A WRITER’S START, PART 1: YOUNG ADULT FICTION & MORE!

Professional writer’s get their start in a variety of ways and for yours truly, author of Lee Marvin Point Blank,  it actually began with the genre of young adult fiction and later non-fiction. As noted in a previous blog, I was working as a waiter when I met Mike Miller of Miller Educational Material. He took note of my past experience writing for local newspaper and decided to hire me on to work on his company’s catalog. In short order, one catalog became two and then two became three when he decided to branch out into publishing his own short fiction for the young adult market.

THE COOLR KING, published 2001 by Artesian Press.

My first was The Cooler King, described in the company catalog (also by yours truly): “Marty Berger had been terrorized by Ricky Hyde for as long as he could remember. Even worse, Theresa was watching as Ricky challenged Marty to a fight. All Marty really wanted to do was just watch old movies on his VCR. Why couldn’t he be cool like his hero, Steve McQueen? With the help of a little man and a magical videotape, Marty gets more than he bargained for…he gets the late, great Steve McQueen! Can the original “Cooler King” help Marty face Ricky Hyde?”

The subject of the young adult fiction was my own, with publisher Mike Miller’s approval and artwork by his former Disney artist wife, Fujiko. It was one in a series of five short books published by his Artesian Press, the small company’s newly formed publishing division.

FANTASY TEACHER’S RESOURCE GUIDE written by, me, Dwayne Epstein!

In fact, each of the various series put out by Artesian Press required a resource guide, all written by yours truly. They included Horror and Romance Resource Guides, also.

Speaking of horror,
I was also offered to write one of those in the series, as well, entitled From The Eye of the Cat...

FROM THE EYE OF THE CAT, published 2002 by Artesian Press. .

As summarized in the catalog, written by your humble narrator:
“Saturday was Ernie’s favorite day of the week because he got to play in the fields with his friends. Lately, the’ve been spending more time taunting the neighborhood cats. They’ve even taken to calling themselves the Cat Stalkers. Ernie would rather just play army. Then, one morning, he woke up to a living nightmare. Somehow, he became a cat himself. Now he must survive in this frightening new world he sees from the eye of a cat.”
Granted it’s not Hemingway but it did fit within the requirements of the company’s guidelines of young adult fiction subject matter and, most important of all, the reading level dictated by schools nationwide. Sales were decent and some name authors in the field contributed to the various series via Mike Miller’s persistence. I found myself on the receiving end of a promotion, a small staff that I had hired and of course, more responsibility. This included help editing all the titles and, on occasion, adding to the series, such as my entry into (gulp!) the Romance Series entitled Connie’s Secret:

CONNIE’S SECRET, published 2003.

“Shy Connie Martinez has a secret for doing well on school tests. Class clown Jerry Gordon has a secret to being popular. Even though she’s not sure of his reasons, Connie and Jerry agree to share their secrets. Will romance blossom for the mismatched pair?”

In several instances, I was required to do something more. Take for example another title, this time in The Ancient Egyptian Mysteries Series called The Great Pyramid.
“The Oldest and greatest “Wonder of the World” stands silently and demands explanation — how and why? The Great Pyramid of Khufu is so big, so old, and so beautiful that many can’t believe it was built by an ancient people…but it was! And that is the greatest mystery of all — the mystery of the this great people; their organization, enthusiasm, and genius.”

There was yet another mystery which had nothing to do with the pyramids but the actual author of the title. The credited author was a friend of the publisher but the resulting manuscript he turned in left much to be desired in terms of readability. Now I can solve that mystery: I rewrote the entire thing!
As Johnny Carson used to say, more to come!

THE GREAT PYRAMID published in 2004.

 

 

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THE COOLER KING: MY FIRST PUBLISHED BOOK

The Cooler King, nice name for a debut book, isn’t it? Well about 13 years before Lee Marvin Point Blank saw the light of day, that’s exactly what it was. However, my tale of publication is not typical of most published authors.

The cover of my first book, THE COOLER KING, a young adult novel written for the ESL market.

