"You didn't like my first book"—Steve Martin
Last night, PW attended a BEA 2003 party in Beverly Hills for novelist Gigi Levangie Grazer, wife of movie producer Brian Grazer. Harrison Ford was there with a diamond stud in his ear and Calista Flockhart on his arm, but Hugh Hefner came by himself, an old man in a tight suit. Cuba Gooding rambled in, as did Lara Flynn Boyle, and Paris Hilton arrived in jeans cut disturbingly low.
We were expecting a similar crowd for tonight's Hyperion party for Steve Martin at the swank Hotel Bel-Air. The author of The Pleasure of My Company, due out in late September, is a major celebrity and has been for a quarter century. And while he's not the most read writer on the planet he's the most watched, counting the millions who have enjoyed his movies and the billion or so who have seen him host the Oscars.
Yet tonight's affair is about publishing, not Hollywood, the accent on subdued glamour, not glitz. The luminaries are Mitch Albom and Madeline Albright, milling around on a lush lawn trampled by hundreds of expensive shoes. PW publisher Joseph Tessitore has alerted Hyperion president Bob Miller of the magazine's interest in Martin, so we are escorted past the crowds of dark suits and cocktail dresses to meet the author/actor. He's standing amid an entourage of admirers. Martin appears as alert as a dog on point and is wearing a sumptuous light cream suit that highlights his pale skin and white hair. This elegant man looks as if he could be, perhaps, a cousin to the comedian who 25 years ago wore an arrow through his head for laughs and who this year rolled on a sofa with Queen Latifah in Bringing Down the House. We shake hands. Martin considers us. He says, with a hint of rancor, "You didn't like my first book."
"A weird thing happened"—Steve Martin
Three months later, PW is seated on a bench outside Café Luxembourg on Manhattan's Upper West Side waiting for Martin to join us for lunch. A tall guy approaches from up the block, wheeling an expensive bike and dressed in a silver helmet, lime polo shirt and khakis. It's Martin. "Thank you for doing this," he says. There are no other customers in the French bistro, which Martin has selected for the interview. The hostess smiles, recognizing the star. He asks for a table in the far corner by the window. "Away from the crowds," he jokes.
"You know," Martin says once we're seated, "a weird thing happened. This was two days ago. I was on Amazon and there was the Publishers Weekly review of Shopgirl. And it really wasn't so bad." Martin explains that his remark at BEA arose from his strong feelings about that novella, it "being my first book."
Shopgirl was in fact the first book Martin wrote as a book. That compassionate yet cool account of a young woman's affair with an older, successful man hit lists across the nation. Two popular collections of his humor preceded it: Cruel Shoes, released by Putnam in 1979, and Pure Drivel (1998), Martin's first book from Hyperion, which has published him ever since.
Martin's wonderful new novella, The Pleasure of My Company, is a tenderhearted, humorous story about how love frees a gentle soul from the armor of habit that has constricted his life. With pub date approaching, the promotional drive has begun, and we ask Martin how he feels about this.
"I love doing true interviews about the real book. Does that make sense?"
"You mean as opposed to being interviewed about the fact that Steve Martin wrote a book?"
Martin nods twice. "Right. Right. And as opposed to an interview for a movie, which is pure flimflam. Because the questions there are so routine and general. This is much closer to my heart, so I can talk about it easier if the questions are pertinent. Then you go on Regis and Kathy Lee, which is a lot of fun to do, and that's more about reaching people. So in promoting the book I have to be careful to keep a balance between that and keeping the dignity of the book and what I want from it, which is respect from you guys."
We study Martin in the soft light of the cafe. His eyes are blue-green. His features look broader than we remember, and his skin appears remarkably clear.
Promotion is a kind of performance, we think, and Martin has made his fortune from performing so we ask him about the relationship between writing and performing.
"They are opposites. But the thing that unites them is timing. Writing is done in solitude. It's like dancing alone."
"We all think we know someone like Steve Martin because we've seen him on the screen our whole lives. No we don't."—Esther Newberg
Esther Newberg of International Creative Management makes sure Martin gets paid well for that dancing. Newberg remains behind her desk as we enter her midtown Manhattan office, an impressive space with a large picture window that overlooks Central Park. She's a petite woman with smartly cut hair and gleaming teeth, and she radiates an intense energy from behind the huge desk, like a captain at a wartime command post. Indeed, Newberg commands as much respect as any literary agent around, and a glance at the spines of the books in her office tells why—they're by authors like Carl Hiaasen and John Sandford, Patricia Cornwell and Linda Fairstein, Caroline Kennedy and Michael Beschloss.
