Written Up: A Personal History

September 5, 2021   •   By Raphael Simon

MOST WRITING ADVICE is like most parenting advice: guilt-provoking, hard to follow, generally best avoided. Still, there is one piece of advice that as a writer and parent I keep returning to: Don’t write about your kids.


Like much of the advice, good and bad, that I’ve received, this not-so-simple axiom comes from my mother, Dyanne Asimow. And it is in part a dig at her ex-husband, my father, Roger L. Simon, who has often found characters for his novels and screenplays conveniently close at hand. Though also a writer, my mother has always put family first — or so she sees it. Alas, in a family of writers, the line between family and writing is never as clear as we want it to be.


One-act plays, half-written books, endlessly revised movie pitches — I grew up giving story notes. But when I turned 30, my mother presented me with a manuscript unlike any I’d seen before. On the cover, above a photo of me at three months old, was the title Notes from a Baby.


The first note begins thus:


March 28, 1968


I’m getting even cuter. It’s because now I do things they can identify with, like pulling the soft blue blanketness over my head and having a dark Rafi world underneath. Or sticking things in my mouth, which I don’t do too well, but when I do, it’s very satisfying. The Beard always eats paper and things. I prefer to be placed on a big sheet of silver paper which I scrunch up in my hands.


Yes, for roughly six months, my mother wrote a journal for me. My journal. From my perspective.


I put the possessive in italics because it obviously has very little meaning in this context. Notice that the reason that I’m “getting even cuter” is not any intrinsic property of mine; it is that I’m doing things my parents can identify with. The same reason we think kittens are cute when they play the piano.


The Beard, presumably, is my father. (Though nowadays I’m the one with the beard — and the paper-eating problem.) My mother is referred to more obliquely in the notes as “she” and “her.” Mostly it is her breasts that I, in my mother’s account, am focused on.


Here are the first lines of the second note:


March 29


I’m nursing right now. Enhuh. Enhuh. Enhuh. Mmmenhujmm. Dark. And the breast is soft in my mouth. I suck very hard.


When my mother gave me the journal, I wasn’t angry — just a little freaked out — but I understood why she’d never shown it to me before. On one level, it is very sweet, this literary ventriloquism. On another level, it is evidence of a parent who has had some difficulty separating from her offspring. To put it mildly.


The last note in full:


August 17, 1968


I’ve stopped looking for her breasts. I don’t mind the rubber thing so much. I can pull it and tear it. And the cold milk doesn’t bother me. But in the middle of the night, I cry and cry and if she finally comes and sticks that rubber thing in my mouth with the cold milk, I cry harder. He gets up and says, “don’t nurse him,” and I scream and pull my head back and they whisper and at last the softness and the warm milk and the comfort come into my mouth and I smile. She says to him, “tomorrow night I won’t.”


So much material for psychoanalysis in this paragraph, the mind reels. But allow me to stick to the one point: my mother is the author.


To my knowledge, she never wrote about me again, with the single exception of a picture book she wrote when I was four — about me, my best friend, and a giant black widow spider. (My favorite part is when my friend and I complain that the spider’s size is unrealistic.) She did continue to write for me, however — not literally, but in the time-honored manner of Jewish mothers everywhere: over-helping with my grade-school homework and later even with my college papers. Many times, I called her in tears, not because of a broken bone or broken relationship, but because of something that was for me far more painful and far more frequent — writer’s block. I never directly asked for help, but there was no need. For my mother, giving advice, in particular writing advice, is practically a vocation.


Notes from a Baby shed a new, alarming light on all this maternal assistance, and after reading it, my fantasies took a paranoid, Hitchcockian turn. Were there similar journals for every year of my life, I wondered. Was my mother still, in some sense, writing in my voice? And here I’d always thought it was my father whom I’d have to fight in order to take back my story.


Would I ever get to write my story myself?


Throughout much of my childhood, beginning in 1973 with The Big Fix, my father was writing a series of detective novels. His detective Moses Wine is a zeitgeist-y type, whose political evolution — from pot-smoking radical to bourgeois liberal to conservative firebrand — mimics my father’s own. Moses Wine has two sons, as my father does. I am the older son, and I remember turning pages of my father’s books, looking for mentions of Moses’s older son Jacob, like an eager actor scanning a script for his lines. To my chagrin, Jacob didn’t play as big a role in the books as he did in my imagination. As I recall, Moses’s sons appear mainly in scenes that have to do with Moses’s divorce from their mother — a fictional divorce that confused me given that my real-life parents were still married when the first few Moses Wine books were written. They separated when I was 13. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.


