Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Cheating Death With The Tolltaker

It's an odd thing watching something you've worked on for so long come to fruition.

Such is the case with The Tolltaker, which I have been working on in one form or another since 2005. First there was the screenplay, which came about as a result of my long-time friend Steve Sneddon telling me that his half-brother Jimmy had written a novel that had been published.

Of course, there's published and there's published. It turns out that Jim Sneddon's book (Jim being his preferred name since about the time he was twelve) was published by a tiny, small-press publisher in Maine that had held a novel-writing competition, with the prize being publication of the winning entry.

Jim's novel The Tolltaker was the winner, and a 500-copy print run was executed. I don't think the publisher is in business anymore, and I don't know where the majority of those copies are; however, I do know you can get used copies on Amazon and similar websites.

Steve then told me that, when they were kids, he and Jimmy (as Steve insisted on calling him) used to climb inside a huge drain pipe in their Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood with candles and notebooks to write the type of fanciful little stories that 10-year-old boys would write.

The habit of writing gradually faded as Jim and Steve grew up, but the creative urge didn't. Steve picked up the guitar and likes to noodle on it to this day. Jim was close to 40 when he finally resolved to re-awaken his childhood dreams of becoming a writer. He sat down at a computer provided to him by Steve's mother (not the same woman as Jim's mother), and out came The Tolltaker.

I'm told he sent it out to every publisher and agent he could think of, but with no success. He just had no ins with the publishing industry. And then along came the writing competition. After the book had been out for a couple months, Steve gave me a copy of it to read.

It reminded me of the kind of book I would have fallen in love with as a kid: the hero was a young boy facing a life-and-death situation, the kind that tests a person's character no matter what his age. The setting was the "real" world, but one in which incursions by the fantastic occurred, with profound effects on one's life. In that sense, it was like The Phantom Tollbooth, A Wrinkle in Time, The Chronicles of Narnia and countless other books that had fed my world view when I was a kid.

And of course, there's the familiarity of a story about a young boy being raised by a single mother named Judy in the Philadelphia area in the early 1970s. That goes without saying.

So, after coming to an agreement with Jim about how to split any potential financial gains, I set about adapting the book into a screenplay. The result wound up a semi-finalist in the Nicholl Fellowship screenwriting competition, which was a lofty-enough endorsement to win me the interest of one or two managers and producers in Los Angeles, one of whom recommended that I adapt the screenplay to a short film, and then take it on the festival circuit, which is a well-tried strategy for getting an independent film made.

And that's what happened. Unfortunately, James Sneddon didn't live to see it. He died unexpectedly about a year after I finished the screenplay, before the Nicholl Fellowship result came in. He left behind a wife and two young daughters.

So, it's probably disingenuous to say that the screenplay, the short film, and the feature (should it ever get made) are tributes to Jim. It's not like I'm not benefiting as well from any success the story might have. However, I do find it deeply gratifying that someone who, late in life, chose to follow his muse found some sort of recognition, even if he had to cheat death to do it, and I had something to do with making that happen.

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