Newberg has been Martin's agent for years, and knows him well. "He's extraordinarily careful," she says. "He's involved in every aspect of the publishing process. Sentences matter to him, not just paragraphs. So if people change his words, it's not going to make him happy. And he has a great eye, and an incredible art collection, so he's involved in the jacket. He's nice about it, don't misunderstand me. And he's on e-mail, so you don't need to go through layers to get to him. That's a huge thing. You can't imagine, when you're at a place like this, how that doesn't always happen."
Or at a place like PW. Other than during the personal meets, our contact with Martin has been second-hand, restricted to e-mails with Hollywood publicist Alan Nierob, including where and when to meet him.
Newberg tells us that Martin contracts with Hyperion on a book-by book basis. "I think they've done a wonderful job. I find Bob Miller to be as involved in the process as anyone in publishing today. He's funny about it, and he doesn't always say that it's my fault. I really like it when people tell it straight, instead of being defensive, you know, like—turn that thing off," she says, pointing to our tape recorder. We do, and Newberg snaps out the name of another publisher. "You can turn it back on now."
Newberg calls for coffee. Within moments an assistant is in the room holding a steaming cup. We talk about the fall season, enjoying the agent's biting commentary on this book and that, and about the relative audience size for books and film. "Welcome to America," Newberg says. "Who reads books? And when they do, do they read literature?
"Look at all the places he's written for," Newberg points out. "In the Times —in the magazine, the Arts section, the op-ed; he written screenplays, he's written short stories, he's written a novel. What else is there?"
We suggest that Shopgirl is a bit short to be called a novel.
"I'll give you a list of ones that should have been that length."
We discuss foreign rights on Martin's books and Newberg speaks of the wide appeal of his writing. "Shopgirl was a book that even Imus read, really read. I think you see how clever and smart his mind is. And you're fascinated by the characters. You wonder... we all think we know someone like Steve Martin because we've seen him on the screen our whole lives. No we don't. Anymore than he knows us."
"A metaphor can be more precise then a direct statement" —Steve Martin
Steve Martin was born in 1945 in Waco, Tex. He worked at Disneyland as a teenager, then at Knotts Berry Farm, where he did comedy and played banjo and performed magic. He studied philosophy at UCLA and briefly considered teaching it. Martin came to national attention in the mid-'70s as a standup comedian and Saturday Night Live regular who offered a refreshing brand of cerebral postmodern humor devoid of social commentary. Since then he's starred in nearly 50 movies and has released a scattering of bestselling comedy albums as well as a hit song, "King Tut." His writing career has run on a parallel high-speed track, beginning in 1963 when he was hired as a scribe for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. He's written several screenplays, including The Jerk, Roxanne, L.A. Story and Bowfinger, and a handful of plays, most notably Picasso at the Lapin Agile. His sophistication and wit and brilliant comedic timing have led to stints as host of not just the Academy Awards but also of the publishing industry's counterpart, the National Book Awards.
Martin professes to love the process of writing. "I don't want to use a sexual metaphor," he says, "but it's something that builds up, builds up, builds up and then it all comes out." His face collapses into a crinkled grin. "The other thing is that I just love sentences, and I love shaping paragraphs. It's a love of the ring and the rhythm and the sound of words." Martin's novellas are composed with a jeweler's eye, his language exact and spare. His drive for exactitude results in a book that, as he puts it, is "usually a little short. I have a show-biz instinct. Once in high school I did a show and I knew I went on too long, because people left. That is still in my head."
Martin speaks quickly and quietly in a musical voice that's slightly acidic. His eyes cut away often as speaks, when he needs to think. He's polite but reserved and perhaps a bit anxious as well: he fiddles his fingers as he reaches for words.
"How much rewriting do you do?"
"How much what?" Martin leans forward to hear over the noise of the now-packed cafe.
"Rewriting. And when do you write?"
"Well I usually write in the afternoon on my computer. Sit on the bed. I take care of all of the phone calls, I don't block out anything. Sometimes during a movie I can write, because there's a lot of time. Then I send it out to a few friends and get some feedback, and then I start— 'rewriting' is the wrong word because really it's honing. I read it over and over and over and over, and then I start reading it aloud, to myself sometimes, or to my dog. I find that when you've read it out aloud you start to catch things that you wouldn't catch by reading it silently. Have you ever seen that little thing about 'Count the "F"s' in this sentence'? Have you ever seen that? You see three but there's seven.
