"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

Book Pleasures Interviews Writer, Producer, Career Coach, Teacher and Literary Manager, Dr. Ken Atchity

Bookpleasures.com welcomes guest writer, producer, career coach, teacher, and literary manager, responsible for launching hundreds of books and films, Dr. Ken Atchity.

Ken's life passion is finding great storytellers and turning them into bestselling authors and screenwriters.

Ken has produced over 30 films, including “Angels in the Snow” (Kristy Swanson), "Hysteria" (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy, Informant Media), "Erased" (Aaron Eckhart, Informant), the Emmy-nominated "The Kennedy Detail" (Discovery), "The Lost Valentine" (Betty White; Hallmark Hall of Fame), "Joe Somebody" (Tim Allen; Fox), "Life or Something Like It" (Angelina Jolie; Fox), and "14 Days with Alzheimer's."

Nearly twenty of his clients’ books have been New York Times
bestsellers. His new imprint, Story Merchant Books, has published more than 150 titles in its first three years. Ken’s many books include books for writers atevery stage of their careers, and, recently, three novels, Seven Ways to Die (with the late William Diehl), The Messiah Matrix and Brae Mackenzie.

Norm: Good day Ken and thanks for participating in our interview.

Ken: My pleasure, Norm. My Story Merchant authors love your blogsite.

Norm; Could you tell us a little about people you have met or books you have read that have inspired you to embark on your various career hats that you have worn?

Ken: That’s a great question. I’ve had many inspiring mentors, from whom I’ve learned the fundamentals that have shaped my life.

Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins, who urged me to leave my tenured academic position to challenge my abilities and aspirations in the world of commercial storytelling.

Yale President and Baseball Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti, whose course in the Renaissance inspired me to follow his model, and become a practicing “Renaissance man.”

I ran into him in the Yale Club elevator one day. He said, “Atchity, what is this I hear about a professor of comparative literature producing romance movies?” I said: “What is this about the President of Yale becoming the Baseball Commissioner?”

Psychology Today editor Paul Chance, who counter-inspired me by saying, “Find your niche, young man. Find your niche.”

I swore when he said that, in turning down my proposal to publish DreamWorks, a journal exploring the relationship between the arts and dreams, that I would NEVER be a niche-person. And it’s true years later. I found a publisher for the journal, by the way: New York’s Human Sciences Press.

Novelist-professor John Gardner, who urged me to clean my writing of all academic spider webs and write and speak clear English that everyone could understand. He also told me to start a file for crazy letters, critical or otherwise, called “Cranks & Weirdos”—and put letters in it without reading more than enough to determine they belong there. That file is about four inches deep at this point.

Norm: In the last few years have you seen any changes in the way publishers publish and/or distribute books? Are there any emerging trends developing?

Ken: The last few years have seen nothing but change in publishing. To begin with traditional publishers have nearly all been acquired by conglomerate international corporations. The impact of that is to make them focus almost entirely on the bottom line and to take fewer and fewer chances with new voices.
That’s exactly why I founded Story Merchant Books. It was getting discouraging watching promising new writers get nothing but rejection from the traditional publishers and I wanted books in my hand to take to my Hollywood associates. One day I thought, why don’t I make the books? The trend is definitely away from traditional publishing and toward this kind of direct publishing.

Norm: In your opinion, what is the most difficult part of the writing process? As a follow up, what, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing?

Ken: The most difficult part, by far, is finding a good story and letting it ruminate long enough to make the writing down of it almost like ‘automatic writing.’ Character is the heart of it, but plot is also important—and action that keeps moving the story along, preferably in unexpected directions.

Norm: What makes a good story and how do you go about finding great storytellers and turning them into bestselling authors and screenwriters? As a follow up, what is the process in determining if a book has film potential?

Ken: A great story transports the reader or the audience to its world, and you don’t want to leave it. You want to prolong the engagement, or repeat it. It sells you on that world and on its characters. If a story does that, it can be a film as well as a book.

I don’t go finding writers anymore; they come to me from my years of experience, from my books on writing, from my alumni as a professor, and from referrals from publishers, agents, studios, and independent producers.

