I have a dirty little secret: I used to be a screenwriter. Shhh. Please don't tell anyone.
Hey, I was young. I was experimenting. A friend and I sold a screenplay right after college, and I was off. Pitch meetings, Hollywood premieres and parties at houses with Oscars stashed on bathroom shelves. Dizzyingly huge checks for a draft, a revision, a polish. What fun. Only one thing I wrote ever actually got made—a modestly successful teen comedy—but that's part of the screenwriting biz. As for the writing itself? Well, I tried not to get too emotionally involved in that. After all, a screenplay is just one part of a movie; you give birth to your characters and then hand them over to the studio executives, producers, directors and actors to do with them whatever they will.
Then I fell madly in love with characters I wanted to raise to maturity all on my own. So I wrote my first novel. For the first time in my life, I was in love. I was fortunate to find an agent and publisher, and suddenly I was a scribe of serious literature, an author of literary fiction. A screenwriter? Oh no, I was done with all that. I'm a real writer now. Let's pretend that never happened.
The smart and sophisticated publisher of my novel was surprised to learn about my screenwriting past—and I was equally surprised by his response: perhaps that would be a good selling and publicity angle, he suggested, It could sell books. I was dismayed. No, please, I begged, let's not mention my screenwriting past, my little teen comedy.
He reluctantly agreed, and to prove to him I could "sell" as a literary novelist, I became a rampaging, shameless, leave-no-promo-op-unturned publicity fiend. Four years of blood and sweat went into writing that novel—I wasn't going to abandon it now. I would do anything to sell a book, and did. (Well, almost anything; my favorite New Yorker cartoon is a lonely author in a bookstore, the window sign reading: "Sex With the Author, 4 PM," and I confess I never actually went that far.) But that "screenwriter" bit of my résumé? Poof, gone!
Cut to: present day. That modestly successful, sweet, trivial teen comedy I co-wrote has run almost continuously on both cable and network television for the past 15 years. I still receive residual checks for healthy DVD and video rentals. People consider it a "cult classic." Entertainment Weekly recently listed it as one of their "Top Ten Guilty Pleasures." There is talk of a remake. I have been invited to speak about screenwriting and film at prestigious universities. I've taught fiction and literature in creative writing programs, to students who are respectfully impressed and appreciative of my first novel. But then word leaks out that I wrote a little movie... and I am suddenly, briefly, a rock star. People become wildly, nostalgically excited, tell me it was their favorite movie, quote lines from it, ask me if there is still room in my courses. And that is often when people who hadn't read my first book go check it out and buy themselves a copy.
My second novel is just out; it's another work of "literary fiction." My new smart and sophisticated editor and publicist sent me the catalogue copy: "She also co-wrote the screenplay for..." it said, and I felt that familiar tug in my gut. Do we have to include that? I asked. It's not a bad thing, Tara, they said. It makes you stand out. It can help make the book stand out.
It finally hit me: they're absolutely right. Millions of people have seen that trifling movie, enjoyed and appreciated and remembered it. How snooty I've been, how foolish and smug. Faulkner and Fitzgerald and Nabokov all wrote screenplays, after all. And now I have a precious new child I'm sending off into the world. Isn't it my job as a parent to provide as many opportunities as I possibly can?
So: did you know I co-wrote a movie called Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead? Please tell everyone. (And, hey, did I mention I have a new novel out? Check it out.)
As Woody Allen once said: let's face it, I want to sell some books here.
|Tara Ison's novel The List (Scribner) is on sale now.|