Saturday, June 20, 2015

My Dad and the Art of the Pitch

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My kid loves a good story. She demands impromptu tales with complicated plots involving her dolls and friends adventuring all over the world. Her father got her hooked on them. He’s a screenwriter with a flair for plotting. Now she’s begun the art of weaving a story herself. Her first drafts sometimes run off of cliffs or into mountainsides, but gradually she’s honing the skill.

I have no gift for the impromptu tale. The other day as my daughter giggled at the outlandish feats of a doll who had climbed the Eiffel Tower and was swinging from a pole to reach some ice cream—and as my husband calmly invented a finale on the spot—I envied him.

Then I remembered that there’s more than one kind of tale.

Three thousand miles away from us, in sunny West Hollywood, there’s a man surrounded by 5,000 books. His desk sits in the center of his apartment, an island floating in a sea of mass paperbacks, trade paperbacks, hard covers, first editions, pulp magazines from his childhood, and recordings of old radio shows. (Not to mention his music collection.)

I used to live in that womb of pulp because that man is my father. But the tales I am referring to aren’t the ones in the books—not precisely. The tales are the pitches my father made for them.

I know of only one way to guarantee a twinkle in my father’s eye—confessing I haven’t read a book he loves. With 5,000 or more under his belt, my father loves a lot of books. But there’s one thing he might like even more: making sure other people read them.

“You haven’t read Tono Bungay? You never read Kate Atkinson? Judith Merril’s That Only a Mother? Oh, Leslie! How is it possible?”

My father leans back in his ancient leather desk chair, pressing his forefingers together and smiling—and the sun comes out from behind the clouds. The room crackles; what on Earth is so important about this poem, this novella, that book? But with that smile, he has you hooked.

He establishes the setting. Or he describes a single character in an early scene. He continues, slowly unraveling the ball of yarn and tightening the string as needed, for tension.  When he pitched The Bonfire of the Vanities he began with Sherman McCoy’s desperate efforts to leave his Park Avenue penthouse on a stormy evening so he can go call his mistress and finished with a humdinger of a cliffhanger—the moment when Sherman dials the number of his mistress from the nearest payphone and somehow his wife picks up.

Everywhere in this apartment is the scent of pulp. Everywhere are flashlights, hidden in the darkest corners, next to ladders should you need to reach a book on the top shelf—or even higher. The blinds are usually closed to protect the books from the sun, hence the need for flashlights. It’s like the cabin of vampire Joshua York in Fevre Dream. It’s a weird place, my dad’s apartment, but it was my home for many years.

In that home I learned the art of the pitch. I learned that the planting and harvesting of a good cliff-hanger and another person’s investment in a story—or as William Goldman more elegantly put it: “what happens next”—is a skill born not only of loving books but of loving to persuade. A good pitch is an argument, really. You must marshal every tool in your arsenal: pace, sharp turns, tone, diction and volume.

It’s the thrill of the hunt: can I get this person to give this book a chance? Do I believe in this book as much as I am making this friend believe I do? Am I persuading myself more than the other person?

I pose that question to my father with regard to Tono-Bungay. No sentient being can stay awake through its dense dullness. But with most books, my dad is on the money. And even if you never get to the book itself, the pitch makes you feel as if you have read it, absorbed its essence and understood its historical significance in the timeline of fiction. So many stories, so many novels are firsts. The first vampire story. The first detective. The first female to enter a genre. The story from which a famous author stole a premise. (See: The Parasaurians and then squint skeptically at Michael Crichton, if you aren't already doing so.) 

I have a three-year-old who loves to hear and to tell a good yarn. I wonder—is it heritable, this love of the pitch? What will happen when she can read books herself? Will she, too, care to persuade? I hope so.

As an actor, I love to impersonate the myriad characters in her picture books when we read aloud. This is another form of pitching, and another one I learned from my father. He was not an actor, but he was very much a performer when he read aloud. No one else can inhabit Gollum when he whispers “my preciousssss.” Not even Andy Serkis, as wonderful as he was in the Peter Jackson trilogy, can surpass my father, who bore his impression of Gollum and so many other characters into my impressionable mind throughout years of bedtime stories.

And you’re right, Dad. Judith Merril’s That Only a Mother is possibly the scariest story ever—with the most shocking ending.

No, I won’t tell you what it is! Go find a copy and read it. Let me know what you think.

I hope someday my daughter will want to know what you think, too. 

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