Harrison's writing technique was simple: After Paula (then a research director for an executive-search firm) went to work, he would head to a coffee shop, where he jotted notes for two hours, inspired by his military passion. "After I was two-thirds done," he says, "I started getting serious."
Four years later, Harrison has no trouble persuading strangers to read his prose. His first installment of fastidiously researched technosuspense thrilled fans of hardware-heavy military fiction—the sort of readers riveted by descriptions of laser diffusion and rubidium isotopes and ASAT treaties. They will get another dose in Harrison's recently released Thunder of Erebus, which contains sentences like "On the prow of the ship, the High wire missiles roared off their trident launcher and raced into the southern night sky, just as the cloud of negatively charged krypton was approaching the decks of the Red Cloud."
Set in Antarctica, the new book climaxes with a nuclear confrontation between American and Soviet forces over a mine where a key isotope has been discovered—an element used to make Star Wars—style defense weapons. Along the way, there are enough triple-stage warheads and hydrazine thrusters to satisfy even the most hard-core hardware junkie. A "masterpiece of combat fiction," according to Publishers Weekly, Erebus is expected to cement Harrison's status as a brand-name novelist. (A Hollywood development deal threatens to make Erebus the next hundred-million-dollar epic.)
As for the inevitable comparisons with military thrillmeister Tom Clancy, Harrison's editor at Crown argues that each writer has his own strengths. "I'm a Clancy fan, and I think Clancy is a more deliberate developer of commentary and ideas," says Jim Wade. "Harrison is a great believer in getting the story moving at a fast clip."
The North Dallas novelist didn't start out to be a high-tech talespinner. After earning a journalism degree from Texas A&M University in 1971, he covered the police beat at the Salt Lake Tribune. When he lost his job and became a househusband, he began writing Storming Intrepid as a kind of therapy. "I didn't even think of it as ending up as a book," he says. His only military experience was serving as a public relations officer during a two-year stint in the Army.
Once he decided his work might be publishable (his wife and his mother agreed), Harrison sent the manuscript to six houses, including Crown, where executive editor Jim Wade discovered it in the slush pile. "I was absolutely seduced by it," says Wade. Crown quickly offered Harrison a $20,000 contract for that novel and his next two books, then renegotiated the contract for about $220,000. "There aren't many fairy tales in this business, but Payne's work is one of them," says Wade.
Since then, Harrison has pulled in an estimated $500,000 in royalties. "I'm astounded," he says. Newfound riches or no, the meticulous Harrison has changed little about his life: He and Paula still live in the same two-bedroom town house that they bought in 1984, they attend church regularly, and a night on the town for them still means a trip to the sixplex. Their biggest indulgences have been a red Plymouth Laser coupe, a Caribbean cruise and, for Payne, a modest three-room office less than a mile from home.
"Getting with the glitz is not something we ever had any interest in," says Paula. Earlier this month, she gave birth to their first child, Andrea Martine, and plans to help Payne with research instead of returning to her job. "Payne is a lot more relaxed now," she says.
"You know how they talk about right-brained or left-brained people?" he says. "I can never remember which is which, but I think I've changed from being one to the other. I think the creative side has taken over. I used to be so orderly and organized, but now my desk is a mess."
The businessman turned author appreciates his new freedom. "I can roll out of bed in the morning, pull on a pair of jeans and, zap, I'm out the door," he says. "I don't miss wearing a coat and tie at all."
A fanatic for detail, Harrison looks forward to field trips. In 1989 he visited military installations in northern Alaska and came home armed with reams of information about permafrost regions, surveillance techniques and snow caves. "My Walter Mitty fantasy was being a fighter pilot," he allows. "But this is the next best thing."
ANNE MAIER in Dallas