May 13, 2010

COLD FIRE From the Author

To those of you who have been reading this series of afterwords that Berkley Books asked me to write for reissues of my novels, I wonder why you don’t have something better to do with your time than reading afterwords. This is a lovely world. Go for a walk in verdant fields, in cool and mossy woods. Have an ice cream cone. If you’re on a low-fat diet, have just the cone. If you’re on a low-carb diet, eat a squirrel. If you have a child, dandle him or her on your knee while singing a happy song. If you don’t have a child, dandle your dog on your knee; the song is optional. If your dog is adamantly opposed to dandling, find someone much larger than you are and ask to be dandled on that person’s knee.

With all the options available to you, if you still insist on reading this afterword, I understand. I myself have always enjoyed reading introductions and afterwords written by novelists. I am an admitted fiction wonk, fascinated by how other writers work, why they write the books they write, and how they manage their careers — assuming that they have occasionally been sober enough to engage in any management.

I have received a lot of mail about the first seven afterwords in this series, mostly from people surprised to learn that there were so many bumps in the road I followed, that not all of my publishers and agents were always supportive of my work, that I was in fact often relentlessly pressured not to write the books that I wrote, that I never received the massive TV/print/sandwich-board ad budgets that are supposedly essential to build a career as a best-seller, and that I have never been in a mental institution. Sometime within the next year, as I write this, worldwide sales of my books will pass 325 million copies, so there is a tendency among some–especially other writers–to assume that I have romped without obstacle through the flower-filled meadows of success and now spend the larger part of my days poolside with tropical drinks and a smug expression. Those struggling to make a writing career of their own tell me they have taken comfort from my disappointments and devastations. Thanks a lot; glad to help.

COLD FIRE is one of the few books in my career about which I have no amusing stories regarding the process of its writing and publication. I worked on average sixty hours a week for seven months, wrote twenty or thirty drafts of each page, had bad days when I pounded my skull against the walls hard enough to leave eight or ten impressions of my forehead in the plaster, had good days when I left only two or three impressions, and delivered the novel reasonably close to deadline. Although it bridged several genres–suspense, romance, supernatural, science fiction–and was a novel of ideas with comic elements, neither my publisher nor my agent suggested (a) that I totally rewrite it, (b) that I put it on a shelf for seven years so as not to destroy my building career, (c) that I analyze my stubborn and self-destructive insistence on writing books in total disregard of the formulas by which bestsellers supposedly must be created–all of which were suggestions they made with increasing force regarding all my previous books except WATCHERS. Everybody liked COLD FIRE. Either my stubborn persistence had brought them around to my way of thinking–or they had just decided that I was a hopeless bonehead. My lovely editor, Stacy Creamer, approached it seriously but with a light touch, and I addressed her notes in two days.

COLD FIRE was my third number-one hardcover bestseller. When I received the news from my publisher that it had hit the top of the charts, I was–as with MIDNIGHT and THE BAD PLACE–again assured that it was not an achievement likely ever to reoccur for me, as mine were not the kind of books that could be expected regularly to be embraced by so many people. A fluke. Considering that this was the third such fluke in a row, I was not as crushed by this assurance as I had been the first two times.

Life was good.

Then as is often the case when life is good, someone said, “Hey, let’s make a movie!” and life got strange, dark, and scary.

By this I do not mean to imply–although I can’t stop you from inferring–that a lot of movie-industry executives are as brainless, voracious, and destructive as the flesh-eating bacteria that was in the news not long ago. I’ve met smart, fair, creative executives over the years…although I’ve noticed their kind either eventually get fired, are driven insane, or decide that gutting halibut aboard an Alaskan fishing trawler is a more appealing and even a more glamorous occupation than anything Hollywood has to offer.

In this instance, we were going to develop COLD FIRE as a film without input from studios, and make a deal only when we had a script we loved. My partner in this was a director with whom I’d worked on a previous project and whose talent I admired. He was smart, had shown integrity on that shoot under difficult conditions, and was fun to spend time with. I wrote several drafts of the screenplay, always taking notes from him, and eventually we arrived at a version that we were ready to market.

A series of pitch meetings were arranged with independent producers and studio executives, and we began making the rounds. Any of the potential buyers we met with could have tortured us with sharp instruments and killed us during the meeting, right there in their office or studio-lot bungalow (and I suspected that many of them were engaged in similar psychopathic behavior in their private lives), but none of them was sufficiently forthright or kind enough to put a quick end to us.

Soon it became clear that we had two problems. One of these involves revealing an important plot point in COLD FIRE, so if you haven’t yet read the novel and intend to, consider this a SPOILER WARNING.

In the novel, Jim Ironheart, the lead character, has a psychic gift of a peculiar nature that becomes the sole focus of his life. Eventually he comes to suspect that the source of this power dates back to something that happened to him when he was a boy, in a hulking windmill on his grandfather’s farm. Later we are led to believe that he might have had contact with extraterrestrials in a spaceship that has rested in the silt under the windmill pond for perhaps thousands of years. This is not what has happened to him; the source of his power is something far stranger, more interesting, and arguably scarier than aliens ever could be.

Several of those with whom we had pitch meetings expressed an interest in the script–but only if we’d make one “little” change. They thought it could be a terrific picture if there really were aliens in a starship under the pond. In fact, this was not a little change but a huge one; it would have turned a fresh idea into stale mule puke, than which there is nothing stinkier.

