How Pandora Slipped Past the Junkyard

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How Pandora Slipped Past the Junkyard


OAKLAND, Calif. — Tim Westergren recently sat in a Las Vegas penthouse suite, a glass of red wine in one hand and a truffle-infused Kobe beef burger in the other, courtesy of the investment bankers who were throwing a party to court him.

It was a surreal moment for Mr. Westergren, who founded Pandora, the Internet radio station. For most of its 10 years, it has been on the verge of death, struggling to find investors and battling record labels over royalties.

Had Pandora died, it would have joined myriad music start-ups in the tech company graveyard, like SpiralFrog and the original Napster. Instead, with a successful iPhone app fueling interest, Pandora is attracting attention from investment bankers who think it could go public, the pinnacle of success for a start-up.

Pandora’s 48 million users tune in an average 11.6 hours a month. That could increase as Pandora strikes deals with the makers of cars, televisions and stereos that could one day, Pandora hopes, make it as ubiquitous as AM/FM radio.

“We were in a pretty deep dark hole for a long time,” said Mr. Westergren, who is now the company's chief strategy officer. “But now it’s a pretty out-of-body experience.”

At the end of 2009, Pandora reported its first profitable quarter and $50 million in annual revenue — mostly from ads and the rest from subscriptions and payments from iTunes and when people buy music. Revenue will probably be $100 million this year, said Ralph Schackart, a digital media analyst at William Blair.

Pandora’s success can be credited to old-fashioned perseverance, its ability to harness intense loyalty from users and a willingness to shift directions — from business to consumer, from subscription to free, from computer to mobile — when its fortunes flagged.

Its library now has 700,000 songs, each categorized by an employee based on 400 musical attributes, like whether the voice is breathy, like Charlotte Gainsbourg, or gravelly like Tom Waits. Listeners pick a song or musician they like, and Pandora serves up songs with similar qualities — Charlotte Gainsbourg to Feist to Viva Voce to Belle and Sebastian. Unlike other music services like MySpace Music or Spotify, now available in parts of Europe, listeners cannot request specific songs.

Though Pandora’s executives say it is focusing on growth, not a public offering, the company is taking steps to make it possible. Last month, it hired a chief financial officer, Steve Cakebread, who had that job at when it went public.

It is all a long way from January 2000, when Mr. Westergren founded the company. Trained as a jazz pianist, he spent a decade playing in rock bands before taking a job as a film composer. While analyzing the construction of music to figure out what film directors would like, he came up with an idea to create a music genome.

This being 1999, he turned the idea into a Web start-up and raised $1.5 million from angel investors. It was originally called Savage Beast Technologies and sold music recommendation services to businesses like Best Buy.

By the end of 2001, he had 50 employees and no money. Every two weeks, he held all-hands meetings to beg people to work, unpaid, for another two weeks. That went on for two years.

Meanwhile, he appealed to venture capitalists, charged up 11 credit cards and considered a company trip to Reno to gamble for more money. The dot-com bubble had burst, and shell-shocked investors were not interested in a company that relied on people, who required salaries and health insurance, instead of computers.

In March 2004, he made his 348th pitch seeking backers. Larry Marcus, a venture capitalist at Walden Venture Capital and a musician, decided to lead a $9 million investment.

“The pitch that he gave wasn’t that interesting,” Mr. Marcus said. “But what was incredibly interesting was Tim himself. We could tell he was an entrepreneur who wasn’t going to fail.”

Mr. Westergren took $2 million of it and called another all-hands meeting to pay everyone back. The next order of business: focus the service on consumers instead of businesses, change the name and replace Mr. Westergren as chief executive with Joe Kennedy, who had experience building consumer products at E-Loan and Saturn. Pandora’s listenership climbed, and in December 2005, it sold its first ad.

But in 2007, Pandora got news that threatened most of its revenue. A federal royalty board had raised the fee that online radio stations had to pay to record labels for each song. “Overnight our business was broken,” Mr. Westergren said. “We contemplated pulling the plug.”

