This page contains an excerpt from an interview with Ray Carney. In the selection below, he talks about being a writer. The complete interview this is taken from is available in a new packet titled What's Wrong with Film Teaching, Criticism, and Reviewing – And How to Do It Right, which covers many other topics. For more information about Ray Carney's writing on independent film, including information about how to obtain the complete text of this interview and two other packets of interviews in which he gives his views on film, criticism, teaching, the life of a writer, and the path of the artist, click here.

To read two more discussions of the realities of publishing, click here and here.

The Book Biz

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Interviewer: You have talked about the uphill battle that film books have to fight to get published. In the interview you did with Jim McKay in Filmmaker magazine, you talked about your struggle to get appreciations of serious films into print. [Excerpts from the Mc Kay Filmmaker interview are available in the Cassavetes on Cassavetes section of the site. Click here to go there.] You described how the Cassavetes on Cassavetes manuscript was rejected by every American publisher you submitted it to. You mentioned how you self-published your The Adventure of Insecurity pocket viewing guide, since publishers didn't think a book about Cassavetes' films would sell well enough to justify publishing it. And you described how you originally proposed a book on Cassavetes' Faces to the British Film Institute publishing house, but they turned it down and asked you to write about Shadows, because Shadows was more socially relevant than Faces

Carney: [Interrupting] May I correct that? I don't think I explained it clearly in the other interview. It's true that my initial proposal to the BFI was for a book about Faces. I have an enormous amount of information about Faces – things Cassavetes gave me like the text of the initial play and three or four drafts of the film script, as well as things I found on my own, like the lost long print. My intention was to use Faces to explore Cassavetes' creative process. It's also true that the BFI turned down the proposal and counterproposed Shadows, since Faces wasn't on their master list and Shadows was.

But I want to emphasize that the BFI didn't say that Shadows was, as you put it, a “more socially relevant” film than Faces. That was the conclusion I drew. What I was trying to understand was how a chamber piece like Shadows – let's be honest, it's an interesting but a fairly minor film in Cassavetes' oeuvre – would make the BFI's Film Classics list while a towering masterwork like Faces – certainly one of the greatest works in all of American cinema – didn't. The only explanation I could come up with was that Shadows was accorded special importance because it dealt with issues like racism, interracial sex, and “passing” – as well as jazz music and the Beat life – hot-button social concerns a film like Faces didn't. But that was my conclusion. No one at the BFI actually told me that that was the reason Shadows was on the list (though I have to say that my intuition was confirmed by a recent conversation with one of the men who put the list together, who told me that he personally had voted for the inclusion of Shadows for precisely those reasons).

Interviewer: Why would Shadows' racial subject matter so much in terms of being voted onto a list of film classics?

Carney: Oh this sort of thing happens all the time. It's a symptom of the flat-mindedness of most film appreciation – the fallacy of treating films as if they were equivalent to their subject matter. People who don't really understand art are always doing that. Charlie Rose and the N.Y. Times do the same thing when they regard Spielberg as a serious filmmaker just because he makes movies about the Holocaust or World War II. As if a movie were a historical document, and its importance was equivalent to the historical importance of its subject matter. It's probably why Husbands and A Woman Under the Influence and Love Streams didn't make the BFI list either. And The Manchurian Candidate did! It's the reason Spike Lee's work seems to be more important than Charles Burnett's – the opposite of the correct valuation.

Interviewer: I see your point. But to return to my question, can you describe some of the behind-the-scenes events connected with getting your books published?

Carney: Sure. There is plenty to tell. Most people have no idea of the hurdles a book manuscript has to clear in order to get published, or how many commercial constraints there are on what gets into print. The basic thing a beginning writer has to realize is that the book business is a business. It's devoted to making a profit. You have to accept that fact and deal with it. That means not giving up or getting discouraged when you are doing something different from what the market wants and appreciates. In terms of my writing on indie film, I've always felt like I invested in a stock that will be worth thousands of dollars a hundred years from now, but that when I was buying and selling it, starting back in the seventies and eighties, seemed worthless. It's good to be ahead of the market – in stocks and ideas, but if you too far ahead, you'll lose your shirt.

Interviewer: Can you talk about the publishing history of the three books in a little detail?

Carney: All three illustrate the business side of publishing in different ways. I'll start with the Shadows book. I had these excruciating tussles with the editor over the length. The manuscript I submitted was, as books go, very short – something like 35 or 40,000 words. As a comparison, the book I wrote on Mike Leigh for Cambridge is around 110,000 words, almost three times that length. What I submitted would have printed up at around 96 pages in the BFI format – the same as a lot of their other volumes – on Bonnie and Clyde, High Noon, Lolita, and The Wings of the Dove, for example – and shorter than some of them – like the one on Titanic. But the editor, a guy named Rob White, went ballistic when he saw how long it was.

He pointed out that my contract had called for 21,000 words, which would print up as around 60 pages. I hadn't paid much attention to the length clause in the contact since I had no idea it would be strictly enforced. Most publishers don't mind if you give them ten or twenty thousand words over the limit. I tend to write long so I always do that. I think of it as giving them more than their money's worth – like you give someone fourteen donuts even if they are only paying for a dozen. [Laughing] And on top of that, I had the typical author's delusion that the brilliance of my text would dazzle him so he wouldn't want to cut a word of it.

Was I in for a shock. He saw things differently. He had budgeted the book as a maximum of 64-printed pages and that was that. He told me to cut it down to the contracted length.

Interviewer: Why was he so strict about the length?

Carney: It's the business thing we're talking about. Titanic is a big box-office smash. Bonnie and Clyde is a cult favorite. Books about those films are calculated to sell five or ten times the number of copies of a book about an old, obscure movie like Shadows. The BFI is willing to spend a lot more on them, and let them be longer.

Interviewer: Even a place like the British Film Institute operates that way when they publish books? The page count of a book is supposed to be proportional to the box office appeal of a film?

Carney: That's right. They apportion things that way, and everyone else does too. That's my point. The editor told to me to get it down to the contracted length or he would kill it.

Interviewer: That means not publish it at all?

Carney: That's what it means. And he wasn't bluffing.

The math is not too hard to do. To bring it in at 21,000 words I would have had to remove approximately half of what I had written. Before I had turned in the manuscript, I had already made a lot of cuts. There was a lot more to say than I had had space for. I thought it was already too short. The cuts would have destroyed the book. I'll give you an example. The editor was particularly adamant about the Appendix where I compare the two versions of the film. He said it wasn't really necessary and would definitely have to go. That was just to get me started. There was another ten or fifteen thousand words to cut on top of that.

I can be pretty pig-headed at times. So I refused. I knew he wasn't kidding, and I also knew no other publisher would ever be interested in printing such a small, specialized text; but I decided I just couldn't do it. I'd rather the book was never published than it be gutted like that. I told him that. Things got pretty tense.

Fortunately, at the last minute, his boss intervened and told me that he would allow a printed length of 80-pages, which subsequently became 88-pages, after some more negotiation, if I would pay for the so-called 24-page overrun out of my own pocket. Even that meant cutting about five or six thousand words and some illustrative material. That's why the book has no bibliography and the footnotes are so abridged; but I agreed. Paying to get my manuscript published didn't strike me as the best terms I had ever been offered by a publisher, but it was that or nothing.

Interviewer: I'm shocked that you had to pay for the publication of part of your own book.

Carney: I wasn't shocked. I was disappointed and my pride was hurt a little – but I'm used to that! [Laughing] You can't be doing this sort of thing for the money. You'd kill yourself if you were in it for the money. I lose money on everything I write. Sometimes a heck of lot more than I did in this case! I'm used to spending my own money. I wasn't going to be making anything on the book even before that. I forget what the exact advance was, but I think it was around six or seven hundred dollars. Maybe a little more or less than that. But whatever it was it wouldn't even pay for a single research trip to a film archive in another city.

If we're talking about lessons for young authors, I guess that's another thing a beginning writer should realize. Writing doesn't pay the rent. Don't quit your day job! I don't think anyone writing anything serious about film in America can make a profit, unless your name is Roger Ebert - if you count what he does as serious writing. (Click here to read another statement about the financial realities of serious, scholarly research and publication.)

