Evel Knievel, Fragile American Hero

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:54

    Evel Knievel, An American Hero by Ace Collins (St. Martins Press, 222 pages, $23.95) It's difficult to believe that this book was edited, as opposed to merely spellchecked. The narrative reads like paraphrased accounts gleaned from several videotapes and magazine articles, and the few direct quotes in the book are duly credited to their secondary sources. Collins makes no reference to some of the great stories Evel's related in the past, like his brief encounter with Charles Manson in a segregated wing of the L.A. County jail, or the fact that Howard Hughes died on a chartered Learjet owned by Knievel. This book is information any Evel Knievel aficionado has already gleaned through A&E's Biography and the E! Channel's True Hollywood Stories.

    So I called Evel Knievel myself. Having been warned by his wife Krystal that he'd been having "good days and bad" and that his sleeping regimen had become erratic, I caught him sounding much less robust than when I'd interviewed him in the past. A lot of negative things have been said and written about Evel Knievel. But as his career as a daredevil attests, he hates to disappoint anyone who takes an interest in him.

    How are you feeling?

    Evel Knievel: Pretty good. Still recuperating.

    What's been going on otherwise?

    Oh, nothin'. Just trying to get better. Some days are good...trying to get ready for Daytona.

    It's Bike Week?


    Did you read this new biography of you?

    I read a little bit of that, oh, maybe half of that book. And it's like all unauthorized biographies. First of all, I thought the book was a very complimentary book.

    Did you ever talk to anyone named Ace Collins?

    Never did. That's why...see, he got so many facts in the book wrong it's ridiculous. First of all, one thing that stuck out in my mind is the stuff he had to say about [Knievel's son and heir to the motorcycle stunt king throne] Robbie and I is not the truth at all. It's not the truth at all. He just got the facts all wrong, that's all... You know, the guy, he doesn't know what he's talking about. It's too bad people write things like that without going to the source.

    And nobody from the publisher ever contacted you?

    No. You know, I have a book out right now. It's at Barnes & Noble. It's in all the bookstores.

    I didn't know. Who published it?

    A company called the Publishing Group. It's in a lot of bookstores, big bookstores. It's called Evel Knievel.

    [The book is actually called EVEL*WAYS: The Attitude of Evel Knievel, A Daring Approach to Life. It was published by GraF X.]

    You wrote it on your own, or someone cowrote it with you?

    Oh, it's just the whole 30-year history in the book, and probably a 100-and-some photographs. It's a pretty good book.

    Did you sit down and write it?

    Yeah. I wrote it. I wrote it with another fella. It took me about a year to do.

    That's pretty quick.

    Well, it's from notes I took to put a book together. I kept notes since 1972. And photographs. Anyway, it's a book about philosophy. It's a real good book. I thought the other book was very complimentary. You know, there's nothing I can do about it, to try and straighten out some facts. He never contacted me...

    I imagine that an editor or group of editors decided they could churn out a quick book on Evel Knievel.

    Yeah. I know they sold quite a bit of 'em, because I signed 36 of them up in Hartford two weeks ago. At a show. I mean, just at a motorcycle show, not a book signing. But I signed over 200 of the other one [EVEL*WAYS] at a book signing in Idaho.

    His is a bit disappointing to anyone who's familiar with your story, because the prose is anemic at best. All the quotes are from secondhand sources.

    I know he never called my wife.

    Well listen, Don, I've gotta get off this phone, I was just going to sleep. I'm having a horrible week.

    Sorry I caught you at a bad time.

    Don't worry about it. I'm still fighting this hepatitis C; and I take nine million units of a drug called Interferon in my stomach with a needle every week. It's tough...makes you feel nauseous. I've been trying to get out of this house for the last 10 days, and now I've got to go to Daytona Thursday. I don't know what I'm gonna do. I don't have very much strength. If I can get out every day for a couple of hours I'll get stronger. Sunlight...it's the best medicine there is.

    Andrew "Ace" Collins bills himself on his website as "The Bynum (Texas) Writing Machine." The author of such works as All About the Dixie Chicks, Disco Duck and Other Adventures In Novelty Music and Lassie's Guide to a Family's Best Friend, Collins works primarily in the youth-oriented, scholastic, how-to, quickie bio and "insta-book" genres that characterize trade publishing. He claims to have written more than 50 books since leaving his gig as a publicist 15 or so years ago.

    I e-mailed Collins to ask if he tried to contact Knievel in connection with writing his biography.

    "I tried contacting Evel through his official website on several occasions," Ace wrote back. "But he was having a great deal of liver trouble at the time. It was just before and during his transplant. As I only had a 60-day deadline from start to finish, I had to use other sources."

    Sixty days? A lot of writers need 60 days to begin considering the initial stages of research. Going from blank to the bank in that amount of time would require some serious word-churning regardless of how you approach it.

    Actually, Dana Albarella, Collins' editor at St. Martins trade division, explains that the book took the better part of a year. Albarella noted that the contract for it was signed in November 1998. Knievel's liver transplant, which Collins refers to, happened early in 1999. Albarella estimates that Collins, whom she calls "a research wizard," worked about six months before turning in his first draft. The book was released late last year, making it the result of roughly a yearlong project.

    Albarella confirmed that she commissioned Collins (who had written bios for St. Martins and was looking for a project) to write this after seeing one of Robbie's jumps and reading several articles addressing Evel's illness. Surprisingly, other than Sheldon Saltman's notorious, out-of-print Evel Knievel on Tour?for which Knievel beat Saltman with a baseball bat?no book focusing on Knievel had been published. Albarella's modest goal was to compile the life story of Evel Knievel for his fans, not to bring new insight to it.

    Albarella had warned Collins of Saltman's fate (to this day Knievel claims he wishes he'd killed Saltman) and advised him that to attempt to dig up any dirt on his subject might prove unwise. She does refer to Evel Knievel as an "unauthorized biography" to distinguish it from a "crash" book, which in tradespeak is one of those coloring-book-sized four-color paperback bios profiling 'N Sync or whomever. Those are usually cranked out in about a three month period, Albarella said.

    So St. Martins now has the rights to the Evel Knievel bio of record, it's doing well for them, it was bland enough that it didn't piss Evel off enough to make him want to hurt anybody, and the Writing Machine chugs along as a quantity-conscious juggernaut. But on the basis of what's contained therein, one would probably find out a lot more about the sort of person Evel Knievel is during a five-minute phone conversation with him than through reading Evel Knievel, An American Hero. I'd go with EVEL*WAYS?you've got to believe Knievel tells his own story in a more entertaining and direct fashion than anyone else can.