Norm: Many writers want to be published, but not everyone is cut out for a writer's life. What are some signs that perhaps someone is not cut out to be a writer and should try to do something else for a living?

Ken: You can determine whether a writer is cut out for it or not the minute he starts asking you to help him determine, numerically, his risk-reward ratio. Real writers invest everything they can access, physically, mentally, psychologically, spiritually, and financially--to pursue their careers.

Norm: Do you feel that writers, regardless of genre owe something to readers, if not, why not, if so, why and what would that be?

Ken: Yes, they owe them a good story, thereby repaying them for the time the reader invests in their book. As I learned from Lowry Nelson, Jr., my Yale mentor, there is a “fictive contract” between the reader and the author under the terms of which the author sets expectations and then must fulfill those expectations satisfactorily.

You know you’re reading a good story when you begin by reading it faster and faster, and end up reading it more and more slowly because you don’t want to see it end. When that happens the author has fulfilled his part of the contract. When the reader posts a thoughtful review, he’s fulfilled his.

Norm: Do you ever suffer from writer's block? If so, what do you do about it?

Ken: I’ve never had writer’s block. “It’s a sign,” Norman Mailer said, “of failure of the ego.” I think the key to writing is having something to say, or some story to tell. I’ve never wanted for either.

My book A Writer’s Time (available as an e-Book as Write: Time) gives good advice about dealing with it. One of my points: “Never sit down to write until you know what you’re going to write before you sit down.”

Norm: What is Story Merchant Books all about and what do you look for when accepting to publish a book?

Ken: I started Story Merchant Books to give promising new writers a professional entrée into the story marketplace, and I’m happy to say that even mid-career writers and several estates have found their way to SMB as well. I almost always base the decision on the strength of the story and the voice behind it—as well as my being able to envision it as a film.

Norm: Could you tell our readers about your two recent novels, The Messiah Matrix and Brae Mackenzie.

Ken: After I was asked to finish the late and much-admired William Diehl’s unfinished thriller, Seven Ways to Die, and discovered I really did have a knack for fiction (most of my previous books were nonfiction).

Messiah Matrix was based on my first lifetime of classical learning and teaching and the childhood comparisons I heard from the Jesuits between Caesar and Jesus.

It got such great response—including outrageous attacks on those who insisted on regarding it as nonfiction—that I revised a novel I’d drafted years ago, and am just publishing it, Brae Mackenzie, about a discontent American woman who investigated her ancestral roots and finds the love of her life in the myths of Scotland, and a man who introduces her to them first-hand.

Norm: Are you working on any books/projects that you would like to share with us? (We would love to hear all about them!)

Ken: Yes, I’m working on my memoirs, A Story Merchant’s Story, which will be in several volumes. I think I’ve learned a lot in my various walks of life and it’s time to pass what I’ve learned on to others.

Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your work?

The Messiah Matrix
is a good start. Thanks for asking Norm.

Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.

Norm Goldman, B.A. LL.L, is the Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures, which he created in 2002.' Practicing law for over 35 years enabled Norm to transfer and apply to book reviewing his many skills that he had perfected during his career in the legal profession and as a result he became a prolific free lance book reviewer & author interviewer.  

To read more about Norm Follow Here

Check out this powerful broadcast with Mr. William G. Borchert Author of "How I Became My Father ... A Drunk!"

The Monty'man welcomes back William G. Borchert author of the most watched movie ever broadcast on television, "My Name is Bill W."

 Bill shares an extremely personal look into his own life in his new book, "How I Became My Father... A Drunk". This is the story of one of the world's most beloved authors of our time. His ability to share his story with a heart for those suffering from alcoholism as well as those who love the alcoholic is remarkable.

Last Plane Out of Saigon Guest Blogger: Allan Van Fleet

This week the Last Plane Out of Saigon team is honored to have a guest blogger! Allan Van Fleet is a respected lawyer from Houston, Texas, who recently went on a trip to Vietnam this past November. While there, he found the "Last Plane Out" picture of Richard Pena boarding one of the final flights out of Saigon. Van Fleet discovered the picture while visiting a museum in Hanoi and reached out to us. Below is Van Fleet's account of his visit to Vietnam, written exclusively for our blog! Included are his own photographs from the trip. We hope you enjoy this powerful piece by Allan Van Fleet.