Although, truth be told, I don’t really know what is typical. That aside, I don’t know of anyone who ever got published by virtue of being a waiter.
I used to work as a waiter in Orange County in the early 90s and like most decent waiters, I had a few regular customers. One such regular was a tall, thin, amiable middle-aged man named Mike Miller. He ran his own educational material company and came in once a week for a lunch of jambalaya and a tall ice tea. All these years later and I still remember. Geez! Anyway, He was affable and fun and we also enjoyed each other’s conversation. When he spoke of his work, which was located nearby, he bemoaned his inability to find someone who can complete a decent sentence for his regular catalog production. When I told him I used to write for a newspaper, he gave me a copy of his previous catalog to proofread. I gave the proofed copy back the next time I saw him, he perused my corrections and asked me if I’d like to join his staff as an editor. Simple as that. Talk about being at the right place at the right time! By the way, I found out much later that I was only person who saw the catalog and corrected the fact that Robert Louis Stevenson did NOT write Moby Dick (!)
Anyway, my tenure at Miller Education Materials was a fun one as I began to move up the company’s ladder, eventually becoming production manager and hiring and overseeing small office staff as the company grew to include a publishing arm, Artesian Press. Pretty heady stuff for a guy who never finished college! Through it all was Mike Miller, who allowed me to pick his brain, encouraged my writing, laughed a lot and gave me my first writing credit as an author. He asked for an idea, I gave it to him and he published it! Also resulted in an audio cassette version…remember those?

Audio cassette of THE COOLER KING

It may seem a stretch but there never would have been Lee Marvin Point Blank had there not been a Mike Miller and THE COOLER KING first. I miss them both.

The last time I saw my old boss, Mike Miller, was at a book signing I did at the Long Beach Barnes & Noble. A year later he died of a brain tumor. I sure do miss him.

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MEMORIES OF MIKE ‘THE MENSCH’ HAMILBURG

Mike Hamilburg
Well, the clouds have cleared, at least enough for me to write a little of what I had intended to write, earlier. Mike Hamilburg’s memorial is this weekend and I thought it a good time to relate what it was that made him so amazing, at least to me, anyway.
I first met Mike in the late 1990s when my efforts to get a publisher for Lee Marvin Point Blank were beginning to become extremely frustrating. I had already gone through two other not-so-competent agents and was submitting my proposal to major publishers on my own. NOT something I would suggest to any fledgling author plying their wares. The result invariably meant unread returned submissions stamped, “We do not accept unsolicited material.” Sigh.
At the time I was working as an assistant editor at Long Beach’s Jewish Community Chronicle under the auspices of one of the best editors I’ve ever worked with, Harriette Ellis. I learned much under her tutelage but just as impressive was her surprising connections. Sensing my frustration, she decided to contact her nephew, Harold Myerson, who at the time was managing editor at The L.A. Weekly. When he and I spoke he told me the best agent he knew of was Mike Hamilburg and proceeded to put us in contact with each other. Keep in mind, this was before the days of Google searches, so I had no real way to know anything about Mike. My frustration grew but I sent him my proposal, anyway. What could I lose?
After he read it, I came to his office on Wilshire Blvd to discuss the proposal. The outer office was occupied by his secretary, Joanie, who led me into Mike’s office. There was no wood paneling or fancy furniture: just a simple work station set-up with Mike behind a series of desks to do just that, work. We exchanged pleasantries while I drank in one of the most impressive images I’ve ever seen.

Poster to the shamefully underrated film, THE YAKUZA -- which Mike Hamilburg produced -- and of which he had a copy of behind his desk in his Whilshire Blvd. office.

Poster to the shamefully underrated film, THE YAKUZA — which Mike Hamilburg produced — and of which he had a copy of behind his desk in his Whilshire Blvd. office.

