I've spent a decade and a half in the publishing trenches as I wrote in my, admittedly highly opinionated, opening salvo on the current state of all media in the Digital Age, "It's the End of the Word as We Know It." I'd like to journey back in time a bit and chronicle my journey in the book publishing world, first with my novel Sideways, and then its sequel Vertical.
In '98, reeling from the many rejection letters on a mystery novel called La Purisima I had written, I sat down and, in nine, frenetic weeks, wrote the first draft of Sideways. Actually, what took only nine weeks really took 10 years, but that's another story I wrote about in a six-part serialization published on Stage32.com titled My Life on Spec: The Writing of Sideways. It intimately, and candidly, chronicles the entire ideation of the novel, the writing process, what happened with writer/filmmaker Alexander Payne and how it finally got into his hands, how it ultimately, miraculously, became a critically-acclaimed hit movie, and all that happened afterward. In this post I will be specifically addressing what happened Sideways in the publishing world. My story, especially for aspiring authors, is not for the faint of heart.
When I was done -- exhilarated is more like it! -- with the writing of Sideways I was terrified to show it to my book-to-film agent Jess Taylor at then Endeavor Agency (now WME) and my publishing agent, Mitchell Waters, at Curtis Brown, LTD. I was so destitute, and so despairing over the failure of my mystery novel that, well, let's just say, my confidence level, what little there was, had sunk to an all-time chasmic low. So, I gave it to Michael London, a former Fox exec., who would go on to produce Sideways. All I was seeking was his opinion on whether my ms. was worth showing to Jess and Mitchell. Michael read it in an astonishing 48 hours and said he absolutely loved it. He didn't want to option it, but he encouraged me to give it to Jess. I did. Jess took a nerve-wracking month to get it to. His response, when he finally weighed in, was ecstatic. I still have his messages saved on a cassette tape from my ancient answering machine because they were so exultant and, to me at the time, life-affirming. Mitchell at Curtis Brown chimed in with less enthusiasm, perhaps forecasting the clouds that would soon loom on the horizon, but still trusting everyone else's initial assessment and ready to move forward on his front.
Jess's and Mitchell's plan was to go out concomitantly to film and publishing because they both believed it had movie written all over it. (Most people who know my work think of me as a novelist, but in actual fact I've mostly written screenplays, and have even written and directed two indie features in the '80s, so if Sideways read more like a screenplay -- dialogue -- and character -- and scene-driven rather than prose-driven -- then I'll cop to being that style of writer, and make no apologies for being thus. The publishing industry has other opinions on screenwriters-turned-novelists... hold on!
In the publishing world -- at least back then -- you get official rejection letters typed on actual letterhead paper. Mitchell always sent them to me snail mail -- usually with a little encouraging handwritten note. Every one that landed in my mailbox was like a curare dart to my heart. After having endured over 70 on La Purisima -- a slow morphine drip that lasted nearly a year -- I wasn't sure how many more I could stomach. Part of me was inured to them, but since Sideways went out with such collective hullabaloo of enthusiasm, I really thought this time it would be different. Mitchell had gone to a first-tier of about 16 publishing houses, if memory serves. The rejection letters that trickled in, most of them incredibly succinct, were vitriolic, splenetic, downright hateful. It was as if I had committed some literary felony and Mitchell and I were to be pilloried for wasting these readers' precious time. One senior editor at a major house, in a fit of pique, wrote: "Dear Mitchell: Sideways is nothing more than a glorified screenplay, and if it was made into a film it would stink to high heaven with the rot of Pickett's writing." (In actual fact, the same novel was faithfully adapted into a film and won every single screenwriting award that a writer could win, including the Oscar, and is now enshrined in the WGA Theater as one of the 101 Greatest Scripts of All Time.) Mitchell, fearing that word was spreading that Sideways was roadkill, to be avoided at all costs, and would ruin our chances if we did manage to option it to a film company, pulled the novel from submission and encouraged me to rewrite it. When I queried him for story criticism all he said to me was: "Well, your characters drink a lot. Maybe tone it down." [Note to aspiring author: Agents don't get involved in story editing much anymore. They're manuscript peddlers, that's it.]
Jess wasn't having any luck on the Hollywood front. But, unlike the book world, in the film world you're spared having to stare nonplussed at nasty rejection letters, feeling every time like you'd run into a lamp post while text-ing. One of the submissions that Jess did make -- and which London later took credit for, over and over again in the press ad nauseum -- was in person to Alexander Payne's agent, David Lonner, down the hall at Endeavor. Payne was hot off his second feature, Election, and, according to Jess's memory, Lonner didn't really take his (Jess's) pitch about two guys going wine tasting too seriously, exclaiming that his client wanted to do something big now, a western maybe; i.e. no more indie stuff. Jess left the ms. of Sideways in Lonner's office on a tall pile of mss. that included galleys of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. Clearly, Sideways was on the fast track to nowhere with someone as hot as Alexander was then.
I couldn't wrap my head around a rewrite without input, so I paced my rent-controlled house in Santa Monica, borrowed from everybody, filled out every credit card application that came in the mail, and defenestrated the back bedroom window when my implacable landlord pounded on the door. Concomitantly, Jess started having trouble at Endeavor. The stress of having to make deals to justify his salary was clearly taking its toll. Having coming out to the West Coast from Curtis Brown, LTD. -- and the smaller, gentler world of New York publishing -- and having to deal with the politics and demands of a high-powered Hollywood agency run by a charismatic, but hard-driving, demanding Ari Emmanuel, Jess was overwhelmed. Six months into the submissions of Sideways to various film entities, he informed me at a book signing one night that he was leaving the business. My whole being imploded when he told me. I didn't think I could sink any lower, but I guess I had a few more floors to go. The last time I saw Jess was a going-away breakfast at a dreary restaurant in Beverly Hills. Afterward I walked with him to his psychiatrist's appointment, all the while mordantly thinking: hey, wait a second, I'm the one who needs the headshrinker. Then, realizing I was dead broke, I laughed: a gun would be cheaper!
In Part II: A shocking phone call that would change my life forever, and why I love the Japanese publishing world more than any publishing house in this country, bar none!