Lenny Kleinfeld on SHOOTERS AND CHASERS

Mid-list authors receive little help from the publishers in bringing a new book to the attention of readers.  The authors depend on newspaper reviews, blog posts, library circulation, reviews posted in the electronic bookstores, and the kindness of friends.

In Lenny’s case the friend who was kind and very active in getting the word out about SHOOTERS AND CHASERS, Lenny’s first novel, was Leighton Gage.  He recognized that this was a book that would appeal to people who loved mysteries and had a sense of humor.

The following article comes from “Chicago Reader”, 02/26/2009.

Leighton Gage is the author of the Mario Silva police procedurals set in Brazil.  Leighton knows a lot about good writing.

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Slow Torture in the Age of Speed

Lenny Kleinfeld’s first novel took five years to come out—but that’s faster than any of his screenplays have been made.

By Michael Miner

There’s a book to be written whose message would be simply, “Don’t ever write a book.” It would tell the tale of many an author who devoted years to the writing, squandered more years seeking a publisher, and if and when the book was finally printed watched the nation ignore it. No doubt the book I describe would serve as its own excellent example.

Lenny Kleinfeld came late to the book writing because his original plan was to seek fame and fortune writing movies. In Chicago he’d made a name for himself, or rather a pseudonym, as Bury St. Edmund, the Reader’s drama critic in its early years. Besides arbitrating the eruption of the city’s audacious storefront theater, he had written with Stuart Gordon one of its milestones, the sci-fi trilogy Warp, for Gordon’s Organic Theater. “To the day I left Chicago for LA in 1986,” he says, “my writing was in print and/or onstage nearly continuously.”

The first time I saw Kleinfeld back in Chicago, in the late 80s, he was jubilant. Out in Hollywood, he said, they throw money at scriptwriters, even for scripts that never get made—scripts such as his own, including the one he’d sold on spec that financed his move to the coast.

I asked Kleinfeld the other day how many screenplays he’s written by now. “About six or seven I’ve been paid for,” he said. “Half a dozen more than didn’t sell, including the two best. One was optioned a couple of times and never made.” He rewrote somebody else’s adaptation of a comic strip he’d rather not name. And he and Gordon pitched an idea a producer was so wild about that Kleinfeld wrote three drafts before he figured out it was dead. “I wrote screenplays every imaginable way you can write a screenplay,” he says.

And?

“None got made. Zero. I have been a tree doing a trampoline act in the forest with nobody watching.”

One interesting project was an adaptation of Philip Caputo’s 1980 novel Horn of Africa for actor/producer Michael Douglas. “Caputo sold him the rights and I did a couple of drafts,” Kleinfeld says. “Douglas liked the second draft. They hired a director from Australia who decided to rewrite it himself, and he made all the mistakes I made in my first draft, and that was the last I heard of it.”

In time Kleinfeld concluded that he’d arrived in Hollywood “way too late.” What’s middle age out there? I asked him. “Twenty-eight or 29,” he said. When he got there he was 38.

Still, Kleinfeld got by. He made some money rewriting other writers’ scripts for movies he knew would never get made. “You’re being paid to resuscitate a corpse,” he says, “but you have a month to get health insurance.” And his wife, Ina Jaffe, had steady work as a correspondent for NPR.

Seven years ago he decided to write a novel. It was an exhilarating change. “There are simply so many more words in a book than there are in a screenplay,” he says. But there were no producers dictating to him and no budgets to care about. Wherever Kleinfeld’s characters went and whatever they did, he didn’t have to ask himself, Can we afford this?

“All I can tell you,” he says, “is that I was very happy for a whole year.”

Kleinfeld finished the novel, Shooters & Chasers, in 2003. Last month it was published.

He sent his manuscript to Lucy Childs Baker, a former Chicago actor whose work (lucky for him) he’d praised back in the day. She now worked for New York’s Aaron Priest Literary Agency (Caputo’s agency, by coincidence). “Lucy warned me they rarely take first authors,” Kleinfeld wrote me in a long e-mail that supplemented our interview. “I assured her the book was not autobiographical, and at no time in the story does a teenage Lenny lose his virginity.”

Baker and Priest wanted some rewriting, and he did it. “Before sending it out,” his e-mail continues, “Aaron asked how I’d describe the book. ‘A comedy with guns.’ Aaron growled... ‘Comic novels don’t sell. Never call it that again. You have written ‘a page-turning thriller in a unique voice.'”

