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The Pen Is Mightier Than the Piano : Best-selling author Marcel Montecino regrets that he never composed a hit song when he was a struggling musician

Two years ago, Marcel Montecino exchanged the piano for the pen, and took off on his Hollywood honeymoon:

* First novel, “The Crosskiller,” 900,000 copies printed, a best-seller.

* First screenplay, “Improper Conduct,” bought by Jaffee-Lansing Productions for $250,000; the film is scheduled to be released next year.

* Second novel, “Big Time,” published in August with its movie rights already purchased for $1 million by Tom Cruise.

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“I can spit on a piece of paper,” said Montecino, 45, of West Los Angeles, “and someone will give me $50,000.”

He paused, as if expecting Federal Express to arrive with an immediate check. Things have gone that well.

Not too shabby for a piano player who, until 1988, was working the bar mitzvah circuit, collecting $100 a night and waiting for the hit song that was going to propel him into stardom. But the closest he got to fame during his music days was playing for five years at Budd Friedman’s Improv in Hollywood. Robin Williams and Jay Leno worked there and made it big. Marcel Montecino just worked there.

“I was miserable,” he recalled. “It wasn’t happening.”

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So he turned to his other creative craft--writing. He used to write a lot in his youth, he said, but gave it up to experience life. “I didn’t know what I wanted to say.”

He spent the ‘70s in a daze, high, still not ready to record his thoughts. Finally, when the ‘80s drew to a close, Montecino discovered his literary voice, fine-tuned by years of hard living on the streets. He had played piano in a Mississippi brothel, losing his virginity to a blackjack dealer. He worked in bands up and down Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Finally he knew what he wanted to say.

“I call my books dark novels, not thrillers,” said Montecino. “I like to explore the dark side of the human psyche. The dark side is right below the surface for everyone. How many of us contemplate suicide every day?”

Montecino’s characters are not heroic; “I don’t think any of us are heroes.” Rather, they are ordinary characters, who, trapped in extraordinary situations, rise above their limitations.

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“Everybody has difficult times, and somehow finds a way to do what’s necessary.”

In “Crosskiller,” a Jewish cop hunts down a neo-Nazi serial murderer in West Los Angeles; in “Big Time,” a New Orleans piano player has to run all over the world to escape the Mob, and can’t pursue his dream of fame because he knows recognition would kill him; and in “Improper Conduct,” a cop gets involved with a rich woman who leads him astray.

His dialogue holds little back, filled with sexual references and profanities, the kind of realism that attracted producer Sherry Lansing. “It’s gritty and gutty,” Lansing said. “He creates characters that are totally believable. He’s one of the most talented writers I’ve ever worked with.”

Even today, Montecino insists, as his lifestyle undergoes changes he never anticipated--he’s about to buy a house in Pacific Palisades--he claims he’s not far removed from his modest beginnings.

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He grew up in a lower-class Louisiana family with his aunt and uncle--both parents died before he was 8. He attended high school owning only two shirts. His aunt and uncle, however, saved enough money to afford his $1.50 piano lesson once a week. His practice paid dividends, and after receiving a music scholarship to Southeastern Louisiana State College, he seemed ready to pursue his dream.

But Montecino, always impatient, left college after one year. “I couldn’t spend the next three years eating one hot dog a day. I hated school. I wanted to start life.”

And so he did, often losing control, taking at least 45 grams of amphetamines every night. Most of the money he earned playing music was squandered in illegal gambling houses. “I wouldn’t quit even if I made 10 times my investment,” he said. “I wanted to win the house.”

He recalled with amusement the night he slept with the blackjack dealer and feared for his life. “She took this gun out of her glove compartment and put it in her purse,” he said. “She brought it inside. I didn’t know what to think.”

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In 1974, he moved to Los Angeles, ready to make his impact on the national music scene. Along with his wife, Montecino wrote dozens of songs, paying the rent with his piano job at the Improv. The couple separated in 1989.

After all his success in writing books and screenplays, Montecino still regrets not landing the hit song. “It broke my heart,” he said. “I haven’t played the piano in two years, but eventually, I’ll go back.”

Montecino, never lacking in confidence, received a big boost when he took a UCLA Extension course in novel writing in 1985. By then he had written about 70 pages of “The Crosskiller.” He showed it to a teacher and classmates who told him to go home and finish it. “I knew then I could write novels.”

When Montecino finished “Crosskiller,” he took it to get copied. He told his wife he would be lucky if he got an agent within a year, but “when I got home, there was a call on the answering machine from someone in the UCLA class. I had an agent three days later, and a publisher a month after that.”

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He wasn’t as self-assured about screenplays, so the immediate success of “Improper Conduct” stunned even him. So far, he derives more satisfaction from his novels, but eagerly awaits the release of the movie. “They give you a lot of money, and they can do what they want,” he said. “They could turn it into a milk carton. With novels, you have that total amount of freedom.”

Despite his fortune, Montecino took a long time to regard himself as a true writer. “I used to tell people that I was a piano player who writes. Writing was something other people did. I went through this period of not knowing who I was. People who used to be names in magazines became friends of mine, Hollywood friends to be sure. But now I know I’m a writer.”

And a prolific one. He is busy working on a new screenplay, and says he knows the contents of his next four books. He claims his screenplay--a story about post-Vietnam days in Bayou country--isn’t commercial.

But, with typical confidence, he replied: “Somebody will buy it.”

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