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The lure of the tie-in

My pride told me real writers didn't pen novels based on films or TV shows. And yet . . .

August 24, 2008|Tod Goldberg | Special to The Times

You COULD spend your entire life sitting in Starbucks next to people hunched over laptops, and you'd never hear a single one of them divulge that their dream is to write a television or movie tie-in; you know, those novelizations that magically appear in the airport bookstore rack with the screen stars on their covers.

Me? I've published two novels and a collection of stories that have afforded the kind of notoriety one rarely reads about: I've lost all the awards I've ever been nominated for, my most ardent fans number in the tens of hundreds, and I'd need the Jaws of Life to pull me onto the bestseller list. In short, a career in the literary fiction trenches, where acclaim is something you hang your hat on, since you haven't made enough money to buy a hat rack.

Then I received a midnight call from my brother, Lee, asking whether I might be interested in writing original novels based on "Burn Notice," the popular show on USA about a blacklisted spy named Michael Westen, who uses his training to help people out of bad situations (with the mob, drug dealers, pimps, etc.).

My first reaction was muted. I was finishing a short story about very depressed people doing very depressing things and trying to figure out another word for "desperation." My brother, in addition to writing and producing television shows, has written 14 tie-ins, including the current spate of "Monk" books. He was approached by his publisher, Penguin, to see whether he'd be interested in doing "Burn Notice" too, but he declined, saying he knew just the right person.

Lee had called before with similar opportunities, and I always demurred, mostly because I don't work particularly well with other people, don't really care for a lot of television shows and consider myself far too literary to ever do such a commercial thing. Why, I've even lost the Los Angeles Times Book Prize!

The difference this time was the show itself: I am a huge fan of "Burn Notice." It's smart, funny, visually arresting and has the tone and style of my favorite Elmore Leonard novels.

Plus, the show was created by Matt Nix, a person I'd known casually since college, who I felt shared a similar creative aesthetic. My brother was right: I was the perfect person. The only problem was my advanced sense of artistic self. I had long, twisting conversations with my agent, my wife and the kid who makes my sandwiches at Quiznos about the literary equity I'd accrued, about how writing a tie-in might somehow sully my career and other topics concerning my navel. My agent told me to take a deep breath, get lucid and call her back after I did some research.

So I did. I learned that Jim Thompson wasn't just an iconic noir writer but also the man who brought "Ironside" from the small screen to print, that Travis McGee creator John D. MacDonald had novelized the Judy Garland vehicle "I Could Go On Singing" and that, inexplicably, there was a line of "Partridge Family" tie-ins that sounded like Steven Seagal films (notably No. 10 in the series, "Marked for Terror") and which featured Danny, Keith and the gang solving crimes. And of course there were the countless authors who've embodied James Bond over the years, most recently Sebastian Faulks.

I also saw a rather significant golden egg (and with the three books being dangled before me due within a year, becoming a magical goose would be the rough creative equivalent): Tie-ins sell exceptionally well. My brother had long regaled me with the sales numbers he'd racked up with his "Diagnosis Murder" and "Monk" books -- each selling roughly what all of my books have sold, combined -- and how his tie-ins had dragged along his other books too. It would be like a quarterly annuity to even out the five free copies of the Santa Monica Review I'd receive for the depressing story I was finishing at the time.

More than anything, it sounded like great fun. One man can write only so much short fiction detailing terrific abuse before the idea of blowing up stuff and coming up with witty rejoinders begins to have a certain allure. Who wouldn't want to be Michael Westen?

Three days later, I was on the job. Sixty-four days and I was trying to figure out whom to dedicate the book to: my wife or the Starbucks barista who'd been pulling me extra shots at no charge every day, since apparently I looked like I needed it. Eight months and "Burn Notice: The Fix" is on the shelves, and I am now, apparently, a briskly selling crime writer. How briskly? I'm not exactly Troy Denning, whose last Star Wars original tie-in, "Invincible," was released in May and has sold more than 58,000 copies in hardback, according to Nielsen BookScan. In literary circles Denning's sales would make him one of those people other people throw cocktail parties for.

Bestselling thriller writer James Rollins of "Sigma Force" fame certainly wasn't facing the same conundrums I had when he agreed to write the novelization of "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."

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