A talented team helmed by award-winning producer Sky Conway, including actor fan favorites such as Walter Koenig, plan to embark on a television pilot next year for John E. Stith’s MANHATTAN TRANSFER, the Tor Books novel about the kidnapping of Manhattan by aliens. While MANHATTAN TRANSFER was in the pipeline for original publication, Amazing Stories printed chapter one of MT as an excerpt, so it’s wonderful to be able to revisit this project.
We’ve asked John to write a series of short pieces to chronicle this thirty-year journey.
Here is part one.
Even after three decades, getting MANHATTAN TRANSFER to the screen is a saga whose ending is still uncertain. Signposts along the journey include the deaths of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed, hiring Ron Shusett of ALIEN fame, and a $50K bet with Richard Donner (LETHAL WEAPON). It involves people who got excited about the project for less than a week and people who maintained enthusiasm for two decades. It’s been a lesson in patience and delayed gratification. The book might hit its highest milestone next year. Or the saga might be the neverending story.
In the beginning, the idea for MANHATTAN TRANSFER was one of three I sent to the person I hoped would be my next agent, Russel Galen at Scott Meredith. My first agent, Perry Knowlton at Curtis Brown, had sold my first five novels to Ace Books and done a wonderful job for me, but he became ill enough that he encouraged clients to find new homes. He died from Alzheimer’s at age 80. Perry represented people like C.S. Lewis, Tony Hillerman, Ayn Rand, Frederik Pohl, and Alvin Toffler yet never once made me feel like a lesser client. He took a look at Diana Gabaldon’s first novel, and signed her, after my introduction, but that’s another story.
Russ looked at three proposed ideas, figuratively pointed to MANHATTAN TRANSFER, and said, “That one.” He also gave me very helpful guidance in shaping the idea.
I no longer recall the working title I started out with. A great friend and terrific writer, Robert J. Sawyer, suggested “MANHATTAN TRANSFER” and I immediately knew it fit. For those of you who haven’t read the book, it begins with aliens slicing Manhattan loose from the surface of the earth, capping it with a dome, and placing it aboard an enormous starship, in the middle of a huge group of alien cities. A discussion buzzed about whether I could use the same title as the jazz vocal group and the John Dos Passos novel, but aside from not being able to copyright a title, they took their name from a public domain source, a very old rail transfer station in New York, and everyone felt pretty sure no one would mistake the musical group for a science-fiction novel. If any feelings were hurt during this thirty-year period, no one sent me the memo. Even if Dos Passos were inclined to object, he died before I even started my writing career. And although I like to think I have something of a following, The Manhattan Transfer is currently touring Europe and probably doesn’t even know yet there’s a book with that title.
For Russ, I wrote a synopsis and the first three chapters, and at that point he sent the book to auction for nine publishers. Patrick Nielsen Hayden, at Tor Books, who had previously told me to contact him if I had another idea as good as REDSHIFT RENDEZVOUS (slow light and relativity aboard a hyperspace craft), came back with a rapid, pre-emptive offer. Russ explained that this kind of offer was not a first bid. This was a take-it-or-leave-it offer. If I didn’t take it, they would not buy the book. Period. Fortunately, Tor Books was exactly where I wanted to be. So we said yes.
It took me about a year to write the first draft. In parallel with that effort, I continued my search for a film agent, in hopes of selling one of the feature film scripts I’d written, or increasing the odds of a film rights sale for one of my novels. I found Michael Riccardi, who became a permanent friend and who worked tirelessly on my behalf. He would often call me on weekends to touch base and report his recent efforts. He called himself, “The agent who never sleeps.” By late 1992 he’d optioned one of my feature film screenplays. (It didn’t get made.)
Claire Eddy at Tor became my editor and provided numerous helpful suggestions in making MT the best book it could be. She wanted me to tone down my sense of humor some, but I was able to let it out to play in works like “Naught for Hire” in ANALOG and in other efforts.
The MT hardcover edition was scheduled for the second half of 1993, making it thirty years ago this year. As I thought about what to write next, Michael Ricciardi got excited about MT and started pitching film rights to people. One of the outfits he talked to expressed boundless enthusiasm (this is a Hollywood trope), to the point of saying they would send over one of their employees right away to pick up a bound galley. (Some of you are probably wondering why didn’t he just email a copy. Things worked a bit differently in 1993. I’d had my own computer since the late 70s, but many writers were still using those things call typewriters. And pencils.) Anyway the representative never showed.
Only later did Michael find out the guy had had a car accident on the way over. Don’t worry, he’s fine. But before long, they tried again. And even after reading the book, they still liked it a lot.
To be continued.
Copyright © 2023 by John E. Stith
John E. Stith is the author of REDSHIFT RENDEZVOUS, a Nebula Award nominee, MANHATTAN TRANSFER, and numerous other novels and short stories. Several of his works with Ace Books and Tor Books have been bought by the Science Fiction Book Club, optioned for film, and translated into many languages. He has optioned several feature-film screenplays, and has sold to television (Star Trek). Find him at www.neverend.com. His latest novellas are TINY TIME MACHINE and TINY TIME MACHINE 2: RETURN OF THE FATHER from Amazing Stories. His latest novel is PUSHBACK, a mystery-suspense novel. and a finalist for the Daphne Du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense. In 2024, look for TINY TIME MACHINE 3: MOTHER OF INVENTION, and his new SF novel, DISAVOWED, both from Amazing Stories.
To be on his list of occasional writing updates, visit http://eepurl.com/bGL4kj .
The Facebook page for the streaming series is https://www.facebook.com/