These days, many people may know Rob Thomas best as the creator and executive producer for the cult television series Veronica Mars. Yes, the same Veronica Mars that is settting all sorts of Kickstarter fundraising records this week on its way to becoming a feature film [see our update below for more VM details]. But what some fans of that show may not know is that Thomas kicked off his writing career with another critically acclaimed project – his 1996 debut YA novel, Rats Saw God. This month Simon & Schuster is publishing repackaged editions of the book in hardcover, trade paperback, and e-book.
“It was a few of us here who came up with the idea,” says David Gale, editorial director for Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, of the relaunch. “I edited the original book and it has always been one of my favorites. And [v-p and publisher] Justin Chanda says that it is his favorite YA book of all time.”
Rats Saw God tells the story of Steve York, a kid drifting through his senior year on a cloud of doobie smoke and at risk of not getting his diploma. An intuitive school counselor offers him an out: write a 100-page paper and he can graduate. The paper recounts Steve’s teenage life and reveals the great grades, good friends, and first love that he left behind in Texas when his parents divorced and he later fled his father’s pressure-filled home for San Diego to live with his mother and sister.
Naturally, the author has a soft spot for the novel, too; Thomas recalled to PW that it signifies “when I made the shift from wanting to write to being a professional writer. It was an incredibly exciting period of my life.”
Though he’d always dreamed of being a writer, Thomas began working on Rats Saw God in earnest in 1994 as a much-needed creative outlet when he was doing largely administrative work for Channel One (the satellite news program for teens that airs in high school classrooms nationwide) in Los Angeles. He had recently moved to California after several post-college years in Texas teaching high school journalism and playing in a rock band. Before long, his moonlighting produced a manuscript.
“I’m usually so bad at following instructions and doing things the slow way,” Thomas says. “But one thing I did right was to sit down and read everything on how to get published. I followed all the steps: When I learned I needed an agent, I researched [literary] agencies to find one. I made sure I had a size nine SASE and a good query letter. I was 28 or 29 then and I remember going to the mailbox every day to see if I had gotten a response. It was a really giddy time.”
Though he went through the proper channels to pursue a publishing contract, Thomas went down a less traditional path to seek out TV work. As part of his job during the Channel One stint, he ran a contest to select high school students as reporters of the week. One of the winning candidates was the niece of Jeff Sagansky, then the president of CBS TV, and Sagansky had written her a letter of recommendation. “On a lark, I wrote back to [Sagansky] telling him how great his niece was and stuck a copy of the manuscript for Rats Saw God in the envelope,” Thomas recalls. “I told him I would appreciate it if he could hand it off to any producers of teen shows.” Sagansky followed up with a phone call to Thomas and the two began discussions about various projects. That connection eventually led to Thomas’ work as a staff writer on Dawson’s Creek, and his pitch of a romantic comedy that became the TV show Cupid. “Today it strikes me as insane,” he says. “This would never happen today – my manuscript would never make it out of an assistant’s pile.”
Back on the publishing front, Thomas had secured representation with a literary agent, and quit Channel One in the summer of 1995. At S&S, Gale was immediately impressed with the Rats Saw God submission and acquired it in a two-book deal in October of that same year. “When I first read it in manuscript – and even when I read it now – Steve was such a believable kid,” he says. “He’s gone through a sea change from straight-A student with a girlfriend and golden boy status to stoner-slacker. He doesn’t want to talk about it, but he can write about it. As his writing gets increasingly more personal he starts to understand who he was and who he could be. Those things tend to hold up over time.”
Rats Saw God received warm notices in a spate of review journals upon its release. PW said that Thomas “nails his setting with dead-on accuracy,” while VOYA offered, “Screams READ ME NOW.” And a School Library Journal review enthused, “This robust first novel is so hip and cool and strong it hurts.” To date, the earlier editions of the title have tallied a combined sales total of more than 125,000 copies.
