Times Arts Editor

Kate Coscarelli's sexy novel "Fame and Fortune," just published in its softcover edition by New American Library after having done very well in hardcover, last Sunday broke onto the best-seller lists in both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.

This, you might well say, is not half bad for a woman who spent the larger part of her life being a wife and mother and didn't publish her first novel, which "Fame and Fortune" is, until in her mid-50s. Now, off its success, she has signed with a new publisher (NAL) for her next two novels, at a figure well enough into six figures to make a tax accountant salivate with anticipation. "Fame and Fortune" has also been sold as a 4- to 6-hour miniseries.

The second novel, "Perfect Order," will be published this fall, and she is already well into the writing of her third.

The best way to avoid the mid-life blahs, obviously, is to try something different and bring it off triumphantly well.

When I first met Kate Coscarelli, it was in 1974 in her role as the mother of a very precocious film maker, Don Coscarelli Jr., who at 19 was screening his first feature, on which his father had been the financier and his mother had been the commissary, the costume department and part of sets, props, locations and transportation, to name a few chores.

The film, "Jim the World's Greatest," was bought for distribution by Universal and starred the then-unknown Gregory Harrison, who has since gone on to further glories. Don Jr. has gone on to increasingly ambitious films, including "Phantasm" and "The Beastmaster," all sufficiently financed so that his mother and father have been freed for other duties, like writing first, second and third novels and pursuing special financial situations as an arbitrager, respectively.

What seems interesting about "Fame and Fortune" is that while it has the necessary flavorings of the genre--intricate carnal proceedings, violence, betrayal, grief, surpassing love, suspense and a wealth of detail about the lives of the wealthy--its substance is a knowing account of the inner lives of four women not far removed from the author in age and social status.

"I had a wonderful high school teacher in St. Louis who used to say you had to write what you know . I had to write about women."

She also had a point of view close at hand, drawn from observing the lives of women friends in Long Beach, where the Coscarellis lived until recently: "Women have to take charge of their lives," she says. "They can't presume there will always be men--fathers, husbands, sons, lovers--to take care of them. . . . I knew so many women who'd been told how wonderful life would be, and who then found themselves alone."

A doctor's wife she knew well found herself not only divorced and alone, but invisible, because her identity had been only as her husband's wife. "Then he remarries and somebody else is his wife; it happens all the time," Kate Coscarelli says. Her characters cope with the problems of changed status, and her reader mail is heavy with thank yous, she reports.

"When you're writing about experiences people have shared, you're looking for the aha 's--you want people to read and say, 'Aha! I know that's true.' I think I've got some aha's in the book."

She started writing "Fame and Fortune" in 1981 and after two years she had a 908-page manuscript. She submitted it to several publishers (" 'much to admire but it doesn't fit our schedule' is the phrase they all use"). "My husband, Don, who's been very proud and very supportive through all of this, got indignant. He likes to do things directly, so he called the William Morris, went right to the top, and somehow got them to agree to have one of their agents take a look at the manuscript. Usually, I'm told, they read two or three pages and bye-bye. But this agent turned out to be Joan Stewart and she read it all.

"She said, 'Cut it in half but don't leave anything out.' I did. I cut out words, lines, paragraphs. Three months later I had it down to 560 pages, and I finished it wearing a neck brace, from all the typing.

"I called the agent and said I'd done it and she said, 'Done what?' She'd forgotten my name. I told her the advice she'd given me. She said, 'It sounds like me; clue me more.' I mentioned one of my characters, Peach Malone, and she said, 'Oh, that one. Thank God. I loved it.' She'd forgotten me but remembered all the characters."

The agent asked for a zippier first chapter. ("If you're a no-name author, you'd better grab 'em quick, the publishers say, and I'm sure they're right.") She rewrote the chapter overnight and the agent started circulating the book the next day.

There followed an echoing silence and a feeling of total abandonment. She finally ran into the agent accidentally at lunch. "Should have called," the agent said. "But I think there's an offer coming tomorrow."

As it turns out in happy fiction, there was indeed an offer the next day, and only one caveat--the publishers wanted a zippier authorial first name than Shirley, which Coscarelli's was at that time. "I had an aunt named Kate and the publisher decided it would do."

Some of her Long Beach friends have feigned shock at some of the steamy passages. "They say they didn't think I was so worldly. I explained I've been married 33 years, and we go to the movies a lot."

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