Not many in the Hollywood set would rather meet a mathematician than a movie star. But that's the case for Bob Zeidman, an engineer and writer whose novel Horror Flick won the Opus Magnum Hollywood Discovery Award in 1998 and has gotten nibbles (but as yet no bites) from the likes of producer David Foster, of Collateral Damage (2002) and The Mask of Zorro (1998) fame.
In Tinsel Town for a book signing before the Academy Awards last month, Zeidman and his wife, Carrie, a graphic artist, met actors John Goodman, Patrick Swayze and Oscar nominee Jon Voight, among others. It was fun to rub shoulders with the stars, but Zeidman said he was more impressed by mathematician John Nash, the subject of Best Picture winner A Beautiful Mind, whom he happened to run into at the airport.
"I've always believed and have talked to school kids about the fact that [our society] places too much emphasis on celebrities and not enough on the engineers, scientists and other educated people of the world who leave a lasting mark," said Zeidman, who reported that Nash mostly asked him about himself after Zeidman told the Nobel prize winner he studied physics, has a keen interest in math and is a big admirer of Nash's accomplishments, which include overcoming schizophrenia.
The 42-year-old EE is uniquely positioned to ponder flash vs. substance, since he straddles the two in his own career. Besides writing novels and screenplays, he is an engineering consultant with his own company (Zeidman Consulting; Cupertino, Calif.); founder of an online engineering training company called The Chalkboard Network; and author of several engineering texts.
Some might find the two careers at odds, but Zeidman believes both efforts require a similar kind of creativity. "Creating a circuit requires some kind of inspiration or insight that is hard to explain or describe," he said. "The same is true for getting an idea for a story. In both cases, I can describe the processes I go through: letting your mind go from thought to thought to thought, recording those that are useful or interesting and discarding the others," Zeidman said. "But how I arrive at the useful ideas is difficult to describe or predict."
The Philadelphia native holds dual bachelor's degrees, in physics and electrical engineering, from Cornell University (1981) and a master's in EE from Stanford University (1982). His engineering textbooks include Verilog Designer's Library, Introduction to Verilog and Designing with FPGAs and CPLDs, to be published this summer by CMP Books, the high-tech book-publishing arm of CMP Media LLC, parent company of EE Times. Zeidman has also written engineering reports for some famous high-tech patent infringement cases.
He has been known to do book signings at the Embedded Systems Conference, inking his John Hancock on textbooks and novels alike.
Horror Flick, Zeidman's self-published Hollywood send-up, is the offbeat tale of a Z-grade horror movie that's haunted by the spirit of a star who died during filming and kills those who watch the movie. The case is investigated by a macho detective named Brent Wooden, who hooks up with Buttonwillow McKittrick, a kooky psychic, and a slew of bizarre characters that offer great opportunities for cameos.
Zeidman has written several other works, including a young-adult novel and screenplay, titled The Amazing Adventure of Edward and Dr. Sprechtmachen, and a screenplay called Sex and Violence, a psychological thriller..
Zeidman's writing life began about the same time he was reading books on relativity, at age 13. That was the year he started his first novel.
Zeidman says he had no interest in following in the footsteps of his father, an engineer and businessman. But the teenage novel stalled because, Zeidman said, he didn't understand character or plot development, and "the story didn't go anywhere."
He put the manuscript aside and began considering physics or math, ultimately discarding those dreams because he found the fields too abstract and not as satisfying as solving real-world puzzles.
So he wound up in engineering after all, and says that by the time he was in college he realized that he was "a natural engineer." After grad school, he worked as a chip designer at several Silicon Valley companies before setting up shop as a consultant in 1987. Clients have included Cisco, Ricoh, Texas Instruments and Apple, among others. "[As a kid] I told myself I wouldn't be an engineer or have my own business," he said, chuckling at the irony.
Not long after launching the business, Zeidman took three months off to pick up writing again. He produced several well-received short films (one won first place at the Fremont Film Festival; another was shown at the Philadelphia International Film festival), and a short story won the Foster City Annual Writers Contest in 1990.
Despite these successes, Zeidman hasn't quit his day job. It's not easy to make a career of writing. Still, he is hopeful his agent will succeed in optioning Horror Flick. His wife pictures Jim Belushi as the male lead, but "Tom Hanks or Bruce Willis would pull in a bigger audience," Zeidman mused. As for the psychic sidekick, "I think I'd choose Cameron Diaz."