A Second Life
As Simon & Schuster planned the new editions, Gale says he offered Thomas the opportunity to tweak or update the text, but the author declined, preferring to leave it as-is. Thomas says he remains “really proud” of the original. “I would love to think that Rats could find a new audience,” he notes. “But I think about American Graffiti and think of Rats in that context. The death of Kurt Cobain is significant in the story and it really dates the book. What felt like such a recent open wound then is now a piece of history. When it came out I thought I was doing such a modern, in-the-moment zeitgeisty book, but now it’s one of those books with dated references.”
Becky Anderson, co-owner of Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, Ill. and a longstanding fan of the novel, maintains that the title has aged well, and believes the adult crossover reading trend of recent years could be a boon for Rats Saw God. “This book could have a whole new life if booksellers find it again,” she says. “Who cares if it doesn’t have technology? It’s a really important book and it’s still relevant. We have a terrible drug problem in this area, with lots of kids and their parents going through tough times now. This book has a lot to say to them.”
When Rats Saw God first hit shelves in 1996 – a simultaneous hardcover and paperback release – it sported cover art by Chris Raschka. The book had been redesigned with new art for two more paperback versions along the way. But, as Gale notes, “We now do our own paperbacks [each S&S imprint publishes its own paperbacks] and we wanted to do a trade edition.” The latest cover, gracing all three of the new releases and featuring a black-and-white photo, was designed by Chloë Foglia and “really speaks to the potential readers of the book,” says Gale.
Thomas notes that he was “really surprised” to hear the good news that the book was being repackaged, and that he very much likes the new design. “It has a certain grittiness to it,” he says. “The tone feels right. It hits the mood of the book.”
“Now it’s been 20 years since I wrote it,” says the author. “That’s crazy to me. That 20 years has flown by.” Thomas followed up Rats Saw God with several other novels, including Slave Day (1997) and Satellite Down (1998), but has not dipped his toe into the YA pool for many years now, much to the disappointment of longtime fans. “I don’t see one happening in the near future,” he says. “The novels take me a long time to write. I’m married and a family man now, in a nice neighborhood with a big mortgage. TV pays for all that.”
In fact, Thomas says, the script that eventually turned into Veronica Mars “was supposed to be one of my YA novels [his sixth] for Simon & Schuster. It didn’t have a title – I was calling it ‘teen detective.’ ” The original version starred a boy named Keith Mars and was set in a tony area of Austin called Westlake, before Thomas made the changes familiar to fans of the show –the now-female protagonist whose father was named Keith. When UPN saw a spec script based on the novel-in-progress and wanted to develop the project for television, Thomas says he paid back his advance to Simon & Schuster.
Though his more lucrative TV projects are still in the fore for now, Thomas doesn’t completely rule out the prospect of another novel. He is currently working on a number of pilots and scripts for HBO and the USA network, among others. “My hope is that I hit it big with something and then I’ll have enough of a cushion to carve out time to write a book,” he says. “That would be my passion project.”
In the meantime, there are some as-yet-unconfirmed plans afoot for Thomas to support the new book via a couple of book festival appearances in his native Texas later this year, and he hopes to get the word out on social media. “It would be nice if Veronica Mars fans – most of whom don’t know that I wrote a book – would discover the book,” he says. “Maybe I’ll get Kristen Bell [the actress who played Veronica] to tweet about it.”
Update: Kristen Bell and Rob Thomas already have plenty to tweet about. On Wednesday, March 13, the duo launched a Kickstarter campaign – replete with very cool rewards for donors – to fund a Veronica Mars movie. The goal was to raise $2 million in 30 days for a low-budget film that would be penned by Thomas and shot this summer starring most of the original cast. As of 9:00 p.m. EST on March 13, contributors had helped Thomas and Bell surpass that target. As a result, Warner Bros. (which owns the rights to Veronica Mars), will put the movie into production and subsequently pay the marketing, distribution and promotion costs for a limited theatrical run in early 2014. Release on various digital platforms will follow. All additional monies pledged beyond the target figure will go to enhance the film’s production value. As Thomas notes in the Kickstarter pitch: “...the more money we raise, the cooler movie we can make.” Hmmm. Maybe a new book from Thomas will be in the offing sooner rather than later after all.