An Interview with James Siegel
As the vice chairman and senior executive creative director of BBDO,
one of this country's leading advertising agencies, your accounts range from
Visa to Frito-Lay (Tostitos) and you had two commercials that aired during this
year's Super Bowl broadcast. How did you get your start in advertising?
Purely by accident. I was out of my house and in my own apartment by age
17. I drove a cab all through college (beautiful York College, under the old
El tracks in Jamaica, Queens) to pay the rent. After college, I continued
driving for a year. One day I was boasting about my writing skills to a
passenger who just happened to be an ad exec. He happened to give me a
chance, mostly because someone happened to give him a chance when he'd been
my age. I didn't know the first thing about advertising and I proved it in
my formal interview. I was told to bring my 'book' (translation: portfolio,
something, of course, I didn't have) and I brought my book, my unfinished
"great American novel," which I promptly plopped down on the
interviewer's desk. The interviewer happened to own the agency, which only
occurred to me later when I realized his last name and the name of the
agency were remarkably enough, one and the same. For some reason, he hired
Have you always wanted to be a novelist? With such a high-pressured
job, how did you find the time to write fiction?
Writing fiction is something I always wanted to do. As a child, I
breathed books. I spent an unhealthy amount of time buried in the stacks at
The Pomonok and Jamaica Public Libraries. Some people love the smell of a
new car; for me it was always the smell of a new book. It still is. I find
the time to write when and where I can. Planes are good - you're in forced
confinement for up to 7 hours. It's usually a choice between writing and the
latest Adam Sandler film. When I'm out on the coast, I'm invariably on New
York time, which means I'm usually tapping away on my laptop at 5 M. I
write on Saturday and Sunday mornings, on my commute into NY, sometimes at
night, sometimes at lunch. If you want to do something, you find the time to
paints the world of advertising as shady and cutthroat. Has this been your
Advertising is no more shady and cutthroat than the next profession.
Provided the next profession is say, professional boxing or racketeering.
I'm only being somewhat facetious. As a young advertising creative, you get
ahead by getting your work onto TV. You are usually going head to head
against other creatives who are in exactly the same situation as you. This
breeds intense competition, bruised feelings, rampant egoism, and not a
little underhanded connivance. At the agency I work for, we like to say
we're one big family. We're not referring to The Cleavers. More the Gambinos.
There are many depictions of the advertising business in film or in books,
but I have never seen an accurate representation. In Derailed,
I think I got it just about right.
Derailed is about an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances-in this
case, a chance encounter on the Long Island Rail Road that leads to
nightmarish consequences. Did you come up with the idea for this story on
your daily commute?
Every so often, I run across an article in a newspaper that I tuck away
for future reference. I mentally file it away under "Truth is stranger
than fiction." I read one such article five years ago, which involved a
married man and a married woman, (not to each other) who met each other on
the LIRR and finally decided to consummate their relationship at a seedy
midtown hotel. The big day arrives, they go to their room, and are promptly
assaulted by a loitering criminal, who proceeds to put two and two together
and later attempts to blackmail them. Without success, as it turned out. I
thought it was a story dripping with irony, and a delicious starting point
for a thriller. Also, as someone who takes the train five times a week, it's
easy to muse on the possibilities of strange people haphazardly thrown
together. And not to belabor an obvious simile, of lives that can be thrown,
well, off course.
I grew up watching Hitchcock- and so many of his movies involved an
ordinary Joe thrown into extraordinary circumstances. That kind of story is
enormously appealing to us, because we can so easily put ourselves into the
character's lives. We can stare transfixed at a life Derailed
as if we're watching a horrific car accident in slow motion, but we
ourselves are on the sideline, unhurt. It's vicarious and compelling dram
I read in an interview with you in Publishers Weekly that
you called one of Warner Book's editors out of the blue, before your first
novel was published, and asked her to read your manuscript. What happened
I had written a couple of novels in my twenties, found an agent, but
remained unpublished. When I hit forty - and I did hit it, like someone
belly flopping from a high dive board - I became determined to go back to
it. I wrote Epitaph,
and decided to do what never works. I looked up some names in the Writer's
Workshop and wrote a letter to one of them. Sara Ann Freed - at Warner
Books. She, unbelievably, responded. I sent her the book, waited, fretted,
waited some more, and eventually heard back from her. She confessed to
loving it. But she also told me I needed a good agent, and she went so far
as to recommend one. The Arthur Pine Agency. They read it, loved it, and
signed me up. I received a two-book contract from Warner Books.
The publisher has big promotion plans for
including a television commercial that you created. How did that come about?
I had never seen a book commercial that I thought was particularly
compelling. Since writing TV spots is what I do, I offered to do one for Derailed.
Larry Kirshbaum, who has been a tireless cheerleader for this book - as has
my supernova agent - Richard Pine - enthusiastically agreed. I created a
spot, contracted a young director, and went off to Los Angeles to shoot it.
The result is, well, kind of hot. At the very least - I think it'll get
What's next for James Siegel?
I have signed another two-book deal with Warner Books and am currently
working on another thriller.