He Works Hard for The Money
Talking with HOW I PAID FOR COLLEGE author Marc Acito
By Owen Keehnen
HOW I PAID FOR COLLEGE (Broadway, $19.95) is the sort of gay novel I've have been waiting for - a hilarious, charming, well-written book filled great characters and the sort of plot to make a reader smile and smile. Eddie Zanni will do absolutely anything to get into Juilliard… That simple plot summation, with the emphasis on the word ANYTHING, hints at the uproariously dramatic determination of these New Jersey high school theatre students. It's a wild slice of fun from cover to cover and none too surprisingly the book's author, Marc Acito, is just as entertaining. He was nice enough to take a break from his busy touring schedule and other projects (including the upcoming film version of HOW I PAID FOR COLLEGE!!) to answer a few questions.
Is going on a book tour inspiring or terrifying?
Both. The entire publishing experience is a bi-polar one, equal parts elation and humiliation. One minute someone is fawning over you like you're a rock star, then next they treat you like you’re there to clean the toilets. There are a lot of Emily Dickinson "I'm nobody, who are you?" moments.
Luckily, I have all those years as an opera singer behind me. Compared to trying to be heard in a 3,000 seat hall over a 90-piece orchestra while wearing an absurdly heavy costume, a book reading is a cakewalk.
So how did publication of the novel come about?
Two years ago I went to a reading given by Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club, who also lives here in Portland. Like any other fan, I told him my name so he could sign my book. Then, in a moment that completely changed my life, he told me he knew who I was because he reads my column. Based on the column alone, he offered to give my manuscript to his agent.
Some interesting serendipity was at work here. Chuck's agent is Edward Hibbert, who is also the actor best known for playing the fussy restaurant critic Gil Chesterton on TV's "Frasier." Now, it just so happens that the head writer for "Frasier," Joe Keenan, wrote one of my all-time favorite novels, a delightful Wodehouse-like farce called Blue Heaven, which was one of the books that inspired me to write in the first place. Edward sent my book over to Chuck's editor at Random House, Gerry Howard, who, as it turns out, was also the editor of Blue Heaven. It never occurred to me that a seminal book about apocalyptic violence had anything in common with a page-turning farce.
Anyway, Gerry made an offer two days after it arrived on his desk. Dreams come true.
What was the germ of HOW I PAID FOR COLLEGE? What was your original premise?
In some ways, it's my response to Catcher in the Rye, a book I loved yet felt betrayed by when I discovered that the character I identified so strongly with had to be committed to a sanitarium.
Yet with so many coming-of-age stories out there, I didn't want to write one myself until I felt certain I had a new angle. Then, one morning while I was eating breakfast and reading the paper, I had an epiphany or what I've come to think of as Breakfast at Epiphany. You see, there was this article about the rising costs of college and I thought to myself, "Jeez, it's getting so bad, kids 'll be turning to a life of crime to pay for it." That was it. The idea kept banging on the doors of my subconscious, demanding to be let out.
It ain't The Grapes of Wrath, but these are the kind of things I think about. Welcome to my world.
How much are you Eddie Zanni?
He's an alternate version of my teenage self. But the only thing I’ve ever stolen is a scene.
If you want to know how my mind really works, look at Natie. Edward may be my alter-ego, but Natie's my Id.
What books inspired you to try your hand at a humor novel?
When I read Joe Keenan's Blue Heaven I knew instantly that I wanted to write something in the same vein. His two novels are the kind you stay up late to finish because you can’t put them down, and where you find yourself reading passages out loud to other people. Those are goals that I aspire to as a writer. So it's especially gratifying that Keenan blurbed my book. (See the reviews on my web site, www.MarcAcito.com)
Then I read Bridget Jones's Diary. I was working 60 hours a week at a job I hated so much I wanted to chew off my arm, plus writing my syndicated humor column, "The Gospel According to Marc," so it's not like I had time to write a book. But I so adored what Helen Fielding accomplished I just had to write a comic novel myself.
What about writing a novel didn't you expect?
The anxiety. I took the same care crafting sentences for this book that I do with my column. But my column is 800 words and the book is 97,000. It was like driving cross-country at night--I knew eventually I'd get there, but I could only see what was right in front of me. The disparity can make you kind of nutty.
I've also heard your book has been optioned by Columbia Pictures and is being adapted by the 'Meet The Fockers' (the sequel to 'Meet The Parents') screenwriters and Laura Ziskin (of the 'Spiderman' movies) producing. How involved do you foresee being?
Both Columbia and Laura's office take my calls, which is more than I expected. Generally, novelists are respected in Hollywood, but kept at a distance. So I'd be happy if they let me sweep the theater after the premiere.
But I think it would be a hoot if they let me do a cameo as Father Angelo.
What absolutely must remain in order for them to get the novel right?
Columbia is committed to keeping the sexuality and the 1980's time period, which is a relief to me, and everyone seems to understand that this story is pretty much a musical. (My UK publisher describes it as Catcher in the Rye as performed by the kids from "Fame.")
Beyond that, I'd love to see the movie actually be filmed in New Jersey. Having been married in Canada last year, I'm quite fond of that country, but there's no place like Jersey.
So you also syndicate the gay column 'The Gospel According to Marc' --- what are your commandments?
What an awesome question, Owen. You've given me an idea for a column. Thanks!
I’d have to say "Thou shalt not bore." This is the great and first commandment. Life is short, and I don't want to waste the time of those people who take a break from their busy lives to read what I have to say. It's a responsibility I take seriously.
What are you working on now?
I'm writing a comic Christmas novel. Fruitcake will be thrown.