One word of advice. If you’re going to try to write a dirty book, don’t do it with a collaborator—unless you happen to be lovers lying in bed together smoking hashish at the time. Otherwise, you’re going to have trouble keeping a straight face, especially when you start writing about things heaving and throbbing and swelling, not to mention getting moist and slippery.
Sex is funny. The things people do to each other, the way they do those things, and the equipment they use to do them are all funny. If you’re being swept away by it, you can forget that for the time being. If, on the contrary, you’re trying to write about it with your best friend while sitting across from each other at a library table with the sun shining brightly and the sounds of a Cubs game coming in through the window (did I mention our apartment building was one block from Wrigley Field?), then you’re likely to go in a different direction altogether.
The premise of our book was that two young women–one a lesbian, Vestry, and the other a bisexual, Forest–write a work of erotic literature entitled The Nightblooming Lady’s Slipper. It gets published in a gardening book series by Transom and Wainscot, an old and respected publishing company, but is never read by anyone there. As a result, the publicity department sends the two women on a tour of garden clubs, during which they never get to eat (!), but do manage to have myriad amorous adventures while in pursuit of food.
To give you an idea of how things worked out, I just went through the manuscript looking for a sex scene and found the first one–a really innocent little thing–on page 58. The most graphic and sensual scene in the book takes place in the produce department of a large supermarket somewhere in Boston and involves more avocados and strawberries than snow-white bosoms. The orgy in the Royal Welcome Motel gets interrupted first when a leg caught in a TV stand causes a sexual domino effect and second when a crucial double-crostic clue (quim) comes up in, er, conversation. There is one entire chapter of insulting names you can call a man who is harassing you, ranging from panty prodder and beetleballs to fallen prick and rubbersucker to the F word preceded by a variety of word parts such as liver. At one point, after an interlude with a beautiful photographer, Forest finds a lens cap–instead of a diaphragm– in her little blue plastic case and begins a search for a man with a vasectomy. Then . . . well, anyway, we thought it was hilarious and laughed ourselves sick during every writing session. As usual when it came to publishing matters, we sent it to Ralph. He was completely baffled by it and said he couldn’t imagine that anyone would ever want to publish it. Under any circumstances. Whatsoever.
So we were twiddling our thumbs when my brother Paul got tired of listening to his girlfriend Jan complain that she couldn’t find any good free-lancers for a project she was directing at SRA, an educational publisher who then had their offices in Chicago.
“Call my sister. She can write anything.” With that suggestion my brother Paul launched my career as a hack. Jan did call me and, the next day, I went to her office. After walking through the somewhat intimidating rows of cubicles with serious-looking people working, I found her. She looked a little worn around the edges. When another editor screwed up, Jan had been given a two-year project with six months left before deadline and nothing done. And she is a person who has never learned the meaning of “good enough for government work.” When she does a project, she does it right.
I received my first assignment. I was to write a three-character, fifteen-minute audio script teaching the skill “main idea, paragraph.” Jan gave me the lesson material for the skill and was very clear about one thing; she wanted nothing corny, no “your library card is your ticket to adventure.” She wanted stuff that actual children would actually like. Basically, she wanted Rocky and Bullwinkle, and if she didn’t get something in that ballpark then, Paul’s sister or not, I would not get the job.
I knew at once that this would be a lot more fun if I did it with Andra, so I roped her in. It turned out that our skills were much better suited to nine-year-olds than to “adults.” We goofed around, created a silly plot and three silly characters, one of whom never seemed to “get it,” wrote a script and took it to Jan the following day.
Through the cubicles again. We found Jan and I introduced Andra. We pulled up a couple of chairs and handed over our script. Then we sat there as she read it. Right away, she smiled. We were relieved. Pretty soon, she was laughing out loud. We were thrilled. She giggled and guffawed and all but slapped her thigh. We were hers. In that moment, we developed complete loyalty to Jan and would gladly have jumped out the third-story window behind her if she’d asked us to.
She almost did. Or at any rate, what she asked was almost as perilous. She had forty-eight of these scripts to write and, in months of looking, she had found not one writer who could give her what she wanted. Another person on the staff there, Judy Scroggins, was working with Jan, and the two of them had written a handful of scripts. But they were also writing lessons and lesson plans and doing scope and sequence charts. So Andra and I were going to be writing thirty-some-odd scripts in a few weeks. It was an emergency.
Andra and I started writing as fast as we could and that was pretty damned fast, but it wasn’t fast enough. There was the delay while we brought the material in to SRA and while we got home with our new assignments. Without e-mail or fax machines, hours and even days were being wasted in transit, especially since we were taking the CTA. After little more than a week, Jan talked to the higher-ups at SRA and made some arrangements.
Suddenly, Andra and I were installed in a conference room. Each day we went down to SRA’s loop offices and stayed in that room all day long, leaving only to walk a finished script down the hall to Jan and pick up another assignment. Jan and Judy had a huge chart on the wall where they kept track not only of skills and objectives but of the ages, genders and ethnic backgrounds of all the characters. When they handed over each assignment, they let us know where the gaps were and we tried to fill them, while also coming up with outlandish situations and running gags.
Because of the pace–and the ever-present and apparently never-ending breakup with James–I developed seborrheic dermatitis. Dandruff of the skin. My face started peeling off in great hunks, and I was soon scaring young children in the streets.
Jan arranged for SRA to supply us with sandwiches for lunch and all the apple cider and M&Ms we could consume. Once, an editor came to the door of our conference room and informed us we needed to leave. She had a meeting scheduled there. We told her to go talk to Jan and went on with our script. She came back a little later, deeply apologetic, practically bowing and scraping. That’s what happens when a project worth hundreds of thousands is on the line and you’re the only ones who can do the job to the satisfaction of the project director. It was a great introduction to the work I would be doing from then on. A great but deceptive introduction.
Since I was usually the one scribbling the words we were coming up with (and I do mean scribbling. Someone else typed the scripts for us!), Andra had to find ways to occupy her hands. As Halloween neared, she brought in a pumpkin and carved it while we wrote. When the fine, fierce face was completed, she popped in a candle and lit it. We both thought of the sprinkler system at the same moment and leaped across the table to extinguish the candle just in time. Desperate as SRA was, they probably would have drawn the line at our flooding the conference room.
We kept churning out scripts, sometimes at the rate of four a day, until the project was finished. When the last script was done, and the first results from the consultants who were reviewing the product were in, it turned out that we were a hit, a huge, honking hit. Jan, Judy, Andra and I had pulled it off, and the higher-ups were appropriately impressed.
So Jan went to her bosses one more time and got expense account approval for a celebration dinner. She took the team out to a very fancy restaurant on Rush Street, and we ordered anything and everything we wanted, including rather a lot of champagne. During the course of our work, both writing teams had produced scripts featuring rubber chickens, which ought to give you some idea of the level of humor we were dealing with. The night of the celebration Jan and Judy presented Andra and me with a rubber chicken as a reward for our efforts.
As we wove our way down Rush Street among the night owls and the tourists under the glow of neon signs, one of us–and I don’t want to be accusatory, but I honestly think it was Andra–started whacking the others of us with the rubber chicken. As a middle-aged couple passed, we heard the woman say, “Roger, that woman is hitting people with a duck.” We all considered that to be just about the funniest thing we had ever heard.
When Jan drove up to our apartment building, we and the rubber chicken got out and went up the stairs of our building only to find that someone had redecorated the lobby and changed the lock. After discussing this remarkable situation for a moment, we went back downstairs and walked next door, where we actually lived.