There's a book to be written whose message would be simply, "Don't ever write a book." It would tell the tale of many an author who devoted years to the writing, squandered more years seeking a publisher, and if and when the book was finally printed watched the nation ignore it. No doubt the book I describe would serve as its own excellent example.
Lenny Kleinfeld came late to the book writing because his original plan was to seek fame and fortune writing movies. In Chicago he'd made a name for himself, or rather a pseudonym, as Bury St. Edmund, the Reader's drama critic in its early years. Besides arbitrating the eruption of the city's audacious storefront theater, he had written with Stuart Gordon one of its milestones, the sci-fi trilogy Warp, for Gordon's Organic Theater. "To the day I left Chicago for LA in 1986," he says, "my writing was in print and/or onstage nearly continuously."
The first time I saw Kleinfeld back in Chicago, in the late 80s, he was jubilant. Out in Hollywood, he said, they throw money at scriptwriters, even for scripts that never get made—scripts such as his own, including the one he'd sold on spec that financed his move to the coast.
I asked Kleinfeld the other day how many screenplays he's written by now. "About six or seven I've been paid for," he said. "Half a dozen more than didn't sell, including the two best. One was optioned a couple of times and never made." He rewrote somebody else's adaptation of a comic strip he'd rather not name. And he and Gordon pitched an idea a producer was so wild about that Kleinfeld wrote three drafts before he figured out it was dead. "I wrote screenplays every imaginable way you can write a screenplay," he says.
"None got made. Zero. I have been a tree doing a trampoline act in the forest with nobody watching."
One interesting project was an adaptation of Philip Caputo's 1980 novel Horn of Africa for actor/producer Michael Douglas. "Caputo sold him the rights and I did a couple of drafts," Kleinfeld says. "Douglas liked the second draft. They hired a director from Australia who decided to rewrite it himself, and he made all the mistakes I made in my first draft, and that was the last I heard of it."
In time Kleinfeld concluded that he'd arrived in Hollywood "way too late." What's middle age out there? I asked him. "Twenty-eight or 29," he said. When he got there he was 38.
Still, Kleinfeld got by. He made some money rewriting other writers' scripts for movies he knew would never get made. "You're being paid to resuscitate a corpse," he says, "but you have a month to get health insurance." And his wife, Ina Jaffe, had steady work as a correspondent for NPR.
Seven years ago he decided to write a novel. It was an exhilarating change. "There are simply so many more words in a book than there are in a screenplay," he says. But there were no producers dictating to him and no budgets to care about. Wherever Kleinfeld's characters went and whatever they did, he didn't have to ask himself, Can we afford this?
"All I can tell you," he says, "is that I was very happy for a whole year."
Kleinfeld finished the novel, Shooters & Chasers, in 2003. Last month it was published.
He sent his manuscript to Lucy Childs Baker, a former Chicago actor whose work (lucky for him) he'd praised back in the day. She now worked for New York's Aaron Priest Literary Agency (Caputo's agency, by coincidence). "Lucy warned me they rarely take first authors," Kleinfeld wrote me in a long e-mail that supplemented our interview. "I assured her the book was not autobiographical, and at no time in the story does a teenage Lenny lose his virginity."
Baker and Priest wanted some rewriting, and he did it. "Before sending it out," his e-mail continues, "Aaron asked how I'd describe the book. 'A comedy with guns.' Aaron growled... 'Comic novels don't sell. Never call it that again. You have written 'a page-turning thriller in a unique voice.'"
A unique voice very much in the style of Carl Hiassen, I'd say. It's like Hiassen without Hiassen's righteous anger over what crooked pols and developers are doing to his beloved Florida. It's not that Kleinfeld has nothing to be angry about, but this isn't his Hollywood novel. Shooters & Chasers is a whodunit that begins with a famous architect being capped in Chicago and wends its way to LA, where the various moneyed suspects lurk.
And it violates, Kleinfeld acknowledges, what he calls "the structural and tonal norms of a crime thriller." It's got more characters and a looser plot, more shifts in point of view. On top of which, he proudly points out, "I had the hero be a happy slut and gave the romance to the bad guys."
Did publishers have trouble with all that?
"I think so," said Kleinfeld.
He told me Baker and Priest "targeted a dozen editors at major publishing companies, called them to rev them up about the book, then one morning messengered manuscripts to all of them at once. Six or seven turned the book down, but sent complimentary notes about the writing and said they'd read whatever I wrote next." Three other editors wanted to buy the book but were overruled by their bosses.
"Then at the last major, the only one we hadn't heard back from, the editor loved the book—and so did the publisher. Lucy was stoked; she and the publisher thought Shooters might be 2005's big beach book. Then a day later she calls and tells me she has bad news. The publisher has been overruled by... the marketing director."
So Kleinfeld lowered his sights to the "small publishers, tiny publishers, micro-publishers." Many more months went by. In fall 2007, Tekno Books of Green Bay, Wisconsin, offered to take his book.
Tekno isn't actually a publisher. It's a book packager, and it fed Shooters to Cengage Learning, a textbook publisher whose office in Waterville, Maine, turns out a line of mystery novels under the Five Star imprint. Cengage's promotional campaign consists of listing Five Star novels in the catalogs it sends to librarians. It sells to bookstores wholesale only if an author's making a personal appearance.
I asked Lucy Childs Baker what happened to Shooters. "The book business sucks," she said. "People thought he was very clever, very funny, there was a good plot. But they all end up saying, which is kind of ubiquitous in this business, 'I just didn't fall in love with it.' There's a certain snobbishness on the part of New York publishers that it's so Chicago. And because it didn't have the classic thriller ingredients."
The print run is 1,500 copies. This came as news to Baker. "Oh boy, that's rough," she said. "I suppose if this is mostly being distributed in Chicago and he gets a word of mouth going... he's got some great blurbs!"
The one on the front cover is from NPR's Jacki Lyden.
The marketing is up to Kleinfeld. He and Jaffe invited friends to book-release parties in LA and Chicago, and thanks to a vintner-focused subplot—a stone-cold killer is determined to produce a world-class Syrah—he found a winery in Santa Barbara County interested in stocking the novel in its tasting room.
The writing of books is coming to resemble one of those long-lost artisanal vocations that interest scholars for the light they throw on the Middle Ages. I've written with great respect of authors who eliminate the middle man and simply publish their own books, which thanks to technology is easier than ever. Kleinfeld didn't go quite that far—though if he had, Shooters might have come out five years ago.
On the other hand, Kirkus does review novels published by Five Star. And Kirkus called Shooters & Chasers a "spellbinding debut" with "appealing heroes and villains, a quirky love story, wit, style, suspense." That's why Kleinfeld has heard from publishers in Munich and Tokyo.
So if you can't find his book in English, who knows—maybe one day you'll run across it in German.v
Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on the media, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites.