The Art of the Deal

In its final form, Pate's Amistad produced a compromise that seems to have satisfied both sides. "When it was all said and done, they said, 'We're not going to call this a novelization, we're going to call it a novel based on the screenplay. We came to you because we wanted a literary novel and that's what we got.'"

"You notice I am calling this my third novel. I will claim this book because I feel like it is mine. I can't say it wasn't a collaboration, because the screenplay, with the dialogue and camera shots, were in front of me. But there were times when, even if what they were saying was there, what they were thinking wasn't. You tell me: We're in a courtroom and there is this black guy in chains and this white judge and a white prosecutor and a black free guy, and the camera is going boom, boom, boom, among them. Where is the general viewer going to be? How can he get into this man's mind, the guy in chains? That's what I took on as my job.

"There is a point in the courtroom where Cinque jumps up and says, 'Give us free!' It is a big moment; he has never spoken English the entire film. It is not possible for the film to capture the gathering storm brewing inside that man before it happens. But I can. That's why I say I repossessed Cinque, and repossessed this story for myself."

There is also a part of Pate, though, that must somehow know that this book doesn't measure up to his previous work. Asked how he feels about the distinct possibility that he will be best known for Amistad, there is a long pause before the author responds:

"I don't know what to say. I've thought about it. I did an interview with Entertainment Weekly and got off the phone and then I had to call them back and say, 'You've got to mention Losing Absalom and Finding Makeba; you've just got to. Because that's the only way I've got out of this.'"

Pate's pride and his reservations about Amistad are both justified. Anchored by the heroic endurance of Cinque, the book is a quick, riveting read--an untrammeled account of a shameful chapter in American history. Its grace and artistry are miles beyond most other film-based books, which, after all, are mostly sold between the candy bars and the tabloids at the grocery-store checkout.

Yet compared to Pate's previous novels, the texture of Amistad's narrative is brittle and the weaving of character and plot is rudimentary. It is just what you might expect from a talented, conscientious writer jamming out 316 pages in a two-month span while trying to serve two masters: his own instincts and a Hollywood blueprint.

There is a world premiere of Spielberg's Amistad set for December out in L.A. Pate says he doesn't know if he is going; so far, he hasn't been invited. With the writing of Amistad behind him, the author is preparing the release of his fourth novel, Multi-Culti Boho, an irreverent work he describes as "a postmodern murder-mystery satire" that grew out of a play he wrote with local author David Mura. Pate had originally planned to release West of Rehobeth as his next book. "It's an almost juvenile-oriented novel," he says, "about a young black boy who goes to the beach on vacation and meets an old guy. It is about their friendship. It's a very quiet book, and my publisher thought now might be a good time to come out with Boho, which has more cross-over potential."

And what of The Dragon's Blood? "You know one day," Pate says, suddenly animated, "one day maybe I'll go back to it. It was like, totally unchecked, wild energy. That's the thing about being a young writer. There is a part of me that does not think I can ever recapture that wildness."

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