Wednesday, June 22, 2005

MANDATORY READ: The Will Clarke Interview

Here at POD-Dy Mouth Studios, located one floor up (or so) from those "journalists" with the goofy smiles and funny hair at NBC who seemed obsessed with such useless topics as that big-toothed loser who left her fiancé at the altar and is now looking at a $500K book deal, *deep breath* we are most blessed to have a mega-success story ready for interview—a story of a man who has risen from the ashes of POD and climbed to the top of the publishing mountain: a two book deal with Simon & Schuster and a movie deal to boot. We're talking about Will Clarke, author of LORD VISHNU'S LOVE HANDLES, which was released yesterday in hardback (June 21, 2005.)

Here is the quick one-two punch about Will's book: Travis Anderson has a habit of knowing things. So far he's milked his premonitions only to acquire a middle-upper-class lifestyle--pretty wife, big house, and a shiny Range Rover--without having to make any real effort. Haunted by omens of impending cancers, stillborn babies, and personal train wrecks, he is compelled to make a series of inaccurate and horrifying prophecies that humiliate him in front of his fellow country club members. The IRS pulls Travis's number, too, demanding an audit of his sloppy bookkeeping.

Drowning in mounting financial problems and apparent mental illness, Travis tries booze, pills, even gold to stay afloat, but nothing works. His wife and friends are forced to stage an intervention. Travis is in danger of losing his family, his career, and ultimately, his sanity. That is, until he meets a cult member in rehab who claims to be the final incarnation of the Lord Vishnu. Suddenly, the tragically shallow Travis is saddled with the responsibility of bettering mankind and saving the world.

Think that's wacky? Check this out:

Girl: Before we start, you’ve got a little something on your shirt there. What is that, beef and bean burrito? It's making me hungry.

Will: Actually, it’s an Amy’s bean and cheese burrito. Whole Foods had them on sale three for two. This Amy person makes a mean frozen burrito. I like her spinach pizza, too.

Girl: I picked up LVLH in one of my favorite used bookstores—in of all places, the Hindu section. When I saw the title, I thought, huh? Then I read the first sentence: “Shelby is a slut.” Would you say your book was misplaced?

Will: There are no misplacements or missteps. The book was in the perfect place for you to find it. After all, the book is, to me, a retelling of The Bagavhad Gita— though most people don’t recognize this because the story is so heavily veiled in my weirdness. So it makes perfect sense to me that the book would get footsy and wander into the Hindu section. Books are like people; they sort of go where they want.

Girl: The story is whacked in a most wonderful way. I always say I cannot imagine how Chuck Palahniuk got FIGHT CLUB picked up by a publisher, because describing it sounds so ludicrous. I imagine you might have had the same problem. Did you try to get an agent or publisher at the onset?

Will: Thank you. I think writers just have certain stories in them and you can’t always nudge those stories into something that seems easily publishable. You just have to write them and expect that maybe the rejection is a sign that you’re just a little ahead of your time. You just never know.

I always compare the rejection of truly novel ideas to seeing an aggressively-styled new car. The first time you see it, you think, “That is so weird. I hate it.” And then you see the same car being parked by a valet and you get this glimmer of liking the car. Then that glimmer slowly grows into desire and then you go out and buy that new car that you hated a year ago when it first came out, and you’re all proud because you’re driving a car that doesn’t look like everybody else’s. That’s a very materialistic analogy, but what I’m trying to illustrate is it’s hard to know if you like something or not if it’s a really new or original idea because we have the same reaction to new ideas as we do bad ones: we reject them.

So I did go the traditional publishing route at first. I have a phone book-sized collection of rejection letters. I call it my “Scab Collection” because there’s something sick about collecting letters that basically tell you that you suck. But I can’t throw them away for some reason.

Girl: What made you decide to go with 1stBooks/Authorhouse? What was your experience like?

Will: I finally surrendered to the fact that I would never be published, at least not traditionally. I had two dead books on my hands and all the doors to New York publishing were now closed to me. So I thought as a last ditch effort, since I obviously had nothing left to lose, I would go with a POD publisher. However, doing so turned out to be a very disappointing experience for me, and I only published the book that way for about 4 months before I pulled it. Their publishing model just didn’t work for what I wanted to do, and I’ll just leave it at that.