Instead, Pandora hired a lobbyist in Washington and recruited its listeners to write to their representatives. “A lot of these users think they’re customers of the cause rather than users per se,” said Willy C. Shih, a professor at Harvard Business School who has written a case study on Pandora. “It’s a different spin on marketing.” The board agreed to negotiations and after two years settled on a lower rate.

Some music lovers dislike Pandora’s approach to choosing music based on its characteristics rather than cultural associations. Slacker Radio, a competitor with three times as many songs but less than a third of Pandora’s listeners, takes a different approach. A ’90s alternative station should be informed by Seattle grunge, said Jonathan Sasse, senior vice president for marketing at Slacker. “It’s not just that this has an 80-beat-a-minute guitar riff,” he said. “It’s that this band toured with Eddie Vedder.”

Yet in 2008, Pandora built an iPhone app that let people stream music. Almost immediately, 35,000 new users a day joined Pandora from their cellphones, doubling the number of daily signups.

For Pandora and its listeners, it was a revelation. Internet radio was not just for the computer. People could listen to their phone on the treadmill or plug it into their car or living room speakers.

In January, Pandora announced a deal with Ford to include Pandora in its voice-activated Sync system, so drivers will be able to say, “Launch my Lady Gaga station” to play their personalized station based on the music of that performer. Consumer electronics companies like Samsung, Vizio and Sonos are also integrating Pandora into their Blu-ray players, TVs and music systems.

“Think about what made AM/FM radio so accessible,” said Mr. Kennedy, Pandora’s chief. “You get into the car or buy a clock for your nightstand and push a button and radio comes out,” he said. “That’s what we’re hoping to match.”

VENUS WILLIAMS – BR Bleacher Report (online publication)

2010 U.S. Open Special: Venus Williams Fashioned for Success

By Marianne Bevis

Say the name Venus Williams, and you think tennis royalty: record-breaking results, new levels of power in the women’s game, and an athletic durability that is rare in the 21st century.

You probably nod sagely and wonder at the genes, the upbringing, and the determination that made her one of the finest players of her generation.

You will find words of admiration for a family that threw out the rulebook when it came to reaching the top—for Venus and sister Serena have dominated women’s tennis, in singles and doubles, for more than a decade. They continue to dominate at an age when many of their opponents have fallen by the wayside with injury, burnout, disillusionment or the need for a life away from the all-consuming sport that tennis has become.

And it is to this last factor, more than any other, that the success of the Williams formula—and the Venus formula in particular—can be attributed. For Venus is a woman who could arguably be a dubbed “Renaissance Woman.”

Her latest venture, announced ahead of her 12th U.S. Open campaign, will see her break new ground by opening up her expertise and experience to a worldwide, real-time, interactive audience.

Williams will take part in a one-hour Legends Clinic at New York’s Sportime Tennis Center on Randall’s Island on August 26th, and during the live-streaming, she will answer questions, demonstrate techniques, and offer tips via the website of sponsor Polo Ralph Lauren.

At a press event about the forthcoming clinic, she talked about how she has been able to retain her enthusiasm for tennis over a 15-year-plus professional career. It derives from an upbringing that stressed the importance of a life outside the tennis court: “We were brought up with a different mentality, a different philosophy in life, to have an entrepreneurial spirit.”

Williams’ father, Richard, would take Venus and Serena to the practice courts every day after school, but he was wary of allowing them to play at tournaments too soon and too often. Education stayed central to their lives and remains, now as much as ever, an important part of the Venus make-up.

At 19, and already with two semis and a finals finish at the U.S. Open to her name, she embarked on a degree in clothing design. It took her several years to graduate, but, then again, she did notch up seven Grand Slam singles titles along the way. Her only concession, it seems, was to restrict her doubles activities.

She now has her own fashion label, EleVen, and has resisted lucrative sponsorship deals for tennis dresses in favor of wearing her own designs.

