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The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio
by Terry Ryan
Tuffy's Adventures in Promotion & PR
The following appeared in #392 (3/23/05) of Holt Uncensored, a twice-weekly email column and website about books and the book industry written by Pat Holt, former Book Review Editor and Critic for The San Francisco Chronicle.
THE PRIZE WINNER GOES TO THE MOVIES - PART I
Thanks to the many readers who inquired about the long silence that has stopped publication of this column since October. I admit to trying out a few jokes - the staff ran out to march for SpongeBob SquarePants - but things got too grim even in our vast editorial rooms for the usual joviality.
So let me tell this story of one book's incredible interlude with Hollywood and the sudden tragedy that befell us by describing the latest adventures of my partner Terry Ryan and her memoir, "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less." It's going to take three columns to tell it, but boy, what a story.
As many readers know, I've had a lot of fun writing about Terry (see Part I ) because "Tuff" (her childhood nickname) came to represent that Great Hope of U.S. Literature today - the chance that unknown and untried writers can successfully negotiate their way through an indifferent publishing system that has increasingly placed authors at the bottom of the pile.
Terry is not a best-selling writer - she is an old-fashioned *and typical* "backlist author," meaning that her book (originally published in hardcover in 2001) sells steadily if slowly (in its 2002 paperback edition) without benefit of advertising or continued publicity. The audience keeps spreading the word in its own quietly imploding way, and booksellers - most of them independent - continue to sense the need to keep it in stock.
So what a thrill it was going to be, I thought, to describe the migration last October of Terry, her nine siblings and their families to Toronto, where they not only visited the set of the movie adaptation of "Prize Winner"; they also took part in their own scene (and Terry had yet another scene).
[YOU CAN SCROLL THROUGH THIS IF YOU'RE TIRED OF MY DESCRIPTIONS OF THE BOOK]
Terry's memoir is about the contest era of the '50s and '60s, when Madison Avenue invited consumers to send in boxtops and coupons with jingles, poems and limericks extolling the wonders of advertised products.
Evelyn Ryan, Terry's mother, had a knack for filling out lines such as "I wonder where the yellow went" for Pepsodent toothpaste ("The yellow battled/As it went,/But it didn't make/A PepsoDENT)" or writing such hope-chest jingles for soap as "Dial is wonderful:/Sweet young things/Declare that Dialing/Gets those rings."
While her 10 kids were growing up and her alcoholic husband was drinking away a third of his paycheck, Evelyn began to win big - cars, jewelry, trips to Europe, bicycles, color TVs, a washer-dryer, full-sized jukebox. And she won small: dozens of clock radios, baseball gloves, toys, phonographs, watches, silverware, picture frames, accordion lessons and (Terry always gets a big laugh out of this one), three pairs of Arthur Murray shoes.
(Arthur Murray was a ballroom-dancing teacher who became famous during the early days of television.)
More than a jingle-writer, Evelyn had the gift of a poet like Ogden Nash and the sense of humor of housewife columnists like Peg Bracken or Erma Bombeck:
Victims share a symptom,
If there is a single, visual memory that the Ryan kids took from their childhood (and that Tuff makes unforgettable in the book), it's the picture of Mom Ryan standing at her ironing board, a pile of pre-sprinkled clothes on one side and her "contesting" notebooks on the other. There she worked out the kind of sparkling wordplay that make her entries distinctive even today, including this entry in a 25-words-or-less contest for that great segmented candy bar, Tootsie Roll.
For wholesome, toothsome, chewy goodness, Tootsie Rolls are right. Lots of nibbling for a nickel, And they show me where to bite.
In the book, Evelyn's originality as a "contester" saves the day time after time as she stands up against bill collectors, the Catholic Church and antiquated ideas about housewives.
But the big story in "Prize Winner" is the miraculous timing of Evelyn's biggest wins. When the family faced eviction from its rental home, Evelyn won a huge cash prize against 60,000 other entries that covered the down payment on a new house. Twelve years later, after her husband Kelly secretly took out a second mortgage on the house and drank away the payments, Evelyn stopped foreclosure proceedings when her entry won a Dr. Pepper contest over 240,000 competing entries.
[START READING AGAIN ALL YOU LAYABOUTS WHO SKIPPED THE ABOVE]
What a great idea for a movie, yes? So thought Robert Zemeckis, the director of "Forrest Gump," "Back to the Future," "Castaway" and "Polar Express," who optioned the book and gave the adaptation job to screenwriter Jane Anderson ("How to Make an American Quilt," "It Could Happen to You").
Jane had just turned her own stage play, "Normal," into an HBO movie that she also directed starring Jessica Lange and Tom Wilkinson. Nominated for two Golden Globes (no mean feat in the year of "Angels in America"), "Normal" is set in the very cornfields of the Midwest that "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio," would inhabit, and just like any reader of Terry's book, Jane fell in love with Evelyn Ryan.
