Monday, April 16, 2012

My First Time: James Goertel

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today's guest is James Goertel, author of the short story collection Carry Each His Burden and the poetry collections With No Need for a Name and Each Year an Anthem.  Born in North Dakota, Goertel spent twenty years working in television for ABC, NBC, and ESPN, among others.  He currently teaches writing at Penn State Erie.  His writing has appeared in Ascent Aspirations, LucidPlay, Manifold, and TNBBC.  He also runs the All Lit Up blog for NEXTV.  His website can be found here.  Follow him on Twitter at @JamesGoertel.

My First Brush With Hollywood

I had bugged out: left the game for good and had gone to hide in the woods of northern, nowhere Pennsylvania.  The meth dealers outnumbered the gainfully employed in my Breaking Bad version of Thoreau’s Walden.  After nearly twenty years working freelance in video and film production from New York City to Philly to Washington and anywhere else I’d be paid to go, I simply pitched it all aside for the wilderness, not hoping to find myself, but instead hoping to lose myself.  I had been writing for years, for the media, for newspapers, but most satisfyingly for myself.  I began by dabbling in screenwriting.  I have no formal training, but I have always seen life as a movie – sorry, not a book.  Let’s put it this way, I saw The Shining before I read the book.  I saw  Ironweed before I read the book.  I saw East of Eden before I read the book.  My degree was in film, my business was film production, and my great escape was the movies.

My first screenplay came about from a dare.  Emerging from a theater after sitting through yet another one of the many 80’s comedies, I remarked to a friend how unfunny it was.  The cliché, If you think you can do better then why don’t you, tumbled from my friend’s mouth, words that over the next few years created a monster.  When I wasn’t heading off to Florida in August to cover a pharmaceutical sales conference, hanging around the halls of 30 Rockefeller Center waiting for my next Dateline assignment, or getting on a plane to go shoot another is-this-what-my-career-has-come-to? installment of A Wedding Story for TLC, I was locked in the crazy arms of my Final Draft software dancing nights, days, and weekends away with my latest spec script (i.e. the ones nobody had seen or asked to look at, or that had any chance in hell of the latter happening).

And then someone did just that.

It happened while I was sitting around, about a year into my self-imposed exile, in my rural, aesthetically and technologically challenged Elba, waiting for Godot, as well as internet and 911 services which were still only a “meth-pipe” dream where I was living.  The phone rang.  Yes, I had a phone – the kind attached to the wall with fifty feet of squiggly cord between it and the receiver.  Remember those?  Usually the only calls I received were from a neighbor (and I use this term loosely considering he was three miles down the dirt road from me) wondering if I had seen a particular cow of his because it had gotten loose – again.  The answer was usually “No,” but I had walked it back once to his farmette one afternoon after I spied it eating the gladiolas I had planted in the backyard.  So, I was surprised not to hear his southern drawl at the end of the line when I answered.  He was not from the South mind you, had never been in the South, and looked at me oddly when I first met him and posed a question about where he had lived before coming to Pennsylvania.  Nowhere, he was local; thus, of course, the southern accent.  I should’a done seen that one a’comin’ for a country mile.


“Is this James Goertel?”

“What are you selling?”



“I think I read your script – uh, if this is James Goertel.”



Believe it or not I had been quite a good conversationalist on the phone in my day, but moving to the country had made me jittery, paranoid and defensive.  It must have been from all those meth lab fumes trapped in the atmosphere and unable to escape a county stuck between the Appalachian and Endless mountain chains.  L.A. is known for its fog, so too it seemed was Bradford County, Pennsylvania.


JAMES stands, mouth agape, as the BIG-SHOT PRODUCER FROM L.A. on the other end of the phone gushes on about his supernatural thriller spec script, about to become not a spec script, but a shooting script.  James actually begins packing what he feels might be hip-looking black clothing into a musty suitcase pulled from a crawl space – even as he is still on the phone with BIG-SHOT PRODUCER FROM L.A.


JAMES sits with BIG-SHOT PRODUCER FROM L.A. drinking martinis, eating sushi, and answering absurd questions.

Who do you see playing Casey in your script?

JAMES (choking on wasabi)
Uh, well, hummmff – uh, I hadn’t thought about it.

I see Christopher Walken.  Would that work for you?
JAMES (now asphyxiating on rice and spicy tuna)
Wal- (gulp, gag, cough) –ken

My ex-wife’s accountant is his best friend.  I can get him the script.  Besides, she owes me.  I got her a part as an extra on One Tree Hill last year.  Non-speaking part, of course.


And, of course, as you can guess, Walken never got the script and though there were a series of overly-enthusiastic calls from the big-shot producer over the next year, eventually I called back only to be informed by his assistant, who knew me well, but who on this call pretended not to know me at all, that the big-shot producer had relocated to Oregon, somewhere in the Great North Woods, ostensibly to find himself, but never to be heard from by me again.

It’s been a few years since that first Hollywood meeting.  I still write scripts and have had a few more fawned over and then conveniently forgotten, but I might yet have my moment in the California sun.  Last fall, first published collection of fiction in hand, I had a series of meetings in L.A. with Hollywood players.  Of course, they loved the book…and all wanted to know if I would consider adapting one or two of the stories as spec scripts.  That’s a wrap – for now.