October 4, 2019 § 9 Comments
By Wendy Fontaine
When the man who made Thor’s hammer asks if you want your book to be in the next Avengers movie, you say yes, even if your book is not yet a book.
In the summer of 2017, after querying more than forty literary agents about my memoir, Leaves in the Fall, I decided to stop and write something new. Querying had become a slow and frustrating process. Responses took weeks or months, and most of the replies went something like this: Your writing is lovely, but memoir isn’t selling right now.
In the meantime, I decided to write a novel. I’d never written a novel before, but my husband, James, who works as a computer playback engineer in film and television, was pr
eparing to leave our home in Los Angeles for a year-and-a-half to shoot back-to-back Avengers movies in a small town south of Atlanta, Georgia. We’d been apart before but never for that long, so the idea of starting a new project gave me something to focus on while he was away. I’d write the novel and care for our daughter, Angie, who was ten years old at the time.
Every day, after dropping her off at school, I carried a legal pad and three Ticonderoga black pencils into our bedroom and sat on the bed drafting the story – a murder mystery about a girl who falls from a lighthouse during a school field trip. With only a singular image in my head, I asked myself a lot of “what if” questions about the plot, the characters, the dilemma and its solution. Some days, the pages came easily. Most days, they came hard, with lots of scribbles in the margins. All my pencils lost their erasers.
I had nearly forgotten about the memoir queries when, one year later, while my husband was home during a break in filming, our friend Russell Bobbitt made his request. As a prop master for Marvel, he conceptualizes and creates all the moveable objects featured in the films, including Captain America’s shield and that famous hammer. The crew members of Marvel movies (or any movies, for that matter) amaze me. Their dedication to detail and authenticity is remarkable, from the dents on the blade of a sword to the handwritten Post-it notes on a character’s desk. Nothing is overlooked. For Avengers: Endgame, Russell needed to make a book for a scene with Gwyneth Paltrow. What if, he wondered, that book were my book? My memoir. The one not yet published.
Leaves in the Fall is about moving home to rural Maine with my daughter after discovering my first husband’s infidelity. She and I lived in a rented apartment with barely any furniture, both of us struggling with loss and grief. I juggled part-time, minimum-wage jobs and battled tantrums and potty training, then stayed up late studying for the graduate school entrance exam, hoping to find our way out of what would otherwise become a life of poverty. I tell people it’s Eat, Pray, Love but with food stamps and a toddler.
Russell is a talented man with a big heart. He often travels the world with his props to share them with disadvantaged youth and budding filmmakers. His idea shocked me with its kindness and its coolness. That he’d remembered I’d written a book made me feel like my work mattered. Sometimes, as writers, we toil away in our self-imposed solitude, forgetting that anyone cares.
Only one problem: my memoir was in manuscript form, unpublished, in literary agent limbo.
James and I went to work anyway. He designed and printed a glossy book jacket with my title and my name. I wrote the summary and a blurb for the back. I took the blurb from one of my beta-readers, from an email she’d sent after trading manuscripts. Then James and I wrapped the jacket around another book that was just the right weight and just the right size (actually two books, since property masters like to have multiples of everything). James went back to Georgia with both of my “books” in his suitcase. Leaves in the Fall was ready for its big Hollywood moment!
In the movie, Gwyneth’s character, Pepper Potts, sits on a couch with a book in her lap, a cup of tea and a candle by her side. Another character enters the room and asks, “Hey, whatchya reading?”
This is the part where I’d like to tell you she named the book’s title. That she held it up and plugged my work, and then every agent within cinematic earshot raised their eyebrows and googled me, eager to represent me and get my story published.
Pepper’s response: “A book about composting.”
In a way, she was right. The story is about composting – about breaking down one life and growing another. Her answer made me laugh, though, one more close-but-not-quite moment. You won’t see my book in her lap unless you are looking for it. Even then, you probably won’t find it. But it’s there, for a few fleeting seconds.
In thirty years of being a writer, I’ve published hundreds of news articles, personal essays, columns and short stories. Still, there’s nothing like seeing your name on a book, even if the book isn’t technically real. Today, the jacket sits in a golden frame over my writing desk as a source of inspiration and a reminder that anything is possible.
With my writing, I’m learning about patience and narrative arc, about complex characters and the power of conflict and tension. I’m also learning that sometimes it takes a village to make art. You might write alone at first, but later you need spouses, coworkers and friends who care enough to help you get the work out into the world. To live a creative life, you must always be making something, always be asking the “what if” questions. Then you keep the faith that what you’ve made will one day make its way to others, either as a blockbuster movie or a quiet little memoir or a book jacket in Gwyneth Paltrow’s lap.
For now, my book is a prop, but it won’t always be that way. Someday it will sit on a shelf in a bookstore. It will get checked out of the library, tossed in a handbag and shared among friends. And if it doesn’t, then maybe the novel will. Or perhaps it will be my next project that gets published. Or maybe even the project after that. Until then, I’ll keep lugging around the legal pads and the Ticonderoga blacks, telling stories and making art.
Wendy Fontaine is a Pushcart-nominated writer whose work has appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Passages North, Readers Digest, River Teeth, Compose Literary Journal and elsewhere. In 2015, she won the Tiferet Prize for Creative Nonfiction. She lives in Los Angeles and is currently seeking representation for a memoir, Leaves in the Fall. Find her at wendyfontaine.com or on Twitter @wendymfontaine