Friday, January 8, 2010
"Rock Bottom" by Kerry Madden
Photo by Lucy Lunsford
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As I write these words, I’m watching snow fall for the first time in twenty-one years. We moved to Los Angeles in 1988, and I’m now commuting/living/teaching in Birmingham, Alabama as a creative writing professor at UAB. Our oldest daughter, Lucy, is a freshman at Sarah Lawrence, and when she saw snow falling for the first time this past December, she raced outside to skip around and watch the snowflakes dance. A world-weary junior took a drag on his cigarette and informed her, “You won’t be skipping in January.”
This month’s theme asks the question: “How did you take your writing to the next level?” and I have to say I took it to the next level when I hit rock bottom. When my first novel, OFFSIDES, came out in 1996, I was skipping with each glorious snowflake of a national book tour, Hollywood movie option, meetings with Diane Keaton, and then in 1998, my own January arrived with the hot dry Santa Ana winds of August in a form letter from the publisher asking if I wanted to buy remaindered copies of my book or have it sent off to the pulp house. I saw images of my first book already an old horse being carted off to the glue factory. Did I swoon at the mailbox, six months pregnant? Somehow, I remember swooning. The book was pulped. With two kids and a third on the way living on a teacher’s salary in Los Angeles, we didn’t have the money to buy the remainders.
But that wasn’t rock bottom.
Rock bottom for me was gradual and insidious. I finished my second novel, HOP THE POND, which was accepted by an editor at the same publishing house, but at the “big meeting,” it was ultimately rejected by the powers-that-be due to lousy sales of OFFSIDES. I wrote a third novel, THE GALLERY, and it was not a good book. My writing group suffered for years with those unlikable characters honking across the pages, but I rewrote that sucker to death until I killed it off but good.
But that wasn’t rock bottom either…
I think it began with the freelance years where I wrote stories about how to stay healthy in a wide range of professions. I wrote about camera operators, coalminers, stonecutters, Hollywood agents, insurance salesman, and lifeguards. This series led to more health pieces about strokes, cancer, and even diverticulitis. But I honestly liked writing all these pieces because of the interview process of talking to people and listening their stories. I also greatly appreciated the paycheck that came with each piece. Somewhere in those years, I was hired to write a shadow soap opera to see if I was “good enough” to write the real deal. I remember dashing off winning lines like, “My that bathrobe looks familiar!”
Something else was happening that I couldn’t or wouldn’t see coming. I was almost imperceptibly drifting further and further away from my own writing all in the name of trying to make a living as a writer.
It was around the time the first wave of journalists were let go from the Los Angeles Times. Buzz magazine had also closed up shop. A group of freelance Los Angeles journalists began meeting for breakfast, and we would help each other with freelance jobs. Who was hiring? Who needed what written? Who paid what? Which editor responded quickly? Which editor never answered queries at all?
Cathy Seipp was the reigning queen of those journalist breakfasts at the Farmer’s Market on Fairfax in Los Angeles, and she was all about freelancers stepping up to the plate, acting like grownups, and behaving themselves appropriately with editors and agents and so forth.
Cathy was fearless in the way that I was utterly fearful. She didn’t take any crap from anybody, and I took crap with a smile and said thank you. After all, I was from the South, and I had learned to be polite and gracious, no matter what I was feeling inside. As far as I know, Cathy had been to the South just once, and she described it as “freeways through forests.” To be honest, we were from different planets, but she made me both laugh and wince at her brutal honesty and fierce sense of right and wrong and intolerance for any sniff of insipidness. She loathed excuses, whining, and crybabies.
And then came the ghostwriting, and that’s when rock bottom loomed. Through some freelance journalists at one of these breakfasts, I learned that Chastity Bono’s girlfriend, Stasie, needed a ghostwriter to write her memoir as former a drug addict who got clean and how she turned her life around to help kids get off drugs. I decided I could write that, and I applied for the job.
This was the deal. I would be paid $5000.00 to write a book proposal for the memoir. Soon it was all set up, and I was ready (desperate) to get started, and then I didn’t hear, and I didn’t hear, and I didn’t hear, so I did something really stupid. I offered to write it $4000.00. Turns out the reason I didn’t hear anything was because they were in Europe, but they were very happy to pay me $4000.00 to write the proposal. I received $2000.00 on signing, and then I began doing the research with Stasie.
