SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
September 1, 2013

Publishing can be a Convoluted Business: The Purposeful Grimace Back Story

 

About ten years back, and I’ve written this story before, Morgan and I were having a few beers at Ruby’s down at Coney on New Year’s Day. It was a chilly, sloppy day outside, and we were more than a little relieved the bar had opened to cater to the Polar Bear club. Most of that crew had already gone home to warm up and dry off, but at some point that late afternoon we’d fallen into conversation with a man wearing a long white robe and a fake beard he’d crafted from a mop. We were at Ruby’s so we took it in stride. Things like that had become all but inevitable every time we stopped into Ruby’s. The conversation had fallen to movies, and Morgan told King Neptune here that earlier that day before heading to Coney we’d watched the original Japanese version of Godzilla.

            “Oh, yeah,” the guy wearing the mop snorted. “That’s real smart.”

            I might’ve hauled off and belted him if I hadn’t become so used to that sort of response over the years. Let someone know you’re an adult fan of the Godzilla films, you might just as well tell them you’re a child molester with the plague. The reaction is pretty much the same. In fact part of the reason Morgan and I had watched the film that morning was because I was in the process of writing a book that, in my own mind anyway, would be an answer to that sort of kneejerk reaction from the screwheads.

            It had all started a few months earlier. I’d published my first novel, in which a character obsessed with Godzilla gets into a spot of trouble over it. After it was released, I immediately began peppering my editor with proposals for follow-up novels, each and every one of which he rejected out of hand. Finally he told me straight out they simply couldn’t publish any more weird novels like that. Nothing like the ones I was proposing, anyway. In the period between my signing the contract for that first novel and the book’s release, he told me, the market had changed. They simply couldn’t take risks with weirdies anymore. He did have an idea, though.

            “What I’d really like to see from you,” he suggested, “is your own personal take on the Godzilla movies.”

            “Oh,” I said. I wasn’t expecting that. Sure it’d be a snap, given that I’d been obsessed with Godzilla my whole life, but what the hell kind of editor at a major publisher would ever ask for a Godzilla book? That was simple madness. “Okay,” I eventually said after a long pause. “I can do that.”

            Then I got off the phone and over the course of the next half hour whipped up a proposal for a Godzilla book and sent it off. (By that point I was getting pretty good at the “quick proposal” game.) Later that day he told me to go ahead and write the book. Publishing was very different in those days. There was no talk of contracts or advances yet, those were mere formalities that would come up later after I showed him the first few chapters. What I had was a proverbial handshake deal, and that was enough.

            So after taking ten days to write that first novel and thirty minutes to write this proposal for the Godzilla book, I took the next eight months to do my research. I’d never spent that much time on a book before. It took that long because first and foremost, I had to get my hands on all twenty-six of the Godzilla films released over the previous fifty years, some of which I hadn’t even seen yet. This was no mean feat, I’ll tell you. Some were only available in Japan, others not at all. Eventually I did it, though, had them all stacked up next to the TV. Then I studied them one by one in chronological order, drove Morgan a little batty, and sat down to write a rough draft of something that was part memoir, part film history, part media analysis, part apologia, part rant. So what was the attraction to a 250 foot tall radioactive lizard with an attitude and a beef against Japan, and why was I expected to be ashamed of my obsession? This was the question I set out to answer, sort of, though I encountered some much more interesting things along the way. It wasn’t a very long book, I realized, but I figured it was enough to get a solid contract and a whopper of an advance check that might help defray the costs of tracking down all those movies. Satisfied the ball was already rolling, I packed it up and zipped it off to my editor.

            Well, I heard back from him in a day or so, and he seemed a little confused by it all. He no longer recalled having asked me to write a book about my personal relationship with Godzilla and Mothra and King Ghidorah. In fact he couldn’t imagine why he would ever ask me to do any such thing. That would have been madness, after all.

            “Oh,” I said again.

            So my little rough draft of a Godzilla book got stuck in the file along with all the other unloved misfit manuscripts.