Each executive and/or producer presented that idea in the same way: leaning forward, smiling and as bright-eyed as an ax murderer on methamphetamine, voice characterized not just by excitement but also by awe, as if what he was about to suggest was of such genius that we might want to hold fast to the arms of our chairs and brace our feet to avoid being literally blown away. And always it was the same exact words, “What if there really are aliens in a starship under the pond?”

If I had been inclined to doubt the shape of the original story, I might have succumbed to one of these people. Any temptation to give them what they wanted, however, was squelched by the dismal fact that so many of them had the exact same stroke of genius, which was proof positive that it wasn’t genius at all, but classic dumbass plotting. Worse, when each of them suggested possible scenes and set pieces that would flow brilliantly from this change, everything they wanted was cribbed from other movies including the original INVADERS FROM MARS, ALIENS, and PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. Okay, they didn’t steal from PLAN 9, but there wasn’t another movie about aliens that they didn’t want to steal from.

Fortunately, the director was as strongly opposed to this change as I was. Consequently, each time the issue was raised, we politely declined to go in that direction.

The second problem was nastier.

We had the bad luck to pitch our project during the beginning of the first Gulf War, when a United-Nations-sanctioned, multinational force expelled Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait. A few offices where we had meetings were draped with antiwar banners. In some meetings, instead of the usual friendly chitchat that proceeds a pitch, we were subjected to angry political rants, to which we smiled and nodded.

All we wanted was to make our little movie about Jim Ironheart and Holly Thorne, this suspense story that was also a story about how love can save the most wretchedly conflicted among us. There weren’t any politics in COLD FIRE, and if someone had wanted us to pack it full of politics, instead of ETs, we’d have been so bored by the prospect of doing such a version that, had they the power to draft us to do it, we’d have shot ourselves in the feet to avoid service, regardless of whether or not we agreed with the politics.

My director friend, a striking and charismatic-looking guy, was of Mid Eastern heritage. Some of the people we met with asked leading questions about his background–and when they found he was partly Persian, I swore I detected animosity. Many people who are–or whose families were–from the old Iran, before the Ayatollahs took it over, prefer to call themselves Persians, rather than Iranians. In the heat of the political moment, there were those who were against liberating Kuwait and who allowed themselves to feel friendly toward only those nations in the region that were opposed to the United States. The old Iran, before the Ayatollahs, had been a friend of the United States, and therefore anyone calling himself Persian might press the wrong buttons in those who were in a political fever.

In the years I had known him, my director friend had never spoken to me of a political matter. His passion, to the exclusion of all else but his family, seemed to be movies, and whatever was not about storytelling in the format of film…well, it seemed of no interest to him. His love of film had a purity of focus.

When questions were asked about his heritage, I was surprised and dismayed, especially when I clearly detected an agenda on the part of the questioner. If my friend thought them rude or found in their apparently casual questions anything disturbing, he never gave any indication of it. He seemed oblivious of the dark undertone of their interest–even though in some cases these were people he knew; if they’d had any curiosity about his background, one would think it would have come up long before this.

After these meetings, he never referenced these rude questions; neither did I, as it seemed to me that if he didn’t want to remark on the matter, that was his business. If he hadn’t even noticed any unearned animosity, then either I had imagined it (which I knew I had not) or he had been too naive to perceive it (which I very much doubted could be the case).

Two of the principals from two of these meetings subsequently called an agent of mine to express interest in the script if another director could be attached. When pressed as to why, only one of them had what seemed to be a half-credible answer. He said my friend’s experience was largely as a TV director, that he was nervous about using him as a feature director. But the project did not require a hundred-million-dollar budget; it was exciting, action-filled, but intimate and designed to be the perfect vehicle with which a gifted TV director could make the leap to the big screen. Furthermore, the script they liked so much had been honed with hundreds of excellent notes from this director and would not have been something they so much liked if he hadn’t been involved. And finally, when this person insisted on presenting a list of young directors he found acceptable, two of them had done nothing but television.

I will always believe that an insane prejudice, spawned by world events of the moment, colored the responses of some people with whom we met. Hollywood has a reputation for tolerance, but I’ve had other experiences from which I’ve learned that, sadly, the usual prejudices exist there, and others as well, so it is no more the New Jerusalem than is, say, Hackensack, New Jersey, and no offense is meant to good old Hackensack.

No sale was made without the director because I had a personal commitment to him that I intended to keep. Indeed, I never told him there had been interest predicated upon his leaving the project.

Several years later, a famous producer with many successes read the script, liked it, and wanted to make a deal. I said that I’d sell it as long as I had approval of whatever substantive changes might be proposed. “In that case,” the producer said, “we need to discuss those changes up front rather than after a deal is in place.” He had only one little change he wanted, but it meant all the world to him because it was “and I think you’ll agree, totally brilliant. What if there really were aliens in a starship under the pond?”

I still regularly receive mail, almost fourteen years after the original release of COLD FIRE from readers who love the characters, love the story, love the theme of the power of love–and of books!– to change a life, and who say it’s one of their favorite novels ever. Not one of them has ever suggested I should have put aliens in the pond. Clearly, none of these lovely people has a future in the film industry.

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