The princess bride, p.31
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       The Princess Bride, p.31
 

           William Goldman

  He said the most amazing thing: "They contacted me today. The Shogs. Kermit's daughter did. She's a young lawyer for the firm, sounded nice and bright, and let me quote her: 'We want to settle for peace with your Mr. Goldman.'"

  Tennessee said it best: "Sometimes there's God so quickly."

  I MET KARLOFF Shog the next morning for breakfast in the dining room of the Carlyle Hotel, none prettier in all New York. Charley set it up and decided not to be there, no point, this was a "look-like" where we would both try on our charm and see if we could do business.

  So I sat waiting for her to appear. With a name like Karloff Shog, I figured a mustache was a sure bet and don't even think about her armpits. (In case you don't know--and you don't know, nobody knows stuff like this--Karloff is the most popular girl's name in Florin. Make of that what you will.)

  This dreamboat walks in. Mid-thirties, dressed to kill, long loose blonde hair, gorgeous. She comes right over and she holds out her hand. "Hi, Carly Shog, this is so great meeting you, you look just like the pictures on your books, only, may I say, younger."

  "You may say that as loudly and as often as you want." I tend to be a little thick-tongued when sweet young things are around, so that was pretty smooth for me. The nutty thing is, at that moment, when we had met on earth for all of ten seconds, I thought she wanted me. "Want" in the sense of "desire." And if you know me at all, you know I don't think anybody ever wants me. Not wants in the sense of desire anyway. "What brings you to America?"

  "We're doing a lot of legal stuff in the States now. I just moved here." Now a pause. "Thank God." She looked at me. "I can tell you've never been in Florin." I said I hadn't. "It's a little inbred. I mean, in Florin if you marry your first cousin, that's considered good." Another pause. "An attempt at humor. Sorry."

  I have dated some terrific women since Helen left me a decade past. But this one here, this blue-eyed lawyer with the body and the brains, on any list, was special. She reached across the table then, took my hand--

  --Let me run that by you again: she took my hand!

  And looked into my eyes and said, "I'm just so glad our legal troubles are done."

  "It's been awful," I agreed. "I was only sued once before in my whole life." (It's true.) "And that was by an actor so it doesn't really count."

  Need I tell you her laugh was bell-like? Then, to only improve her bank account came this: "You won't believe me, but I've read every novel you've ever written. Including the Harry Longbaugh." (No Way to Treat a Lady was first published under a pseudonym, Harry Longbaugh, the real name of the Sundance Kid.)

  I am so in love at this point it is ridiculous. "The lawsuits your guys filed--you'll drop them?"

  "Of course. All thirteen. That's what we're going to do for you, and all we want from you is your goodwill."

  "Goodwill?" If I'd have had an engagement ring with me, it would've been hers.

  "Yes. It's so important that Buttercup's Baby be published. Here in America."

  I signaled for coffee and a waiter poured us some. We fiddled with sweetener and low-fat milk and all that other yummy stuff we do to our stomachs these days. We sipped silently. And we looked at each other. Then I said the nuttiest thing: "How old are you, Carly?"

  "How old do you want me to be? I know all about you. I know you were born at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago on August 12th, 1931. Pretty good?"

  I nodded.

  She opened her purse then. "All you have to know is this, Bill. I broke up with my boyfriend when I left Florin City. And he was fifty-five. I have a thing for..." And here she paused, smiled so sweetly. "...for vigorous older men."

  Mark Antony was never this smitten.

  She reached into her purse, handed me a piece of paper. "This is just legal boilerplate. Have your lawyer check it out, then sign it and mail it back to me."

  "What is it?"

  "It's called settling for peace. We agree to drop all the lawsuits. You agree that we did nothing wrong, and that you wish us the best on all future projects."

  "I do more than wish you well. I'm going to kill myself doing Buttercup's Baby."

  "Of course you would," she said then, and do you know the most important six words in the last thirty years in World Culture? I'll tell you what they are. Peter Benchley came up with them when he was walking along a beach and the words were these: "What if the shark got territorial?" Because out of that came the novel Jaws, and then the movie Jaws, and nothing's really been the same since.

