By Steven Jay Griffel
Queens, NY, USA
The son of seven generations of rabbis, a kibitzer with links to Catskill comedians like Red Buttons and Milton Berle, Warren Adler is as familiar with Talmud as he is with tummling (a Jewish entertainer's interaction with a live audience). But it was not the bema or the stage that drew Adler, but the writer's life. As a novelist, Adler is brilliant with gender relations and political intrigue, but it is his keen grasp of the publishing business and the transformative power of media that sets him apart from other writers of his generation and makes him a major player in the digital age.
Looking back on Adler's early experiences, they seem like a well thought out plan for a writer's success. After graduating from New York University, where he majored in English literature, he studied writing at the New School. Before long he was working as a newspaper copy boy. This entry-level position eventually led him to become Editor of the Queens Post, a prize-winning weekly newspaper on Long Island. Adler was well-known for his column "Pepper on the Side," which was syndicated by a number of newspapers. It appears Adler had already developed an appealing style and was fast-learning how to use media to spread his brand.
Following his newspaper career there was a tour in the Army, where Adler worked in the American Forces Press Service. This led to a brief stint in public relations, which, in turn, led Adler to form his own ad agency, specializing in Washington, D.C., real estate and politics. From this vantage he became increasingly familiar with the players in our nation's capital—and beyond. Such worldly experiences provided Adler with motive and opportunity, and he cashed in by writing many first-rate books of mystery and political intrigue, such as Trans-Siberian Express, Target Churchill, and American Quartet.
In 1975, Adler founded Washington Dossier, a magazine that focused on Washington's social elite. This was a coup—perhaps a key—because it opened more doors to social and political powerbrokers, providing Adler with continual grist for his ever-churning story mill. The War of the Roses—his breakout novel and the book for which he is most-remembered—was published in 1981. Random Hearts, Private Lies, and The Sunset Gang are some of his other most memorable books.
In addition to being an expert chronicler of the human heart and a keen examiner of social and political motives, Adler has another talent that has marked his career as special: a prescient understanding of the influence of media and digital technology on writing and publishing. Rather than moan about the bygone days of traditional publishing, Adler has transformed himself into a pioneer of the new world order, using its resources and creative possibilities to extend his audience and to keep his finger on the world's digital pulse.
I met with Warren Adler at his home in Manhattan in March 2014 to discuss his storied career.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: You grew up in the Jewish cultural tradition of Brownsville, New York, and spent a lot of time in the Catskills. How did Jewish Catskill-style comedy influence your work?
WARREN ADLER: Humor has always been the safety valve of the Jewish people and my early life was all the research I needed to express the customs and nuances of that world; I know the turf, the atmosphere, the food, the dialects. I have written a dark comedy titled Funny Boys, which is premised on those memories and I hope that it has captured the era in all its glory and authenticity – it is a period that has left an indelible mark on American culture. I recently wrote a Huffington post blog about my ties to Catskill comedy.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: The War of the Roses was your breakout novel, enjoying critical and commercial success. The story is very dramatic. Were you thinking of the story's movie possibilities even as you wrote it?
WARREN ADLER: I don't write with the movies in mind, but people tell me there is something compellingly visual in my work. I haven't an exact clue as to why my novels and short stories attract so much Hollywood interest, but I have optioned or sold the film rights to twelve of my thirty-five books, including Madeleine's Miracles, Random Hearts, the Fiona Fitzgerald Mysteries, and Funny Boys.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: You wrote the screenplay for The War of the Roses but were not asked to consult in the movie's production. How do you explain the studio's position? If you had consulted, what constructive advice might you have offered?
WARREN ADLER: Even if your contract states that you have some limited control, the writer is usually ignored. The process of putting a movie together is very complex, and there are a lot of opinions that go into it. If I had consulted I would have given advice in the way of building more insight into the characters I created. I was very happy with the adaptation of The War of the Roses – it plays somewhere in the world every day of the year. My stage play based on the original novel is an international hit in over ten foreign territories.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Though you have been described as a "relationship writer," your novel The War of the Roses became nearly synonymous with modern divorce. Your thoughts?