For more insight into the way film book publishing really works, read Ray Carney's answer to an interviewer's question about whether there will be a new edition of his BFI/University of California book on Shadows as a result of of his discovery of the long-lost first version of the film:

"I wrote to the editor of my previous book, Rob White at the British Film Institute, and offered to revise the old book or write a completely new one in the light of the discovery. He told me he was not interested. No book will be published. The BFI would rather put their money into books on blockbusters - better known movies like Titanic or The Exorcist or Taxi Driver. They sell better. They do revised editions of them, not of a book like mine about Shadows.

But don't think that they are picking on Shadows. Or that the BFI is any different from other publishers. That's just the way publishing is. I have eight or ten unpublished books on my hard drive. That's the nature of publishing. Everybody wants to make a buck and if a project won't bring in the moola, no one is interested. If I were writing about physics or biology, it might be different, but academic publishing in terms of film books is about making money first and foremost. It's another effect of Hollywood. Its focus on money has polluted our imaginations in the publishing realm too."

Interviewer: How about the Cassavetes on Cassavetes and the John Cassavetes: Adventure of Insecurity books? Can you talk about publishing them?

Carney: In the interview with Jim McKay I told the story of how I self-published the Adventure of Insecurity book. It cost me about ten thousand dollars. Of which I've made back four or five hundred! [Laughing] How's that for a return on your investment? I could have done worse. I could have bought Enron.

The lesson of self-publishing for a writer is a little like the lesson of self-distribution for a filmmaker. Writing and printing a book is the easy part. You write it, and you work with a designer to lay it out and make it look good, and you call up a printer and make arrangements to have it printed and bound on nice paper. No problem. The hard part is selling it. Getting it into bookstores. I haven't figured that one out.

Self-distribution has also taught me a few lessons about human nature. I get requests from people running film festivals to send them fifty or a hundred copies to sell, and repeatedly get stiffed. A girl who ran a big festival in Los Angeles in the fall of 2001 just did it to me again.

Interviewer: Did what?

Carney: Well, wrote me this emotional letter about how she believed in Cassavetes and how she was organizing these screenings at a Los Angeles movie theater and could I mention the screenings on my website and send her promotional material and boxes of books and other stuff for her events. So that she could do the whole thing up right. Of course I fell for it, just like I always do. So then she writes me a few months later after it's all over saying she has sold everything but can't pay me because she lost the money or something. She's in California. What I am going to do? Fly out there and find out where she lives? The only consolation is that Cassavetes told me a similar story about self-distributing his films. One involved the Yale University film program stiffing him for rentals. Yale! So I'm in good company. I don't take it personally. But it is another lesson for a starving author! Get the money in advance!

As I told Jim McKay, the Cassavetes on Cassavetes book saga extended over more than a decade. I could talk for a couple hours about it. So I'll pass over how I spent years unsuccessfully shopping the book to American publishers and repeatedly getting turned down. No one was interested. I'll skip to the point when a British publisher, Faber, contracted for the book. This is around the summer of 1997. They wanted the final manuscript by the spring of 1998 so that the book could be out by the tenth anniversary of Cassavetes' death in February 1999. But it wasn't done at that point and I missed the deadline.

Interviewer: I don't understand why you missed the deadline, since according to what you told McKay, you had been working on the manuscript for seven or eight years and had sent finished drafts to American publishers several years before. Why wasn't it ready in time?

Carney: Well, it's a complicated emotional thing. The manuscript was complete. The manuscript had been complete a number of times, but now that it was really going to be published I didn't want to let it go until I felt it was really right.

Interviewer: What was wrong with it?

Carney: It's just that the longer I worked on it, the less sure I became about everything. I had begun with all this clarity and certainty, but the more people I talked to and the deeper I got into Cassavetes' life, the fuzzier the picture got. My goals also changed. When I began I simply wanted to narrate the facts and events in his life, interspersed with his own words. It was a picture from the outside. But as I kept working on it, it got deeper. I wanted to get into his heart and soul, and that was a lot harder to do. And it wasn't merely a writing problem that could be solved by putting more time and effort into it. It was a conceptual problem. I felt that I didn't understand him. The more I knew, the less I understood.