  Well, Carly Shog's next six words weren't that important. Except, of course, to me. Before she said them I asked her, "Why did you say 'Of course you would?' You meant 'Of course you will! I'm doing Buttercup's Baby."

  That moment, waiting for her to speak, looking at the glorious lady, at her pale blue eyes, I remember thinking something weird is going on, something bad, even. But in no paranoid nightmare could I have come up with what she said next:

  "Stephen King is doing the abridgement."

  HERE'S WHAT I did not say: "What's the punch line?" Here's another: "You're killing me." Or: "He'll laugh right in your face." Try: "You rotten bitch." While I was busy saying nothing, Carly went smartly on.

  "Here's what we get when you sign that letter: safety. See, you're nowhere near King in terms of sales, no one is, we don't have to go there. But a lot of people connect you with Morgenstern because of the movie and what we don't want is people wondering why you decided not to do the sequel. Goodwill is very important, and we can't have you running around claiming betrayal. I wrote this. I think you can live with it."

  Here's what she put down: "I'm so excited Stephen King has come on board. Frankly, I'm exhausted as far as Mr. Morgenstern is concerned. So I wish everyone the best. And I don't know about you, but I can't wait to read Buttercup's Baby."

  I looked at her a moment before I spoke. She looked like Bela Lugosi now. "He won't do it. King. I know him a little, and there's no reason on earth he'd get dragged into something like this."

  "Steve doesn't feel he's getting 'dragged into' anything. He's genuinely excited. We talk every day. Will, 'til everything's finalized."

  "I don't believe you. I don't know what you're after but find another buyer." I stood up.

  "His name wasn't always King," Carly said then. "He has ancestors who lived in Florin City way back when. He still visits in the summertime."

  I sat back down.

  "Does he know about me?"

  "Bill, of course. And I told him just what the peace settlement says--that you're exhausted. That's easy enough to believe. My God, you haven't written a novel in well over a decade."

  She now strongly resembled Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. "I'll see you in court," I said, tossing some money on the table, walking out. A stupid and hollow thing to say. She could keep pressuring me with the lawsuits. No question, she had all the cards.

  All but one.

  ***

  LATE THE NEXT morning I was sitting in the airport in Bangor, Maine. I knew King basically from Misery, a screenplay I wrote from one of his best and favorite novels. I'd come up to Bangor a couple of times, just your basic research, chatting with him, a few questions I thought could be better answered in person than over the phone. We had a sneak for him when the movie was done and Rob Reiner, the director, and I paced the lobby while it was on, hoping he'd like it. It meant a lot to us to please him. Rob's career really took off with Stand By Me, another work by King (a novella called The Body).

  We could tell as soon as we saw him walking out that he was happy about what we'd done with his baby. He loved Kathy Bates especially. (Not alone in that; she won the Oscar for Best Actress.) It's funny but what I remember even more was the moment before it started when he left us to take his seat: the look on his face was so hopeful. Like a kid. I commented on that to Rob who said, "I think he's as vulnerable now as when he started--which is how he's managed to stay Stephen King."

  I don't think everyone realizes what a phenomenon he is. It's not
just the hundreds of millions of books sold--it's that he has arguably been the hottest writer in the world for so long. Carrie came out in '74--a quarter century sitting closest to the fire.

  I saw him through the window now. Jeans, lumberjack shirt, shambling walk. King's a lot bigger than you think. And remarkably unpretentious.

  We sat in a private corner of the waiting room--I hadn't eaten since the legendary lunch the day before with the Fiend of Florin. And I'd been up half the night getting everything all set, just how to say it rationally, novelist to novelist, storyteller to storyteller, and the way it went in my head I wasn't even halfway through before he said, "Bill, that bitch lied to me, she said you didn't want to do it. I only said I'd get involved because she talked to a bunch of relatives I still have back there and they put pressure on me but I felt dragged into the damn thing from the beginning."

  The silence went on. King looked at me. Waiting. I knew I was making him nervous, just sitting there, but I couldn't figure how to start. All I knew was I didn't want to embarrass him. Or, worse, humiliate myself.

  Finally he asked, "How's Kathy? I liked her in Titanic."

