May 13, 2010

DRAGON TEARS From the Author

This is the tenth afterword I have written for Berkley’s handsome reissues of my novels. The creation and publication of most books provide a fresh series of anecdotes that are amusing or interesting, or that at least reveal me to be a hapless naif, which amuses my wife and friends. Once in a great while, a novel goes so smoothly through the great grinding wheels of modern publishing that I have insufficient material for a piece such as this. So, thank you for coming, you’ve been swell, be careful going home.

Well, all right, I can discuss the title of the novel, which was originally TICKTOCK. I believed that a ticking clock suggested suspense and an urgent countdown. My publisher, at that time, thought instead that it suggested tedium, melancholy, despair, and the depressing tyranny of time, and that it left the reader with the incorrect impression that the plot was a boring saga about clock-making. My agent agreed. She felt also that it sounded like a children’s book.

After years of struggles over titles, which I usually lost, and because I believed that I would soon be changing publishers and agents, I chose not to invest energy in another such dispute. I provided a dozen alternative titles. They were found wanting. I provided another dozen. They were scorned. I provided a third dozen. They elicited cool disdain.

I no longer recall who proposed DRAGON TEARS, but I remember that the word dragon had been in one of my suggested titles, tears in another. The moment this combination was conceived, everyone thought it was brilliant. Except me. I explained that TICKTOCK worked in at least three ways: first, the sound of a ticking clock suggests suspense (yes, it does, damn it); second, the lead characters in the story eventually refer to the villain as Ticktock; third, a major set piece in the novel literally involves a halt in the flow of time. DRAGON TEARS, on the other hand, had no connection to the story, because the novel contained no sobbing dragon, no dragon who laughed until he cried, no dragon who had medical problems with his lacrimal apparatus, in fact no dragon at all.

Eventually, I accepted DRAGON TEARS and wrote the doggerel that appears at the start of Part Three, which gives the title at least a wispy connection to the book. For this compromise, I extracted the promise that the jacket art would not include a dragon. I believed that a dragon would give book-buyers the misleading impression that I had written a novel about dueling wizards, scheming trolls, and pissed-off fairies.

In my collection of original art related to my books, I have an astonishing number of color sketches by the cover artist, proposals of possible jacket illustrations for the publisher’s consideration, which include many stopwatches, clocks, sundials, and hourglasses. This is because the artist knew what the book was about. None of these received approval. We wound up with a teardrop into which is compressed a vividly detailed dragon, almost like a reptilian embryo (not the current cover). I felt the final image was a clever piece of work, beautifully rendered, but as I knew they would, when the book was published, disgruntled fantasy fans complained that within its pages they could find neither magical dwarves nor even a single elf.

As I hung up the telephone after resigning myself to having a dragon on the cover, I saw a squirrel at my office window. The cute little creature stared in at me, apparently fascinated, as if I were in a zoo cage and he regarded me as a particularly exotic specimen. Charmed by this example of Nature at her most Disneyesque, I smiled–and the squirrel spat on the window before scampering away. Spat or sneezed, or regurgitated: I’m not sure which.

I recognized in this odd moment a cosmic sign. A spitting–or sneezing, or barfing–squirrel doesn’t appear at a significant moment in the business day by coincidence. I realized that I must brood about this development until I understood what God was trying to tell me. I’m still brooding, haven’t interpreted the message yet, but no longer find squirrels as cute as I once did.

(Dear reader: My intention has never been to bleed from your image of the publishing industry all the glamour and intellectual excitement that you might have thought it possessed. That’s just an unavoidable side-effect.)

After the squirrel had spat on the window and departed, I had to negotiate with representatives for Garth Brooks, the country singer. I wanted to quote eight lines from his song “The River,” which nicely expressed one of the central themes of TICKTOCK. Excuse me, I meant to say DRAGON TEARS. In the past, when I had quoted lines from poetry still under copyright, I had paid modest fees for permission to do so. When I wished to quote lines written by the brilliant Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Louis Gluck, in my novel FEAR NOTHING, her publisher asked for 50 dollars. I thought this was too little and paid 500 dollars instead. After the book appeared, Ms. Gluck wrote a lovely note to me, expressing her satisfaction with the context in which her lines were quoted. Mr. Brooks’s representatives asked for 5,000 dollars. I did not think this too little, and I did not offer to pay ten times as much as they asked, but I did meet their price.

Subsequent to this bit of business, Mr. Brooks went through a divorce, issued an unsuccessful rock-‘n’-roll album, and eventually semi-retired. I continue to enjoy his music, and I do not mean to suggest that Koontzian hoodoo prevented this fine country singer/ songwriter from enjoying uninterrupted connubial bliss and ever-escalating album sales. I do wonder if a spitting squirrel ever peered at him through a window and, if so, what he made of it.

In spite of the ominous incident with the bushy-tailed nut-chomper (by which I mean the squirrel, not Garth brooks), DRAQON TEARS was my fifth hardcover in a row to rise to number one on the New York Times best-seller list. Most critics were kind; the few dissenters were, of course, in the service of Satan. A reviewer in the London Sunday Mail wrote that “the wild story line asserts a spine-shivering reality. It’s magical realism for the new dark ages of the nineties.” My intention indeed was to wade in the river of magical realism, and it was gratifying to know that some understood this and thought that I had forded the river successfully.

Film rights to DRAGON TEARS were optioned, but the picture was never made. The rights reverted to me. This is the ideal Hollywood relationship, although it does not result in a trove of anecdotes involving coke-addled directors that make for lively afterwords. When the studio let the option lapse, an executive explained to me that in their attempts to develop a script, they had discovered that the material was “too fresh” to adapt easily to film, but this was as funny as it got. From that comment, I inferred he was advising me to write books that were stale and familiar; although this struck me as unwise counsel, most of the movies released in the decade since then suggest that the executive understood his business perfectly.

A few years after DRAGON TEARS was published, having moved on in my career, I wrote a novel for which TICKTOCK was a perfect fit. Everybody liked the title. The book, published as a paperback, was a best-seller. Thus far, sales worldwide are nearing three and a half million copies.

Several filmmakers have flirted with acquiring the rights to TICKTOCK, but they all see the same problem with the project–the male lead has to be an Asian, and the common wisdom is that this will cripple the box office. Apparently, none of the millions of Asian Americans ever go to the movies, and I guess there are no Asians in Asia anymore.

That’s all the afterword you get this time. If you want more Hollywood mayhem, see my MR. MURDER afterword (From the Author). I guarantee you, it was a novel that got me tangled up in so much movie-business misery that I have lots of ghastly but ultimately amusing stories to recount related to its publication and journey to the screen. I wish that I had been more aggressively abused by Hollywood with DRAGON TEARS, so I could have amused you better in these final pages; I wish that some famous movie star had kneed me in the groin or something, but, alas, that was not to be.

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