Cover Story: A Whole New Playbook
For Matthew Quick, author of The Silver Linings Playbook — the novel that became the Academy Award-winning film starring Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro — success as a fiction writer came slowly, then gradually and then all at once.
The Oaklyn, N.J., native left a comfortable job as a high school English teacher to pursue his MFA, during which time he spent several years writing in his in-laws’ Massachusetts basement and endured bouts of frustration and self-doubt. But in 2008, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published Silver Linings, the touching, comic tale of two people struggling with mental health issues and loss while trying to put their lives back together. Although the work of literary fiction was well received and quickly optioned for a film, Quick’s next few books were, at the suggestion of his agent, young adult titles: 2010’s Sorta Like a Rock Star, 2012’s Boy21 and Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, a poignant novel about a kid who’s “incredibly smart, incredibly pissed off, and with a right to be” who brings a gun to school (due out in August).
Silver Linings’ path to film production was winding, with names such as Mark Wahlberg, Anne Hathaway, Zoey Deschanel and Vince Vaughn attached at various points. Once the David O. Russell-directed film hit theaters, however, things became hectic for Quick. And when the film garnered eight academy award nominations (Lawrence won for Best Actress), Quick’s life became less like a novelist’s and more, well, like a rock star’s. He’s since sold another manuscript, The Good Luck of Right Now (Harper Collins, 2014), which has already been optioned by Dreamworks. He’s also champing at the bit to get to work on his next novel —“It’s in my head, fully formed” — which is due in December.
Quick (who, in the interest of full disclosure, is a friend and was a college roommate at La Salle University in the early 1990s) took some time in March to talk to Book Business about his whirlwind life since his book hit the silver screen.
Book Business: Thanks for taking some time to talk. I know you’ve had quite a week. So, tell me this: When’s the last time you actually had time to write?
Matthew Quick: I finished writing The Good Luck of Right Now in August  and I’ve just been promoting Silver Linings ever since. I wrote a few short stories in the fall, but I haven’t been working on anything long until recently. Today was a big day for me, I spent a few hours just writing. It felt great to do that. Last week when I came back from the Oscars, I was on deadline to edit The Good Luck of Right Now, and it felt good to do editing, something related to fiction writing. It felt really good to get back to that.
BB: You were pretty involved in the promotion for the Silver Linings Playbook film. How did that happen, and when did things get intense for you?
MQ: It got intense for me as soon as I saw the film. In August, the Weinstein Company had me come down to Tribeca. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was on an audition that day. When I got home, I talked to David [O. Russell] and [producer] Bruce Cohen. When I told them I really enjoyed the film, they seemed wildly relieved. I had no idea everyone was stressing out about my reaction. I wrote a blog post about how I enjoyed it, and how, even though it was a little different from the book, I embraced the film. I went down to North Carolina with my parents on vacation the first week of September and I got a call from the Weinstein Company and they said, “Everybody here read your blog. Can we use it for publicity?” That’s when I realized that they were watching what I was doing online. You’re stupid if you think people aren’t watching. That was the moment I realized I was going to be included in the publicity. … I started traveling in October, doing media tours. I would go to a city and do media all day long. … It was fun, being chauffeured, staying in posh hotels, working all day long. Sometimes I was in a presidential suite and for hours would do a different interview every 15 minutes. I didn’t have any negative experience at all, just that there was so much of it. … Sometimes I couldn’t even remember what I said in the interview because I’d told the same story so many times.
BB: You’ve done three novels that are being sold as YA, though Leonard Peacock has very mature and timely themes, and you are returning to adult for your next books. Is there a big difference between writing for “adults” vs. writing for “young adults?”
MQ: When my agent [Doug Stewart of Sterling Lord Literistic] first asked me to write YA, he said, “You were a high school English teacher, you know teenagers, you should give it a go.” I had a lot of lingering MFA snobbery. My response, and I’m not proud of this, was, “I don’t write genre fiction.” To think that I had the balls as an unpublished novelist to tell someone what I was. A lot of young writers have very preconceived ideas about how the publishing world works, and those preconceived ideas put you at a disadvantage. My agent took a deep breath and sighed. “I’m not asking you to write anything you wouldn’t normally write, but write it from the point of view of a teenager. I remember you saying, Catcher in the Rye is YA.” I remember thinking, “Wow, I could be J.D. Salinger.” [Laughs.] … Having worked at this for six years, I feel as though my mind-frame has really changed radically about all of that. When I sit down to write, I don’t think about how it’s going to be perceived or received. I try to tell the best story I can tell. … I left all that snobbery at the door a long time ago.
BB: Are there different expectations of a YA author in terms of sales?
