Rex Pickett (2016)
Rex Pickett in London, 2016 | courtesy of the author

‘Sideways’ and ‘The Archivist’ Author Rex Pickett on the Lure of Dark Archives

Irreverent and with skin as thick as a pachyderm, mystery author Rex Pickett talks with PopMatters about the forces that compelled him to write The Archivist.

The Archivist
Rex Pickett
November 2021

Rex Pickett is best known for his debut novel Sideways (2004), the basis for
Alexander Payne‘s 2004 film, which won the 2005 Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. The story of two friends on a road trip to California wine country, Sideways has had a lasting cultural impact in the form of “the Sideways Effect“, an influence on wine preferences and thus the wine industry. Pinot Noir production increased dramatically after filmgoers saw Miles, the protagonist of Sideways, express his love for that variety. 

In addition to two sequels to Sideways, Vertical (2010) and Sideways 3 Chile, (2013), his most recent novel is The Archivist, a thriller in which the title character gets embroiled in investigating suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of her professional predecessor.

In a previous interview, you describe a polemical poem you wrote about your high school principal titled “Mr. Pencil Head”. It was published in your school journal and you were reprimanded. Did the two of you ever mend fences?

No. In that meeting where I was reprimanded, he asked me what I wanted to be in life. Just to irritate him even more, I told him I wanted to be a sanitation worker. He said, “Rex, you will never get admitted into college and you will never amount to anything.” That year I got accepted into the University of California San Diego, one of the finest schools in the country. And my life changed forever.

Resist authority and authority figures. No criticism is itself above criticism; just because someone says it doesn’t make it so. I learned my lesson early. Most of the advice you get is from people who have an ulterior motive, a venal agenda, or who are just plain blithering idiots.

In that same interview, you describe writing in your teenage years as a means of overcoming suicidal despair. There is an enduring image of the artist as angst-ridden and suicidally inclined. Ernest Hemingway refers in his understated yet impactful way to the suicide of Bulgarian artist Jules Pascin in A Moveable Feast. Years later Hemingway killed himself. Is there truth to the stereotype of the suffering artist?

Suicide appears fictionally in a lot of my writing. The first novel I ever wrote but never finished was titled The Decision. It was about a young man like myself who drives his car off a cliff into a canyon, like the ones in San Diego where I grew up. But he doesn’t die.

However, his leg is badly injured from compound fractures, so he has to crawl for two weeks, living off insects and the trickle of water in the gulley. It was based on a true story. Suicide is even hinted at in The Archivist; that the death of celebrated archivist Nadia Fontaine might have been a suicide prompted by persecution from certain higher powers. 

Suicide as a fantasy is something that a lot of writers have in their back pocket, and here’s why: true writers know that if you have a backup plan you’ve already sown the seed of failure. To me, writing comes before spouses, partners, pets, jobs, and pragmatic decisions about life. Obviously, this approach boxes you into a suicidal corner if you don’t make it; i.e., you don’t have a fallback option. For me, that is my backup plan, which means I don’t have one at all. Fortunately, I haven’t had to resort to it yet.

Death doesn’t scare me. Stupidity does.

What inspired The Archivist?

I wrote an article about the inspiration for The Archivist in CrimeReads/LitHub. My papers were archived at UC San Diego in 2012, and I was invited by my archivist, Kate Saeed, to see what she did in processing them. I was blown away by how deeply she had gone into my collection. I had a visceral, emotional response, and I wanted to write about this world, so I went about researching it with Kate’s help. She’s co-credited on the teleplay. She led me by the hand into a world I knew absolutely nothing about. Maybe I was unwittingly looking for a way to move beyond Miles and Jack from Sideways, and I found it in The Archivist.

I’ve made one feature film, which was a mystery, From Hollywood to Deadwood [1988] – Island Pictures; great script but a mediocre movie due to over-ambition – and the novel I wrote before Sideways was a mystery titled La Purisima. Once I started to research the archival world, I realized that many archivists are very much like detectives. They’re presented with a collection – and it could be boxes and boxes of writings and other items – and they’re going through the private life of someone they’ve probably never met.  It was just a matter of finding the story, the mystery, the crime!

