14 February 2012

Work that pays the bills (or: Why do successful authors go to Hollywood?)

Buried in this examination of Michael Chabon's film work (including the forthcoming "John Carter" remake, for which he wrote the script) is an interesting contention about why, despite frustrations and failures, Chabon would have taken something like the pulpy-scifi-looking "John Carter":
It’s likely that Chabon received a hefty paycheck for most of these projects—in addition to having sold the film options for many of his books—and screenwriters can spend years before breaking through with a big movie. Perhaps in no other industry can you toil for so long, be stymied so regularly, and still earn millions, while also being considered a relative success. (Chabon has also mentioned that his screenwriting work has helped to provide health-insurance coverage for his family, which includes four children and his wife Ayelet Waldman, herself a successful novelist.)
What looks like a partial indictment or at least a you're-on-notice for the author who first became known as a novelist, and whose next novel TELEGRAPH AVENUE will be out this fall, resolves into kind of a brash truth. Screenwriters get paid for work that sells but is never made, but if your novel never goes into print, you're not going to get your full advance (and depending on your contract, may have to return all of it). And in the meantime, you're living on your day-job earnings, or your royalties from the last book, or dreams and wishes and unicorn rides, or whatnot.

Jacob Silverman's piece is hardly the first to point out that full-time writing is not a lucrative occupation, and I don't carry his concern that those projects will negatively affect his writing. But it's startling to see as successful an author as Chabon pointing out that, in this case, it actually saves him money to step away from his fiction. Here are a few interviews in which Chabon mentions the health-insurance angle, and without getting too deeply into that flawed American system, well, it's not as if he can draw on COBRA from his previous office job since that was probably 15 years ago. (And if you've never been on COBRA, what gets you is not the high cost to begin with -- it's the irregular, steep price increases designed to make you quit.)

It's easy to make light of (as I have) authors who verge into more lucrative media, who sign HBO deals that may never see the light of day or become the fifth writers on flawed screenplays (like Chabon and "Spider-Man 2"). Maybe they're irresponsible with money and possessed of delusions of grandeur, like latter-day F. Scott Fitzgeralds! (Sorry, Francis.) Or maybe they're just trying to get by, and if a two-author household like the Chabon-Waldman complex finds the most thrifty solution is to take side work -- that is still about creating things, mind -- then maybe the more relevant question is "How did we get to the point where we can't afford to keep our literary writers in business?"

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