Catie5On Sunday morning April 12th post the 2015 AWP conference in Minneapolis, hung over and famished at some Ecuadorian restaurant, I interviewed Catie Disabato about her debut novel The Ghost Network. The story involves the disappearance of famed pop star Molly Metropolis. When Molly goes missing, her personal assistant and a journalist join forces to determine if Molly’s been kidnapped, gone into hiding, or worse. Using Molly’s journals and song lyrics to uncover clues to her whereabouts, the women find themselves up against an obscure intellectual sect with subterranean headquarters hidden within an underground subway system in Chicago.

Slut

By Dale M. Kushner

Poetics

rizzoRemember Rizzo from the movie Grease? The indomitable Stockard Channing played a smoldering hottie who rivals the perky Olivia Newton-John. We recognize the split: Betty Rizzo struts her T & A. Wholesome Sandy flaunts perfect teeth.

Back in the day Rizzo was called a slut, a word that even sounds dirty. Leap forward thirty-five years and we’d be her cheering squad. Sure, Rizzo boasted a fine rack and leaned toward the uncouth, but like today’s female protagonists, she had moxie and smarts. Think: Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook. Think: Katniss Everdeen in Hunger Games. Think: Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. These characters have more in common with the brazen dames immortalized by Crawford, Stanwyck, and Davis than they do with the kittenish Newton-John. Fifty years ago, in The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan inspired women to stash their aprons next to their brooms and see what else the world offered. How would the prophetic Betty have reacted to what Elizabeth Hand calls the new Femininjas?

To devote your life to art you have to be a little loopy, so it stands to reason that most entertainers are half insane. That’s your soul up there onstage or on the big screen, and it takes a lot of balls and maybe just a touch of madness to even try to pull it off.

Of course I make no claim to the actual mental states of the following performers. But if allowed to indulge my latent arm chair psychologist, here are a smattering of musicians who toe that narrow line between ingenuity and insanity.

WHEN SHE FIRST burst upon the scene, with the release of The Fame in 2008, the artist formerly known as Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta was written off by some as a second-rate Christina Aguilera—probably because they had similar bleached-blonde hair-dos.

The comparison was short-lived.  By the time “Bad Romance” came out a year later,  detractors dismissed the pop star as nothing more than a two-bit Madonna impersonator, a charge she can’t seem to shake.  While there are some surface similarities between Lady Gaga and Madge—they’re both women; they’re both superstars; they both hold with the less-is-more school of couture; and, yes, “Born This Way” sounds like “Express Yourself” to a degree best described as actionable—the two are worlds apart.

China isn’t really what I expected. It’s better, in many ways, and also worse. In other words, it’s unique. It’s its own strange place which really doesn’t match well with the western view. For example, where’s the communism? Aside from the portraits of Mao, I can’t see anything “Red.” All I see is McDonalds, KFC, Hilton hotels… Everyone is trying desperately to sell something, to make some money.

It’s dirtier than a porno theatre, too. The streets are quite literally coated in shit. Some places are too dirty for cockroaches, and others are too swamped by roaches for dirt to settle. Trash piles threaten not only an array of diseases, but the possibility of collapsing and crushing a passer-by. The skies are an orangey-yellow colour, thick with the exhaust fumes from millions of overcrowded buses and motorcycles driven by small children and even smaller old men and women.

In a scenario reminiscent of My Dinner With Andre, only with way less creepy background music and little or no Wallace Shawn, two Nervous Breakdown newcomers utilize the cold war-era concept of the “face to face chat” in a likely misguided effort to push beyond the personal essay format. Daly, already a TNB darling due to his heavily reported dust-up with Wally Lamb, and Beaudoin, still reeling from the announcement of David Coverdale’s defamation lawsuit, come together for a wide-ranging discussion on a number of subjects. They each arrived armed with three pre-prepared questions in case things hopelessly flagged, but the idea was to wing it as much as possible. No topics were off limits and no feelings were spared. So here it is: unedited, unexpurgated, and without a single national security redaction:

Sean Beaudoin: (sliding into a booth in which Joe Daly is already comfortably ensconced. An awkward male-bonding slap-five handshake-y thing follows) So, this diner is a little on the sleazy side. Just the way I like it. But I’m guessing you took a pass on the eggs benedict.

Joe Daly: Food poisoning changes your perspective on everything.

SB: Our waitress looks exactly like Endora from Bewitched. If you don’t get that reference, I’m even older than I thought.

JD: You’re barking up the right tree, brother. I remember both Darrins. And they were both Dicks.

SB: They were, weren’t they? Dick Sargent and…

JD: Dick York.