In another first, she will wear a Ralph Lauren limited-edition dress, created in partnership with EleVen, for the Legends Clinic, and she is clearly excited at the tie-in.  

“Ralph Lauren is an iconic design label and it’s a privilege to work with them to produce such a sporty and chic look.”

But she also revealed that she has designed something a little special for the Open itself, and the media will be sharpening their pencils following the teaser she threw into the conversation. “There will be a daytime outfit and a night-time one. The design will try to reflect the character of New York: A little bit louder, a little more in your face, a little more sexy.”

It seems, contrary to expectation, that Williams’ has not been particularly bothered by the attention that her dresses have received this year. Indeed, she’s flattered that her work is being noticed and that people care enough to talk about it. “It’s what I’ve trained for, from the first sketch to the fabric. Making dresses that are different from the usual style, and a lot of fun to wear.”

And she has another reason to be excited about the success of EleVen, because her first commercial range of designs will be launched during the Open.

The entrepreneurial Williams does not stop there. She has her own interior design firm, V*Starr, and has embarked on a second degree in this field.

Not content simply with building a career as designer, she put a toe in the publishing water earlier this year with a motivational book, Come to Win. It features 46 business leaders, personalities, and public figures that include Bill Clinton, Denzel Washington, and Billie Jean King talking about how sports inspired their subsequent success.

And in one more diversification, she and her sister became part-owners of the Miami Dolphins just over a year ago.

Standing back to take a look at the Williams C.V., it’s hard to see how she fits in tennis at all, yet she is enjoying a remarkably successful year on the courts as well as off.

She played in all three Grand Slams and reached the quarters of two of them. And she recorded great results in all five of the other events she’s played.

At the start of the year, she won Dubai and Acapulco back-to-back—one on hard courts and one on clay. Then in early summer she reached the finals of Madrid and Miami—again mixing hard with clay—and the quarters in Rome.

It’s a testament to the hard work she puts in away from match play that, from so few tournaments, she has still secured the No. 3 seeding for the Open next week.

Lack of preparation for New York might worry a lesser player: After all, she hasn’t played a match since Wimbledon due to a knee injury. Not so with Williams. She’s not even minded to find a replacement doubles partner for sister Serena, with whom she holds the title at Flushing. “I’m used to playing with someone I trust as myself. Not sure I could play with someone else.”

There’s that discarded rulebook again. She has implicit faith in her technique, her experience, and her mental strength. “In terms of training, technique is vital—it’s the hard work on technique that you need when times get tough. And stay relaxed and you will play better.”

It’s been nine years since Williams last won the singles title in New York. Most of her success has come on Wimbledon’s grass—five wins from eight finals in the last 11 years.

Yet she has the game for Flushing’s hard courts including, incidentally, the fastest women’s serve ever recorded. Will she be tempted to change up her tactics to incorporate more serve-and-volley? Will she rely on her power play from the ground? Will she win her eighth singles Slam?

One thing’s for sure. The ever-evolving Williams—entrepreneur, designer, writer, athlete, and role model—will do it her way.


August 2010

Everyday Radical

By Brooke Hodge

Fritz Haeg is a peculiar kind of artist. He doesn’t work in a traditional studio, and he doesn’t show in a gallery. He just may represent a new breed of artist perfect for our slowly recalibrating economy, because in an era of art stars and wild market fluctuations, he doesn’t even sell his work.

Haeg creates on the road and often outdoors, occasionally colonizing people’s front lawns and turning them into vegetable gardens. He’s an intensely social being whose process is fueled by interaction.

Trained as an architect, Haeg moved to Los Angeles in 1999 to set up his own art and design practice and teach part-time at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design. He didn’t have much of a plan. Having already worked for architects in New York, he jettisoned the conventions of the profession and, for the most part, said goodbye to clients, budgets, schedules, contractors and the like. Instead, he just let his varied interests—gardening, ecology, food, animals, futurism and movement, to name a few—percolate while he settled into his new environs.

