There’s a question authors often get in interviews – more so in the early professional years than later: “Can you tell us what was it like when you got ‘the call’?”
Meaning the phone call from your agent that your first book had sold.
I think people like to hear those breakthrough stories because it’s a little like rehearsing for your own “call”. You hear in various New Age philosophies that you need to actually feel your own success inside you to draw it to you.
My own call happened first with a script. I wrote it with a partner I’d met in a writing class, and while we had both written before, this was the first all out effort at a spec script. And it was good. We knew it. It got us our pick of agents, and he took it out to the studios.
Well, we got into a bidding war situation, which was both electrifying and terrifying. It lasted almost an entire week, which I know sounds like lightning speed compared to the glacial pace of publishing, but it was the longest week of my life. Studios were in, studios were out. Producers we’d never met were calling us trying to talk us into going with them. To say things were tense is the understatement of that decade; sometime in the middle of the second day I started crying and basically didn’t stop until the script sold.
Well, that’s not exactly true. I did go to a party the night before we got the call. I cried all the way through getting dressed, then stopped crying when my friends picked me up. We went to the party and, well, partied, danced, whatever – I was laughing and sunny and enjoying myself. I don’t remember now how four of us ended up walking through a park in the early hours of the morning – we couldn’t possibly have walked all the way from the Westside of L.A. to my apartment in the Fairfax district. Probably a bunch of us went out to a nearby deli (Canters, one of the only open-after-midnight eateries in L.A. back then) and then these three guys walked me home from there. I remember feeling like Dorothy on the road to Oz with the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman and the Cowardly Lion; my friends were actors I’d gone to college with and we’d acted together in many more unusual configurations than that. But there was a numinousness about that night; I felt poised on the verge of something massive.
I hugged them all at my door, closed it, and immediately burst into tears again, and stayed up the rest of the night (morning) crying.
I should have mentioned up front: I’m not a crier. It’s very rare for me. The fact that I had a week-long fit of weeping is still amazing to me. But that’s how long this writing journey had been for me, and how stressed out I was at being so close to what may or may not have turned into a breakthrough.
And the next day we got The Call. The script had sold for quite a bit of money, much more than I’d ever had before in my life. It changed my life substantially –not having to constantly worry about finances was a huge relief. But more importantly, I was “in”. I’d always pictured the movie business as a city inside an enormous glass dome, with all of us film hopefuls circling the dome, trying to figure out how to get inside. From then on L.A. looked exactly the same, but it didn’t feel the same, ever again.
Since then I’ve had other variations of The Call, including my first book sale and the moment of Huntress Moon hitting the Amazon bestseller charts. I’ve never cried for a week straight since that first time; I don’t think anything after can ever be the same as that first concrete affirmation that yes, you’re doing the right thing and you really can actually DO IT. But there’s always a heady sense of exhilaration mixed with massive relief – relief that all that obsessive work was leading to something, relief that someone values that work enough to pay you enough to do more of it.
For me the feeling of this moment is much more easily captured in music than on film or on the page; I really love songs about this breakthrough or that are about an artist right before the breakthrough, songs that have that dual sense of poverty and struggling along with the sense that the breakthrough is coming. And I wonder if collecting those songs had a little bit to do with my own breakthroughs: that I knew from songs how it was supposed to feel, and sought out that feeling for myself.
The best ever to me is Springsteen’s “Rosalita”. No other song has ever captured that exhilaration of that “through the looking glass” breakthrough so perfectly; when I hear it I feel I can do anything. And who can NOT dance?
I also love the Counting Crows’ “Mr. Jones”, another fabulous dance song. This one is very personal to me because I know some of the band; as a matter of fact one of my favorite memories is a party during which one of the guys – pre-breakthrough – fell off my second floor balcony clutching a life-sized statue of St. Francis (neither were hurt – if you’re going to take a dive off a balcony, make sure to take a saint with you.)
And as over-rotated as Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” is, I never switch channels when it comes on. All those sad people in the bar with their big dreams, and you listen to it knowing that when the bar patrons tell the pianist, “Man, what are YOU doing here?” that he won’t be there for long.
So of course I’d love to hear stories about “The Call.” And does anyone have any breakthrough or “on the verge” songs for me?