SB: There used to be a bar in San Francisco called Doctor Bombay’s.

JD: Nice!

SB: Actually, it was good place to get punched in the neck by some guy who decided you stole his bar change.

JD: Yanno, the last time I was in San Francisco, some guy tried to pick a fight with me.  Has it always been a big fighting town, or was it just me?

SB: I think there are just certain places where it’s unwise to stare at the expensive vodkas, mostly because they’re full of people who see your back as an opportunity.

JD: Have you ever been in the mafia?

SB: Lipstick or Trenchcoat?

JD: Either.  Your comment about sitting with your back facing people made me wonder. That’s the thing about TNB- we really don’t know much about each other. That’s the royal “we” by the way.

SB: It’s true. I sort of feel like I know you through post-osmosis. But in reality, I know absolutely nothing about you. I guess that’s why we’re sitting here. I’m going to take out my folded piece of paper with three questions on it now.

JD: I’m keeping mine in my pocket until the last possible second. My list of questions, that is.

SB: Okay, here’s the first one: let’s talk about the ubiquity of Joe. It seems like every post I read, you’ve already commented on it. Which I mostly take to mean you’re really conscientious about participating in the TNB model, as opposed to just slinging your own work up and basking in the glory. Do you feel an obligation to make the rounds, or do you just really dig the give and take?

JD: (pulling fake pencil from behind ear and leaning over napkin) Hold on-I need to write down “The Ubiquity of Joe.” If I ever record a folk album, I now have a title. I just need the Irish sweater and kinky hair.

SB: I can see the cover. You’re on a stool in a pirate’s jacket with a banjo, doing tunes from David Crosby’s solo album. Which I’ve actually listened to, by the way. Every single song is called something like Ecology, Ecology, Mustache, Drugs. Or Morocco, Booze, Mustache, Freedom.

JD: Classics.

SB: Anyway, I know “ubiquity” might sound sort of negative, but I’m trying to say I think it’s kind of an excellent thing.

JD: How so?

SB: Just that there’s a certain sort of “writerly cool” that requires being all enigmatic and not putting yourself out too much, trading ironic for earnest, not being willing to say things if they’re not always “brilliant”…  I see you out there sort of just being supportive and I like it. It’s anti-cool. It’s zero-hipster.

JD: (chuckling) I’m like the Hootie of TNB. No, I mean, I realize some people might think it’s sort of a yahoo thing to do-to consistently comment. But I really appreciate the feedback when I publish something, so I want make sure I’m supporting other writers in the same way. Personally, I find virtually all comments on my pieces to be enormously helpful-at the very least it brings my attention to what caught their eye, good or bad, and what they related to on some level. And you?

SB: At first I felt weird commenting beneath my own pieces, like I was fluffing the totals. But I got over it. And I really like the dialogue. It forced me to think about the entire process in a different way. That whole dynamic of “I am the writer, you are the reader, there will remain a wall of silent genius between us.” Totally subverting that.

JD: I hear you. My first thought on commenting on my pieces was that it was a pretty slavish way of pimping yourself out. Then some other writers suggested to me that actively commenting on your pieces was a good thing because it drives discussion and brings readers deeper into the piece, as well as the TNB community. Let’s face it-the Bible is online, the complete works of Shakespeare, most of the Garfield cartoon strips. There are some pretty good options for readers looking to kill time on the internet. I think that for people to spend their time reading a piece on TNB is deserving of some grateful acknowledgment, in my opinion. Oh, and yes-I just implied that I’m bigger than Jesus.

SB: You are. My oatmeal is bathed in loving light.

JD: I wish I ordered oatmeal. Maybe I’ll try to multiply yours.

SB: Can you multiply me a coffee refill, too? Okay, here’s my second prepared question: Writing about music is easy in a way, because almost all of us have spent our lives immersed in it, and also pretty impossible, since almost all of us have spent our lives immersed in it.

JD: Exactly.

SB: So there’s pretty much not a single thing you can say-“I love Rush, I hate Rush”-that won’t be considered by someone to be not only ill-informed, but actively offensive. So why take that whole package on?

JD: (briefly considering) Writing about music isn’t the most original endeavor. We music obsessives all suffer from the delusion that our passion is unique in intensity and/or variety. In reality, the only thing unique is probably our album collections, which are like snowflakes-no two are exactly the same. When I crawl into an album or a band’s catalog, sometimes a theme pops up, or I find myself struggling with the question of “what it is about THIS music that makes me feel this way, when this other music doesn’t?” And next thing I know, I’m writing about it. Know what I mean?

