Irving Wallace--A Good Ear for Words

Times Staff Writer

"Most people do not listen," says novelist Irving Wallace. "Their need to talk about themselves is so powerful, they just wait their turn to talk. I like to talk, but I love to listen.

"I find it especially interesting to listen to anonymous women at a social gathering. Unless a woman is celebrated, everybody addresses the man she's with. But listen to the women and you touch some new discoveries. Many women have never had a chance to talk. They're seldom given points for being whole persons with working lives."

Has Paid Off

Wallace's eagerness to listen has paid off handsomely. Fully blown characters have sprung to life at his typewriter after chance social encounters. Careful listening has more than once sparked the idea for a plot that eventually became a best-selling novel.

The conversations of women at social gatherings in his Brentwood neighborhood stirred in him the notion to write "The Chapman Report," a novel dealing with sex surveys of upper-middle-class suburban women.

Sensational and controversial when it was published 25 years ago, "Chapman" became the turning point in his career. It catapulted him from a frantic existence beset by chronic shortages of money to a comfortable life style characterized by, in his words, "complete financial independence so that I could continue to write books for the rest of my life."

More Blockbusters

Success did not, however, change his practice of paying careful attention to the conversations taking place around him. Listening carefully and letting his imagination race furiously ahead, he followed "Chapman" with one blockbuster after another: "The Prize," a behind-the-scenes suspense thriller dealing with the Nobel Prize; "The Man," the story of a black congressman who accidentally succeeds to the presidency of the United States; "The Plot," a yarn of deception and intrigue surrounding a nuclear disarmament summit conference; "The Seven Minutes," a tale of a bitter censorship trial over an obscene book; "The Word," for which Wallace invented "the greatest archeological discovery of all time--the unearthing of the first and original Gospel," and many more.

Listening on a trip to the religious shrine of Lourdes helped him to develop key characters for his latest novel, "The Miracle," a contemporary story dealing with the legend of Bernadette.

Like some of his fictional heroes, Wallace, 68, is a man of paradox. He awaits anxiously the reaction of book buyers to every new Wallace offering, yet he can be confident of an enormous audience: He has been identified by the Saturday Review as one of the five most popular living authors in the English language. (The others: Barbara Cartland, Louis L'Amour, Harold Robbins, Janet Dailey.)

Wallace refuses to hurry books into completion. He is temperamentally comfortable when dealing with multiple book projects, and in the midst of other writing he has taken as much as 15 years to develop a plot framework for a single novel. But his output is prodigious, and for 25 years now the appearance of a new Wallace book, written alone or in collaboration, has become almost an annual event.

An itemized account of his personal paradoxes might qualify for inclusion in a Wallace book of lists. He is a worrier, yet he tends to be easygoing and quick with laughter. He is outspoken with opinions, but he is always concerned lest he hurt the feelings of others. He is avant-garde, ever willing to lead the parade, but he is also unabashedly sentimental; he writes his books on a rebuilt Underwood typewriter given to him by his parents when he was 13. He has the booming voice of an orator, and he won numerous awards as a high school debater, but he declines all invitations to deliver public speeches, claiming, "I prefer to listen."

Disguised wife

He listens with particular care to his sensitive, creative wife, Sylvia. "Oddly enough," he said in an interview, "Sylvia claims I do not listen to her, but she's wrong. I listen all the time. Sometimes I don't answer her, because I'm thinking about what she says, and filing it away for future use. The irony," he adds with a burst of laughter, "is that I've disguised Sylvia and put her as a character into at least five books, but she doesn't recognize herself."

Sylvia, a veteran magazine editor, has written two popular novels, "The Fountain" and "Empress." In addition to her writing, Sylvia takes charge of the Wallaces' business affairs and she supervises the management of their three houses: a French Provincial spread in Brentwood, with 17 rooms, of which five are used for offices and staffed with researchers and secretaries; a beach place at Malibu and a farmhouse on the island of Minorca, off Barcelona.

Sylvia and Irving have also collaborated with their children, David, 36, and Amy, 29. Out of their collective efforts have come such popular books as "The People's Almanac," "The Book of Lists," "The Intimate Sex Lives of Famous People." Currently, all four are in the midst of writing books. Irving has a date in March to deliver to his publisher the manuscript of "The Secret," a suspense novel set in contemporary Berlin. Amy is scheduled in April to turn in her manuscript of "The Prodigy," a biography of William James Sidis, who entered Harvard at the age of 11. David, who previously wrote a book dealing with the class of 1965 at Pacific Palisades High School, is now completing "Mid-Term Report: What Really Happened to the Class of 1965," consisting of follow-up interviews, 20 years later, with graduates of 30 different high schools around the country. Sylvia is aiming at delivery next year of a new novel, "City of Women," set in Los Angeles.

No Other Choice

A family friend speculates that it is only a question of time before David's son, Elijah, 1, joins the group's writing efforts. "If there is anything to genes," Sylvia said, "our kids never had any other choice."

