Glory Days

Larry Doyle, a former `Simpsons' writer, has penned a novel based on high school

May 29, 2007|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,sun reporter

Larry Doyle can seem a little obsessed with high school. He is 48, and the winner of two Emmy Awards for his writing on The Simpsons, but his resume still lists this achievement: National Merit Scholar, Buffalo Grove High School, 1976.

Doyle would also like you to know that he graduated 13th in his class of 513, but that some of the people above him took easy classes. He wrote for the school paper, acted in student plays and was on the speech team (but not debate: he had his limits). It goes without saying that he still has dreams set at his alma mater.

In one that occurred two years ago, he found himself giving a speech at his high school graduation and, in front of everyone, declaring his love for a classmate. The dream became a book, I Love You, Beth Cooper, published this month. And the book has been optioned for a movie.

Holding onto high school, then, has been good to Larry Doyle. But what about the rest of us? Why can't we shake those formative years?

"It seems like most people have one of two experiences in high school," says Doyle, who lives in Baltimore with his wife and three young children. "They either come out of it with a lot of bitter resentment at all the people they need to get back at or it's like the glory days that they can never revisit."

In Doyle's book, names were changed to protect the innocent (he did love a Beth, but his publisher wouldn't let him use her last name). Many of the experiences of the characters, though, are his own: Doyle told scary stories about teenagers, with hooks for hands, who haunted a favorite makeout spot. He raced down a dark country road with the headlights off. And he once had to stop kissing a girl because mosquitoes were ravaging his face.

"I let them bite for a long time before I gave up," he says with a touch of pride.

Doyle's career has been marked by such persistence. As a medical reporter for United Press International in the '80s, he wrote 1,200 stories one year. He kept writing short stories and humor pieces despite continued rejections from magazines like Playboy and The New Yorker (which now publishes his work regularly). He's written more than a dozen screenplays, although only two were made into movies, and they both bombed.

While an editor at Spy in 1992, Doyle suggested the magazine run 1,000 reasons not to vote for George H.W. Bush for re-election.

"I thought that was interesting," says Kurt Andersen, who was editor of Spy at the time. "But he actually wrote a thousand very distinct, specifically researched reasons. ... He works insanely hard."

Doyle first wrote I Love You, Beth Cooper as a screenplay, but his agent couldn't sell it in Hollywood. Studio executives said it was either "execution dependent," meaning that if it's not done well, it won't succeed, or "not castable." Doyle explains, "This means there's no part for Will Ferrell."

So he decided to write it as a novel. He wrote a hundred pages and shopped it around New York. HarperCollins bit. And suddenly, Hollywood was interested. Doyle wasn't surprised that the movie executives had changed their minds.

"Hollywood runs on fear," he says. "And the biggest fear is that you would make a decision based on your own feelings about something and therefore be culpable. ... They don't respect writers much out there. They don't respect ideas at all. Ideas don't have any value. But a book is an object they can point to: `I didn't buy this idea. I bought this real thing.'"

This is Doyle's first book, but he says he much prefers the experience to screenwriting. When you write a book, he says, you have creative control. But as a screenwriter, you lose control. And no one cares who you are anyway.

Doyle learned that when he went to the set of his first screenplay to be made into a movie, Duplex, starring Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore. He dropped by the office of the initial director, Greg Mottola, and said to the assistant there, "Hi, I'm Larry Doyle." And the assistant said, "You are?"

"I wrote the movie," Doyle said, assuming that would get him in the door.

"Do you have an appointment?" the assistant asked.

Doyle was stunned. "There were hundreds of people walking around, and not to be egotistical but to be literal, who were employed because of me, because I had an idea and wrote it. They're building sets that I instructed them to build and they have no idea who I am! And once they find out who I am, they don't care."

In making the transition to being an author, though, Doyle has had some surprises. The biggest, he says, is how "rinky dink" the publishing world is. "The scale of everything is so small," he says.

His movie Duplex, for instance, was considered a failure because only 1 million people saw it on opening weekend. "But if a million people bought my book, I'd be the king of New York," he says. "And to be a modest success, I only need to sell, like, 20,000."

Low-key lifestyle

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