It was already steamy by mid-morning November 8 2015.  I was in a boat on the Mekong River, on the border of Cambodia and Vietnam.

Earlier, when My girlfriend asked, “What do you think about this?” as she handed me a brochure for educational travel to Vietnam with her alumni association, I thought "Let's go." Previously, I could not have imagined a day when I would look forward to going to Vietnam.

But it is 2015 now. I can remember a time when I hoped like hell never to go to Vietnam.  In January 1971, on my 18th birthday, I registered for the draft in Luling, Texas.  That August, as I started Rice University, student deferments ended.  I was 1-A.

February 2, 1972 dawned cool and clear: a bluebird sky over Houston.  KTRU radio carried the draft lottery live.  One by one, birthdays were assigned call-up order numbers, which were broadcast across campus.  High numbers brought howls of relief.  Low numbers sent boys – we were still teenagers – to the ROTC building to postpone their trip to Southeast Asia.

Mine was 161.  Too low to celebrate, too high to sign up – or check road maps to Canada.  Like everyone in my cohort that night, I drank.  A lot.

Almost 50,000 draftees were inducted in 1972.  I was not one of them.  I heard that guys with numbers in the 150s were called for physicals.  I was not. Then, in January 1973, Nixon and Kissinger announced they had achieved “Peace with Honor” in Paris.  We all knew it was a ruse.  I didn’t care.  I wasn’t going.  It was over. Again, we drank.

On March 29, 1973 the last plane bringing home American troops left Saigon.  Decades later I would learn that Richard Pena was on that plane.

In the late 1990s, I knew of Richard as the President of the State Bar of Texas and got to know him when we both served in the American Bar Association House of Delegates.  He served as the State Delegate from Texas and I as the representative of the Section of Antitrust Law, which I would later chair.  I found him thoughtful and quiet, but passionate in his belief that law should first serve people, rather than fill pocketbooks.

It was when I was getting ready for my trip to Vietnam that I vaguely remembered Richard had published a memoir of his time in Vietnam. So I downloaded and read Last Plane Out of Saigon.  I had no idea it would be such a searing indictment of the war and its effect on men, such as Richard, who were forced to go despite their opposition to the senseless conflict.

I thought of Richard that morning as I stood on the deck of the Mekong Princess, crossing into Vietnam, and I thought of him often during the next two weeks.
From Last Plane Out of Saigon I learned the chaos of the operating theater when the wounded were brought in from battle.  From sampans in delta tributaries and canals and from dikes dividing rice paddies, I learned something of what it must have been like to fight a hidden – and effective and inspired – enemy.  Our group included Brian, a Yale alum who had been a second lieutenant in Vietnam, spotting artillery from helicopters. He gave us a feel for the horror that sent soldiers to the hospital where Richard served as a surgical assistant. American soldiers, that is. South Vietnamese soldiers had their own hospitals. North Vietnamese and Viet Cong bodies were counted and left for villagers to bury.

Richard recounts honestly the booze and drugs permeating his “downtime” in Saigon. In war – especially against guerrillas in their homeland – there is no downtime. So many not killed by the Viet Cong would die of drugs or drink back home.  

But on this trip mostly we learned about the war from the other side.  The Vietnamese call it The American War, which evolved from The French War.  We met no one – no one – who did not have family killed or wounded in the war. No one believes the official estimate of 1.2 million dead.  It’s more like 3 million, almost a tenth of the population at the time.  Nam, our guide in the Mekong Delta and Saigon (which the locals still call Ho Chi Minh City), was originally from Hanoi and had three uncles who fought for the North.  One came back alive.  He had been an artillery and mortar spotter, like Brian, but was up in trees, not helicopters.  The remains of a second uncle were discovered ten years after the war ended. (North Vietnamese soldiers had no dog tags; he had written his name on paper he put in a glass penicillin vile found in a mass grave.) One uncle is among the 500,000 still missing. A half a million Vietnamese men missing to this day.

The visit to the War Museum in Saigon was hard.  Of course, told from the victors’ point of view, its story vilifies the Americans and their “puppets” in the South.  Yet, a memorial wall comprises photographs of those who died from all sides – including American soldiers.  The room depicting Agent Orange victims – to this generation – was especially difficult.  The amount of toxins poured onto the land and people (including American soldiers) was stunning.