Irving himself never considered another choice. When his Russian-born father, Alex Wallechinsky, arrived at Ellis Island in 1906, an impatient immigration official shortened the name to Wallace. Later, Alex married Russian-born Bessie Liss and settled in Kenosha, Wis., where in time he opened a general store and where the Wallaces' son Irving grew up. (Years later when Irving's son, David, heard the story of his grandfather's experience at Ellis Island, David changed his name to Wallechinsky.)

An eager reader, Irving haunted the local library and, in high school, demonstrated a winning way with words. "I always wanted to be a writer," he said. 'Nothing else, ever. I started with magazines because there were so many of them, there was so much to write about, and all the investment you needed to make besides your time was the price of a postage stamp."

At age 15 he sold his first article to a magazine for $5, and two years later he sold his first short story to another magazine for $12. "After that, there was no stopping me. Rejections were endless--at one peak of productivity as a youngster I had 50 stories out to publications at the same time, and in a single morning's mail I once received 12 of them back with rejection slips--but I went right on believing in myself and what I was writing."

Plenty of Drive

After two semesters of college he abandoned a formal education. "I decided to concentrate on being a free-lance magazine writer, and at the same time tried to get into movies with original screen stories." Ambitiously and energetically, he also attempted to write books, but his book ideas failed to connect, and finding a publisher became a 20-year uphill struggle.

Endowed with plenty of drive, imagination and persistence, he won numerous assignments from magazines. One series of movie star interviews, written for Dell Publications' Modern Screen magazine, led to a meeting with Dell's West Coast editor, Sylvia Kahn.

Wallace later recorded in a diary his reaction to "this beautiful blonde girl, blue eyes, tilted nose, flawless complexion, good body, shapely legs. After our first meeting there was no question about whom I wanted to marry."

They married only six months before the outbreak of World War II. When Wallace enlisted in the Army Air Corps, Sylvia's editorial job at Dell became the main source of income. At war's end they began traveling extensively, financing their trips by writing articles for major American magazines.

Together they earned adequate fees, but Wallace gradually grew convinced that free-lance writing for magazines did not provide "a good or secure living, not for supporting a family." Nor did he find encouraging rewards in his long-running effort to sell original stories to the motion picture industry.

Over a period of years, he said, "I wrote dozens and dozens of originals--detailed synopses or novelettes written in the present tense and done in scenes--and when at last I sold one, it paid $2,500." Not until six years later did he sell a second story to the movies.

He gained the impression that financial security could be achieved by obtaining staff employment as a salaried screenwriter. "But when I finally landed work in the studios, my only desire was to get out. I hated the act of writing by committee, where individuality is lost to compromise."

There seemed little reason for Wallace to be optimistic: Magazine markets were precarious, screen writing left him cold, and book publishers continued to display cool indifference to his book-writing attempts. But he stubbornly refused to accept failure, and he kept looking for "a book idea that would be new and different."

First Sale

His first sale, "The Fabulous Originals," published in 1955, dealt with the lives of extraordinary real people who inspired memorable characters in fiction, a group including the real William Brodie, who gave Robert Louis Stevenson the idea for "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," the real Dr. Joseph Bell, who became the fictional Sherlock Holmes, the real Marie Duplessis, who became "Camille," the real Alexander Selkirk, who became "Robinson Crusoe," the real Delphine Delamare, who became "Madame Bovary."

He followed eagerly with other book projects, but not until five years later did he make a major breakthrough. "For a long time," said Wallace, "I'd wanted to write a novel about the married or once-married young women in our Brentwood neighborhood. I knew quite a lot about them. Often at parties other men's wives confided their marital difficulties and sexual problems to me. Sylvia says I'm interested in neurotic women because they're in trouble and I want to save them, but the fact is I'm a good listener.

"But my writer's instinct told me not to write a novel about unhappy and restless young wives, which many novelists had already done, unless I had something new to say. The characters were ready-made, but I needed a framework that was original and unique.

"One day I saw a feature story about some sociologists who were taking a sex survey of women, on college campuses. It suddenly struck me as the perfect fictional framework for my novel about Brentwood women.

"I asked myself--what if a team of male sociologists arrived in my community to make a sex survey, and interviewed the women I knew? How would these personal interviews affect the women? And how would the interviews affect members of the sex survey team?

'Conflicts, Plot'

"With that, I was off and writing. I superimposed better fictional stories on the women I knew. I studied 30 sex surveys by Drs. Hamilton, Dickinson, Terman, Kinsey and the like, to learn how sex surveys operated. Soon I had my stories, conflicts, plot."

