02/20/05 — 'Big Fish' gives author his big break

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'Big Fish' gives author his big break

By Matt Shaw
Published in News on February 20, 2005 2:10 AM

CARRBORO „ Time after time, Daniel Wallace would mail off his novels. Just as diligently, publishers would send them back.

The rejections never deterred Wallace. He still wrote nearly every day for 13 years, completing books and starting new ones. Editors turned down all five.

"They say things like 'the story's not big enough' or 'the characters aren't likable enough,'" Wallace said. "They always tried to be positive."

The only "writing" that Wallace could sell was the captions on illustrations he drew, which were printed on refrigerator magnets, pins, T-shirts and greeting cards. The artwork paid his young family's bills and little else.

"We were barely keeping afloat. We had no savings, no money set aside for anything," Wallace said. "When my son was born, I realized that I couldn't keep failing for the rest of my life."

As he sat down to write his sixth novel, Wallace decided that this book had to be something that, even if it never sold, he could show to Henry one day and say with pride, "I wrote this."

That became "Big Fish," a story of Edward Bloom, a glib, gifted salesman who amuses everyone with tales of an extraordinary life taming giants, wild dogs and water maidens. The only one who isn't charmed is Edward's son, William, who struggles to know his dying father before it's too late.

Fifteen publishers passed on "Big Fish" before it was bought by Algonquin Books, which printed 7,500 copies in its first edition in 1998.

"If it would have sold that many copies, that would have been great," Wallace said.

But good reviews spurred sales, which climbed to 30,000 by 2002. Then the book was made into a movie starring Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney, which grossed $97 million worldwide in 2003 and 2004. The movie begat a DVD, which sold 2 million copies in the first week it was available.

All of which has brought people to Wallace's book, which has sold more than 250,000 copies in the last two years. It's been translated into 20 languages.

Some of those books were bought here as "Big Fish" is this year's selection for Wayne County Reads, the countywide reading project.

Wallace will speak at 7 p.m. Monday in Wayne Community College's auditorium. Afterward, he will sign copies of "Big Fish" and his follow-up novels, "Ray in Reverse" and "The Watermelon King." Attendance is free and open to the public.

Wallace, now 46, agreed to meet last week to talk about how he became a writer. It certainly wasn't anything he envisioned, growing up in Birmingham, Ala., he said.

"I was always drawn to it, but it seemed like such an important decision to become A Writer," he said.

But in 10th grade, he read "A Perfect Day for Banana Fish," a short story by "The Catcher in the Rye" author J.D. Sallinger.

"It was so perfect -- funny, subtle, and ultimately moving and tragic," Wallace said. "I thought that it would be great if I was able to write something that affected other people the way that story affected me."

The thought stayed in the back of his head as he headed off to college, first at Emory University and then the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He majored in English and philosophy, although he left UNC shortly before graduating.

But he intended to enter the business world. Wallace's father ran an importing/exporting business that primarily sold the type of stoneware that supermarkets sell piece by piece, week after week.

"My father traveled all over the world and was wealthy," Wallace recalled. "If I could do that too, then that's what I should definitely do."

Wallace lived for two years in Nagoya, Japan, where the plates, cups and saucers his father sold were constructed. Young, single and living in an exotic country, he should have been happy, he thought.

"In theory, I loved it," he said. "But I'm not as much of a people person as my father was. I thought about a whole lifetime of having to supress who I was."

He felt like he needed to do something more creative than the business world allowed. So he moved back to Chapel Hill and tried to become "A Writer."

"I suppose I could have tried painting or music, but I already owned a typewriter. I didn't need to make as much of an investment," he said with a smile.

Wallace had some savings and he worked at bookstores, then as assistant director of the Orange County Literacy Council. His wife encouraged him to begin selling his illustrations.

But it took a long time before the writing started to sell.

"I sent off all these articles and I imagined what it would be like to see them all published at the same time. My name would be on the front of all the magazines and people would be wondering who this new author was," he said.

Instead, it was two years before he made his first sale.

"I thought I knew how to write a sentence. I thought I knew how to write a paragraph," he said. "I thought I knew, but I didn't.

"My novels had no magic, no sense of wonder. I was trying to write a novel based on what I thought other people thought a novel should be."

Wallace's determination frustrated his father, who "wasn't exactly a cheerleader," he said. "He'd say, 'You're not setting the world on fire with your books.'"

The elder Wallace had hoped to see Daniel, the only boy among four children, eventually take over the family business. He could not understand why his son followed a different path.

"He grew up in the tail end of the Depression," Wallace said. "What was important to him was that we all be able to eat and sleep with a roof over our heads."

"The gift he gave his children was that we didn't have to worry about any of that, so we were free to be creative, think about philosophy and art and English, things that didn't concern him. In a way, he was raising strangers."

The Wallaces' conflict inspired the Blooms in "Big Fish," he said. Both fathers were salesmen who had trouble turning off the charm when they got home. "The same ploys he used on customers, he'd use with his family."

Edward Bloom was also inspired by the myths that had always captivated Wallace. "I wanted to treat a contemporary man as if he were a Greek hero," he said. Thus, every facet of Bloom's life takes on mythic aspects, with fantastical creatures sprinkled in.

That makes it even harder for William Bloom to learn the truth of his father's life. Even as Edward Bloom is dying, he makes jokes that deflect his son's questions.

"My father was fine when I wrote the book, but it was otherwise true to my life," Wallace said. "I know how my father became who he was, but I don't think I ever really figured him out. This book is how I imagined that we would one day accept our differences.

"It never happened."

Wallace's father died before "Big Fish" was published.

"I don't want to think of my book as analysis, and it wasn't meant to be a cathartic experience," he said. "We lent characteristics to the characters, but they weren't us."

Wallace said he previously had never been happy with a completed book.

"It was the first book that I really liked. It didn't matter to me that much if it was published. It didn't need that to validate it."

The novel's popularity exploded with the movie. That was partially due to famed movie director Steven Spielberg, who had planned to make the movie in 2002, following "Minority Report." Spielberg ultimately chose instead to film "Catch Me If You Can."

"When he dropped out, a lot of people were interested in picking it up," Wallace said. "The screenplay (by John August) was really great."

The winner was Tim Burton, the quirky director behind such movies as "Beetlejuice," "Batman" and "Edward Scissorhands." He cast Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney as Edward Bloom at different ages, Billy Crudup (another UNC alumni) was cast as William Bloom, and Jessica Lange as Edward's wife.

Seeing his book made into a movie was "totally thrilling," Wallace said. "I decided that I'd treat as an adventure and have as much fun as possible."

He visited the set in Alabama three times and even earned eight seconds of screen time as a college professor.

"Everyone involved was so open and so kind, so far away from the Hollywood stereotype," he said.

The movie is a departure from the book, and it took repeated viewing for Wallace to accept it. "By the third time I saw it, I started to like it. My book is the scaffolding for the movie, but it stands on its own."

He also likes his newfound financial stability. He was able to buy a house in Chapel Hill where he lives with his wife, Laura, and Henry, who'll turn 11 in March. He's able to devote himself full time to writing, although he does teach creative writing at UNC.

But he doesn't feel secure.

"I am always scared that I won't be able to score again," he said. "But if I see a CD I want, I can just buy it without feeling like a chunk of me was being torn out."

The real payoff comes via the U.S. Postal Service, he said. He gets letter from readers who talk about how much Wallace's books have meant to them, how an essay has touched their hearts.

"I love to get mail like that," he said.

Sure beats those rejection slips.