Or: How I said goodbye to Horror and began a two-decade effort to dig my way into the heart of The Rock.
First in a series of entries paving the way for the launch of The Alcatraz Correction in October. Second in the Southern Scotch series starring Boss MacTavin.
The year: 1992. I know, I know, that's just sooooo long ago. But stick with me because there's a story that you need to know if you write, or want to write, one that may help shave long years from your quest. To do that, I need to tell you how I never met James Coburn, my hero since my boyhood.
Setting: Hollywood! My fourth book as Kelley Wilde has just been published and, by Jove, I have a film agent. Steve has flown me down to meet The Man--or rather The Man's partner/girlfriend. But Steve's a little antsy because my proposal runs on for fifty pages. The idea, he thinks, is smashing: a book about the aftermath to the Great Escape from Alcatraz in 1962. The cons, I believed, had escaped and remained uncaught for the next thirty years. In fact, one of the cons, Frank Morris...Stop there. No plot spoilers at this point. I'd wanted to write the book as suspense, my great reading passion. But I'd gotten locked into Horror because of my first book, The Suiting...and my literary agent had insisted I do a couple more horror tales. So I was there to pitch a book, Nightmare Alley, that I couldn't seem to get right in my head because I didn't see it as horror. Before the meeting, Steve begged me to keep my pitch short and sweet.
I still wish I'd listened to him. But I was starstruck and simply DID NOT UNDERSTAND how things work in Hollywood. Dudes and Dudettes, I was sitting across from the beautiful young lady who shared James Coburn's home and bed! And I went on and on and on about the theme of the Alcatraz horror-but-not-really-Horror film I dreamed of making with JC. I had ideas for the lighting, of course...the sort of suit JC should wear...even the music. As I went on, JC's woman stared at me in confusion...then alarm...then Horror. Finally, Steve jumped in on a note of high desperation: "What Kelley's trying to say is that Nightmare Alley is a cross between The Thin Man, Angel Heart and Escape from Alcatraz!" Near hysteria now, she trilled 'Ohhhhhh!' and said it sounded wonnnnnderful, promising to call.
Obviously, she didn't call. I never met JC. The film agent dropped me. I in turn dropped the literary agent who'd insisted I write Nightmare Alley as Horror. My time in The Desert now officially began. And over the next twenty years I kept returning to the book on the subject that had obsessed me since the early Eighties. what really happened to the cons who DID escape from Alcatraz in 1962.
In posts to come, I'll explore the main obstacles I faced. For now, since this is about you as much as it is about me, the two main hurdles to tackle were these:
1) Time: the cons were in their thirties in 1962. So, by 1992, they were already in their sixties. Already I faced limits in terms of what I could do with the plot: I could still get away with a sixty-ish former con who'd prospered and had a younger lover, a man who could still handle himself in a fight. But I'd need to handle the subject with skill and delicacy. As five years passed--then seven--ten--my lead character neared, then passed the Big Seven-Oh. By 2011, when the storyline had really come together and I knew as much about The Rock as any living writer, my man would have been in his EIGHTIES! And I remained defeated...until I found a way around this--and stopped seeking an agent who'd sell the book in two more years to a house that would publish in three. I could follow my own schedule if I published Live on Kindle.
2) Self-perception: If you fail at something long enough, and if you fall often enough on your face, you may come to share the world's opinions of your ridiculous pratfalls. As you stand on stage yet one more time, you imagine the crowd's boos and picture the dreaded hook hoisting you up by your collar. You picture past enemies jeering. And horrifying flashes of all the rejections you've had through the years set your knees to shaking. What if they're right? What if your talent amounts to a mountain of doody? But oh, friends, this is good. This is better than good, this is righteous. This is where you take your stand and get to face off with your fears. Have you failed ten thousand times? Well, that doesn't matter a bit, does it now, if the next time you discover the light bulb.
This is my report.