Success of "The Chapman Report" brought long-sought financial independence to Wallace. But instead of slacking off, he promptly pressed forward with another novel. "It had its origin 15 years earlier," Wallace said, "at a time when I'd gone to Stockholm to do some magazine articles. In addition to planned stories, I did lots of questioning in search of subjects for additional magazine pieces. I listened carefully, and one name kept recurring: Dr. Sven Hedin, who was listed in a government publication as one of Sweden's 20 great scientists of the preceding 300 years.

"I sent him a note. He responded with an invitation to tea. During our visit he informed me that he was a Nobel Prize judge, which I had not known. What astonished me was the man's cobweb of prejudices and misinformation and intolerance on many, many subjects, from the sciences to the arts.

"When I asked Dr. Hedin why some prominent authors had never won the Nobel Prize, he dismissed them in this way: H. G. Wells? 'Too minor and journalistic.' Somerset Maugham? 'Too popular and undistinguished.' James Joyce? Dr. Hedin seemed puzzled. 'Who is he?'

"Two weeks later we met again, and this time I learned the bitter prejudices of another judge had kept the Nobel Prize from being awarded to Tolstoy, Ibsen, Strindberg. Flagrant immorality barred D'Annunzio, and homosexuality delayed Gide's receipt for many years. The anti-Semitism of one judge may have been a major factor in keeping the award from Einstein.

"I interviewed six more Nobel judges, and after listening carefully I came away realizing I had collected a treasure of material, but I also had not the faintest idea what to do with it. I wondered if anyone had written a novel about the Nobel prizes and found no one had. I was nearly unhinged by the excitement and began creating the fictional concept in my head, enjoying it privately. Off and on, for 15 years, I mulled approaches, characters, story lines." Eventually he put it all together as a conspiracy thriller and "The Prize" became another international best seller.

Racist Attitudes

Listening carefully, and reflecting on what he has heard, is unarguably one of Wallace's key strengths. During the 1960s he listened with dismay to conversations hinting of racist attitudes toward integration of the schools, and it was a listening experience that sent his imagination soaring into a series of "what if" propositions. Out of it came "The Man," a novel about a black congressman, Douglass Dilman, who accidentally succeeds to the office of President of the United States to complete an unfinished term.

To gather authentic research for the book, Wallace sought permission from President John F. Kennedy to spend 10 days in the White House. "I wanted to play being President, to sit in his chair in the Oval Office, to live as he lives, to see what he sees, and perhaps most of all to listen to all that he must listen to. Kennedy agreed, and the firsthand information I obtained made much of the novel possible."

Another time Wallace listened to a group of people discussing the then-recent discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and possible implications of that discovery. Wallace recalled: "I went home and couldn't get the idea out of my head. The conversation kept playing on my imagination.

"Turning the notion around and around, I thought: Suppose still another discovery is made, another part of the Bible in which Jesus is described more clearly. I pursued that line of imagining and gradually I invented the greatest archeological discovery of all time--the unearthing of the first and original gospel written by James, the younger brother of Jesus, which offers the world a living and relevant Christ--and promises to change the face of the Bible and to reshape mankind."

The idea eventually became "The Word," a theological thriller and a big best seller. Like many of Wallace's books, it traveled a long journey from inception to completion. "It took 10 years to get from my mind to final publication," said Wallace, "and during that time I read all or most of 478 books of biblical literature, and I interviewed (or had interviewed for me, when I could not speak their language) 58 Bible experts."

Another time, when Wallace boarded a night train from Boston to New York, he eavesdropped on a conversation and, after only a few sentences, his imagination was sparked toward the plot of a suspense thriller.

"I was the only passenger in my coach," Wallace recalled, "when six railroad men entered. There was a front-page story in the newspapers that night telling how Richard Burton had given his wife Elizabeth Taylor a huge perfect diamond for which he'd paid $1 million.

'A Cool Million'

"One of the railroad employees pointed out the story and told his friends, 'Look at this, giving her something worth a cool million. Well, I can't say I'd blame him. If I had that kind of money, I'd give it to her, too, considering what she'd be giving me in the sack every night.' Then one of the others, a conductor, said, 'Yeah, it would be worth it all right, giving up anything I have, for just one night with Elizabeth Taylor. I'd do it, you know. But guys like me, we never get the chance.'

"I decided to give them a chance, at least on paper. I developed a drama of four ordinary men who conspire to act out their most carnal dreams--to take the leading Love Goddess of the time, Sharon Fields, to bed. (Incidentally, I had met Sharon Fields at a Hollywood party, but I knew her as Marilyn Monroe.) The four men join forces to turn fantasy into reality by abducting the actress. They take her to a hideaway desert cabin, with some surprising, even shocking results." The novel, which Wallace titled "The Fan Club," became still another best seller.

Across the years the plots and themes of Wallace's numerous books have varied widely, but the body of his work is traceable largely to a characteristic he identifies as "my desire to listen, to let the imagination run wild, and then to write. I love to tell stories, to create people and worlds half real, half imaginary. Even if I could not earn a penny from my writing, I would earn my livelihood at something else and continue to write at night."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World