Congratulations to Karyne & Arthur who have won hardcover copies of Lenny’s novel, SHOOTERS & CHASERS!
As soon as I saw Lenny Kleinfeld’s incredible book cover I knew I had to ask him to write a Made It Moment. It’s a bonus that Lenny turns out to be funny, gracious, and warm, and that his book looks well worth a read. (My Pile is the size of Pittsburgh, a wonderful thing overall, and Lenny’s is on it). What I didn’t realize is that Lenny has had so many tantalizing carrots dangled that I would read his Moment with my heart in my throat. I think you will, too. And then you’ll probably get back to writing–Lenny is that kind of inspiring guy.
I specialize in Made It Moments that turn out to be trap-door moments.
It’s December 1971. Chicago. My first professionally produced play has just opened.
A friend from school who founded a theater company had called and asked if I’d co-author a sci-fi trilogy. He’s a director who has great ideas but doesn’t write. So we outline the shows together, and I write the scripts. Or, so far, script; there’s no guarantee we’ll get past Episode One.
The opening night parties are over. It’s about 5 AM. My wife and I are in a booth at a diner having breakfast. There’s a news stand outside. It’s drizzling; the pavement is glistening. A Sun-Times truck pulls up and dumps bales of newspapers on the sidewalk. It’s an anachronistic image, something out of a black and white Warner’s gangster movie. I half expect the headline to say DILLINGER SHOT. Probably because we’re across the street from the Biograph Theater, where Dillinger was shot.
But apparently no one’s dug him up and put another bullet in him, because there’s no Dillinger headline. There is a rave review for our show. First of many.
The trilogy is a huge, coolest-show-in-town, must-see hit. Cover stories in the arts sections of the Sunday papers. A year-long sold-out run.
It’s headed for New York. Off-Broadway.
There are no suitable Off-Broadway theaters available.
But Broadway is having a dismal season; half the Schubert theaters are dark. The Schuberts love our show. They offer us a theater for half-price.
We fly to New York to look at the space. I walk out on the stage and have a literal gut reaction, a falling-elevator sensation in the stomach: It’s too big.
But we are young. As in, ridiculously impatient.
Plus which we’ve been making about $150 a week. Our royalties in this barn would be north of two grand a week.
And, even better: We are 24 years old and will have three plays running on Broadway. Imagine that.
Oops. Our raucous, physical, luridly lit production, which cascaded over the audience in a 140-seat theater, becomes a bite-sized gulp swallowed by the combination of a huge stage and a minuscule budget. And my commedia-on-acid script is nobody’s idea of a traditional well-made play. It closes after six performances.
We return to Chicago, broke. Our producer claims rights we say the contract clearly says he hasn’t earned. He sues us.
We learn civil suits have less to do with factuality than with one fact: Whoever throws the heaviest bricks of money wins. Or at least produces years of stalemate.
I dashed off another couple of plays. They failed, partly for different reasons, but with a shared underlying reason: I wrote them too fast. I decided not to write another until I could carve out at least 6 months of undivided, undistracted time. I began freelancing magazine pieces, and reviewing theater for a weekly paper.
After four years we ransomed our way out of the lawsuit by giving up a slice of future earnings.
We revived the trilogy at my friend’s theater. Another hit. We moved it to a slightly larger theater, as a commercial production. It did well at first but some bad business decisions were made. It closed. And some money disappeared.
We sued our new producer. I got super busy. Put it this way: I was making 100 dollars a review. My lawyer was making 100 dollars an hour.
One new way I got busy was writing the theater column for Chicago magazine. After three months it had the highest readership of any front-of-the-book item in the magazine’s history. Mainly because it was the de facto humor column in a humor-challenged publication.
I received unsolicited offers to review theater in New York. Non-starters; I wasn’t up for spending my life writing about other peoples’ writing.
We settled the suit. I quit my column and stopped reviewing. The Chicago Tribune called to do an interview. I told them my retirement from the reviewing biz wasn’t news. They insisted it was. So that was a Made-The-Wrong-It-And-Walked-Away-From-It Moment.
I wrote a screenplay. On a typewriter. The night I finished the rough draft I went to a bar and knocked back a few with friends. Came home and found a message on my answering machine from a woman who said she was Michael Douglas’ director of development.
I called the next day. They were looking for someone to adapt a tricky black comedy novel. I told her to send the book and I’d whip up a treatment. She said sure, and asked if I’d ever written a screenplay. I told her I’d just finished what wasn’t even a rough draft—more like a Rorschach draft—torn pages, cross-outs, hand-scribbled dialog, coffee stains. Thing didn’t even have a title page.
She said send it.
A month later I was having my first movie meeting, at Michael’s estate in Montecito. After lunch we went for a swim in a large black tile pool. There was a pair of goggles. I put them on, dove to the bottom, and scooped up three small objects. Swam over to Michael. Said, “Now I know you’re a real producer—these were in your pool.”
I handed him what I’d found: two pennies and a screw.
I didn’t get the adaptation gig, but he bought my screenplay. Turned out he was a real producer, but despite that an honest, consistently stand-up guy.
The script went through three more drafts, then was announced in a front page Variety story as the debut production of Michael’s new company—a Hollywood Made It Moment. Then the project fell apart. But that’s a whole other story.
My next five scripts were never filmed either.
One day producers stopped buying scripts from me to not produce.
I didn’t have a good idea for a play. Wrote a novel.
It was repped by a serious agency. Novels by this agency’s Seriously Made It authors are in airports across the globe. I believe a couple of them own airports.
My agent believed Shooters would be the next summer’s big beach book. An About-To-Make-It Moment.
One morning in 2004 the agency simultaneously messengered manuscripts to a dozen mainstream publishers, hoping to provoke an auction.
It provoked a rejection tsunami—even at four places where editors wanted to acquire the book, and were overruled by their superiors.
In 2009 Shooters was published, by a small little tiny publisher. A Made It Moment? Nah. More like a Just Barely In Print Moment. 1500 copies. And no publicity.
But nearly every copy sold, due to a handful of good reviews and the efforts of my wife, who’s a reformed actor, and some unreformed actor friends who showed up and did readings. Which was a treat for the audiences. And a mercy, considering how lousy I am at that.
We were also immeasurably aided by Leighton Gage, author of the superb Inspector Silva series. Leighton was on the Edgars nominating jury for best first novel. He was displeased when Shooters received only one vote, so he started some online brushfires.
These days the book is a modest Kindle creature, who mainly naps, but wakes up from time to time when there’s a new ebook review.
I’m writing a sequel anyway.
Lenny Kleinfeld began his career as a playwright in Chicago, where he was also a columnist for Chicago magazine. His articles, fiction and humor have appeared in Playboy, Oui, Galaxy, the Chicago Tribune, New York Times and Los Angeles Times. In 1986 he sold a screenplay; he is now twenty-five years into a business trip to Los Angeles. Shooters And Chasers is his first novel.