Peter Gethers

Book To Screen: Reading Peter Gethers

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Peter Gethers

Peter Gethers

In November 2005, Peter Gethers joined forces with Focus Features to bring Random House books to the screen. Gethers, a novelist whose novels include The Cat who went to Paris (and, as Russell Andrews, the thrillers Gideon and Midas), is also an executive at the publishing house, and he hatched the idea to develop a series of the publisher's titles into features. Focus and Random House's first film, Reservation Road, is now in theaters, so we talked to Gethers about what it means to be both book smart and film savvy.

What is your official position at Random House?

I have two official positions. I am vice president at Random House Inc., as well as an Editor at Large, which means I can publish books for any and all of the [Random House] imprints. I tend to work mainly for Doubleday, Knopf and Crown, just because those three pretty much cover my tastes. The other half of me–or, rather, the other 80 percent of me–is Random House Films, which is the newest division of Random House and is partnered with Focus Features. My job there is to find books from anyplace in the Random House world and turn them into movies.

Had you always wanted to be in publishing?

I had wanted to be a writer since I was seven years old. I moved to New York and when I was 21, I wrote my first novel, Dandy. I had to support myself while I was writing, so I got a job as an assistant to the Editor in Chief of Bantam Books. I finished writing my novel when I was 23, and, thinking I was going to be the next Fitzgerald or Hemingway, I quit my job and went off to Europe for a year and wrote a screenplay. Then after a year during which my novel didn't sell, I came crawling back to New York to ask my boss for another job. On the very day that I started working in publishing again, my book sold to another publisher.

Many of your books were written under the name Russell Andrews.  Why a different name? Are you hiding from the police?

After publishing two novels that no one other than my parents bought, The Dandy and Getting Blue, I wrote three non-fiction books about traveling around the world with my extraordinary cat. All 3 books–The Cat Who Went To Paris, A Cat Abroad, and The Cat Who'll Live Forever–were international bestsellers. They were also kind of sweet and nice and funny. When I decided to write thrillers, the publisher and I decided that it wasn't really fair to send the cat fans over to the dark side. Plus, the first thriller I wrote, Gideon, was written with my then long-time movie & TV writing partner, and we wanted one name on the book instead of two. His middle name was Russell, mine is Andrew, and thus Russell Andrews was born. The writing partnership broke up after that novel was published and, because Gideon also was a bestseller around the world, I assumed the pseudonym for the future thrillers. I have to say that I get a perverse pleasure out of using a fake name–it's a satisfying kind of schizophrenia. But I'm about to start a novel that's written under my real name. A non-thriller. So it's back to reality for me.

What happened to your screenplay?

That is a long story. I'd written it with an old high school friend and when we ended up together in the south of France, we didn't know what to do with it. In the meantime, a TV director read my novel and really liked it, and he asked me if I would rewrite a television movie. So that got me into the television business. It was then that my writing partner and I ended up selling our screenplay as a TV pilot. After a couple of years working in television, I got hired to write screenplays–most of which never got made. One that did was Frantic, which I script doctored for Roman Polanski. 

How is it that you were working as book editor and TV writer at the same time? Didn't someone catch on?

Since I was 24 or 25, I knew that I wanted to work in the film industry, write books, and write screenplays. I'd worked out a deal so that I only work six months a year for the publisher. Overtime I built up a career –I've done a lot television (including being a writer for the TV show Kate and Allie), written a bunch of screenplays, and my tenth book was just published this year.

Did that dual personality help you put together Random House films?

Absolutely. When I conceived of this idea of putting Random House in the movie business, I said to the chairman of the board of Random House, "I may not do all of these things well, but I think that I am the only person here who combines the creative elements [of filmmaking] with the business knowledge." I knew the process backwards and forwards. And when I met James Schamus, it was a perfect combination.

Is there a typical Random House book for adaptation?

No, not at all. What is really fun about this–and this was always the idea–is that Random House publishes the widest spectrum of any publisher in the world. They do everything from the trashiest bodice-ripping erotic women's novels to the work of Nobel Prize winners. Our thought was to create a slate of films over the next few years that would reflect that spectrum.

What books are lined up right now to be turned into movies?

We have everything from Reservation Road, which is a genuinely small serious movie to Yasmina Khadra'sThe Attack, which is even smaller and political. The story, about am Arab surgeon in Israel who finds out his wife was a suicide bomber, was huge bestseller in France. And the film may not even be made in English. Then we have The Husband, which is a smart thriller by Dean Koontz, one of the most successful suspense writers around. One project, which isn't even a book yet, is the true story of a 25-year-old woman who moves to Vegas to be a cocktail waitress and ends up in the huge underworld of sports gambling. And there is Bob Drogin's Curveball, a political drama about the incredible screwups in Iraq. And we have a project with one my particular fancies, someone I think is one of the great writers of the twentieth century–mystery author Ross Macdonald. We are adapting The Galton Case, which is one of his best novels.  Two of his other novels–The Moving Target [with the film title Harper] and The Drowning Pool–were adapted to film decades ago with Paul Newman in the lead roles.  Right now, people are sort of staying away from the detective genre, and my feeling has always been it's better to do something when other people are not doing it rather than come in third or fourth.

How does your creative background help you here?

Both James and I are writers, and so we both have a pretty good sense of what needs to happen for a book to be a good movie. Oftentimes people are fooled by a really good book. What makes it so good is the writing, and the one thing that you can't translate to film is the writer's style. What works are story, character development, and the various narrative arcs. That is why great movies are often made from not such great books and vice versa. The Great Gatsby may be the great American novel, but it doesn't work as film. On the other hand, a book like To Kill a Mockingbird does.