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Cliff Falls, Then Picks Himself Up

One writer's journey to getting his first novel published. USC College alumnus Cliff "C.B." Shiepe's Cliff Falls has been a bestseller at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena since it was self-published in June.

Self-publishing <em>Cliff Falls</em>, USC College alumnus Cliff Shiepe arranged everything including his book cover, a montage of photographs taken in Woodside, Calif., which represents the mystical town of Cliff Falls in his novel.
Self-publishing Cliff Falls, USC College alumnus Cliff Shiepe arranged everything including his book cover, a montage of photographs taken in Woodside, Calif., which represents the mystical town of Cliff Falls in his novel.

Sit down for a few hours with writer Cliff "C.B." Shiepe and you get little bits of wisdom.

“Before you hear your true name, you’ll wander,” Shiepe says keeping steady eye contact. “Perhaps we all should for a time.”

Shiepe did lots of wandering since graduating in 1991 with a bachelor’s in English in USC College. Then again, so did his book.

First it was a television pilot. Showtime liked it, but they wanted to give it an edge. “Let’s make the preacher a meth addict,” a producer told him. Or going in a different direction, “Let’s make him gay.”

Shiepe had no qualms about a character being gay or having a drug abuse problem, but he wanted to do it with integrity.

“When they want to make it sensational for sensational sake, those kinds of plot decisions make me cringe,” he says. He got the pilot to the USA Network. They really liked it. They told him to turn it into a movie of the week.

“So I went to the Writers Guild and read every TV movie of the week I could,” he says. “I finished and then USA cancelled their movies of the week.”

He got big-time producer Bill Lawrence of Scrubs, Spin City and Cougar Town to read it.

“He goes, ‘Cliff, the politics of Hollywood are such that you’ll never get this made into a one-hour drama out of the gate. You need a showrunner and that showrunner will have to be insured. Any reputable showrunner wants their own show. Work backwards and make it a film.’ ”

A film?

“There I was back at square one again,” Shiepe says. So back to the Writers Guild he went. “That’s how I learned to write screenplays. I read my favorites over and over again.”

He had someone he respected from Walden Media to read his screenplay and give him feedback. The producer was impressed with Shiepe and his work.

“Have you thought of it as a book?” the producer asked him. “Everything we do here is based on books.”

“I almost died,” Shiepe recalls. “Can you imagine the look on my face when he said that? I looked at him and said, ‘I’m not writing a book.’ ”

“Try five chapters,” he told Shiepe. “So I tried five chapters and brought it to Boston where he was located.” They took him to lunch and things looked hopeful.

Then nothing. Six months later, Shiepe learned that Walden Media had undergone a huge shakeup and the contact he had cultivated was no longer in a decision-making position.

“So I said, I can’t stop here,” Shiepe recalls. Another TV producer advised: “Finish the book; it will take you six months.”

“It took four years,” he says, cracking a charismatic smile. “So it’s been ten years since the start.”

 


Cliff Shiepe (English, '91) fought through a labyrinth of obstacles — practical and physical — before getting his first novel published. Cliff Falls is now a bestseller at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena. Photo credit Pam McComb.

Cliff Falls was published in June. As is the growing trend for first-time novelists, Shiepe published it himself, but on a scale equivalent to what most publishers would do. He did everything himself, hiring the artists, typesetter and editors. Explains Time magazine: “Self-publishing, the only real success story in an otherwise depressed industry, is booming, thanks to the Internet, digital cameras and more sophisticated digital printing. It's also gaining respect. No longer dismissed as vanity presses, self-publishing is discovering a niche market of customers seeking high-quality books for limited distribution.” Although, Shiepe’s off-set printing run was not small. It was 5,000, rivaling many publishers.

Also, Shiepe wants to keep ownership of the story anticipating it will be made into a movie.

“The goal was, ‘Don’t lose your shirt on this,’ ” he says, perfectly serious. “That was my goal.”

He was surprised then when the book started flying off the shelves at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena immediately after publication. Nearly a year before completing the book, he had started pounding the pavement looking for bookstores — who will rarely carry self-published works — to stock it.

“Getting to book buyers is near impossible; they don’t take your calls,” Shiepe says with a heavy sigh. “It’s easier to get a Hollywood producer on the phone than a book buyer. I was persistent. Polite but persistent. I had a conversation with a book buyer at Vroman’s. When she found out it was both about the child star syndrome, which hadn’t been done before in a non-clichéd way, and there were spiritual aspects like in The Shack, she said, ‘When you’re done, you can drop it off. Maybe I’ll look at it.’ ”

In text form and without a cover, he dropped it off. A few weeks later, Vroman’s called and asked for five copies.

“I almost passed out, right?” he says. “Great, I’m thinking. I’m at Vroman’s, growing up near Pasadena I know that’s the Mecca of bookstores. They sold out right away and called me back. Then they sold out again and called me back. Then the Pasadena Star-News did a 700-word write up. After that, they really started selling.”

Cliff Falls has been a bestseller at Vroman’s since the summer. During a book signing, 90 people showed up. The bookstore has named it among their “Best Books of 2010.” It is also available at the USC Bookstore at University Park Campus.

“The main reason for the success of the book has been word of mouth,” says Sherri Gallentine, head book buyer at Vroman’s. “And Cliff has been a one-man machine for this book. For self-published books, it’s the most popular one Vroman’s has ever carried.”

The novel is a coming-of-age story about Clay Grant, an exploited child star of the ’80s sitcom Little Guy Mike. After a mysterious fire and hounded by the media, he goes on the run for 15 years until a fight with the paparazzi lands him in jail. Motivational pastor Reagan Mitchell shows up in Clay’s cell and invites him to Cliff Falls, an oasis with an elusive waterfall, where in poignant, comical and surprising twists, he learns how to stop running from life.

This novel is not just entertaining, it is changing lives. Shiepe has received many letters from people who have gone over the falls in their own lives so to speak, many with a history of physical, sexual and substance abuse who resonated with the believing in yourself message.

“I’m interested in the intersection between sacred and secular,” Shiepe says. “That’s where life takes place.”

Shiepe himself had a spiritual awakening after he became ill in 1996. After graduating, he took a job at Disney. Wanting to understand the industry, he worked for more than 30 divisions as a temporary employee and was dubbed “Most Requested Temp on the Lot.” He also got a few small speaking roles on soap operas. Of Lebanese decent, he usually played a character with an accent from an exotic country. Then he got sick.

“My life changed overnight,” he said. “I saw 70 doctors in the first seven years.”

No one could give him a proper diagnosis. He was lethargic and his fevers would reach 106, then he would suddenly feel better. In addition, he got an extreme case of mononucleosis. He couldn’t work and was mostly bedridden. Finally, doctors realized there was a strand of bacteria in his system and the fevers were killing the bacteria. With treatment, his body fought the bacteria and eventually he began the slow process of recovery.

During his recovery, he wrote Cliff Falls.

“I felt like Rip Van Winkle,” he says about re-entering life after his restoration. “I woke up after 14 years and life had moved on.” Then he began reconnecting with life in a bigger way than ever before.

As he writes in Cliff Falls: “Memories could be as powerful as the words that accompanied them, both capable of erasing the distance time had put in place."

“I wouldn’t want to go through it again, but I wouldn’t go back,” he says. “Sometimes you have to surrender your plans of what you thought life would look like. Now I’m in this place, ‘OK, I’m game. What’s life got to offer?’ ”

Shiepe’s Web site is www.clifffalls.com. He will be reading and signing Cliff Falls at Book Soup at 1 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 12, and at Laguna Beach Books at 4 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 20.