Lost Oral Memoir Creates Publishing Bidding War
When the daughters of movie star Paul Newman discovered a trove of personal interviews the actor had intended to use for a memoir, they did not celebrate. Stacks of cardboard boxes containing thousands of printed pages felt like a burden, not an opportunity.
Since Newman had died in 2008, and most of the stars in the archive had also passed away, no follow-up questions would be possible. Not even Stewart Stern, the Emmy-Award-winning writer who had conducted more than one hundred interviews, was alive.
If they hoped for a publishing contract, the Newman family would need to assess the content. Only then could they determine if it could be a book.
When author and ghostwriter Douglas Glenn Clark accepted the assignment, he was concerned about the sheer volume of pages.
“I didn’t have a lot of time. Some interviews were long and meandered. Others were quite short. How would it all fit together?”
He began a process of triage, separating the most urgent and startling material that might interest publishers—essential to a book proposal—from pages that would be helpful, later, if the project sold. Most striking was Paul Newman’s honesty about himself.
His proposal began a publishing bidding war four months later. Knopf won.
Clark says the process was a reminder that celebrity alone is not enough to win a publishing contract. A book proposal must have a keen focus and a fresh angle on a topic, public figure, or trend.
Yet he is convinced that more excellent books may be lurking in the content created by entertainment professionals who are in front of the camera and microphone or behind the scenes. Think radio and television personalities, directors, and producers, as well as artists and entrepreneurs whose professional resumes and personal diaries are rife with incident and surprise.
A powerful example is Greenlights by actor Matthew McConaughey, published by Crown, 2020. The best-selling book evolved from the star’s jottings through the years.
Another archive-to-book project is Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks: 1941-1995, edited with great care by Anna von Planta and published by Liveright, 2021.
For would-be authors with content, Clark offers tips:
- Define the audience.
- Choose themes from your archive that will attract and enrich that audience.
- Let your personality shine through. McConaughey’s unique voice is evident in his book. The same is true of Highsmith.
- Get help from a ghostwriter to create a solid book proposal.
“It is natural to feel overwhelmed. Consultations will speed the book proposal process,” Clark says.
Some book projects may require a ghostwriter with a specific background. Yet the writer who is able to conceive a powerful concept is ideal.
Clark believes the Newman family chose him because he is a former journalist who knows how to dig for details and meet deadlines. But he also writes fiction, received playwriting grants from state arts councils, and is a graduate of the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, where Newman’s wife Joanne Woodward learned the craft.
“My time at the playhouse steeped me in the theater and film traditions,” he says. “But it was my narrative creativity and conceptual skills that shaped the proposal.”
Clark offers consultations and creative strategies. He begins with interviews that define objectives, emotional connections, and a frank assessment of the publishing arena.