A young “project archivist” [in The Archivist] – think lone gunslinger in a Western – comes in for one project, discovers serious wrong-doing, and is challenged. It’s the Bildungsroman of my main character, Emily Snow. But then it started to complexify as a novel and became more than a mystery.

It evolved into a love story, a tragic love story that involves Emily’s predecessor Nadia and the author whose papers both are/were working on. The layers become geologic. As a result, the novel grew longer. The key phrase that made me want to write it was when Kate told me about the “dark archives” – servers with a lot of items that aren’t in finding aids. Dark archives … dark archives … what could be out there? That was the flaring match that touched the dry tinder.

Initially I wanted to write an epistolary novel because Emily finds a treasure trove of love emails between her predecessor and the famous author Raymond West out in the dark archives. But I abandoned that when I realized it didn’t have limited series or movie potential. So I wrote it as an eight-episode limited series.

When I finished, I got an email from Rick Bleiweiss at Blackstone Audiobooks. He informed me that they were now a full-scale publisher and was I working on anything? I replied that I had just adapted a novel that was not yet written. (“Huh?”) And now I wanted to write that novel. So, we did a deal: I wrote the novel that the limited series was adapted from but had yet to be written. I was able to improve on the limited series by writing in two voices: the close third-person voice of Emily Snow and the first-person voice of Nadia Fontaine. It’s a novel nested within a bigger novel.

In the end, The Archivist turned out to be a multi-layered tragic love story that morphs into a full-blown murder mystery set in the Special Collections & Archives of fictional Regents University (based upon UCSD) in fictional Memorial Library (based upon Geisel Library, an extraordinary piece of architecture). Two of my favorite works of all time are Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye [1953] and [Anthony Minghella’s 1996] movie The English Patient. I tried to marry the heart and soul and the emotional spine of those two great works in mine.

Because it’s set where I grew up, and where I went to college, and where my life was transformed from that of a stoner surfer into a writer/filmmaker, it’s a coming home for me, fictionally. It’s a very personal novel, even though all the main characters are women.

Do you expect that a limited-run series of The Archivist will go into production?

There is abundant talk of a limited series. As I said, it was originally written with that in mind. It’s set in a workplace that is uncommon to a lot of mysteries, which are often set in police precincts or FBI profiler labs. It defies the genre in many ways, yet also plays to its tropes and formula.

It has four very strong women characters who are not bikini-clad, gun-toting crime fighters, or the girlfriend du jour, or a victim of assault, or whatever. My women characters don’t pack guns; they pack brains. None of them needs a man, but they’re all battling for the soul of one very famous but destroyed man.

It would make a great limited series because it would take the viewer into a world they’ve never seen before on TV: the archival profession. Making it into a feature film would require sacrificing too much of the story. Plus, because Emily Snow is a project archivist, she can jet to another city and another assignment in Season 2 and live to sleuth another day in Florence, Paris, London, New York … in the dark archives, of course.

Your debut novel Sideways was repeatedly rejected by editors and publishers. How did you sustain your commitment to getting a publishing contract, both practically and psychologically?

I’ve answered this in many podcasts and interviews. In fact, it was rejected by over 230 publishers in four separate sets of submissions. It was rejected by hundreds in the film business. At some point, you’ve done the work, gotten your agent excited, and then it’s out of your hands.

After a year of 500 rejections from the Who’s Who of publishers and film production companies, one guy named Brian Beery, working as Alexander Payne’s assistant, picked it up off a pile and read it. It had been submitted to him by my (then) agent a year before. Beery read it, loved it, gave it to Payne with a ringing endorsement, and the rest is well-chronicled history.

The producer of record, Michael London, did not get the book to Alexander Payne, as he has lied in numerous interviews. It was my agent Jess Taylor. Little credit is given to Brian Beery for sparking to it. And to Alexander for taking it to the big-time with his Oscar-winning adaptation.

