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Stories of Suspense, War : Ex-Navy Officer Uses San Diego Setting for Novels

A warm smile lights up novelist Eric Higgs’ face as he sits in sunlight on the rooftop patio of his Coronado home. His friendly demeanor is worlds removed from the ghastly violence and numbing brutality that pound through “Doppelganger,” his latest book, set in San Diego, which Publisher’s Weekly hailed as the author’s “second triumph.”

The book was published in hardback in May by St. Martin’s Press, and in January a paperback version will hit the stores. It comes on the heels of his highly successful debut suspense chiller, “The Happy Many,” which also features a San Diego setting. A reviewer of that effort said, “DeSade himself wrote nothing quite so horrible.”

Both works do indeed delve into the dark, macabre underside of life. The emphasis is not on sheer horror itself, but the complex and intriguing psychological forces at play within the characters that compel their actions of terror.

“Writing should be like a prize fight,” Higgs says of his intense, jolting style. “John Gardner once said that good writing is not polite and mannered, it’s more like looking into a pool of sharks. And that’s how I try to write.”

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The 34-year-old ex-Navy lieutenant is a relative newcomer to fiction writing. A native of Sarasota, Fla., Higgs has lived in the San Diego area since 1977, when he was transferred here during a five-year Navy career. A political science major, he graduated from the University of Georgia and had a brief stint as a reporter for the Aiken (S.C.) Standard before joining the Navy.

“I learned a lot about the mechanics of writing from doing obituaries every day,” he said. But that skill wasn’t translated to fiction writing until 1981, when he decided to leave active duty and try to become a serious writer.

“I liked the Navy very much,” he says, (he still is in the Navy Reserve) “but I knew deep down that I really wanted to be a writer so I decided to go for it.”

Higgs was able to make that bold move because his wife, Elaine, worked and the couple didn’t yet have their three children. But the decision proved to be a nightmare at first.

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“I quickly found out that there’s a huge difference between just piddling around with writing and being serious about it and saying, ‘Hey, this is it, this is what I’m going to devote my life to,’ ” Higgs said.

As the budding author sat around the house polishing his craft he felt “this is like getting into an F-16 fighter plane and not knowing what the hell to do. It was a real shocker at first because no matter how hard I tried, my writing was absolute crud. I kept wondering when my stuff was ever going to get halfway decent. Emotionally, I felt like I was bashing my teeth out on a rock, but instead of a rock it was a typewriter.”

After a year of intense struggling, Higgs sold a short story to True Romance and was elated at his first glimmer of success. “That was the happiest $195 I ever earned,” he said.

But Higgs soon learned that the literary market for novels far exceeds that for short stories, and he focused his efforts on a rollicking adventure book, titled “PT Commander.” While that was making the rounds at various New York publishing houses, the San Diegan made what he describes as the most significant discovery in his writing career.

“When I started writing fiction, I thought plot was the big thing to emphasize. But it finally dawned on me that what made great novels was characterization. So I rewrote ‘PT Commander’ and cranked in that element on top of the action story and redid the main character, adding a personal problem that he had to solve.”

After those changes, Zebra Books, a New York publishing house specializing in male action adventure, snapped up the yarn and issued it as a paperback. Representatives from Zebra still want Higgs to follow up with a submarine adventure “because they feel submarines are a hot topic right now with teen-age readers” he said. But the author has declined, feeling it would be “a step backward.”

Indeed, Higgs has since created a growing national reputation for himself in the Stephen King-styled horror/terror genre with his two books with San Diego locales.

The key to their success, he feels, is their emphasis on characterization.

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“In both these books the characters themselves are the real meat,” he said. “I do just enough description to suggest a scene; then I get into what is going on between the characters and in their minds.”

Higgs wrote “The Happy Man” while he was a house husband taking care of his first daughter, Alex, when she was a baby and the family lived in Golden Hill.

“I wrote the entire book during her naps,” he said. “And I consciously set out to write a shocking book. I really wanted readers to be terrified and to scream with every page.”

The book, which is being circulated in Hollywood in hopes it will be optioned for the movies, takes place in a fictional housing development called Mesa Vista Estates, and is based on the real community of Bonita. A family moves into the area, meets another couple, and then mysterious things happen involving illegal aliens coming across the border. Cannibalism is the element that provides gripping terror.

His latest work, “Doppelganger,” is a ghost story set in Ocean Beach and Mission Hills.

“I’ve read nonfiction stories about doppelganger-type ghosts, and they’ve really fascinated me,” Higgs said. But the author found himself on a seemingly endless merry-go-round of writing revision after revision during the past year and a half. Ironically, he wrote the original draft of “Doppelganger” during a two-week burst of creativity, but the rewrites almost compelled him to junk the project.

“I didn’t have a lot of confidence in it,” he said. “It was really hard to get the way in which the doppelganger (a person’s ghostly double), manifested itself just right. I didn’t know if I could get that concept to work for me or not. But sometimes you just put your hands over your eyes and jump off the cliff.”

Thanks to the constant encouragement and support of his editor, Paul Liepa at St. Martin’s, Higgs stuck with it and “when it got down to the last lap, I was really enthusiastic about it,” he said.

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The author is leaving the horror genre for his next book, a science fiction novel set in Silicon Valley, and then he plans to write a historical novel set in the 17th Century, a period that fascinates him.

“That should keep me busy for the next five years,” he chuckled.

Higgs has switched roles with his wife and now she stays home with their three children, Alex, 5, Verity, 3, and 10-month-old Max, while he works a regular 40-hour week job doing software documentation at General Dynamics in Kearny Mesa.

“These days, I have my writing time bracketed down to 15-minute slices,” he says. “Actually, I find I can write more now than when I had all day to do it because I’m finally past that initial awkward stage of struggling with my writing and agonizing over it. Now, writing comes to me much more easily, and it doesn’t take forever to figure out some of the mechanical things. And lately, I can actually say I’ve had fun at it.”

Higgs’ unvarying daily schedule allows him to play with his children when he comes home from work and then he writes on a word processor in his study from 7 to 10 p.m. After that he relaxes with his wife and watches TV.

When he sits down to write he straps on headphones and tunes into a local rock station that plays new wave music. The loud, pounding tunes helps him concentrate, he says. “I used to need quiet when I wrote, but when you have three kids you get used to noise and interruptions.”

Since “The Happy Man” and “Doppelganger” put him on the literary map, he occasionally gives lectures throughout the country and was recently one of four nationally known authors featured at an arts festival in Seattle. Locally, he has given talks on creative writing at United States International University, and takes part in writers’ activities at The Writer’s Bookstore and Haven in Normal Heights along with doing book signings at various local bookstores. He will be signing books at Brentano’s in Horton Plaza from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday.

“Success really hasn’t changed my life style very much,” he said. “I love the San Diego area, but there really isn’t a big literary scene here. Besides, I don’t have the time to seek out and hang around with other writers.”

Nevertheless, the craft of writing is an all-consuming passion with Higgs.

“I think about it all the time, how to make it better and plant the right seeds in the minds of readers,” he said. “I don’t have any set method of writing. I still don’t know if I should outline an idea for a story or just do it or what.

“My goal is to make my writing become an art of hypnotism where the reader falls right into the story. If a writer gets too elaborate and the prose too purple, it breaks the illusion. But when someone tells me they’ve picked up one of my stories and really got involved and swept up in it, that’s what gives me the ultimate satisfaction.”


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