SB: I do. Except I tend to ignore that compulsion. To write about it. To me it’s like covering a Pro Choice rally. There’s two groups of people with signs and bullhorns, a bunch of nervous cops, and no possibility of convincing anyone of anything.

JD: Speaking of convincing, you used to write for The Onion. How in the world did that happen?

SB: I pitched the SF city editor an idea and he liked it. Never thought I’d hear back from him. They were desperate, obviously.

JD: Did you just come up with an individual story idea and send it to him, or was your idea to write a regular column?

SB: I pitched him “How to Spend Christmas Day Alone” which was essentially about being that guy who doesn’t have the cash to fly back to his parents’ in Cleveland like the rest of his roommates. The idea being, okay, here’s a list of places you can go to stag in hopes of warding off the crippling depression.

JD: So what’s open?

SB: Um, not much. The Avis rental car counter. Walgreens. I advised stealing lots of candy, getting caught, and spending the day with friends in jail. Also, David Brenner does a comedy night at this Chinese restaurant in North Beach every year. Which sounds almost like jail. After that I kept pitching the idea that SF really needed a sarcastic weekly sports column. And they finally agreed. As it turns out, it wasn’t at all what SF needed.

JD: What happened?

SB: I got canned.

JD: Sexual harassment?

SB: I wish. No, like two days after Lehman Brothers ate it, the SF and LA offices were shuttered. I’d just finished my column and the editor calls and says “don’t bother to send it in this week.” That’s more or less the last I heard from them.

JD: (reaching into pocket for notebook) I guess this brings me to my first pre-prepared question: In the cultural juggernaut Road House, Patrick Swayze’s character Dalton imparts nuggets of wisdom to friends and enemies like “Pain don’t hurt,” and “Go fuck yourself,” to name a few. Ok, in one of Buddhism-lite lectures, he tells the battle-weary staff of the Double Deuce, “I want you to remember that it’s a job. It’s nothing personal.” Is it possible for a writer to follow this advice?

SB: (Crossing fingers over chin in a Zen manner) Well, you probably remember that just before the climactic fight scene, the bad guy tells Swayze “I used to fuck guys like you for breakfast in prison. That’s pretty much my writing motto.

JD: It’s all starting to fall into place.

SB: Not to mention the 26-point Helvetica banner I have tattooed across my back…

JD: I’m sorry, but I’m going to need to see that.

SB: Obviously you’ve done a little research, and I appreciate you slyly bringing up Road House. Yeah, the lead character in my next book is named “Dalton.” And, yes, it’s an homage to Swayze.

JD: People are going to think you’re kidding. But you’re not, are you?

SB: Nope. It’s called You Killed Wesley Payne. But let’s talk about how Brad Listi called you and me onto the carpet of his mahogany-lined Fifth Avenue office last week.

JD: Good idea. We haven’t had a chance to break it down yet.

SB: So, after the usual niceties, he essentially told us-

JD: -to shape the fuck up.

SB: Yes, but also, if we did get our act together, we had the potential to be the Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry of this year’s TNB freshman class.

JD: Right.

SB: You seemed to think he was warning us not to stay up all night doing coke with Lenny Dykstra/Greg Olear anymore. I sort of thought he was trying to tell us to enjoy this time of innocence, because it doesn’t last.

JD: Seriously? I’ve been having a blast at TNB. It’s like a literary Lollapalooza. But without the eight dollar bottles of water and overflowing port-a-potties.

SB: You’ve mentioned you’re working on a book.

JD: (tenses up) Wait, is it bad luck to talk about a book that you’re still writing?

SB: Yes, and now the thing is doomed. Even so, what’s it about? What are your wildest expectations for it?

JD: The book is a direct consequence of TNB. I know it sounds trite, but the author community really inspired me to give it a shot. Being outside the literary world, I always had the idea that all novelists were pretentious and unapproachable-

SB: Aren’t they?

JD:-and riddled with fear and sarcasm. But most of the authors at TNB seem down to earth, passionate about the writing process, and sincere in participating in a community vibe. I realized I could either keep doing the one-off pieces and being a hired gun for other artists, or I could take on the challenge and see what I’m all about…the book will deal with music, which means that any expectations I have for it are hellaciously modest. In a genre populated with Nick Hornby, Chuck Klosterman, and Michael Azerrad, I have no pretensions that I’m going to burst onto the scene.

SB: The scene could use some bursting. You could be the new Klosterchuck.

JD: I’ll just be happy to get it published and read by a few people whose opinions I respect….(suddenly laughing) um, excuse me, Miss? Yes, waitress? Did we really order all these cliches?

SB: She’s like, “fuck off and tip me already, you guys are camping at my best table.

