The Art of the Deal

Just four years ago, Alexs Pate was a writing prole, with two completed novels in a drawer, a half-dozen others jostling in his head, and a pile of rejection slips that went back 15 years. Pate was a self-identified novelist from the jump. He wrote one in college, called The Dragon's Blood, about a black man in an insane asylum and his vivid nightmares of killing dragons and being burnt alive. One night, trying to bring back proof to his disbelieving doctors, he carves up an orderly, and ends up lobotomized, as in Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. "It was a story about the '60s, about the Black Power movement," Pate says. "It was a story, underneath it all, about what you do with all this rage."

The manuscript got a nibble from an editor at Random House in New York, who eventually stopped taking Pate's calls. "I was really despondent about it, for years," Pate says. "Couldn't write. Couldn't write fiction. I wrote a couple of plays. Then I moved here and started doing the corporate thing." Three years with an urban-development company owned by Control Data was followed by a stint as a consultant. All the while, the unwritten stories and unrealized ambitions came to haunt him.

"Finally, I just decided to throw my heart into this and take that vow of poverty," Pate says. He landed a professorship at Macalester and taught writing at The Loft, all the while dogged by the phrase, "those that can't do, teach." The academic cliché, "publish or perish," became his artistic credo. Pate wrote another novel, Losing Absalom, but by the early '90s, after five years of trying, still hadn't found a place for it beyond his drawer. "That was probably as low as I've ever been," he says.

Flash forward to April, 1997. Alexs Pate, author of two critically respected but commercially modest novels, Losing Absalom and Finding Makeba, gets a phone call from his agent. A Ms. Debbie Allen has inquired about his availability for a plum assignment that could change the course of his career. Debbie Allen the dancer, the actress from Fame? Yes, that Debbie Allen--but more to the point, Debbie Allen the movie producer. She asks if Pate is interested in writing a novel based on a screenplay. It requires a real literary effort, she explains, because this is going to be a prestige project, a serious film about a serious subject that everyone will soon be talking about. The director is the most successful storyteller in the modern world: Steven Spielberg.

The story is epic and it is true. In 1839, slave traders snatch the son of a Mende chief from the outskirts of his African village and throw him in the hold of a Spanish vessel known as the Amistad for the brutal middle passage to America. During a storm off the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, he yanks a loosened nail out of the creaking ship and uses it to spring the lock on his chains and those of his fellow captives, triggering mutiny and bloodshed. While the Africans plan a return to their home continent, the trickery of the helmsman sees them quickly recaptured, and delivered to Hartford, Connecticut, a slave-holding state. The 53 would-be slaves are soon arrested and put on trial in an American court, where they are defended by the venerable ex-President John Quincy Adams. Ultimately, the Amistad revolt and its aftermath will presage the reckoning of the Civil War, test the morality of a still-nascent U.S. Constitution, and initiate the destruction of many African slave factories.

It was the story of a living nightmare with real dragon's blood. And hell yes; Pate was interested. As an African American growing up on the streets of Philadelphia, he knew the psychological terrain of the resilient ones, the survivors. Less directly, his stint in the corporate world gave him a feel for the machinations and motivations of Adams and then-President Martin Van Buren. And as a Navy veteran, he knew the pitch and churn of ocean travel, and had, in fact, been researching a pirate novel for the past five years himself. "I really love the whole idea of black people on water," he says. "Of course I wasn't thinking about them in chains."

Which gets to the reason why Steven Spielberg might invite a relatively obscure Minneapolis novelist on board the U.S.S. DreamWorks. When indulging the gee willikers side of his muse--the comic-book pulp of Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones, or the tear-jerking E.T.--Spielberg is pretty much infallible. But that boyish affinity for cardboard carnage and innocent sentimentality makes him less sure-handed when dealing with the more substantial fare he needs to establish a legacy as a profound artist. For all its many strengths, Schindler's List averts the camera's eye from the execution of the Holocaust's most disturbing acts, and lacks the self-awareness to grasp the unfortunate irony that it is ultimately a heartfelt paean to a good German. And the last time Spielberg traversed the minefield of American race relations, in The Color Purple, his penchant for hypercontextualized good-versus-evil caused a social uproar by reducing nearly every black male character into a two-dimensional villain.

