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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.

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Tom Fitzpatrick