MQ: The type of YA I write is called “realistic YA.” Basically it’s not wizards or vampires or anything fantastical. Realistic YA does not sell as well as your Twilight series or your Harry Potters or your Beautiful Creatures. It’s good and bad. The bad is that you don’t make as much money — it’s not as easy to get those books out there and they don’t have the ad budgets those big fantasy books get. The good part is that I have a little bit more freedom to take risks. What my publisher hopes to do is build my career by getting my books into classrooms. In this country, teachers and librarians have a huge role in determining the success of YA. The hope is that I will win awards. Boy21 [was] a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for YA. That’s a huge win for my publisher. Sometimes it’s frustrating when people say, “You must have gone to YA to chase the money.” The money I made from YA is probably not even 10 percent of the money I’ve made over the years. The money has come from Silver Linings and Hollywood. YA, I love doing it, but I couldn’t support myself on it. Not a big money maker yet. I do it because I love the books that I’m writing.
BB: How much has the success of Silver Linings boosted your next projects?
MQ: It’s huge, no doubt. In the bookselling business, the most important thing is how many books have you sold. When [my agent] goes to a meeting, that’s going to play a huge role. How much they’re going to give you, how much they’re going to advertise. I’ve come to look at it as the stock market. It’s not how much something is worth, but the perception of what it’s worth. Silver Linings is a book I wrote in 2006, and not a word has changed since 2008. They’re selling it in countries that had rejected it for five years, who didn’t want to translate it. But now they want my next book, too. It creates name recognition. Silver Linings was hovering around No. 7 on Kindle last week; when you turn on your Kindle, the top 10 books come up. When people see it come up again and again, they’re more likely to read it. … What I’ve learned is that no matter how awesome your book is, there are going to be people who like it, and people who don’t like it. So get it into your target market to as many people who are going to like it, so they’ll generate discussion. Granted, it’s immensely easier to do that when you have Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in TV ads and the Weinstein Company putting a lot of advertising into it. Ten years ago in my 20s I would have taken a cynical or dim view of that. Now I look at it and say, “I believe in my work, in my story. I believe it’s going to help people, and I want to get it out as widely as possible.” People who want it, and maybe need it, get it. That’s really the game. … The Good Luck of Right Now is a different kind of story, but it still deals with mental health. The main character has a delusional philosophy. Because of the success of Silver Linings, it now has a built-in audience. It’s a great gift. I intend to use it to hopefully put some good work out.
BB: How was the red carpet treatment in Hollywood?
MQ: The Oscars were surreal. I flew out to Los Angeles Friday night. Saturday night we went to the Weinstein pre-Oscar party with everyone associated with Silver Linings and Django Unchained. I remember watching Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction ad nauseam. Then I’m at this party and [Quentin] Tarantino’s like 2 feet away from me. I didn’t talk to Tarantino, but I had dinner with [Silver Linings co-star] Julia Stiles, who was at my table. I had written a piece about the Oscars for Huffington Post. Julia came up to me and said, “I read your piece in Huffington Post. Thanks for mentioning me.” And I’m, like, “Wow, Julia Stiles is reading what I’m writing online!” … The most interesting part about the Oscars was the little off-camera moments. When you leave the Oscars, you go out and walk the red carpet in reverse. [Then] you have to find your limo company, check in and get a tag with a number. At the end of the red carpet there are four lanes of limos. Fans are screaming and everyone has to wait for their limo. Right in front of us is Joaquin Phoenix, Jennifer Aniston, Philip Seymour Hoffman. … It’s one of those human moments that you don’t see on screen. Jennifer Aniston has to wait a half hour for a limo, just like I did. Those are the details that I was fascinated by.
BB: You’d always been pretty interactive with your fans, but in the run-up to the Oscars you had to disengage a bit from the Internet, notably removing your email address from your blog and making your Twitter a one-way channel.
MQ: I started to get too many emails, and a lot of offers for speaking events. A year ago I had the time to [answer them], but now I don’t. … When I’m talking with somebody, I want to be present 100 percent. I’m not good at having clipped, business-like conversations. That’s a good quality overall, and I think people respond to that. But I couldn’t be me with everybody who contacted me, and that was very hard for me. I didn’t just want to write “Thank you” like a robot 100 times a day. That didn’t feel right to me, so we got a booking agent to handle my booking.
It was hard, too, on Twitter; I just went one-way. Unfollowed everybody. They’d write really beautiful things about my books, but I can’t spend all day responding to everybody who writes. … It’s important to create that barrier between friend and fan, for my own mental health. I really like a real relationship. I’d much rather have an hour-long conversation at a bar than sent texts or Tweet. It starts to stress me out. I’m not somebody who’s great at multi-tasking. Between Twitter and Facebook and email, I have so many voices in my head, I can’t tap back into me. Part was pragmatism, and part was to send that clear message; I will get personal fast, and sometimes people think that means that they can just drop by my house or write me a long memoir about their life. …
I love hearing from people who are moved by the books. But on a grand scale it can be overwhelming. … YA author John Green would say, “It’s impossible for me to write everybody back, so I don’t write to anybody.” Now I get it. BB