Careful Plotting for Success Lets Thriller Writer John Saul Enjoy All the 'creature' Comforts
Joni H. Blackman
06/26/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT
The spacious Seattle office of John Saul, Inc. is equipped with three computers and state-of-the art fax and Xerox machines. Poster-size displays of the product dominate one wall, and a globe—symbol of the corporate reach—sits prominently on a desk. The boss shows up four hours a day to meet his production goals. The rest of the time he enjoys the rewards of his annual $1 million income: a 50-foot motor cruiser, a vacation retreat on a nearby island and three expensive cars bearing the license plates BOOK 6, BOOK 8 and BOOK 10 that celebrate the source of his wealth. Though he is a professional writer, the wry, unpretentious Saul has nothing in common with the starving author who painfully wrestles his muse in a drafty garret; agonizing not at all, this writer turns out best-selling books as systematically as GM puts out cars.
Since 1977, Saul, 47, has each year produced a slick paperback thriller that has sold more than 1 million copies. His books have been translated into 14 languages. Saul selected the genre on the basis of his own informal market research. "I looked at paperback racks in a supermarket to see what was selling," he explains. "And what was selling was psychological thrillers, horror."
Fortunately, Saul turned out to have a gift for the form. His first effort, Suffer the Children, was an immediate hit and was followed by successive best-sellers like Punish the Sinners and Cry for the Strangers. Now Saul is attempting the tricky transition to more costly, and more profitable, hardcover books. His first hardcover title, The God Project in 1982, was his only failure. But with the market savvy that has characterized his career for the past decade, Saul and his publishing house, Bantam Books, have made adjustments this time out. Creature, Saul's new opus, is attractively priced at $12.95 (compared with more than $15 for most hardcovers) and has a striking black-and-white cover. The subject matter—steroid experiments performed on high school football players in a small town in the Rockies—is well calculated to fit the winning Saul formula. "I tend to use everyday things in my books and find horror in the commonplace," says Saul, whose books are slightly less fantastic than Stephen King's. "I have never written what I call a monster book—where there really is something awful coming out of the sewers. In my books everything looks perfectly normal and wonderful at the beginning, but there's some little thing that's wrong, and it gets out of control."
Growing up in Whittier, Calif., Saul, the son of an oil refinery worker and a housewife, knew by the age of 10 that he wanted to be a writer and went about it with his characteristic pragmatism. "If you had to write 300 words on a subject," he says of his first schoolboy efforts, "300 words was exactly what they got. I sat there and counted them."
As a student at Antioch College in Ohio, Saul became interested in archaeology and considered changing his career plans. But after meeting Margaret Mead at a lecture, he was dissuaded. "I've been locked up in a museum my entire career and I hate it," she told him. So Saul returned to his original goal and set himself the task of composing one 20-line poem a day. "It didn't have to make sense and it didn't have to be pretty and it didn't have to be interesting. But it had to be technically correct," he recalls. "And I only gave myself 20 minutes to do it."
He did not, however, apply himself quite so methodically to his other studies. After attending four colleges in five years, Saul finally quit academia in 1965 without a degree. Then came odd jobs as a technical writer, pulp magazine editor and the first male Western Girl (similar to a Kelly Girl) in San Francisco.
By 1973, Saul was an administrator of a Seattle drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. At night he was busy crafting comic murder mysteries, but life as an unpublished writer was wearing thin. "Between the ages of 30 and 35 you really start to lose your dignity badly when you say you've been trying to be a writer for 15 years," says Saul, who was 31 at that time. "I finally thought that by the time I was 35, I would no longer be a struggling writer, I'd be a failed writer." But before he hit that mark, a New York agent named Jane Berkey suggested that Saul try "writing to the market." He made that fateful trip to the grocery store, knocked off the outline for Suffer the Children, got a signed contract and wrote the book in 28 days. It was published just weeks before his 35th birthday.
Suddenly, John Saul had found his niche. He may have the habits of a small businessman, but Saul has the instincts of a natural storyteller. "He creates characters all of us can identify with," says his Bantam editor, Linda Grey. "He places them in situations that very often reflect things that are primal within us—fears or challenges we might not want to admit we have. And he does it so accurately that he hits home." Teenagers, who like the fact that Saul often writes about children and family dynamics, are Saul's biggest fans.
And how does Saul explain his success? "I'm a chicken," he says. "I think it takes a coward to write scary stuff, because if you're not afraid of anything, how are you going to know what's scary?" He develops book ideas, he says, by writing " 'what if sentences." Cry for the Strangers, for example, began with the question, "What if a combination of high winds and pounding surf could affect bio-rhythms?" While he ponders such questions, Saul likes to drive his BMW. When he gets to the outline stage, he seeks advice on character and motivation from Michael Sack, 42, a clinical psychologist who has been his companion for 14 years.
Enjoying the panoramic view of Seattle from his luxurious 30th-floor condo or slicing along Puget Sound on his motor yacht, Saul wastes no time pondering the two big "what ifs" in his own life: What if he'd never met Margaret Mead? Or Jane Berkey?
—Andrea Chambers, Joni H. Blackman in Seattle