Not long before he became the hottest novelist in Hollywood for three days, Ryne Douglas Pearson was a 29-year-old writer gossiping on the phone with a buddy in the Navy. His friend had heard a rumor that secret military intelligence codes were sometimes leaked to the public in puzzle magazines to see if civilians could crack them.
”Cool,” he said.
Two years later, Ryne Pearson was a millionaire of the kind that a surreal Los Angeles lottery creates almost every week. He had written a book based on his friend’s tip, and the tome had been lucky enough to attract buzz — the combination of rumor, received wisdom, and competitive paranoia that can make a property hot before anyone has actually read it. Here’s how it happened: July 15, 1994: Excited by his friend’s rumor, Pearson sits down in the tiny bedroom of his apartment in Hacienda Heights, Calif., to start work on a new novel. His wife, Irene, a sixth-grade teacher, isn’t thrilled. They’re $35,000 in debt and have lived for the last four years on minuscule advances from his books, none of which have sold to the movies. Meanwhile, Pearson’s sweet, disarming quality has helped him earn a living for years as a YMCA camp director.
The hero of the new novel, Simple Simon, would be the same character Pearson had used in his three previous thrillers: Art Jefferson, an irascible 50-year-old FBI agent who wolfs down chili dogs despite a heart attack. But a new character also appears: Simon, a 19-year-old idiot savant who has to carry around an index card with instructions just to get through the day, but boasts mathematical prowess similar to Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond in Rain Man.
Pearson doesn’t sketch out the plot in advance. ”My creative process is basically writing a lot of crap, until something unique starts to emerge,” he says.
April 2, 1995: As Howie Sanders, 35, a literary agent in Hollywood, hears about Simple Simon from Pearson, he knows it’s a book that could turn into a tent-pole movie for some studio. Sanders and his partner, Richard Green, 35, have found a niche selling the film rights to hot books. In the past year, they’ve sold six for a million dollars or more apiece. And in the attention-deficit-disorder capital of the world, Simple Simon has a perfect two-line sales pitch: ”Autistic teenager breaks the National Security Agency’s intelligence code. After his parents are murdered, he goes on the run from evil government forces with the help of a lone FBI agent.”
April 12, 1995: Green and Sanders launch Simple Simon trial balloons at important production companies. ”It’s Rain Man meets WarGames,” they tell the people at DreamWorks SKG, whose president, Walter F. Parkes, cowrote the 1983 Matthew Broderick thriller.
June 5, 1995: Simple Simon buzz is cross-pollinating nicely around town. Green thinks the movie rights will sell to a young independent producer named Linda Goldstein who’s well liked at TriStar. Sanders, on the other hand, is sure his neighbor, Joseph M. Singer, an ultra-aggressive ex-investment banker with a new deal at Universal Studios, is going to grab the book.