  He's giving you a way to start, I told myself. So talk about Kathy Bates. You've got a great Kathy Bates story, tell him. "I don't see her much, but did I ever tell you how she got the Misery part? It's a great story."

  King shook his head.

  "I wrote the part for her. I'd seen her on stage for years--she's one of the great actresses but she'd never gotten her break in films--and before I started I was talking with Rob and I said, 'I'm going to write Annie Wilkes for Kathy Bates.' And Rob said, 'Oh, good. She's great. We'll use her.'"

  "Then what?" King asked.

  "That was it. The most sought after female role that year and it went to this unknown. I loved being part of that. Changing a life."

  "Great story, all right," King said, trying to sound enthusiastic. But I knew his heart wasn't in it.

  "No!" I said, way too loud, but I was not in the best of shape, as readers of these pages will have sensed. "No," I repeated, more conversationally. "That's not the story. Here's the great story."

  King waited.

  "Okay. So Rob calls her in. Just Kathy and Rob in the room and she has never come close to a lead in a movie and Rob just lets it fly: 'You've got the part.' Kathy sits there for a moment before she says this: 'The part. I've got it.' Rob nods, repeats the news. 'You've got it.' Now there's another pause before Kathy comes out with this: 'The Annie part. Annie Wilkes. That part?' Rob nods again. 'Annie Wilkes. The lead.' Now a little faster from Kathy: 'And I've got it and it's all set and everything.' 'All set,' from Rob. Now she leans forward a little. 'Let me just get this straight--I am playing Annie Wilkes, the lead, in Misery?' 'Yup,' says Reiner. And Kathy goes on: 'It's done and everything, I mean, I am definitely playing Annie, and that's set and done and everything, no mistakes or anything?' And Rob says, 'It is so set you wouldn't believe it.' And then there is a moment of silence in the room. And then she says this: 'Can I tell my mother?'"

  King just loved it. (I do too. It's one of my all-time favorite sweet Hollywood stories.) He laughed and smiled and looked at me questioningly, and I raised my right hand and said, "All true, word of honor," and I could feel myself, at last, relaxing. I knew I could do it now, talk to him, convince him not to do the sequel, because, after all, I had done The Princess Bride and, even on this earth, fair was occasionally fair, and he said, "I really liked the movie." I said, "I did too, not just Kathy but how about Jimmy Caan?" Then he said, "I meant The Princess Bride."

  "Thanks. So do I," and I was about to go on when I realized something. Something just awful. He hadn't mentioned the novel, just the movie. But, my God, he had to like it, I was just being paranoid.

  "I wish I felt the same about the novel," he said, and I could see it pained him to say it.

  The most popular storyteller of the century tells you that you suck as a storyteller. I would like to report I handled the whole thing with maturity. But, alas, what I said, like a total jerk, was, "Yeah? Well, a lot of people liked it just fine, thank you very much."

  Suddenly he was leaning in toward me. "Bill, the way you caught his style was fine, but, the fact is, I don't like a lot of what you did with the abridgement. For example, Chapter Four--you cut out seventy pages on Buttercup's training. How could you do that? There was wonderful stuff in there. You must have seen the Royalty School. It's one of the great buildings left in all of Europe. Buttercup's curriculum is amazing. How could you leave it out?"

  "I was mostly interested in the story, you know, the plot." And that's when I broke it to him. "I never went there. To Florin. What was so important about going?"

  "What was so important? You flew up here just to check out things for a screenplay adaptation."

  I didn't say anything then because I could feel this terrible wind coming and I knew it would blow me away.

  "That's why I want to do Buttercup's Baby" he said. "Get things right this time."

  I was dead in the water. I stood, thanked him for his time, started out, devastated.

  "I'm really sorry," he said.

  I made a smile. Not the easiest thing for me to pull off at that moment, but I liked King, didn't want him of all people to see me fall apart.

