The Story Behind THE PANDORA PLAGUE

By Lee A. Matthias



Story Behind The Pandora PlagueThe story behind this book began when, in my senior year in high school, just before graduation, standing at my locker, I was approached by a classmate, Dan Guenzel, about a feature film he wanted to produce and direct. Amazingly, he wanted to make a film—this was before video was commonly used in amateur film-making—of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous Sherlock Holmes novel, "The Hound of the Baskervilles." Even more amazing, he asked me if I would be interested in playing Dr. Watson. Since I had never acted before, this was, for me, unprecedented.

I thought for a moment and then said I couldn’t act, but "was there something else I might do on the project?" And so began a two+ year odyssey into movie production. Ultimately it was unsuccessful, but we shot our 16mm epic all over southeast Wisconsin: old train stations, an English restaurant, a Victorian-styled living room, various streets in the city that still looked like the 19th century, the Milwaukee Public Museum’s Streets in Old Milwaukee exhibit, and many days and nights on an old farm in Wisconsin’s scenic Kettle Moraine which served as our English moor location.

I was enlisted as the production’s "art director," responsible for props, locations, and set dressing, not-to-mention holder of the boom-mic, all-purpose equipment grip, occasional wiring-gaffer, and cast chauffeur. I painted signs, collected props, and haunted re-sale shops looking for the ever-elusive Victorian hand-me-down that somehow managed to miss the high-priced antique store. I even became a kind of informal Foley artist (sound effects creator) when I used to fake mosquito sounds in the microphone so that the headphone-wearing sound man, believing he was about to be bitten, would start swatting the imaginary pests. My career in comedy even extended to scaring the actresses at night, out on the "moor," by impersonating a carnivorous wild cow, charging at them out of the darkness! At a train station location at which we were shooting I wrote 19th century "graffiti" on the walls: "Wiggy loves Sidney." Oh, we were wild and crazy by this time, fully aware that a bunch of pimply, red-cheeked eighteen year-olds could never pull off impersonating middle-aged Englishmen, but relishing in the adventure of it, anyway.

Once, on some city streets for which we had secured a permit to block traffic and had re-dressed with signs, gas lamps, horse-drawn wagon, and other touches, we had gained permission to open a hydrant to flood the cobblestone street so that the stones would stand out in the shot. The fire department had given me a wrench to open the hydrant, and so, with permit in-hand, I let the water pour forth. Within minutes five fire trucks appeared on the scene. It happened that the drop in pressure set off alarms in the building alongside the street, and they were automatically alerted. But our permits were in order, so we were allowed to continue.

I became interested in how Dan had come up with the script for his film, and learned that he essentially transcribed the book, almost word-for-word, into his own version of a screenplay. It was a bit too long as true screenplays go, and the dialogue had too many speeches that went several pages each, as straight transcriptions from the 19th century source would have. But what did I know? I decided to take a stab at it myself, and chose another Holmes novel, "The Sign of the Four," to see how it would work. This one moved better. It was shorter, essentially one long chase. It taught me how to begin to think in terms of screenwriting and storytelling. I never intended to shoot it, but one could hope.

I went on to do some writing and even acting for two radio shows at the university through which I was aimlessly slogging without serious major. Eventually my direction became film, and I garnered a B.A. Another friend, magician and illusionist, David Seebach (who played Stapleton in our Baskerville film), was the entertainment at a resort in the north woods each summer. He used to while away the off-hours in various ways, including video film-making, but also in writing. He wrote two short Sherlock Holmes pastiches set in the woods and sent them to me. I thought they were pretty darn good, having captured the Doyle style quite well. This lodged in my memory.

Around this time, also, Nicholas Meyer brought out his book, "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution," an amazing Holmes story, purportedly a re-discovered "lost" tale by Watson. Its premise was that—spoilers ahead—the evil Professor Moriarty was, in fact, nothing of the sort. Instead, he was Sherlock Holmes’s childhood mathematics tutor, and he had had an affair with Holmes’s mother. Not only that, but the two were caught "in flagrante delicto" by Holmes’s father, who then murdered his wife, Holmes’s mother. These events—revealed at the end—so shocked and disturbed Sherlock that he first withdrew and blocked them from his mind, and then, eventually, he resorted to drug use, becoming addicted. In the process, in his mind, he assigned the greatest evil to Professor Moriarty, who became his nemesis, but was, in fact, harmless. So, Watson, unaware of the reasons behind it, but alarmed at Holmes’s drug-use, tricks Holmes into going to Vienna in pursuit of Moriarty—whom Watson enlisted for the purpose—whereupon he is cured by Sigmund Freud—something Freud had actually done for himself previously. While there, they fall into an adventure—quite obviously tacked on to fill out the otherwise too short novel. But the brilliance and originality (to some; many Sherlockians vilified it) of the rest of the tale was such that some of us forgive the book this lapse.

