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 me.
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 do it.
Derailed paints the world of advertising as shady and cutthroat. Has this been your experience?
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 next?
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 Derailed 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 noticed.
What's next for James Siegel?
I have signed another two-book deal with Warner Books and am currently working on another thriller.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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