But my mantra is there are no mistakes or missteps. And this was just another hard lesson that I had to learn and from that lesson, I learned that I needed to start my own press.

Girl: Don’t you think they might have been a little edgier as Authorhaus?

Will: Authorhouse sort of sounds like a halfway house for abused or strung-out writers to me.

Authorhaus sounds more like a spa–like they’ll publish your book and give you a free Swedish foot rub and some herbal tea.

Girl: Tell us about MiddleFingerPress.

Will: There’s a lot of power in the middle finger. Just saying the word “middle finger” makes some people snicker, or almost flinch. Which is weird because it’s not a curse word. The ancients believed that your middle finger is your “Saturn finger.” The planet Saturn rules your karma or fate, so by raising my middle finger and starting my own press, I was essentially taking control of my own fate.

I used MiddleFingerPress to publish my work POD without any intermediaries. The whole process was very empowering. All I did was get a copy of THE SELF-PUBLISHING MANUAL by Dan Poynter and I learned that I could print books POD without having to sell a kidney.

Girl: How many units have you sold to date (prior to the S&S release)?

Will: I only sold about 2000, and it took almost two years and a lot of hard work to do that. I sold most of the books on Amazon. I love Amazon. Their “If-You-Like-This-Book-Then-You’ll-Like-This-Book” engine spread my book all over the world. It was really crazy at first. I got e-mails from readers in Kosovo, Tehran, Tel Aviv, and Bombay. The book was even taught in a freshman literature class at George Washington University.

Girl: Hey, 2000 copies is nothing to sneeze at! A lot of authors [in print by all publishers except the wise, take-your-breath-away-beautiful people at Penguin Putnam] never sell that many for the life of the book. So what happened next? Movie deal?

Will: What happened next is I got happy, very happy. MiddleFingerPress had set me free. I had honestly let go of ever needing to sign with a major publisher—keyword here: needing. I still would have liked it, but I was no longer jonseing to be published. I had a book on Amazon and I could write as many as I wanted and I could put them out whenever I wanted. I got to design the covers which was fun and build web sites. I was growing a readership, one book at a time. To me this was living the dream.

And then out the blue, this New Zealand screenwriter, Grant Morris, called me and wanted to option the book for a dollar. I told him no at first, but he sent me a screenplay he had written, and it was really wonderful. So I said, “Okay, gimme the dollar and let’s see what you can do.”

So he got to work pedaling it around LA. He got Michael London (Sideways) to attach as the producer who got David Gordon Green (George Washington) to attach as the director. And then to my utter surprise, the three of them set the project up at Paramount Pictures.

Girl: How did you end up with Jenny Bent and Simon and Schuster? Was all of this the result of the movie deal, or because the book is simply brilliant?

Actually, it was a direct result of all the movie interest. Right before the movie got set up at Paramount, friends kept encouraging me to try selling LVLH to NYC again. So I called an editor friend of mine at Simon and Schuster to ask her for advice on finding a good agent, and instead of offering me advice, she offered me a book deal. This same editor thought Jenny Bent and I would hit it off, and we did. So Jenny sweetened the deal a little bit with S&S, and then she turned around and sold my second novel, THE WORTHY to them.

Girl: Do you ever wake up and feel like you’re dreaming all of this? Sort of like your Travis Anderson? I tend to wake up screaming, myself.

Will: It is very dreamlike. I am incredibly blessed and thankful. I often feel guilty for having it so good, like survivor’s guilt or something, but then I have to remind myself that I’ve been working on this since I was 21. I turn 35 in August. That’s a long time to live in an efficiency apartment, eating ramen noodles, and pecking on a keyboard. Recently people who don’t know my whole story will remark about how lucky I have been, and I just sort of shake my head and laugh. It reminds me of that old saying, “Luck is often missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

Girl: Are you going to be on the set during filming of LVLH waving and shouting, “No, no, no—that’s all wrong. What are you people doing!?”

