They say things in Hollywood go in waves and that every movie is derivative of the last. This explains why, when it comes to screenplays, I am toying with the idea of pitching 'The King's Peach' (a moving story involving a monarch and his affection for a piece of fruit) and 'War Whore' (you guessed it, a prostitute is sent to service the troops on the Western Front during the Big Push of 1916). Just the kind of thing the studio bosses would love.
I think it was actor Ewan MacGregor who observed that because everyone in Hollywood is so terrified of causing offence or venturing an opinion or making a wrong call, all are reduced to leaving sentences unfinished and trailing off with a noncommittal 'Oh my God'. Hence 'He is just so...oh my god', 'I think it was...oh my god', 'I read it, and...oh my god'. You get the picture.
Trying to gauge opinion in California can be wearying anyway. I have almost been put on a flight home to London in restraints and on a gurney, simply for having a point of view.
Yet my excursions there have been mercifully fleeting. They usually begin with conference calls with the agents - a mixture of flattery and obfuscation - that make the Orange phone commercials seem like tepid parody. I have actually heard a disembodied voice say: 'We love you, we love the book, but can you take the foreign bits out of it?' (that particular book was an international thriller set largely in Russia).
When it came to my historical thriller Pilgrim, set against the tragic backdrop of the Children's Crusade of 1212, the comment was: 'These are serious issues - we cannot make an R-rated movie involving kids'. I pointed out that even in a cartoon, Bambi's mother had died. 'Yeah, well that was 40 years ago', came the reply.
Then comes the actual visit, the stay in Beverly Hills, the battling with the air-conditioning and survival on a diet of the complementary hotel fruit. Everyone wants to know your business (the staff were fascinated), wants to try out an English accent (the limo driver), wants to press a script into your hands (the gate-attendant at a studio lot). And I am just a British historical thriller-writer.
Post Gladiator, we all trooped across the pond to strut our stuff and sell our wares. Nobody explained to me the technique for climbing with dignity to the rear seat of a stretched limo: every time, I found myself crawling on the floor. At the agents, on account of the urinal bowls being set so low (presumably for all the dwarf Scientologists in the building) I suffered embarrassing splash-back and was whisked back to the hotel for a quick trouser-change and onward journey up to Burbank.
Like any novice, I then became lost and wandered lonely as a fart about the Warner Bros lot until a kindly and heavily bearded man - who seemed to know a great deal about deep sea surfing - showed me the way to the hallowed Building 81, haunt of several top directors. It was only later I discovered the stranger was John Milius, legendary writer of Apocalypse Now. I guess Tinseltown is full of such encounters.
What I gained from the meetings were some nice biscuits, several cups of coffee, a bit of inside chat and protestations of total admiration 'for your work'. Noticing a few of my thrillers on the bookshelves certainly helped quell the inner voice telling me I was a fraud).
Things rarely happen fast out there: the sums are too big, the commitments too great and the schedules too hectic. Yet there is always the odd vignette or surprise to astound and amuse. I remember a breakfast meeting with a film-maker who introduced himself with a handshake and a 'Hi, I'm an Obsessive Compulsive'. To which I responded 'How d'you do, I'm English'. Mind you, I once sat in on a private Kabbalah session with Madonna, so nothing is too strange.
Another movie person rubbed my chest and exclaimed: 'Double-weave cashmere - you must be doing well'. I certainly did well to stay sane. One individual thought it would be fun to drive me round the key locations of the LA riots - by the end of the journey, I was lying flat on the floor of the car to avoid being hit by any potential random gunfire.
Sometimes, the strangeness and surreal conversations pay off; sometimes, a screenwriting job (which one knows will never reach either DVD or big screen) arrives from the blue. I once very coolly took a call, had the most grown-up of conversations with a big-name director, then closed the curtains and danced about the room for twenty minutes. Such outbursts are more rare when writing a book.
A few years ago, back in my Los Angeles hotel, my telephone rang at 4am. I pressed every button to make the machine work, slammed shut the French windows (the freak storm outside had succeeded in flooding the carpet) and eventually heard a voice at the other end of the line.
A friend was calling to inform me she had been nominated for an Oscar. Maybe Hollywood is not so bad, after all.