A chat with the author of "Romancing the Stone" and "Jewel of the Nile"
February 18, 1999
Lanigan participated in the chat via telephone and CNN provided a typist for her. The following is an edited transcript of the chat with Lanigan.
Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Catherine Lanigan!
Catherine Lanigan: Happy Valentine's Day to everyone!
Chat Moderator: Please tell us a little bit about your background. How did you become a writer?
Catherine Lanigan: I truly believe that novelists (not necessarily just writers) are born. I really knew that I wanted to tell stories, be a storyteller, probably when I was about 4 years old. I was very young. My mother was very ill when I was young. We didn't have a television or anything like that. I was the eldest of four children, so I told stories to entertain my brothers and sister, so they wouldn't bother my mother.
All through high school, my teachers encouraged me. I entered the school of journalism in college. I wanted to be Brenda Starr. Second semester, my freshman year, I was in a Seniors Creative writing seminar. I was recommended for the honor by a professor. That was in the late 60's, and they had traveling professors then, there for just a semester or so, so just to be in their class was a coup. I wrote my first short story then, and before it was to be presented to the class, the professor called me into his office to discuss my story. I walked in, and he was the quintessential English professor: horn rimmed glasses, tweed glasses, 6 foot 8. He said, "Come in, Miss Lanigan, sit down." He took my manuscript, and threw it across his desk. It landed in my lap. He said, "Frankly, Miss Lanigan, your writing stinks." I was 17 at the time, and I was devastated.
I had banked my whole life on being a storyteller. He said, "I have no idea how you got into my class. You have no concept of plot structure, characterization..." and continued. He said, "There is no way you'll ever make a dime as a writer, but you are a fortunate young woman, because I have caught you at the crossroads of your life." See the ego thing going? I was intimidated! He said "Your parents are spending all their money on your education, and you need to change your major."
I had been sure I was going to be a writer. I told him that. He said, "No, you don't have it." It was too late to drop the course. He said, "I know you're coming to the class with a 4.0." I wanted to be summa cum laude. He said he wouldn't drop me, though. He said, "I'll make a bargain with you. I'll be your crutches through my class. I'll get you through, and I'll give you a B, if you'll promise never to write again." I remember sitting there, with my heart stopping. I thought, "What choice do I have?" I took the bargain. Later, I realized that I was bargaining with the devil, giving up my soul.
That night, I took my short story and a metal waste can, and went to the top of my dorm. I took some matches, and burned the manuscript. I looked at the winter night sky, and said, "I vow I will never believe in dreams. I will only deal with reality. If I can't see it, chew it, taste it, spit it out, it will not be part of me." I changed my major to education. I thought that if I didn't have it to write, then Iíd teach it.
I didn't write for 14 years. In the summer of 1979, Judge Woods was assassinated by the Hells Angels. My family was over there on vacation, and I was in the pool at the Four Season's Hotel, playing with my son, who was about six. All these producers, journalists, newspeople, directors, everyone was there. There was a group of writers and journalists sitting around one of the tables by the poolside. This was the ONLY assertive thing I've ever done. I said to them, "I want you to know that I really admire what you do as a journalist, seeking out news stories. My secret dream was to be a writer." This one older guy turned around and said, "Is that right?" I said "yes..." He said, "If you wanted to be a writer, you would be writer." I said, "That's okay. I have it on good authority that I have no talent whatsoever." He asked who told me that, and I told him the story of the professor. He gave me his card, and told me to call him if I did some writing. I said I wasn't going to write, and he said, "Oh, yes you are."
I thought about it, and went home and wrote a book. It was a historical book, set against WWI. I sent it to him, and he called me 3 months later. He said he got the manuscript, and liked it. He said that he'd sent it to his agent, and she'd call in a half-hour. She called a half-hour later, and she said, "Catherine, you are startlingly talented." So, I signed a contract with her agency, and within three weeks, she had two publishing companies bidding on the book. That was the beginning of my career, twenty years ago. My 21st book just came out.
This story is important, because people sometimes tell you that you can't do something, when you can. In my 20 years of writing, there have been so many people who have told me similar stories. I know that this story does make a difference.
Chat Moderator: Who are your favorite authors?
Catherine Lanigan: My favorites... first is Emerson. Second is Emily Dickinson. When I'm down, I pull out their books. My favorite novelist is F. Scott Fitzgerald. I love Jane Austen, but wish she had more punch. :) I think Sidney Sheldon is terrific. I love the story of his life... he's had such a struggle. I'd love to say that I'm very intellectual, but I'm not. Also, Hemingway, Theodore Dreiser, Faulkner. I have friends who write, who I love... but those I listed are my favorites.
Question from Pinky: Why love stories?
