Why Hollywood Types and Authors Like Wally Lamb Love Metabook

The roster of media mavens, moguls and boldface names spotted today at Michael's.

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.

Diane Clehane and Benjamin Alfonsi

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 EvilLast 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 SistoElizabeth 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.