where the writers are
At Home With a Ghost - 43

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

 

When I was in my twenties and researching a book, I studied the dark art of fleecing men. This technique, and the con women who taught it to me, were the subjects of my novel, Dry Hustle. Promising or implying sexual favors, a dry hustler would take a guy’s money and then vanish without delivering the goods. In other words, I could play the ho without crossing the thin pink line into actual whoredom.

By the time I entered my thirties, however, I could forestall the inevitable no longer. I stepped across the line and became a prostitute.

The competition was stiff, the marketplace crowded: I stood elbow to elbow with fellow whores. It was the movie business, and we were screenwriters available for hire.

My new supine position was kind of restful. I didn’t find the writing all that hard. There was no pressure to be original. I wrote whatever someone wanted, and received indecently good pay for my services. The transaction wasn’t public usually (relatively few people will ever read a script). And like most floozies, I became numb to the degradation of it all. My emotions, my inner pain, which had fueled my work before, were wrung out and weary from overuse; they could now go to Club Med. Whatever I wrote belonged to someone else, anyway, so I didn’t have to care about it as much.

Writers often refer to their works as their “children,” which they carry to birth; then nurture, revise, and shape the little ones through the development process, fretting over their kids’ path to success or rejection.

I felt no more for my scripts than I would depositing my eggs in a bank.

My bank account, in fact, was my child. I enjoyed watching it grow. Once I even did a script rewrite for a couch. My agent had loaned me a sofa for years, then suddenly reclaimed it. I had nothing in my living room to get supine on.

By happenstance, a producer friend had lost a screenwriter right before a big deadline. He called me on a Friday; the finished script was due at the studio on Monday. He had two other drafts by previous writers. The director didn’t like either as a whole but liked bits of both. They paid me some money under the table to cobble the best bits together, writing new material to paper over the seams. For two days straight the guys sat in one hotel room with scissors (this was before word processing) cutting up scripts while, in the adjacent room, I sat with a typewriter, whiteout, and paste.

On Monday I came out from under the table and bought a couch.

(I stayed on the project through numerous more rewrites, paid by the studio. My baby bank account outgrew three pairs of shoes. The script turned into Nine And a Half Weeks.)

A whore to the core, I avoided thinking about the children I’d left at home. Abandoned were the book manuscripts, song sheets, and the 1910 Steinway grand I’d stored in my parents’ house in Connecticut. The one thing I brought along with me was my eternal companion, my invisible mentor, my dearly departed Grandpa Kernochan. Actually I took one more thing: rummaging through the collection of fine wines and spirits left after his death, I came away with a huge bottle of cognac the size of my torso. (It took me two years to empty it.)

Ghost and spirits were both excellent company; ever tactful, they never commented on my fall from art, never joining those other voices in the shadows of my conscience who whispered that my new profession was somewhat less than respectable.

Sometimes the liquor would encourage me to wallow in nostalgia for the past. I would hoist a glass to my grandfather and ask, “What was it all for?” I was remembering our feverish collaboration on songs, the fragments of music and lyrics Grandpa had fed me through dreams. It had been four years since my musical about puberty, Sleeparound Town, had died stillborn at the New York Public Theater. “What we did was good. But nobody ever saw it.” I added petulantly, “You could have helped more, you know.”

I was hanging out with some film folk in Montreal when I got a surprise call from Tom Hulce. I hadn’t been in contact with him since he was eighteen; I’d cast him in an early workshop version of Sleeparound Town. Since then he had leapt to recognition as the lead in Animal House. He was hot, and already restless to expand. Playwrights Horizons theater had offered him a chance to direct, if he could come up with an interesting project.

“So I thought –,” he stuttered in that charming way of his, “I mean, the music – it always stuck in my mind – if you’re not doing anything with it – I’d like to – would you let me – I thought – I want to do that.”

(To be continued.)