As to how I sustained my commitment: You do the work. You can’t control what happens out there. Life is not a meritocracy. Many dreadful screenplays are made into dreadful movies, and I have no doubt there are also brilliant screenplays and TV pilots and books that could become limited series or movies that, for whatever reason, never got made.

It is a fickle, mercurial world. There is no rhyme or reason to it. And luck is also a huge factor. You have to understand this and have the stomach for it, and maintain a certain sensitive side so you can keep your artistic instrument tuned, but also be a pachyderm to weather the rejections. I’m inured to rejection at this point.

How could one person decide he was going to turn Sideways into a feature film after 500 major players in film and publishing had all turned it down? “Surely he must be wrong, chasing fool’s gold.” No. Five hundred people were wrong, and he was right. How do you explain that? You can’t.

Was a love of wine something you’d cultivated before starting to write Sideways, or did it develop as the plot took shape?

I got into wine more seriously at wine tastings at my neighborhood wine store, Epicurus in Santa Monica. I was also going up to the Santa Ynez Valley where my book is set, and where the movie was shot. The two influences started to coalesce and come into a confluence. Miles is into wine because I’m into wine.

Critics like to think I used wine as a metaphor for Miles’ inability to talk about himself, so he talks about himself through the metaphor of wine. That’s rearview mirror pop psychoanalysis. Miles genuinely loves wine. It’s his belief system. Like everyone, he needs a belief system. It used to be writing, but he’s given up the idea – unlike me – that he’s ever going to make it as one.

He also likes wine because it obliterates – ephemerally – the mortal pain of rejection, and his terrifying vision of loneliness. Wine is Miles’s via regia to the world. It’s the one thing that still inspires him. It allows him to have something deeply in common with Maya, a composite fantasy of a woman I had not met at the time, but had hoped to.

Wine is one of the oldest metaphorical expressions of human civilization, and is the central motif of three of your novels. What does wine mean to you?

It inspires lyricism like no other alcoholic beverage. The different regions, the different grape varieties, the different methods of viticulture and vinification. It’s all poetry to me.

You’ve referred to Miles, the protagonist of Sideways (and its two sequels, Vertical and Sideways 3 Chile) as your alter-ego. What are the most important similarities and differences between the two of you?

In the movie, Payne made Miles a high school teacher, but in my novel Miles (written in first person) is an unemployed and unemployable novelist-and-screenwriter manqué. I love Paul Giamatti’s performance, but he plays Miles with a more lacerating self-deprecation than I have, though I definitely possess a truly mordant sense of humor. I am more off-the-wall than Giamatti’s and Payne’s Miles. I’m not as navel-gazing. I’m not as dyspeptic. I certainly have my bouts of depression, like all writers and artists, but I don’t view depression as a negative. Because I’ve lost all objectivity, people tell me that Miles is a negative guy, a chronic depressive. I hold a fatalistic view of the world, but ironically, seemingly paradoxically, I am not a negative person.

True, I believe movies and literature are going to the dogs and that the Internet is the root of all current evils – that and wealth inequality – in the way it’s destroying young minds, but I am actually quite hopeful and upbeat about things, and to write, that is a desideratum. Writing is about momentum, and that momentum comes from belief. Belief in your idea, your project, yourself. I still get excited about ideas, like I did with The Archivist.

I have not given up hope. If Payne hadn’t written that final moment where Miles knocks on Maya’s door – written in the fourth draft at my behest, I might add – one would think Giamatti’s Miles had given up all hope. I am not that guy. I am the guy who drank from the spit bucket in front of a bunch of people and said, “Fuck it!”

Vertical was published through independent publishing house Loose Gravel Press after you and your original publisher, Knopf Doubleday, disagreed on the novel’s ending. In the case of Sideways 3 Chile, you self-published through hybrid publisher First Edition Design Publishing. Please expand upon the reasons behind your publishing decisions for each book.

That would require way too long of an answer, as well as a lot of vituperation against organizations and individuals, one of whom I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement with. I would love to answer the question, but I was in a good mood before I came to it, so I choose to decline.