In a city as sprawling and fragmented as L.A., one needs to cultivate a vibrant social scene. In 2000, when Haeg bought his first home—a 1984 structure topped by a geodesic dome in the hills of Glassell Park—everything started to come together. The dome, with its open, welcoming spaces, quickly became the locus of unusual—and unusually creative—activities.

Haeg, a ringmaster par excellence, recognized the spark that ignited when his friends to knit, dance, watch films, cut hair, make clothes and garden. To harness that energy, he launched the Sundown Salons, a series of weird and wondrous happenings that ran through 2006.

“Because all of my work is about home and community,” says Haeg, “it wasn’t until I had a home of my own that I could really go deep into my work. Self-expression and novelty—two of the big assumptions of architecture school—weren’t really my thing. I’m more interested in responding to ideas, to instincts and to pleasures.”

Artists and art collectives such as Andrea Zittel, Katie Grinnan, My Barbarian, Anna Sew Hoy and Assume Vivid Astro Focus passed through the dome, simultaneously experiencing and influencing the wonderful world of Haeg. The salons spawned the Sundown Schoolhouse, a more structured environment in which invited guests came to lead workshops on subjects ranging from animal habitats to food culture.

The most widely known of Haeg’s endeavors is his ongoing Edible Estates project. Dismayed by the energy and resources consumed by the front lawn—that great American symbol of plenitude and domestic stability—Haeg decided to encourage homeowners to exchange their swaths of grass for vegetable gardens. His first Edible Estate, in 2005, reclaimed a front lawn in Salina, Kansas. It also cannily tapped into a burgeoning global eco-consciousness.

Curator November Paynter commissioned Haeg to create an Edible Estate in London for Tate Modern’s 2007 Global Cities exhibition. For Paynter, it was vital that a “real-time” project be included in the exhibition. “Fritz has an incredible way of encouraging others to participate and believe in the possibility of change,” recalls Paynter. “His tireless energy allowed the Edible Estate we created to be the one project that both outlived the exhibition and physically changed something in the world.” This year, Metropolis Books released an expanded second edition of Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn, a monograph that documents eight of his prototype gardens across the country.

When he was invited to participate in the 2008 Whitney Biennial in New York, Haeg summoned his architectural skills to create model homes for a different breed of client: beavers, bald eagles, owls, turtles and assorted animals and insects that had once lived on the Whitney Museum site. His Animal Estates have led to similar projects around the world. This fall, as a newly appointed fellow of the American Academy in Rome, Haeg will have an opportunity to investigate the habitats—and habits—of Italian animals and humans alike.

He has also not completely abandoned architecture, clients and contractors. He recently designed a house for film producer David Bernardi in Silver Lake, complete with closet-size terrarium, color-coded living spaces, shag-carpeted screening room and curved cutout walls—not far from one of Rudolf Schindler’s forays into communal living.

Haeg’s work—he calls it “social acupuncture” because he can make a point exactly where it is most needed—is about altering the way we see the world. From happenings to workshops, edible estates to animal estates, this desire for cultural change unifies what has become a multivalent creative practice. The threads recently came together in Something for Everyone, a series of installations, performances and activities currently unfolding at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut.

Mark Allen, founder and director of the Echo Park community-centered Machine Project, notes Haeg’s efforts occupy the space between real and symbolic. “Because the purpose of much of Fritz’s work is to start a conversation, it has the power to change thinking on a broader societal level,” says Allen.

On this point, Haeg is fond of quoting Jane Fonda quoting dramatist David Hare: “The best place to be radical is at the center.”


A new breed

Miami rapper Pitbull has all of South Florida barking

Miami, the storied city of vice, welcomed Armando Christian Pérez into the world one morning in 1981 at that electric hour when the marimberos, the cocaine cowboys, were arriving at the clubs in nearby Coconut Grove.

Four months earlier, parked at the edge of Biscayne Bay, his parents had gazed up at one bright star and made a prediction.

''It twinkled, twinkled, twinkled,'' his mother would recall 22 years later.