I could not find the photo of Richard among those chronicling the end of the American intervention.  That would come later in Hanoi.

From Saigon, we traveled by bus to Cu Chi. Here we would experience the elaborate tunnel system constructed to shelter guerillas – and Vietnamese civilians – from the carpet bombing one presidential candidate wants to bring to the Middle East.  We walked around craters the size of swimming pools and crawled through the cramped tunnels.

At an outdoor lecture hall we met Nem, who at 17 lost his right arm and eye in a firefight with Americans.  With Nam translating, Nem told us he never liked the term “Viet Cong.”  That was coined by Americans, as shorthand for “Vietnamese Communists.” 

Nem said he was never a party member, nor were those who fought and lived in the tunnels along with him.  They were nationalists who wanted nothing more than an independent and united country free of the French and free of the Americans.  But he – as everyone else we met – held no personal animosity toward Americans. “We got news reports of the many American people – especially students – who were against the war.  That encouraged us.” 

On the way back to Saigon, we stopped at a war cemetery. Row upon row of identical headstones reminded me of US military cemeteries, such as, the one at Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, where my father, grandfather and uncle are buried. The large sculpture of a woman grieving over a fallen soldier reminded us of the families left bereft.

Throughout the trip, Brian had been enthusiastic – exuberant, really – sharing his experiences and his copious knowledge of American and Vietnamese weapons and tactics. Our best “formal” lecture on board the Mekong Princess had featured Brian and Nam telling their different sides of the war.

That afternoon, Brian was the last to return to the bus from the cemetery.  And there he lost it.  The former Army officer who directed artillery fire onto the Vietnamese wept openly.  Nam, who lost much of his family in the war, took Brian in his arms.  All of us on the bus watched and wept with them.

I would learn later that Brian returned from Vietnam to protest the war, including at the massive March on Washington.  Richard protested in Austin, before serving.  I only protested the 1972 Christmas bombings of Hanoi.  It was protest light.  My first courtroom experience was watching the arraignment of Rice students who had chained themselves the same federal courthouse in serious protest.

Back in Saigon at night, we sat in the rooftop bar of the Rex Hotel.  Specialty drinks included the “B-52” and the “Five-o’clock Follies” – the name journalists gave to the ludicrously optimistic daily briefings the US military provided from the Rex.  We looked over the grand plaza that ran for dozens of blocks along Nguyễn Huệ street.  A statue of Ho saluted the large crowd of Vietnamese people strolling, sitting, laughing, singing.  Over martinis and hot tea we discussed when war is ever justified.  To stop a Hitler.  To stop a Pol Pot (we had walked the Killing Fields days earlier).  But not over differences in religion.  Not over differences in economic philosophy.

Ironically, Vietnam today may be more capitalist and entrepreneurial than America.  Thousands of small shops dot the streets of Saigon and Hanoi.  Local young Yale alumni have already made fortunes in Vietnam. The Hermes store in Saigon is more expensive than the one in Houston.  Our guides and other Vietnamese we met were as openly critical of their government as we are of ours.

In Hanoi we saw more of the other side of the war.  In the magnificently restored Metropole Hotel, built by the French at the turn of the last century, we toured the bomb shelter added during the war. Our guide told us how as a young boy he would often have to scramble to get into one of the one-person shelters built into the streets.

We visited the “Hanoi Hilton,” originally constructed by the French to imprison, torture, and guillotine Vietnamese resisters of colonial rule.  There is something of a shrine to John McCain, including his flight suit, his prison uniform, and his bed.  (McCain’s prison bed looked remarkably similar to Ho’s in his House on Stilts – both far from the opulence of the Presidential Palace in Saigon where President Diem lived and ruled.)

“The official policy was not to torture American prisoners,” our freelance guide told us, “but I’m not saying torture didn’t happen.   We hated them.  They were dropping bombs on us. They were killing us.”  I did not know that McCain’s plane had been shot down over Hanoi, into West Lake – today a popular shopping and dining district.

