Does art imitate life? Only if it's dreadfully boring

The first - and last - time my novelist friend tried to be realistic, he ended up in an interrogation chair

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A spy novelist once told me the following story. He had just published his first novel - it wasn't terribly successful, but the whole idea of writing and publishing a novel is so improbable that he nevertheless considered himself a serious bigshot, despite having only about $16 in the bank.

The novel didn't sell well. His elegant way of putting it is: "My first book caused me no tax trouble." But the blunt facts were these: it flopped. No one bought it at airport bookstalls. No one ported it to the beach in the summer. No one read it by the pool of swanky resorts. And worse, no one called from Hollywood to turn it into a movie.

Someone, though, must have read it, because a few months after its dismal publication, my friend got a call from a high-ranking person at the Pentagon who claimed to be a big fan. The caller relayed how he had passed it along to colleagues in the US Department of Defense, and they also had read and enjoyed the book. Even further, they would be honoured to host him at a Pentagon luncheon and give him a guided tour of some of the cooler and more top-secret locations.

It is a measure of my friend's relative newness to the business that he didn't instantly complain. "You passed the book around?" he should have asked. "You should have each bought your own copy."

The book, I should mention, was partially set inside the Pentagon - I think the title was something like Five Deadly Rings, or maybe even something sillier. During the call, his Pentagon fan laughed and suggested that some of his facts and details might have been a little bit off. "Come to lunch," he said, "and we'll show you how it really is."

I have yet to hear a credible tale of a writer passing up a free lunch, and my then-impoverished friend was no exception. On the appointed day, he appeared at the front gate to the world's most forbidding building, was buzzed in by security, led through anonymous hallways, and escorted to a drab and sparsely furnished room where he sat, alone, for several minutes.

"You'll get lunch in a little while," he was told by a distinctly unfriendly man who joined him. It wasn't the man who had invited him to lunch - he was not to be seen, and my friend's questions were met with vague and evasive non-answers. Two more people joined them, took their seats on metal chairs opposite the now-terrified novelist and the interrogation began.

Because, apparently, the truth was that none of my friend's facts were off. His facts were eerily factual, and his details were alarmingly detailed. He had described spy missions and military initiatives with such accuracy and confidence that a team of counter-intelligence specialists had been assigned to the case.

My almost-failed spy novelist friend had been summoned to the Pentagon to explain how on Earth he had broken the code of secrecy. His three interrogators wouldn't relent - and wouldn't let him leave the building - until he had recreated his research process.

It was a thorny problem for my friend, because he hadn't bothered to do any research at all. He had made up almost every scene, character and event in the novel, and hadn't even mustered the energy to get the correct address of the Pentagon. And yet somehow, his slapdash first attempt was uncannily on the mark.

It wasn't until he had convinced his interrogators that he really was as lazy as he said he was that they let him go. He was given a package of stale crackers from a vending machine - "Here. Lunch is on us." - and escorted out of the building.

"That was the last time," he said, "that I ever tried to write a spy novel without doing extensive research."

Why? I asked. He had managed to conjecture his way into a highly realistic and all-too-believable novel. Why start researching now?

"Because," he told me, "I don't want my books to be accurate. I want them to be entertaining. I want them to sell. What I realised about my first book was that it failed because it was so lifelike. Real life is boring. I don't want to be factual. I want to be rich."

So he researches his books now to make sure that they're in no way truthful, which is the best way to make sure they're interesting. It sounds crazy, I know, but it's important to note that he told me this story years later as we were sitting by his pool, at his beachside villa in Malibu. Realism, I guess, doesn't pay.

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl