‘Even when things are really bad, you still have hope, don’t you? Not on this island, this stinking wasteland, where the punishment satellites watch and wait. Instant death, that’s what they bring, if you try to escape. And we waste away here, us Island Detainees, the old, the sick, the infirm; those no longer able to contribute to a collapsed society – at the mercy of those who rule us. But now it’s like my brain is waking up from a deep sleep, ‘cuz I’ve found something: I’ve found the secret of the tunnels that lie beneath us . . . and the person living there.’
Remember Peter Liney’s chilling, scary and ultimately uplifting thriller The Detainee? Just to remind you, it’s in the process of being turned into a Hollywood blockbuster, and Peter’s sharing his Wessex-to-West LA story with us in a series of blog posts. Here’s the second . . .
I remember submitting my rewritten version of The Detainee to the Dorie Simmons Agency. Off the top of my head, I think I was up to submission number thirty something. No one had been interested, and I had no reason to think she would be any different, but by then I was just doing that old writers’ stand-by of ticking off agents one by one. It was quite a shock to receive a letter telling me how much she loved the book, that her assistant had stayed up all night reading it from cover to cover.
I went to meet her at her office in Putney, for some reason expecting her to be very English, late middle-aged and rather fond of wearing tweed, when, in fact, she turned out to be American and possibly the most glamorous agent I’ve met (note to self: psychic powers still not proven).
I came away feeling unusually buoyed and with renewed optimism. I’d signed a contract, perhaps an ‘exploratory’, contract for Dorie to act as my agent for a short period of time in the selling of The Detainee. Finally everything was on track.
Well no, not really. At the end of that period nothing had happened and I was experiencing the return of a feeling I associate uniquely with writing, which is closest aligned to wading blindfolded through porridge and razor blades. Weeks went by, then months. I began to wonder if euthanasia was available on the National Health, and if not, could I put it on my ravaged credit card, when Dorie called. I had to get back to work; not only had she sold The Detainee, she’d sold it as a trilogy. I had two new books to write.
And so I have to nominate Dorie Simmons as the first on a list of people who, quite simply, changed my life. If she hadn’t seen the potential of The Detainee (if her assistant hadn’t burned the midnight oil), I wonder how different my situation would be now? Yes, someone else might’ve been interested, but I’m not so sure – I was rapidly approaching the end of that list of agents. You need a little luck, your random moment, and it strikes as suddenly and briefly as lightning.
The publisher who’d bought The Detainee was a relatively new imprint, Jo Fletcher Books, and with a mixture of heady excitement and fear that I was about to become the victim of one of those ‘reality’ TV programmes, I boarded the train from Wiltshire to London. But no, there I was taken out to lunch by Jo Fletcher herself (and her lovely assistant Nicola), and was charmed by the second person I obviously owe a huge debt of gratitude to. Jo is a very approachable and generous soul who seems to work 25/8 and lives and breathes books. On that fateful day when she shuffles off, I have no doubt she will have arranged for a fully-stocked bookshelf to have been installed in the coffin with her.
Writing a trilogy is far from easy, but it helps when you’ve invented some strong characters you can identify with and who will take you to places you never thought you’d go. It was a pleasure to spend so much time in the company of Clancy (another person who’s changed my life): yesterday’s man, a reformed heavy, now as honest and open as the skies; and Lena, of course, brave beyond all belief. But there are any number of characters I couldn’t be more fond of if they were real and together we’ve taken quite a journey. But if you’d suggested to me after that lunch that one day that journey might include Hollywood, I think I might have advised you to up your medication.
One of the disadvantages of being a writer that makes it even more of a solitary occupation is that your art isn’t immediate. You can ask a person to take a look at your new painting or sculpture or listen to your latest composition, but ‘would you mind sitting here and reading this 340-page manuscript’ seems a bit of an imposition. What you’ve got to do, of course, is pitch – officially and unofficially. Reduce your story down to a minute or two – yes, all of it: the characters, the back story, the plot, that purple passage you’re so fond of – and even better if you can get it down to one ‘high concept’ sentence. A film script is best served by something like, ‘It’s a kind of Harry Potter meets Fifty Shades of Grey’. It’s ironic, really, that we introspective, private writer-types have to learn how to get in people’s faces, put our names forward, shout out about our astonishing talent. I’m rubbish at it, always have been. I couldn’t sell myself as an organ donor. It’s so ‘unBritish’ to talk about how good you are (and you’re never sure of it anyway). If it had been left to me, my career would’ve probably continued its stop-start-and-stall progress for the next goodness knows how many years. What I needed (did I but know it) to take me up to the next dizzying level, was a champion, someone to go into battle for me, and what’s better than one champion? Why two, of course.
So step forward Daniaile Jarry and Penny Karlin, who – I don’t think for one moment it’s an exaggeration to say – have turned out to be not so much life-changers as life-savers.
Next time: Hooray for you-know-where.