I skipped over much of the Military Museum.  I had seen enough, felt enough.  There was only one thing still to see.  In the room dedicated to the end of the war, I found the photo.  American soldiers lined up to board the Last Plane Out of Saigon.  Richard is recognizable from the back by his specialist patch and briefcase (mostly covered by a caption in the Hanoi museum) – a briefcase that survived law school and a war he never wanted any part of."
On the Sunday we traveled from Hanoi to Halong Bay, the New York Times ran an op-ed by Neil Sheehan, the in-country journalist who wrote the brilliant history of the war, A Bright Shining Lie.  Our bus – coursing through rice paddies on either side – had WIFI, and we read on-line Sheehan’s piece entitled “At the Dawn of the Bloody Vietnam War.”  Sheehan recounted a battle in which green American soldiers held off wave after wave of North Vietnamese regulars.  “It always galls me when I hear or read of the men who fought the Second World War as ‘the greatest generation,’” Sheehan wrote.  Despite inflicting horrific casualties, “the North Vietnamese attackers never managed to break through that line in sufficient numbers to threaten the battalion position, because the men of C Company, First Battalion, Seventh Cavalry, fought and died like the young lions they were.”

Sheehan concluded: “They, and so many others who fought in Vietnam, were as great as any generation that preceded them. Their misfortune was to draw a bad war, an unnecessary war, a mistake by American politicians and statesmen, for which they paid.”

Richard and Brian were among those who paid for that mistake; too many paid the ultimate price.

As I left Vietnam on a flight out of Hanoi’s modern international airport, I thought of my father, a career Army officer and ROTC instructor.  My forefathers were soldiers in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War (both sides), the “Indian Conflicts,” the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, and the Korean War.  I often wondered if I disappointed my father by not volunteering to fight in Vietnam.  After my Dad died in 1993, I learned from my brother that Dad, still a lieutenant colonel in the Army reserves in the early 1960s, declined the offer of a star to activate and go to Vietnam as an “advisor.”  He also told my brother that had my draft number come up, he hoped I would have found my way to Canada.

Like Richard, I left Vietnam on a plane.  But the lottery – the airline upgrade lottery, not the draft lottery – put a glass of Merlot in my hand, not an M-16.

Allan Van Fleet
Houston, Texas
December 25, 2015
Allan Van Fleet is currently a partner at McDermott Will & Emery LLP in Houston, TX. Check out the links below for more information on Van Fleet and other topics mentioned in his post.

Melanie Neilan Featured in Classic Chicago Magazine

Women to Watch

With a key role in “Domesticated” (now playing at Steppenwolf Theatre), two films currently screening on the festival circuit, and an audition for a Tracy Letts play, Melanie Neilan has 2016 at her feet.

“In "Domesticated," a drama with a ton of comedy, I play an über-smart, extremely acidic, sarcastic teenager. One of my favorite scenes is when I impulsively throw a bowl of oranges off the table to express my anger at my dad,” she said. “I have learned so much from writer/director Bruce Norris.

Melanie Neilan in "Domesticated," by Joel Moorman.
Melanie Neilan in "Domesticated," by Joel Moorman.

“I am currently attached to three film projects, one, a short film that deals with a hard-hitting and relevant social issue that the filmmakers want to develop into a full-length feature. My manager, Nancy Scanlon, is developing, under the banner of her company Au Courant, a biopic set in the Victorian era, and I will play a starlet. My current films include My First Love, in which my character transfers her love notes on Hostess Cup Cakes.”

A purple belt in karate, Melanie has studied since childhood at the Irina Makkai Classical Ballet & Dance School in Highland Park. Dividing her time between Chicago and Los Angeles, she trains in ballet in Santa Monica. Melanie was a founding ensemble member of A Red Orchid Youth Ensemble. “I look up to Michael Shannon, who is a founding father of A Red Orchid Theatre, as he has always been one of my longtime acting heroes, and I admire so much his current work in ‘Boardwalk Empire,’” she shared.

Her greatest hero of all and lifelong mentor, however, is her grandmother Merle Reskin, beloved Chicago arts patron, actress, and singer. Merle, an actress and singer who, along with her husband Harold, saved the historic Blackstone Theatre, which is now a part of DePaul University and bears her name.

