In a time when Kirstie Alley is on the cover of People Magazine for gaining eighty seven pounds. Elizabeth Edwards rules the airwaves with a book that promises to dish dirt on her husbands affair and possible love child–do we care about the novelist who puts it all on the line?
We better. It’s our only chance for great stories.
Novelists starve, they endure, they barely make it for years. You are always presented with a choice. Keep doing this wrenching wonderful thing or take the easier road like so many before and get a regular job. It is the writers plight to hang by a thread, a nanosecond away from oblivion as you send out your hundredth query, write that final chapter, begin that new story. We hear of the starving artist. For many this is true. The difference is in that moment when you think you can go no further, when truly oblivion seems a better way and nothing good will come of your labor–the difference is the writer who then takes it all and puts it on the line for one last shot and then puts themselves into the writing. That moment when there is nothing left to lose–that is when the possibility of something great quivers on the horizon. Rex Pickett, the author of the novel and movie, Sideways, hit that moment.
“I thought this was it. I’m going to cash it in,” he said on the phone, speaking in a quick staccato voice. “There I was. Rejection letters plastered all over the apartment, divorced, broke, my mother in the hospital, my agent had just died of AIDS, I was in a rent controlled apartment and I still couldn’t pay the rent…a few produced movie shorts, rejected screenplays, novels…but nothing had worked….that’s when I sat down to write Sideways…and it literally saved my life.”
What happened then was a nine week writing marathon that left him exhausted but thrilled.
“I started with this place I went for wine tasting called The Bull Pen…I wanted to write this short story…so while I was writing it this epiphany struck me and I got out of my chair and came up with the idea of Jack and Miles heading up to the wine country for a last hurrah…that was it, I knew I had the book.”
Rex finished the novel and after quick rewrites sent it off to an agent at Curtis Brown who loved it, brought over a bottle of wine, and said it read like a film and devised a plan to go after publishing and film simultaneously. The first salvo went down like the Titanic. Fifteen rejections poured in from New York.
“They hated it. Just hated it. Vitriolic. Said it wasn’t literary at all,” Pickett sighed.
So his agent pulled the book and Rex buckled down to rewrite the novel again. Another round of rejections came in and then his agent left the business and he was back to square one.
“Broke…no agent…no prospects…nothing….that’s when I really thought about driving off a cliff. I don’t want to be over dramatic…but I literally didn’t have any money, my mother had a stroke, divorced, and here I was a writer…this is who I am, and I can’t get anywhere.”
Five long dark months later another agent took over the book and went over to creative agency Endeavour. Brian Lipson who wades through material for Alexander Payne read it and after a month of signing with Endeavour, Pickett gets a message on his answering machine from a producer raving about the book, saying Alexander Payne has picked it for his next movie.
“But there’s an old saying in Hollywood, between enthusiasm and money, lies the Grand Canyon,” Rex says laughing. “I mean I met with Alexander and we hugged and all, but then he went and made About Schmidt and my project got shelved.”
Movie deal in hand, Pickett still could not find a publisher for his book. Publishing turned it down again and then the book just dropped from site as a project. The film was on hold for at least two years and Rex Pickett was still without a publisher for his novel. Then agent Dan Strone read an article that said Alexander Payne was making his next movie from an unpublished novel called Sideways.” Strone found it incredible that a successful director like Alexander Payne was making a movie from a book that nobody had picked up the rights too.” He got in contact with Pickett and finally sold the rights to St. Martins for a modest advance.
“I mean here I was….my movie was coming up for production and nobody would publish the book…it was really unbelievable…and yes, I still was waiting for Alexander to begin making the movie.”
Finally production began and Sideways the movie became a reality. The book no one wanted sold a hundred and fifty thousand copies and was translated into eleven languages. The movie Sideways became a hit and launched the careers of Paul Giamatti and Virginia Madsen. Rex Pickett found fame and some fortune.
“You know most writers toil and don’t make a lot of money. So when a film comes up you get caught up in all the hoopla…people calling you, emailing, offering money for this or that…” Rex pauses on the phone. “But really, at the bottom of it all, I am a storyteller. And the main character, Miles, is me. This guy whose novel has been rejected, divorced, looking for salvation in a bottle of wine. He is the guy behind that film. That guy trying to find himself.” Rex pauses again. “I wrote Sideways when the tank was empty and I was on fumes. I say this very seriously, if I could have afforded a gun I would have shot myself…my whole life was in tatters at that moment…but that’s when I sat down and wrote the book that changed everything.”
Rex Pickett still lives in a rent controlled apartment. He is still writing. This is a good thing.
William Hazelgrove’s highly praised first three novels Ripples,(Pantonne) LJ highly recommended, ALA Editors Choice, Tobacco Sticks, (Bantam, Best Novels of the Nineties Doris Lesher, Starred Review PW, LJ highly recommended) and Mica Highways, (Bantam,) covered the scope of a coming of age, a courtroom drama set in Virginia in the forties, and a mystery set in the South. William Hazelgrove is the Hemingway writer in residence for the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park. He has written reviews and features for USA TODAY and been the subject of stories in the NY Times, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, and NPR’S All Things Considered.. More information can be gathered at http://www.billhazelgrove.com