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“Getting a novel published is a fine thing, but it’s no walk in the park.
“My desire and determination to write a novel surfaced in the late seventies working for the Automobile Club of Southern California’s magazine Westways. I was hired as a staff writer by editor Frances Kroll Ring, who I soon learned had been the personal secretary of F. Scott Fitzgerald during his time in Hollywood: typing his manuscripts, suggesting editorial changes and throwing out his gin bottles. Frances was reticent about Fitzgerald, but there were enough anecdotes floating about to inspire a young writer, not to mention the editorial atmosphere. Frances knew everyone on the West Coast arts scene, and the magazine’s contributors included M.F.K. Fisher, Anais Nin, Lawrence Clark Powell, William Saroyan, Jack Smith, Ray Bradbury, Carolyn See, Susan Straight and Norman Corwin. They wrote about history, culture and literature, and their stories were illustrated by graphic artists of equal stature.
"How could I not write a novel?
“My problem was Kurt Vonnegut. His novels were funny, ironic, and wise, filled with insight into people and their foibles. His throw away phrases, like “So it goes,” dazzled. So when I first tried to write, I aspired to be Vonnegut. Outside working hours (and sometimes during working hours--Frances was quite liberal about such things) I wrote satires (and parodies). I could get away with it in with short pieces that would find a home in the local left-leaning weeklies, but I didn’t have the chops to write the long form. I had no grasp of character and I hadn’t read enough. (Read everything. Then you'll realize that you've been beaten to your story by decades if not centuries). And as they say, satire closes on Saturday night.
“When a corporate coup pushed Frances from the editorship (she was too progressive for AAA), I found work at another magazine, an inflight for the California airline PSA. I was in perks heaven: free airline tickets and endless vacations at luxury resorts. When not in Cancun or Snow Valley, I kept working on my novels. But then Mr. Toad’s eyes lit up. A friend sold his first screenplay for $100,000 with another $100,000 for a rewrite (a rewrite!). Why the hell was I trying to write a novel? Movies, that’s where the glory and money was. For fifteen years I put my heart and soul into screenwriting. Studying the hot scripts. Writing screenplays that were obviously just as good as those of Joe Ezsterhas and the Cohen Brothers. Screenwriting classes, screenplay competitions, taking meetings, pitching, collaborating, getting an agent, one dollar options, rewriting a screenplay set in Bakersfield to South Africa. And in the end getting nowhere. But then Mr. Toad attended a premier of a play and bathed in a new glorious light.
"Screenplays didn’t get made, but plays did. I rewrote my latest sure Oscar winner into a play, and to my great happiness an independent producer got interested in it. He hired actors, a director, rented a small theater. On opening night, the audience (friends and relatives) went wild. I entered the play in competitions: second in the Carmel Festival of Firsts, First in the Fullerton College playwriting festival of seconds. Another production. A Backstage West Critic’s Pick! A Maddy Award for playwriting. An agent, another production in Portland, Oregon. Hard cash.
“I was a playwright. The next play was produced by The Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department and on the heels of that published by a legitimate play publishing outfit, with a nice layout in their catalog. The play sold six or seven copies and was never produced again.
“I wrote another. Off-Broadway development and staged readings that I never got to see. More development. What? Your theater company has been disbanded? Financial problems? But my play?
“What I realized were that plays were ephemeral. They’re staged and then they’re gone. Like a tree falling in the woods, if you’re not there to witness it, it didn’t happen.
“In the meantime, a writer who worked with me on the staff of Westways had published a half dozen critically acclaimed novels. I attended his book signings, read his reviews, caught my breath at his grants and awards. Why had I not stuck with novels? Why had I squandered my talents?
“I was going to write and sell a novel if it killed me, and it almost did. While employed as a middle school teacher, I worked six years on Nakamura Reality, revising it perhaps a hundred times. Nakamura Reality 1, Nakamura Reality 16, Nakamura Reality 67. Bloody queries and sample pages. But eventually, I roped an agent, and then with her input spent another year rewriting the novel until she felt comfortable submitting it. A bidding war ensued—no, it found a home at The Permanent Press for which I will be eternally grateful.
“Frances Kroll Ring passed away recently at the age of ninety-nine. Her humor, intelligence and humanity stick with me. She once said that I reminded her of Fitzgerald, well, his sense of humor. I don’t drink gin.
“Wine is a different matter.”
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You can reach Alex Austin by email at email@example.com or me firstname.lastname@example.org, and, as said before, most importantly by commenting on this blog posting.
COMING NEXT WEEK the last in this series of posts by first novelists. Anthony Schneider will talk about his South African novel, Repercussions.