We drove through the streets of Los Angeles at night, and she showed me the scary places of her youth from skid row in downtown Los Angeles to Rose and Lincoln in Santa Monica. She was a great storyteller and incredibly passionate, and it was fascinating to live vicariously through her wild youth of growing up out of control. After the first all-nighter, I dropped her off at her house in West Los Angeles, and she invited me inside. Sonny and Cher photographs were all over the wall, and I tried not to gawk too closely. They had a hairless cat named “Stinky Butt.” Stasie gave me pictures and her teenage journals so I could capture her voice as a mixed-up kid turning to drugs. In Hollywoodspeak it was like GIRL, INTERRUPTED meets DRUGSTORE COWBOY meets GO ASK ALICE meets EASY RIDER.
I wrote the proposal and a sample chapter, and she was very enthusiastic. She said Chastity was too. But their agent wasn’t. So I did something even dumber. I rewrote it to try and make it better. They didn’t like that draft either for a myriad of reasons…I didn’t have the voice down. The plot wasn’t working. They didn’t like the writing. It just wasn’t working for them. Still, I tried a few more drafts, because I thought if I could show my willingness to rewrite, I could win them over. Of course, it never happened, and they still owed me $2000.00.
But somehow it was decided that because they didn’t like the proposal, they wouldn’t have to pay me. I was told to return the journals and pictures and to basically go away. I very politely said I would return all journals and pictures as soon as I was paid. Silence. This went on for a while. The agent wrote a cordial note asking me to return everything and how she was very sorry it didn’t work out. Once again, I said I’d return everything as soon as I was paid.
Chilling deafening rock bottom silence.
I turned to Cathy Seipp, my take-no-crap journalist friend, and asked her advice. She said without missing a beat, “Sue them. Go to small claims court and sue them. You did the work they asked for. You did above and beyond the work. Sue them. It’s not personal.”
This freaked me out. Sue? Face them in small claims court? I reinstated my membership in the Authors Guild and asked them for advice. They were right in line with Cathy. I had done the work and was owed the money. Anita Fore, at the Authors Guild, was amazing. She spent more than an hour on the phone with me, explaining what I needed to do. She gave me the best advice and said, “Tell the judge that it’s like they asked you to paint a room red, and then they changed their minds and wanted to the room painted blue.”
When I filled out the papers in Small Claims Court in downtown Los Angeles, the clerk said, “Would you like the party served at 6:00 a.m. or at 1:00 p.m.?”
I liked this question and replied, “Oh, I think 6:00 a.m. sounds just right.”
The day came in court, and I got the kids off to school, and then I met my two dear friends, Ellen and Diana, who came for moral support. But I was a wreck. I wanted to cry and leave and sink into the earth. We arrived at 8:00 as instructed but Chastity and Stasie were not there. The court clerk read the cases that day of the names of those being sued. From what I recall, the docket was mostly fake jewelry claims, auto mechanic wrongs, and neighbor spats. But when the clerk read the name, “Chastity Bono,” she looked around the room, her curiosity clearly piqued, and Ellen leaned over and said, “Relax, the judge won’t be like that, it’s okay.”
By 8:45 they still weren’t there, and I was beginning to relax. Maybe they wouldn’t show. But at 8:55 they burst into the courtroom and demanded a fax machine because they had “evidence.” The court clerk told them there was no fax machine in the courtroom. Then the judge made everybody go outside to show all evidence to see if we could resolve it amongst ourselves. I was shaking. I showed them the drafts of the proposal, and we each showed each other identical emails. I can’t remember if we exchanged words, but I remember wanting to throw up. Diana whispered that Chastity’s belt alone could have paid for the whole book proposal. I never noticed the belt.
When we were eventually called, the judge asked why Chastity was being sued, too, because I wasn’t writing her story. I explained that she was paying for the proposal, but he didn’t like that, so he removed her name from the case, and it was strictly between Stasie and me. Chastity asked the judge if she could speak for Stasie who was scared, and the judge said no and that “she was a big girl who can talk for herself.”
