Updated: Sep 25, 2021
"Charlotte, guess what?? Skyhorse picked up Daddy's books! They're going to be in bookstores!"
It was fall of 2015, and I couldn’t believe what my mother was exclaiming through the phone.
My dad, a brilliant and compassionate soul, had set out to write several books of medical nonfiction during his retirement. His original goal was to self-publish two of these books, Accidental Medical Discoveries: How Tenacity and Pure Dumb Luck Changed the World and The Presidents’ Doctors: Incompetence, Malpractice, and Cover-Up, on Amazon, but by pure “tenacity and dumb luck,” got a book deal. (My half-brother had answered a call for manuscripts on LinkedIn by a grade school alum, piqued the interest of a publisher, and voila).
That phone call was one of the happiest of my life.
During the pandemic, I’ve reflected on his work and his process a lot as I’ve attempted to ease myself of my own existential writing malaise. Since receiving my MFA at UCLA in 2009, I’ve been screenwriting while working a variety of day jobs in Los Angeles.
I’ve dedicated myself to becoming a better writer by working on new material, giving and receiving notes from writer friends, submitting work to contests and professionals, and becoming a curious reader and watcher of TV and media.
But writing, especially in LA, has its share of baggage. I love the film industry because of its capacity to tell compelling stories on a global scale. Being in the trenches, however, can be frustrating. I can only endure so many coffee conversations with fellow writers that devolve into “they-said-and-I-heard” shop talk before I wonder: what’s the point of creating anything if there’s a gauntlet of silent rules and secret handshakes standing in the way?
And then I think of my dad. Always more concerned about making art than “making it,” I'd like to share my observations of his process (in case anyone else out there has felt the same way I do, or if someone has ever wondered what getting a book deal is like).
1. “Make your own fun.” My parents were unconventional. Not only did they have me
later in life, but when I moved from NY to LA in ‘06, my parents decided that they were “bored with New York City” and relocated to the quaint medieval hamlet of Elsinore, Denmark (pun totally intended). At 70 and 80, respectively, my mom and dad purchased an apartment (sight pretty much unseen) and had fun traveling. A classic introvert, my dad would accompany my mom on local outings, but his happy place was sitting in front of the “‘puter” for 8-10 hours a day, reading and learning, sometimes sipping a Wiibroe beer, always fiddling with a toothpick. Growing up during the Great Depression, he believed (and passed on to my half-brother and me) that you are your own source of fun; no one else is going to entertain you. He took his own advice by endlessly Googling his favorite medical topics and anecdotes
2. He wrote the books that he wanted to read. Research was my father’s love language. A former doctor, clinical researcher, medical professor, and entrepreneur, he had a genuine curiosity for all things medical. Although he wondered, "Do you think people would be interested in the discovery of penicillin?" he'd follow it up with a wistful, "I sure am."
3. He wrote every day. Calling home regularly between 2007 and 2015, I can’t remember a day when my dad wasn't researching or working on "mah book." He was engaged with his work and loved the process. After a full day, he’d celebrate in the evenings with a homecooked meal (or a round of “baby cheeseburgers” from "Mickey D’s") with my mom before watching Mad Men, Columbo and other “crimmies” on DVD. Sometimes, if he couldn’t sleep after that, he’d get up and work some more. (But then, this “work” was also
4. He didn’t let perceived limitations stop him. No one had ever taught my dad how to type, so his soft, doughy fingers hunted and pecked every key on his black Acer keyboard while he hummed along. He never complained. He also thought nothing of agism. Whenever I came home saw my parents playing a round of Gin, I’d ask how old they felt, and he’d reply “About forty. I feel great!” And my parents acted that age (if not younger). (In Denmark, they didn’t have a lawn, so there was no need to yell at kids to get off of it. Instead, they secretly liked to make fun of elderly people hobbling towards the local convenience store (“there goes Toothless!”)). It didn't occur to my father that
his age could be a bad thing.
5. He was happy about self-publishing. He loved the idea that the general public might read his work through self-publishing. In fact, every time I took a family photo during the holidays, he wanted to see how he looked (“If we cropped it, would this make a good author’s photo for the book?”). His ego didn’t think a self-published work was somehow inferior to a proper book deal. Never in a million years did he ever think he would get one.
6. He involved his spouse. Although my dad liked to spend a ton of time sitting in front of the computer researching, he involved my mom. After finishing chapters, they printed out pages and read them for cadence and flow, underlining any clunkiness in red; since my mom’s second language was English, this served them. He’d often use twelve words (when he only needed three), and she was good at cutting them out. In fact, my mom became such an integral part of his process that when she passed in November, 2016, he didn’t submit The President’s Doctors. He had written it, but he didn’t have anyone to read it out aloud to and make edits. When my half-brother suggested that he abandon it and renegotiate the deal, he smiled and said that “that would be the best birthday gift ever.”
7. The books may have prolonged his life. “Wow. I can’t believe he was ‘with-it’ enough to write all that at his age!” a stranger told me. I may not know that much about brain science, but I posit that his new neural connections, feelings of progress and overall happiness kept him alive. If he had decided to do nothing on the couch but watch TV, his quality of his life would’ve suffered. He hated to mindlessly consume media.
8. He didn’t make a ton of money. When he got the book deal, he received a small advance and some royalties later on. I once read a statistic that in any given bookstore, 10% of the authors (the brand names) make up 90% of the sales. Neither a Stephen King nor a J.K. Rowling, my dad was part of the hoi polloi (or “the proles” as my mom would say).
9. It took a year for the first book to hit the shelves. Twelve months after I received that amazing call, Accidental Medical Discoveries came out (just in time for the holidays!). Sadly, my mother passed before she could see a final copy.
10. I didn’t get ‘a secret progeny discount.’ After attending her funeral, I came back to LA and went to Barnes & Noble at The Grove with two writer friends to see the book on the shelf, take pictures of it, and purchase several copies. While the cashier was impressed that my dad had written the book, I didn't get 15% or even 10% off.
11. He didn’t care about his Amazon reviews. I don’t think he even checked them. (Nevertheless, I check them from time to time because I’m thrilled to see that “the people” he talked about who’d be interested in this work have left glowing reviews (for the most part).
12. He wrote until the end. After the publication, he toyed with researching a new book about overlooked women in science. He kept going until he couldn’t function any more because, beyond his lovely family and friends, this is what gave him life.
And isn’t the thrill of creation what it’s all about? At the core, it's about engaging with life, of learning, growing, and hopefully having fun. If you get a book (or three-picture) deal from it, awesome - that’s gravy.
Of course, many people go about it with careerist intentions and still get paid. But if creating something is joyless work (and you’re only doing it for a paycheck or ego gratification), aren’t there better, easier ways of making money?
I also witnessed that just because an 80-something retiree isn’t the typical recipient of a book deal doesn’t mean that it can’t happen.
The limitations are in our mind.
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