JD: Here’s my next written question, while we’re on the subject: You’re quite a music aficionado, seemingly across a number of genres. One of which is apparently jazz, which is sort of like the absinthe of music-few dare to sample it for fear that they won’t understand the experience. Even established musicians can be intimidated by the unfamiliar scales and chord progressions. What does jazz do for you and is it possible to discuss it without sounding pretentious?

SB: It’s unfortunate but true that you pretty much can’t talk about jazz without sounding like an asshole. Unless I meet someone who’s as much of a twitchy stalker about it as I am, I usually play dumb. There’s definitely this sense that, if you’re into Charles Mingus or Sun Ra, it must just be a bid for hipster credibility. It’s like, “there’s no way you actually listen to that for pleasure!”

JD: Right, right.

SB: But, you know, I will cop to the fact that there have been times in my life when I claimed to like things that I was actually not that into-Foucault comes to mind-because I thought it might impress people. One of the great things about getting older is completely not giving a shit anymore. I mean, if I want to waltz into Starbucks and order a triple caramel whipped cream enema, I’m going to do it and not worry what the cute barista thinks, you know?

JD: It depends how cute.

SB: And I would say that the “intimidation” aspect of jazz is probably more about the fear of looking dumb at a party than the complexity of chord changes. Even the name is sort of meaningless, because it encompasses so many different styles of music. You mean your grandma’s Artie Shaw collection? Cake walks? Hard bop? The fifteen incarnations of Miles Davis? Machito? Free Jazz? B-3 funk? Fusion-y shit?

JD: So then what’s the appeal? Does it relax you, inspire you, make you want to lay with a woman?

SB: A long time ago, and this was back in the cassette days, I worked the overnight desk shift at a hotel, and I had this one TDK of Coltrane’s Ascension which is, you know, a challenging piece of music. Seriously dissonant. People would walk into the lobby, hear it, pick up their suitcases and walk right back out again. I wore that tape down to the felt.

JD: It’s like you’re a conundrum, inside of a mystery, served next to some potato croquettes.

SB: I get bored easy. Verse, verse, chorus, solo. Turn on the radio, here’s another song about a girl you like. Here’s another song about how it sucks to be twenty and have no idea how your life will turn out. Here’s an ironic song about a toy we all grew up with. Did you really order the croquettes?

JD: I did. Out of all the world’s vegetarians, I have the worst diet by far. (gripping non-existent tofu gut). And I’m ok with that.

SB: A bunch of people I know got into a massive pixellated conflagration about Lady Gaga on Facebook last week. One side loves her, mostly for campy reasons, but still some true acolytes. The other loathes her, mostly because she doesn’t sound anything like ZZ Top. And the middle thinks arguments about musical preference need to be left in the dorm room, so grow the fuck up already. But I thought it was interesting that the main sticking point seemed to be that while some people admitted to finding her entertaining, they weren’t willing to concede she had any actual talent. Well, Joe Daly, does she?

JD: Wow. I do have a theory on Lady Gaga, which may or may not impact this question. The theory is that there are at least five Lady Gagas.

SB: Good, I like it….keep going…

JD: If you look at any series of pictures of her, she looks wildly different across all of them. Basically, you’ll see that her body and facial structure aren’t particularly unique-just the outfits, makeup, and hair. It occurred to me that if she got really blown out at a party, and was too hungover to make an appearance the next morning, she could easily send a similarly-shaped friend to do the gig, and no one would ever be the wiser. Plus, the way she sings has been auto tuned up to the max, so really there’s probably a legion of women who could pass themselves off as LGG in the studio. You see where I’m heading?

SB: Completely. And I do think she’s incredibly talented. It may just be that her incredible talent does not lay in the musical arena. I mean, she and some very smart people got together, came up with a character to inflame the pop fires, and every day they deposit truckloads of cash into various accounts. They’re just really bald about it, which I sort of admire more than bands or singers who pretend they’re not all about business.

JD: Dead on! You do have to respect an artist who plays it straight like that. So it’s my own personal conspiracy theory that Lady Gaga is like Lassie in that she’s played by a number of different actors/singers.

SB: And also that she can bark and claw the dirt in a way that tells you there’s a little boy who’s been kidnapped by Apaches and it’s time to run and get the sheriff?

JD: She would also probably be really handy if someone got caught in a bear trap. “What’s that Lady Gaga? It’s Timmy? Timmy needs help?”

SB: Seems like a good time to introduce a pretty clichéd scenario that was asked of me last week, mostly cause I got no more good material on Gaga…

JD: Bring it on.

