When the Critic strikes MIDNIGHT, Look Out!
After MIDNIGHT became the first of my novels to reach number one on the national bestseller lists, a critic in a prominent publication wrote that I was an overnight success and had been sold with “a massive and slick ad campaign” to a gullible public whose “lips move as they read his tedious novels about vampires in modern dress.” MIDNIGHT isn’t a vampire novel. Vampires do not appear in any of my novels. I have never written about a vampire in either modern or antique dress, nor in pajamas, for that matter. The vague and yet error-riddled details in the review made it clear that this man had not even skim-read the book. I killed him.
Finding his home address proved easy. He had once written glowingly about the town in which he lived. His number was listed in the phone book. With the number came a street address. When he answered the door, I said, “You don’t know what ‘tedious’ is until you spend eternity in Hell re-reading the reviews you’ve written,” and I shot him twenty times with a pair of ten-round 9-mm pistols.
In another version of this fantasy, I showed up at his door with a trained crocodile named Chloe. After savaging him at her leisure, Chloe ate him alive. Then she and I watched television together, capered in the dead critic’s swimming pool, drank his vintage Scotch, and waited until she had passed his remains, whereupon I gathered him in a series of blue-plastic doo-doo bags, conveyed the bags to ground zero at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site, and from a safe distance of forty miles, I watched his remaining physical mass be vaporized into a gigantic radioactive fart.
In yet another version of this fantasy… Well, if I were to share with you every version, this volume would require an additional three hundred pages.
MIDNIGHT was not a vampire novel, and I was not an overnight success riding the crest of a tsunami of advertising money. Prior to MIDNIGHT’s ascent to the #1 spot on the list, I had been writing full-time for twenty years. I had never done a national book tour (still haven’t), had never appeared on TV or been interviewed on radio to promote my work, and had been the subject of only one national magazine article (a nice piece in People related to the publication of Watchers, two years earlier). Consumer advertising for each of my hardcovers consisted of a full-page ad in the New York Times Book Review and three much smaller ads in the daily edition of the Times, which equalled approximately one fifteenth of the average ad budget for other number-one bestselling authors.
I owed my success not to a generously funded marketing blitz, not to the machinations of a wily publicity maven, not to the fact that I had sold my soul to Satan (which I had not, in part because Satan wanted not just my soul but also my favorite Hawaiian shirt), but to a loyal readership that grew slowly book by book until it reached critical mass. In the years since MIDNIGHT made the list, I’ve several times seen it reported in print that I built a writing career “the old-fashioned way, through hard work and word of mouth.” I don’t think of this as the Old Fashioned Way so much as the Frustrating Way or the Stupid Way, but for me it was the only way.
Eight years before MIDNIGHT was published, twelve years after I became a full-time writer, I had achieved paperback-bestseller status with WHISPERS. Although having a paperback bestseller is gratifying, the prestige and the greatest financial rewards are associated with bestselling hardcovers. I assumed that my success on the paperback charts would be a platform from which I could launch an assault on the more desirable hardcover list.
With curious vigor, my hardcover publisher and my literary agent (at that time) hastened to assure me that I was a “born paperback writer” with a fine future in a softcover format but that my books were not the kind of thing to succeed on hardcover lists, in part (this mystified me) because they were “too complex in structure, too demanding in their themes, and far too quirky.” This made me sound like an avant garde, stuffy, intellectual shoe fetishist. As I’ve detailed in previous afterwords in this series, I nevertheless set out to gain hardcover success, and after being frequently chastized for my temerity and after being advised 1,236 times that I was investing too much hope in dreams that could never come true, I saw STRANGERS become a hardcover bestseller, then WATCHERS and LIGHTNING, each a bigger success than the one before it. Then came MIDNIGHT.
When my publisher phoned to share the news that MIDNIGHT would be number one on the list, her excitement was not accompanied by a sanguine expectation of future triumphs. Immediately after sharing the good news, before I had time to work up a whoop of delight, she said, “Enjoy, celebrate, but I don’t want you to think that this will ever happen again. This is a fluke. You don’t write novels that can regularly be number one.” This assessment of the future prospects of my complex-demanding-quirky-shoe-fetishist fiction took some of the shine off the apple; however, I had not yet invented Chloe the crocodile and therefore could not indulge in fantasies of my publisher suffering a fate similar to that of Captain Hook.
