Where there's a Will

Will Clarke has a deal with a New York publisher and a Hollywood studio, and it only took him eight years to become an overnight success

On a steamy Sunday afternoon, Clarke, who turns 36 this month, sits in the very Lakewood area Starbucks where he wrote much of Lord Vishnu's Love Handles. The place is awash in noise--blender, cappuccino machine and chatting customers forming what feels like an impenetrable wall of sound.

"I like to have noise," Clarke says. "I like to have all this stuff going on around me...I got used to the nervousness of being around people. Trying to get it done quickly kind of fueled me. And the noise almost anesthetizes the part of my brain that's over-thinking things."

Today, though, he doesn't have his laptop with him. It has been replaced by his T-Mobile Sidekick, on which he takes phone calls, posts to his blog (www.booktourvirgin.com) and responds to e-mails from his editor at Simon & Schuster in New York or his agents (one for books, one for movies) or the screenwriter and director and producer trying to make Lord Vishnu for the big screen. At the moment, there is little time for writing a new book, not when the old one needs so much attention.

Clarke self-published both his novels, including The 
Worthy, pictured in its original MiddleFinger Press 
incarnation.
HDNet
Clarke self-published both his novels, including The Worthy, pictured in its original MiddleFinger Press incarnation.
Dallas-born director David Gordon Green wants to make his "mainstream comedy" debut with a film version of Lord Vishnu's Love Handles.
Dallas-born director David Gordon Green wants to make his "mainstream comedy" debut with a film version of Lord Vishnu's Love Handles.

It was exactly one year ago, in August 2004, that Clarke signed the papers with Simon & Schuster. At almost the same time the deal with Paramount was sealed. By then, he had resigned himself to a fate of self-publishing and selling his books through his own publishing company, MiddleFinger Press, which Clarke facetiously billed as "an imprint of the Freakishly Big Feet and Hands Media Empire." For years, no one would touch him. And then, in an instant, everyone wanted him.

"It was strange," Clarke says of that period, just 12 months ago. "It was a really exciting time. It was really cool."

That sounds awfully understated.

He grins.

"Yeah, well, I don't know how else to describe it," he says. "I would call my girlfriend, Michelle, and say, 'Guess what just happened today?' It was such out-of-the-blue, weird, extraordinary news that she would literally react to it with shock, like you were delivering all this bad news. She was like, 'Back up and start over, because this doesn't make any sense to me. What are you saying? I'm not processing this at all.' So I have to start way back at the beginning of Genesis and explain it to her, because it was such impossible news. Yeah, it was great. It was cool. It was a dream come true."

Behind Clarke, at this very moment, a guy is tap-tap-tapping away at his laptop, drinking his coffee, very likely writing his novel and dreaming of becoming the next Will Clarke. Even if he doesn't know it yet.


"Gone are the days when self-publishing was virtually synonymous with self-defeating."

--Former Publishers Weekly columnist Paul Nathan

On the Web site www.selfpublishinghalloffame.com, there is a list of more than 100 writers who published their own books when New York houses refused even to glance at their manuscripts. Some are well-known, most are modestly famous, a few are even superstars in houses without book shelves. There's Stewart Brand, whose The Whole Earth Catalog would become a perennial New York Times bestseller, as would the South Beach Diet books of Arthur Agaston, who was printing pamphlets before he began printing money. Amanda Brown could find no takers for her novel Legally Blonde, which eventually spawned two movies. The Prince of Tides author Pat Conroy had to publish his first book, as did the likes of L. Ron Hubbard, Ernest Hemingway, Deepak Chopra, Louis L'Amour and Waiting to Exhale's Terry McMillan. There is no shame in self-publishing. No money, either. But, still.

When Clarke began writing The Worthy in the mid-1990s, the notion of self-publishing never crossed his mind. He began his first novel because, far as he was concerned, he had no other choice. He'd just been fired from an ad agency, Joiner Rowland Serio, where he'd worked for six months. Turns out they didn't think he could write. So, naturally, he began writing a novel.

Fact is, back then the folks at Joiner Rowland Serio were probably right. Clarke didn't know the first thing about writing ad copy. Didn't study advertising at LSU--didn't study much, actually, except how to be a good ol' frat boy. Not that Clarke was primo fraternity material: His mom's pretty religious; his father has Parkinson's; and Clarke spent most of his childhood, all the way through high school, secretly writing and illustrating his own books, which he never showed to anybody because he figured it was "so not cool making these dorky books for myself all the time." In college, Clarke and his buddies used to get drunk and make prank phone calls that became long, involved narratives.

"Like, we would call Jimmy Swaggart's church and try to get the people to tell us exactly what Jimmy Swaggart did with a prostitute in a limo, 'cause we need to pray for his forgiveness so we can continue to give money," he recalls. "But we needed to know exactly what it was. These kind of ridiculous things. I just kind of moved that childhood storytelling into a more frat-boy-appropriate place."

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