SB: Okay, you’re going to the typical theoretical deserted island and can bring the entire recordings of only one artist to play on your coconut-fueled iPod. The caveat is, you don’t get any bootlegs or re-issues, just the studio albums. To listen to over and over, for the rest of your life. So, even if Working for the Weekend is your favorite song ever, choosing Loverboy limits you to a tiny pool of recordings. Who do you pick and why?

JD: Well, if it were one album, I was going to go with the Best of the Stone Roses, but as they only have two studio albums of original stuff, they don’t make the island.

SB: The smart move would probably be to snag Mozart, not only for the volume of material, but because you could while away the years studying him. If only to keep yourself from talking to a volleyball. Unfortunately I’m not that smart, so I’m going with Slayer.

JD: Because…

SB: Because only Slayer will keep me and my new monkey-wife sane.

JD: I’m going to have to go with The Who then.

SB: Really?

JD: I’ve just always related to them on a very deep level. I got into them in high school, when I was starting to feel my oats, and that was the same general age that Townshend was when he began writing some of his best stuff. I’ve always thought Daltrey was money. Great rage. Plus, end to end, they have a great legacy that includes anthems, punk, heavy riffing, and very melodic, stripped-down stuff.

SB: Supposedly Hendrix hated Pete Townshend. So, by extension, I am obliged to hate Pete Townshend, too. But I dig Live at Leeds. Total early punk.

JD: And one of the best motherfucking live albums ever! (waitress walks by, glares, shakes head.) Whoops-sorry for the profanity, miss. (In a quieter voice) Didn’t realize she was right behind us.

SB: We’re totally getting 86’d. I better do my final question.

JD: Good idea.

SB: (composing mentally, taking deep breath) Okay, so yesterday I was thinking about how, as a society, we process things in tiny increments-

JD: I agree. Next.

SB: (laughs)…we spend all our time like, what do I have to get done by noon? Who am I hanging out with this weekend? It’s pretty amazing how much has changed just in the last year alone, but we don’t really acknowledge it. For instance, Tiger Woods. He’s a punch-line. His iconography is permanently shot. But eight months ago he was a walking brand, one of the most revered, most reliable money-machines of the last century. Pretty much a god, at least to people who find their gods in someone else’s backswing. Okay, so….sorry this is so long-winded….so I was just reading that David Shields self-interview where for the third time he more or less said “literature is dead” and I was thinking how that was like saying “Tiger fucks waitresses at Waffle House.” Bang! Hit the defibrillator, lock your kids in the rec room, start selling off all those valuable first editions. But golf goes on. Tiger’s still playing. People still watch and care. It’s just different now. It seems to me that saying “literature is dead” is really “here’s a contentious generalized statement with which to drum up interest in my $25.95 hardback.” You know what I mean?

JD: I think I do. I mean, does anyone really think literature is dead? In fact, it’s more alive than ever-look at the growing list of contributors to the TNB, many of whom have their own books out. Maybe print is dying, but the fact that it’s easier than ever to get people to read your thoughts, via book, blog, or social networking site, shows that literature is very much alive, it’s just diluted. But for the record, I think the “contentious generalization” tool is about as original as the serial killer not being dead at the end of the movie.

SB: Right. You gutshot Michael Meyers. He gets up. Light him on fire. He gets up. But I do like that Shields is really confident about staking out his position. He’s like, “here’s what I think, here’s what my book is about, buy it or don’t, I’m not trying to make any friends.” He’s obviously spent years thinking through this stuff while the rest of us were running with scissors. I guess in the end I just feel protective of the old model. Which is dumb, since I mostly get screwed in the old model.

JD: Speaking of which, you just posted this thing called Read My Finger: How Not to Get Published

SB: I did. Which will probably guarantee I never get published again…

JD: All the TNB literary critics, editors, and very serious writers knocked each other over to effusively praise the thing. It felt like it was Christmas Eve and someone said there was only one Cabbage Patch Kid left, and it was in your article. Being an outsider in the literary world, I found the piece to be thoroughly entertaining, and at the same time, quite humbling. Not only did you name check a legion of authors I’ve never heard of, but you revealed the submission and acceptance process to be tired, saturated, and impersonal.

SB: Actually, once it was done I considered scrapping the thing. Even though most of it was intended to be comical, in the end I don’t want to genuinely discourage anybody. Writing is just too hard as it is. But, you know, it was all true. The truth cannot be denied. On the other hand, my mother called me up and was like, “that’s the last time I write anything but XXOO on your birthday card.”

JD: Nice one, mom.

