THE MYSTERY OF NOVELISTS
I've always been curious about talented novelists. What personality traits does the job require? Certainly, there's more to it than just the ability to put words on paper.
Over the years, I've met quite a few of them. Some really good. Some ordinary. But the skill remains a mystery to me.
The other night Stuart Woods appeared at the fine new Houle Books store in the Borgata in Scottsdale. Woods is the author of two thrillers, Chiefs and Grass Roots, that were made into successful television miniseries.
All of Woods' nine novels have sold well because he is a first-rate stylist and a skilled storyteller. All have been reprinted in paperback. I would suppose hundreds of thousands of readers have purchased one or more of them.
He is the kind of writer you can get hooked on. If you read one of Woods' books, you'll be inclined to try them all. But nowhere in them are there clues to tell you what Woods is like.
I expected a big crowd. However, not more than half a dozen readers showed up to greet Woods, who was autographing copies of his latest novel, Santa Fe Rules. The first thing I detected was his nervousness. There were tiny drops of water on his forehead. He fanned himself with a piece of paper.
Dressed in a blue blazer and bow tie, he looked like a New England prep school don.
Woods did not seem disappointed by the small turnout. You might even say he seemed relieved that he wouldn't have to face a big crowd.
The fliers distributed by Houle Books promised that Woods would read from his new Southwestern mystery.
I have a cold and couldn't read anyway," Woods said in a Southern accent attained while growing up in Georgia. The small coterie of fans gathered 'round him.
Someone asked about Chiefs, which starred Charlton Heston and took six hours of television time. It was a drama that was so popular with viewers that it already has run twice.
It will always be the book that was most important to me," Woods said. It was based on a family incident and took me eight years to write, and I had been thinking about it since childhood.
But it was not a huge success when published. It had a respectable sale of 25,000 copies. It was going to have a major review in the New York Times Book Review. But it was a bad year. They lost a lot of advertising and the review was drastically cut down.
And then when it came out in paperback, there was a dreadful cover that repelled readers. Since that time, I have insisted on having approval of all dust jackets." Woods gave a wan smile. But I will always be grateful because it was the book that established me as a working writer." Someone asked Woods what he was reading himself these days. He explained that he mostly reads books written by his friends, most of whom seem to hang out in Elaine's restaurant, the famous literary salon in New York City.
Woods goes to New York often because the speed of his writing schedule has stepped up to the point where he now finishes a book every year.
The talk shifted to a writer's relationship with his editor. Woods said he had little trouble in that way.
But he had writer friends who did.
Pat Conroy is a friend of mine," Woods said. I remember when he had just finished Prince of Tides.
He was at my house for dinner and I asked him how things were going with his book.
He told me that the manuscript was 1,200 pages long and that his editor was reading it in New York.
Well, it so happened that I knew his editor, who was Nan Talese, who is the wife of the writer Gay Talese. Not long after, I met her in New York.
`Pat's going nuts,' I told her. `He hasn't heard from you about his book.'
She told me she loved the book. Somewhere in it, she said, there was a 800-page novel-but it was still trapped inside those 1,200 pages.
Prince of Tides became a great success, and of course, a fine film, but the cuts Conroy endured were severe."
This prompted someone to ask Woods if he had read Norman Mailer's huge new novel, Harlot's Ghost.
Woods gave a knowing smile. He had tried but had to put it down, he said.
My suspicion about the book," Woods said, is that Mailer has become so powerful that his publisher and editor were afraid to tell him to cut its length.
Mailer could threaten to take it elsewhere. But in the end, he was ill-served by them allowing it to be published at its present length." Someone pointed out, jokingly, that at the end of this extremely long novel, Mailer had tagged on a note promising the story will be continued.
Woods shook his head and delivered an arch glance.
Then he said:
I think it's going to be very hard to sell a sequel to a book that nobody finishes in the first place." Woods is single. Currently, he lives in two homes, one in Santa Fe, and the other on the Isle of Wight in England. He also owns both a yacht and an airplane.
Woods navigated the yacht alone in a race across the Atlantic Ocean, an experience he later wrote about. This year, he plans to fly the airplane around the world and write about that experience, too.
Woods' personal style is so much more elegant than that of most writers.
I remember Norman Mailer from the streets of Chicago and Miami and the rough and tumble of the political conventions of 1968 and 1972.
I remember Mailer coming to Chicago to testify for the defense of those accused of starting the riots in Chicago in what became known as the Conspiracy 7 trial.
I felt I had to come here to testify for the defendants," Mailer said, because I felt I deserted everyone in Lincoln Park when the cops came down to beat them up.
I should have stayed with them, but I had a deadline to meet for a magazine piece I was writing about the convention. If I got thrown in jail, I'd miss my deadline." I remember Mailer stepping off the stand. He has praised the defendants and blamed the Chicago police for the battles in which hundreds were injured.
There was silence in the packed courtroom for an instant. And then every one of the defendants jumped up from their chairs and rushed toward Mailer. While the judge pounded his gavel angrily, the defendants hugged Mailer furiously.
I remember, too, something Mailer wrote about writing and courage.
Booze, pot, too much sex, too much failure in one's private life, too much attrition, too much recognition, too little recognition, frustration.
Nearly everything in the scheme of things works to dull a first-rate talent. But the worst probably is cowardiceÏas one gets older, one becomes aware of one's cowardice, the desire to be bold which once was a joy gets heavy with caution and duty.
And finally there's apathy...it doesn't seem too important to be a great writer." Like Woods, Mailer has also been known to hang out in Elaine's.
But his lifestyle is intemperate and fierce. He has been married so many times, most have lost count as to whether the total is five or six. Many years ago, he even stabbed one of his wives.
I cannot imagine Woods and Mailer having a calm conversation about the length of Harlot's Ghost.
The ever-so-elegant Woods also differs markedly from Nelson Algren, the first novelist to win the National Book Award.
I always remember a particular meeting with Algren. It was in a squalid and dingy bar called O'Rourke's on Chicago's near north side.
O'Rourke's was the kind of place where nobody wiped up spilled beer and so you were always squishing through giant pools of the stuff.
Algren, a medium-size guy with sparse hair standing straight up, was sitting in a side booth. He was already famous in the gossip columns for being the lover of Simone de Beauvoir and for The Man With the Golden Arm and A Walk on the Wild Side. Both novels had already been made into films.
Next to Algren was a great, hulking guy who probably stood at least four inches above six feet.
Algren glared at me. He always pretended to hate reporters unless they were paying for his drinks.
His friend disliked reporters, too, but had a better reason. It turned out he was serving life in Statesville prison for killing a Chicago cop. In those days, it wasn't terribly unusual for a lifer to be given a weekend pass.
Algren was fascinated by the criminal class. He was spending the weekend with this cop killer to get background for a novel.
For years, Algren had spent time haunting police lineups. He used them as a writing school.
As he told me about it, I could picture him doing it.
Algren, always shabbily dressed, stood in the dark with the other victims of robbery and assault. He stared and listened to the criminal types who were lined up and questioned while the spotlights blinded their eyes.
It was a way I had of developing the speaking style of guys about to go into the joint," Algren said. I simply put myself in a position to hear them talk. I used the police lineup for years. The coppers finally stopped me.
The card I used for admittance got raggedy as hell. It was pasted here and there and you couldn't read it anymore. A detective stopped me at the door and said, `What happened, you mean you're still looking for the guy?'
This was like after seven years and I said: `Hell, yes, I lost 14 dollars.'
So he let me go in one more time." I asked Algren about his experience in Hollywood when Frank Sinatra played the lead in The Man With the Golden Arm. Algren hated the film.
He gave me a wry grin. I didn't last long," he said. I went out to Hollywood for a thousand a week, and I worked Monday, and I got fired Wednesday. The guy who hired me was out of town Tuesday."
Algren never lost his fascination for underworld characters. In the last years of his life, he moved to a run-down apartment in Paterson, New Jersey.
Hurricane Carter, the fighter, was in a prison nearby, serving a term for murder.
Algren spent his dying days going back and forth to the prison interviewing Carter. He hoped to write a book that could prove Carter's innocence in the shooting of a tavern owner during a holdup.
The book was finally published, but it didn't sell well. There was no television miniseries.
Algren's dead now. Carter's still in prison.
HAPPY DAYS AT THE HANDLEBAR AFTER BURNIN... v5-27-92
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.