Friday, January 30, 2009

The Project That No One Wanted

By John Gilstrap
http://www.johngilstrap.com

When I first met Kurt Muse about eight years ago, and he told me the story of his clandestine efforts to topple Manuel Noriega, and of his subsequent arrest and escape at the hands of Delta Force, I confess that I didn’t believe him. The story was too spectacular—too big—not to have been written about already. But it all checked out.

After Kurt and his wife, Annie, met with my wife, Joy, and me at the always-wonderful Café Renaissance in Vienna, Virginia, we shook hands and a pact was made. Together, we would write a book about courage and patriotism; about success over outrageous odds. It would be a story of public servants who truly serve the public, about people who risk everything for strangers with no expectations of recognition or thanks.

No one would touch it.

First, we were told, the Central American setting is the death knell for any book. Americans don’t care about the other Americas. One editor declared that he’d be delighted to buy it if we’d be willing to re-set it in Eastern Europe. It’s non-fiction, I told him. But books set in Eastern Europe sell, he replied.

The advice from everyone in the proposal stage was for me to forget the project and move on to something else.

I refused. It was a good story—it was an important story—and on the heels of 9-11, I thought it was the kind of story that people craved. At every turn, I was told I was wrong. Everybody loses in war, and no one believes in that patriotic stuff anymore. But it really happened, I’d say. What’s not to believe?

Rejection after rejection kept piling up until one day it occurred to me that Steve Zacharias over at Kensington Publishing is not only a fan of my work, but the kind of guy to whom a story like this may well resonate. Bingo. We had a publisher, albeit one with still relatively low expectations.

Finally, five years after the saga to publish this story had begun, Six Minutes to Freedom arrived in bookstores, and it outstripped everyone’s expectations. It went into a second printing, and then a third. Meanwhile, all the non-patriotic, we’re-the-bad-guy movies of the past few years all tanked at the box office. When Kurt signed books, military people and firefighters and police officers—the kinds of public servants who might not understand what sells, but do understand what it means to put their lives on the line for the benefit of others—stood in long lines for his signature.

When we visited Delta Force headquarters on Fort Bragg, members of the Unit bought books five and six and ten copies at a time. They wanted their friends and families to know that they were not the caricatures painted by embittered Hollywood directors, but rather peace-loving men and women whose job requires violence. I lost track of the number of times I heard people tell Kurt about how they had studied his exploits in various military training classes.

And the presses kept printing books. On November 6—the day after we elected President Obama into office—Six Minutes to Freedom was listed on amazon.com as the number one book on political activism. I have no idea why, and it has since dropped away, but that’s still kinda cool when it happens two and a half years after it was first released.

Now I’m pleased to report that we have optioned the movie rights for SixMin to an independent producer who seems to really get it. He’s committed to telling the kind of story that honors its subjects. And best of all, I’m attached as the screenwriter.

So at least for the first draft, the screenplay will stay true to these remarkable people.

Really, truly, sometimes the good guys do win.

11 comments:

  1. Yay, John! Congrats! I can't wait to read it, ordering my copy now. Perfect timing, especially since my next book will be set in that same publishing-no man's land.

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  2. Six minutes to Freedom was George H. Bush's finest hour, and the story the book tells shows what freedom costs and also what it is worth to some Americans, and how our soldiers (and specialists) put their lives on the line so Americans can be free and it shows that being an American means something.

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  3. My hat's off to you, John, for believing in something so worthwhile and sticking to it. And congrats on the movie deal. I've already ordered my Muvico tickets in advance and put the upcoming DVD on my Netflix queue list. :-)

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  4. Wow, congratulations John!

    This is another reason why it wouldn't hurt for publishers to do a little actual market research instead of automatically turning something down because they "think" it won't sell.

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  5. Great news, John. Shows what can happen when someone sticks with a project he believes in. It's also great news to see you'll get to exercise your screenwriting chops again.

    Best of luck with the movie people.

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  6. Mr. Gilstrap,
    That's an awesome story. It seems so rare that the good guys win, it's always great to see it happen. Awesome! I had a friend who once bought a shirt after he got out of the marines. It read, "I may not agree with a single thing you say, but I will give my life to defend your right to say it." I still to this day love that shirt, and wish more poor-mouthing, 'we're the bad guys' people would understand why it's so important. Good for you for sticking with something because it was RIGHT, and your reward for that determination is just!

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  7. The Power of Persistence, John. You have proven it--well done!

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  8. John, That's great news. Kudos to you for having the persistence and the dream. I cant wait to read it!

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  9. Thank you all for the good wishes. I don't normally use this space for such shameless self-promotion, but I just needed to share.

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  10. Who Dares, Wins.


    Never, ever give up.

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  11. You're right, Basil. There's a word for a writer who never gives up: published.

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