The most frequently asked question posed to every writer by readers is May I commission you to embroider a complete set of bed linens with the imperial crest of Napoleon? Some writers, lacking any talent for embroidery, must regretfully decline the commission and resort to some other work—mayonnaise tasting, spider ranching, repackaging bulk lard for resale in small gift boxes—as a secondary source of income. Those who are wizards of embroidery sometimes wish that they didn’t have to spend so many hours with their threads and needles, and could devote more time to creating fiction; but then they remind themselves that they should be grateful to have a trade to fall back on in the event that their writing careers ever falter, and in a spirit of remorse, they flail themselves ferociously with brambles or chains or live snakes, whatever their particular social circle deems the appropriate whipping material.
The second most frequently asked question posed to every writer by readers (hereinafter “The Question”) is Where do you get your ideas? The noun ideas is frequently modified by an adjective like fascinating (which brings a smile to the author’s face), crazy (which inspires a wince), or hilarious (which occasions delight in the author if the book under discussion is one of his comedies, but plunges him into a foul mood if the book is one without a single comic line).
Because a wise writer is grateful to his readers, he politely answers The Question as best he can. A third of the time, the reader will not sincerely care where the writer gets his ideas; he has asked The Question only as a prelude to pitching an idea of his own, which he wants the target novelist to write for him. Frequently, this is not a genuine reader; he has not read a novel since some well-meaning teacher destroyed his love of literature by subjecting him to Silas Marner in the eighth grade; he is instead a person who fantasizes about being a writer (hereinafter “The Megalomaniac”). “My idea is yours for nothing,” The Megalomaniac often says. “All I want is to have my name on the cover.” As often, he will instead say, “All I want for the idea is half the income.”
The ideas being offered are usually of this nature: “It’s like GONE WITH THE WIND meets THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Serial killers in the Civil War but mostly a love story.” This kind of pitch sometimes has a lunatic logic that seduces you into taking it seriously for a minute, until you conjure a mental image of Ashley Wilkes in his root cellar, chortling maniacally over jars containing his collection of human thumbs. THE FIRM crossed with JURASSIC PARK. Which I suppose would be the story of a corrupt law firm representing the interests of reckless dinosaur cloners, and of a crusading young attorney who exposes his bosses at the risk of being hunted down and squashed by a T. Rex. These are not ideas, of course; some of them are that more ephemeral thing called a concept, and some of them are just flogged air. Seneca, a Roman philosopher who lived from 4 b.c. to a.d. 65, wrote that “the human voice is nothing but flogged air.” I am not as cynical as Seneca, but when it comes to novel ideas offered by The Megalomaniac, the ancient Roman’s wisdom often applies.
The biggest idea I was ever offered came at a cocktail party where a gentleman stipulated that he wanted only “a reasonable commission,” and then announced, “I’ve got a whole new genre of fiction that’ll make you the richest guy in publishing.” I always explain that I can put in the long hours and the hard work to write a novel only when I’m passionate about a story and that I’m only passionate about stories that arise in my own—admittedly strange—head. This gentleman, like every other bearer of big ideas, ignored me and then gave me the shortest pitch I’d ever received, describing his new genre in seven words: “Tom Clancy without all the military stuff.” That was it. He had no more. He was intellectually exhausted, and no wonder. All that I needed to do was pick up the ball and run with it.
So where do I get my ideas? Usually, I begin a novel with a premise that intrigues me. THE HUSBAND, for instance, had its genesis in a peculiar thought that struck me when I was reading a news story about a kidnapping. What if, I wondered, a man was not rich yet his wife was kidnapped. Imagine you are an ordinary guy, making a middle–class living, and someone snatches your wife and calls you to demand two million in ransom. They know you have eleven thousand bucks in your checking account. They know your landscaping/gardening business isn’t a cash cow. Yet they are confident you will raise two million in seventy-two hours if you love your wife enough. Because you might take this to be a hoax, they put your wife on the phone and hurt her to make her scream. Then they tell you to look across the street at a man walking a dog; a shot rings out, and the dogwalker falls dead. They shoot him just to prove how serious they are.
With a startling premise like that in mind, I next need to know what the story is about. I don’t mean the plot. I never plot a novel. I just go with the premise and a couple of lead characters who seem to me to have the potential for change and personal revelation. If characters come alive, they will plot the story as it evolves—plot it by the actions that grow naturally out of who they are. When I say I need to know what the story is about, I mean what it is about beneath the plot, on a subtextual level, what aspect of the human condition is explored in its theme or themes. THE HUSBAND, for instance, is about courage and self-sacrifice, how those qualities are born of and nurtured by love as well as by a recognition that life has meaning and that this world has mysterious depths.
The idea for MR. MURDER sprang from an article about me that appeared in People related to the publication of WATCHERS. People is a good and responsible publication. At that time, none of my books had yet risen to the top of the best-seller lists, so my publisher was delighted that People would do a story about me. In fact, it was the first time I did an interview for a national magazine (since then I’ve done as few as I can, as I’m not comfortable with publicity).
At the time, I was striving to avoid the horror–writer label (which I struggle to avoid to this day) because while I admired much in the horror genre, I did not feel that I wrote it. For marketing purposes, however, my publisher was determined not only to use the label (she even hoped I would let her sew it on the back of my neck) but also to be sure that any publicity I did reinforced it. Thus, while I conducted my People interview without ever referencing the horror genre, the publisher’s publicity department pressed the magazine writer hard to identify me that way.
