I Coulda Been a Pretender
How I didn't end up like that Harvard sophomore accused of plagiarizing her novel.
Half a million! I read it. I said the words out loud. Then I glanced at the sales figures for my own novel, which had just made its spectacular debut on the Lower East Side of the midlist. I felt sick. A 17-year-old high-school student, Kaavya Viswanathan, gets a half-million-dollar advance through a book packager that I also wrote for, doing the self-same thing. Only I didn't get the half mil. Nor the acres of publicity. Then again, neither did I get accused of plagiarism. This is how it happened.
About three years ago I got a call from my (then) agent saying that someone from 17th Street Productions had been in touch. 17th Street is a "book packager." I did not know what a book packager was. The guy at 17th Street had seen my novella collection Eating Mammals, and he wanted to know if I'd be interested in doing some writing for them. To put this in context, my writing is a bit like T.C. Boyle's, a tad wild, but controlled at the same time. Eating Mammals is about a man who eats furniture and dead dogs. My new novel is about a soft drink made from rhubarb and cocaine. If only you could reproduce that kind of thing for kids, they said. Mmm.
Book packaging is not a new phenomenon. It involves getting a book concept together, thus saving the publisher the trouble of finding writers, illustrators, editors, etc. Then a finished concept is sold to a publisher as a fait accompli. 17th Street is currently the most successful packager in the world when it comes to teen literature and the targeting of "Generation Y." My (then) agent was understandably keen, explaining that this particular book packager was behind the hugely successful teen fiction series Sweet Valley High. Even through the telephone line I could sense that his eyes were slowly turning dollar-bill green at the prospect of working with 17th Street who, it seemed, were trying to move into midgrader lit in order to suck up some of the Harry Potter juice that was (and still is) sloshing around the publishing world.
At that stage I was a completely unknown writer, a distinction which, through diligence, I have maintained to this day. So, it seemed like a great opportunity to earn some doughnuts. Over at 17th Street, the Sweet Valley boys wanted, of course, something in the Harry Potter vein. I suggested a magical chef; it came to me as I was talking to them for the first time, and, somewhat shamefully, I pretended it was an idea I'd been toying with for a while. They loved it. We hatched plans, we talked magic, we talked trilogy! I wrote not only a synopsis of the first novel but invented an entire cosmology for the fictive universe in which my narrative was to be set. There was enthusiasm. My (then) agent and I paid attention to the question of film rights. We even looked at merchandising clauses in the contract.
Then I wrote a sample 50 pages. The Sweet Valley boys hated it, cut half, and sent the remaining text to six of the most powerful editors of children's fiction in Manhattan. Who sent it right back. I was annoyed. For a time I stopped talking to the boys. Then they came back with an offer: $10,000 (against earnings) to do "the kind of book you really want to write, no interfering from us!" My (then) agent, with rapierlike thrusts of his negotiating skills, bossed them up to 15.
The new project got under way. The boys, however, were quick to backtrack on their suggestion of letting me alone to write the book. On the contrary, there was more collaboration than ever. And, just how do you write a novel by committee? Answer: with a great deal of pleasure. We would gather on the phone, me in Europe, they in New York, and chew the fat for hours about development, character, plot digressions, key moments. ... I imagined this was how prime-time TV gets written: lots of witty, divergent opinions slowly converging on a highly predictable and uninspiring concept. Still, planning a crazy fantasy kids' novel with a bunch of smart people is fun. It really is a whole lot of fun. During these calls I would make notes, then type them up, edit and expand them, and mail them back. Some time later I'd get responses from New York, agreeing with some things but disagreeing with others, often things that the boys had themselves suggested.
The process was a form of reiterative madness in which only I felt mad; unlike me, these people were involved in many similar projects simultaneously. Can you imagine trying to develop plots for a dozen novels at once? No wonder they were confused. At the beginning of each conversation I would try to slip in a story précis, just to get things moving. And after a while the constant confusion became quite funny. I started logging the literary and film references that were employed as they struggled to explain exactly what they wanted. Here is the complete list, stretching over a year: 1) Harry Potter, 2) Star Wars, 3) The Odyssey. That's it. Whenever I mentioned other kids' writers, such as Eoin Colfer, they shied away. They hadn't read Eoin. They had read Lemony Snicket, but I think they considered him too "out there."
In the midst of this I had a disagreement with my (then) agent, in which I gained the upper hand in very convincing style by sacking him. In this way I moved instantly from promising-but-unknown writer with a middle-ranking New York agent to promising-but-unknown writer with no agent, a career decision that few people found very smart. Nevertheless, I was stuck with the contract. Then, in a sudden flurry of typing, I finished the novel. Somewhere during this flurry I got hooked on the thing. What had been a writing gig that I was not taking very seriously turned quite unexpectedly into a real pleasure. I came to know the characters, and I enjoyed going back and writing about them every day. The book came alive, and I loved it—I still do.
However, having never lived in the United States, I had no idea about what was permissible in terms of cussing, especially in kids' fiction. We had agreed, previously, that I would write the thing as naturally as I could, and the people at 17th Street would filter out the unacceptable elements. So, I did just that, leaving in the text a modest fistful of shits, craps, a bastard, and several fucks. I even told them so when I mailed the finished text. Did they filter? Did they read? No; they gave the manuscript straight to the 8-year-old son of the company president. Little Timmy saw a shit and a fuck. He cried. He read the word bastard and needed counseling. It was a catastrophe.
My 80,000 words were dead words. A book that I love never got published. Or even edited. Or read by a single kid (apart from Timmy). I blew it. My chance of Harry Potterdom, of country homes, of cars that start every time, of book signings where enough people come to form an actual line ... all down the drain. However, it was a great way to learn that you can't write a book by committee, and to be paid 10 grand to learn it. So, thank you Sweet Valley boys. It was great fun, really.
John Barlow is the author of Intoxicated: A Novel of Money, Madness, and the Invention of the World's Favorite Soft Drink.