'And his father said, `That's our son. That's his star.' ''

But the streets of Miami awaited with less pristine expectations.

In the amped era of Scarface, little Armando Christian saw a lot of things he wasn't supposed to. Lines of white powder on the coffee table. $100 bills rolled up like straws. Party people high as a kite. Add a few beats of local charanga and, boomp, you're there.

Undercover Miami, hustler central, where the poor, the rich, the politicians,

the police all maneuver for some piece of the action.

Early on, he figured it out:

If you want something bad enough, dig your teeth into it and don't let go.

That's how Armando Christian, the kid who was reciting José Martí rhymes for stoned locals in Little Havana bars by age 3, became Pitbull, Miami's hungriest, most tenacious new rapper, a native-bred remix.

A child of Cuban-born parents who doesn't give a hoot about island politics, he doesn't answer to ''Armando,'' no matter how hard his father, José Antonio Armando Pérez Torres, drove the Cuban identity thing.


He'll ''rep'' his brethren in the larger syncopation, throw in a few interjections -- ya tú saaa-bes --
but he's not about to go Cuban retro.

Retro is quoting Tony Montana lines from Scarface on his bootleg CD.

Old school isn't the vintage Beny Moré of his roots-obsessed elders -- it's a 5-year-old,
Miami-made, Willy Chirino song.

He's a color-blind kid with a 12-buck fade cut who grew up on Nas rap and Uncle

Luke booty music, adores his city, potholes and all, the way he adores his parents,
dysfunction and all. Mr. ``3-0-5 till I die.''

So ardent is Pitbull's conviction, that he made this vow:

When he ''blows,'' makes the big time, he's bringing the 305 with him.

''Miami, I got you, I promise,'' goes his bark.

And he may actually get to keep that promise.

The word on Pitbull is that he's about to burst out of the underground and shoot to the top --

quite a prediction for an unsigned artist who peddles his own CDs on street corners in Liberty City.

''A label takes an artist like Pitbull and puts a million dollars behind him and

he's gonna blow. He's a hustler. He's taking the street mentality and taking it to rap,''
says Lazaro ''DJ Laz'' Mendez, star DJ at Miami's popular Power 96 (WPOW 96.5 FM), which
has kept the rapper on frequent rotation since it first aired him last spring.


It was Miami's godfather of rhyme himself, Luther ''Uncle Luke'' Campbell,
who nearly four years ago recognized an uncanny reflection of his hometown
in Pitbull's raps. Campbell was so impressed that he signed the rapper, took
him on the road, and pitched him to every DJ he knew.

''This kid, he is Miami -- more so than me or anybody else. I had to win the

respect of the Latin community. But he's got it. He ain't no fluke,'' says
Campbell, who remains close to Pitbull although the two agreed to let their
contract lapse so the young rapper could stretch his wings. ``He just wants
it now, now, now.''

No, he wants it yesterday.

There he is, the freshly razored one, standing outside his mom's house on a side street in Wynwood, hustling on his 22nd birthday. He's doing a video shoot for his biggest hit to date, Welcome to Miami, an ode to the city only insiders know. He's about to slide into a borrowed ''Vert,'' a vintage Chevy Caprice convertible, and cruise while a video photographer in a Honda shoots him through the window.

As Allapattah melts into Overtown and Overtown melts into downtown and

downtown melts into East Little Havana, he'll spit out the now-ubiquitous
lines to the song he wrote as a response to ''Welcome to'' anthems for
Atlanta, New York and St. Louis. It is Pitbull's third single, but it's that
rap that has put him on the map. When the song first aired a few months ago on Power 96, it became one of the station's top-requested songs within hours.

''We were getting calls from people who are too hard to ever call and ask for a song,'' says DJ Laz.


The song spread to other local stations, landing Pitbull the kind of popularity that usually comes with big-money contracts and the accouterments of hip-hop fame. But there's no Cristal on this set. No Dolce. No Versace. There is Pitbull's mom, however, in a comfy T-shirt, rushing over with two bottles of men's cologne.

