Thursday, February 10, 2011

"The Eleventh Hour" - a book proposal

There’s a line in Pulp Fiction that really slugged me in the gut when I first heard it. It’s simple but effective, and happens when the big black mobster Marsellus Wallace is trying to convince Bruce Willis’s washed-up boxer character, Butch, to take a fall in a fight. He says “Butch, if you were gonna make it, you would have made it by now.” I was about 30 when I first saw the film. I’m now 45, and the line no longer slugs me in the gut. No, it injects me with an ice enema. I mean Jeeze, am I still an ‘emerging artist?’ Or a submerged artist? Have I emerged and re-submerged without my brief emergence being noted?

Hence The Eleventh Hour – an inspirational book of potted biographies of people who’ve ‘made it’ late in the arts, like Geoffrey Rush, who at the ripe ole filmic age of 45 scooped an Oscar and global recognition for his first film Shine. Later editions of the book might take in other fields of endeavour, like science, business or sport, but for now we’ll focus on creative types – actors, writers, poets, painters, sculptors, accountants …

Think about it. The world is disproportionately burdened with millions of quietly desperate people nurturing long unfulfilled artistic ambitions. They know the clock is ticking, and has, in fact, probably ticked too far for them to ever make serious waves in their chosen field. What constitutes ‘making it’ is debatable, but let’s start with a little income, recognition and acclaim. And maybe groupies. For our purposes, making it means being able to take out a crippling mortgage on a ramshackle shoebox, nee ‘renovator’s dream’, in my inner-city suburb of Darlington, Sydney.

If you’re an actor, making it means being occasionally recognised, and not just from police line-ups or an erectile dysfunction infomercial that airs at 3am. No, you’d want to be known for a reasonably fat role in a moderately successful Australian film. Or even a bit part in Baz Luhrmann’s remake of Citizen Kane. Making it as an author means you can live for six months on the advance for your second novel, which will hit the critical sweetspot and be reviewed with rolled gold lines like “major new Australian voice”. As a painter, making it means your first major exhibition garners the phrase “shades of early Whiteley”. (Shades of late Whiteley being a little smelly).

Yep, there’s a whole planet of arty aspirants just out your window, fretting, sweating and mouldering away in crap life-sentence jobs, dreaming of swapping the drudgery of writing bitter post-it notes on the office fridge for the drudgery of writing books. They think their hour has passed and that their talents are doomed to join them unlamented in the grave; that their great artistic gift, unwrapped and unwanted by a race of pig-ignorant philistines, will do nothing but languish and rot (good name for a law firm, that, Languish and Rot). It’s all too cruel. If you’re not dancing Swan Lake at the Opera House by the time you’re 22, forget it. If you’ve not published/recorded/exhibited by at least 35, default to dream number two and become a junkie windscreen washer, or loon who stands on street corners sandwiched between cardboard placards that proclaim the second coming of Anthony Robbins, or L. Ron. Hubbard, or UFO’s. Because, of course, most of these artsy wannabes are deluded, many of them mad. Most are talentless dabblers who couldn’t conceive with a whole sperm bank, let alone conceive a decent novel. But that’s not your problem, in fact that’s your meal-ticket: these poor saps are the ones who’ll buy your book!

In spotlighting artists who made it late, The Eleventh Hour will give heart to the artistically disabled and inspire in them the unreasonable expectation that ‘yes, it’s not too late! If they can do it, so can I!’ Design-wise, I envisage a smallish front-of-counter at the bookshop book, something that sits next to that bloody Blue Day Book right up beside cash register; a book bought at the last minute on impulse to cheer up your poor old mate Terry, who’s peddled his tattered manuscript to every publisher and his dog for years only to suffer repetitive rejection syndrome. He’s just been knocked back again and this is the book to buck him up. (Though rather than bucking him up, Terry may well snarl ‘fuck off’ as he shoves the book up your arse). The fact that you’ve read Terry’s manuscript, Portaloo Sunset, and know it to be derivative, illiterate tripe that stinks worse than said Portaloo after a three-day rock fest, is beside the point. It’s the thought that counts, and it might just cheer Terry up. (Although at 87 he really is starring down the barrel, and a Euthanasia for Dummies handbook might be a better bet).

Okay, some random examples of folks who’ve made late arrivals? Joining young Rush on stage we have Anthony Hopkins (30, first film), DBC Pierre (42, Booker Prize for first book Vernon God Little), Tug Dumbly (45, first … err, let’s move on), Kev Carmody (49, first album), Charles Bukowski (49, first book), Stan Lee (in his 40’s when he cooked up Spider-Man and a bunch of other superheroes), Raymond Chandler (45, first short story, 51 The Big Sleep), Elizabeth Jollie (53, first book), Laura Ingalls Wilder (65, first book in Little House on the Prairie series). But taking the cake the late, great Emily Kngwarreye, an aboriginal painter who held her first exhibition at 80, and whose work now sells for squillions. The list goes on, but for simplicity’s sake let’s focus on the small picture and keep the first edition Australian – Geoffrey, Kev, Liz, Emily, et al. (Later on you can franchise localised versions to other countries).

The format’s a snack. A snappy introductory essay, followed by two pages on each subject, one being a nice full-page photo of them at work, and on the facing page a potted bio and history of the artist’s trials and tribulations on the corpse-strewn road to glory. List their breakthrough moment and life philosophy, showing that with work, determination, commitment, dedication, single-minded focus and burning self-belief (Phew, I’m buggered!) anyone can make it to pursue their dreams and live to the hilt the truly authentic life they were destined to live. (We wouldn’t have to broach the pesky idea that talent too might be a pre-requisite). The subjects could be living or dead (preferably at a decent age) and interviews/séances would have to be conducted, permissions sought, backgrounds sourced and researched. It’s a little bit of work, but not too taxing. If you’re really lazy employ a research assistant, like I have for this synopsis. (My sweet Gini helped me Google up the above list of candidates. Thanks a ton, hun!) The subjects wouldn’t necessarily have to be outrageously famous, and in fact it’d probably be good to highlight a couple of more obscure late bloomers so as to make the punter’s dreams seem more achievable.

If you could be bothered doing it the project’s a sure-fire hit. How do I know? I once told a publisher with Penguin about the idea at a party. I was under the influence of ego at the time, officer, and promptly failed to remember the conversation. But a couple of weeks later he emailed me out of the blue to say he’d put the idea to a meeting of his fellow Penguins and they liked it and wanted me to send a fleshed-out proposal. I emailed back saying I hadn’t actually been pitching the idea to him at the party, just chewing the fat, and I couldn’t actually be arsed doing the thing myself. He emailed back in perplexity and annoyance that I’d been wasting his time. I emailed back a pitch for an idea to publish my Book of Ideas. I’m yet to hear back.

So, there you have it, The Eleventh Hour (or possibly Bloomin’ Late?). It’s yours for the taking, served up on a platter. All I ask is a small acknowledgement and cut of the loot. Get researching!


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  2. You could add the painter/sculptor Rosalie Gascoigne to that list - she had her first exhibition at 57!

    As an aside, Bukowski was 51 when his first novel "Post Office" was published, but he was only 40 when his first book of poetry "Flower, Fist & Bestial Wall" was published, with his second and third books coming out in consecutive years.

  3. Benito bring my Bukowski book back i bought!

  4. Thank God for this article I was getting depressed when I saw Justin Bieber on TV yesterday claiming his new film to bring hope to thousands of teenagers so they know if you hold on to dreams anything is possible. Please no more Biebers!

  5. Is a great post. And would be a great book. Find the arse to write it yourself. :-)