So I kept researching, talking to people who knew him, recasting and rewriting, chewing through one manuscript after another, changing things, and in the process pushing back the submission date with Faber. I don't know if the manuscript would ever have been published if Faber hadn't given me one of those drop-dead deadlines you sometimes need to finish a project like this.

Interviewer: What do you mean?

Carney: Doing something like this becomes part of your life. It's like a love affair. You define your existence in terms of it. You dream about it. You think about it when you're biking or blading. There's a part of you that never wants to let go. But the editor at Faber told me the manuscript absolutely had to be done by August 2000 because they were determined to publish it in time for a retrospective of Cassavetes' films being mounted in the UK. The festival was scheduled to open at the National Film Theater in March 2001 and the book had to be in bookstores in time for the press hoopla.

Interviewer: Did you make the deadline?

Carney: [Laughing] Barely! I'll give you the blow by blow. I destroyed and created the manuscript three or four more times, then turned in the final version on disk and hard copy on the last possible day. Actually a few days after the deadline. But the problem was that each time I had re-done it, it had gotten longer. My contract had stipulated a book around 70 or 80 thousand words, but the version I turned in was approximately four times that - something like 300,000, which would have printed up at around 800 pages even in small type. The BFI curse struck again!

[Laughing] I know. I know. Stupid. Self-destructive. Doomed. Crazy. But try to understand. When you're writing, you live in a state of self-delusion. You indulge in magical thinking. You have to. It's what keeps you going through all the hard, slow parts. While I am working on something, one part of my brain is in sheer terror that it will never be published and no one ever read it – because it's too long, too hard, too extreme, or whatever – but the other part is totally convinced that the whole world, including all the editors and copy-editors involved, will bow down and herald it as the greatest thing ever written. I had convinced myself that even if what I submitted was as long as Proust's Recherche, when the Faber editor saw how magnificent it was, he would forget about the length. Of course editors inhabit a less emotional, less fantasy-prone world.

Interviewer: Why can't you just write the correct length?

Carney: You sound like David Thomson. He once asked me what was my problem. Why couldn't I just do what I was asked to do and write to a certain length? I just can't work that way. The writing tells me how long it should be. I don't tell it. Anything else is just doing a job as far as I am concerned. I'm not making shoes or two-thumbs-up gloves. I'm not working for someone else. I'm writing to explore something that I don't know about. Things that don't fit into a mold. Things that aren't mapped. So I can't know how long it will take to get there or what shape they'll be in when they're done. That's what I'm trying to find out.

Interviewer: So you're saying you just disregarded the length clause in the contract. Did you warn your editor how long the manuscript would be?

Carney: Authors and editors do some sort of dance. Whether of courtship or death, I don't know. I had given him hints that it would be long, but I never had the nerve to tell him the word count. I had lived in fear of this moment for months. When I sent the final manuscript. I kept hoping either he wouldn't notice or it wouldn't matter. I tried all the usual stupid undergraduate tricks to camouflage the length – letting out the margins, using a proportional font, line and a half spacing, etc.. I thought that maybe with the NFT deadline encroaching, he wouldn't have time to check the length and would just rush the book into print without looking at it. I know. Right now, as I look back on it, I realize how crazy I was. As if a five-inch thick stack of paper wouldn't stand out.

The Faber editor, Walter Donohue is his name, is a very nice man. He was very gentle, very sweet, very complimentary; but he told me I simply had to cut the manuscript down to the stipulated length. In other words, cut out two-thirds of it or even more than that. And in a hurry! It was the response I had feared and dreaded for months. The end of the yellow brick road. I felt like rolling over and dying. I had spent ten years on the project at this point, and Faber was the only publisher who had showed any interest in it at all. And now I was faced with this.

Interviewer: What did you do?

Carney: It was a real crisis. There was a real question in my mind as to whether the book would ever be published in any form. Ten years of work that might not see the light of day. I didn't sleep for a couple of nights. As with the BFI thing, I realized that I could cut the book in half. But it wouldn't be the book I had written, the one I had dreamed of all those months.

So I did the only thing I could. I emailed Donohue and told him I formally withdrew the manuscript, asked him to send it back, and apologized for wasting his time. I decided I would rather not publish it at all than see it hacked up that way. It was the only decision I felt I could live with. He said he would return it.