''Here, see which one you like better,'' says Alysha Acosta, spritzing her

He gives her a hug and goes on with his hustle, off to the studio to finish his new CD, Expect the Unexpected, which he hopes to release this month. Mom's a little disappointed they won't be celebrating tonight, but she gets it. She knows this isn't a party. It's a hustle. And it better not be any two-bit hustle.

She kicked her boy out of the house when he was 17 because she heard he was
peddling dope. Her admonishment: ''If you're gonna go to jail, go for something big. Don't go for something stupid.'' That's when Pitbull got into rap. And that's when he began to take his mother's lessons to heart. ``DIM it, baby.''

Pitbull had her initials and her birth date tattooed on the inside of his left wrist above the letters D.I.M. Do it for Mom.

Days after the video shoot, he drives through East Little Havana, by the house he once shared with his parents. They had split up by the time he was 4, but were together for a time after his dad's house burned down. By then, teenager Armando Christian had bounced from neighborhood to neighborhood, school to school, mostly without a father.


''My dad's an alcoholic,'' he says. 'He was into all kinds of dope back
then. But he put the hustle in me. He used to take me to bars on Eighth
Street and put me up on a stool and go, `Recite!' When we reconnected,
that's when I figured out where I came from.''

It was in his father that Pitbull recognized a daunting legacy. Drugs, fast money and broken dreams. His father's life mirrored Miami's life. There was no use denying it. Why spend your life covering up other people's crimes and errors? Just let reality be and move on.

''I'm from the Dirty Dirty. . .,'' goes one of Pitbull's most contagious raps, Dirty.

'. . .We're off the chain, man/ The rap game, crack game/ Cut it, cook it,

chop it, record it, album-shop it/ It's all the same thing./ Y'all look at
these blue skies and think `Paradise.'/ I look at these blue skies and think
`What a disguise. . .'

It's a city he can't get enough of. This is evident as he sits in a Flagler Street barber shop called Fademasters, taking in the scene while his barber, Josué Romero, 20, gives him a fresh cut. Pitbull's unfinished CD is bouncing off the spray-painted murals, the photo of Al Pacino in Scarface, the magazine pic of J.Lo naked, the tip of the tattoo needle. Back up: There's a

tattoo artist on site. His name is Real 360. (''In life what goes around comes around.'') Pitbull watches the Flagler Street peddlers, the cars swinging around 12th Avenue. He snorts at the trash-talking regulars, like the guy who believes God doesn't approve of tattoos.


Pitbull wears a tattoo that proclaims ''Pitbull Spits Flames'' on his back and one that says ''God's Angel'' on his left arm. Most astonishing for a man not yet in the age of review, he's got one that says ''Hate Me And Suffer.'' He thinks people who hate only hurt themselves.

The thought lingers as he drives along a shady street in Southwest Miami, then pulls into a spot outside his father's home.

''My dad,'' he warns, 'suffers from hustler's withdrawal. You know, `I used to have it all -- the cars, the cash, the women -- then I lost it.' ''

Moments later, José Antonio Armando Pérez Torres sits with his son in the bulb-lit kitchen of his apartment. They share a blunt, joking rapport. Pitbull tells his father, a sickly but disarming man, that he's been talking about life in the '80s.

''Yeah, any idiot had 500 bucks,'' the father says.

Pitbull reminds him how he used to make him recite all those Cuban poems.

''And your name wasn't Pitbull or Chris,'' the father says, ``It was Armando.''

José Antonio starts remembering.

''No me pongan en lo oscuro a morir como un traidor,'' he quotes Martí.

Do not bury me in the dark to die like traitor scum/ I am good, and as a

good man. . . . I'll die facing the sun!

The verse floats in from somewhere in the corrupt city and the son picks it

up. 'Yeah, `morir de cara al sol.' ''

'Except you used to say, `de cara al TOL!' '' his dad says.

Pitbull gives him a look so sweet it almost twinkles.

``Whatever, you crazy old man.''


