AFTER THAT, I ASK EMILY TO DECLINE MOST EVENT INVITATIONS on my behalf.
I’m done with schools, bookstores, and book clubs. I’m selling at the level where personal appearances aren’t going to move the needle on sales, so I don’t need to keep exposing myself as bait for further controversy. The only events I keep attending are awards ceremonies at literary conventions, because as much as I now want to hide from the public, I’d hate to give up the rush of validation from those.
Awards in this industry are very silly and arbitrary, less a marker of prestige or literary quality and more an indication that you’ve won a popularity contest with a very small, skewed group of voters. Awards don’t matter—at least, I am told this constantly by the people who regularly win them. Athena made an annual point to explain all this on Twitter, always right after she was nominated for something big: Oh, of course I’m so honored, but remember, if you weren’t a finalist, that doesn’t mean your work doesn’t matter! All of our stories are special in their own, important ways.
I do fully believe that awards are bullshit, but that doesn’t make me want to win them any less.
And The Last Front is, simply put, awards bait. It’s brilliantly written
—check. It attracts both commercial and “upmarket” readers—check. But most important, it is about something; some timely or sensitive issue that the awards committees can point to and say, Look, we care about what is going on in the world, and since literature is a necessary reflection of our lived reality, this story is what we’ve chosen to elevate.
I’m a bit nervous that The Last Front is too commercially successful to win anything. I’m told that awards committees want to seem more tasteful than the proletariat, so there’s always a mega bestseller that doesn’t make
the ballot in the category it should obviously win, and always a few finalists in every category that no one’s ever heard of. But I shouldn’t have worried. The nominations trickle in one by one: Goodreads Choice Awards, check; the Indies Choice Book Awards, check. The Booker Prize and the Women’s Prize are long shots, so I’m not too disappointed when I don’t make the short list for those. Besides, I’m nominated for so many regional awards that I’m swimming in attention regardless.
Adele Sparks-Sato is eating her heart out, texts Marnie when I share the Goodreads Choice Awards news.
From Jen: YES! Good on you. The best revenge is to thrive. Proud of you for handling all this with grace. #StayClassyStayWinning!
I reread my nomination emails several times a day, gloating at those
words: Dear Ms. Song, we are delighted to inform you . . . And I dance around my apartment, rehearsing an imaginary acceptance speech, attempting the same mixture of grace and youthful excitement Athena always exuded in hers: “Oh my God, I really don’t believe it . . . No, really, I didn’t think I was going to win . . .”
The nominations bring about a flurry of good press. I’m featured on a lot of BuzzFeed lists. I get to do a profile with the Yale Daily News. Winning the Goodreads Choice Award gives me a sizable sales bump, and I end up back on the New York Times bestseller list for two weeks. I suppose the awards buzz gets the attention of people in Hollywood, too, because Brett calls me that week to let me know my film agent wants to set up a meeting between me and some people from Greenhouse Productions.
“What’s Greenhouse?” I ask. “Are they legit?”
“They’re a production company. Pretty standard; we’ve done a few deals with them in the past.”
“I’ve never heard of them.” I type the name into Google. Oh, no, they’re actually pretty impressive—their main staff are three producers who have a number of films I recognize under their belts, and notably, one producer-director, Jasmine Zhang, who was an Oscar finalist last year for a film about Chinese migrant workers in San Francisco. I wonder if she’s the source of the interest. “Oh, shoot, so they’re like actually a big player?”
“You wouldn’t have heard the names of most independent production companies,” Brett explains. “They largely operate behind the scenes. They package your book, find a screenwriter, attach some talent, etcetera, and then they pitch it to a studio. The studios put up the big money. But the
production companies will pay you up front to option it, and this is the strongest option interest we’ve seen so far. Can’t hurt to chat, right? How’s next Thursday?”
