End of the Tunnel

updated 07/04/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/04/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

ALLAN FOLSOM REMEMBERS VIVIDLY the call that changed his life. It was Super Bowl Sunday, 1993, when the phone rang in his Los Angeles home. On the line was Aaron Priest, a New York City literary agent he had once met and to whom Folsom had sent a draft of his first novel two weeks earlier.

"I've a couple of questions," said Priest. "First, how old are you?"

"I'm 51," replied Folsom.

"Second, are you in good health?"

"Sure, I run every day. What's this about?"

"Well, I just sold your book for $2 million."

Folsom had entered the pages of publishing history, receiving one of the highest amounts ever paid to a first-time author—let alone someone who had eked out a living for 30 years as a Hollywood screenwriter manqué. The Day After Tomorrow (Little, Brown), a combustive, 928-page thriller of international intrigue, made the New York Times best-seller list within a week of its publication last spring; MGM has bought the film rights for $1.5 million and put Richard Zanuck (Jaws) in charge of movie production. "I've never been successful, so you can imagine the shock," says Folsom, who had seen his last 40 scripts rejected and was suffering a crisis of confidence. "I was beginning to think my hopes for success were all a delusion—you know, like, where are the guys in the white coats?"

Folsom recalls how his good fortune began—over a $4 cup of coffee. Trying not to brood about the cost-per-sip factor as he sat alone at a sidewalk cafe in Paris in 1990, Folsom says he suddenly had an attack of the muse. "What," he thought, "if somebody came by who was really important in my life 20 or 30 years ago? What would happen?" That became the 40-carat kernel of The Day After, the story of an American surgeon who stumbles across his father's killer in a cafe by the Seine—and then into a neo-Nazi conspiracy as he searches for the murderer. By and large, critics have been hooked. The Los Angeles Times called the book "heart-thumping," while Publishers Weekly raved, "This is a one-sitting novel."

The son of a Boston insurance executive and his wife, a church choir director, Folsom got his first lessons in storytelling by listening with his grandmother to old radio shows like The Shadow and The Lone Ranger. A mediocre student at suburban Newton (Mass.) High, he fared better studying film at Boston University, where he won a national Society of Cinematologists award for his first screenplay, about a young couple fleeing a band of gangsters. (Classmate Brian DcPal ma, who won the award for directing, "obviously took off a lot faster than I did," says Folsom.)

After graduating, Folsom went to Los Angeles and landed a job as a driver for documentary filmmaker David Wolper. While working variously as a cameraman, film editor and producer for Wolper, Folsom kept on writing—but aside from the occasional rewrite of a Hart to Hart episode, he had no success with screenplays. (In 1981 he did manage to persuade Natalie Wood to appear as the poet Anne Sexton in a movie he had scripted—but Wood drowned before filming could begin.)

Returning to Boston in 1971, Folsom tried and failed to start a film company and later opened a nightclub, where he met waitress Karen Click, a 21-year-old history major who was working her way through Simmons College. They married in 1979 and moved back to Los Angeles, where Karen worked as a consultant for a corporate headhunting firm, and Folsom kept at his screenplays. Rejections had become routine when, on his 45th birthday, he was diagnosed with cancer of the bladder. "It scared the living daylights out of me," says Folsom, who promptly underwent surgery to remove a tumor and has since remained cancer-free.

Hoping a holiday would help them recover from the stress, the couple went to Paris, where Folsom had his $2 million idea. At Karen's urging, he put aside screenwriting and spent two years researching and writing The Day After. "I always believed he should write novels," she says. "I guess I was vindicated, wasn't I?"

These days the couple is realizing dreams long postponed—they bought a big home near Santa Barbara overlooking the ocean, Karen quit her job to concentrate on her oil painting, and they're even thinking of having children. But all those years of insecurity still gnaw at Folsom. And just to make sure his success is no fluke, he is already planning a new thriller. "One book docs not a career make," he says. "Just because you can pay to get the car fixed doesn't mean you're not going to hit a pothole."

JOHN HANNAH in Los Angeles

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