I got on the phone and made a series of frantic efforts to find an American publisher. I tried to entice them by describing the upcoming NFT events and the tie-in possibilities. I ran to Kinko's and had copies made and FedExed a few to editors I knew personally. A few days went by. No one was interested. In desperation I called a printer to see what it would cost to lay out and self-publish an eight-hundred page book with 200 illustrations and a sewn binding. The printer laughed at me. It was way too much for me to afford. That was the real end of the line.

A few days later, to my complete surprise the Faber editor got back in touch with me by email. He said he had discussed the situation with some of their people and if I could hold the final printed text to 544 pages (which was some sort of magic number in terms of size and cost), he would move it into production. So I ditched about fifty or sixy thousand words of text (or something like that, I now forget), 30 pages of back matter – the footnotes and the space reserved for the index – and about 100 photos I had planned to include. I squeaked in under the limit. In fact, when the book was published I discovered that I had apparently miscalculated and cut two pages more than I had had to. I wish I had known. I would have included another thousand words!

Interviewer: Did the book appear in time for the National Film Theater events?

Carney: With minutes to spare. No thanks to me of course! Even after the big block cuts, I kept making dozens of little changes as the manuscript was being laid out and proofread. The copy-editor was a saint – the most patient and forbearing human being I have ever known. I was the sausage packer determined to squeeze two pounds of meat into a one-pound casing. I would have him play with the size and placement of a photo so I could try to squeeze in another sentence of text. Or I would have him cut a sentence to try to fit in another photo. Or I would have him restore something that I had already cut if I found white space on the final page of a chapter. I remember emailing him six pages of final adjustments twelve hours before the disk was supposed to go to the printers! I know, I know. I'm impossible. I admit it. But Faber pulled off a miracle. Forty days after it went to the printer, books were sitting in London bookstores.

Interviewer: Are those the two worst publishing experiences you've ever had?

Carney: They aren't the worst! The worst are the books in my file cabinets – the ones I've written but never been able to publish. I have six or seven of those. Where did you get the idea these were bad experiences? They are success stories! Look at the two books. They are terrific! The system works. I am not complaining; I am just being completely candid about what it takes to get something into print.

There's always some sort of compromise. It's really been pretty much the same with everything I've written. I had to cut more than 100 pages of discussions of American painting from my American Vision book because the editor couldn't understand what they had to do with film. Of course the book was the answer to the question. I had to cut the chapters on Husbands and Opening Night as well as most of the discussions of American intellectual history from my Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies book, since that editor, a different one, thought that book was too long and didn't think discussions of Emerson, Schiller, James, and Dewey belonged in a film book. I had to gouge huge hunks out of my Leigh book for similar reasons.

The fact that the experiences repeat with different editors proves that no particular editor is at fault. It's my problem. I create it. The system resists anything really ambitious or challenging or different. Publishers aren't any different from film producers. They don't want something that doesn't fit into a pre-existing category or pre-established length. They want a book like the last book. I'm never able to give them that.

Interviewer: So you are not mad at these editors?

Carney: No. They're just doing their jobs. I can understand where they are coming from. Unless it's by Pauline Kael or Roger Ebert or some other celebrity reviewer, people don't want to read a film book that is more than about three or four hundred pages. I have a 1300-page, two-volume edition of my Cassavetes on Cassavetes, but I realize that's more than most people want to know about him.

Interviewer: Run that by me again. The part about the two-volume edition of Cassavetes on Cassavetes.

Carney: I forgot to say before that I continued revising the Cassavetes on Cassavetes manuscript after the final text went to the printer. I just couldn't stop. I felt that I had rushed it in those final months and that there was more that needed to be done. More to say. More to ponder. I wasn't doing it for publication by that point, but for myself. So I kept working on it. I spent thousands of hours. I changed a lot of things around; I dug deeper; I ferreted out new material; I did some more interviews with people who had worked with Cassavetes. I wanted to really finish the job. To go every inch of the final mile, to see where it took me. I restored the passages I had cut for Faber, and kept working on the manuscript up until quite recently – about eighteen months of additional work. On top of everything else, after the Faber volume was published a lot of people I didn't know before came out of the woodwork. They called me up or emailed me to tell me they had things to add – new stories or things that I hadn't heard about. So I added them. The manuscript got so long that I organized it into two volumes. The first goes from Beginnings through Husbands, and the second from Minnie and Moskowitz through The Final Years. I have it all put together as a 100,000-word addendum to the published manuscript, a 400-page correction sheet that has all the changes and new material in it, keyed to the exact places where it all goes. If I do say so myself, it's really wonderful. A much better, much deeper, much stranger portrait of the artist. What an amazing human being Cassavetes was.

