Today, I managed to track down Bart Baker, author of bestselling Honeymoon with Harry, to get some background on him and his family – and Harry – but also to chat about his new release, What Remains. LOVE this book. Love it.
Read on to hear from Bart!
Let’s start at the beginning; well, what passes for that here in St. Louis: you’re a DeSmet grad, right?
Yes I am. Great education. Class of ’77 (yes, that makes me ensconced in middle age.)
Tell us about your family.
My partner, Joe Elvis, and I, have two sons, Isaiah, who is seven, and Emmanuel who is turning seven in May. They are the loves of my life. Most of my large extended family is also here in St. Louis, including my brother, Nick, and my sister, Lisa. I have a very large, wonderful, colorful, crazy, beautiful, remarkable extended family with lots of cousins and nieces and nephews.
See, I knew that was more important – your family – but let’s move on to your career. When did you go to California, and why, and how did you become a screenwriter?
You know me. My family is the most important thing in my life.
I graduated from Southern Illinois University in December 1981, and was on the road to Los Angeles two months later with whatever could fit in my Ford Fairlane. I had never been west of Kansas City and it hit me about Arizona that I really had no clue to what I was going to do once I got to LA, but I knew I wanted to work as a screenwriter and an actor, and that’s where that work was.
I lived at the beach when I first moved there. And I took acting classes at night, I wrote in every moment of spare time, and I worked a full time job in the aircraft industry. I didn’t sleep much.
I got lucky and did some acting work on soap operas, nighttime television, and films, and then landed a recurring bit role on GENERAL HOSPITAL – which was supposed to be for three shows but ended up being about eight months of sporadic work. I really didn’t enjoy it much, but it paid well and I quit my “day job.”
Within a year of the small gig on the soap ending, I had a play produced, RELAY. I remember in the very first set of readings, Doug Savant, who later got famous on DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES and 24 and was one of the actors in the production, along with Alec Baldwin, came in and did a staged reading of the play before he left to do LOOT on Broadway. That play had a couple incarnations, and in one we had a couple stars of the time, Billy Warlock (BAYWATCH) and Adrian Zmed (T.J. HOOKER) in it and it was a smash. The play was optioned for a film by Warner Brothers. It was never made in spite of getting very close to an order, but I’ll save you the gory details of the fickleness of the film business. I was blessed to have another play, SEACLIFF CALIFORNIA, which starred two of GENERAL HOSPITAL’s biggest stars, Jacklyn Zeman and Kin Shriner, go up not long after.
An agent came and saw both plays and signed me. She got me my first job, writing a movie for Tristar Pictures, and sold a spec script of minem CHILDREN OF THE BRIDE, to CBS. And then she sold another script I’d written, LIVE WIRE, to New Line Cinema. LIVE WIRE got made with Pierce Brosnan starring, and CHILDREN OF THE BRIDE got made with Rue McClanahan, Pat Duffy, and Kris McNichol. It was a hit for CBS back in the day when they did movies for television. And CBS did a second BRIDE movie, BABY OF THE BRIDE, which did even better than CHILDREN, so we did a third, MOTHER OF THE BRIDE. It was like going to film summer camp for me since I was not only the writer, but also a producer on the films. I learned a lot and became the go-to guy on the movies, because the director changed with each film (though I did get to work with TV legend Bill Bixby, who directed the second film. What an amazing, generous, fun person). I stayed working, writing and producing TV movies and writing features, as well as doing work on some series after that.
Honeymoon with Harry was your first novel, and it’s done very well. How long did it take you to write, edit, publish? And why did you decide to self-publish?
The first draft of HARRY didn’t take me long to write. Three months. I had just come off writing a movie project (SUPERCROSS) for these horrible producers and I was in my 40s and all I kept thinking was “I can’t do this anymore. I’m sick of being treated this way by people who know less than me.” So I had this idea and an image in my head of what it should be, and I figured writing a book couldn’t be any harder than writing a movie (I was wrong).
