“Writers aren’t people exactly. Or, if they’re any good, they’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald.
“I’m sorry Mr Lewton, but we’re going to give your story a miss,” said Roger Harrington, head of programming at Channel Five. He picked up a pen from his desk and began to spin it in his hand, a nifty trick he’d learnt during his uni days. He didn’t really like this part of his job, knocking back hopefuls, and so he always found it helpful to have something else to focus his attention on.
Max Lewton had a long look on his face.
“Why? What’s wrong with it?”
“Well to start with, having your main character blow his head off . . . ” Roger paused and clicked his tongue. “Now that’s a bit grim.”
“It’s to emphasize a point,” said Max, defensively. “He has to kill himself, because he’s spent so much of his life researching Australian history, discovering these terrible things, just to find out that nobody wants to publish it. He’s devastated, you see,” Max rubbed his thumb and forefinger together nervously. He wasn’t the normal laid-back writer wearing a sports jacket that Roger was used to. He was more of the angry, borderline nutjob type, the cliche of how people expected a writer to be, complete with elbow patches, brightly coloured socks, and scuffed leather shoes.
Harrington looked down and leafed through the pages of his script. “Well, it’s not just that,” he said — though it’s a bloody big part of it! — “It’s just that your average Australian is not going to identify with someone like this, you know, some smart-arse telling them how rotten they are!”
Max got excited. “But that’s why he shoots himself!” – he leant forward, a manic enthusiasm underscoring his voice – “he is actually trying to help people, help them fix the demons of the past. But nobody will listen to him; he’s like Cassandra, yelling into the wind.”
Max stopped to see if Harrington would get the reference — and when Harrington didn’t respond, opting instead to give his pen another spin, Max opened his mouth to elaborate; but Harrington quickly cut him off: “Yes, yes, I bloody know who Cassandra is . . . Greek myth, tries to warn everyone that something bad is going to happen, but nobody listens.”
“Yes, exactly!” said Max — not sure whether he should be pleased or not.
Harrington let out a long sigh. “But it’s not really the case anymore, is it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you can get people to listen to you,” said the Head of Programming, “Can’t get published? So what? Your character can just set up a blog, or rant on social media like everyone else!”
“But the internet’s no good,” said Max quickly, “Nobody is willing to read anything you write, unless it involves Hollywood gossip, or a newsreader with their tits out!”
Shocked by the bitterness in his voice, Max stopped and took a deep breath; this wasn’t how the meeting was meant to be going.
Softening his voice, he tried again. “My story really is a human interest story. People listened to this character as a kid . . . he was quite intelligent, had an interesting outlook on life, and felt rewarded by the adults around him. But this attention had led him to believe that people would want to hear what he had to say as a grown-up — but he discovers that this is not the case, and it’s just a crippling disappointment for him!”
“Yeah, sure,” said Harrington, “I know – it’s autobiographical. You’re that writer, blah blah blah.” These overly earnest statements that so many writers seemed to make had always annoyed the piss out of Harrington.
“No,” said Max, a bit shocked by Harrington’s lack of professionalism. “I’m not like him at all!” And for the briefest of moments, the thirty-one year old appeared so unbearably sad that even Harrington felt his heart drop. But instead, he shifted uncomfortably in his chair, hoping that the writer — this grown man — was not about to burst into tears.
“Look,” said Harrington quickly, tapping the pages of the script, “It’s not that I think this is a bad story. In fact, it’s probably quite a good story. It’s just that it’s not suitable for television.” He leant back in his chair. “Our job is to make something that the majority of Australians will like, and that’s not as easy as you might think.”
“Now, if you had made your character a battler of some sort, maybe a footballer or something, then people would be more inclined to go for it. People want someone who looks like them, or looks like someone they’d like to be. Nobody would really care less about some bleeding-heart writer! I mean, who actually writes anything these days? Even journalists are becoming redundant. It’s all that click-bait shit now.”
Harrington stopped to see if Max was taking this in, but it was hard to tell; the writer was not giving anything away.
So Harrington kept going; he’d never really minded the sound of his own voice, as vain as that might be, but he had always felt like his best ideas emerged while talking. “Cooking shows are still on trend. So perhaps if your main character was a self-taught cook, that would be something. Give him a good back story,” Harrington picked up his pen again and gave it a spin: “You know, like, maybe he’s an advertising junior by day, but has aspirations to dazzle everyone with his wonderful cooking skills.” And perhaps if you gave him some kind of moral dilemma. Like a work-versus-love conflict.” He dropped his pen and picked it back up again. “Right, so you could have him creating ads for a fast food client, even though the company represents everything he stands for in life!”
Max winced. But Harrington didn’t notice; his eyes were darting along the skirting board as the thoughts raced down from his mind into his mouth.
“So our hero has to decide between abandoning his career, which means maybe losing his fiancé – she’s a bitch anyway, only interested in his status — or to continue in his job and give up his half-baked cooking dream.” Harrington swizzled in his chair. He liked that, a half-baked cooking dream . . .
“Now . . . here is the hero’s journey part. By himself, he doesn’t have the courage to follow his dream. But then while talking to the girl downstairs who runs the cafe, he gives her one of his cronuts to taste, and she realises that he is some kind of cooking genius!” Harrington licked his lips as if he could taste the cronut. “She’s the one who empowers him to follow his dream! She gets him to sign up for Masterchef. He gets accepted, quits his job, and then it all begins! He wins, they get married and open up a hipster cronut joint together — and fuck me if everyone isn’t happy with that!”
Harrington stopped and looked at Max, like an actor waiting for applause.
But it didn’t come.
Max, who was feeling a great pain in his heart, said with exasperation: “How is that different from my story? My character is exactly the same! He is following his dream, too.”
“Yes, but he’s got a shit dream that nobody wants: that’s the difference,” said Harrington, no longer holding back. Now, he just wanted to get rid of Max; he had to write this idea down before he forgot it.
“Look, we’re not some bloody East European country that has a playwright for a leader! We are a nuts-and-bolts sort of place! We only like the underdog – someone who’s not going to make us feel bad about our lives, about or our lack of education.”
Max was shocked.
“I don’t think Australians are like that at all!” he said.
“Well, of course they are!” said Harrington, laughing cynically.
Max shook his head.
“I think you’ve got the wrong idea,” said Max, choosing his words carefully. “And I thinks it’s terrible that someone like you works in the media.”
He stood up; he could feel himself trembling with a very strong, very precise anger – “If what you are saying is true, then you are a hypocrite — for all that you’ve just said about writers, wouldn’t that make them the beloved underdog?”
Max shot Harrington such a strong look, that it caught Harrington off guard. Nobody had ever quite looked at him like that — and he couldn’t put his finger on what was in it. It wasn’t hatred; it was something else.
“Now, come on,” he laughed.
But Max had already collected his bag from beside his chair and was heading for the door. Harrington went to ask him if he wanted his script back — but the door slammed shut.
“Okay, well,” said Harrington, trying to comfort himself, “that’s an answer in itself.”
And he waited for a moment, just in case a garbage bin from the hallway suddenly came flying in through the door. He’d received many reprisals from rejected writers — everything from flaming dog turds, to prank calls in the middle of the night.
But the room was quiet.
Harrington shook his head. He flipped over Max’s script and began to jot down his idea.
A half baked love story . . .
And as those first few lines came out, he began to like himself again.