"All happy families are alike," wrote Tolstoy in "Anna Karenina," "but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion."
Novelist Warren Adler has been able to compare his happy family with the unhappy ones, and the result has been two of the most terrifying conjugal tales of the last decade: "The War of the Roses" and this year's "Private Lies" (Morrow).
From where did Adler, who has been solidly married for 38 years, draw the experiences that animate his ferocious characters--usually people who destroy their lives in order to exact revenge and money once the marriages go awry?
"I have an antenna," he says, "and it is always up. Besides, I don't talk too much. I listen. And I trained myself to listen very carefully, like a journalist. And that is where I get a lot of my ideas."
One day, in 1979, Adler went to a party in Washington, "and a guy who was dating a girl I knew looks at his watch and says, 'I have to go home to my wife.' And I say, 'You're dating this girl and you're going home to your wife?' And he says, 'Well, we are living together, in the same house, while we get the divorce.' And I asked him, 'Do you talk to each other?' and he answers, 'Talk to each other? We hate each other. But I have to protect my property.' And that is the way I got the idea for 'The War of the Roses."'
Inspiration for "Private Lies" came in 1989, while Adler was on safari in Kenya. It "was set up like an old Victorian English safari," he recalls. "Each one of us had his tent. . . . Under the fly of the tent, the servants brought to us, every morning, water to wash with. And while I was shaving my face, a woman in the tent next door to us washed her face and her hair out there, and I said to myself, 'There is a book here somewhere.'
"And I began to think, 'Why do we have affairs?' From then on, other things started to appear in the creation and concoction of the story. I began to look at a broader picture. I recalled marriages that were destroyed by lust, sexuality, lack of self-control, money and greed. So I started to create the scenario for 'Private Lies.' But it was triggered, and I am positive now, by the woman washing her face in the morning."
The novel tells the story of Ken Kramer, a man who "had thought of himself as Hemingway incarnate" but who had to settle on becoming an advertising executive, and his passion for Carol Butterfield, a former ballet dancer he desperately loved when he was young and full of illusions. As they rekindle their affair, they plan, during a trip to Africa, to encourage a romance between their respective spouses in order to start a new life. But the consequences are deadly.
Although Adler tries to put himself outside the plight of his characters--and he has succeeded in the vast majority of his 17 novels--this time, one of them, Ken Kramer, seems a bit autobiographical. Like Kramer, Adler worked first as a copy boy for the New York Daily News, and later became an advertising executive.
Is Kramer Adler's alter ego?
"No," says Adler emphatically. "And this is not my autobiography. But a writer uses his experiences and creates his characters out of the things he knows. Ken Kramer is not me, but I borrowed a few things out of my life for him. I mean, I happened to be a great fan of Hemingway, and I always thought that nothing is worse than having an adolescent compulsion or dream, and finding yourself at 48 years of age with nowhere to go, and fearful that this is the end of your dream.
"That I know a lot about, because I was able to rip my life up and go to pursue my dream. I did not want money, I did not want any of these things any more. I never wanted to do anything but write books, and I am writing books."
Adler's fame and big money came later in life, through Hollywood, when the movie version of "The War of the Roses" became a big hit. He is writing the screenplay for "Private Lies." In spite of his success in Hollywood, he considers himself a novelist only and looks upon the movies "as advertising for my books.
"I mean, I don't want to make movies per se. I want the movies to be great, successful worldwide, and let everybody buy my books. That is the whole purpose."