When Arthur Golden wrote his bestselling first novel Memoirs of a Geisha, he had to leap through three cultural barriers: gender, culture and time.
It took Golden nearly nine years to make those leaps into his novel, a fictional biography of sorts of a Japanese geisha in the 1930s and '40s.
That's no small feat for a white male who grew up in Tennessee and lives in Boston, but Golden was so convincing in giving life to Nitta Sayuri that many people often believe the character is real, he told a crowd of 200 Wednesday night at the University of South Florida.
Now the Ivy League-educated Golden finds himself staring across another huge cultural abyss. This time, it's between his life as a writer-scholar and the role that fame thrust upon him: Hollywood mover and shaker.
Columbia Pictures has the movie rights to Memoirs of a Geisha. Steven Spielberg is directing. And rumor has it that Madonna would have given away that fake British accent she has for a role in the film.
Golden, who spoke to USF students and area fans Wednesday night as part of the University's lecture series, said that he has "no role whatsoever" in the movie's decision process. But he reassured the crowd that no World War II-era Japanese geisha would be played by an Italian-American pop singer from Detroit.
"After it went on the best-seller list, a lot of very unexpected things started happening. Hordes of them," Golden said. "I spent years writing something that at times I never thought anyone would ever read . . . that people like Madonna would react that way astonished me."
But the most astonishing thing to Golden was Hollywood's reaction. Before the book came out in November 1997, Golden didn't own a cell phone.
When the book started selling and Golden started traveling, he bought one. On that new cell phone, he got the call from his agent telling him that Columbia Pictures bought the movie rights to his book. He had just checked into a Miami hotel for a writer's conference and was so excited he called his editor from his cell phone in the lobby.
"She said, "Congratulations. You've just become an a--hole,' " Golden said. " "What?' She said, "You're walking across a hotel lobby talking on a cell phone about your movie deal.' "
That was just the first of many "Hollywood moments," as Golden calls them. Next came the time Columbia flew him from Boston to Los Angeles "for lunch."
"I live in Boston," he said. "I'd been as far west as Wellsley for lunch, but that's about it."
The ultimate moment came when he got the call in April that Steven Spielberg wanted to direct Memoirs of a Geisha.
"It was about the 20th of April," Golden said. "But I was convinced it was an April Fools' joke."