x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

My shameful past is fiction, but one day I'll need it

My publishers realised that a dreadful mistake had been made - a realisation that came merely by looking at me: I'm not skinny, pale or chic enough ever to have been a heroin addict.

Years ago, when I told my agent I had written a book, she said to me: "Hey, if you want $800, I'll give you $800." But I had it published anyway - and a second one, in fact - and though she was wrong in the specifics, she got the general gist of the compensation right. Put it this way: both books got a warm, dignified reception, but neither one gave me any tax trouble.

They were both published first - and primarily - in the UK, primarily because I like to swan around Los Angeles saying: "I'm published primarily in Great Britain. They 'get' me overseas. I'm really more of a continental voice." Until someone threatens to punch me in the nose. But truthfully, the reason I've been published (primarily) in the UK is because they're the only people who will publish me. I mean, they asked. American publishers didn't. Look, I'm a writer: if you ask me to write something and you offer to pay me, I'll probably do it.

But the real fun is the publicity tour, where for five or six solid days a writer - a person who usually lurks around, not-so-recently bathed, grumbling and muttering to himself - is treated like, well, an actor. Not a lead, but a respectable character actor, a second-billing shared-card actor. And there are events - signings, book parties, radio interviews, that kind of thing, at which the writer, for once, is the centre of attention. For five or six days people ask you questions about your work that suggest they may actually have read it, and then someone gives you a sandwich. It's nice.

In the UK, though, it's even better because it's all based in London, so all you have to do is shuttle around to various studios and events. And because it's Britain, and because of the long tradition of British writers, someone is always offering you a drink. Even better, thanks to the precedent set by 1,000 years of British literary types, no one expects sobriety, so when you politely decline their offer of a beer or a tankard of wine by pointing out, politely, that it's 9.30 in the morning, they're thrilled because it means you might actually make it through the interview, unlike the last writer they had on the show.

And also: British journalists and critics are so reflexively withering and nasty towards every successful British person, they reserve all their fawning adjectives for visiting American hacks. Which is great, if you're one of those. I've told you this because I want to tell you this story: when my first book - a memoir of my early years as a TV writer in Hollywood - came out in the UK, my book tour overlapped with another American writer's tour. Jerry Stahl, a fine writer, had just published his book - a memoir of his years as a TV writer in Hollywood. The books differ in a lot of ways, but in this way in particular: there's no heroin in mine. Stahl's book is about his struggle with drug addiction. Mine, frankly, is about my struggle with network executives.

It was purely coincidental that two American TV writers had written two different memoirs and were touring on overlapping dates. But one newspaper somehow got the books mixed up, and so the piece they wrote about me opened this way: "While Los Angeles burned in the riots of 1994, 23-year-old Cheers writer Rob Long was in South Central LA, scoring a dime bag of Mexican brown junk to slam between his toes; the only thing that enabled him to write lines for Woody, Sam, and TV's beloved Norm."

I was actually out of town. Fly fishing up north. How uncool is that? But libel laws in the UK are awfully strict. If you say something about someone that's false and damaging - even if you did it without malice - you're likely to pay hefty damages. And when my publishers realised that a dreadful mistake had been made - a realisation that came merely by looking at me: I'm not skinny, pale or chic enough ever to have been a heroin addict - they contacted the editor of the paper, who, after changing his trousers and begging not to be sued, offered up a lot of compensatory goodies: free ad space for the book, a profile, that sort of thing. I settled for a framed copy of the article, which I keep hanging on my office wall.

Because although my career is puttering along nicely right now, this is Hollywood. I know it could all fizzle out. Wait: it most certainly will all fizzle out. Everyone's career does, eventually. At which point, I'll have to do what every other gone-to-seed, forgotten entertainment industry character does to get back in the spotlight: I'll check myself into rehab, just for a little attention jolt. And when I do, I'll need back-up material. I'll need a paper trail. Because otherwise, no one will believe it.

Rob Long is a Hollywood writer and producer