Now the 25-year-old me, the newly MFA-ed, building-my-credits-list and trying-to-get-my-work-in-the-right-magazines me, now that Jim Brock would’ve been more than a little resentful about a fellow or sister writer-colleague who cashed in a big book deal, and worse, a bigger movie deal. I would have said something dismissive about it all, waving my hand as if dusting off breadcrumbs, claiming some privileged state for us poets who never have to worry about Steve Spielberg’s man calling our man to get the movie rights for Dreamworks. I recollect being envious when another poet-friend got a $10 check from Hawai’i Review, which made me focus on sending my work out to literary magazines that paid, and I took great pleasure in my $20 pay off from Wisconsin Review (that was 1983 dollars, mind you).
I’m still likely to make a snarky comment about one of our many successful local writers in Southwest Florida, about how Dexter is halfway decent as a series, or about how Doc Ford is a better waterfront restaurant than a character. Of course, with local poets and playwrights, I’m much more charitable–there’s no real scratch in those games–and so they are naturally much more loveable.
Having said all that, I honestly couldn’t be happier for two of my friends, Nathan Hill and Lisa Klein, who are having their first novels made into major film productions. By major, I mean Ophelia being filmed in Prague with Naomi Watts, Daisy Ridley, Clive Owen, and Tom Felton. By major, I mean The Nix, which is a J.J. Abrams project with Meryl Streep. But what’s amazing about both these writers is that they wrote these novels after some big professional failings in their lives, both wrote novels that were inherently unpublishable, and both wrote novels that simply pleased themselves.
Lisa Klein I know from our graduate school days at Indiana University, where she was a star Renaissance student who happened to be not only wicked smart and a disciplined critical writer, but also very kind, unassuming, serious, and funny. She wrote a deft dissertation on Philip Sidney’s sonnets, which she published with the University of Delaware Press. I found her work on women’s needlecraft, however, to be most engaging. She landed a sweet tenure-track job at the Ohio State University, and she was on a trajectory to become a leading interdisciplinary scholar on Renaissance material culture. And during our time at Indiana, Lisa married Robert Reid, an older, non-academic Vietnam Vet, empathetic, engaging, and kind–they were and are so finely matched. But having two children, being married, and giving most of her attention to teaching (and no doubt some snobbery against the University of Delaware Press) resulted in Lisa being denied tenure and she was tossed aside after eight years at Ohio State.
Now, I do know that Lisa had written some fiction before going to Indiana, but she was dismissive about it–and I’m pretty sure she didn’t want to share it with some snot-nosed MFA type–and she returned to it as a kind of lark, a simple “why not?” She wrote an improbable retelling of Ophelia’s story, not exactly the boilerplate formula for successful young adult fiction. She simply wrote something that pleased her, that spoke to her own particular and peculiar interest. And then, the “overnight” success: her agent selling the book to Bloomsbury just a few weeks after signing to represent Lisa, getting exceptional reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and The Guardian, receiving nominations for YA literature awards, and then going on to publishing four more novels. And now, just a little more than 10 years after that initial success, Lisa’s work is being transformed for the big screen.
I first met Nathan Hill online. No, it wasn’t in a RPG, but when he was working for the Academy of American Poets web site and he was curating a series on “Life Lines,” which I submitted a response to and through which we struck up a brief, pleasant correspondence. At that time, I just stepped down from being the Writing Program Leader at FGCU, in charge of the staffing of the composition classes, and after Nathan let me know that he was looking to move to SW Florida to follow his love Jenni, who just got a gig at the Naples Philharmonic, I was able to arrange a few adjunct classes for Nate.
Unbeknownst to me then is that Nate was just coming out of a professional crisis with his own writing. His laptop containing all his fiction had been stolen, and while he had some early work published and a nifty Iowa MFA degree, he had some real doubts about his viability as a publishing, academic-based short story writer. Also unbeknownst to me is that he had already started drafting The Nix, and it was something he kept to himself. Yes, at various open mics, Nate would share a new story he had written, often a deft, experimental piece that always was astonishing and fresh. After a year, Nate was able to be hired at FGCU as a full-time instructor, meaning that he would have a composition-intensive teaching load, but at least he would have an office and benefits.
At this time, after reading a handful of Nate’s pieces, and after seeing how Nate was throwing himself fully into the the comp teaching gig, I warned him of just how soul-sucking and art-derailing our profession can be. The danger was that Nate is a damn fine writing teacher, and he had all the markings of . . . gasp . . . an effective writing administrator. I advised him to forget about all this professional hoo-hah and focus on his own writing, to be selfish (this was after Nate got a piece in The Iowa Review, I believe, and so he was clearly already focusing on his own work–I just gave him some institutional permission, I think). Ironically, about the time Nate got promoted at FGCU, at the end of his fourth full year, he was offered a tenure-line job at St. Thomas University in Minnesota, which he wisely took.
All this time, the bastard was writing a great novel, writing something essentially just to please himself, something that would be a thousand pages long and inherently unpublishable. And then “overnight,” Nate was able to secure an amazing and gifted agent, who then evidently received a lot of buzz about the book from a wide set of editors, and promptly sold the book to Knopf. I got to go to Nate’s and Jenni’s house for their little launch party, and the entire unreality of it all (this during the same week a freakin’ New York Times feature on Nate came out, with news that it’s being translated into 30 languages), the incredible machinery behind the book’s publication, and the dozens of people making good money on Nate’s book made it all such a giddy and happy evening precisely because, while gratifying and enriching, none of that unreality mattered. Of course, it meant and means that Nate now makes his living off his writing now–which is no small thing–but that he took the risk, putting aside the comp yoke, and doing something that he had to do for himself.
About Lisa and Nate, being a nearly 60-year-old, retired-poet, still-love-my-MFA-experience, fully-professored, amateur-acting and acting-amateur, playwright guy, I’m simply awed by their willingness to step into it, to have engaged in something that takes years to do, something very unlikely to see the light of day. They both are so sharp, so brilliant and smart and humble and hard-working, but what I admire most about each is their happy and brave foolishness.