Having Published a President and a Prostitute, Howard Kaminsky Is Glowing Over the Thriller He's Written with Wife Susan
Time was when any publisher who would buy Xaviera Hollander's post-happy hooker memoirs would hardly be interested in former President Nixon's. Yet Howard Kaminsky has built a publishing house, Warner Books, on just such deals, while gambling six figures on novices like Judith Krantz (Scruples) and Flora Schreiber (Sybil). Now Kaminsky is betting on two more untested writers: himself and wife Susan.
They have collaborated on a trendy first novel, The Glow (published not by Warner's but by McGraw-Hill, $9.95), which has been sold to book companies and the movies for more than $800,000. Set in Manhattan, it is a tale of urban horror involving a young couple (he is a book editor, she an assistant buyer) who become friendly with a group of elderly joggers. The Twelvers (they all live at 12 East 83rd St.) turn out to be a fiendish cult who get a "glow" from blood transfused from unwilling young victims.
"We were trying to write a popular novel," says Howard, "that would be entertaining, fun, scary and say something about life today." Some critics thought the Kaminskys gilded the glow by name-dropping too many "in" Manhattan spots—the West Side food emporium Zabar's, the East Side's La Grenouille restaurant, Ballato's in Little Italy. "Howard is said to have put in every popular ingredient except MSG," the Washington Post cracked.
The collaboration (Howard did the plotting, but both wrote dialogue and action) was surprisingly smooth. "Susan trusted me," Howard explains. "But we rewrote each other's scenes unmercifully." As a book and magazine editor for more than 15 years, Susan knew all about writing blocks. "But I'd never faced that kind of lonely situation where you reach a wall," she says. "Howard would kick me in the shins, and I would get on with it. I may yet write a novel by myself, but this time there wasn't the fear of failure because the collaborator was there."
Using the pseudonym Brooks Stanwood (combining the surname of Howard's cousin, funnyman Mel Brooks, and Susan's maiden name), they sold the manuscript to McGraw-Hill, which of course knew who the authors really were—that kind of secret never lasts in the gossipy New York publishing world. McGraw-Hill ordered a huge first printing (75,000) and guaranteed $100,000 in promotion. (It was always understood that Warner's would not publish the boss's book.)
The Kaminskys met in 1966 when she was buying excerpts for The Saturday Evening Post and he was selling subsidiary rights for Random House. "The time I really looked at Susan," recalls Howard, "was one business lunch when she came to meet me in a rainstorm. Her hair was matted down like a spaniel's. Suddenly I was very interested."
Friends find them an unlikely couple, but complementary. "Howard," says longtime friend actor Stacy Keach, "has a quirky side. Susan is a mainstay. She keeps the anchor down so he doesn't go completely berserk." Their backgrounds are totally dissimilar. "She's Vassar," explains agent Swifty Lazar, "and he's an aggressive little fellow from Brooklyn College." Howard, 39, was raised in the Italian-Jewish neighborhood of Bensonhurst. Susan, 42, sprang from the conservative, Republican upper-middle class of Wellesley, Mass.
Her first job was in London, clerking for a publishing house. Kaminsky migrated to California, where he took graduate courses ("I wanted to be a writer") and had "an abortive career" as a standup comic. "I didn't hold a full-time job until I was 25," he says. That was at Random House and it set him on his way in publishing. By then he was married to an aspiring actress, Dona Fowler. They divorced in 1966. "It was like the last act of a bad play," he recalls. Five years later he left publishing temporarily to co-author four screenplays ("All they have to be is 120 pages of air"), including the script for the 1975 sleeper Homebodies. "They all had a common theme," says Howard. "People were being terrorized. I like being scared. After I saw The Exorcist I couldn't sleep for two nights."
In 1972 he joined Warner Books, becoming president and publisher a year later. "Howard," says Warner's editor-in-chief, Bernard Shir-Cliff, "is considered a kind of sparkplug in the business. He has energy, a gambler's instinct and he never looks back." Kaminsky calls Richard Nixon "a model author because he doesn't call you up and bother you." Judith Krantz, on the other hand, was less than ideal. "She called me at 7 a.m. on the first day of the Scruples book tour because it wasn't going right."
With their 6-year-old daughter, Jessica, the Kaminskys split their time between an elegant eight-room apartment and a 16-acre Berkshire retreat. "We are like the couple in The Glow," notes Susan, "except we're turning 40, and we've lost a little bounce. All their tastes are ours."
They are already working together on a second thriller, set in Maine; meanwhile, they continue jogging, a regimen begun while writing The Glow. "We do two or three miles," says Howard. "I guess if I was pursued by large people with razors I could do five."