SB: Since we’re at the end here, it does seem like I should mention that, even on a telepathic level, we seem to have agreed not to speak of the Steve Almond contretemps. Maybe if for no other reason than that we’re both bored to tears by ever single facet of it. But it occurred to me to ask you one thing, and maybe with this question put it all to bed, permanently, next to Hoffa in a layer of quicklime…

JD: (nodding warily)

SB: Did that experience give you, in even the most fractional way, a glimpse of what it’s like to be pinned down in the public eye like a Lindsay Lohan? By which I mean, caught up in some “spat” that was probably bullshit to begin with, but for whatever reason becomes a cultural snowball, conducted through headlines and discussed by third parties and generally taking on a life of its own, so that it goes way past really being about you, and you sort of end up standing by watching it happen?

JD: Yeah, it was really strange to watch things spin out so quickly. My thinking is that Steve had every right to say what he wanted to say, and I responded to him accordingly as a comment to his piece. My involvement ended there. I wasn’t going to get baited into some internet feud. As the saying goes, “never pass up an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.” But next thing I knew, people began weighing in and a very different debate arose. Greg Olear’s piece, Something Nice,” was awesome because it set off a very thoughtful and sometimes animated discussion about what the TNB culture means to different people and what their expectations are for the site. Apparently it was time for that discussion to happen at TNB.  But as you say, the debate had little to do with me or my writing.

SB: I feel compelled to mention that I do admire pretty much any willingness to leap into the fray brandishing unpopular sentences. To not worry if your opinion is going to keep people from being gentle with your own pieces. To toss it out there like a raw steak and deal with how it effects your Amazon ranking later. I mean, essentially, the internet is nothing but a massive binary excuse to be righteously pissed about stuff. So the guy with the pointy stick, in the long run, is sort of doing everyone a favor.

JD: When the TNB dust up was still pretty new, one of the more veteran authors told me that when you put something out there, some people will like it and some won’t, and to realize that none of them are right. The important thing is to just keep writing because that’s all I can control. I’m not going to say that I don’t care what people think about my writing, but I think that as long as I’m writing about topics that mean something to me, and not for other people’s approval or feedback, I can be happy with my process.

SB: Listen, people who say ‘I don’t care what anyone thinks about my work’ are either lying or Thomas Pynchon. I mean, everyone cares. Deeply. The locus of writing is showing off. It’s narcissistic just by definition to imply “my deepest thoughts are worth your investment in time.” So I think it’s how much of that ego you can deflate, you know, that makes certain writing rise above. How much can you ignore your nature and access your true feelings without censoring them, or tailoring them to a specific audience. No matter what the genre, guns and spies or Jane Austen, that’s the kind of writing that, to me, never feels disposable. So, you know, I guess I’m trying to say, if you feel like you’ve written something artfully, but with a minimum percentage of bullshit, you can pretty much get away with anything. You can call anyone out, or reveal things that are totally ugly and not be condemned for it. But if you’re going to attack someone for the intellectual rigor of their distaste for Dave Matthews, man, you better have a pretty solid handle on your own failings.

JD: Ok, they’re turning the lights out in here. I need to ask one more question though, if that’s cool. When I was researching your works, I found out that your first book, Going Nowhere Faster, was just translated into Polish. Polish!

SB: I know, right? Now it’s called Donikad Byle Szybciej. I’m embarrassed to admit how pleased I am with how entirely random that is.

JD: Why Poland over say, France? Is there a big Young Adult market in Krakow?

SB: No clue. But I intend for my empire to span from Budapest to Helsinki by 2012. And by 2112, I intend for it to span from Spirit in The Radio to Tom Sawyer.

JD: Ha! In a perfect world, where would you like to see your writing take you? If you could decide your own fate, what does the future look like?

SB: Totally honestly? If I can sell just enough to not worry about checks or agents or self-promotion, to be able to sit in my little office with my laptop and concentrate on whatever project I’ve got going that day, I would be extremely happy. Anything beyond that is frosting.

JD: Amen.

SB: Selah.

JD: What does that mean?

SB: I’m not entirely sure. Hunter Thompson used to say it all the time. Something like let those with eyes see, and those with ears hear.

JD: It doesn’t get any more profound than that.

SB: No, sir. It really doesn’t.


Remember in the olden days, when movies were based on nothing more than a screenwriter’s brainchildren? Now movies are based on novels, childrens’ books, even theme park rides. And which superhero is helping bridge the publishing world with the glittering stardust of Hollywood? That’s right, a hard-working, bookstore-scouring, voracious reader like one Ms. Sarah Self, literary agent at The Gersh Agency and champion of writers everywhere.

