Several times a week, my son’s nanny gives me the same
advice in her lilting Trinidadian: “Nina, why don’t you go on that show? You
could win a million dollars. I just have a feeling you could win it.” She’s
very superstitious, and when she says she has a feeling, it sometimes makes the
back of my neck prickle. I tell her I’ve never seen Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and that I probably couldn’t even
figure out how to get on it, let alone know the answers to Regis’ questions.
She sighs and shakes her head.
What I don’t tell her is that I have my own plan for winning
a million dollars. My own fantastic scheme, as it were. My friends would sniff
at a game-show million, but they could hardly smirk at the million I intend to
take home. If they are anything like me-and most of them are-they will barely
be able to contain their jealous rage.
I’m talking, of course, about the million-dollar book
No, I haven’t written the proposal yet. My last book wasn’t
a best seller. But I do expect to persuade some editor somewhere soon that I
deserve a million bucks up front. What keeps hope alive? I am personally
acquainted with three million-dollar authors (not counting Senator Hillary,
whom I will get to later).
I know there are many, many more lucky souls out there-but,
in brief, my personal role models:
Author No. 1 reportedly received $3 million for his memoir
about working in Bill Clinton’s White House as a young man. The money enabled
him to move luxuriously to New York and start a new career as a television
journalist. Seethe factor? On a scale of 1 to 10, probably 6 at the time,
declining to 3 now. His book fell into the category of books written by people
who have had weird things happen to them, or who have personally witnessed very
weird things. He is like the guy called “It” or the women who endured childhood
incest and alcoholic parents to become Oprah-vian survivors. Working in close
quarters with the President was, at least according to Author No. 1, the near
Author No. 2 reportedly got a million dollars up front for
his book about Silicon Valley. Seethe factor: 5. Author No. 2 was already rich,
and it just seemed so insanely unfair that he was adding to his pile. Last time
I saw him, he was happy and prosperous and wanting for little. He already had a best seller under his belt
straight out of college, plus fat magazine contracts from fawning editors. What
could he possibly do with another million dollars?
But Author No. 2 was sharp enough on the draw to write his
book about techno tycoons before the jig was up, and he did it, I am told, engagingly
(I don’t usually read nonfiction books about the accumulation of wealth-perhaps
I should start).
That brings me to Author No. 3, the 30-something journalist
who reportedly received a million-dollar advance for another book on the
techno-tycoon scene. Seethe factor: 10.
I first read about Author No. 3′s advance in a Toby Young
column in the New York Press . I had
met Author No. 3 in Washington when he was a rising star-a tall, geeky guy, one
of those people who suddenly and inexplicably everyone wanted to hire. I last
ran into him on a campaign phone bank. We chatted, and he told me that Wired was giving him something like
$4,000 a month to go out anywhere in America and cover the 1996 campaign “like
Hunter Thompson.” I congratulated him on getting a story in The New Yorker ‘s Talk of the Town
section, to which he replied, “Tina found me.” I took special note of his
agent’s name. The million-dollar advance was such a mind-boggling triumph of
agentry that I immediately fired off a fax to Andrew Wylie outlining my own
special talents and accomplishments. I haven’t heard back yet.
(As the seething few who follow this stuff now know, the
world might never read Author No. 3′s book. The sector of the American market
that snaps up books about how people get rich is moving on to Jack Welch and
the old economy, and Author No. 3 wasn’t done yet. Awww!)
Now onto Senator Hillary’s $8 million advance. Seethe
factor: 0. I don’t know if it’s Christmas, but I can’t work up a tickle of
annoyance over it. Like million-dollar Author No. 1, Mrs. Clinton lived the
weirdness of proximity to the President, but more intimately. She is also
deeply weird herself. That alone will probably make back Viacom’s money. I’m
not sure $8 million compensates her, anyway, for her sad marriage to a
faithless man and a ghastly public life lived in the grinding hunger for power.
Simon & Schuster supposedly expects Mrs. Clinton to
reveal her inner feelings during the Monica Lewinsky saga. Please. She’ll write
a boring, impersonal book packed with irritating, sanctimonious crap for the Oprah set, and maybe toss in some red
meat for the right-wing conspiracy to keep her base happy. Mrs. Clinton never wore her heart on her sleeve.
Now that she’s a Senator, who believes $8 million will draw it forth?
Right after I first moved to New York, I trekked up to the
23rd floor of Time to see if I could
persuade someone to give me another contract to help finance my transition to
the big city. The poodle-headed assistant managing editor was in no mood to be
wheedled by a non-member of the trust-fund set that afternoon. He told me he
needed real writers, not reporters, for Walter Isaacson’s new magazine. I
reminded him that I’d just written a book about to be published. Without
blinking an eye in his moon-shaped face, he replied, “A lot of bad books get
At Time Inc., they always tell employees not to take
anything personally-but, as I left, I felt a sort of rebirth. That assistant
managing editor, Jim Kelly, had just dealt me the classic welcome to New York:
the metaphorical sucker punch in the nose that says you are an insignificant
tick until proven otherwise. Walking down Sixth Avenue, blood drying on my suit
in the summer breeze, I of course knew with certainty that my career was now on
the rise. (I was soon literally socked in the jaw on Avenue A, a more corporal
welcome to New York and a possible subject for a future column.)
A lot of bad books do get published. Volumes of them. What
writers get paid is a mystical lottery of who they know, what weird stuff has
happened to them or the rich people they know (or how much of it they can
invent), and then how well they or someone else can sell the combination. The way these runes fall is possibly more
important than whether they can write. Some of them get $8 million up front.
Others only get a million dollars.
I fully expect to win it one of these days. I just have a