Half (well, four) of them were never heard from again. The rest resurfaced between a day and more than 30 years after they went missing. Some were swallowed up by the wilderness, others dropped off the radar in urban environments. The youngest was five. The oldest was in his late fifties.
All the disappearances happened within the last 100 years—the earliest in 1925, latest in 2007. Some of these people are still alive. Of those, I had several burning questions about one, so I tried to contact that person.
Let's call this person A. The person who responded on behalf of A (let's call that person B) was more than kind and helpful.
But B also had three requests:
- to edit my piece about A before it was published
- to receive six copies of the book
- to be paid for inclusion in the book
I've written professionally about real people since 2001 but had never encountered this issue before. By the time I wrote about them, most were no longer with us in body, with one exception: Rosa Parks. However, enough books have been written about her that she probably no longer paid attention to any new ones coming out (or at least mine!).
B said that if my book profiled four people (B knew that it was a collection but did not know how many stories exactly), then each of them could get 5% of the profits, leaving me 80%. B wanted A to also benefit if Hollywood came hollering. B did not want me to take advantage of A. I fully understand that. I have written a book about Bill Finger, for heaven's sake.
But with a word of support from my editor and agent, I wrote B to explain the following as delicately but clearly as possible:
- writers need not pay public figures (as A is) to write about them, as per the First Amendment; if biographers and journalists had to pay the people they interview or profile, newspapers would be even slimmer than they already are and biography sections of bookstores would be practically nonexistent
- writers do not get 80% of a book's profits—not by a long shot (publisher, agent, bookseller get some, too—if there is any profit)
- I contacted A to be sure I was telling A's story accurately; I assumed a side effect of this would be that A would appreciate the open line of communication and would feel I wanted to do right by A
- how writers typically get paid (advance against royalty, with no guarantee that they will ever sell enough copies to earn a royalty)
- how unlikely it is that Hollywood would look to a book like this (compilation nonfiction for a young audience) in search of material
- that if a producer did approach me with interest in A's story, I would have to come to A before doing anything else—as I understand it, I would actually need to acquire A's life rights
When one does great things, as A has, others will naturally want to write about it. I'm grateful that we live in a society that allows this to happen without impediment.
My last response to B was more than two months ago and I haven't heard back. I think A and B now see.