In yesterday’s discussion on the Navel Gazers’ post, passing reference was made to The Da Vinci Code as an example of financially successful commercial fiction. It brought back to mind a conversation Anne and I had with a commercial novelist, a friend of a friend, I guess it must have been about four years ago now. I’m not exactly sure what his genre is called — survival supernatural adventure thriller maybe. I’d regard him as a successful mid-list author, having had several books published with most of them still in print as paperbacks. I read one of his books and found that he writes very well, with snap and idiosyncrasy.
It wasn’t hard for us to identify him at the coffee shop, since he’s got the casual grizzled look characteristic of old-school Boulderites. He’s climbed Everest, lived in various exotic locales, been in jail at least once, and now he’s somewhat uncomfortably settled into the middle-class life with wife and kid. We had to enunciate very clearly and face-on, since he’d lost most of his hearing to the cold in some climbing debacle. Throughout the conversation he continually looked over his shoulder, as if he suspected that someone was spying on us.
He told us about his six-figure settlement with a major Hollywood studio that had put together a screenplay based at least partly on one of his novels but without paying or crediting him. His sense was that the studios do this sort of thing regularly, figuring it’s cheaper to pay off the lawsuits than actually to pay the authors what they’re worth. The studios can afford the high-priced lawyers, the writers can’t.
He said he wished that he wrote books his young daughter could read, but he had to spice up his work with the usual “adult” elements of sex and violence. He said he wished he’d written The Life of Pi, which is a survival adventure story that’s both more literary and more kid-friendly than his own books. He felt locked into his authorial persona and style: the readers expect a certain kind of book from an established author, preventing him from experimenting and growing as a writer. What about creating a new pen name, we suggested: then you could write what you really want to write. I don’t have the time or energy to do that and still keep up with the demand for my usual stuff, he replied.
He talked about the disaster that was his most recent book. Previously he had written a first installment of a possible trilogy and, because it proved to be his biggest-selling book ever, the publisher gave him a big advance for the second volume. While he was writing this second installment his editor left the publishing house and signed on with a competitor. This editor was working on the manuscripts of two writers at the time, and he managed to take one of them with him to the new job. That writer was Dan Brown, and the book was The Da Vinci Code. Our new friend’s book, having been left behind, found itself orphaned, without an internal champion to move it forward. The new editor apparently resented being assigned this book in mid-edit and decided to bad-mouth it to the head of the publishing house. The publisher sent our new writerly acquaintance an extremely critical letter which included a list of ten things a new writer should do in order to write a good book. The writer was ordered to come to a meeting in New York to discuss the book, which he would have to pay for himself. Eventually the book came out, but the publisher did nothing to publicize it and effectively let it die on the shelves. At the time of our coffee shop discussion our co-conversant was working with his agent to find a new publisher for his next book.
Dan Brown still writes promo blurbs for the back covers of every one of this guy’s new novels.