She was in attendance at the opening night of “Domesticated,” with her daughter, Melanie’s mother Leslie Neilan.

Leslie, Melanie, and Merle by Joshua Aaron Weinstein.
Leslie, Melanie, and Merle by Joshua Aaron Weinstein.

“Merle played the role of Ensign Janet MacGregor in the original Broadway cast of ‘South Pacific.’” This wasn’t a road show either; it was the real deal,” Leslie said. “I remember when Melanie was five, my mom was being presented with an award for philanthropy and she brought Melanie up onstage, too. Melanie looked at the audience and gave a royal wave. I knew then that she loved being in front of audiences.”

Melanie says there’s something particularly terrific about this strong bond between the women in her family. She cites her grandmother as “the potent force driving my love of the craft; without her stories and passion for the arts, I would not have discovered the world of theatre in quite the same way. And her humor always keeps me laughing.”

She is similarly influenced by mom, Leslie: “My mother’s turn headlong into the field of producing is one of the most inspirational things I have ever seen. She has a real gift for storytelling and [is] unbelievably insightful. I hope to be a part of a horror film she and my agent Nancy Scanlon hope to produce.”

Leslie Neilan will be producing her first feature film this year based on a story she has written called The Book of Leah. She and Alan Roth, recipient of an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences fellowship, are the screenwriters. She has two other children, Sean and Spencer, who are both engineers.

Looking forward to 2016, Melanie hopes to spend more time in Los Angeles, particularly during pilot season. “I want to continue to work in theatre and film, and break into television. I’d love to find more ways to express my love for languages, singing, dancing, unicycling and yodeling.” Yodeling? “Most of my friends know I yodel, so if I see them across the street, I yodel, and they know it could be no one else but me,” Melanie said. “Yodeling is a random and surprising thing. When I do it, it gives me great joy.”

Read more at Classic Chicago Magazine

Battle of New Orleans script lands on Black List, as one of Hollywood's top unproduced screenplays

Call it the battle of the "Battle of New Orleans" movies. Another screenplay based on the legendary 1815 skirmish that played out at Chalmette battlefield -- and in which Andrew Jackson's ragtag band of U.S. Army regulars, militia, free people of color, American Indians and pirates routed the more numerous British forces -- is turning heads in Hollywood.

The script for "The Battle of New Orleans," penned by screenwriter Dan Kunka -- whose "12 Rounds" was shot in New Orleans in 2008 --  landed this week on the 2015 Black List, an annual accounting of the most liked unproduced screenplays in Hollywood. Kunka's script earned 10 votes, tying it for 20th most on this year's list, which is based on a survey of more than 250 studio and production company executives.

It is unrelated to the independently produced "Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans," an action drama announced in January by filmmaking siblings Fred and Ken Atchity. Producers of that project, based on a book by historian Ron Drez, hope to begin production by June, according to Ken Atchity.

 Kunka's 119-page "Battle of New Orleans" script, based on the book "Patriotic Fire" by "Forrest Gump" author Winston Groom, opens with the sacking of the White House by the British in August 1814. Continuing through to the end of the titular battle in January 1815, it focuses on the unlikely alliance between U.S. Gen. Andrew Jackson and the pirate Jean Lafitte, a partnership seen as key to the British defeat.

The Battle of New Orleans is something of a historical curiosity, fought as it was after the Treaty of Ghent had been signed in December 1814 to end the war. Word of the signing of that treaty, however, never got to British Gen. Edward Packenham, who had been dispatched with his army to take the strategic city of New Orleans; or to Jackson, tasked with defending the city. And so, on Jan. 8, 1815, they met on the battlefield, the British were defeated and New Orleans stayed in American hands.

Because it was fought after the war was technically over, the battle over the years has become considered by many to be a largely needless one. There are those who speculate, however, that, had the British won the war and taken New Orleans, the treaty might have been immediately nullified by the British.

The story was previously told on film in Cecil B. DeMille's heavily romanticized 1938 epic "The Buccaneer," which starred Fredric March as Lafitte and Hugh Sothern as Jackson. "The Buccaneer" was remade in 1958, directed by Anthony Quinn and starring Charlton Heston as Jackson and Yul Brenner as Lafitte.

Read more at NOLA.com