Writer M. Scott Peck Is On Bumpy Road With 1st Novel : Books: The author of the best-selling “The Road Less Traveled” will even endure touring to promote a work that is encountering sharp criticism.
It was not a particularly joyful day for the man who has referred to himself as “the national shrink.”
M. Scott (Scotty) Peck, the psychiatrist/author whose “The Road Less Traveled” has had a permanent spot on the New York Times bestseller list for the last seven years, was putting up a good front.
He was pleasant. Candid. As self-assured as one might expect for a mental health expert whose book holds the bestseller list’s all-time record: a seemingly indefatigable 359 weeks--and increasing weekly.
Fifty-four-year-old Peck seemed to be satisfied with an elegant lunch at one of the ritziest hotels in Los Angeles. A silver-haired man who appears to have miraculously escaped the wrinkling process, he was remarkably gracious. Especially since, early on, he declared his disinterest in the task at hand: promoting his recently published book “The Bed by the Window,” subtitled a “A Novel of Mystery and Redemption.”
Promotion “is not my bag,” he said, lighting a cigarette and explaining that he is “hopelessly addicted.”
Later he would reveal just how much he loathed the whole book promotion business. Parting with a visitor, he was advised, “Enjoy the rest of your tour.” His response was instant and firm: “I won’t.”
This day was particularly tough, considering that a harsh review of his new book in this paper had just asked “Why do people think they can write a novel just because they’ve read one?” Then it really slammed the point home: “It’s a cruel joke on the author that this thing got published.”
Peck was not laughing. He acknowledged the review (others have been similarly critical, though not as pointed). And summed up his reaction in one word: “Dreadful.”
Then, without wincing, he quoted from an equally damning review of one of his books, “The Different Drum” and from another overwhelmingly positive one that appeared on the same day in another publication, implying that perhaps subsequent reviews would eventually balance the current equation. He was right. A recent review in the New York Times found “Bed” “overtly didactic and opaquely religious” but “moving and brave . . . a spiritual mystery novel that is something of a miracle.”
“I’ve gotten used to both ends of reviews,” Peck said flatly.
Both ends of publishing house treatment, too. Indeed, when “Road” was first published, Peck had to threaten to sue his publisher to get the book into a second printing.
“It was a total sleeper. It was what they call ‘orphaned’ in the trade,” he said of the nonfiction classic that was once titled “The Psychology of Spiritual Growth.”
“The man who had been the top Simon & Schuster editor and who had selected the book and edited it quit or was fired in a corporate shakedown about six months before the book was published. That’s death to a book by a new, unknown author to whom they’ve paid a minuscule advance. It was only by great luck that the book got one review.”
Phyllis Theroux, writing in the Washington Post, called “The Road Less Traveled” “not just a book but a spontaneous act of generosity.” And suddenly, four weeks after publication, its first printing of 5,000 copies was sold out. When Peck called his publisher to ask when the second printing was scheduled, he was told there would be none.
“I actually had to threaten to sue Simon & Schuster to get them to print beyond the first 5,000 copies. That was 4 million copies ago.”
But the book didn’t hit the bestseller list until five years after it was first published. And a year after publication, Peck was still working the publicity game by hiring a friend to send copies of the Washington Post review and one from the Catholic Reporter to 300 newspapers. With the reviews came a post card, which when returned, would bring a review copy of “Road.” The ploy resulted in reviews in the Wall Street Journal, the Seattle Times and the Charlotte Observer.
An even bigger boost, according to Peck, came from “the greatest form of promotion that there is: word-of-mouth,” spread first “through the AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) network” and then by “Catholic and mainline churches.”
“Road,” which many regard as one of the most articulate descriptions of the synthesis of spirituality and psychology, swiftly became very well known.
Its ideas, such as Peck’s contention that miracles abound and can be best seen in the ordinary, day-to-day events of people’s lives, are more mainstream now and the Harvard-educated Peck contends he still stands by them all. With one exception: “The only thing I said in there that is dead wrong is where I suggested that pets are not capable of spiritual growth. In the introduction to the hardcover gift edition, I apologized to the pet lovers of America for that.”
But he’s not about to apologize to any other critics, though he sounded as if he actually enjoyed some of them.
“I’ve been picketed three times at lectures as being the Antichrist. That’s power. Not just one of the antichrists, but the Antichrist,” said Peck, who became a nondenominational Christian in 1980 (two years after “Road” was published). His press kit describes his days as being “filled with prayer, meditation and work.”