-----FORGET ALL YOU'VE HEARD ABOUT HOLLYWOOD
Terry's first lesson of filmdom was to disregard all those stories everyone has heard about Hollywood's disinterest in, and dismissal of, authors of books. True, books have long been sold to the movies for their titles only and gutted to the bone so yet another run-of-the-mill love/war/adventure/assisted-suicide story can be retold. Authors have routinely been given notice never to request taking a look at the script, let alone have an opinion, or be allowed to set foot on a sound stage.
For Terry, however, the reverse was true right from the beginning. Jane Anderson flew to San Francisco to visit Tuff and see for herself what the family had discovered after Evelyn's death - the contents of seven dressers and a huge cedar chest that Terry had loaded into a rented van in her home town of Defiance, Ohio, and hauled to San Francisco.
This was a treasure trove for Jane. She would open a drawer or lid and find original contest entry blanks in their fading newsprint clippings; perfectly preserved letters from sponsors ("Dear Mrs. Ryan: Congratulations on your new Motorola color TV set. Signed, Ed Sullivan"), the dozen now-famous ironing-board notebooks; press photos of "The Winning Mom and Her Family" (one of which appears on the cover of Terry's book); tickets to the football game where eldest son Dick received his First Prize bicycle along with $5,000 cash that saved the Ryans from eviction; and uncountable poems and jingles that never went anywhere but are a joy to read today.
There are moms who can cook,
The respect that Jane brought to everything Tuff had saved after Evelyn's death, and her delight at the way Terry told her mother's story in the book, were to set the tone for all that would happen during the writing and - because Zemeckis eventually turned over the directing job to Jane as well - the filming of "Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio" (the only change is that the "The" has been dropped).
Terry and her youngest sister Betsy (who wrote the epilogue for the book) not only took Jane to Defiance to see the house their mother won, the Catholic school they attended, the parks, the library (a Carnegie classic) and what Tuff calls "the slow collision" of the Maumee and Auglaize rivers in front of Fort Defiance. They also drove Jane through the cornfields that surround the town and brought her to nearby Payne, Ohio, where she met Dortha Schaefer, their mother's best friend and president of the contesting club called The Affadaisies (so named for the affidavit that would come in the mail requiring winners to prove their identity).
Jane absorbed it all like a sponge. She wrote a script that made Evelyn's love for the quiet hilarity of life as boldly cinematic as it was in real life. Here we see "Narrator Evelyn," who speaks directly to the camera to explain how contests work, and "Character Evelyn," who tries to create a semblance of order with 10 boisterous children and one boozy Dad.
And while the pastoral, verdant, river-steamed Defiance, Ohio, was the kind of Small Town USA that itself acts as a character in the book, and everyone including Jane hoped it would be the setting for a movie shot on location, here is the great book-to-movie lesson we all needed to learn: The difference in cost to shoot this film in Canada as opposed to Defiance was so dramatic (in the millions of dollars) that Jane had no choice but to take the crew to Toronto with its nearby towns of leafy streets and sleepy downtowns bearing a 1950s look.
Toronto, in fact, was famous at the time as a magnet for Hollywood. Its tax breaks for film productions and state-of-the-art sound stages had already saved the day for many a low-to-medium-budget movie. The analogy we heard quoted by veteran wags was that barely a minute in the movie, "A New York Minute," had been shot in New York - the rest of it was filmed in Toronto.
Then there was the conventional wisdom in filmdom that says when you have a movie about a big family, you don't have the time to single out every child as a character because you're too busy telling the story. Look at "The Sound of Music," people said. Viewers are lucky that even two of the kids' characters are developed enough to be recognizable, let alone remembered.
Even while writing the book, Terry had been advised against creating a distinctive personality for each of the 10 Ryan children - let alone for the chicken, cats, bird and mouse that Evelyn Ryan seemed to be raising at the same time.
But the Ryans, as the world would soon learn, are an all or nothing family - no one is singled out; so, once you get to know 'em, everyone is singled out. And if Mom Ryan decided that Charlie the Chicken would be part of that family (at least in his impressionable years when the family cat adopted him and he later acted like a confused attack dog), that's the way Terry would write the book.
Jane wanted the same depth of character for each individual in the movie, so she cast not one but at least two and sometimes three child actors for every Ryan sibling, because the movie covers a 20-year period and the kids grow up fast.
She found former "Cheers" actor Woody Harrelson to play Terry's father with all his seeming contradictions - drunken outrage, inner decency, resentment and redemptive love - and Laura Dern to play the key supporting role of Dortha Schaefer.
Best of all, Jane found another young mother, an actress who had already been nominated (four times) for an Academy Award, to play Evelyn Ryan's role, and this was the astounding Julianne Moore.