My new book THE VINES went on sale today in both the U.S. and in the United Kingdom. For me, the line between an idea and a finished novel often zig-zags across different periods of my life, passing through different fictional landscapes as it goes, so rather than just writing the words – ‘Please buy my new book THE VINES’ over and over again (which is pretty much what I’ve been doing on Facebook for months now) – I thought it would be fun to trace the line that ultimately brought me here, to publication day, October 21st, 2014.
Twelve years ago I moved to Los Angeles. With one bestselling novel to my name, my film agent had no trouble setting me up with two well-liked producers who were eager to mount a new take on a classic novel. This is something film producers do a lot. But this novel (and the producers) shall remain nameless for the very obvious reason that Hollywood is a small town and yesterday’s nemesis might be tomorrow’s paycheck. (Also, they didn’t do anything terrible, which is more than can be said for most movie producers.) Because a majority of the films making a profit at the time were set in an American high school, they’d chosen one to be the setting for their “new take on a classic story”. Was it a terrible idea? I don’t know. My friends thought so. I thought it was a potential job, with some folks who had pretty impressive credits, so I went for it. The project already had two scripts. The producers didn’t like either one. The first was shallow and sloppy, the second loaded with wildly clever dialogue and snappy situations that lacked any real narrative spine or satisfying conclusion.
Being new to Hollywood and the film development process, I didn’t yet have the sense that movies are made not through writing, but through talking. Lots and lots and lots of talking. We’d done a fair bit of talking one afternoon when the producer called in her assistant and told me to practice a pitch on her. And I choked. It was not one of my finer moments. I still cringe when I drive by the office building where it happened. The problem was this. I had this chip in my brain that said, “If you’re going to write something good, you don’t just tell people about it beforehand! That’s like showing up for the first date naked.” People who are going to spend millions of dollars trying to produce your idea don’t agree.
If I was going to salvage my role in the project I had to act fast. So I wrote maybe one of the most voluminous treatments I’ve ever put to paper. If you don’t know, a movie treatment is supposed to be a short synopsis of an unwritten script. Preferred length is somewhere in the area of three to six pages. Mine was thirty. In my desperation to compensate for my choking incident, I had included not just details about the story’s high school, but its town, its secondary characters, its terrain, its precise position on a map of California. And an ancient Native American cosmology I’d put together to explain the supernatural forces involved. It wasn’t a bad treatment. My agent liked it. The producers, unfortunately, thought it was too dark. (I don’t know. Maybe they thought I was Nora Ephron’s son.) We had a few meetings about how to “lighten things up”, but a new manager ushered me quickly off the project because he thought it was going nowhere. (The movie was never made, so maybe he was right.)
During the process of writing this treatment, however, I’d churned up an image that stuck with me. It wasn’t right for the movie. I didn’t actually put it in the treatment at all. But still, it haunted me. It went something like this. In the early 1800’s, several Spanish soldiers come across a recently abandoned mission covered in monstrous tangles of vines. They know something’s wrong, but they approach anyway, because they’re soldiers and that’s what soldiers do. And then the vines eat them. I had a vague sense these otherworldly plants had been driven by a powerful shaman who’d been enslaved by the missionaries and these vines were the result of his supernatural revenge. But that was it.
And that was all I had for about twelve years. This idea went to the dustiest drawer in my idea bank, the same place my “gay dude hires Marines to kill the men who fatally gay bashed his secretly gay Marine boyfriend” movie idea sat for a while before it became my novel BLIND FALL, the same place my “psycho puts poisonous snake in car of parents he hates” idea stayed for about ten years before it became THE HEAVENS RISE. Last year, when I published THE HEAVENS RISE, my first supernatural novel, I was excited by the enthusiastic response, and the fact that it was nominated for a cool award (which I lost to Stephen King, an event which caused me to post my first nearly naked selfie, a selfie I’ve just now stopped linking to because I have a modicum of shame) Now that I had written something supernatural that seemed to work, that giant-vines-eating-soldiers idea started calling to me again.
So I started futzing with it. I started reading books about the California missions. And I started, without much success, to come up with a title. This proved to be a huge challenge. How could I formulate a spare suggestive title that both referred to something innocuous – a plant – while also conveying that this innocuous something had been terribly altered inside the framework of my story? My first attempts were awful, each one calling to mind possibilities that bore no relation to my developing plot. BLOOD FLOWERS. (He’s a vampire florist who sends lovely bouquets to the families of his past victims. Will he ever be able to make amends for his bloodsucking past?) THE BLOSSOMS (My best friend and Dinner Party Show co-host Eric Shaw Quinn commented, “Is it about a Christian singing group that murders people?”)
The list of crappy titles went on and on.
Somewhere along the line of crappy titles I had a realization – I was in the wrong state! I was trying to write a California story. But for some reason, the town I’d set out to create wasn’t coming together and as a result, the story felt fragmented and loose. Its monstrous flowers felt real; its human residents did not. Still, I was wedded to the Native American thing. I mean, where else in history could I find a level of atrocity where large groups of people were treated as property and …I know, I know. I actually asked myself this question. Worse, I grew up in the Deep South and I still had to ask myself this question. As soon as I saw the obvious answer, I wound up at Spring House, a beautifully restored plantation house just outside my hometown, New Orleans. And my vengeful Native American shaman became Virgine Lacroix, an African slave with the power to make plants do dangerous things.
I didn’t realize I was about to write a ghost story. To be honest, I’m not a ghost story fan. I need ghosts to do things. Not just clomp around in attics or write weird stuff on mirrors. I need them to have real weapons at their disposal besides the ability to produce fear in the humans they haunt. Enter the vines of the title. (And the bugs, but those come later. My mother hates bugs. I literally had to convince her the bugs didn’t look like roaches before she would agree to read the manuscript.) And enter – I hope – some characters you can root for. And some characters you won’t root for at all.
I’m not sure how I finally settled on the title. Trust me. It has nothing to do with the fact that my friend Blake Crouch published an excellent thriller called PINES right around the time I started fleshing out the story. I love Blake’s books and I was very relieved he liked my latest one. I express my relief in this interview we did over at Kindle Daily Post. But for some reason, THE VINES sounded liked the creepiest plant-related title I could come up with. Maybe it’s just that big, sharp-tipped V. I don’t know. Sometimes the choices we make as writers are gut-level and primal and we waste too much time trying to make them seem airy-fairy and super sophisticated or about some horrible episode from our childhood.
So that’s the zig-zag line that brought me from a pitch meeting I bombed to a new novel you can actually buy now. If you’re one of the folks who got an early copy and you were kind enough to leave an honest review on Goodreads, I’d be eternally grateful if you’d consider posting that review on the Amazon sales page now.
I should probably close by answering some questions I’ve been getting a lot of lately. Yes, in the U.S. this book comes to you from the exciting new world of Amazon Publishing, and no, there are no plans for a hardcover edition at this time. Certain physical retailers choose not to stock titles published by Amazon so you can’t find it any bookstore, but it will be available for sale at the in-store events I’m doing with my mother over the coming weeks. That said, for the physical book lovers out there, the trade paperback edition is very handsome. I’ve got a stack of them on my table. The British edition is also lovely and you can buy it here.
It’s finally midnight on the West Coast as I type this. Time to go see if the buy button has gone live yet. Oh, what brave new world that has such widgets in it.