The Greenhouse Productions people happen to be in DC for a film festival that weekend, so we arrange to meet at a coffee shop in Georgetown. I arrive early—I hate the fluster of shaking hands, then figuring out what to order, and then fumbling with my card at the register— but they’re already occupying a booth in the back when I show up. There’s two of them—Justin, one of the Greenhouse founders, and his assistant, Harvey. They’re both blond, tan, fit, and possessed of dazzlingly white smiles. They look like they could be brothers, maybe cousins, though perhaps that’s because their hair is coiffed back in identical crests and they are wearing the same cut of V-neck Henley rolled up to the elbows. Jasmine Zhang does not appear to be present.
“Hey, Juniper!” Justin stands up to hug me. “Wonderful to meet you.
Thanks for making time for us.”
“Of course,” I say, just as Harvey leans out for a hug as well. It’s awkward, reaching over the booth toward his outstretched arms, and I strain to meet him in the middle. He smells very clean. “Georgetown is super close.”
“Do you come out here a lot?” asks Justin.
Actually, no, because everything in Georgetown is so fucking expensive, and the students who overrun the neighborhood are loud, obnoxious, and way too rich. I’ve only been here a handful of times with Athena, who was obsessed with this margarita place on Wisconsin Ave. But I picked the venue, mostly because I hoped it would impress, so I can’t act like I don’t know the area. “Um, yeah, all the time. El Centro is nice. Lots of good seafood places on the waterfront. And the macaron place on M, if you have some free time later.”
Justin beams like macarons are his favorite food in the world. “Well, we’ll have to try it out!”
“Definitely,” says Harvey. “Right after this.”
I know their puppy-dog act is meant to set me at ease, but instead I’m now stiff with nerves. Hollywood people mean literally none of what they say, Athena had once complained. They’re so friendly and enthusiastic, and they tell you you’re the most special snowflake they ever did see, and then they turn around and ghost you for weeks. I see now what she meant. I have
no idea how to gauge how genuine Justin and Harvey are, or how they’re evaluating my responses, and their blindingly cheerful front makes them so hard to read that it’s sending my anxiety into overdrive.
A waitress comes by and asks for my order. I’m too rattled to peruse the menu, so I ask for the same thing Justin is sipping, which turns out to be an iced Vietnamese coffee called “the Miss Saigon.”
“Great choice,” says Justin. “It’s very nice. Very strong—and sweet, too, I think it’s made with condensed milk?”
“Oh, um, yeah.” I hand my menu back to the waitress. “It’s what I always get.”
“So! The Last Front.” Justin slams both hands so hard against the table that I flinch. “What a book! I’m surprised no one’s snapped up the rights already!”
I don’t know what to say to this. Does that mean he feels lucky we’re having this meeting, or is he fishing for a reason why the rights haven’t been more attractive? Should I pretend like there’s been other interest?
“I guess Hollywood isn’t too keen on taking a risk on films about Asian people,” I say. It’s an arch comment, but I mean it, and I’ve heard the same complaint plenty of times from Athena. “I would love to see this story adapted for the big screen, but I guess it would take a true ally to do it. Someone would really have to understand the story.”
“Well, we loved the novel,” says Justin. “It’s so original. And so diverse, in a time when we desperately need diverse narratives.”
“I love the mosaic storytelling style,” says Harvey. “It reminds me of
“It’s precisely like Dunkirk. One of my favorite films, actually—I thought it was so brilliant how Nolan kept us guessing at how all the narrative threads would fit together at the end.” Justin glances sideways at Harvey. “Actually, Chris would be a pretty fun pick for a director, wouldn’t he?”
“Oh, Jesus.” Justin nods emphatically. “Yeah, that’d be the dream.” “What about Jasmine Zhang?” I ask. I’m a little surprised neither of
them has brought her up. Isn’t she the most obvious choice to direct?
“Oh, I don’t know if she has the bandwidth for this.” Justin fiddles with his straw. “She’s a little overwhelmed with work right now.”
“Side effects of winning an Oscar,” says Harvey. “She’s booked up for the next decade.”
“Ha. Yeah. But don’t worry, we have some really special talent in mind. There’s a kid just out of USC, Danny Baker, just wowed everyone with a short film about war crimes in Cambodia—oh, and some girl at Tisch who put out a student documentary on accessing PRC historical archives last year, if it’s important that you have an Asian female in charge.”