WARREN ADLER: People may not know Warren Adler, the author, but they sure as hell know The War of the Roses. It's now part of the nomenclature of divorce. In Hollywood I have been dubbed a "relationship writer," whatever that means. Actually, many of my books end with a coming-to-terms with life's adversity; reaching a kind of philosophic calm; and accepting life with all its problems, unfairness, and cruelty. My focus is the human condition in all its joys and failures.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: The Sunset Gang, a collection of six short stories about a retirement community in Florida, became a three-hour American Playhouse television production in 1991. What did you think of the television production? Of all your written works that have been reimagined for the stage or screen, which do you think extended your own vision in a positive way?
WARREN ADLER: I loved the television production of The Sunset Gang, which was produced by Linda Lavin for PBS' American Playhouse series, and starred Uta Hagen, Harold Gould, Dori Brenner, Jerry Stiller, Ron Rifkin, and Doris Roberts – it captured the essence of the themes I aimed to explore in that short story collection – namely that the "aging" are not obsessed with death, but with life. I am sure that The Sunset Gang will be recognized by more and more people as the discourse surrounding ageism increases in today's world. The Sunset Gang (also produced as an Off-Broadway musical) and The War of the Roses are on equal footing in terms of successfully extending my own vision in a positive way. The funny part is that everyone involved in the filming of The War of the Roses was going through a divorce except me.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: As a result of your marketing career in Washington, D.C., you became a fixture on the Washington social circuit, which included your joining some exclusive social groups, such as the Jockey Club and the Polo Lounge. What can you tell us about those experiences, especially as they relate to your writing career?
WARREN ADLER: There were a number of country clubs, but that was hardly unusual. I founded the magazine Washington Dossier along with my wife and son, and it was considered the barometer of the Washington social scene. I wrote many short stories for the magazine, which were turned into The Washington Dossier Stories, now available on Kindle. My Washington-based Fiona Fitzgerald Mystery Series derives from my observations of the political and social dynamics of the power elite unique to Washington – in fact, I worked with an experienced female homicide detective, Judy Roberts, who led me deep into the entrails of police mindset and procedure, as seen through the female perspective.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: I've read about your connection to a notoriously famous building complex in Washington. It's a memorable anecdote—please share.
WARREN ADLER: I named Watergate. Really. At the time I owned an advertising agency that specialized in real-estate promotion and politics (for both parties). The builders who worked for the Italian firm that owned the land were my clients. I was an original small investor in the company that had bought the land from the Washington gas company. For years there was a restaurant named Watergate on the property, hence my suggested choice of the name.
My novel, The Henderson Equation, was based on my unique relationship to the national trauma that was the Watergate scandal. I had actually been a consultant to the Republican National Committee and the Nixon White House and knew many of the players that were involved in the Watergate scandal. I was an advisor during Nixon's campaign in 1969 and continued months after his inauguration.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: In 1975, when you founded Washington Dossier, were you thinking that it might help you collect material for future novels of mystery and political intrigue?
WARREN ADLER: Absolutely. Living in Washington in the seventies, we were treated to an endless drumbeat of stories. As I said, The Henderson Equation was inspired by that time and is the quintessential example of a roman à clef. Every experience is fair game when it comes to finding inspiration/material for writing a novel.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: In the 70's you sold the movie rights to Trans-Siberian Express for $250,000. But the movie was never made and you could not get the rights back. What did you learn from this experience?
WARREN ADLER: I sold the rights to Trans-Siberian Express to Lew Grade, the British media mogul who produced films like Sophie's Choice, Return of Pink Panther, and The Boys from Brazil. I learned: Always keep a "Chain of Title" and be well organized.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: In 1990 you sold the film rights to your novel Private Lies to Tri-Star Pictures for $1,200,000. I believe the sale was the result of an auction among competing publishing companies? How did that come about?