WordHustler sat down with Ms. Self to get the skinny on the convergence of Hollywood and the publishing industry, the kind of queries that hook her, and the lure of a good, old-fashioned zombie story. Read on to fill your cup with the elixir of publishing (and Hollywood) SUCCESS!

WordHustler: How did you get your start in the industry?

Sarah Self: I went to school at Northwestern University and got my start in the industry by working/interning for Lynda ObstJodie Foster, and Stacy Sher and Michael Shamberg at Jersey Films. In college I knew that this was the business I wanted to work in, so every summer I would come to LA and do internships. I did a lot of coverage and started building my resume.

Then when I graduated everyone told me I should get agency experience but didn’t think that I wanted to be an agent. I wasn’t totally sure what I wanted to do- maybe more in line with being a producer- I definitely knew I wanted to create. But agency experience really helps, despite what some may think. Agencies put it all together. Of course the project starts with the writer, but the agency is really the link that connects everybody. That’s where you have directors, writers, talent and they all come to an agency as the center point. It’s the perfect place to start if you’re not sure what you want to do, because you work with all the elements. So I started working at CAA for Bob Bookman, who’s the head of CAA’s Film Department and still my mentor today. He’s at the top of his game.

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WH: Going from a Hollywood agency background to working for an agent who is also involved in book publishing, were you drawn to the publishing industry?

SS: I started working for Bob as his assistant and found that it was my dream job: working with authors who are in the movies. I worked for him and became a junior agent CAA, but didn’t think I wanted to be at an agency long-term so I worked in development. But then had this moment where I looked around LA and looked around my peers and didn’t feel inspired. I found the development process to be stifling and dismal. You see the same people going after the same scripts and everybody is so reactive- no one is really taking any risks.

I started to freak out, so I decided to move to New York because I’d romanticized New York from when I worked at CAA with authors. I knew I had to shake it up. I knew that The Gersh Agency had a NYC office and didn’t have anyone doing books. WMA, Endeavor, ICM and CAA [other Hollywood agencies] already had saturated NYC book departments. So I went immediately to the company that didn’t have anyone doing it and I created my own job. If you sit and wait for your dream job to come, it never will. You have to be proactive. So I created the job and said, “Let me run your New York book department.” I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t have any clients, I had never even been a real agent. To be an agent you have to know the ins and outs of making a deal. But I just jumped into it.

WH: As one of the few book agents working in Los Angeles, do you find your job to be challenging since you’re one of the lone bridges between Hollywood and the publishing industry? Especially now that Hollywood is leaning more heavily on the publishing industry- are you over-saturated?

SS: I think every agent is probably over-saturated. We’re part of a bigger trend, which is that agents are more and more becoming producers. So the role of the producer is being diminished in the traditional sense in that it’s not just about me taking a book and sending it to producers, and them sending it to the studio and making the movie. Now I have to package the book- attach talent, directors, etc- and then give it to the studios. More often than not, I’m starting to go to manager/producers or go to agencies and package materials there. I also package internally within Gersh. I have no need to keep it internal, it’s what’s best for the client.

I think Hollywood is relying on publishing yet is also reluctant to take big steps with material from publishing unless publishing has already performed. The book ofTWILIGHT, everyone forgets, had already been optioned a couple of times before Summit finally made it. It all comes down to risk. It’s all about having an opinion and having a voice and taking a stance. If you try to like what everyone else likes, you’re going to be at the end of the trend. If you try to wait for someone to find your book and your script in their huge stack, they’re never going to find it. You have to keep pushing and keep being proactive.

WH: Do you find you have a lot of agents calling you with a tiny book that isn’t published yet and they’re trying to sell movie rights? Or do you deal with books that have already been published?

SS: I think that everything is changing. Book agents are still calling with that little book they just sold. But this amazing zombie book called BREATHERS was something that I found in Publisher’s Marketplace. It had been sold and I called the agent because I love zombies and said, “This sounds great.” She sent it to me and I loved it, so I packaged it. On the other end of the spectrum, I got a call from an agent yesterday who is sending me a small, literary difficult book. Overall, publishers don’t know what Hollywood is looking for because everyone wants to have the small, perfect Oscar nominee and no one knows what that is.

WH: What draws you to a book? Is there a particular genre you like?

SS: I love anything dark. I love horror- especially psychological horror. I love worlds and subcultures. I’m really interested in death metal, for example, or anything that’s a unique world.

WH: Do you ever find books that you love that you don’t think would translate to the screen?

SS: Yes but if I love it, I figure out how to translate it to screen.

WH: What’s the last thing you read and absolutely loved?

