The Freelance Creative

How This Freelancer’s Pitch Ended Up in Hollywood

Evan Hughes is no stranger to literary success. A New York-based freelance writer and journalist, he’s written for high-profile publications since 2005 (GQ, The New York Times Magazine, n+1, New York magazine), and in 2011, his first book, Literary Brooklyn, was released to praise among literary circles. But even for Hughes, the windfall of one recent story was unprecedented.

In September 2014, digital publisher The Atavist released Evan Hughes’ story “The Trials of White Boy Rick,” about mythical Detroit drug dealer Rick Wershe. The story was an immediate hit. Within a month it had been optioned by Universal Studios and attached to director Joseph Kosinski.

I talked with Hughes about how “Trials” came about, the process of getting it published by The Atavist, and getting a story optioned for Hollywood.

How did you come across the story of White Boy Rick? Did you work on the story before having it accepted by The Atavist?

A close friend who is an attorney and who is interested in issues surrounding addiction and the drug war read a short column on the website The Fix about Rick Wershe, aka White Boy Rick. She knew that I was on a kick of reading and writing about crime and criminal justice. So she was the tipster. (I just took her and her husband out to dinner.) I found the column a little credulous and tendentious but it did get me interested in following up and digging into the rather outlandish claims that Wershe was making. One of the amazing things about reporting the story was discovering just how much of what he said was true.

On the same note, how does The Atavist’s submission/editing/payment system work? Did you blindly pitch them, or was it solicited?

It was not solicited. I pitched them. I was an Atavist subscriber from early on and I really liked what they were doing and saw some possibilities in the expanded length they could provide. I also picked up on the fact that they seemed to have an affinity for crime stories and investigative intrigue, which is certainly a part of this story. As often happens with big pieces, the pitch was really just the start of an ongoing conversation in which my editor, Charlie Homans (recently hired by The New York Times Magazine), and I worked to refine what the story really was. Some of that happened before there was an official green light and a contract.

As the reporting led in new directions, so too did the conversation. The editing and fact-checking process was very rigorous, as rigorous as any magazine I’ve ever written for. The payment system is sort of a hybrid of the magazine model and the book model. You are paid a mid-four-figure fee, and expenses have to come out of that, and then you make a portion of the proceeds from every copy sold. Unlike with books, you make money on sales from the first copy sold—the up-front fee is not an advance against royalties but a floor. Unlike with a magazine, you have a financial stake in how well the story does. So the writer takes on some risk but also some potential rewards.

What was your most significant freelance publication before “Trials”?

Besides my book Literary Brooklyn, my most significant publication would probably be a feature I wrote for New York magazine in 2011 about the early days of Jeffrey Eugenides, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Mary Karr. That one was solicited, and I was pleased and rather surprised to be asked. It was around the time my book was published, and I think the book made my name register more on Editor Radar. That piece may have the widest readership of anything I’ve ever written.

How long did it take you, from idea to publication, to finish the story? How much traveling did you do, and were you compensated for those expenses by The Atavist?

I worked on the story, off and on, for about a year and a half. It was a long haul. I made one long trip to Michigan—to Detroit and to the remote prison where Rick Wershe is held—and I packed a lot in to the trip. Luckily, Detroit is not a very expensive place to spend time. Renting a car there is so cheap that it’s sort of darkly funny.

How do you feel about the format in which The Atavist published the piece? Do you see that format as the future of reading? Or as more of a “genre” sort of thing that coexists with more traditional formats?

I think it’s more of an addition to the pre-existing array of genres, than something that’s going to replace them. I forget where I originally heard this point, but we always think new technologies are going to replace the old, and it rarely happens. We thought microwaves would replace ovens, and now we just have both.

It was recently reported that Universal optioned “Trials” and that Joseph Kosinski would be directing. How did that come about? Were you approached directly or through a third party, such as your agent or The Atavist?

The Atavist controls the film and TV rights to their stories and has their own film representation, so I had very little involvement in the process.

A few people from the film world emailed me when the story came out and I just referred them to The Atavist’s agents, who were meanwhile approaching a select group of people they thought would be interested in adapting the story for film. The Atavist’s agents, manager, and lawyer seemed very good at what they were doing. The Atavist kept me in the loop and I did have one conference call with the producer and director who went on to option it, at their request, but that was it as far as my role.

Are you working on any new stories right now?

I am working on a long review-essay covering several new books. And I have a vague idea for a book that I’m exploring but I feel like I’ll curse it if I say too much about that.

Do you hope to publish with The Atavist again in the future?

I would not hesitate to pitch The Atavist again if I had an idea that seemed suited to them, but of course the idea has to make sense for their particular length guidelines and it has to suit their taste.

Any tips for freelance writers that want to land stories in the realm of “Trials”?

If you really nail the reporting on a story, even in a smaller or more obscure outlet, editors at bigger publications will notice that. Choose a story that is not being done elsewhere and try to be the person who knows the most in the world about that particular story you’ve chosen—the one who’s talked to everyone out there who’s remotely close to it and willing to talk.

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