But I wrote it and did a rewrite on it, which again didn’t take long. I remember both being very emotional. It is an emotionally raw novel and I remember crying a lot while writing it, feeling what Todd was going through. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong, but it’s how I write. I have to feel what my characters are going through. I have to own it, too.
I gave the book to my brother’s wife, Kim, who read it and who I talked to at Thanksgiving and she gets on the phone and says, “I got a bone to pick with you.” Then she tells me she read HARRY and cried for four days. She said she couldn’t put the book down and read it at work, crying, and that it really affected her. Which sort of shocked me because I thought the book was funny. I mean I knew the events of the book were tragic but I thought Todd saw the world from a slanted point of view and that he was a funny guy. It never occurred to me that people would cry and what I cried at.
Then right before the Christmas holidays, I gave it to my new managers who were surprised that I had written a novel. The Monday morning after the holidays were over, my phone rings and it’s one of my managers, Bob Sobahni, and he goes, “Dude, you made me cry.” And then all of the managers started calling me, my lawyer called me, all of them praising the book, relaying that they cried all the way through it. I remember my lawyer telling me that his girlfriend had never seen him cry … until he was reading the book.
My mangers slipped the book to Brad Pitt’s company, Plan B Productions, and the people over there loved it. They gave to Brad, and in the meantime, Paul Haggis, who won the Oscar for CRASH, was in for a meeting at Plan B, and asked if they had read anything great lately. They gave him HARRY. Within a day the buzz was going around Hollywood about the book. I’d been through a couple big spec sales before, but nothing like this. Huge players were calling to read the book. Long story short, New Line Cinema, the company which had bought my first feature, LIVE WIRE, called and offered me a large sum of money for the movie rights. They gave me 45 minutes to make a decision or the offer was off the table. Not being as big a fool as I usually am, I took the deal.
Paul Haggis wrote the script from my book and was going to direct. He got Jack Nicholson involved as Harry, and Vince Vaughn involved as Todd. But a film with those big players was too expensive for New Line and they passed. Eventually, Paul Haggis left the project.
Then, two years ago, Bradley Cooper got the script and wanted to play Todd, and he got Robert DeNiro to agree to play Harry. Jonathan Demme (Oscar winner for SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) came on to direct. He and his writing partner decided to rewrite the script, and there wasn’t much love for that draft. DeNiro refused to do that draft, and eventually, Demme left.
Bradley Cooper stayed involved. He called the producers not long after, and said he wanted to make HARRY his directorial debut. That was about a year ago. I’m not sure what is going on now.
That’s the movie side of it. And along the way, I had agents and publishers involved with HARRY, the novel. Most only were there when it looked like the movie was going into production, and would disappear shortly after. I realized it was a ‘quick buck’ sort of thing. They wouldn’t have to do any work because the movie would be the novel’s advertisement.
When it looked like the production with Bradley Cooper was moving forward, I decided to self-publish the book. I called a few of my friends who had publishing deal and asked their advice. To the person, they all said I should skip the traditional route and self-publish. I was exhausted by the agents and publishers who were there only when there was a potential movie anyway, so I heeded their advice (Now, mind you, all of these people have a huge following for their books. They are all very successful, something I didn’t factor in to a first time novelist trying to self-publish.) But I wanted the book out there. I’d sat on it for too long.
So, I hired the cover artists, I had it put together. I made A LOT of mistakes, but nonetheless I put the book out on my own. HARRY has sold modestly well and gotten an enormous amount of critical and audience love. I’m really proud of the novel and happy it stands on its own. Whatever happens with the movie is gravy. Who knows if it would have been any different with a publisher. I know I wouldn’t have learned as much about the process.
I know I’m not a literary genius, I simply write what moves me. I write what I love about characters I love. And I love Harry and Todd, and Tami and Cat. I love them, and the life-adventures and emotional- journeys they are involved in.
Getting up to speed, tell us about What Remains.
WHAT REMAINS is a worthy follow-up to HARRY. I wanted to write something in the same voice, so I stuck with writing in first person. I knew this story was bigger, so I challenged myself and wrote it in first person, but from four different characters’ points of view. They each move the story along, but tell it from their side, from the baggage they carry.