Charlie Huston goes into darker territory with insomnia thriller 'Sleepless'

03:33 PM CST on Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Dallas Morning News

Author Charlie Huston is on a roll: His 2009 noir thriller, The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death , has become an instant cult classic and was recently nominated for a 2010 Edgar Award (the mystery genre's highest honor) as best novel. HBO is looking at it as the basis for a possible series.

He's been praised by Stephen King as "one of the most remarkable prose stylists to emerge from the noir tradition in this century."

Huston's latest book, Sleepless, about a plague in which a good deal of the population falls victim to insomnia, has been called "impressive" and "challenging" by Publishers Weekly. It has quickly moved up the charts since its mid-January publication.

All that success might add up to the prototypical author whose conceit is even bigger than his talent. But in a phone conversation from his home in Los Angeles ahead of a recent visit to Plano, the 42-year-old author quickly makes it clear that ego doesn't play much part in his world; that's even more surprising when he reveals that his first career was acting.

Huston was a "terrible actor," he says. "The whole audition process was just horrible for me. I wanted to walk in and have someone coldly assess my ability and give me a job or not. Of course, there's a lot more too it than that, and I think my demeanor was surly."

He'd written for himself since he was a kid, and while working as a bartender, he started writing with the thought of publication, but also "to fill the days with something that wasn't alcohol." A short story kept growing until he realized that, although "I'd never thought I had it in me to complete a novel, at that point it became feasible, and really important to finish it."

He did, and has since published 11 novels. His debut, Caught Stealing, was optioned for film before it was published, an accomplishment that Huston, with typical self-deprecation, plays down. "Oh, that book had sat around doing nothing, and I had no intention for it to do anything. I was working with an agent who handled screenplays, and he said maybe he could sell an option on the manuscript.

"I said sure, but I didn't think it would go anywhere – the one literary agent I had ever talked to said he liked the writing but thought the book was unpublishable."

Huston laughs when told that as a reporter types notes, spell-check has tried to change "unpublishable" to "unpalatable."

"Yeah. A lot of people think that about my books."

The option for Caught Stealing has expired, been renewed, expired again, and Huston just sold it to someone else. Whether the movie will ever get made, he says, remains a mystery.

In direct contrast to acting, once he started writing for a living, he found it almost too easy. "I put absolutely no effort into building a career as a novelist," Huston notes with a chuckle. "I kind of crashed into it, or it crashed into me. It took me a long time to look someone in the eye and say, 'I'm a writer, I'm a novelist.' I've paid any number of dues, just in pursuit of a different career."

Caught Stealing was the first in his Hank Thompson trilogy, about an alcoholic bartender who stumbles into crime-solving (the first book has a cat-torture scene that will not go over well with PETA, should the film get made). He's also written a quartet of books about Joe Pitt, a detective who's also a vampire (fangs make a handy combat tool), several comic books and three stand-alone novels, The Shotgun Rule (2007), Mystic Arts and Sleepless.

Mystic Arts, probably one of the funniest thrillers ever written, dealt with a slacker ex-teacher who works for a crime-scene clean-up outfit. Need to know how to get blood out of a white fur carpet? Huston's your guy.

Sleepless moves into even darker, considerably less hilarious, territory, in an LA set not too far into the future, where scads of people suffer from a plague of insomnia, literally staying awake for months on end before dying. The genesis, Huston says, "was just some casual reading where I came across this actual disease, fatal familial insomnia, and I kept thinking about it. Brain disease, mental disorders, sleeping disorders, madness, nightmares – all that has always had a weird sort of hold on me."

He first planned Sleepless as more of a "big genre book, more zombie-esque." But as he wrote, he says, he found himself wanting "less spectacle. ... I wanted to know more about the details, about the people involved and what would happen to individual lives in these circumstances.

"I still wanted a page-turner, and I hope that it is, but it's less tumultuous. ... I wanted that sense of dread that makes you have to turn the page.

"You know: 'I can't look. I have to look.' "






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