I called my agent to report this conversation. She bemoaned the publisher’s untimely candor and lack of finesse–but then agreed that this was likely to be the only book of mine ever to rise to the top of the charts. In addition to the aforementioned curses of complexity and quirkiness, I now heard that my imagination was “too ripe” for the larger mainstream reading public. Apparently the mainstream reading public prefers writers to have imaginations as hard and green as early-growth apples. Personally, I had always thought of my imagination not in terms of apples or any fruit, but as a chile: more flavorful than a pablano, hotter than a jalapeno, but not as hot as a Scotch bonnet pepper. My wife had always thought of my imagination strictly in terms of salty snack foods: the crispness of a potato chip, the twistiness of a Cheese Doodle.
My agent said, “Honey, just be grateful you’ll get rich from all this before it’s over.” I said that I had already made more money from writing than I’d ever dreamed of earning, and I tried to explain that I wanted a larger audience because communication mattered to me, because I wanted to touch hearts in the way that mine had been touched–and changed–by novelists when I was a lonely child growing up in the threatening shadow of a violent alcoholic father. She said, “That’s very sweet,” but there was an unmistakable note of impatience in her voice.
Critics all but unanimously liked MIDNIGHT, as the review excerpts in the front of this paperback should confirm, but as I worked on the novel that would follow it, I sniffed the computer screen for the noxious scent of a too-ripe imagination. As I write this afterword, MIDNIGHT has sold over seven million copies in thirty-two languages, and to the best of my knowledge, not one reader has perished from the hideous effects of consuming the product of an overripe imagination, though a strange young man in Waterloo, Iowa, was hospitalized with severe paper cuts to the tongue when he became inexplicably involved erotically with the book.
In addition to several number-one paperbacks, the aforementioned publisher and I enjoyed four additional number-one hardcovers, after MIDNIGHT, and each time that she brought me the advance news, she seasoned it with the admonition that this, too, was a fluke, and that I must not expect to repeat this achievement ever again. Each time, my agent concurred: fluke.
A friend suggested to me that I was like the woman whose first job in a company is as a secretary but who rises to be president: All those in the company who knew her as a secretary will never entirely respect her when she takes the top job. Perhaps these key people in my professional life were unable to forget my origins in the slums of paperback originals. Eventually, although I had considerable respect for my publisher and for her myriad successes, I moved on to a new publishing house. I also changed agents.
In the ten years since then (as I write this), I have seen eleven of my hardcovers rise into the top numbers of the best-seller lists, and five of those have made number one. In that same time,twenty of my paperback editions have appeared on the list, several at number one. I took some satisfaction in proving that it was not a fluke, after all.
Nevertheless, I’ve often wished that I could have slipped a magic potion into my publisher’s lunch, one that would have stolen from her only the memory that I had begun as a secretary, so then no parting of the ways would have been necessary. There is something ineffably sad about having such success with someone you respect and then inevitably coming to a parting point, for the parting forever abrades some of the glimmer from even the brightest of memories.
I am fortunate that the folks at Berkley Books, past and present, have always been ardent supporters of my work and have never thought of me as having arisen from questionable origins, since they, too, spring from the wonderful world of paperback books. It was their idea to repackage these novels with handsome new covers and to let me spout off however I wished in afterwords like this one. Over the years, I have had every reason to be grateful for the enthusiasm of Rena Wolner, Roger Cooper, David Shanks, Mel Parker, Susan Allison, Susan Peterson, and Leslie Gelbman. In return, I have been determined never to embarrass them by behaving like a writer in their company.
I have been fortunate to write, for the most part, the books that I wanted to write, without regard for the market, and doubly fortunate that the market has always proved to be there for whatever kind of novel I’ve written. From the start, Berkley Books pushed my work with confidence, and everyone in their offices will be forever safe from Chloe, my crocodile. Chloe will not go hungry, however, for I will always be able to point her toward enough film-studio executives, film producers, and film directors to satisfy her appetite.