I was 10 years old when my father re-scribed The Big Fix for the big screen, as the trades might put it. Naturally, I felt I should be cast as Jacob, a role that, as far as I was concerned, had been written for me — it didn’t hurt that Jacob’s father would be played by Jaws star Richard Dreyfuss — but my parents did not have a high opinion of child actors and they worried about turning me into a Hollywood brat. My consolation prize was a smaller role: the son of an Abbie Hoffman–like ’60s radical who was hiding from the law disguised as a suburban dad.


Though sorely disappointed, I somehow absorbed the no-small-parts-only-small-actors ethos, and I threw myself into my part with an earnest professionalism calculated to make everyone regret not having cast me in the larger role. So caught up was I that I fell into a swimming pool while the camera was rolling. Someone took a photo of me standing by the pool, seconds later, soaking wet. Next to me is a man I assume to be the director of photography, grinning under his mustache and cowboy hat. In comparison, I look more than a little effete, with my long hair and ill-fitting soccer uniform and cleats. Most painful to see is my smile; I am trying so hard to look like I’m in on the joke.



As I grew older, I began to resent my presence in my father’s books more than my absence.


Moses Wine’s sons figure most heavily in one of my father’s last mysteries. In The Lost Coast (1997), Jacob, who, like me, had not only aged but come out as gay, resurfaces as a “witty intellectual who enjoyed gossiping until dawn with artsy types.” The description makes me wistful now — so far is it from my current life — but at the time it struck me as rather dismissive. The book ends on a warm familial note, with mother, father, and the two brothers all reconciling and facing down the bad guys together. Nonetheless, I was left wondering how my father saw me, how he thought I wanted to be seen. My father’s vision of Jacob got lodged somewhere next to my mother’s frequent admonitions against “style over content” and her anxiety that I was only gay because it was trendy. Forever after I would be haunted by the specter of my own shallowness.


As it happens, the first piece of writing that I ever published was about being the child of writers. The editor of a free weekly, The Los Angeles Reader, had joined a swim party at our house, where he had the dubious pleasure of hearing my adolescent rant about growing up in the movie business. On the spot, he commissioned an article.


“Growing up in Hollywood, there are certain givens,” I wrote under the heading “True Life Adventures.” “All adults are screenwriters. Some are successful, some have wives, and some paint houses. But they are all screenwriters.”


The piece came out the day after my 17th birthday, and if you can’t tell by my tone, at that age I thought I knew a lot.


“So here I am […] with nothing to rebel against except my own cynicism,” I concluded with a Gen X glibness that I would be hard put to match now. “My parents have done it all, from political protest to fresh pasta with pesto. I’m throwing in the towel.”


And the final coup de grâce: “As yet another screenwriter said, maybe I’ll get lucky and some idiot will option this article.”


Rereading the article these many years later, I remember how excited I was to be writing for a real, professional newspaper, not to mention how proud I was of that protest-pasta-pesto alliteration, but I can’t help feeling a twinge of sadness. All adults are screenwriters. Whatever I may have told myself, I wasn’t being entirely facetious when I wrote those words. If not all, certainly most of the adults I knew were screenwriters. More importantly, my parents were. Somehow, my brother Jesse would grow up to be a visual artist, and our much younger half-sister Madeleine also seems to be escaping the family curse (despite her mother, Sheryl Longin, being a screenwriter as well), but in my mind, growing up meant becoming a writer, full stop. The idea that I might want to write was inconsequential, almost pitiable. Sure, I knew it was unlikely that my article would be optioned. And yet, in some essential way, I saw no option but the option.


No wonder I held on to that article for years, waving it around like a flag, showing it to friends, teachers, college admissions officers. So maybe I wasn’t a screenwriter — yet. At least I was some kind of writer. The article was evidence, however tenuous, that I existed. I wrote, therefore I was.


¤


Four years later, I became a screenwriter, more or less as expected. Even then, I continued to feel like a character in someone else’s script — my father’s.


It happened like this: sometime in my junior year of college, my father suggested that we write a screenplay together. I was flattered and surprised and more than a little suspicious. I thought I knew what he wanted to write about, and I was right. “For instance,” he said, “our dinner at Café Luxembourg would make a great scene in a movie.”


That dinner was my material.


After seeing an ad for Café Luxembourg in Interview magazine (featuring, in my memory, three nude women standing at a bar), I, aspiring witty intellectual artsy type that I was, had chosen the restaurant as the ideal venue for the big New York dinner that I had planned for the two of us. The dinner during which I would tell my father that I had a boyfriend. The dinner during which I would come out to my father.


By the time my dad proposed it as a scene in a movie, I was already a bit sensitive on the subject of said dinner because, despite my best efforts, it had not gone exactly according to plan.