SS: The last thing I read that I loved is Dame Darcy’s book, which is akin to THE DANGEROUS BOOK FOR BOYS, called THE HANDBOOK FOR HOT WITCHES. The parallel she makes is how to be a strong, sexy, confident woman and the parallel being that it’s a witch, not a bitch. You can be tough and be smart and do your thing and if guys call you a bitch, you’re a witch. The whole book follows the witch theme with a how-to spell guide and witchy recipes. It is so awesome. I love it. I fell in love with this book and was like, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with this, but I will sell the movie rights.” It’s all about passion.

WH: Why do you think Hollywood is moving away from generating original content and relying on remakes, sequels, and books?

SS: I think for a while representatives were getting really lazy. There were certain people in town called “The Spec Boy,” which were reps who would just go out and sell spec scripts and create this fake buzz. There were so many instances of slamming not totally ready material out there and studios were being duped into buying it because there wasn’t anything else and because it was on a “list.” So it became this “We should be buying this” herd mentality. Finally the studios looked around and said, “We have so much bad material, let’s go back to what’s always been consistently viable, which is books.” There’s also a platform to books, remakes and sequels that screenplays don’t have. That’s I think the number one thing.

But look, if there’s still great material, it gets put together. Great scripts still sell. Producers still have deals with studios, who are still making movies. But today people have to rely on platforms and branding- I know that’s a word everyone hates hearing, but that’s the way the market is going.

WH: Well put. What types of book adaptations are you looking for that you haven’t found yet?

SS: Something that’s really about a cool world, a non-fiction world or a sub culture that I might not know about yet. Whether it’s related to music, etc, I don’t care. I sold this book- it’s a great story called THE SECRET LIFE OF HOUDINI. It’s a nonfiction book written by William Kalush and Larry Sloman. It’s very clinical and dense – these guys knew everything about Houdini. They are amazing researchers. But it was a book that when I sent it to producers, people were just tuning out.

So I kept sending it and sending it for four years and finally I was like, “You know what? This isn’t working and I believe this is a movie. I’m going to change the pitch and turn this into something else.” So I changed the pitch to: “This is the next SHERLOCK HOLMES and DARK KNIGHT.” All the big superheroes have already been exploited, who’s a big international star that we haven’t done yet? Houdini. Its Robert Downey Jr, it’s Warner Brothers, it’s glossy, and there you go. Done. So I pitched it to someone at Summit Entertainment [makers of TWILIGHT], they loved it, and it sold. My point is that if you love something, you can sell it.

WH: What advice can you give aspiring writers, both prose and screen, out there?

SS: Don’t write what everybody else is writing. Just because THE HANGOVER is making a ton of money and won a Golden Globe, please don’t write something that is THE HANGOVER meets DADDY DAY CARE. By the time you write it, it will have already been done. I think Diablo [Cody, screenwriter of JUNO and Sarah’s client] is a great example in that she wrote a movie about a 16-year-old girl who gets knocked up and decides to keep the baby. If she had pitched that to any producer they would have said, “Huh? What are you talking about? No way.” But she did it anyway.

It’s true when they say: write what you know. Stick to that. Don’t try to write what people want you to write and don’t copy what’s already out there. There are so many reps tell their writers to: “Go write THE HANGOVER” and that’s so wrong. It’s all about showing that you have a voice and being provocative and being different. You have to do it as a representative and you have to do it as an actor- you have to have a different look and a different style. Look at music – it’s a perfect parallel in that you have all these one hit wonders and then you have Lady Gaga who doesn’t give a f#$% and she knows if she looks crazy and is amazing, people are going to notice her. And it’s worked! You have to get people to notice you.

When I get queries all day long, I usually hit delete. I delete them because they are really long and the writers don’t know how to craft a query and they’re boring. So I just started hitting delete. Then today actually, for the first time in a long time, there was a query that stuck out. I was going through emails and I was swamped and there was something funny in it and the title really summed up what it was going to be. You could tell this person had done their research and knew what deals I had done, too. So I wrote back: “Yeah, send it. I’ll read it.” I’m not encouraging people to send ridiculous things, but be bold. Otherwise, it all just goes by really fast and you’ll just get lost in the sea.

She speaks, we listen. So what are you waiting for? Tighten your prose, polish your query, then spend some time seeking out agents who match your aesthetics and aspirations. Targeting your submissions to agents who you’ve researched shows them you’ve put in the time and you’ve got the drive to succeed. Why not sign up for our Digital Submission System to help keep track of all those wonderful queries you’re sending out to the world?

WordHustler wants to help you find your perfect agent, editor, and writing future. Hopefully soon you’ll catch the eye of an accomplished agent like Ms. Self then be on your way to publishing (and Hollywood) success! Fingers crossed!





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