A week or so after the interview, the photographer showed up, a great guy named Jim McHugh. Jim is very talented and has a knack for putting the subject of a photo session at ease, quite a task with me, because I am as intensely averse to such shoots as any ferret is averse to being given a perm. Jim took a great many clever photos, and near the end of the day got a call from the magazine requesting a “scary” shot using a fog machine and/or “someone in a monster suit.” Uh-oh. I didn’t think we were going to be able to get Gerda, my wife, to agree to wear a monster suit. Besides, I knew at once that this was my publisher pushing the image she wanted to sell. I refused fog machines and monster suits, but because Jim was a good guy and needed to give his employer at least something vaguely scary, I agreed to pose in front of a stand of leafless trees thrusting their black branches into a twilight sky. We spent fifteen minutes on the shot, and Jim assured me that it wouldn’t be used because we had so many better photos from the session.
Here’s a rule of thumb about the press: If they have a hundred photos in which your appearance ranges from ordinary to movie–star handsome, but also have one photo that makes you look like a freak, they will use the freak shot every time. They say that it has more energy.
When the magazine appeared, the scary–guy photo was, of course, the two–page spread that opened the story. Because of the lens used, because of the extreme angle of the shot (taken from the ground, shooting up), and because of the low light, I did not recognize myself. No one who knew me recognized me, either. Just before I saw the magazine, my editor at Berkley books (at that time my paperback publisher) called me to prepare me for what I would see. Because we had (and still have, all these years later) a fine and down–to–earth relationship, she truthfully said, “Well, you look like a fat and extremely dangerous biker.” As I was five feet eleven and weighed 155 pounds, the fat part annoyed, though I considered that I might win over a new audience of extremely dangerous bikers if they thought I was one of them. When I saw the magazine, I realized my editor had been kind. I looked like a vicious psychotic molester of defenseless small animals, and the article, of course, labeled me a horror writer, though otherwise it was pretty much fair and balanced.
What stuck in readers’ minds, however, was not what the story said but what it showed in the photos, and especially the two–page image of Dangerous Dean. Friends who hadn’t seen me in a while called from all over the country to say, “What the hell happened to you? You look like a fat, drugged–out hit man” or the equivalent. And what text fact did stick in readers’ mind was the word horror.
Out of this experience came the idea for a novel about a young, up–and–coming suspense novelist whose life is changed by a story in People that makes him look scary and labels him “Mr. Murder.” All I knew when I began the novel was that some extraordinary thing would happen to my lead character and that because of the article in the magazine, the police would not believe him and would think that he was inventing the threat against himself just to generate publicity and to sell himself as “Mr. Murder,” though that was an image he had not sought and in fact abhorred. Within two pages, the identical twin occurred to me, and I was on with the story at a run. Without the humiliation of the Dangerous Dean photo in a national magazine, I would never have written MR. MURDER.
As if I hadn’t suffered humiliation enough, the film rights to MR. MURDER were sold for a staggering sum. (I have come to regret all but two film sales in my career, because my luck with Hollywood has been on a par with the luck of any piece of roadkill you see lying alongside a highway.) The buyer was a production company formed just a couple of years previously with an initial capitalization of one billion dollars, phenomenal start-up financing in those days and not exactly chump change as I write this, almost fifteen years later. They put the property into rapid development, and got a commitment from Bruce Willis to play Marty Stillwater. At that time, Bruce Willis was arguably the biggest action star in Hollywood and inarguably the best. His believable physical toughness and his ability to play comedy made him perfect for the role. Idiot that I am, I celebrated.
Time passed, and the billion–dollar company’s movies came to market as MR. MURDER continued development. One after another, the films tanked. Tens of million, then hundreds of millions of dollars were flushed away with an efficiency that rivaled that of the federal government. Suddenly the company was on the brink of collapse. It sought to recoup what it could by selling what assets it had—which amounted to a few properties in development and a number of as-yet unreleased films. Some of the unreleased films found buyers at major studios, but others could not be unloaded. What every studio wanted was MR. MURDER, largely because Bruce Willis was tied to it and he was box-office gold.
Realizing they had a hot property, the failing production company offered MR. MURDER but only if the buyer also took a package of unreleased films that nobody else wanted. This made the price for MR. MURDER onerous, and no studio would bite under those conditions. The production company remained stubborn about their terms—until Mr. Willis, as his contract allowed, had to step out of his commitment and take another film to fill the available window in his production schedule. I did not celebrate that night. I did not weep. I did not devise murderous schemes with the production-company honchos as my targets. I was quite restrained in my reaction, and I only chewed off one finger in frustration.
Eventually other producers got MR. MURDER at a bargain price and developed it as a four-hour miniseries for network television. The final product was okay, though it suffered from an inadequate budget and some miscasting. It never inspired in me the desire to slit my wrists, but it also never inspired in me the desire to watch it a second time.
A couple of years later, before the aforementioned miniseries hit the air, a guy came up to me at a party and, quite innocently, said that he had an idea that would be a huge hit movie. “Get Bruce Willis to start in MR. MURDER. He’s perfect for it.” I chewed off one of his fingers in frustration.