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Jack Engelhard and the Art of the Hook

The key to best-selling fiction is grabbing the reader’s attention. Great writers grab the reader, gripping them and transporting them into the story within little more than a page. Jack Engelhard is a master.

His second book, Indecent Proposal, draws you into a scene as simple as a man playing blackjack—and doesn’t ever let go. This novel was originally published in 1988 and was made into a movie of the same name by Paramount Pictures in 1993, featuring Robert Redford and Demi Moore. Engelhard decided to rerelease his international best seller through iUniverse in 2010.

He first entered into independent publishing with his novel The Bathsheba Deadline, which was released by iUniverse in 2007. Prior to its physical release, The Bathsheba Deadline was Amazon’s first digitized full-length work of fiction, which they ran as a very popular monthly serial. In fact, it was so well loved that when the author insisted the story was finished, he received friendly hate mail from readers demanding more. Mr. Engelhard strongly advises that a novelist has to know when a novel is done.

Discussing his decision to self-publish, the author mentioned that he turned down lucrative offers for The Bathsheba Deadline from several New York publishing houses. He refused their requests to make changes to key parts of the novel merely to satisfy “political correctness.” His positive experience and solid sales have solidified his respect for what he refers to as “bypass publishing.”

Writer Michael Foster has described Engelhard’s writing style as with “the sparseness of Hemingway but the moral intensity of J. B. Singer.”

Mr. Engelhard shares with iUniverse readers the secret to the “hook,” his experience with Hollywood, and why he decided to self- publish.

You are a master of the hook. Not only the first line, but the first chapter of your books snares the reader. How much revision is necessary to get such well-crafted openings?

I attribute that to my years in journalism where you are taught the importance of “the lead.” In newspapering you have to get the reader’s attention immediately. I guess that worked for me in Indecent Proposal and The Bathsheba Deadline. The opening line of a novel should establish the theme that runs throughout; twists and turns, yes, but the theme remains, just like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The theme kicks off big, and then come the variations, but still, we get the message from the start.

Where did you get the inspiration for Indecent Proposal?

The inspiration for Indecent Proposal came from two separate thoughts:

One, what does a man do when he has all the money in the world? (Say an old rich Sultan.) Can he still dream? Dream of what when he can buy practically anything he wants? This can lead to boredom and depression. What’s left except to toy with people!

Two, suppose we have a happily married couple. What can tear them apart especially if they are poor? I don’t mean really poor but simply 9 to 5 middle class, or rather, stuck in “middle class malaise.”

I had these two issues separate for many years and one day it all came together into Indecent Proposal. I guess that’s called inspiration. One day, if you’re lucky, it all comes together, it simply arrives, on its own. All of it quite mystical, really.

By the way, the original title was Love and Money. It was about to go into print like that when I came across a book with that same title about to be released. I quickly phoned my editor at Donald I. Fine Publishers and he told me he was glad that I called since my book was going to press this very moment.

It so happened that the publisher himself, Donald Fine, was in the office. They conferred while I was on the line and the editor came back, saying, “Mr. Fine has just come up with a new title. We’re calling it Indecent Proposal." (The rest, as we say, is history.)

How was it discovered and made into a film?

Briefly, the novel took off rather fast and was translated into more than 22 languages, became something of a worldwide sensation; the high concept; the moral dilemma. What would you do for a million dollars?

So the word was out. Meanwhile my agent submitted it to Hollywood where it made the rounds and one day here came a contract from Paramount Pictures! Believe me, the story is much more complex than that; there were moments of thrills and despairs and there were times when it seemed it would never happen, especially when the management at Paramount that bought the rights to my novel were fired and new powers took over ... and we were told when that happens nearly every work in progress is tossed out. Only about five percent remain. Well, we were within that five percent. But it was rocky throughout.

Were you happy with Hollywood’s treatment of your story?