WARREN ADLER: It was not an auction among publishing companies. It was an auction among movie studios including Warner Bros and Columbia. I thought Private Lies would make a great movie so I took the manuscript to Hollywood even before showing it to a publisher. Tri-Star Pictures had already bought film rights to The War of the Roses for $1.2 million, so that helped persuade William Morrow to publish Private Lies. Back then more movie studios were buying book manuscripts directly from authors, as it is often cheaper to buy a book before it becomes a bestseller.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: You are the founder of the Jackson Hole Writers Conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. How did that evolve? What does this experience mean to you?
WARREN ADLER: The Jackson Hole Writer's Conference is now entering its 22nd year and going strong. I believe strongly in giving back, and this experience has been tremendous for me. It evolved fundamentally as a way to not only help aspiring writers discover their true voice and hone their skills, but to assist them in finding an audience and providing them with the know-how to better market their work based on current and future trends.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: You have also founded a number of associations that bear your name, such as The Warren Adler Short Story Contest and the Warren Adler Visiting Writer series at NYU's Creative Writing Program. I assume that these associations are the result of your generous altruism and your marketing savoir faire. Your thoughts?
WARREN ADLER: I am a sponsor of The Warren Adler Visiting Writing Series at the New York University department of creative writing, which supports the development of writers devoted to their craft.
The Warren Adler Short Story Contest, which started online in 2006 and continued until 2011, was an outgrowth of my three brief years running a short story contest for the Wyoming Arts Council when I lived in Jackson Hole. As with all literary contests of this type, the idea was to encourage the writing of short stories and reward the authors of the best submissions on the basis of literary quality.
I felt charged with a serious assignment that could affect the career and hopes and dreams of those dedicated to creating short-form fiction writing, so I recruited well-qualified judges who had been teaching college-level writing courses and were writers themselves.
I regularly blog about the writing process, consistently offering writing tips and suggestions to emerging writers. I often receive questions about the process of getting books made into movies so I spend a lot of time responding to those inquiries – I actually have an Author Forum on my website.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Working with SONY, you introduced the first digital reader in 2007, the same year Amazon launched the Kindle. What did you learn from that experience?
WARREN ADLER: SONY had a great idea but missed the boat, even though I had worked to help them enlist publishers. Amazon's success was based on device innovation and improvement; another area it has succeeded in is content acquisition. If there is anything to be learned, it is that an author's success today depends directly on his/her ability to be savvy about today's newest innovations and know when to transition in order to keep up.
Nick Taylor (former President of the Author's Guild) and I introduced the first viable e-book reader (for SONY) at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronic Show in 2007. I acquired the reputation as being Mr. E-book since I evangelized for it for years. I was one of the first authors to put all my books in digital format years before the introduction of a viable reader.
Looking ahead, the e-book market share will continue to escalate, and it will soon completely dominate the industry. E-readers will yield ground to the tablet, but the truly passionate reader will stick with the exclusivity of the new round of advanced e-readers.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: For many years your books were published by major houses, such as Viking, Putnam and Warner Books. What gave you the idea to re-acquire your complete backlist, convert your entire library to digital publishing formats, and re-publish them yourself? Were the rights easily obtained? If so, why do you think the publishing houses were so short-sighted?
WARREN ADLER: My mission is to make sure my works endure beyond my lifetime. I did not want to be subjected to the demand and supply of traditional publishing houses. In the traditional business model, the life of a backlist title languishes and fades after just the first year of its release. Because I had been evangelizing e-books, it was the perfect opportunity to bring my backlist titles to the forefront and keep them alive. Today's author is ultimately forced to be the entrepreneur, and that means being active and in control of the fate of his/her work.