Interviewer: Any plans to publish it?

Carney: Is that a joke? Are you taunting me?

Interviewer: No. I'm serious. I'm sure there are many people who would like to read it.

Carney: I just don't know. I wasn't doing it for anyone but myself. And I'm not under any illusions that the world is holding its breath for it. It would be nice if it were published, of course, now or after my death; but to do it I'd have to get permission from or pay a fee to Faber. Or have them publish it as an expanded second edition. I don't know if that will ever happen. Robert Caro can write four volumes and 4000 pages about Lyndon Johnson, but people who buy film books don't have the same degree of interest, particularly in someone like Cassavetes. That's sad to me. But true.

I also re-wrote the table that is at the end of the Shadows book. Some of it had been shortened for the BFI book so I restored the cut material, and I also discovered some new things about the film that I wanted to add to it. But they'll never agree to publish the complete table. (I sell a typescript of it on my web site, but no publisher will go near it.) I do these things not for someone else, but for myself. I'd love to see them published but I am doing them for other reasons. For truth not for publication. They are more than most people want to know. When it comes to film, people want less. They want glitz not substance.

And they don't want writing that makes demands on them. They want something about the level of The New York Times or The New Yorker. Zippy. Peppy. Punny. Witty. Clever. I've never been able to do that and I never will. I'm resigned to that fact. I have no desire to write that way. I hate cleverness!

Heck, let's face it, most people, even smart ones, don't want critical interpretation at all. They want celebrity biography – dished up with a little seasoning of spicy gossip. Look at the best seller lists. The books that aren't self-help or advice to the lovelorn are all biographies. Our culture is biography-happy. If my critical writing takes it on the chin, my Cassavetes on Cassavetes book has probably benefited from that cultural craziness, even if it is a case of mistaken identity.

Interviewer: What do you mean?

Carney: I don't do biography – at least not the kind people who read these books want. The Cassavetes on Cassavetes book is a biography of Cassavetes' soul. That's not what they want.

Interviewer: Why do you think people are drawn to biographies?

Carney: Good reasons and bad. There's nothing more fascinating and mysterious than the path we take through life. That's why even the most ordinary biography is more gripping than the hyped-up drama in a Hollywood movie. It's why I think documentaries are the great contemporary art form and why I like them – when they are good. I don't mean the ones on A&E or the ones Ken Burns does. But of course a lot of the interest in contemporary biography is simple voyeurism. Particularly with celebrities. Look at the popularity of that show about the Osbornes. It's the sad vicariousness of our culture.

But the artist is the one person who can't be dealt with in a conventional biography. The most important part of his life is inside him, not in his actions but his consciousness. And that's written in his work far better than it can ever be written by a biographer. The only reason people read biographies of artists is because it's easier to understand the trivial events in an artist's life than the deep ones in his heart and mind. To get the soul you have to look at the work or read really good, insightful criticism. But there's darn little of that! And great criticism is too hard for most people to understand. Facts and events are a lot easier to follow. But when you get down to it, who has a life that is reducible to things like that?

To read two more discussions of the realities of publishing, click here and here.

This page contains an excerpt from an interview with Ray Carney. In the selection above, he talks about being a writer. The complete interview this is taken from is available in a new packet titled What's Wrong with Film Teaching, Criticism, and Reviewing – And How to Do It Right, which covers many other topics. For more information about Ray Carney's writing on independent film, including information about how to obtain the complete text of this interview and two other packets of interviews in which he gives his views on film, criticism, teaching, the life of a writer, and the path of the artist, click here.

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Text Copyright 2003 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.