Meyer went on to write two more Holmes tales, "The West End Horror," somewhat in the mold of "The Sign of the Four," and, nearly twenty years later, a direct sequel to the first book: "The Canary Trainer." This third book aspired to the first book’s brilliance, as it told its story not in Watson’s, but in Holmes’s voice. It followed in time the events of the first novel. At the end of that book, Holmes, now cured of the addiction, but seriously exhausted by it all, chooses to go on what became in the original tales (after he "defeats" Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls in Doyle’s "fictional" version) the "Great Hiatus." This was a period of three years (1891-94) of wandering before he returned to England and resumed his detective consultancy. But what made the book stand out is that Meyer chose to have Holmes go to France and join the Paris Opera, newly hired as Third Chair Violinist. Here he was in a ring-side seat for the events that became Gaston Leroux’s novel, "The Phantom of the Opera." So what we have is the "real" story of Leroux's "fictional" tale. Despite some stretches of the known facts surrounding Holmes’s playing ability, and the dates Leroux suggested as to when the Phantom operated, this was still great reading, great fun.

So, amid more than a decade-long resurgence of the mystery story—Billy Wilder's THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, Roman Polanski's CHINATOWN, various Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler adaptations, and others of the type—this is the atmosphere within which I found myself by the late 1970’s. I had, by then, read widely in the genre, and I was thinking about telling stories and making films. My friend, the magician, continued to advance in his career, performing all around the country and later beyond. Somewhere around this time, I had a collision of thoughts in which, while reading a Holmes story at the same time that I had been researching old magicians for a documentary film I wanted to make, I wondered what might have occurred had Sherlock Holmes ever met Harry Houdini. As I will thoroughly examine in my forthcoming book, "Lateral Screenwriting: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Write the Great American Movie," this was the result of a kind of laterally-based creative mechanism that I believe is responsible for most or all of creativity (and which one can cultivate and develop so that it can be employed "on-demand"). I was seized by the thought of this combination of two characters, one real and one fictional. It was akin to Meyer’s pairing of Holmes and Freud, but with an energy and milieu—the world of magic—that offered richer visual possibilities. It had much greater dramatic potential—no "additional" adventure need be tacked on as in the Meyer book. It seemed to me that it couldn’t miss to find a willing reader, perhaps eventually a willing movie audience.

My magician friend, David, had been booked in upstate New York for several small shows that meant that he would not be traveling with his usual company of assistants and props. He asked if I wanted to come along, just for the fun of it. I agreed, and as we headed down the Interstate, east of Chicago, I began to describe my idea. Soon we were crafting what became the basis for the beginning of the story. Along the way, we stopped in Cleveland and elsewhere to get research materials: books on Houdini and the world of Sherlock Holmes.

Later David dropped out of the process, attending to his performing career. But I stayed with it. I set myself a plan to figure out how to write a novel, and I immersed myself in the details of my subject’s time. I re-read the Holmes stories and dozens of other books, building a vast file related to it all, and jotting ideas as they came. I began to outline my story on 4 x 6 index cards, but by the fortieth card, the outline had transformed into pure narrative. Since I didn’t believe I could sustain the narrative and would eventually fall back into outlining, I stayed with writing it on the cards. The stack grew to hundreds and hundreds of cards. Eventually I had a complete novel-length story, entirely hand-written on index cards! All that was left to do before typing it up was to fix the opening (that part was still in outline format). So, that done, I then transcribed the cards via typewriter—PCs were just appearing at that time—and I ended up with a first draft novel almost three hundred pages in manuscript. Then I re-wrote it, adding to it and fixing it, so that it became almost four hundred pages. Finally, I produced a third draft, and it became the final product. It took 18 months from that first day driving to New York until it was a novel in final draft.

I knew I needed an agent or publisher, but how could I get either? This process took longer than the writing (in fact, another two full years). Eventually I found an agent (who lived less than two miles from my house!). He found a publisher—a paperback house in New York—and they offered a small advance. Another year of waiting. Then, one day, a box of author copies arrived at my house. The book was shipping! I was written up in the local paper, and even spoke before the local chapter of The Baker Street Irregulars: THE Holmes enthusiast’s group. Six weeks after the "pub date," disaster! The publisher announced it would be filing for bankruptcy and offered me my rights back. I accepted, but, of course, the book’s prospects were shattered. No publisher would want a "used" book. The initial shipment sold its copies, and that was the end of it. Ironically, they never actually went bankrupt, but were instead rescued by the CEO and re-organized into an exclusively romance publisher. Ironically, only four years later they published John Lescroat's "Son of Holmes," one of that bestselling author's earliest books.

I moved on to writing screenplays, producing five or six in succession over the next few years. I had, by then, studied the form and learned the format, such that two of these works went on to achieve some small success in national competitions. I attended screenwriting conferences, and eventually became a literary agent, at the suggestion of my own agent, the late Ray Peekner, who had originally sold my novel. Then I was contacted by a small, regional publisher who desired to publish the book—they heard about it from Ray—and I accepted. But without significant distribution, that effort failed to get the book out in any significant force.