  He called after me: "Bill--wait--I just had an idea. Listen--I'll do the abridgement and you can do the screenplay. I'll make that a deal-breaker in my contract." King was trying to be helpful, I understood that, but right there in the airport I told him about my dad reading to me and Jason not liking it and me realizing how I had only been read the good parts and now Jason was me and he had this kid, Willy, this wonderful child named after me, and Willy wanted me to read it to him and none of this abridgement business would have happened if I hadn't started it and what would he do if he ever lost it, his power, storytelling, as I'd lost mine, and how would he like to spend the rest of his life writing perfect parts for perfectly horrible people who happen to be movie stars this week, with all that power--

  --and I was what I most didn't want to ever be, humiliated, so I left him there, forcing myself not to run out the door, gone....

  THE PLANE BACK TO New York left in three hours and I grabbed a cab, hid in Bangor 'til it was time, cabbed back to the airport.

  Late. Weather problems.

  I sat on a bench in the airport, leaned back, closed my eyes until King asked, "You had to come all the way to Maine to have a nervous breakdown?" He was sitting alongside me. "You did make one good point, and I've thought a lot about it--none of this abridgement business would have happened except your dad kept skipping stuff. So in a way you're very much right, it is your baby, you began it."

  Pause.

  Then he said it.

  "Try the first chapter."

  He could tell from my expression that I didn't quite understand what he meant. I guess I was like Kathy talking to Rob. "Look, this is the twenty-fifth anniversary year of The Princess Bride, right? Your version." It was. "Well, probably your publisher will want to do something, maybe reprint it in hardcover." I nodded. We'd already talked about that. "Well, abridge the first chapter of Buttercup's Baby. Include it if you want. You probably ought to write an introduction to the chapter, explaining why you're not doing the whole book. I'll call the Shogs, tell them my decision. They won't like it but they'll go along. They've been wanting to be in business with me for years. Florinese rights to my stuff are coming due in the next couple of years."

  For a moment then he hesitated, and I wondered if he was changing his mind. I just waited, hoping not. Next he shook his head, and there was a look on his face that might have said "Am I nuts to do this?" Then these wonderful words: "Bill, I expect you to really try this time."

  "I'll research the hell out of it," I told him. (And have I ever.) "But what happens after I publish the chapter?"

  "Let's go one step at a time," he answered. "You write it, I'll read it, Morgenstern's public will read it. I'll send a bunch o
f copies to all my cousins in Florin, see what they think." He stood, looked at me. "I guess the most important thing is really Morgenstern. He was a master and it would be nice if we could please him, don't you think?"

  "That would be best of all," I said, God's truth.

  We shook hands, said good-bye, he started away, glanced back. "You haven't read Buttercup's Baby yet, have you?"

  "Not yet."

  "It's a pretty amazing story."

  "What are you saying? That even I can't screw it up?"

  "You got that right," Stephen King said, and he smiled....

  ***

  I LEFT FOR Florin immediately. (I didn't get to Florin immediately, of course--Florin Air's scheduling geniuses saw to that. I took the Air France night flight to Brussels, where you connect with InterItalia, which lets you out in Guilder, and then just the short hop to Florin City.) I'd made out a list of places to see. Royalty School, obviously, because King put such emphasis on it, the Cliffs of Insanity--I phoned ahead and made a booking, the place is insane with visitors now--the forest where the Battle of the Trees took place, on and on. King had given me a list of friends and scholars who he thought might prove helpful. One wonderful cousin ran the best restaurant in Florin, a blessing, because Florin, as you may know, is the root vegetable capital of Europe, good for their farmers, but rutabaga is their national dish and you can get sick of it pretty fast unless a skillful cook is around.

  It was odd, those first days, looking at real places that I thought were made up when I was a kid. I was worried that they might not live up to my fantasies. (Some of them didn't, most of them did.)

  The Thieves Quarter where Fezzik reunited with Inigo, I saw that, and the room where Inigo finally finally killed Count Rugen--it's on the castle tour. Buttercup's farm has been kept pretty much intact, but what can I tell you, it's a farm. And of course the Fire Swamp is still as deadly as ever, no one's allowed in, but I did see the spot not that far away where local scholars believe that Buttercup and Westley held each other after she pushed him off the cliff. (It's where the reunion scene took place, and let me tell you, it was strange, me standing there, looking at that patch of ground.)

 
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