Science friction

Dallas author Patricia Anthony's sci-fi caught Hollywood's interest. But her decision to chuck the whole genre caught New York's wrath.

Preparation for the last prompts a warning from Anthony as she putters around the kitchen of her small townhouse in far North Dallas, concocting a glass of iced tea for her guest that includes homegrown herbs such as lemon verbena and thyme. "Don't get nervous about the reading material in the bathroom," she cautions. "All those books on the art of poisoning are just research."

All this stressful idleness does not pay the bills. If Anthony sells Mercy's Children to another publisher, she will have to give back the advance money Ace paid her. Not immediately, but eventually. For now, that money is helping her live while she's between publishing houses.

"I'm facing financial disaster," Anthony admits, wearily.
A source of income might--might--come Anthony's way in September. That's when James Cameron's option on Brother Termite must be renewed, or else the project will be dropped. While it's impossible to predict Hollywood decision-making through tea leaves, goat entrails, or any reliable standards of logic, there are some good signs from Cameron. After his initial 18-month option ended, he picked it up for another six months. And his company, Lightstorm Entertainment, has ponied up $30,000 to reserve the rights; average option payments are closer to $5,000. And in February, Lone Star director John Sayles, who was chosen to write the script because of his satirical skills with such genre exercises as Brother From Another Planet and The Howling, completed a final draft of the screenplay.

"I've read in different sites on the Internet that Cameron is pursuing David Cronenberg to direct," Anthony says. "But we haven't heard a peep from Lightstorm about that. I can't confirm it."

Calls to some guy named Tom (no last names, no direct extensions, please) at Lightstorm in California, and to the offices of co-president Rae Sanchini, were not returned.

Anthony can confirm that after a short telephone conversation, John Sayles sent her an early version of the script. "To my shock, he kept the ending," she says of the first draft. "He enlarged the role of a minor character. He included a satirical bit about Reen, the lead alien, getting his own show and a little merchandised Reen doll that squeaks when you squeeze it."

Anthony says she doesn't like to think about a possible film version of Brother Termite, or the fact that the development people at Disney have called and expressed an interest in Flanders. "My daughter lives in France, and a friend of hers over there says he read an interview with James Cameron in which Cameron said his next project would be about an alien. Based on what I know about what's on his plate, it seems likely that could be my alien."

She pauses. This kind of guessing game amounts to self-flagellation during this long, long wait.

The fact is, if Cameron does bring Brother Termite to America's multiplexes, it will be a bittersweet victory. On the one hand, it will mean a nice chunk of money for her through increased book sales, probably for her entire paperback line at Ace. And that will mean increased visibility for the science fiction that Patricia Anthony has written. But would the fans who are introduced to her writing via James Cameron head straight for Mercy's Children? Not unless they're willing to pull aside Bruce Sterling's slipstream "iron curtain of category marketing."

Don Maas, whose agency has been selling fiction in New York for 18 years, outlines the dilemma he currently faces in shopping around Anthony's gigantic manuscript. Needless to say, all reluctance an editor experiences originates a few offices down the hall, in the marketing department.

"Think of the way most bookstores are arranged," he says. "Fiction is not available in one place. There are usually four different categories--sci-fi/fantasy, romance, mystery, and what's called either general fiction or fiction and literature. An author who starts out in the sci-fi section can build a readership much quicker, because the readers who go to those shelves not only pick up their favorite authors, but they're willing to try different ones. They're interested in certain broad subjects or themes.

"Meanwhile, general fiction readers are brand-loyal, or author-loyal, if you will. They stick to a certain name, and they aren't likely to try a wide variety of authors. Seeing an author on the bestseller list, or hearing that they've won a Pulitzer, helps a lot. Patricia Anthony will be winning major literary awards, but we need time. When Patricia leaves the sci-fi shelf, she'll leave readers behind. And readers who don't read science fiction and aren't familiar with the quality of her work will just see a name on the jacket."

In addition, publishing houses might be a bit reluctant to sign an author who comes with a 700-page book attached to her--much less a 700-page historical novel told through the voice of a horny angel who speaks in heavy dialect. Publishers would be forced to sell such a gargantuan book for at least $30; not only would Mercy's Children cost a lot to sell, but it would cost a fortune just to produce.

"My reputation in this town means that I can call any editor at any house and be guaranteed that they'll at least read Mercy's Children," Maas says with the breezy chutzpah of a New York agent. "And that's one big hurdle overcome, because once they get past page one, they'll see that it's very humorous and easy to read. It's a wonderful, accessible novel...

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