The waitress sets my Miss Saigon in front of me. I take a sip and wince; it’s much sweeter than I expected.
“Well, that’s very cool,” I say, slightly flummoxed. They’re talking like they’ve already decided to option the novel. Am I doing well, then? What else do I need to say to persuade them? “So what can I help you with?”
“Oh, we’re just here to hear whatever’s on your mind!” Justin laces his fingers together and leans forward. “We care a lot about the author’s vision here at Greenhouse. We’re not here to mangle your work, or whitewash it or Hollywood-ify it, or whatever. We’re all about the story’s integrity, so we want your input at every stage.”
“Think of it as creating a vision board.” Harvey sits ready with a pen poised over a legal pad. “What elements would you absolutely want to see in a movie version of The Last Front, Juniper?”
“Well, um, I guess I hadn’t thought much about that.” I’ve just remembered why I never order coffee at work meetings. Caffeine goes straight to my bladder, and I have a sudden, vicious urge to pee. “Screenwriting’s not really my thing, so I don’t know . . .”
“We could start with, like, your dream cast?” Justin prompts. “Any big stars you always had in mind while writing?”
“I—uh, I don’t know, really.” My face burns. I feel like I’m failing a test I didn’t bother to study for, though in retrospect it feels obvious I should have put some thought into what I wanted from a film adaptation before I met with producers. “I didn’t have any actors when I was writing in mind, to be honest; I’m not super visual like that . . .”
“Well, how about this Colonel Charles Robertson character?” asks Harvey. “The British attaché? We could invest in getting someone really major, like Benedict Cumberbatch, or Tom Hiddleston . . .”
I blink. “But he’s not even a main character.” Colonel Charles Robertson gets barely a passing mention in the first chapter.
“Well, right,” says Justin. “But maybe we could expand his role a bit, give him some more dramatic presence—”
“I mean, I guess.” I frown. “I’m not sure how that would work—it’d ruin the pacing of the first act—but we could look into it . . .”
“See, the trick with big war epics is that you need someone really charismatic to ground it all,” says Justin. “You don’t get broad crossover appeal if military history is the only marketing point. But put in a British heartthrob, and then you’ve got your women, your middle-aged moms, your teenage girls . . . Again, it’s the Dunkirk principle. What the fuck is Dunkirk? Who knows? We went to see Tom Hardy.”
“And Harry Styles,” says Harvey.
“Right! Exactly. What we’re saying is, your film needs a Harry Styles.”
“What about that little kid from Spider-Man?” says Harvey. “What’s his name?”
Justin perks up. “Tom Holland?”
“Oh yeah. I would love to see him in a war movie. Logical next step, for a career like that.” Harvey glances my way, like he’s just remembered I exist. “What do you think, June? You like Tom Holland?”
“I—yeah, I like Tom Holland.” My bladder bulges. I squirm in my seat, trying to find a better equilibrium. “That would work, I guess, sure. I mean, I’m not sure who he would play, but—”
“Then for A Geng, we were thinking some Chinese talent—a pop star, maybe,” says Justin. “Then that gets us the Chinese box office, which is huge—”
“The problem with Asian pop stars is that they have shit English, though,” says Harvey. “Herro. Production nightmare.”
“Harvey!” Justin laughs. “You can’t say that.” “Ah! You caught me! Don’t tell Jasmine.”
“But that wouldn’t be a problem,” I cut in. “The laborers are supposed to have bad English.”
I must sound snarkier than I intended, because Justin quickly amends, “I mean, we would never alter the story in a way you aren’t comfortable with. That’s not what we’re trying to do here. We want to totally respect the project—”
I shake my head. “No, no, yeah, I don’t feel disrespected—”
“And we’re just spitballing ideas to package things more attractively, and to, uh, broaden the audience . . .”
I sit back and lift my hands in surrender. “Look. You guys are the Hollywood experts. I’m just the novelist. All of that sounds fine to me, and you have my blessing, or whatever, to package this however you think is appropriate.”