By contrast, Pate's two published novels have been courageously delicate portraits of complex domestic dramas that are aimed at his own African American community. Finding Makeba, for example, details the emotional grit required of a father to achieve rapprochement with the child he abandoned to advance his career (ironically, the exact subject Spielberg botched with his ham-handed spectacle Hook). As a gracefully understated African American writer who has garnered more artistic respect than commercial notoriety, Pate may be everything Spielberg is not.

To have Pate produce a literary novel based on the screenplay Spielberg had hired two white men to create was at once a public show of good faith (like the casting of many African and Spanish actors and the film's extensive use of subtitles) and a shrewd political move. Within the crass mind-set that inevitably drives publicity for a Hollywood blockbuster, Pate's book might be viewed as a boutique project that adds class and luster to the Amistad blitz; not incidentally, it also gives Spielberg something of a racial insurance policy.

For his part, Pate was not without ulterior motives. After all, who among us is so self-righteous as to turn down Steven Spielberg?

"I got into the project before I knew what I was doing," Pate says, without remorse, over lunch in Uptown Minneapolis. "I didn't get paid a lot of money; it wasn't about that. It was about moving into another range, another readership level, or maybe a couple of readership levels. And if I can hold on to some of the folks who will be exposed to this, maybe they will come back and buy my next book, or buy the ones I've already written. Because I don't write like Terry McMillan; this is as close as I can come to bridging the gap from the literary to the commercial. So I just decided that, given the conditions I was working under, with just a couple of months to write it, that I would try and do it with as much integrity as possible. I didn't even think about the potential downside."

That "downside," of course, was not knowing how much of the storytelling process Pate could control. "I have been thinking about myself as a builder of houses," he says. "Normally I sit down and think, 'What do I want this house to look like? How many rooms, what kind of molding?' Then I try to figure out what to build first and how to build it. In this case, somebody gave me the plans. But I'm still the craftsman. I still have to pick the molding, decide on the colors. I'm hoping that still makes it mine. I don't have to question the soundness of the conception--which can be a luxury. But you still worry: Will this stand up? So you just keep building, hoping that the son of a bitch who made the damn plans knew what they were doing."

So, did he?

Pate chuckles, and sips his Coke. "After I said yes, they sent me the script. I read the script and said, 'Hey, this isn't bad.' Then I went through this big box of research materials they had sent me, and I said, 'Well, hmmmmmmm. A lot of good stuff is not in there.'"

Pate found himself drawn to Cinque, the son of the Mende chief and catalyst of the Amistad revolt. In Spielberg's Amistad, Cinque is one of several primary characters, played by Djimon Hounsou, an African actor unknown in this country; he shares the screen with Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams, and Morgan Freeman as a free black man and former slave. Yet the more Pate delved into the research materials, the more he wanted Cinque's story to become his story.

"The image of the African being brought to this country is not something I or most other black people want to own," he says. "Because the image is so dehumanizing that we cannot deal with it. But suddenly, I was underneath the image. I understood that the image was dehumanizing, but the people who endured it weren't; they were still people! It was an incredible learning process for me. Because not only is this story true, but it is connected to me and my ancestors." Pate chuckles, and it's a laugh with an edge to it. "Tell me that won't kick off your muse!"

But then we return to the devil in the deal: The muse was his, but the Amistad story wasn't. "Yeah, that's right," Pate says, his dreadlocks bobbing. "Now I had to deal with the fact that I was writing a fiction based on a fiction based on a true thing--a very hurtful truth. The question then was, how subversive could I be? And so I made some rules up for myself. I decided I was not going to run away from the historical accuracy issue. After I completed my first draft, I got a call saying, 'We want it to look more similar to the movie.' Because I put some things in that were not in the screenplay and said [the DreamWorks editors] would have to make the adjustments, [and] take them out themselves. Also there were some writing things that I knew would be problematic, like run-on sentences, groping metaphors, whatever. And when I got my first editorial line memo back, I just wrote back and said: This is who I am as a writer; I'm going to do these things."

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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