Behind him, on the wall, was a massive mural-like poster of one of my favorite underrated 70s films, The Yakuza. I took great comfort in that and asked Mike if he was fan. “Fan? No, I co-produced it,” he off-handedly responded. I was now even more impressed! When I told him how much I always like the film, he jokingly muttered, “Oh, you’re the one.” By the way, over time I would ask Mike about the film, to gain some inside info on its production and he would offer such comments as, “My main responsibilty was to keep Robert Mitchum sober….and I really didn’t do a a very good job.”
We got down to business almost immediately which I found not only refreshing but quite amazing. Following a brief a discussion, he picked up the phone and right in front of me started talking to various acquistion editors to see if they’d be interested in my proposal. Then, he asked me how many copies can I get to him to send out. This guy was constantly amazing me from moment to moment. I asked him if the proposal needed any tweaking or punching up, as I had only written it based on some ‘How-to’ books I had come across. He reached in his desk drawer, rifled through some pages inside, pulled out several previous proposals from his clients and said, “Here, study these to get a sense of what works best.” I took them, shook his hand and drove home.
Those proposals? Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer-Prize winning Team Of Rivals, which later became the basis of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012); Robert Butler’s The White Mile (1994), which Hamilburg co-produced as a TV-movie starring Alan Alda; Virginia Morell’s Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind’s Beginnings (1995), which became a TV documentary. Pretty heady stuff!

The movie tie-in cover of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, the proposal of which Mike Hamilburg lent me to write LEE MARVIN POINT BLANK.

The movie tie-in cover of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, the proposal of which Mike Hamilburg lent me to write LEE MARVIN POINT BLANK.

 

 

Robert Butler's non-fiction thriller, WHITE MILE, co-produced for TV by Mike Hamilburg.

Robert Butler’s non-fiction thriller, WHITE MILE, co-produced for TV by Mike Hamilburg.

The result, after carefully going over these wonderful examples, was a much better proposal of Lee Marvin: Point Blank. I then personally returned the samples to Mike by hand, which impressed him no end. From that moment on, we trusted and liked each other unconditionally.
Unlike my previous agents, who always seemed exasperated when I called to check in on any progress, Mike called ME on a regular basis. At one point, a young editor at Penguin named Hillery Borton was extremely enthused with the proposal and Mike put me in direct contact with her. Unfortunately, as enthusiastic as she was, when she put the idea before her editorial board, the answer was the same as previous publishers: Nobody is interested in a bio on a long dead film star.  A very small publisher offered an even smaller advance and on Mike’s advice (“Might as well take it and get the damned thing published….My percentage will be a free copy of the book.”), I begrdugingly took the offer.
Time passed, my parents’ health began to deterioate and I was ‘volunteered’ to deal with their mounting issues. In the interim, on my girlfriend Barbara’s very wise advice, I returned the paltry advance to the publisher in hopes of reconnecting with Hamilburg sometime in the future.
Okay, flash forward a few years. After dealing with the nightmare of my parents’ demise — my dad of Alzeheimer’s in 2005 and my mom from heart disease in 2008 — I gambled on Mike Hamilburg still being in business, or at the very least, still alive and willing to offer some help. Turns out, he was very much alive, semi-retired and most amazing of all, STILL willing to pitch my Lee Marvin bio. A lot more tweaking followed and since Mike never believed in contracts with his clients, at least not with me anyway, I asked him in an e-mail if he’d be willing to go on record as my agent……

Mike's e-mail response to my request of his officially being my agent.

Mike’s e-mail response to my request of his officially being my agent.

After several months of redrafting the proposal and then several get-togethers with Mike to discuss it at Early World, his favorite old-timey restaraunt, he launched a battle plan. Several offers came in, and in 2012, I signed the contract with Tim Schaffner of Schaffner Press. It was a little bumpy at first and pretty scary but Mike kept reassuring me during the process with such pearls of wisdom as, “I fully beleive that when the book comes out, Lee Marvin fans will come out from behind the curtain.”
I would like to write some more of Mike’s valuable insights but I’ve gone too long here, already. Suffice to say, as usual, Mike was right. In June of 2014 Lee Marvin: Point Blank was #4 on the e-book non-fiction New York Times Best Seller List, as well as #3 on The Wall Street Journal list and Publisher’s Weekly.
Mike Hamilburg. The rarest thing I’ve ever encountered. An honest agent. A perservering mentor. A good friend. More than just the last of his kind and the best of it. A true mensch.

At the Book Soup booksigning for LEE MARVIN: POINT BLANK, with Mike Hamilburg (right) on Sunset Blvd.

At the Book Soup booksigning for LEE MARVIN: POINT BLANK, with Mike Hamilburg (right) on Sunset Blvd.

 

 

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