“And golf,” he amended, during his lunch of soup, salad and mocha ice cream.
Peck’s press kit of “The Bed by the Window” also contains the obligatory new-book endorsements. One from a Catholic archbishop (Most Rev. John C. Bothwell of Canada) is particularly surprising, given the graphic depictions of sex in the novel, a murder mystery situated in a Midwestern nursing home. Bothwell praised the book’s “enlightening insights” and found love, hate, fear, dreams and sex explored “with sensitivity and searing honesty.”
The archbishop “was particularly appreciative that I dealt with the issues of sexuality and the aging, sexuality and the crippled,” Peck said, noting that the cleric’s endorsement was not what one might expect.
“Church members and many other people like to deal with things they can control. One of the things about spirituality is that it’s a very powerful force which is related to sexuality. Sexuality, like spirituality, is bigger than our capacity to pin it down and say this is this and that is that. A lot of people don’t like things that are bigger than them. They want to say . . . it’s all good or it’s all bad.
“I guess if you want one single thing I’m about it’s that I’m against easy answers. I sort of have a sub-ministry, trying to combat one-dimensional thinking.”
As for his sub-ministry of writing, Peck allowed that it is one thing he truly relishes. He especially likes it more than speaking (“In speaking, I’m always just saying the same thing over and over”). And he’s found that after four books of nonfiction (“Road,” “People of the Lie,” “What Return Can I Make?” and “The Different Drum”) and one work of fiction, he clearly prefers the process of writing a novel:
“I think writing fiction for me is much more fun than nonfiction. They’re amazingly different. Nonfiction is much more orderly than fiction. It’s the disorderliness of fiction I really like.”
As he spoke, Peck’s hands were shaking, so much so that the cup from which he drank coffee rattled loudly against its saucer. When asked about the condition, he calmly attributed it to “a conjunction of three or four things: coffee, a congenital tremor which began when I was 14, cigarettes and the fact that I’m a nervous psychiatrist.”
“There’s more agony in writing fiction,” he continued, “but much more ecstasy, too. Writing is one of the most fun things I do. I’m not a compulsive writer. I’m not a fast writer.”
But he is an obedient writer. Though at the age of 15 he wanted to become “a great American writer,” Peck said he gave up the notion about 21, realizing he didn’t have anything to write about and choosing instead, to study to become a psychiatrist.
At 39, however, “Road” essentially demanded to be written: “I wrote it for the same reason I write all my books. Because it said, ‘Write me.’ Every single one of them.”
“Bed” began talking to him about 10 years ago when he began thinking that if he were ever going to write a novel, it would be about nursing homes. As a former country psychiatrist, he was intensely familiar with them.
“I had a lot to do with nursing homes, putting some patients into (them) against their wishes, putting my mother-in-law into a nursing home, doing psychotherapy with several people who worked as staff in nursing homes,
“In the process, I gradually lost my stereotypes about nursing homes, which I’d simply considered as being nothing but dumping grounds for the living dead. Nursing homes are that but they’re much more. There’s a lot of humor and pathos.”
So far, there has been no sale of “Bed” to a film or television studio. Said Jonathan Dolger, Peck’s agent (and the former Simon & Schuster editor who originally championed “Road”), “We’ve had requests, interest, a couple of proposals. We haven’t accepted anything. We stopped showing it (to studios) in the late spring. Essentially at that point, we said let’s wait until after the book is published.”
Peck put it more bluntly: “We’ve shown (“Bed”) to a number of studios and there’s been a remarkable lack of interest. We’re optimistic that it will sell here (Hollywood) but only after it gets on the bestseller lists.”
Such a turn of events may be more ironic than understandable at this point. According to Peck, one of the largest producers in town offered a large sum of money for the rights to turn “Road,” a work of nonfiction, into a film.
“We turned it down because we couldn’t get artistic control,” he recalled. “That wouldn’t be a problem with this. If they butcher a novel people say, ‘Hollywood butchered another novel, so what?’ If they butcher a nonfiction book, that’s a very different matter.”
In the meantime, since the publication of “Bed” last month, the book has not hit the bestseller lists, but sales have been strong enough to warrant a second printing. Rights have been sold to Australia, Great Britain, France, Italy and Korea.
All in all, Scotty Peck appeared undaunted by his latest round of publishing ups and downs. Contractually, he said, he has agreed to write another book of nonfiction and at present is engaged in that endeavor.
Then he added, “I also feel I’m already called to write another novel.”