There is a huge, real-world pay-off for readers of a new fantasy novel by James Frey, creator of I Am Number Four and other books in the best-selling Lorien Legacies young adult franchise.
The American writer is offering US$500,000 (S$640,000) in solid gold to the first reader to solve the complex puzzle in Endgame: The Calling, out on shelves today. The book, co-written with fantasy writer Nils Johnson-Shelton and published by Harper Collins, has 12 young adults from India to America decoding their own sets of puzzles on a worldwide scavenger hunt to find hidden objects and save the Earth from total destruction by alien forces.
Readers of the book do almost the same: Sentences, number strings, patterns and even links to online websites are scattered in the text, meant to lead readers towards the location of a hidden "key" that will "unlock" a case of gold coins in Caesars Palace, Las Vegas.
Tied in is a massive online multi-player game - the mobile app designed by Google will be out within the next two months - that allows players/readers to "fight" one another for more clues to the location of the key.
"Anybody in the world can win it," says Frey, 45, in a telephone interview from Connecticut, where he lives with his family and runs his production company Full Fathom Five. "We will know when somebody has solved the puzzle and we will make sure he is in a position to get to Caesars Palace."
He adds that the winner could even be from Singapore, a place his parents lived in from 1997 to 2002, and which he says he would love to visit again for the food.
He and his company are putting up the money for the initial prize and there will be prizes of at least equal value for the two projected sequels.
The trilogy has already been optioned by Fox, reportedly in a US$2 million deal, but that still means a significant chunk from the writer's own pocket going to some lucky reader.
"I want to do it because I think it's cool. I want to see what happens. I want to do something no one has ever done before," Frey says.
As a child, he read a picturebook, Masquerade by Kit Williams, about a hare carrying treasure, which contained clues to the whereabouts of an 18K gold and jewelled statue of the hare, hidden by the author somewhere in England.
It was then valued at £40,000 (S$82,027) and the puzzle was solved in 1985, three years after the book had been published - and after it had sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
Frey never solved the puzzle in Masquerade, but he remembers the excitement of the challenge, of "sitting there and reading the book and determining if I was smart enough to solve the puzzle".
A screenwriter and producer in Los Angeles before moving towards print, he is no stranger to film production companies turning his ideas into a franchise - the 2010 novel, I Am Number Four, was made into a 2011 movie by DreamWorks.
With the Endgame series, he wanted to be in on the ground floor and build a world to his specifications for a change, rather than have it built for him.
It was also a chance to get back to his first love, writing. The Lorien Legacies - I Am Number Four and its four sequels - are written by Pittacus Lore, a pseudonym to cover the fact that the books are Frey's idea, fleshed out into novel length by writer Jobie Hughes.
"I didn't write I Am Number Four. People think I did, but I didn't. I created that series, I came up with the characters and the ideas, but I don't write the books, I never have. With Endgame, I wrote it," he says.
Again, he came up with the initial mythology and characters, Johnson-Shelton wrote the first draft and then Frey rewrote it a few times.
"Just the sheer volume of work is massive, we're writing a book, but we're also building a universe. There's no way one person can do that."
With Endgame: The Calling, Frey is adding to an iron-clad reputation as a crowd-pleaser, but his earlier writing career was clouded over by accusations that he had fictionalised parts of his supposed memoir, A Million Little Pieces.
A gut-wrenching story of addiction and rehabilitation, first published in 2003, it was queried by online website The Smoking Gun, which led to Frey losing a publishing deal and a huge public backlash, with talk-show superstar Oprah Winfrey chiding him on live television in 2006. Frey later admitted that he had tried to sell the book as a novel, but it caught the interest of publishers only when it was marketed as non-fiction.
It is a part of his life that he has no desire to talk about. "I wrote books, people read them, people still read them. It was a long time ago," he says.
Perhaps proving that there is no such thing as bad publicity, he went on to write two well-received novels, Bright Shiny Morning (2008) and The Final Testament Of The Holy Bible (2011), before moving into young adult fiction.
With the success of the Lorien Legacies and the buzz over Endgame: The Calling, might it soon be time for another memoir?
"I have no interest in writing about myself ever again," he says, laughing. "It doesn't interest me, really. When I go to work, I want to do things that are interesting and cool.
"I hope people think Endgame is the coolest thing they've ever seen. I hope they start copying it. I hope it sells 50 million copies."
Endgame: The Calling retails at $24.90 before GST.
This article was first published on Oct 7, 2014.
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