The factors preventing a Vertical film from materializing have been described by you in past interviews. To summarize, Fox Searchlight Films owns the rights, and nothing will go forward unless Sideways director Alexander Payne decides to direct it, and he has declined. Has there been any change in the situation since you last spoke about it?

Fox Searchlight (now just Searchlight and under Disney) owns the film rights. I own the author-sequel book rights. For there to be a Sideways sequel – the biggest no-brainer in Hollywood – Paul Giamatti would have to want to do it. Paul wouldn’t do it unless Alexander Payne wanted to direct it.

Payne is very picky about projects. He’s only made three films in the last 17 years. If I wrote a sequel – e.g., the proposed Sideways: New Zealand – and they liked it, I think they’d consider doing it. Payne has said doing a sequel would vitiate the original. But Hollywood is, as I said, a fickle place. People change their minds all the time.

I know for a fact that Payne and Giamatti want to work together again, rekindle the incredible creative relationship they experienced on the set of Sideways. It would be a glorious reunion. I say this at the risk of immodesty: Tens of millions are waiting for that sequel.

Even if Vertical can’t be made into a film, could that simply be skipped in favor of a film version of Sideways 3 Chile with different actors if, for example, Paul Giamatti were to decline the project?

Vertical won’t be made because it’s a 4,000-mile road movie. A sequel could be anything I write. Bottom line: I don’t know if there’s a Sideways sequel without Paul Giamatti. He’s the dramatic heart-and-soul of that now iconic movie. Only Alexander Payne could talk him into it, even if Payne declined to direct it. A lot of people would love to see Giamatti’s Miles again. I live it every day, trust me.

How are things going with the Sideways stage musical?

Theater is just now starting to open up after Broadway went dark in March 2020. As you know, the play (or “non-musical”) was a tremendous hit in LA and at the La Jolla Playhouse, where it broke all attendance records for a non-musical. We have all 18 of the songs recorded, and the book is written (by me and my composer) based on my play, which is based on my novel, not the movie. And three-time Tony Award-winning Kathleen Marshall is very much committed to seeing it come to fruition.

But there has to be a workshop, there have to be investors wanting to invest, theaters have to really start to open up again. There are a lot of challenges on the road to it being fully realized as a musical because musicals are expensive. A workshop alone can set you back $30K. But all the pieces are in place now.

Tell us about the wines you have coming from Chile and New Zealand?

I’ve been trying to monetize the Sideways success since my sequel novels didn’t really make me wealthy, to put it mildly. So, when my Chilean partner Mario Velasco asked me if I would put my name on a wine, I said sure. I think he was shocked. I now have four wines coming from Chile (the Pinot Noir is currently in the US).

Then, as I was exploring the deal to go to New Zealand to write Sideways: New Zealand, my partner on that project, Youssef Mourra, got interested in coming out with wines under my label from his country, which is of course an incredible producer of wines, as is Chile. Now, thanks to Mourra, I have six wines from New Zealand. (All are available online, but in New Zealand only for now).

It seems wine will forever be connected to your public image. Do you ever drink beer? I notice that Emily Snow, your protagonist in The Archivist, likes IPA.

It’s common knowledge in the wine business that a lot of people drink beer because they’re around wine all the time and need a palate refresher. And beers are getting better and better. They’re even barrel ageing some of them!

What’s your next (or current) writing project?

I’m currently writing my three-volume autobiography My Life on Spec for Exile Editions. Vol. I is written and going through revisions. I am not holding anything back. 

It is very freeing to write. I love telling the truth, even if it makes others terrified. It’s a great catharsis, as was The Archivist and, to a lesser extent, Sideways. Regarding My Life on Spec: People think I live a charmed life, but they wouldn’t want to live the life I’ve lived in order to live the ostensibly charmed life I’m currently living.

Works Cited

Pickett, Rex. “Rex Pickett on the Strange Experience of Donating His Papers to the Archives”. 9 November 2021

Winokur, Jon. “Interview with Rex Pickett“. Advice to 20 February 2018.

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