It follows Conner Carter after he is thrown out of New York City for cheating on his socialite wife. He’s a ne’er-do-well, a guy who has skated through life on charm and looks. He’s very self-aware, knows he’s a loaf, knows his gifts and how to use them to get what he wants. But he’s hit that wall when all that charm he’s relied on just isn’t getting the same results. Everyone’s on to him. So he flies to Sonoma, California, to stay with the one person who has ALWAYS been on to him, his young brother, Cody. Cody is married to an uber-wealthy man, Rhett, a documentary filmmaker who comes from old Southern money, and they have two adopted Cambodian children, who speak no English. The have a daddy and a papa and know that somewhere in this mess there is supposed to be a mommy, so they call Conner ‘mommy.’
Conner has always been jealous of the success his young brother has made of his life. But we find out Cody has worked his ass off for everything. He’s the opposite of Conner. And we also find out that Cody’s life is far, far, far from perfect. He and Rhett are going through a terrible time, and it is compounded by the fact that they now have these two kids they were not quite prepared for.
They are lucky – though it doesn’t seem so at first – to get Zinzi, a nanny, to help with the kids. She is amazing with them and sizes up Conner, Cody, and Rhett fairly quickly. Half black, half Puerto Rican, Zinzi is a woman who has been touched by violence throughout her life. And she needs this job.
But when Rhett goes missing on a film shoot in Colombia and Zinzi’s brother is released from prison, everyone’s life is thrown into hell. I don’t want to give away too much … that’s the set-up. But things get pretty dicey for each character, and Conner, who has never stepped up for anyone, is forced to step up for his brother in ways he couldn’t have possibly imagined, as well as for Zinzi, who Conner is falling in love with.
So this books deals with really disparate characters, a straight brother who hasn’t grown up, his gay brother whose perfect life unravels, his husband with a lot of money and a crazy Southern family, and the ethnic woman whose violent past catches up with her. It’s told with a lot of humor, which I think is what keeps WHAT REMAINS from falling into melodrama – though I like my drama big and bold. But I like my humor big and bold, too. I believe there is something in this book for everyone. Every reader will find someone they really glom onto, who takes them through this story. Maybe more than one character. And I think they will find the journey emotional, powerful, and they will laugh a lot and cry a lot. Which is what I love to do when I read, so that’s how I write.
Anything you want to add? Any advice for aspiring authors?
Writers write. That’s the number one piece of advice. Writers don’t talk about writing, they write. And then they edit and rewrite. And rewrite and edit some more. It’s hard and painful and seems never-ending. And they find good people, be it agents, publishers, other writers, to be very honest with them in a supportive, loving way. But honest. And they rewrite some more.
There’s no magic to writing a novel. It’s work. It’s sitting your ass in a chair and focusing on someone else’s life, getting into the nuance and soul of your characters and the journey they are on. It’s carving out pieces of your own life, and certainly your own soul, to imbue your characters with a deeper meaning. And it’s a craft. Some people lift it to the area of art but I think for most of us, it’s a craft.
Then you have to tend to the business side of it. Which for most creative people is ridiculously hard. But it needs to be learned and understood. Most of that will come by trial and error. You’ll make mistakes, especially if you self-publish. But if you think, in this day and age, that even if you have a huge publisher behind you that you can sit back and wait for the royalties to roll in without any work, think again. You have to be shameless and selfless in your promotion. You have to ask for things.
You have to do the work to get your name out there, and more importantly, the title of your book on people’s lips. It’s a process, again, there’s no magic to it, it’s work. And you will see some people who are great at it. Watch them, listen to them, learn from them. Get around people that know what they are doing and have been successful at it.
Writing isn’t a theory business, it’s a practical business. And promoting your work is even more of a practical business. I’ve always found that those who are most successful are those who are willing to do the most work in the smartest ways. It’s not always the most talented. Yes, you better have a good product, but from there it’s all about the work you do to get that product out to the audience. And building that audience.
Any time, Bart, any time! You all make sure to stop by All on the Same Page Bookstore on Saturday, 10:30-12:30, to meet Bart and get a copy of What Remains!