Catherine Lanigan: I really believe that there's not enough love in the world. I think one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn is the lesson of love. Another deeper reason is that my father actually died on Valentine's Day. But five years prior to his actual death, he had a heart attack at the Grand Canyon. He was dead for 20 minutes, and they revived him and brought him back. He had a great near-death story. He told me that the only reason humans are put on the earth is to learn the lesson of love. That really meant a lot to me, that I'm fulfilling my own destiny. I just hope that my eyes are empathetic enough, and wise enough to give vision to those that are looking for a sign. It was really interesting. I read an article that said no matter how many self-help books you read to help you through your relationships, all those bullet points you read fade from memory, but you'll always remember a really good story. That's why my heart subconsciously chose to write romance.
Question from Star-crossed: How much involvement did you have in bringing your work to the screen?
Catherine Lanigan: I wrote the novelization of Romancing the Stone. I took the screenplay, and turned it into a novel. But I did it while they were still shooting the film. Then the book came out six weeks prior to the film. Now, they put them out together, but ours came out before the film. It was a lead-in for the film, rather than the reverse. Then I did the sequel, The Jewel of the Nile, about 14 months later. And yes, the book is steamier than the film. :) They didn't want the R rating. Back then, they didn't have PG-13. They took out most of the steamy stuff. :)
Question from Pinky: What is visionary fiction? Can you explain? I have been reading up on your new book
Catherine Lanigan: Visionary fiction is, I think, the new wave of where fiction has been trying to go, but no one would let us. Visionary fiction has a spiritual/destiny-driven plot. They're the kinds of books that have a more philosophic plot. In mine, there is the paranormal main characters: there are ghosts. Their influence from the other side helps to drive the plot of what the two main characters are going through. They are part of the decision-making that motivates the characters.
Sixth Sense is a good example of visionary fiction. Wings of Destiny. I've worked on it for 15 years. One of the reasons is that I couldn't get a publisher to publish it. They kept saying that no one had done this before. One chapter has a ghost from the future visiting a young girl. One publisher ten years ago said that I couldn't do this, that there was no such thing as a ghost from the future. My agent said, "You never read A Christmas Carol?" I really believe you'll see more of that kind of thing; more plots that have reincarnation as a theme. That just has to come up soon. That allows so much new landscape for a writer.
Time travel will be big. More ghost-intervention, more of a dissolving of the line between this world and the next world. Ghost, the movie, that's visionary fiction, with Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze. City of Angels is another one. We'll see more of that in the next 20 years. Publishers didn't want it. They didn't know what to call it. They'd call it fantasy, or paranormal, or science fiction, but really it's none of those. Everyone has a certain destiny they must fulfill before they allow themselves to go on.
Question from Baba: Iím an unpublished author and I have had little to no success for publishing. What advice can you offer to new writers?
Catherine Lanigan: First of all, write the entire book. Don't just say, "I have an idea." Make sure it's double-spaced, on one side of a page. Then, send it to agents. My suggestion is to buy a "Literary Guide to agents and publishers" Try to categorize or niche to the best of your abilities what kind of book you've written. Romance, science fiction, etc. Make 20 copies of the book, 20 introductory letters, and send it to 20 publishers. Life is short, don't waste your time. Come up with a succinct pitch. You have ten seconds to sell a movie when you pitch it. Find a similar pitch for your book. "My book is Tequila Sunrise meets The Sixth Sense." Something like that. Send it to 20 agents simultaneously (that's the key). See what agents respond, and go from there. Interview the agents by telephone. People who are in that book are legitimate... they've been around a while. My other advice for a new writer: after you've done everything else, sit back and pray daily. :)
Question from Jaxon: Any new books in the works?
Catherine Lanigan: Yes! Wings of Destiny just came out in the fall. Another, California Moon, was just released. I'm working on a non-fiction, called The Evolving Woman: Intimate Confessions of Surviving Mr. Wrong. In the fall, there will be another non-fiction, called Angel Watch: Goosebumps, Dreams, Signs, and Divine Nudges. Besides that, I'm working on a screenplay with a production company in Hollywood.
Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?
Catherine Lanigan: I hope that everyone's Valentine's Day is as memorable and romantic as mine has already been! We have a brand new little golden retriever puppy... he's 10 weeks old. I'm making heart-shaped hamburgers for the dogs... Beau is the father... BeBe is the mother... and Junior is the baby. :) We've already given each other presents all day long... my husband and I. We're going to have a candle-light dinner, steak and a nice bottle of red wine. He gave me a lovely necklace today, and said it was from him and my father, who died eight years ago. I was a basket case all day. :) It's a wonderful heart-shaped diamond necklace.
Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today
Catherine Lanigan: Thank you for having me!
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