I do mean that. I’ve never wanted to have much control over my film adaptations—I have no training as a screenwriter, and besides, social media is always abuzz with gossip about this or that novelist who had a falling-out with the director. I don’t want to be a creative diva. And maybe they have a point. Who wants to go to the theater and watch a bunch of people speaking in Chinese for two hours? I mean, wouldn’t you go see a Chinese film instead? We’re talking about a blockbuster made with an American audience in mind. Accessibility matters.
“Thanks for understanding.” Justin beams. “We talk to authors sometimes, and they—you know . . .”
“They’re very picky,” says Harvey. “They want every scene in the movie to match the book, word for word.”
“And they don’t get that film is a totally different medium, and requires different storytelling skills,” says Justin. “It’s a translation, really. And translation across mediums is inherently unfaithful to some extent. Roland Barthes. An act of translation is an act of betrayal.”
“Belles infidèles,” says Harvey. “Beautiful and unfaithful.” “You get it, though,” says Justin. “Which is awesome.”
And that’s the end of it. This is awesome. I am awesome. We are all so, so excited to make things work. I keep waiting for them to offer more substantive details. How much money is on the table? What’s their timeline? Are they going to start reaching out to this Danny Baker kid, like, tomorrow? (Harvey made it sound like he would DM him right away.) But all they’re giving me are vagaries, and I get the sense that this is perhaps not the right context to press. So I sit back and let them buy me some overpriced strudel (named the “Inglourious Pastry”) and chat at me about how gorgeous the waterfront is. Justin handles the check, and both of them hug me tightly before we part ways.
I stroll until they’ve turned around the opposite corner, and then I dash back into the café and pee for a full minute.
THAT WENT OKAY. I EMAIL BRETT A SUMMARY OF THE MEETING AS I stroll back
over the bridge to Rosslyn. I think they liked me, but it seems like they’re still feeling out
some things before there’s cash on the table. I don’t think Jasmine Zhang is attached, which is weird?
Pretty standard as far as Hollywood meetings go, Brett responds. They were just getting a sense of you as a person. Hard offers don’t come until later. Not sure what’s going on with Jasmine, though it does seem like the main interest is coming from Justin. I’ll keep you updated if there’s any news.
I’m impatient to hear more, but this is how things are. Publishing
crawls. Gatekeepers sit on manuscripts for months, and meetings happen behind closed doors while you’re dying from anticipation on the outside. Publishing means no news for weeks, until you’re standing in line at Starbucks or waiting for the bus, and your phone pings with the email that will change your life.
So I head down into the metro, put my Hollywood dreams on hold, and wait for Brett to inform me that I’m about to become a millionaire.
I try to temper my expectations. After all, the vast majority of options deals go nowhere. All that an option means is that the production company has exclusive rights to package the story into something a studio might want to buy. The vast majority of projects linger in development hell, and very few ever get green-lit by studio executives. I learn this over the next few hours as I scour the internet for articles about this process, catching myself up on industry terminology and trying to gauge how excited I should be.
I’m probably not getting my Warner Bros. film. I probably won’t be a millionaire. The hype could still help me, though—I could still make some tens of thousands of dollars from Greenhouse’s option offer. I could sell a few thousand more copies based on the publicity from that deal alone.
And there’s always that elusive, tempting “maybe.” Maybe this will get picked up by Netflix, or HBO or Hulu. Maybe the film will be a massive hit, and they’ll do another print run of my book with the movie poster on the cover, and I’ll get to attend the premiere in a dress tailor-made for me, arm in arm with the handsome Asian actor they cast to play A Geng. Elle Fanning will star as Annie Waters, and we’ll take a cute selfie together at the premiere like the one Athena once took with Anne Hathaway.
Why not dream big? I’ve found, as I keep hitting my publishing goalposts, that my ambitions get larger and larger. I got my embarrassingly large advance. I got my bestseller status, my major magazine profiles, my prizes and honors. Now, with the sickly sweet taste of the Miss Saigon
lingering on my tongue, all that feels paltry in comparison to what true literary stardom looks like. I want what Stephen King has, what Neil Gaiman has. Why not a movie deal? Why not Hollywood stardom? Why not a multimedia empire? Why not the world?