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Novelist Keeps Options Open on Film Version

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Novelist Keeps Options Open on Film Version


Novelist Keeps Options Open on Film Version

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Author Jonathan Lethem is out this week with a new novel, an event that could well bring Hollywood calling.

One of his novels, "Motherless Brooklyn," is already being developed by actor Edward Norton. Filmmakers often option the rights to make a book into a movie, and that can earn authors thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars. With this latest novel, Jonathan Lethem has decided to give his option away for free to the filmmaker of his choosing. Now, after the movie does get made and actually distributed, he would like to get two percent of the budget. We called him at his home in Brooklyn. Good morning.

Mr. JONATHAN LETHEM (Author, "Motherless Brooklyn"): Good morning. How are you?

MONTAGNE: Fine, thank you. Just briefly first, what's the new novel about? We know it's called "You Don't Love Me Yet."

Mr. LETHEM: "You Don't Love Me Yet" is set in Los Angeles and the characters are all twenty-somethings in that kind of restless stage. And what they're trying to do is form a rock band and become famous, but they're not very good at it. So it's sort of a comedy of failure and it's also a bit of a romantic farce.

MONTAGNE: Right off that sounds like the makings of a possible movie. Why do this? Why give away the movie option for free?

Mr. LETHEM: Well, I have gone through the cycle a few times where books are optioned and it's actually did very, very fortunate for me because the money from movie studios has kept me writing in many cases where I would otherwise and have to go and get a day job.

But that isn't my situation right now, and I think there are certain things that are possible if you're going to take money out of an equation. In this case, what I'd love to do is form a partnership with a filmmaker and other artists and just push the usual apparatus of corporations and lawyers a little bit to the margins, at least at the beginning of the process, and make it a little bit more of, you know, kind of "Sesame Street" cooperation situation.

MONTAGNE: I gather there is something also about this, another sort of way to make this more free, if you will, artistically. And that's that five years after a film's debut, if you get a film made, the rights to the film are released to the public domain, meaning people can, what, use your characters freely? Use your intellectual property?

Mr. LETHEM: It's an extension of some thinking I've been doing about how artists tend to be encouraged to kind of hold on to every possible shred of intellectual property that extends from something they create. I thought why don't I just say that all I want to do is write a book and all I'd like to sell is the right to a filmmaker. And other than that, actually, after a little while, I don't care.

If you'd like to make, say, a stage play, the filmmaker and I would, in this case, agree that sure, go ahead. You can make a stage play or a comic book or, for that matter, you could, you know, write another story using my characters. That wouldn't, in this case, be something that we would contest.

MONTAGNE: The other part of this, doing this could generate a fair amount of publicity for your book and you're just going out on your book tour now.

Mr. LETHEM: You know, I've certainly benefited from this in the past. When movie people come calling, that's often paradoxically one of the things that makes people most excited to read a book. If a film is made in any ways, the best thing about it for a writer is that, whether the film pleases you or not, it's going to tender resolve in people reading the book. So you're right. This is a bit of a shortcut to - it's as though we're talking about the film deal and there isn't even a film deal.

MONTAGNE: Jonathan Lethem's new novel is "You Don't Love Me Yet." Thank you very much for joining us and talking about this.

Mr. LETHEM: Thanks very much for having me.

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