A unique voice very much in the style of Carl Hiassen, I’d say. It’s like Hiassen without Hiassen’s righteous anger over what crooked pols and developers are doing to his beloved Florida. It’s not that Kleinfeld has nothing to be angry about, but this isn’t his Hollywood novel. Shooters & Chasers is a whodunit that begins with a famous architect being capped in Chicago and wends its way to LA, where the various moneyed suspects lurk.

And it violates, Kleinfeld acknowledges, what he calls “the structural and tonal norms of a crime thriller.” It’s got more characters and a looser plot, more shifts in point of view. On top of which, he proudly points out, “I had the hero be a happy slut and gave the romance to the bad guys.”

Did publishers have trouble with all that?

“I think so,” said Kleinfeld.

He told me Baker and Priest “targeted a dozen editors at major publishing companies, called them to rev them up about the book, then one morning messengered manuscripts to all of them at once. Six or seven turned the book down, but sent complimentary notes about the writing and said they’d read whatever I wrote next.” Three other editors wanted to buy the book but were overruled by their bosses.

“Then at the last major, the only one we hadn’t heard back from, the editor loved the book—and so did the publisher. Lucy was stoked; she and the publisher thought Shooters might be 2005’s big beach book. Then a day later she calls and tells me she has bad news. The publisher has been overruled by... the marketing director.”

So Kleinfeld lowered his sights to the “small publishers, tiny publishers, micro-publishers.” Many more months went by. In fall 2007, Tekno Books of Green Bay, Wisconsin, offered to take his book.

Tekno isn’t actually a publisher. It’s a book packager, and it fed Shooters to Cengage Learning, a textbook publisher whose office in Waterville, Maine, turns out a line of mystery novels under the Five Star imprint. Cengage’s promotional campaign consists of listing Five Star novels in the catalogs it sends to librarians. It sells to bookstores wholesale only if an author’s making a personal appearance.

I asked Lucy Childs Baker what happened to Shooters. “The book business sucks,” she said. “People thought he was very clever, very funny, there was a good plot. But they all end up saying, which is kind of ubiquitous in this business, ‘I just didn’t fall in love with it.’ There’s a certain snobbishness on the part of New York publishers that it’s so Chicago. And because it didn’t have the classic thriller ingredients.”

The print run is 1,500 copies. This came as news to Baker. “Oh boy, that’s rough,” she said. “I suppose if this is mostly being distributed in Chicago and he gets a word of mouth going... he’s got some great blurbs!”

The one on the front cover is from NPR’s Jacki Lyden.

The marketing is up to Kleinfeld. He and Jaffe invited friends to book-release parties in LA and Chicago, and thanks to a vintner-focused subplot—a stone-cold killer is determined to produce a world-class Syrah—he found a winery in Santa Barbara County interested in stocking the novel in its tasting room.

The writing of books is coming to resemble one of those long-lost artisanal vocations that interest scholars for the light they throw on the Middle Ages. I’ve written with great respect of authors who eliminate the middle man and simply publish their own books, which thanks to technology is easier than ever. Kleinfeld didn’t go quite that far—though if he had, Shooters might have come out five years ago.

On the other hand, Kirkus does review novels published by Five Star. And Kirkus called Shooters & Chasers a “spellbinding debut” with “appealing heroes and villains, a quirky love story, wit, style, suspense.” That’s why Kleinfeld has heard from publishers in Munich and Tokyo.

So if you can’t find his book in English, who knows—maybe one day you’ll run across it in German.v

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10 Responses to Lenny Kleinfeld on SHOOTERS AND CHASERS

  1. That is one great tale, of and by a great (and funny) story teller. Though many of us could write our own screamplays on the subject Lenny found the perfect mix of pathos. profundity, and performance to make that unnecessary. Just lose the hat and you’ll be perfect. Only kidding about the hat, Lenny, HONEST!.

    Jeff

    • Jeff–Thank you for the compliments. I’ll pass them along to Mike Miner, who wrote the column.

      That hat bears the logo of the University of Wisconsin. Lose it? Jeff…do you understand the import of what you just suggested? Pistols or rapiers at dawn, dude. Your choice.

      –Lenny The Badger Boy

  2. Beth says:

    Jeff and Lenny – I appreciate the comments you left. It is hard for the average reader to understand the role of publisher and author. Most of us were sure that if a publishing house was fortunate to find authors who write as well as you do, they would protect and nurture the talent and their relationship with the writers so authors would have the time and the security to write.

    The publishers would make more money if they didn’t demand instant gratification.

    Is it as difficult in Britain and Europe to be published?