Actually, I’ll be too busy chowing down at the craft services table to care. Free finger sandwiches and aerosol cheese! Sometimes I hear sometimes they even have fancy olives and little Vitamin C packs to put in your bottled water.

Girl: You must have thought this 1000 times . . . who, if you could control the decision, would you cast as the actors for the movie version of LVLH?

Will: I am much more concerned with the director than the actors. Actors give wildly different performances depending on the direction they are given. Look at Jim Carrey in The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Michel Gondry revealed a side of Carrey nobody had ever seen before, or even thought possible.

So I feel really lucky that David Gordon Green is directing. He’s a very literary director. He’s got a novelist’s sensibilities for character and dialogue. So I totally feel safe with whatever casting happens as long as he’s at the helm.

Girl: What? Not even the obligatory reference to Edward Norton? You have far more self-control than I. Is anyone blurbing the S&S release of LVLH?

Will: Getting blurbs is weird theater. It’s like asking someone over to your house for dinner, and then asking that they toast you and tell you how cool you are and how smart your kids are and how much they loved the crème brulée. So I am completely humbled that any of these people did this for me:

Tony Hawk (Hawk: Occupation: Skateboarder)
Rob Bindler (Hands on a Hardbody)
David Gordon Green (George Washington, Undertow.)
Sarah Pritchard (Crackpots)
Jon Ronson (Them: Adventures with Extremists and Men Who Stare At Goats)

Girl: Knowing your book was quality, you decided not to let it gather dust in a drawer. What would you say to the folks out there in your (former) position, those who have a quality manuscript but can’t get NY to buy in. Now, this only for them; the people with crap stories that fill most of the POD list, we should tell these people to get back to telemarketing and bill collecting. But for the good ones . . . ?

Will: Here’s my advice: Leave no door unopened and if all doors seem to be locked to you, start your own press. I would avoid POD publishers and figure out how to do it yourself. Besides, POD technology is so simple Paris Hilton could do it. Pick up the SELF-PUBLISHING MANUAL and teach yourself. Just be prepared for lots of hard work and lots of humbling experiences. Also, go to writers’ conferences every chance you get. They’re fun and great places to meet people, sometimes very important people. And keep learning. It’s a craft and every obstacle is just a lesson you have to master.

Start a writers’ group. They are invaluable for critiques and support. I started one with six people a little less than ten years ago. Now three of us have been published by major houses.

Also learn to master your ego. It can get you into trouble and cause you lots of heartache. I read a lot of Buddhist and Hindu texts and find a lot of solace in that. I have a friend who cross-stitches to meditate. Do whatever works for you but find something to manage your ego or you won’t make it.

Girl: What’s next on the radar for Will Clarke?

Will: There’s a lot next, actually.

I go on a 9-city tour for LVLH in July 2005 which includes, Dallas, Austin, Houston, San Antonio, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport, Oxford, and Jackson.

I am also working on getting THE WORTHY ready, which comes out from Simon and Schuster in 2006. And I am working on the film adaptation of that book as well as a third novel. In my free time, I play lots of so I can keep my super mind powers up to snuff.

Well, thanks, Will. Drop that extra burrito off on the table on your way out, eh?

Let's have a quick round of applause for Will Clarke--not just for granting us this interview, but for giving us yet another look at what POD can and cannot do for the world--and for having such a great success story to tell.

Get LORD VISHNU'S LOVE HANDLES now and keep an eye out for the movie. This book, for those of you who have been with me from the start, comes very highly recommended from your POD-dy girl. Perfect for fans of Chuck Palahniuk, Kurt Vonnegut or even our own Todd Noker's RATED F. If it was great as a POD, can you imagine what it's like now? Buy it and enjoy.

At a minimum, play a little PsychicCow!

At a complete and totally embarrassing bare minimum, check out Will's blog about his book tour. (He's even moblogging--that is, blogging from a mobile device--so he'll be keeping us ultra-up-to-date on his book tour!)

Stick around for (I know it's hard to believe) more interviews and events. And treasure!