Sunday, July 21, 2013

Guest post: Second Acts by Koethi Zan

This is a guest post from Koethi Zan, author of The Never List

Pieter van Hattem  © 2012
A little over a year ago, I was a Deputy General Counsel of MTV overseeing the business and legal affairs for series production on shows such as The Hills, The City, Teen Wolf, True Life, Buck Wild, and Catfish.  Now, switching gears mid-career, I’m a full-time writer with my first novel, The Never List, to be published in the U.S. on July 16. 

The process of going from professional executive to a creative type has been a strange one.  In my eight years at MTV, I dealt with issues as various as suicide threats, stalkers, nudity, plastic surgeries, and sex tape scandals.  I negotiated and re-negotiated talent, production company, and rights deals with big-time Hollywood agents.  Before that I worked at a boutique law firm, two major law firms, and as head of business affairs for an independent film producer.  I went to parties, premieres, openings and festivals and represented writers, directors, actors, and playwrights.  From the outside anyway, it seemed pretty glamorous, and in truth it was about as fun as a legal career can be.  But last June, after sixteen years as a lawyer, I walked away from it all.

I grew up in a tiny rural Alabama town in a family of scientists.  I was the black sheep, obsessed with literature and film, not chemistry compounds and electrical engineering.  And I wanted to get out of there, so I worked hard.  I was on the student council, the math team, the scholar bowl team, and ended up Valedictorian.  But I was also a “Goth kid” who dressed in black, moped in my room, and listened to Morrissey, the Cocteau Twins, and Psychic TV.  I stood out in a high school that had a parking lot filled with monster trucks decked out with rebel flags. 

And then I went to college.  Estranged from my parents by that time (a whole other story), I supported myself with scholarships and a small “cow fund” from my grandparents.  (When I was three they’d given me a Charolais heifer named Molly.  Every year, her spring calf would be sold and the funds put into an account for me.) In college, I hung out with the art students and we spent weekends in New Orleans, partying in the gay clubs.  I wanted to be a filmmaker or a photographer.  But I didn’t quite have the nerve.  The cow fund was all used up and I was afraid I could never be financially stable in a creative field.  And so I ended up at Yale Law School.

But I had this brilliant idea:  I’d be an entertainment lawyer.  I’d be close to the creative process.  I’d be surrounded by artists.  It would be practically the same thing!  Ha.  It was just like my favorite New Yorker cartoon:  a picture of a boy dressed in a cowboy outfit, looking at his father saying, “Well, if I can’t be a cowboy, I’ll be a lawyer for cowboys.”

I didn’t get to start out as even a lawyer for cowboys, though.  My first stop was at a major white shoe law firm in Manhattan.  I was in the banking group.  I worked on secured financings and revolving credit facilities.  I spent nights sending out two hundred page documents to eighty banks for a syndicated loan transaction.  And I cried in the ladies room almost every day.

I made it into entertainment law after a year, and learned that the “lawyer” part of “entertainment lawyer” was definitely first and foremost.  But I can’t complain.  Over the years I worked with many wonderful people and I have a lot of great stories to tell.  Or at least I would have them, if it weren’t for attorney-client privilege.

Then two and a half years ago, I started writing a crime novel.  I had never written anything before except some pretty bad high school poetry, but I was a huge reader and I had an idea that was nagging at me based on my long-held obsessions with, and fears of, sado-masochistic dungeons (that’s yet another story).  I gave it a try, using the Graham Greene method, more or less.  I assigned myself the task of writing five hundred words a day, five days a week, with the caveat that if I finished ten thousand words in any calendar month, I could take the rest of the month off.  I kept finishing earlier and earlier each month. 

While writing the book I was working full-time at MTV and renovating a house.  I had to wake up at 5 a.m. every morning so I could squeeze in one hour of writing before my kids got up.  I believed that if I ever missed my word count requirements, I wouldn’t finish.  So I kept going. 

And then somehow the fairy tale came true for me.  My husband, a writer, gave my manuscript to his agency.  They liked it, gave me comments, I revised it, and then we sent it to publishers.   It sold and then there I was with a second career.   I still sort of don’t believe it.

Then I had to make a decision.  My boss, who was General Counsel of Viacom Media Networks,
overseeing MTV, VH1, CMT, Logo, Spike, TV Land and Comedy Central, was leaving the company for another high-powered job, and I was in the running to step into his shoes.  It was a major fork in the road.  I knew if I pushed for the top job and ended up getting it, my life would change completely.  It would be impossible to write a second book under those circumstances.  And yes, I could have stayed in the same position, writing books on the side, but this dilemma forced the issue for me.  The universe was telling me the time had come to choose:  was I a lawyer or a cowboy?

Lawyers, however, aren’t known for taking big risks, and I was scared.  Financially, I could justify taking a break from the law, but it meant I would have to make the writing thing work.  Would this book be successful?  And could I write another one? 

Only time will tell.  But I took the plunge.  I left MTV last summer and have been writing full-time ever since, finishing the edit for the first book, and starting on the second.  Maybe I’ve given up a lifetime of steady paychecks and employer-provided health care, or maybe one day I will go back to it.  But for now I’m just happy to be out here on the range.

1 comment:

  1. I just posted an appreciation of the courage of the artist lawyer and wishes for the second to fly as easily as the first...not the usual tale. Came here to thank Magdalena (for signing up to my blog and I have no idea when since Mailchimp has defeated me until now)and found your talk instead. My hybrid would never justify a cow fund and seems to need beating all the way to market.

    If the way out interests the easily in you can find it under involution-odyssey ( for some reason even the URL is rejected...that sort of day!