A Congressional Wife Scores with a Six-Figure Literary Triumph
04/16/1979 at 01:00 AM EST
The House of Representatives was in session. Philip Sharp, Democrat of Indiana, sat in the Speaker's chair, temporarily presiding over the floor debate. A page passed Sharp an envelope, which he tore open. The cryptic message: "200,000 and still going."
Was it the latest electoral tally from some far-off precinct? Nope. The 200,000 referred to dollars, not votes. The message was from Marilyn Sharp, apprising her husband of the latest bid for paperback rights to her suspense novel, Sunflower (Marek, $9.95). The next day Sharp's book, her first, was sold to Bantam for $500,000, half of which she will pocket. Two book clubs also bought Sunflower, and a movie deal is pending.
More important, Sharp's six-figure success has reestablished her own identity. Before marrying in 1972, she was a successful New York career woman who had handled PR for the likes of Carol Channing, Barbra Streisand and Ringling Bros. Political life, she learned, was a circus of another sort—and she wasn't in the center ring. "As a congressman's wife," Sharp says, "the assumption is that you have one main interest—your husband's work. It was frustrating, but I was the one who had to do something about it." A guided tour of the Pentagon War Room with 30 congressional wives roused her to action. "That tour was my turning point," proclaims Sharp, puffing on a cigarette. "The man who led it was so condescending that I got up my courage to stick my neck out."
On her shelf at home was a manuscript she'd begun in 1971 and worked on only sporadically in the intervening years. The plot, devised when the Nixons were in the White House, called for the President's 4-year-old daughter to be kidnapped by a CIA supersleuth. "My book is entirely fantasy," she insists. "If I had inside knowledge I wouldn't be writing."
Sharp showed the opus to Washington literary agent Ann Buchwald, wife of the columnist, who pronounced the novel exciting but confusing (which is what critics still say). Ann suggested eliminating five cities and five characters. That done, the book was submitted to Richard Marek, who publishes thriller author Robert (The Matarese Circle) Ludlum. Marek bought it but asked for revisions.
At the typewriter again, the 37-year-old Sharp took new interest in the White House dinners and receptions she attended with her husband. She carried file cards in her purse to jot down snatches of conversation and details for the Washington backdrop to Sunflower. She hired a daily babysitter for son Jeremy and worked from 9 to 5 for eight months until the book satisfied Marek. "It wasn't until I sold it that I had any confidence," says Marilyn, who's been known as Kay Kay since her Muncie, Ind. childhood.
Her father died when she was 11 and her mother juggled a successful career as a CPA with raising two children. Kay Kay attended DePauw University (majoring in political science and English composition), where she and Phil, now 36, were slight acquaintances. She then headed for New York and a career but by 1971 had decided to travel abroad and write the novel.
A year later she was reintroduced to Phil Sharp by her mother, who was an aide in his first campaign for Congress. He lost the election but gained a wife (though they managed to have only one date alone before the ceremony). In '74 Sharp, a political science professor, ran again and won.
"I'm doing less and less for Phil," says Kay Kay. "We've broken things down to his work, my work and family time. Our social life just had to go, and the house too." Now Sharp is digging in for her second novel, another Washington-based thriller, for which she received an advance of $50,000. Phil Sharp, who makes $57,500, is amazed at—and proud of—his wife's success. But he admits, "I didn't think of her writing as a career—it was more of an experiment."