In terms of getting the rights back, I did face a lot of resistance, but because my books were published before e-reader technology became apparent to the publishers, it actually made the process a lot easier – I came in under the radar. Having e-books is like having a second wind, having a whole new life. Today, publishers would never give back rights to authors.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Today you own your own publishing house, Stonehouse Press. I suppose you will never again have to write a query letter, deal with a rejection slip, make unwanted changes in a manuscript, or negotiate terms with a tight publisher. Is there any downside?
WARREN ADLER: The downside is the challenge of discoverability. Discoverability and branding are now the operative words for all writers. Online you will find that we are inundated with people who think they have the answer to how to achieve these ever-elusive goals. Some tout social networking, book clubs, book signings; interaction on all levels. Thousands of writer groups have emerged with all members searching for answers. Thousands of profit-making ventures have emerged with surefire answers to both discoverability and branding.
None are surefire. Talk of so-called quality, length, and attention span are subjects of debate with no clear answers. An entire industry has grown up around electronic publishing. But for most authors of mainstream fiction, monetization is still an illusion.
I have full control of my own destiny and that means more to me at this point in my life than anything else.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: What gave you the idea to offer Death of a Washington Madame for free, a chapter at a time, via e-mail, to anyone who asked? Were you influenced by Stephen's King's success with Riding the Bullet, the novella he released via the Internet in 2000 and which became the world's first, successful, mass-market electronic book?
WARREN ADLER: I was not influenced by Stephen King's success with Riding the Bullet. My idea was really one of many experiments. For seven years I ran the first online short story contest, which is now an industry. The contest was suspended in its eighth year, largely because of the burdens of evaluation and the growing avalanche of "contest writing," now a cottage industry for profit on the Internet, negating the uniqueness of our contest.
Nevertheless, we suspect that we had helped light the fuse that would eventually bring the short story back to popularity, which it has. Indeed, I suppose it can be argued that we had made our point.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: You recently came out with an enhanced edition of Trans-Siberian Express, your terrific 1977 political thriller. What is meant by enhanced edition? How does this fit into your expanded understanding of what a novel can be?
WARREN ADLER: Our distributors at Vook Inc. thought a book like Trans-Siberian Express, where the reader is immersed in a culture as unique and exotic as Russia's, would make a great enhanced reading experience. They recommended the Apple's iBook Author program to develop an illustrative and interactive storytelling experience, and we agreed that contextualizing the culture for a Western audience would improve their reading experience. You can get a full sense of what we did from my article, How I Brought My Thriller from the '70's into The 21st Century, in Publishing Perspectives.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: You are directly and personally involved in the use of social media (website, blog, Facebook, Twitter) to shape and extend your brand. Your thoughts?
WARREN ADLER: Social media is an effective way to reach out and interact with a broader demographic of my fans worldwide. My Facebook and Twitter following is comprised of fans from here in the U.S. to South Asia, Africa, and all over Europe. It's great to see that such a wide array of people, especially young aspiring writers, recognize my work and consistently ask me for guidance – this for me is a tremendously touching form of validation and I am happy to have an accessible and relatively intimate means of connecting with fans.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Your company Stonehouse Productions is involved with developing many of your books into films and plays. What can you tell us about some of your current projects?
WARREN ADLER: About my upcoming films and plays – keep watching (literally) – there are some exciting film productions in the pipeline. Permut Presentations and Grey Eagle Films will produce The War Of The Roses, The Children, an adaptation of the sequel novel. There are plans for a Broadway production of The War of the Roses and a TV series for the Fiona Fitzgerald Mysteries. Two new books will be released this year.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: You have enjoyed great success as a novelist and scored many firsts as a digital pioneer. How would you like to be remembered?
WARREN ADLER: I want to perpetuate my authorial name and keep it alive in the public mind beyond my lifetime. I want to be remembered as a self-made novelist and, in many respects, avant-garde in terms of being one of the few authors to self-publish at the time that I did. More importantly, I want to be remembered as an enduring writer and entrepreneur who was not afraid to be innovative, take exponential leaps, and as a result be instructive and inspirational to other passionate writers.