  3. Hi Beth (Lenny if you’re lurking),

    Sorry for not responding more promptly to your question but I was hiding until dawn had passed here on Mykonos. That Kleinfeld specie of Wisconson badger can be difficult once riled.

    I’m probably not the right person to address difficulties in publishing in Europe. I was very blessed and/or lucky. My debut novel, “Murder in Mykonos,” was first published in Europe in Greece (in Greek and English) by Aikaterini Lalaouni Editions. She loved the book and insisted MiM be translated and published in Greece, saying it would be a best seller. She was right, it became the #1 best-selling English language book in Greece (a best seller also in Greek) and remains today the #1 best selling English language book of its genre at Athens International airport. I am also told that it received more media coverage than any book ever had in Greece.

    Back home in the U.S. my publisher, Poisoned Pen Press (by the way, I love them), hooked me up with Baror International (Danny and Heather), international rights agents par exsalonce, and they immediately did a deal with Goldmann Publishing/Random house in Germany to publish “Murder in Mykonos” as “Opfergaben” in German (Don’t ask how that title came about, please), and it came out there in July of this year.

    At about the same time as the deal was made for publishing in Germany, Baror did a three-book deal with Piaktkus Books/Little Brown in the U.K. who will publish MiM in October, “Assassins of Athens” in December and my lastest CI Andreas Kaldis novel “PREY ON PATMOS, An Aegean Prophecy” in January 2011, although in the U.K. it will be called only “An Aegean Prophecy” (You can ask how that title came about:)).

    Overall, my experience has been unusual. Fingers crossed it continues that way.

    Excuse me, I must get back on badger alert. Dawn comes later in LA.

    Best,
    Jeff

  4. Beth says:

    Jeff, you have been blessed with talent and lucky to have found people who recognized and supported it.

    Did the success of the first book in Greece prompt the interest in US publishers or was the book on the way to them anyway?

    The Steig Larsson books already had a hold on Sweden to such a degree that publishers in other countries couldn’t ignore it. If his books hadn’t been so successful there would they have been picked up everywhere else in the world?

    Kwei Quartey wrote THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE TERMITE’S HILL for his blog and I stole it for this one. In this very funny explanation of why people who like Larsson should read his book, he gives a list of why it is better that he is alive, including being available for book signings. Were some of the sales generated because the books were published posthumously? I read all three straight through but the weren’t the best books ever to be written for the genre. If his death played a part in their success, that writers should be happy to leave him at the top of the list.

  5. Blush, blush, thank you.

    “Murder in Mykonos” had not been published in Greece (or anywhere) when I signed my contract with Poisoned Pen Press, but I did have a prior agreement to publish MiM in Greece (in Greek and English) which turned out to be of tremendous benefit to all parties.

    In fact yesterday an interview with me went up on Greeka.com, Greece’s most popular tourist website, with ten million English reading visitors annually, titled, A Mystery Writer With Greek Heart.

    As far as dying for one’s art is concerned, nah, I prefer killing off characters and allowing the author to escape unscathed.

    Jeff

    • Beth says:

      Thanks for the information, Jeff. I enjoyed the article very much.

    • Jeff–

      Loved the tale of how quickly and easily your publishing deals came together. Pain, patience and perseverance are mightily overrated as character-builders. If they did function that way, by now I’d be the Great Pyramid of Rectitude & Wisdom. Which obviously I ain’t.

      Also very much enjoyed your Greeka.com interview. Except for the part about whole plots suddenly revealing themselves to you. That may not be forgivable.

      –Lenny

      PS. Beth–As far as posthumous book signings: I was doing a (dreadful, slow, 4-book-total) signing in a bookstore on L.A. one afternoon when a woman came in, stopped at the table where I was seated, asked about Shooters & Chasers, then told me she was looking for a copy of “Exodus.” A while later she returned with a paperback of that book.

      I asked if she wanted me to sign it. She said, “Sure.”

      So I signed it, “Leon Uris (deceased).” Most fun I had that day.

      • Beth says:

        Ray Bradbury is a favorite of my son’s. Bradbury was doing signings at the university my daughter was attending. She thought a signed copy of one of his books would be the perfect Christmas present for her brother and she realized Bradbury was old and it might be noisy, so she wrote her brother’s name on an index card so everything would be perfect.

        My children have Irish names. Bradbury signed the book, “To Preston”. That made it an even more perfect present. “Preston” has a cherished, signed copy of a favorite book.

  6. Lenny,

    That triple P combination was my old publisher, I far prefer my new PPP.

    And if I were Leon Uris I’d be honored that you signed for me, and while you’re at it, Lenny get your pen and sign for Dalton Trumbo too!

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