a weekly column by Robert Westbrook
“So Who Is Robert Westbrook?” (Part Two)
Week 2 (July 17, 2002)
Last week we left off as my mother -- Hollywood gossip columnist, Sheilah Graham -- was doing her best to turn me into a writer just like F. Scott Fitzgerald. Scott was an impossible act to follow, but I did my best. When I was a teenager, I often went with my mother when she interviewed movie stars -- I remember meeting celebrities like John Wayne, Jack Lemon, Rosalind Russell, Jerry Lewis, and Peter Falk when he was an aspiring young actor trying to get a foothold in the business (even then he had his trademark gravelly voice and glass eye). My mother wrote seven columns a week and eventually she allowed me to do some of the actual writing.
Then, when I was a sophomore in high school, I went on a summer student exchange program to the Soviet Union. This was 1961, almost the height of the Cold War. We went to Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev, lived with Soviet students and spent three weeks working on a collective farm. When I returned home, my mother suggested I write five newspaper articles for NANA, the newspaper syndicate that circulated her own column. The articles were a success, published in major newspapers throughout the country, and eventually I was approached by an editor who asked if I would be interested in turning the five articles into a book. JOURNEY BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN was published in 1963. (G.P. Putnam’s, 1963; Library of Congress Cat.# 63-9679 this was before ISBN numbers.) I was a real, bonafide author at the tender age of 17.
After some magazine work in my late teens, I wrote a novel about my life in college, THE MAGIC GARDEN OF STANLEY SWEETHEART. It was published by Crown, 1969 (Library of Congress # 73-75088) and immediately picked up as a movie by MGM. This was a heady time. MGM brought me to Hollywood to write the screenplay, and then promptly changed everything I wrote -- the usual Hollywood experience, in fact, for any novelist. I hardly recognized my book when the movie finally came out in 1970, starring a 19-year old Don Johnson in his first role. (For some reason, he called himself Don Wayne Johnson in those days.) I was so discouraged that I took off for the hills, literally -- building a small cabin in the redwoods of Northern California. It was 1970, remember, and the counterculture beckoned in a serious way.
For the next fifteen years, I was determined to avoid the footsteps of Scott Fitzgerald and never to write another line. I worked in restaurants to support myself, learned to play jazz piano, and had a rather splendid time. But eventually my bookish background got the better of me. In 1985 I started to write again, mystery novels this time. I consider mysteries a serious genre: seriously funny, seriously entertaining, and a chance to create detective heroes who are to out discover what the world is really like. My first series was set in the Los Angeles of my childhood: THE LEFT-HANDED POLICEMAN, Crown, ’86, ISBN 0-517-55953-6); NOSTALGIA KILLS, Crown, ’88, ISBN 0-517-56763-6; LADY LEFT, Crown, ’90, ISBN 0-517-57131-5. Then came a novel full of black humor, RICH KIDS, published by Birch Lane in ’92, ISBN 1-55972-106-5 ; a non-fiction account of my mother’s life with Scott Fitzgerald, INTIMATE LIES, Harper Collins, ’95, ISBN 0-06-018-343-8, and finally my present mystery series, set in northern New Mexico, my new home:
A long road. A lot of writing, endless work, and little glory.. I’m still not rich or famous, and the publishing business is more difficult than it has ever been, partly due to the fact that 90 percent of all American readers read only 10 authors.
But is it worth it? You bet!
I love books and wouldn’t consider any other life. So I hope you’ll join me and my wife, Gail (she will also review books she has particularly liked, so you don’t end up with just this white male’s point of view) as we indulge in one of our favorite pastimes: discussing what we’ve just read.
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