Thursday, August 28, 2008

Eszterhas comes clean

It's a far cry from "Basic Instinct" and "Showgirls."

Yesterday, I had the privilege of talking to Hollywood screenwriting legend Joe
Eszterhas, whose memoir "Crossbearer: A Memoir of Faith" will be released by St. Martin's Press next month.

In the memoir, Eszterhas pours out his soul to readers about how his fledgling relationship with God formed out of the helplessness he felt struggling with throat cancer and the ultimatum given to him by his doctors -- quit drinking and smoking or die.

Eszterhas also explores how his relationships with members of his family have impacted his ever-changing relationship with the unchanging God.

Here's a snippet of our conversation:


K.H.: What was your impetus for writing the book?

J.E.: Well, the sole impetus and the only impetus was that, you know if you want to put it in almost Hollywood terms — and they aren’t the right terms — it’s almost like I made a deal with God. I said in the beginning I was loathe — as I explained in the book — of even asking God to help me in terms of saving my life because I felt, how do you presume in a situation where I haven’t really thought about God in 40 years — and God hasn’t been a part of my life — to suddenly presume a relationship.

It was difficult for me to even put into language in terms of how to speak to God. I say the “Our Father” because it’s my favorite prayer and I say the Rosary, but I wanted to devise my own lexicon, my own glossary, of speaking to God directly. I quickly began praying during my walks. I walked very quickly after my cancer surgery, and I walked a lot. I’ve walked for seven years.
The walking became kind of a prayer, and I came up with my own way of approaching God. It was very, very difficult to do that.

I gradually formed my own way of speaking to God. I said to God, “If you help me I promise I’ll
tell the world about this.” I know who I am and I know that I’m a public figure. God not only helped me in terms of my addictions.

He ultimately saved my life; God changed my life completely. I get up in an entirely new way each day and each morning. It’s very difficult to explain to someone who doesn’t have God in his or her heart what it means to have God in your heart.

From that moment I got up off that curb, I felt the presence of God. I felt God in my heart. It changed everything in my life. It changed my relationships, it changed literally the way I view the world. So the book was a thank you, and I felt that I have told the world, and I’ve done to the best of my abilities what it means to have your life transformed by having God in your heart.

It was very difficult to write because the tone was very tough. I started and made the first attempts to write it in about 2003. I couldn’t write for a couple of years because writing was too tied into my addictions. I started smoking when I was 12 and drinking when I was 14 years old.

Through the years, I chain smoked while I wrote, but I also started drinking while I wrote. I drank, and I would sip coffee with cognac, but then I gave coffee up then I’d start sipping white wine or gin or something like that. Then suddenly, to be deprived of all that, I just couldn’t write.
Then when I finally did in 2003, I started making attempts at the process of saying thank you. The tone wouldn’t come together. It just didn’t combine itself. So for awhile I just took notes. I kept going back to it and back to it. I think in about 2005 or 2006, I started writing it.

Around 2007, I had a finished first draft. My agent lives in London and comes to visit me in Cleveland each year. We go out and watch a couple ball games and stuff and I said, “I’ve written this book.”

He said, “That’s not the way it’s supposed to work. The way it works is you tell me you have an idea and I go to publishers and I get you a deal to write a book.”

And I said, “If I’d have done that, everyone would have thought I’d lost my mind.”

He said, “What’s it about?”

I said, “It’s about God. It’s about my relationship with God and the importance of God in my

He said, “Really?” and cocked his eye, and he said, “It’s not exactly a Joe Eszterhas book.”
I said, “Well, it’s certainly not what people would expect.”

He took it to the publisher of my previous book. There’s an editor there named Elizabeth Beyer, whom I liked a lot. Elizabeth read it in its first draft. She liked it. She wasn’t knocked out by it. But she liked it enough to challenge me to deeper to go into areas she thought I’d avoided. . . .I get a couple of really strong new drafts, and I thought that her advice was very, very good and the book improved.

I dedicated (the book) to my mom and Naomi (Eszterhas' wife) because my mom became a central character. Even in the scenes where she’s not there, I felt her presence in the background. The final book finally came together totally after all of that time and with Elizabeth’s help.

I gave the book to Father Dan and Father Bob just to make sure for accuracy’s sake and for advice. They both truthfully challenged me further in the ending part of the book — with moments of doubt and pain, faith and belief — came out of the suggestion that Father Bob said:
“We all have our doubts and we all have our moments of doubt and pain. I think if you could get into your heart and write about that, that a lot of people could identify with that and it would help them.”

It went through that kind of process. I thought that process ultimately made it better as well. We were finally done. Naomi read it, and she hugged it. (Laughs) She’d never hugged any of my books before.

K.H.: Did you learn anything about yourself while you were writing it?

J.E.: Oh, yeah. I learned a lot because the entire period of this time was time of discovery and rediscovery of myself and my values. By putting this down in writing it was almost cathartic.

Certainly in terms of everything about my mother and my dad and my daughter and my biological daughter — one of the things that happened to me throughout the course of the past seven years — I think my heart opened and my ability to love blossomed. I think that was accentuated even by the process of putting it down into writing and by the book itself. By describing what was happening to me and going through that writerly plumbing process to try to find the right words for what I was going through, even accentuated the experience of itself, of what I was going through.

It became a twofold kind of blessing.

The presence of God in my heart and writing about that presence made me contemplative and reflect on it. . . . .One of the things I discovered, and I think it’s in the book, is in the course of writing 16 films in 30 years as a screenwriter, there’s a tendency to view heroism in very dramatic larger-than-life, action-hero, big-screen terms.

What I realized going through this process is that true heroism is in the lives of ordinary people.

People like Noreen (a family friend about whom Eszterhas writes in the memoir) who’s been fighting cancer for 12 years. That cancer has gone through God knows how many parts of her body. It’s an endless and horrible fight that she’s waged for a long time with unbelievable bravery. It’s like going out to the next well . . .we’ve worked out the liver and now it’s going to the lung. Now we’re going to work this out.

We work this out as prayer and faith as her constant, as she moves to the next step.

That’s mind-boggling heroic.

My biological daughter — my granddaughters — have this thing called mitochondrial disease. Susie fights a fight every day — day to day — to make their lives better in a non-stop manner. Her entire life is devoted to that. That’s truly heroism, I think. These are little things, but all big things that I’ve learned through the coarse of this.

Coming tomorrow: Eszterhas talks about how "Crossbearer" came from a different place in his heart than the scripts for "Showgirls" and "Basic Instinct" and what kind of reaction he expects from Hollywood when his memoir is released.


Anonymous said...

Amazing. God is so great. He can take anything and turn it around, can't He? It's just amazing. I love conversion stories. I'll be sure to link this to my blog and FACEBOOK as well!! I'll be back for the rest.

Great interview.

Rachelle said...

Kat, thanks for this post. I've always been fascinated by Eszterhas since the days when I worked in Hollywood. I used to wonder at how someone with so much talent could be so misguided. I can't wait to read his book and will order it right now on Amazon!

(P.S. Thanks for coming to my defense on my blog. You said it succinctly, capturing exactly why I write my blog the way I do. "Agents are people too." I appreciate it.)