To his credit, my father did not react to my coming out as so many other parents did in that era. He didn’t tell me I was going through a phase or try to convince me that I wasn’t gay. He didn’t try to convert me or disown me. He didn’t question my motives as my mother had. He didn’t even tell me that it was the last time he’d let me pick a restaurant.


No, his crime was that he talked about himself.


“But I’m not gay!” he protested immediately after I made my big announcement, as if I were a reflection in a mirror that had suddenly taken on a strange life of its own. “Not that my sex life is so boring,” he added a tad defensively. “I have my own share of kinks.” He proceeded to tell me about these kinks, and to recount some of his more outré experiences. Perhaps I should have been relieved that he took the news so well. Mainly, I felt upstaged.


And now he wanted to put my dinner in his movie? Well, our movie, but still.


My father let the subject drop, and I didn’t bring it up again for several months. That spring, my boyfriend Tom and I happened to be in San Francisco at the same time my father was there visiting his sister. On the very day that I introduced Tom to my father, the three of us drove down to Los Angeles. The five-hour trip would have been stressful under the best of circumstances; I chose the occasion to tell my father about my movie idea.


“You know how you said we should write a script together?” I asked, somewhere in the middle of the I-5, with nary a rest stop in sight. “What if it’s a thriller about a boy whose boyfriend is killed, and he suspects his father is the killer?”


If I’d hoped that the image of a father-turned-homophobic killer would needle my father, I was disappointed. He chortled and told me he thought my idea was fantastic. My boyfriend, on the other hand, was incensed. As my father and I avidly discussed our prospective screenplay, Tom accused us of plotting to murder him.


My father had recently been nominated for an Oscar (for his adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s 1966 novel, Enemies, a Love Story), and his movie career was then at its peak. So, I suppose I wasn’t completely shocked when we were hired to write a script based on my idea. Nonetheless, a Hollywood deal is a heady thing for a college student, even one who grew up around the movie business. While I ostensibly tried to keep my good fortune quiet, it wasn’t long before people I barely knew were asking me whether it was true that I was writing a screenplay. And just how much money was I making anyway? Caught up in the frenzy, I argued with my father over percentages one day, and worried that I was selling out the next.


Most screenplays are destined for failure; our screenplay, Blood Ties, was no exception. My first inkling came during a one-on-one lunch with the producer. He clearly meant to flatter me by taking me to lunch, but I must have felt that he was patronizing me because I acted like an arrogant jerk. (Also possible: I really was an arrogant jerk.) When he told me that he envisioned an emotional movie about parent-child reconciliation, in the vein of Ordinary People, I bristled. At the time, fresh out of Yale, and still partial to black T-shirts and poststructuralist theory, I preferred movies like Blue Velvet and Blade Runner, and detested anything that smacked of sentimentality. I informed the producer that my movie would be nothing like Ordinary People. “It’s a thriller. The murder is an allegory of the father-son relationship.” As soon as I saw his expression, I knew that I’d made a mistake, and not just because I used the word allegory. But it was too late — I dug in.


Far from a moving family drama, what emerged, in the first draft, was a campy Gothic mystery with an elaborate subplot about an evil psychiatrist who subjected his gay patients to barbaric conversion therapy (in my defense, a topic very much ahead of its time). A cascade of studio notes followed, as well as a request that I no longer accompany my father to story meetings; the producer had noticed that my eyes tended to well up when criticism got too harsh.


The second draft left the world of psychiatry for the world of politics, with the gay son being a potential embarrassment to his Senate candidate father. The reaction to that script, which boasted not only a gay son but a gay detective, was slightly better. Still, having the queer stuff so front and center was a non-starter for a Hollywood movie in those days. The straight father was meant to be the hero, and the gay son merely a catalyst for his father’s emotional growth and ultimate heroic action.


Afterward, I regretted not having compromised. If only I’d agreed to write another Ordinary People, I told myself, the movie would have been green-lit and my career would have skyrocketed. (The idea that it might be difficult to write another Ordinary People never crossed my mind.) But the real problem was inherent in the premise. Whoever the hero, father or son, the project required that I put myself on the page, and that was something I couldn’t or wouldn’t do. It was one thing to sell my story, another to share it with the man who, I felt, had written too much of my story already.


¤


In one sense, Blood Ties succeeded: we had fun. For my father and me, collaborating was a bit like playing catch. Some fathers teach their sons how to throw a ball; mine taught me that dialogue should always advance the plot.