"I've discovered something in my quest for precision," he adds. "If I do a joke but its premise is that it's a non sequitur, the audience must know it's a non sequitur because otherwise they're left hanging. You have to send the message that it's oblique. So I realize that a metaphor can be more precise then a direct statement, because of the... auras that surround words."
As befits a writer who admires words and their economies, Martin, when asked to cite his literary influences, recalls "mostly poets. From T.S. Eliot I figured out things about intelligence and language. Dylan Thomas made me aware of the beauty in language. And e.e. cummings of the rhythm of the words. "
Martin looks out the window. A pack of young preteens in school uniforms are giggling and pointing at him. He smiles and waves. They run on but a few seconds later they're back, gawking through the glass.
"He's been superb, actually."—Robert S. Miller
Robert S. "Bob" Miller is sporting a neatly trimmed beard. He grew it, he tells us, during an Outward Bound expedition with his son in the summer. The president and publisher of Hyperion Books looks extremely fit in dark slacks and a shirt with no tie, as we sit in his neat and comfortable office high up in the ABC building on West 66th St.
How, we ask, do you publish a multifaceted talent like Steve Martin?
"That question loomed larger when we were planning the publication of Shopgirl. We had published Pure Drivel , after we pursued him for that book. [But] Shopgirl was a literary short novel. We wanted reviewers to understand that he was serious about what he was doing, so we set up very early publication lunches with Steve and select reviewers. We also treated it as a literary publication by doing very long lead mailings of the book in galley form.
"We had sold about 150,000 copies of Pure Drivel in hardcover," he continues. "With Shopgirl we were much more cautious about the initial distribution. We shipped about 40,000 copies. We've ended up selling about 250,000 copies in hardcover and the book has sold another 300,000 in paperback and is still going strong. "
The first printing of The Pleasure of My Company is over 300,000. To make sure those copies never return, Martin will storm the media. "He's really gotten behind this," Miller reports. The publisher scans a sheet of paper. "We have The Today Show, we have Live with Regis and Kelly, he's doing Charlie Rose, he's doing The View, Imus, NPR. And a lot of magazine and print coverage. "
We glance around. On the windowsill are marshaled copies or mockups of Hyperion's fall list, including the Martin.
"What's he like to work with?"
"He's been superb, actually. The process of the cover, which is often the most difficult with an author, was a very collaborative one. We suggested the idea of a man standing with his hands around his own back from behind, and he liked the idea. So we gave him several models to choose from, and he chose the model. We did the shoot. We went back and forth on the photograph to choose out of that shoot. He chose a photograph, we made some changes to the photograph in the computer that he requested. He had certain ideas of what the background should be, that the bright colors have a Santa Monica feel. So we had a photographer go to Santa Monica locations. He chose one of the backgrounds that was shot, and our art department put the model against that background. And then we went back and forth about the type design."
"What's your take on him as a human being?"
"He's very careful. Very thoughtful. And very observant. The persona you see in film as a performer is that—it's a persona that he is superb at creating and executing. Behind that persona is a craftsman who observes details and remembers them, and who uses them either in the writing or the performance, which ultimately looks spontaneous because it's so well crafted. "
"We've all counted ceiling titles"—Steve Martin
Martin cares passionately about his books. How does he feel about turning them into movies, with the consequent loss of control? In October, he will begin filming Shopgirl, from a screenplay he wrote, starring himself as middle-aged businessman Ray Porter and Claire Danes as Mirabelle, the Neiman Marcus clerk who falls for him.
"Right. Well, there are certain things you have to let go of. Other peoples' visions enter into it—the director's vision, the actor's vision. It's not that it's worse, it's that it's different. When I wrote Shopgirl, with it being my first what we'll call 'serious' effort, I wanted to go the safest route. And I thought, 'Well, omniscient narrator seems to be the safest thing but also it works because of the distant voice.' We're doing very little narration in the movie. That was a challenge, because the whole book is narration. But I'm using the voice of Diane Keaton. The sound of it is almost like the guiding mother."
We mention that Shopgirl hit #4 on the New York Times bestseller list. "Did you check that?" Martin asks. "I remember #5."
"Who buys your books?" we ask.
"Well, I never thought of that. I don't think it's fans. To me it's readers—you know, readers. It's just not an airport book."
Martin breaks the news that he won't be hosting the National Book Awards this year. "I'm shooting Shopgirl, so I can't. I also ran out of book jokes. You know, I hosted it for four or five years. I need a break and they do too, probably. I approached it very seriously. I wanted to find out if I could do it well. That's the nature of a performer. You can be doing the smallest thing and yet you're on the line, whether there's 10 people watching or 5,000 or a billion. The effort is the same. Sometimes people think, 'Well, it's just five minutes.' Just five minutes. Just five minutes. Well, that's a long time and involves months of thinking."