Yes, I was happy with Paramount’s rendition. Remember, Robert Redford and Demi Moore were at the height of their stardom at that time. Sure, Paramount took liberties, took out all the politics, principally the back story of the Arab/Israeli conflict, or, as one reviewer wrote, that the novel (as opposed to the movie) is not only a conflict between two men, but also “a conflict between two histories.” Another reviewer (from the UK) wrote that the novel has “depth and soul,” all of which disappeared in the movie. However, the movie did retain the central elements of my novel; temptation, sin, regret, forgiveness—though my novel is not totally sure about the forgiveness part. (That is for the reader to decide.)

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers on how to get the attention of Hollywood?

Just keep writing. Listen, all novelists are gamblers. No such thing as a sure thing in this business. The reviewer for The New York Times said just about that, saying the book is (partly) about gambling but that the author himself (me) is a gambler, just for the writing. Incidentally, the same reviewer said that I took the Faust legend as inspiration. Totally mistaken- I had nothing like that in mind. This teaches that once you’ve written a book you cannot tell others what to make of your work. Every reader has his or her own interpretation and it is not your business to interfere. I should also note that the relationship between writer and reader is intensely intimate, more intimate than sex. Also, the reader may find meanings and shadings and messages within the words that may never have occurred to you, the writer, and that too is special intimacy. This can be called "the fire between the words." (Salinger spoke of this.)

Your novel The Bathsheba Deadline uses an allusion to a well-known biblical story. Do you have any advice to authors who use historical references for fiction written in a contemporary setting?

As for the Biblical setting for my factual/novel The Bathsheba Deadline. . . it is my view that all Literature stems from the Bible. Every plot-line and characterization has roots in Scripture, There is no escaping this. In The Bathsheba Deadline I "updated" the story/love triangle of David and Bathsheba and placed it into a modern New York City newsroom. The novel, therefore, is up-to-date- but with a Biblical backdrop. I have an extensive background in journalism and poured all that into The Bathsheba Deadline. While Indecent Proposal is partly political ... The Bathsheba Deadline is all politics all the time, or rather newspaper politics, peppered with a sinful love triangle.

When is the most productive time for you to write?

When I am not going well, no time is a good time to write. When I’ve really got it going, morning, noon and night, all are good times. Morning is best for me, generally, since as you were sleeping your subconscious did all the work . . . and let’s face it, when writing, when TRULY writing, you are in a dream-state. You are practically unconscious . . . and remember, writing, REAL writing, is a holy endeavor.

How did you decide to self-publish your novels?

I decided to self-publish for a hundred different reasons. To name one, Donald I. Fine was the original (hardcover) publisher for Indecent Proposal. He was famed for being very selective and literary. He had published Elmore Leonard and James Jones. So he was quality and I was lucky to get him. When the movie came along, a huge paperback publisher bought the movie-tie-in rights. (I’d rather not name this publisher to save it embarrassment.) As big as Indecent Proposal was before, it became much bigger when word of the movie started making news. But this publisher did NOTHING to promote the book, as meanwhile overseas sales, of the book, were going into the millions. I decided that there must be a better way, and then I read that piece in The New York Times about iUniverse. Anyway, the stigma of self-publishing is fast disappearing and again, Mark Twain self-published etc, etc ...

How are your digital sales doing? Are you surprised at the growth of this market?

Digital sales? The numbers are incredible, speaking here of Kindle. Simply incredible! Is this the future? Very possible. But I would hate to see the day when there are no more book/books. That day may be coming and it would be sad. I have to say with Kindle an entirely new generation of readers has opened up and the customer reviews have (generally) been a joy: such as . . . never knew that the book came first . . . and that the book is so different and so much better than the movie.

What’s the best book you have ever read?

Best book I ever read? That’s a tough one. Look, as novelists we read for pleasure, of course, but we also read to LEARN. I mean, what can we learn from the other guy? For me, there were plenty of other guys . . . surely Hemingway and Kafka and James Joyce and all the rest. But if I have to choose, I’ll go with J.D. Salinger and James M. Cain. In The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger taught us that it is okay to express your feelings and let the chips fall where they may. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, Cain taught us the genius of writing sparingly. (I loved the review in The New York Times where, for Indecent Proposal, I was cited for "precise, almost clinical language.")

You can find Jack Engelhard’s books on Amazon.