I am a writer named Rhon Penny (silent h) and I am no longer married. I am writing to you today, the legal custodian(s) of the complete works of John Updike, because I am seeking advice on how to take my (and John’s) career to the next level—the financial wealth level.
Are you a fan of absurd questions? Good. Here’s one: Have you read the terrific 1979 novel Flowers in the Attic? Of course you have. Not that you even need reminding, but this is the book where a brother and sister are locked in an attic and spend their days playing board games, reading old issues of National Geographic, and partaking in incest. It’s a lot of fun.
You’re thinking: What the heck is Rhon getting at? Well, here’s a little secret: the author of this book, V.C. Andrews, died in 1986 . . . and yet, to this day, Miss Andrews still produces obscenely popular books under the V.C. Andrews brand! How in the world does V.C. do it? Guess what ? She doesn’t! An alive writer does all of the writing for her! This is where I come into the picture.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but your father was known as “high-falutin’.” Meaning, he tended to write books that most people didn’t “get” or “buy.” And that’s fine. Not everyone can be Judy Blume. Truly, you should not feel ashamed. There’s little doubt that if I had a menu filled with writers, your father would certainly be one of the main courses. Let’s face it, though: he would probably be something like pumpkin octopus risotto–something that sounds all fancy but no one ever orders.
A little bit about myself: I have over fifteen years of experience trying to get published, and by extension, much to offer you in your extended period of grief. Until recently, I worked at Kinko’s and I am now on worker’s comp (yes, it was “alcohol-related”). I am a fan of body-switching movies and reruns of old game shows, and while I’ve never been a huge fan of your father’s work (too serious and stuck-up), I have a million ideas that just scream out “Put John Updike’s name on me!” As you can see from my following ideas list, I’m sort of going through a historical thing right now:
— Has anyone written—I mean really written—about the Second World War? Oh, sure, there have been books and movies and perhaps even a rap song, but has anyone penned a fancy book about the subject? My answer: I’m not sure. Here’s my idea: a novel set in Nazi Germany about an adorable, wise-cracking gerbil who lives inside an SS person’s helmet (without that SS person’s knowledge or consent). The gerbil’s name has to be Rosco.
—Slavery through the ages has always bothered me slightly from a moral/ethical/historical perspective. But where to begin? This subject is, let’s admit it, a large one. How to tackle it? Where’s my “in”? Let me sleep on this one.
—The Bubonic Plague holds a great fascination for me, as I’m sure it does for all of the Updikes. How awful would it have been for a child to be sleeping on his or her straw bed one day, and then the next to be suffering from an awful bug-transported disease? How would this child have felt? Would it have coughed? Sneezed? Died? In that order? This subject is ripe for further investigation. We can also include a scene involving Christmas, if you want the book to be extra popular.
Now, I’ve been burned in the past by sending out detailed outlines, but for each of the above ideas, I can certainly provide you with a hand-drawn illustration of what I am going for—as well as an ironclad promise that most of the action will take place in suburban Pennsylvania with ample nudity. And that your father and/or husband, John Updike, will have “written” it. (Notice the quotes.)
Additional ideas that I can’t wait to sink my (and your dead father’s) teeth into:
— Did your father ever write an episode for a sitcom? How about a screenplay for a movie based on a TV show from the 80s or 90s? No? Let me write this for him.
— Poetry-slams were very exciting and hip a number of years back. Let’s take advantage of this.
— Children’s literature is kind of hot right now. I was thinking that a “John Grown-Updike Presents ” would be popular and would be a terrific way to launch our new partnership. Just off the cuff: A boy wants to become a wizard at a magical school, but has to apply for financial aid. I would concentrate on the financial-aid part, and I’d really get into the nitty-gritty of how little wizard boys go about acquiring favorable financial aid packages and such.
— Something to do with “electronic books.”
For reasons gastro-intestinally based, I must end this correspondence immediately. But I will not leave you without quoting the following (seen on my therapist’s paperweight): “Excuses are like butts. Everyone’s got ‘em, but I don’t necessarily want to see ’em.” Please . . . no excuses. Or buts.
Your partner in the words,
Scott Rothman is a screenwriter living in New York City.
Mike Sacks is a writer on the editorial staff of Vanity Fair. His first book, “And Here’s the Kicker,” was published in summer, 2009.