With the place festooned in all its holiday finery, the mood at Michael’s was, dare I say, downright festive. (Even the coming apocalypse can’t deter this crowd from their Wednesday lunches at 55th and Fifth.) There were plenty of handshakes and air-kisses being exchanged in the dining room today. I was thrilled to see ‘Mayor’ Joe Armstrong, who decamped some time ago for his home state of Texas, back at his usual perch (Table Three) and receiving hearty hellos from several pals including Discovery ID’s Henry Schleiff. Welcome back, Mr. Mayor, you have been missed!
I was joined today by Benjamin Alfonsi, the creator of Metabook, an exciting new multisensory digital publishing platform that he co-founded with publishing industry veteran Ken Siman, the company’s publisher and editor in chief, Christian Alfonsi, president and CEO, and strategic advisor Mark Andersen.
I first learned of Metabook last year when I was introduced to Ken by Judy Twersky (who knows everyone) when Metabook launched with their version of John Berendt’s worldwide bestseller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Last week marked the release of Metabook’s first original title, I’ll Take You There, the new novel by New York Times bestselling author and Oprah Winfrey favorite, Wally Lamb, so it was time for a catch-up.
“Ken knew Wally, who saw an early version of ‘Midnight,’ and he wanted to do something different for his next book.” Evidently, Wally is a “pop culture savant” with “an encloypedic knowledge of television, film and music.” “His CD collection numbers in the hundreds, maybe thousands,” Benjamin told me.
In I’ll Take You There, Wally taps into his well-known expertise in writing in a female voice (the book is dedicated to “Feminists everywhere of every era.”) to tell the story of one man’s life and the various women who shaped it against a backdrop of Hollywood. It features appearances by real-life (or in this case the ghosts of) legends, including silent film director Lois Weber and Ingrid Bergman. The protagonist, Felix, is a film scholar who runs a Monday night movie club in an old vaudeville theater. One evening he’s visited by the ghost of Weber, who invites him to revisit and relive scenes from his past as they are projected onto the theater’s big screen.
As a screenwriter who has done his time in “development purgatory,” Benjamin likened the title to a Fellini film. “I relate everything to Italian cinema and it’s like the American version of 8 1/2.”
The combination of colorful characters and the opportunity to work in a new medium were intriguing enough to get some big names to sign on to the project. Kathleen Turner, as Weber, headlines the cast in the audiobook, which also includes Laura Benanti (whose brilliant impersonation of Melania Trump on Stephen Colbert’s late night talk show is sure to keep her busy for the foreseeable future), Dana Delany and Jeremy Sisto. Elizabeth Banks stars in and is the executive producer of Yours Sincerely, Lois Weber, one of two short films included in the Metabook. The film’s director is Academy Award nominee Svetlana Cvetko.
“We were really excited about the talent we were able to attract for this,” said Benjamin, as we tucked into our beet salads. “Hollywood seems very game to do more with us.”
Before our main courses arrived, Benjamin pulled out his iPad for a tour of the Metabook of I’ll Take You There. (Hey, it is Michael’s after all.) Besides the dramatization of the audiobook and the accompanying digital novel, there are a slew of extras in addition to the two short documentary films, including lots of behind the scenes extras with the actors, a virtual tour of an art galley filled with pop culture- and politics-themed art curated by Wally and Benjamin and modeled on The Whitney, and an eight-song soundtrack featuring Janis Ian’s acoustic version of her Grammy-winning classic At Seventeen. Other songs include I’ll Take You There, performed by Britain’s Croydon SDA Gospel Choir and Change by Hélène Muddiman.
For the reader who ‘casts’ their own movie versions of the books they read, Metabook offers an immersive experience not found anywhere else. Benjamin estimates the app for I’ll Take You There gives the reader-viewer a “binge experience” and weekend’s worth of entertainment — “depending on how fast you read.”
Even though Metabook offers readers the opportunity to experience a title in so many different ways, Benjamin explained, “It starts with the book which is published digitally first.” The app for the title is available exclusively for the iPad and iPhone in Apple’s App Store for $14.99. Metabook licenses the print versions of their books here and in the U.K. I’ll Take You There was published by HarperCollins in the States and by Penguin/Random House in the U.K.
Benjamin explained that Metabook authors receive advances like they would from “normal publishers” and “participate very generously” in the profits from the licensing agreements with the company’s print publishing partners.
“We have created a different genre,” said Benjamin, who told me plans for 2017 include publishing Gregg Olsen’s next true crime title as well as introducing a ‘Classics Collection’ that will include works like The Scarlet Letter that are sure to entice educators, eager to explore how Metabook can be used in the classroom.
“The most exciting thing about being involved with this is that we’re doing something completely original,” said Benjamin as we finished up our coffee. “We did a full page ad in last week’s New York Times’ Book Review announcing we’re here. It’s like sticking our flag on the moon.”
Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:
1. Paul McDonald and some well-heeled pals
2. Brother and sister Patrick Murphy and Mary Murphy who were kind enough to introduce to their pals Cathleen McGuigan, editor in chief of Architectural Record and Bob Dowling of Halstead. What a fun foursome!
3. Joe Armstrong dining with pals Dorothy Kalins and Steven Wagner. Joe told me he is loving life in Texas but is busier than ever with his work on behalf of Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang which has taken him to Israel where he works with children in need. We’re happy to report Joe will be staying in town for the next week or so.
4. Gayle King and Don Peebles
5. Allen & Co.’s Stan Shuman
6. MGM’s former chairman Frank Mancuso
8. New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia and Ambassador John Loeb
11. Andrew Stein and Michael DelGuidice
12. Matthew Doull, Arrif Ziaudeen and Euan Rellie
14. Gerry Laybourne
15. Henry Schlieff
16. Andrex Essex
17. Drew Schiff
18. Town & Country scribe Steven Deluca
20. Vicky Ward
21. Josh Harlan
22. James Prentice
27. Benjamin Alfonsi and yours truly
Diane Clehane is a FishbowlNY contributor. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.