By Rick Christian, Founder and President of Alive Literary Agency
Same Kind of Different as Me, which spent nearly two years on the New York Times trade paper bestseller list, would have never seen the light of day apart from Alive’s agent extraordinaire, Lee Hough, who died Sept. 10, 2013, after more than 12 years of faithful service and a valiant battle with brain cancer. I’m thankful he lived to see the difference his efforts made, and count this story among my agency favorites.
When Lee first pitched the book idea at our weekly agent meeting, his associates nixed it as unsalable because the authors had no name, no platform, no nothing. He later appealed to me, explaining that scenes in the book vibrated with rare emotional power and how taken he was by the characters and their underlying tale of poverty vs. wealth, racial reconciliation, forgiveness and redemption. I asked him about the quality of writing and origin of the project, and he said it would take a thorough rewrite by a professional collaborator, but felt the authors’ drafts, though rough and unpublishable, contained the framework of the story and captured its beating heart—with enough content to start shopping it. As for the origin, he said it filtered up to him via word of mouth because of his early roots as a Young Life area leader in Texas. His passion sold me, but when he sent the proposal to a long list of some 20 publishers, it was quickly dismissed by all. He then trickled it out to a few others with the same result.
After licking his wounds and letting some time pass, Lee did the extraordinary and resubmitted to the same houses with individualized notes highlighting what he thought they were missing. However, his appeals fell on deaf ears and he could have wallpapered his office with rejections.
He privately admitted to doubting his literary instincts, but after a year and a half with no luck, he faced the realization that maybe his tastes were different than the industry’s and nobody cared about a memoir from an obscure art dealer and a homeless man who grew up in virtual slavery and then, after holding up a bus at gunpoint, landed in Angola, the most violent prison in the U.S. While Lee believed to his core this was a life-changing story with heartbreaking plot twists, multiple layers, and indelible scenes, he agreed to move on.
Long months later, Thomas Nelson publisher David Moberg and his acquisitions editor at the time, Greg Daniels, visited Alive on a prospecting trip. It was a high-energy meeting, with agents pitching over a dozen projects, all of which the publisher loved. At the point the meeting was winding down and just before the execs stood to leave, Lee pulled a sheaf of paper from a folder and slid it across the table. I couldn’t see what it was and tried to catch his eye, but he was laser-focused on our visitors.
“Look, I know you’ve rejected this twice already and I respect that, of course,” he addressed them. “And I know I’m venturing now where angels fear to tread, but honestly, guys . . . I believe with all my heart and being and every instinct I’ve got that you’ve overlooked a jewel here. If you would please give me just five minutes to retell Ron Hall’s and Denver Moore’s story before you go, I’ll agree that if you say no again, we’re done and I’ll never again mention the book.”
It was the last thing I expected at the end of a successful day, but they graciously allowed him this personal favor. And then I watched in stunned silence as he lit up from the inside and let rip with almost two years of pent-up passion and began retelling this true story of a dangerous, homeless drifter
named Denver who grew up picking cotton in virtual slavery and how his life intersected with an upscale art dealer named Ron who was accustomed to the world of Armani and Chanel, and all because of a gutsy woman with a stubborn dream. He described opening scenes outside a burning plantation hut in Louisiana and an East Texas honky-tonk and stretching well into the heart of God. As he spoke, we all walked with him from a Hollywood hacienda to an upscale New York gallery, from a downtown dumpster to a Texas ranch. And all the while we felt the grit of pain and betrayal and brutality, coupled with the warmth of life-changing love. When he was done, he was streaming tears and the room was dead silent. It was an Academy Award-worthy presentation, and the publishing execs, with glistening eyes of their own, agreed to review the proposal yet a third time.
A few weeks later, Lee whooped into my office to say they’d bought the book for a healthy sum. I shook my head. “Not the book, they bought your tears.”
Lee contracted with Lynn Vincent, a gifted journalist from San Diego, to rewrite the manuscript, and her deft touch made the story sing. When Thomas Nelson reviewed the final manuscript, they immediately recognized its potential and so spent extra on the cover and packaging, and released it in hardcover format. When our agency copies finally arrived in 2005, Lee walked a copy down to my office with fat tears in his eyes. He had no words.
“Don’t ever ever forget this day,” I said, and told him I was amazingly proud of him, proud as a father. “This book is a trophy of God’s grace, and it’s only possible because of you and your determination, and whatever happens from here is because you refused to let no be no and fought to the hilt for this story. You, my friend, are a bulldog.”
Upon publication, a leading airline magazine ran a feature excerpt and word-of-mouth quickly kicked in. It sparked non-stop speaking requests for Ron and Denver, through which they raised some $35 million for homeless shelters across America. Presidents, First Ladies, governors, city councils, schools, universities and scholars all commended the book, and readers of all ages and color wrote to say it was one of their favorites.
After its extended ride on the NYT list, Denver was kissed on the cheek by former First Lady Barbara Bush after he and Ron received a standing ovation at the National Literacy event in Dallas, Texas. In 2010 they released a sequel to the book, What Difference Do It Make?, that further details their story of hope and reconciliation.
On March 31, 2012, we got a call at Alive. It was the bittersweet kind. The gates of heaven had swung open . . . and Denver had walked right in.
I was grateful he knew of the building film interest in his book before he entered glory. When sales of Same Kind of Different as Me topped one million, studios lined up. Though negotiations fell out with Disney after many long months, adaptation rights were quickly snapped up by Paramount. Their subsequent production exceeded all expectations with a stellar cast led by Academy Award-winners Renée Zellweger and Jon Voight, and Academy Award-nominees Greg Kinnear and Djimon Hounsou. A nice serendipity followed. When preliminary screenings indicated the film tested far better than expected, the studio hit the brakes on a Fall 2016 release so they could take advantage of every marketing opportunity. The bigger the movie, the bigger the megaphone. The new premiere is slated for February 2017.