We ask Martin how much of him is in Daniel Pecan Cambridge, the habit-bound narrator of The Pleasure of My Company. The author protests that he's not nearly as quirky as Cambridge, who can't step over curbs and insists that the lights in his apartment total 1,125 watts. "It's like writing from the point of view that if I were crazy, that's what I would do. I mean, we've all counted ceiling tiles, and if you remember the scene where he's getting ready to go do his speech? ["I laid out my hairbrush, toothpaste, socks, soap and washcloth. I cleaned the mirror on the medicine cabinet so that I wouldn't see something on it that I would think was on me...."]. That's what I used to do when I would perform. When I was younger I was single-minded."
"There's a tint of loneliness or sadness"—Leigh Haber
We meet Leigh Haber in a coffee shop near the PW offices. The Hyperion editor-at-large has an open face and a pleasant manner that, we learn, includes an ability to speak in perfectly rounded sentences. We take a booth and, over orange juice and a bagel, she recalls her work with Martin on Pure Drivel.
"That was a wonderful collaboration. Even when he disagreed with me, he was always responsive, never dismissive. And Steve loves feedback, even on something fundamental. But he never wants to be the bad guy. So he wants you to get what his concern is with something, so that you'll take it back. "
Haber admires Martin, calling him "an absolute genius" who "does so many things well, from playing the banjo to putting together a dinner party, to collecting art and being a comedian. And he really enjoys writing. It's one of my greatest joys as an editor to be sitting across the table from him as he's composing something. We had an instance when we decided to change something and he's figuring out what the change is." She lifts her hands and wiggles her fingers to mimic typing. "He'll be looking up in the air, you can see the wheels turning. He might make himself laugh and say, 'See what you think of this.' "
Haber hints that Martin's recent engagement with serious prose writing arose from a change in his priorities. "When he first started writing for the New Yorker, it was when he was taking some time off from making movies. Perhaps taking a longer view of life and of what makes him happy. I think Steve is deeply romantic but a realist, and there's a tint of loneliness or sadness at the same time there is an incredible ability to engage with life. I think he works on the art of living. If the world can be divided into people who develop and grow every day of their lives and the people who stop, Steve is one of those people who works on the art of life all the time."
"Respect"—Steve Martin We ask Martin how he fared during the recent blackout, which fell on his 58th birthday. "Fine," he says. He explains that he rode his bike down to the Village, carrying a cake his girlfriend had baked for him, and joined her for a pleasant evening.
"What's next for you?" we ask.
"Well, my life moves in cycles. Creativity and promotion. And I'm entering a promotional cycle. I've got two movies coming out. I'm starting a movie and I have a book coming out. So I'll be in the promotional world for a while, but that'll end in late December.
"I had this idea for a book called Volume," he continues. "Do you know the book Hunger? So this is about volume in our lives, volume, endless volume that would go around. I wrote one paragraph and I might do it some day."
"One paragraph, yeah. I like doing this. I like going inside my own head, and I don't feel like I'm for hire. Whereas in the movies I am. It's great to find something that you actually do feel artistic about and uncompromising about and not cynical. You know, the movies have broken my heart a lot and what I mean by that is you are so invested in something and you feel so good about it and then it's a disaster. Here I just like to keep it small and personal.
"With a book I write the thing, and that's the personal experience, and then the reception of it is another experience. And your ego gets very wrapped up in the reception of it. I remember when I was doing stand-up comedy in the '80s and I'd been in some comedy movies and I made Roxanne—I felt something I had never felt coming back, which was respect. But enough about me."
Martin seems restless so we tell him we're done and ask him to inscribe a book. He signs, then jumps up from the table to wait by the door. As we walk him to his bike, he thanks us again and says, "You were lucky, this was my first interview for the book. I'm not jaded yet."
We watch Martin ride away. In our imagination, we transpose one of his custom-made suits over the bike clothes he's wearing, transpose the public persona over the private self, and we realize that his earlier training in stage magic has served him well, for its emphasis on precision, control and practice-until-perfect but also for what this shape-shifting author learned about sleight-of-hand. Yet while Martin is a dedicated and talented writer, yet there's no flourish that can conceal a simple truth: that once his words are published, his celebrity bears down mightily on how they're perceived—and that this is both blessing and curse.
Back at the PW offices, we pull out the copy of Shopgirl that we'd asked Martin to inscribe. In brisk black script he wrote, "with great admiration and respect."