[or: "I Wouldn't Give a Hoot in Hell for My Journey Now" (Cash)]
In a break from my usual topics, this is the strange history of the one novel I’ve written, The Surrender of Washington Hansen. At some point soon I intend to find an interesting way to publish it. Probably for reading on a digital device and/or using the Espresso process for print on demand. Given that I publish books with actual publishers, given the time that’s elapsed since I wrote the novel, and given the novel’s progress through a Hollywood film-rights process, without yet seeing screen or page, this post might be seen as one of those things that get hyped on book reissues this way: “with a new introduction by the author!” — But in this case it’s for a book that few people have read.
But I think the book’s progress, or lack of same, makes a bleakly interesting saga of the ups and down of the writing game. Also, the novel’s themes (or whatever), which developed well before I ever thought I’d write or publish any real American history, or write or publish any nonfiction at all, connect with and reflect on my current history themes (or whatever) in ways I never could have perceived when I started writing history, but are pretty glaring to me now.
If I self-publish the novel, some readers of The Whiskey Rebellion, Declaration, and Founding Finance may agree. Or not.
The novel is about the surrender of a once-radically-left fugitive, Wash Hansen, who shot and killed somebody during a botched bank robbery in 1971 when he was eighteen, and has lived as a fugitive, at first underground, and then safely with a new identity, ever since. Now it’s the 1990′s, and Wash’s sudden decision to surrender and atone disrupts the life of his younger brother, Clay, an emerging Clinton-Democrat “pragmatic liberal” centrist politician characteristic of that era, about to start his first campaign, who has secretly been seeing the fugitive ever since the murder.
The other main character is Lucy Rush, the lawyer who tries to negotiate the terms of Wash’s surrender. I tried to make the book what is sometimes called a “literary thriller.” And in that context (and while I know I would do a lot of things differently now), I still think it pretty much kicks ass. [UPDATE: Nowadays I think of it not as a literary thriller but as a Christian-Freudian legal-political suspense romance/adventure. That's my genre.]
I completed the first draft of the novel in the summer of 1995. I emphasize how long ago that was because the story’s immediate premise — the emergence after many years of a wanted fugitive from the extremes of the 1960′s radical left — has since become a familiar one in fiction. In 1998, I’d written new drafts and was looking for a publisher when to my immense dismay, Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, centered on 1990′s family problems caused by a bomber of the 1960′s, won the Pulitzer Prize!
And Eat the Document, Dana Spiotta’s novel on related matters, got good reviews when it came out in 2006! Gack! And in 2003, Neil Gordon published The Company You Keep, like mine a literary thriller (the Roth and Spiotta books were literary but at least not thrillers!) with a radical-fugitive story! [UPDATE: I'd read and enjoyed Gordon's first novel, but I only discovered this one the other day, at a book store in Cambridge, Mass.; I was startled and, while I've gotten used to the sinking feeling over the years, mildly bummed to note its subject matter. Haven't read it yet. UPDATE: And now it's even a movie! Which remark foreshadows the rest of this post ...:]
Damn, man. This supposedly awesome idea for a novel, which I came up with sometime in 1993, when Katherine Ann Power surrendered in real life, and which I executed in 1994 and 1995, for the best creative experience of my life to that point, has turned out to be not only far from original but even pretty obvious and maybe, by now, actually hackneyed!
And while I’m by no means saying Roth, Spiotta, or Gordon got wind of my story and copped it, I do feel a need to register the fact that I’m not copying any of them. I wrote The Surrender of Washington Hansen before I ever heard of any of those books, indeed probably before they’d been written.
