The "Almost" Forgotten Story
In a few days, the film Memoirs of a Geisha will open around the U.S. First, we want to celebrate that another book has been changed into a feature film. It’s a true rarity—especially when you recognize less than 600 feature films are made each year and how many novels were written? Last year alone over 25,000 new novels or editions were released in the fiction category. And those numbers are only the new books. What about the older “backlist” novels?
I wanted to tell the story about the writer, Arthur Golden, which few people remember years later when the movie is finally released. Memoirs of a Geisha climbed on the bestseller list when it was released in 1997. Because of the movie, the book is back on current bestseller lists. I’m certain Arthur Golden is familiar with this story—because it is his story. I found it in the well-done book from Catherine Wald called The Resilient Writer (released earlier this year). Cathy covers tales of rejection and triumph with over 20 well-known authors. She writes these stories in a question and answer format. In this style, the reader has to draw the principles or lessons from the answers. I’m going to pull some facts from Arthur Golden’s story for you. Thankfully Cathy has Arthur Golden’s story online at her rejection collection website. First take a look at this story, then come back for my comments.
Golden worked on his novel for ten years—researching, rewriting and rewriting. He had about 2,300 raw manuscript pages. He made little money from his writing during these ten years. In fact, when the IRS audited Golden because he showed no income from his writing, they didn’t allow him to deduct his research or his trips to Japan.
Also notice how Golden was caught between an editor and a literary agent. The agent thought he had spotted a quick sale and set up a lunch meeting with an editor. Then the editor took a look at the manuscript and backed out of the lunch (because there was nothing to talk about with that manuscript). And what sort of feedback did he receive from this first literary agent? “It’s dry. It could be a bestseller, but not the way it’s written here.” Now what do you do with that sort of feedback?
Many people would have tucked their manuscript into a drawer and left it—but not Arthur Golden. Instead, he returned home and decided that he had written the entire book from the wrong viewpoint. His manuscript was written in the third person and he decided to write the story from the first person, which is a much more intimate view. When he heard his manuscript was dry, Golden invested the time and energy to understand what that meant and he determined to fix it. As he says, “I decided to rewrite it in a first person, from a child’s perspective instead of an adult’s.” It turned into a winning combination.
Also as he was rewriting his novel, Golden connected with a different literary agent who signed him—and he continues to work with today. That first agent didn’t invest in the project and lost the opportunity for a bestseller. Those types of decisions are made all the time with literary offices and publishing houses. It’s a matter of time and energy. There is only so much of it for each project.
And people wonder how an author born in Chattanooga, Tennessee and living in Brookline, Massachusetts, could get into the head of a Japanese geisha and write a bestselling novel (now a movie). They don’t know this almost forgotten story.