I continued to write and represent other writers. I built a pretty fair client-base as an agent, and had several successes along the way. I had more than one client book sell for mid-six figure advances, and I sold a few of my clients' scripts to studios. But the business was changing, consolidating through numerous mergers, and the economics of the literary property scene was making it prohibitive to sell new authors’ books if one wasn’t in New York City, and similarly difficult to sell scripts if one wasn’t in Los Angeles. I tired of the effort of pitching other writers’ works, and chose instead to re-double efforts at writing my own stories. And to ensure my family’s stability—I was by now married and the father of two daughters—following the example of Madonna and David Bowie, I re-invented myself. In my case, it was as a computer network administrator, rather than a new incarnation of pop-star.

Some years into this new career, I noticed that there was a new player on the publishing scene called "Print-On-Demand." Computer-based, and storing its stock digitally, it had succeeded in re-writing the incredibly archaic business practice wherein publishers warehoused thousands upon thousands of copies of books on which they had paid out huge advances, solely on the chance that they might be best-sellers, and received vast shipments of the inevitable failures as returns from the booksellers, only to then be re-warehoused, or sold to re-sellers for pennies on the dollar. All this paper-movement, climate-controlled storage, and selling at a loss added up to a great deal of expense, an all too unnecessary expense. It has brought traditional publishing to the point that it is very nearly a failing business model. Its steep costs push the industry always to look for the huge-selling title and author brand-name. Anything less is considered a guaranteed loss. Even the bestsellers are over-produced and fill up warehouses until they, too, are "remaindered," and sold from bookstore sale tables.

Unlike traditional publishing where books have at best a year to find their readers or go out of print, Print-On-Demand allows a book to stay in print essentially forever. Titles still have to find readers, but if they need to take years to do it, they can. There is no warehousing unless the term means on a server somewhere. There is no shipping to and from, unless it is to a willing buyer, hot off a press oftentimes that very same day. There is no "remaindering" unless it is by a "used" bookstore to a happy buyer at 50% or less of a retail price that was also paid for it the first time around. In the face of such technology, traditional publishing is starting to go the way of the Dodo bird. And it is opening the gates to all manner of writing with a cost structure that essentially prevents loss even for a book that hardly sells a copy. Could things get more egalitarian? There will still be hugely popular writers writing blockbusters and being offered enormous advances. But there will be a place for the little guys, too. And some of them will also find their way to the top. So traditional publishing will eventually have no alternative but to replicate the Print-On-Demand model.

When I began to think of re-publishing my book, I looked around at the choices and began working with a different publisher than the one with which I ended up. The reason I switched was, the same as that for the "Real Estate rule": three-fold: A. distribution; 2. Distribution; and, III. DISTRIBUTION! With the first publisher, I completely prepared the print-ready file of the book—which took literally months because of the first publisher’s persnickety beta software. Then I decided to figure out what price they could put on it. It turned out that after one purchased the additional ISBN (International Standard Book Number) so that it could sell anywhere beyond the publisher’s own obscure little online house-bookstore, it would have to be priced at double to triple the going rate of books of like subject. This was unacceptable. Then I looked at BookSurge. They had been started by writers, but were now owned by Amazon.com. And the ISBN was part of the basic price. This meant, after I ran the numbers, that I could sell it for almost exactly the going rate, and everywhere, not just the publisher’s internal online bookstore. I could also sell it at the publisher’s other online bookstore, Amazon.com! To top it, the royalties were far above traditional publishing. Why? Because that little element, publisher-risk, had been eliminated: no excess production; no warehousing; no excess shipping; no selling at a loss.

The only considerations were that, to keep my costs with the publisher to a minimum I had to take a pretty hands-on, do-it-yourself approach. But it can be done, as you can see by the result. I created that cover with the artistic help of an artist friend and my daughter. The parchment effect is a scan of a piece of typing paper we soaked in coffee grounds and then baked for twenty minutes. We tore the edges and then singed them with a candle. The drawing was laid over the image of the scan. My brother-in-law helped me run his copy of Adobe Photoshop to prepare the cover file. I learned how to use a friend’s installation of Adobe Acrobat to produce the text file from my original Microsoft Word document. Oh, and I popped for an additional $75 to get a Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN), a necessary thing to help get the book into libraries.

So, here we are with edition number three. The third time’s the charm. I surveyed the scene and chose BookSurge because it offered to bring my book to market for an amazingly modest cost of only $300. And what a market! Only the largest bookseller on the planet, Amazon.com. Oh, it is available elsewhere: other online sellers, and even your neighborhood bookstore can stock copies. But the real strength is that everyone’s risk has been removed from the equation. Print-On-Demand is re-defining the path writers are taking to reach readers. I did not write my book because of lunches with editors or market research produced by consultants. I wrote it to tell myself a story. And I sent it out into the world because I wanted to tell it to you.

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Inquiries to Lee A. Matthias: LateralTao@gmail.com