the first script I’d ever attempted.) Another, written in less than a week, had placed as a finalist in both the Writer’s Guild competition and the Best of Austin competition.
While meeting with Paul, I told him I’d just sold my memoir. As it happened, I had a copy of the mss with me as I was doing edits from the notes provided by my editor. Paul asked if he could take a look at it and I said sure. A bit of background about Paul Bennett—he had formerly been the Vice-President of HBO. Paul was the individual who had come up with the idea of the Comedy Relief specials and had been the producer. I met Paul through his wife, Barbara. I was also teaching online for the UCLA Writer’s Program and she had been one of my students. Upon learning I also wrote screenplays, and that I didn’t yet have a Hollywood agent, she talked to Paul about repping me (he had resigned from HBO and had become a manager) and he agreed. I was his first client who wasn’t an above-the-line talent.
Anyway, Paul ended up staying up all night to read my memoir. Said he couldn’t put it down. If you know anything about Hollywood managers/agents/producers you know that none of these guys read manuscripts! The next morning we met and he told he how much he liked my mss and asked me if I minded if he’d show it to the president of HBO as he thought he might be interested in it. Of course, I agreed!
The next day, Paul got a phone call from this guy who said he’d done the same thing as Paul. Said he intended to read a few pages, but found he couldn’t put it down and stayed up all night reading it. He said it was the most remarkable memoir he’d ever read. He said HBO wanted it and for me not to show it to anyone else in Hollywood. He said (his words) that “it was Permanent Midnight but with balls.” He knew that UNT was publishing it and he told Paul that they (HBO) wanted it to come out in print first and gain some “legs” (audience) and hopefully get good reviews and maybe awards and then they’d produce the movie. I would get an opportunity to write the screenplay as well.
Well, I went back home to Indiana on the proverbial Cloud Nine. Fame and fortune just around the corner! And then, my publisher at UNT, Fran Vick, retired. A couple of days later, the editor, Charlotte Wright (who had been my editor on both of my other books for them) resigned to take a position as Managing Editor at the University of Iowa Press (where she still is). The new editor took over and assigned my mss to a freelance editor to work with me on the editing. Things progressed smoothly for about a month. I was getting notes from the freelance guy and then… all of a sudden he wasn’t returning phone calls or emails. Couldn’t reach him. After a week of trying everything to reach this guy, I finally contacted the new editor at UNT. He said they weren’t publishing my book because “they had no record of a contract.”
Well, that was fucked! To get a book published with a university press you have to jump through some serious hoops. For one thing, it has to be approved by the Regents to get a contract. And, I had a contract, but couldn’t find it. Then, as now, my “bookkeeping system” is… how do I put this?... messed up. I had (and have) huge piles of papers all over the place, a file cabinet stuffed with all kinds of folders not named, etc. I looked and looked for it and couldn’t find it. It’s still here someplace. I ended up calling Charlotte Wright at Iowa and told her what was going on.
She told me she’d been expecting my call. She said she’d received similar calls from other authors who’d had their books signed by her. She said what the deal was, was that the new editor wanted to establish his own “stable” of writers and was getting rid of everyone that she and Fran had signed. She said, that indeed I did have a contract and that she could send me a copy of it and that I could easily sue UNT and win and they would have to publish it, but… did I really want someone to publish it that didn’t want it? I reluctantly agreed. At the time, I didn’t think it would be a big deal to find another publisher, especially since HBO wanted it.
Turned out, it wasn’t that easy. I didn’t have a literary agent at the time and tried to sell it myself. No luck. After awhile, I just put it in a drawer and forgot it and went on with other work. About two years ago, I decided to get it out and rewrite it, which I’ve done.
I was all set to send it out and my agent decided our best strategy was to sell one of my novels first. I agreed.
And then, two days ago my world turned upside down.
Much of the memoir (now, retitled Adrenaline Junkie) deals with a really messed-up childhood. My mother is a religious fanatic and for most of my life belonged to a cult as she continues to this day. My father abused me in many, many ways. I don’t think of myself as a victim and didn’t write that portion of my memoir as a victim, but just wrote about some of the events that took place. You can only be a victim if you allow yourself to be and I won’t allow myself to be. Actually, I've always looked at experiences like that in my life as "material" and been thankful for it. I'm grateful in many ways that I didn't have an Ozzie and Harriet childhood. How boring is that!
What turned my life upside-down? About five years ago, my sister Ann told me that our Aunt Ruth had told her and my (since deceased) sister Jo that I wasn’t my father’s child. All of a sudden, all kinds of things made sense. It accounted for the way he’d always treated me, for one. Ann offered to take a DNA test with me to see if it was true or not. I’ve wanted to ever since then, but just couldn’t afford the cost.
About two weeks ago, I received a royalty check from one of my books that was much better than I’d expected and my wife Mary agreed that we could use part of it for a DNA test.
The results came back the day before yesterday. He wasn’t my father. It has devastated me like nothing in my life ever has.
Yesterday, I went up to South Bend to confront my mother. The guy I had always been told was my father had passed away years ago.
That meeting was ugly. I’ll write about it tomorrow, but right now I’m emotionally drained and need another day to re-gather myself. In fact, I should let everything I’ve learned sit for a few years and get some emotional distance, but I want this to come out and I don’t know if I’ll live that long, so I’m going to begin rewriting it now.
Which brings me to the point of this and why I’m posting it here. I wrote the original book not knowing any of this about my father. I want to rewrite it with that new knowledge but I’m not sure how to do that. I’m hoping that once I lay out the entire story that some of the writers here can advise me on how to write it. Do I just keep it the way it was originally and then add a chapter at the end with this new knowledge, or do I rewrite it from the perspective of knowing it now? It changes everything I’d written then not knowing he wasn’t my real father, but it’s the perspective that I’ve lived with all of my life until now. I just don’t know how I should present the material at this point and am hoping for some advice from someone here. I just want it to be as honest as possible.
I’m also hoping there are some folks out there who can advise me on how I might find out who my real father is. My mother claims she’s tried to forget his name ever since then and all she can remember is his first name, which she said was Gail. (Or Gayle. She didn’t say how it was spelled.) I’ve demanded she tell me, but don’t know if that will happen. She’s still lying about most of what happened. I’ll explain more about that in the next post. At the time I was conceived my mother was a student at Baylor University. I think the guy who was my biological father was also a student there. Since I was born in February, 1943, he would have been a student there nine months before, I assume, in 1942. Since my mother was a sorority girl, I’m assuming he was in a fraternity. I’m thinking that if I can somehow see copies of yearbooks or fraternity records there might be a photo of a “Gail” or “Gayle” and I might look like him. One of the things that has bothered me all my life is that I don’t look like my pretend dad or any of my siblings. Like other stuff, that now makes sense!
I’ll post more tomorrow and about my meeting with my mother. If anyone can help me out, I’ll be forever in your debt. And, I’m not looking for sympathy at all. I’m dealing with it, but the most important thing in my life has become finding out who my real father was. He may even still be alive. I may have other half-brothers or sisters! My son and two daughters also want to know who their real grandfather is and his history.
Tomorrow, like Paul Harvey, I’ll post “the rest of the story.”
P.S. If someone wants to help but doesn't want their reply to be public, please contact me at my private email address at firstname.lastname@example.org.