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Thursday, November 25, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Oregon writer's first novel leads to movie-rights deal
By Julia Silverman
PORTLAND Author Marc Acito can spot them a city block away, the real-life counterparts to the drama geeks that populate his fizzy first novel, a coming-of-age caper set in deepest suburbia.
He knows a 17-year-old boy who thinks nothing of wearing a cape in public, or the girl in the fishnet stockings humming "Everything's Coming Up Roses," as she glides down the street, imagining herself under some bright lights, in a big city.
After all, Acito, 38, is still a card-carrying member of the tribe of the "play people" in his family, the joke is that when he opens up the fridge and the light goes on, he can't resist doing a quick number, something snappy.
His new book, "How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship and Musical Theater," (Broadway Books, $19.95) is a love letter to his own high-school rat pack, with some serious creative license thrown in.
"I don't know why high school is right under the surface for me," Acito said during a recent interview in Portland, where he has lived for 14 years with his partner, writer Floyd Sklaver. "For the book, I called old friends and asked them to reminisce. I remembered more than anyone else."
The book isn't an exact replica of Acito's New Jersey high-school hi-jinks, however. For starters, his father, an insurance agent and trombonist, would like everyone to know that he gladly paid for Acito's education at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, unlike Al Zanni, the marginally-more-benevolent-than- Tony-Soprano father figure in Acito's book, who refuses to pay for his actor wannabe son, Edward, to study at Juilliard School in New York.
Al Zanni's pronouncement sends Edward and his group of misfit friends into a life of increasingly madcap crime, in an attempt to amass the $40,000 needed to pay for four years at Juilliard during the morning-in-America Reagan years. There's a cryptic, leggy former cheerleader, a nebbishy Jewish neighbor who is the real brains of the operation, and a matinee-idol jock named Doug who becomes the object of Edward's unrequited affection.
In between, there's the obligatory high-school production of "Grease," a job at a particularly vile mall food-stand called "Chicken Licken," underage excursions to gay piano bars in Greenwich Village, a cameo appearance by Frank Sinatra and just-short-of-wildly-explicit descriptions of various forms of teenage sexual experimentation.
If it sounds like a movie, it's already on its way to becoming one. Eleven months before its publication date, the book was optioned by Columbia Pictures.
Since its publication, the novel has been well-received by critics, including one from The New York Times, who said, "Acito's characters are a self-consciously eccentric crew, but their haphazard friendships and over-the-top scheming are thoroughly believable. The ease with which Acito has choreographed their crazy capers makes you hope there's lots more where all this came from."
For Acito, who also writes a humor column syndicated in gay publications nationwide, the book is the product of a life spent scribbling in journals while trying to claw his way up the ladder of stage success.
Though his father paid for college, Acito was kicked out of Carnegie Mellon's theater program because of, he says, "artistic differences I thought I had talent, and they didn't think so."
From there, he bounced around, falling in love at the age of 20 with Sklaver and landing at Colorado College, in Colorado Springs, Colo. There, he finished his degree and launched a middling career as an opera singer.
He found some success with character opera roles, playing "drunks, hunchbacks and sidekicks," but on the eve of his European premiere, holed up in a drafty rental flat in Dublin, Acito said he realized that his work on the stage had become just a job.
And so after completing the stint in Dublin, he headed for Portland, where, Acito and Sklaver became model small-business owners, opening up a "Fast Signs" franchise shop that once won a Caribbean cruise for providing the best customer service among all franchisees.
In between sales calls, Acito found time to start writing, sometimes pausing at stoplights to scribble down thoughts. And then, when the manuscript was ready, he had a stroke of third-act luck when he met "Fight Club" author Chuck Palahniuk at a reading.
Palahniuk knew Acito's work from the column and recommended that his own agent take on Acito. The agent sent the manuscript to Palahniuk's editor at Broadway Books, Gerry Howard. Broadway not only bought it but locked in the right of first refusal on Acito's next book.
"I just liked everything about the book from the first sentence and paragraph," Howard said. "It's very, very hard to write a book that is as witty and, on the one hand as artificial, and on the other hand anchored in reality, as Marc has achieved."
Howard said the book has so far sold "north of 20,000 copies," and has gone back for a second printing; editors also are expecting the book to sell even better in paperback, he said.
Judging from the e-mails he's gotten, Acito said the audience for the book looks to be what he calls the "Will and Grace" demographic gay men and the women who love them as well as past and present members of high school theater clubs.
Acito is planning a sequel to "How I Paid for College," which he's tentatively calling, "Attack of the Theater People." But right now, he's at work on a novel set in Portland about Christmas burnout and the pressure on women to create magical holidays. The concept may not lend itself to a movie blockbuster, but Acito's OK with that.
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