            A couple of years later, I mentioned the book—really little more than a collection of fleshed-out notes at that point, to a professor I knew at a local art college. I'm not sure anymore why it came up, but he asked to see it. Suddenly a few months later he told me that he was giving it to his students to read, and that they were liking it more than any of the other books on his syllabus. This mortified me. I didn’t need to have a collection of rough notes posted up on the damned internet for free with my name on it and a claim that it was some kind of finished book. Goddamn kids, that’s just the sort of thing they’d do, too. So I asked the professor to stop using the book in his classes, explaining there was a chance I’d still get it published one of these days. Of course at that point there wasn’t any such chance in the offing, but I had to tell him something.

            Not long after that, a young filmmaker I liked a lot was planning on making a movie out of that first novel. Well, somewhere along the line during our conversations I passed along the Godzilla notes. Again before I was really sure what was happening, he was planning to publish a small hardcover run of the notes as part of the film’s promo package. I explained they were just notes, so he passed them along to some chick who wanted to be an editor. What I got back from her after she, um, “cleaned it up” was absolute gibberish. There was no salvaging them, it seemed, so I dumped that editing job in the trash and asked the director to do the same. Then the movie itself was shelved for awhile and the Godzilla book returned to the file of misfit manuscripts.

            This kind of convoluted and treacherous journey has faced nearly all my books up to this point. Maybe not exactly like this one, but it’s rarely been a straight and simple trajectory from having a notion to getting the damn thing published. There are always a couple of cloverleafs along the way with three lanes closed, along with two or three gravel detours and at least one slowdown thanks to rubberneckers.

            Anyway, then my friend Don Kennison called, and the two of us started hatching a scheme to publish a series of small monographs, each about an interesting film, and each written by a different writer we liked. We began putting out the word, and things started coming together. Don had a solid background in publishing and knew a lot of interesting people, and the ones we approached seemed excited about the idea. We wrangled some well-known writers, and filmmakers, and even a few musicians who all had movies they wanted to write about, from early horror films to eighties teen comedies to foreign jobs. It was a good mix.

            I was thinking of doing a book on Werner Herzog’s Stroszek, but Don suggested I go with the Godzilla book instead. So for the first time since I initially turned it in to that editor, I went back and began cleaning it up some and expanding on those old notes. Half the time, it turned out, I didn’t even understand what the hell point I was trying to make in those initial scribblings. That was okay, as there seemed to be plenty else to say. Godzilla, I’ll tell you, is an endlessly rich subject.

            Sadly, Don pitched and pitched the series around, but no one went for it and once again my half-clean notes went back in the file. Of course wouldn’t you know it, about three months later a publisher began releasing a series of little film books eerily similar to what we’d been proposing, but that’s the way things works sometimes.

            Thing is, even as I was publishing other books, I’d developed a real affection for that little Godzilla monograph. It had been through a lot, even in it’s half-formed state. I always had the feeling something would happen with it one of these days.

            Then, finally, with the utter collapse of the publishing industry for anything except celebrity tell-alls, children’s books by celebrities, and celebrity cookbooks, people finally turned their attention to eBooks. I’ve had a swell working relationship with Electron Press for nearly seven years now, so it seemed inevitable, given they’re an eBook publisher by trade, the conversation would eventually get around to releasing something with them. When we finally did start talking about putting out a book, that old Godzilla monograph came to mind pretty quickly, and we cut a deal.

            Then I pulled out all twenty-six films again, and really, seriously began mopping up those notes, trying to turn them into something that might be interesting. Given all that’s been happening in Japan these past two and a half years, who knows? This little misbegotten Godzilla book might even turn out to be incredibly useful. Or if not “useful” exactly, at least interesting even to people who aren’t middle-aged Godzilla geeks living in basements. In any case, I’m happy It’s finally seeing the electronic light of day, and happy it’s doing so on Electron Press.

            So now, with a better understanding of what this book has gone through over the past decade, go buy a damned copy, why don’t you?

 

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