From Hollywood to Howland

Posted Sept. 13, 2009, at 9:44 p.m.

At first glance, Robert J. Emery seems to be enjoying a normal retirement.

He and his wife, Sue, spend half the year on River Ranch, their 12-acre spread in Howland, and the other six months in Florida.

But rather than whiling away the hours playing golf or bingo, Emery, 68, has undertaken a new career. After spending most of his adult life as an award-winning TV-film writer, director and producer, he has become a first-time novelist.

“That has always been the goal,” emphasized Emery in a recent interview, pointing to a hardcover copy of his novel, “In the Realm of Eden” (events are planned around the novel this week in Camden and Bangor).

“In the Realm of Eden” (Glenridge Publishing) is equal parts political intrigue, suspense thriller and alien encounter. Published in January, it has received strong reviews and is a finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Awards.

The novel centers on Ruben Cruz, chief of staff for the newly elected populist President Norman Howel. An old college buddy, now a CIA operative, contacts Ruben and drags him into a conspiracy surrounding a live alien that’s being held in a secret facility in the Arizona desert.

Emery explained that he has always been creative, starting with writing fiction during his childhood. He got involved with Armed Forces Radio and TV during the last two years of his Air Force hitch. When he got out, Emery began in advertising, then moved into filmmaking.

That’s where he made his mark, with such works as the Lifetime movie “Swimming Upstream,” starring Michael Moriarty; the award-winning PBS miniseries “The Genocide Factor”; and the award-winning MSNBC documentary “For God & Country: A Marine Sniper’s Story.”

But his longest-running work was the documentary series “The Directors,” which ran for 91 episodes on Starz and is now enjoying a second run on the Reelz cable network.

Emery recalled how that all got started: “I saw how some of the directors, such as Robert Wise (“West Side Story,” “The Sound of Music”), were getting older, and I thought, ‘Why doesn’t somebody do something about them while there’s still time?’”

Emery was talking to his friend Milt Felsen (associate producer of “Saturday Night Fever”), about his idea for such a series. When Felsen asked whom he wanted to talk to first, Emery replied, “Bob Wise.” Felsen picked up his phone and set up the interview. And “The Directors” was off and running.

Emery recalled his life during the heyday of “The Directors,” during which he interviewed hundreds of directors and actors: “When we were in production, I spent half of my life in hotel rooms in Los Angeles. One day I would be at Universal Studios with Steven Spielberg, the next day at the fabulous Skywalker Ranch with George Lucas, and then on to Barbra Streisand’s house in Malibu, or in Connecticut where Ron Howard used to make his home. It was a wild ride.”

The series also yielded a series of four nonfiction books by Emery: “The Directors, Takes One to Four.”

Still, Emery didn’t embrace the Hollywood lifestyle, a choice that probably hurt him careerwise in the long run.

“We somehow made a conscious decision not to move to Los Angeles,” he recalled. “We were raising a family, and L.A. was a foreign land. That held me back as far as my career went.”

This desire to be in the right place personally may have led to the Emerys eventually settling in Maine. They had vacationed in Maine for 20 years, then decided to buy here. They found their current home on the Internet, flew up to visit it on a Friday, fell in love with it, and bought it the following Tuesday.

“We’d reached the point in life where those opportunities come and you take them,” Emery said.

Howland is about as far from Hollywood as one can get, which probably made Emery’s change in careers easier.

“I made a promise to Sue that I was going to retire from production and write novels,” he said. “It helped that the industry was changing, and I didn’t like the way it was going.”

“In the Realm of Eden” began life as a screenplay that he wrote from 1999 to 2001 but was unable to get produced. About four years ago, a friend suggested that he turn it into a novel, and he spent the next two years doing that. (“That’s because he wouldn’t let go of it,” Sue joked.)

Emery hired his own editor to read the manuscript, and had author Jim Thayer read it as well, with Thayer giving him 38 pages of notes. “Once he got me thinking like a novelist, it came easier,” he said.

In all, Emery had 12 people read his novel before it even got to the publisher. The result: “The suggestions from the [publisher’s] editor were very minor,” he said.

Emery then turned the novel back into a screenplay, a process he found very frustrating: “The author should never be allowed to adapt his book into a screenplay, because he wants to put in every word.”

Emery is now 90 pages into the sequel to “In the Realm of Eden,” although it’s stalled as he writes the screenplay to another author’s novel that he’s committed to do. “I can’t juggle two balls at once,” he admitted.

But Emery is quite happy with his change in careers.

“I’ve never regretted it for a moment,” he said.

Coming events with Robert J. Emery: 5:30-7 p.m. Sept. 18, book signing, The Owl and Turtle Bookshop, Camden; 2 p.m. Sept. 19, a presentation on his film and TV career and book discussion, Bangor Public Library; 6:30-7:30 p.m. Sept. 22, a writers workshop, Bangor Public Library.

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