Fortunately, I can prove the priority (though not the superiority) of my own radical-fugitive novel, despite the fact that it’s still unpublished. In early 1998, the novel’s premise and plot did very briefly become well-known among a goodly number of screenwriters who, I am told, were eager to work on developing a script based on the novel. They were responding not to the manuscript itself but merely to a brief description — “brother story,” politics, plot — the kind of description that producers looking to consider screenwriters put out during early film development. My book’s particular elements had resonances in the filmmaking climate of the time. I’d sort of hoped to write my own script based on the novel. I’d already been collaborating with Stephen Plumlee on a feature screenplay about the Louvin Brothers; also, I’d originally conceived of what became my first published book, the nonfiction The Whiskey Rebellion, as a screenplay, not as nonfiction. (That’s another story.) But I was more than ready to accept the idea that somebody else would get the screenwriting job.
And somebody did get that job, somebody impressive: Joe Carnahan, then up-and-coming and now well-regarded (rightly, in my possibly biased view) for the films “Narc” and “The Grey,” among others. It was an interesting match. The book is written in a somewhat jumpy, quick-cut, slightly hard-boiled way; admirers of “Narc” will know that Carnahan’s filmmaking ethos was moving that way too. Yet we both were going for emotion, not just sensation. I think our connection was the brother story.
Anyway, Carnahan wrote a feature screenplay based on my novel. But like my novel, it’s unproduced.
Back in 1998, when the film rights got bought, and development actually commenced, it’s probably not hard to imagine my happy feelings. I was not young, but I’m looking back a long way now, so I look sort of young to myself now, and I was in fact young in the ways of even moderate commercial success, which had long eluded me. I was getting money for my novel — not a ton, but still. And if the movie ever got made I’d get more money. But here’s the main thing: Now of course I was sure I’d find a publisher for the book.
As late as 1998, in other words, when I looked ahead, I could not have envisioned the writing life I live today. I envisioned whole other stuff. If things had worked out, who knows what I would have missed and what I might have gained.
It’s what I would have missed that fascinates me now. Failure, sometimes, is everything.
Until it isn’t.
So there’s an upside. Not only did I get paid on that option agreement, I got paid again when the option was renewed per the agreement, and then again when the option was extended for another period on slightly better terms. It seems to me now that I got paid on that deal till some time in 2003, when I was already researching my first history book The Whiskey Rebellion. Also on the upside, there’s a Joe Carnahan script based on my novel. And I got a charge out of the whole thing.
On the downside: that script hasn’t been made; film rights to the novel reverted to me; the book itself wasn’t published; other books with related subjects, as I’ve noted, did get published. And reviewed and praised. And have made the territory seem old.
And the time that’s gone by has made the book’s setting problematic too. What to do with old work? For a while I kept tweaking the manuscript to update it for an ongoing present, in case I ever could publish it. But the “inciting incident,” as they say in screenwriting class, has a shelf life. Wash committed murder in 1971. I kept aging the characters and adding cell-phones and incorporating the existence of 9/11 and stuff like that, but ultimately that’s bullshit. Wash and Clay can’t be in their sixties. Lucy Rush can’t be in her fifties. No good.
I’ve been revisiting old work lately. I’m trying to see where I’ve been.
So now I regard The Surrender of Washington Hansen as a 1990′s period piece. A Clinton-Democrat-era period piece, that is, pre-9/11, looking back at (or trying to avoid looking back at) the radicalism of the end of the 1960′s. Its broader spiritual context is the abandonment of the utopian left, for many obvious reasons, by American liberalism, and the weird remaining connections between them; the impossibility of going on together or separately; the existential bankruptcy of both extremism and accommodation and the tragic necessity, in America, of both. That’s the Clinton-era story, the appealing but ultimately hollow optimism, the faith in the center, heading for a crash against dire emotional and existential realities, with odd resonance for later periods (like now). That fits what I was trying to do when I first wrote the novel, and it fits the ways in which I think the story, though in form a literary thriller, relates to the conflicts in American founding history I write about.
But mostly I just still love the characters. And that’s why — despite the possible over-familiarity of the premises — I’m damned well going to self-publish my novel. It would make a hell of movie too — or a miniseries. [UPDATE: But then again, so would The Whiskey Rebellion!]