The judge asked me my side of the story first and in a shaky voice, I explained how I’d written several drafts and had tried hard to get it right from all the interviews and journals. Then I told him exactly what the Authors Guild had instructed me to say. “It’s like they asked me to paint a room red, and then they changed their minds and wanted it blue.”
He nodded and then he turned to Stasie and asked for her side of the story. Stasie said, “It’s not we asked her to paint a room.” She sounded more irritated than afraid.
The judge said, “It’s a metaphor.”
She said, “Well, it’s a stupid one.”
He looked testy. “Well, you think of a better one.”
She said, “I can’t, but it’s still stupid.”
I remember thinking that that this would be so much funnier if it were happening to someone else. The judge seemed irritated with all of us, but he ruled in my favor, and Stasie immediately asked him where to appeal his decision, and he said, “Not here!”
We went out for a celebratory breakfast. I wanted to order a giant Bloody Mary, but we all sensibly had coffee and replayed the scene. It was a huge relief to have won, but afterwards, I remember stepping outside into Los Angeles sunshine, and I had this horrible, sinking feeling that time was marching by with silliness. My children were growing up, and where were the books I was going to write?
In the end, Chastity and Stasie didn’t end up appealing the case. A few months later, their lawyer contacted me, and I was told to return the journals and pictures, and he would have a check ready. I did so and was paid, and it was over.
But in that year of writing somebody else’s story and then the grief and distraction of trying to get paid, I realized I was losing my own voice. I had hit rock bottom. I still took care of the kids and lived my life with a very patient and loving husband, but I had let my stories go in the name of money, and what a paltry sum it was.
And so I returned to the first few chapters of a children’s novel I’d started called GENTLE’S HOLLER, and those Weems’ children saved me. I vowed never to write anything I didn’t absolutely love and feel passionately about again. Going to the Smoky Mountains each day in my head to find the story of this Appalachian family helped me find me voice as a writer again and go to the next level. The book sold to Viking Children’s Books, and the publisher bought two more in the series, LOUISIANA’S SONG and JESSIE’S MOUNTAIN. Then my editor asked me to write a YA biography of Harper Lee, and I felt like I’d been given a gift.
Much has changed now. Cathy Seipp passed away in 2007, and I still miss her. I don’t know where Stasie is, but I imagine she is still helping kids get off drugs, which was her passion. Chastity is now Chaz, and the Harper Lee biography led me to this job in Alabama. I’m working with students who grew up during the Civil Rights, and so I’m reading all kinds of stunning stories. One wrote an essay called “What They Don’t Tell You About Growing Up Black in the South” and another wrote about her terrifying moments with a monstrous cop while trying to pass her driving test for her license. Another wrote about his father, a one-armed man who ran a sandwich shop in the 1950s, and another wrote about her grandfather who was the iceman in Birmingham in the 1950s, and it’s likely that the one-armed father probably bought ice from the grandfather who drove the ice truck and yelled “ICE!” in the streets of downtown Birmingham. Another is the son of the first pita bread maker in North Alabama. Another teaches piano to monks, and another was an architect for thirty years who now wants to teach high school English. Each one has a story, and they are deeply focused on writing those stories.
And I’m writing a new novel, a valentine to my kids, inspired by my son, Flannery, who loved werewolves and Hamlet and scary movies when he was a little boy. And I am watching the snowfall on this January day, grateful to be writing stories that I can call my own.
Town Square in Monroeville, Alabama...
Kerry Madden has written plays and journalism (for publications like the Los Angeles Times, Salon, and Sierra Club Magazine), and six books including Offsides, a New York Library Pick for 1997, and Writing Smarts, a guide to creative writing published by American Girl. In 2005 she turned her hand to children’s literature with Gentle's Holler, the first installment in what became the award-winning Maggie Valley Trilogy. It earned starred reviews in both Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly, was named a “Pick” by both the New York and the Chicago Public Libraries, and was the featured children’s book of North Carolina at the National Book Festival. “It is the genuine article,” wrote Rosemary Wells. “It’s heroine is as bone-real and endearing as Opal in Because of Winn Dixie.” She is a professor of creative writing at the University of Alabama in Birmingham and editor of Poem Memoir Short Story at UAB. Visit http://www.kerrymadden.com to learn more about Madden and her work.