In the years that followed, I collaborated promiscuously, working on screenplays with a slew of co-writers. The fact that few of them sold was frustrating, at times heartbreaking, and yet I’m not sure a big Hollywood deal was my only or even my primary goal. I wanted friends, and writing was how I engaged with people. It was how my parents had communicated with each other. It was how I had communicated with them.


One of those screenplays, written with a high school friend, features a voice-over of a grandfatherly man writing a letter to a young woman, a former student, whom he addresses as “Dearheart.” This somewhat awkward portmanteau — redolent, I hoped, of long walks and autumn leaves — was my contribution, but I couldn’t remember how I’d come up with it, and I felt obscurely guilty using it.


Later, when my mother read the script, she promptly informed me where I’d seen Dearheart before — in a script of hers. (Return to Two Moon Junction, a 1995 TV romance for which she still gets residuals.) “It’s my word,” she told me, at least half-serious. “Take it out.”


I had stolen from my own mother! It was the literary equivalent of sneaking a $100 bill out of her purse. I tortured myself trying to come up with a replacement. Sweetheart? Too common. Darling? Too romantic. Dearie? Too old. Too twee. I felt terrible, but Dearheart stayed in. (The movie didn’t get made. She never knew.)


The funny thing is Dearheart is not an endearment I’d ever heard my mother use. And that, I think, was the reason behind my irrational attachment to the word. I wanted her to call me Dearheart. Why had I phoned her in tears so many times over the years? Yes, I was stuck. Yes, I was ready to throw my computer against the wall. But it wasn’t writing help that I needed most; it was my mom.


¤


When my twin daughters were younger (they are 13 now), I would occasionally make up stories for them at night, as parents do. To my dismay, they didn’t have much interest in my stories; they almost always demanded “real” stories instead. By which they meant stories in books — published, printed, professional stories.


Having abandoned screenwriting some years before, I was by then a children’s author with a half-dozen books on the shelf, and I considered myself a relative success. I tried explaining to my daughters that I was a professional author, so by their definition any story I told was a real story, but that was just sophistry as far as they were concerned. They wanted me to read to them, not to tell half-baked tales off the top of my head.


The obvious solution was for me to share my own books with them. I waited in vain for my daughters to come to this conclusion on their own. Finally, I forced the issue, breaking out a copy of my first book, The Name of This Book Is Secret (2007) — in hardback, to emphasize its solidity and realness. My daughters were less than impressed. After all, it wasn’t their father’s name on the cover; it was my pen name, Pseudonymous Bosch. They humored me and let me read from the book — but not for long.


In the past, whenever I visited schools or book festivals, I would appear in character as Pseudonymous and make a big show of hiding my true identity. The first time my daughters attended one of these events, I pretended not to know them, and pulled them out of the audience as if I were a magician and they were volunteers chosen at random. It took me a while to understand how angry and upset the volunteer shtick had made them. I’d thought it would be fun for them to be in on a secret, but they wanted to be included as my kids, not as strangers, to feel a sense of ownership and belonging.


A few years ago, I created a new chapter-book series about an eight-year-old magician, The Unbelievable Oliver. As a last-ditch effort to ensnare my daughters, I did something I had vowed I would never do: I wrote them in. I gave Oliver two friends: twin girls whose first names happen to be my daughters’ middle names, and who, like my daughters, have two fathers.


I, of all people, should have known better.


Sure, the ruse worked, inasmuch as my daughters suddenly felt compelled to read every word I wrote. But they were extremely unhappy with the way they were portrayed. One of my daughters (characterized in the series as the more bookish twin) felt that her sister (characterized as the more active twin) “got all the good parts.” Her sister, meanwhile, hated the soccer uniform in which she was illustrated. Evidently, it didn’t fit her any better than the soccer uniform I wore on the set of The Big Fix fit me. When you are a character in your father’s story, nothing fits right — because whatever it is, it’s his, not yours.


Recently, I discovered that my daughters are less opposed to my pseudonym than I’d thought. When they learned that my newest book was going to be published under my own name, they insisted that I was making a big mistake and they begged me to reconsider. Knowing my daughters, their thinking was likely strategic and based on a shrewd assessment of the children’s book marketplace. But the unexpected urgency in their voices made me think there might be something else behind their desire for me to resurrect Pseudonymous Bosch. Let him be the author, they seemed to be saying, and let our dad be our dad.


¤


Better known as Pseudonymous Bosch, Raphael Simon is the not-so-secret author behind the bestselling children’s series The Secret Series and The Bad Books, as well as The Unbelievable Oliver mysteries. In April, he published for the first time under his own name: The Anti-Book, a fantasy novel about a boy who wants the world to disappear. An L.A. native, Raphael lives in Pasadena with his husband, two daughters, and two dogs.