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‘Burn Notice’: The Novel

Does a real writer accept a gig doing books spun off from films or TV shows? A real writer found the answer to his own question.

By Tod Goldberg, Special to The Times

YOU COULD spend your entire life sitting in Starbucks next to people hunched over laptops, and you’d never hear a single one of them divulge that their dream is to write a television or movie tie-in; you know, those novelizations that magically appear in the airport bookstore rack with the screen stars on their covers.

Me? I’ve published two novels and a collection of stories that have afforded the kind of notoriety one rarely reads about: I’ve lost all the awards I’ve ever been nominated for, my most ardent fans number in the tens of hundreds, and I’d need the Jaws of Life to pull me onto the bestseller list. In short, a career in the literary fiction trenches, where acclaim is something you hang your hat on, since you haven’t made enough money to buy a hat rack.

Then I received a midnight call from my brother, Lee, asking whether I might be interested in writing original novels based on Burn Notice, the popular show on USA about a blacklisted spy named Michael Westen, who uses his training to help people out of bad situations (with the mob, drug dealers, pimps, etc.).

My first reaction was muted. I was finishing a short story about very depressed people doing very depressing things and trying to figure out another word for “desperation.” My brother, in addition to writing and producing television shows, has written 14 tie-ins, including the current spate of Monk books. He was approached by his publisher, Penguin, to see whether he’d be interested in doing Burn Notice too, but he declined, saying he knew just the right person.

Lee had called before with similar opportunities, and I always demurred, mostly because I don’t work particularly well with other people, don’t really care for a lot of television shows and consider myself far too literary to ever do such a commercial thing. Why, I’ve even lost the Los Angeles Times Book Prize!

The difference this time was the show itself: I am a huge fan of “Burn Notice.” It’s smart, funny, visually arresting and has the tone and style of my favorite Elmore Leonard novels.

Plus, the show was created by Matt Nix, a person I’d known casually since college, who I felt shared a similar creative aesthetic. My brother was right: I was the perfect person. The only problem was my advanced sense of artistic self. I had long, twisting conversations with my agent, my wife and the kid who makes my sandwiches at Quiznos about the literary equity I’d accrued, about how writing a tie-in might somehow sully my career and other topics concerning my navel. My agent told me to take a deep breath, get lucid and call her back after I did some research.

So I did. I learned that Jim Thompson wasn’t just an iconic noir writer but also the man who brought Ironside from the small screen to print, that Travis McGee creator John D. MacDonald had novelized the Judy Garland vehicle “I Could Go On Singing” and that, inexplicably, there was a line of Partridge Family tie-ins that sounded like Steven Seagal films (notably No. 10 in the series, Marked for Terror) and which featured Danny, Keith and the gang solving crimes. And of course there were the countless authors who’ve embodied James Bond over the years, most recently Sebastian Faulks.

I also saw a rather significant golden egg (and with the three books being dangled before me due within a year, becoming a magical goose would be the rough creative equivalent): Tie-ins sell exceptionally well. My brother had long regaled me with the sales numbers he’d racked up with his Diagnosis Murder and Monk books—each selling roughly what all of my books have sold, combined—and how his tie-ins had dragged along his other books too. It would be like a quarterly annuity to even out the five free copies of the Santa Monica Review I’d receive for the depressing story I was finishing at the time.

More than anything, it sounded like great fun. One man can write only so much short fiction detailing terrific abuse before the idea of blowing up stuff and coming up with witty rejoinders begins to have a certain allure. Who wouldn’t want to be Michael Westen?

Three days later, I was on the job. Sixty-four days and I was trying to figure out whom to dedicate the book to: my wife or the Starbucks barista who’d been pulling me extra shots at no charge every day, since apparently I looked like I needed it. Eight months and Burn Notice: The Fix is on the shelves, and I am now, apparently, a briskly selling crime writer. How briskly? I’m not exactly Troy Denning, whose last Star Wars original tie-in, “Invincible,” was released in May and has sold more than 58,000 copies in hardback, according to Nielsen BookScan. In literary circles Denning’s sales would make him one of those people other people throw cocktail parties for.

Bestselling thriller writer James Rollins of Sigma Force fame certainly wasn’t facing the same conundrums I had when he agreed to write the novelization of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

“I’m a huge Indiana Jones fan,” Rollins says, whose 2007 novel The Judas Strain has sold more than 200,000 copies. “To be able to even put a fingerprint upon that legacy, what more could an adventure writer want? I was only paid a fraction of what I get for one of my regular novels, but I could not pass up this chance. If they asked me to, I would’ve written this in my own blood.”

Max Allan Collins practically did write a book with his own blood. Collins is the undisputed king of the media tie-in, having written more than 50 of them (including 10 CSI novels and several puzzles, video games and comics also based on the program) since 1990, but he nearly ripped a hole in the fabric of the time/space continuum by novelizing the screenplay based on his graphic novel Road to Perdition. (Do the math in your head for that one.)

“The Road to Perdition novelization was a nightmare, frankly,” Collins says. “I went after it for obvious reasons—I didn’t want a ‘Perdition’ novel written by someone else out there. I proceeded to write the best novelization of my career, staying faithful to David Self’s script—which was already fairly faithful to my graphic novel—but fleshed out the script with characterization, expanded dialogue scenes and just generally turning it into a quality novel of around 100,000 words. After I submitted it and had the New York editor say it was the best tie-in novel he’d ever read, the licensing person at DreamWorks required me to cut everything in the novel that wasn’t in the script. That I was the creator of the property held no sway. I was made to butcher the book down to 40,000 words.”

Going into writing The Fix I pledged that I was going to be emotionless about the process. It was silly to think this, of course, because it’s hard for me not to feel dominion over a character once I’ve inhabited his skin, even when, unlike for Collins, the characters in The Fix belong in whole cloth to someone else. But I challenge anyone to spend 64 straight days and nights with anyone or anything without developing a Patty Hearstian level of attachment. I came to the conclusion that I had to start thinking of myself like a musician covering a hit song—in order to make it my own, I had to tweak it a little, give something of myself in the process and make it fresh and new to the fans who already love the original by adding additional elements they might not be expecting. Think Walk This Way by Run-DMC versus Aerosmith’s original. Same song, different experience.

My brother once told me he couldn’t do a tie-in for something he wasn’t emotionally invested in, but for me it feels like the opposite has occurred. I’ve become fond of the show in a new way. I want to protect it.

At a book signing recently, a man walked up to me, after waiting in line for 10 minutes, to tell me how much he hated the show, how it made him twitch, and how he wouldn’t be reading my book, either. It was a level of antipathy I wasn’t previously familiar with—loathing that gets you out of bed on a Saturday to tell someone that you hate them. I didn’t mind that he wasn’t going to buy my book, but his slight against the show felt far more personal. Now, I find myself feeling defensive if it receives a bad television review somewhere and am growing concerned that my obsessive self-Googling might turn a dark corner into obsessive Burn Notice Googling too, which is not a train I want to ride.

None of this is what I could have predicted, but with two more books to write in the series, I’ve learned that writing about a cool ex-spy I didn’t create can be a gratifying experience. Now, if I could just find out who owns the Partridge Family rights, I could really get happy.

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