Random House Publishing
A Story For People Who Think They Can’t Write
A lot of people feel they have a great story in them but they don’t put it on paper cause they think they can’t. The tale I’m about to tell you is about a writer who had no idea he could write—until he tried. The story is true, I raise my right hand and solemnly swear that I was there and this is exactly what happened—
The story begins when I found myself training to be a Special Agent in The Army Counter Intelligence Corps. Three quarters of my class were guys from Ivy League colleges…and the remaining were doing graduate work at institutions of higher learning….except for two people. Me and a tall guy who went to The University of Wyoming on a basketball scholarship. The Basketball player’s name was Noel Behn, and he was the funniest, the most astute and the most eager student in the entire group. He was great at interrogations. He could tail people on foot and in cars and never get caught. He was also a whiz at lock picking, he could unravel codes and bug rooms in half the time it took everybody else and he was great at disguises.
In short, Noel was a spy genius and when we graduated he got the best assignment; he was put on the tail of a would be saboteur and trailed him around the world reporting directly to Washington.
I lost track of Noel after I was discharged….until one day I saw him hunched over walking quickly down a New York City side street. When I caught up with him he took off but I raced after him and was able to grab him. His face was ashen. “Oh my God,it’s you.” He said.
I asked him who he was expecting.
“The cops.” He said.
“Why are you runnin’ from the cops?” I asked and he told me it was a long story. I had plenty of time and said. “Tell me about it over a drink.”
“I can’t be seen in public.” He said.
“You’re in public right now.” I said.
“I had to get some air.”
“OK, then let’s go to your place and talk.”
Noel looked up and down the street and said, “Follow me at a discrete distance.”
I trailed behind Noel as he hurried with head down and parka pulled up around his ears on a run to his apartment. When we were safely in his pad, which was in a dingy five story walk up, he triple locked the doors, made sure the blinds were pulled and we sat down in semi darkness and over a beer he related his story:
After the army he told me he took an inheritance, which he told me was sizable, and opened a drama school. I knew he was always interested in show biz but I asked him what possessed him to do that. “Hubris.” He said “Plus it seemed like a fun thing to do.”
“And you’d meet a lotta girls.” I said.
“You could say that was part of the equation.” He said. “And in the beginning everything worked great. I started out with a few students and suddenly I had classes full of would be actors and that’s when the trouble began. I expanded and bought a building, and on top off that I hired additional instructors and advertised. I even threw a block party when I bought the building…and then I hired Richard and Liz.”
“Sure. It was just for one lecture to kick the year off. I got a lotta publicity out of it but after a while students stopped coming and I owed a ton of money, to everybody.
“To Liz and Richard too?”
“To them and everybody else. They all got together and hired the best lawyers. They got me for fraud, misappropriation of funds, lying under oath and child molesting.”
“Yeah, she swore she was eighteen years old…she was sixteen.”
“So you’re looking at jail time.”
“Ten to twenty.”
“Have you thought about going undercover.”
“That takes money…besides I’m real tired of running. I think I’ll turn myself in.”
I had just gotten paid and I peeled off a bunch of twenties. But Noel wouldn’t accept them. “It would just delay the inevitable—“ He said, “But you can do something for me. Drop by sometime and bring me a Reuben sandwich before I go to Sing Sing.”
“I’ll be back tomorrow.”
“Knock five times.” Noel said, “That’s the signal.”
The next afternoon I arrived at Noel’s apartment with two Reuben sandwiches and a six pack. After the requisite knocks Noel opened the door. He had a book in his hand which he tossed into a corner of the room and we sat down and ate semi warm sandwiches and drank beer in his dark apartment. We had gotten through half the six pack when there was a knock on the door—actually five knocks and Noel opened the door to one of his buddies. I immediately recognized his guest, as Robert Webber an occasional leading man on Broadway. After we were introduced Robert asked Noel what he thought of the book he had just lent him.
Noel pointed to where he had thrown the book and said, “It’s a piece of shit.”
“It’s a fuckin best seller.” Webber said.
“It’s still a piece of shit.”
“How you can say that?”
“I can say that because I know something about the subject.”
“Fawcriss sake you spent two years tooling around making believe you were a spy. This spy novel, which incidentally I thought was great and which I was kind enough to lend you has already sold one hundred thousand copies!”
“It’s still shit.”
“Could you do any better?”
“I dunno, I never wrote anything.” Noel said.
“I’ll betcha ya can’t.”
“I don’t have money to bet.”
“Ya gotta buck?”
“OK, I’ll bet a hundred bucks to your buck that you can’t do better.”
“With odds like that you’re on.” Noel said.
And here comes the rest of this implausible story.
Noel wrote the first one hundred pages of his novel that very night. The next morning he left the pages in front of Robert Webber’s door. A week later he got a letter from Random House Publishing. Webber had given them the hundred pages and they were enthusiastic. The publishing company offered him ten thousand dollars as a down payment which was truly extraordinary for a first time writer. But they had faith. And they were right. Noel went on to finish his novel, The Kremlin Letter, and Random House put a binder around the last two hundred pages of the book. If the binder wasn’t broken the reader could return the book and get the purchase price back…there were very few readers who didn’t break the binder to finish the novel which sold over a million copies.
On top of that John Huston made a block busting movie out of it…
And none of this would have happened if somebody hadn’t come along with odds that Noel couldn’t refuse. None of it would have happened because Noel never thought about writing. In fact none of it should have happened—-but it did.
And on top of this implausible story Noel went on to write many other novels and screen plays. He was an A list writer in Hollywood for many years…he lived in a manse with a full basketball court, a beautiful wife and they had kids. dogs, ponies the whole megiillah.
As I said none of this should have happened. But it did. It happened because one night a writer who didn’t know was a writer sat down and wrote.
And, oh, in case you’re wondering about the child molesting, Noel married the girl as soon as she turned eighteen and they lived happily ever after. He also paid off his debts from the proceeds of his first book.
And in case you’re also wondering if Bob Webber paid off on the bet. In the payee line on the check he wrote: To Noel Behn, A Guy Who Didn’t Think He Could Write.
Noel never cashed that check.
He framed it and put it over his desk.