Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Rescued by Stephen King

Rescued by Stephen King

Longtime writer Ron McLarty finally sees print

Tuesday, January 11, 2005 Posted: 4:19 PM EST (2119 GMT)
Ron McLarty

NEW YORK (AP) -- Ron McLarty wrote an 800-page novel at age 24. When publishers showed no interest, he wrote another and another. After the third, a novel called "The Memory of Running," he finally gave up sending manuscripts to publishers.

But he kept writing.

McLarty went on to finish 44 plays, nine novels and assorted poems without ever publishing a word. He supported himself as an actor through voice-overs, audiobooks and advertisements. He appeared on Broadway in 1972's "Moonchildren" and 1991's "Our Country's Good," and on TV in such series as "Spenser: For Hire," "Cop Rock" and "Sex and the City."

Then last September -- after a lonely 35-year literary odyssey involving a thoughtful audiobook producer, a small-town librarian, and novelists Danielle Steel and Stephen King -- Ron McLarty got published at age 56.

Top publishers in the industry all placed bids for "The Memory of Running." It was roughly 15 years after McLarty wrote it in 1988 and two weeks after King wrote an Entertainment Weekly magazine column in which he called McLarty's manuscript "the best novel you won't read this year." Viking, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., eventually won the auction with a two-book deal for just over $2 million.

Warner Bros. has optioned the book as a film, to be directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who turned the third "Harry Potter" novel -- "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" -- into a critically acclaimed film. (Both Warner Bros. and Entertainment Weekly are units of Time Warner, as is CNN.)

McLarty's novel, the story of a 42-year-old alcoholic's quest for redemption on a bicycle trip across America, hit stores in late December. And in the author's mind, there is no parallel with his own late-life turnaround. He was always a writer with a day job.

He has been an insomniac since he was a child in East Providence, Rhode Island, where his father worked in an oil refinery and his mother was a teacher. As an adult living in Montclair, New Jersey, he would write at home from 4 a.m. to 10 a.m., before leaving for auditions and work in New York. McLarty says he has been following the same routine since his early twenties, when he left the army for the stage life in New York.

"By the time I went to New York in the morning to do auditions, I already felt successful," he says.

'Lucky me'

As McLarty tells the story of how the publishing world belatedly discovered his books, the gray-bearded actor continually interrupts the narrative to express amazement, alternating "wonderful" and "mind-boggling" as the words illuminate his face. He enunciates slowly, "lucky me ... lucky ... lucky me."

The book is only part of his later-life reversal of fortune. A widower, he met actress Kate Skinner six months before his book was auctioned. They were married in Maine on New Year's 2004.

McLarty took a break from moving into a new apartment near Central Park to talk to the Associated Press about his book. He planned to have a medical checkup and a stress test the following day.

"I'm going to find out anything that's wrong, so that I can work for another 25 years," he says. "It's not like this happened at 37 -- I'm 57."

McLarty's first break, he said, came in 1997, when Steel insisted that Recorded Books, her audiobook publisher, use McLarty, who had recorded a number of her books for other companies. McLarty soon befriended executive producer Claudia Howard and gave her his manuscript to read. She loved "The Memory of Running" enough to arrange for it to be recorded.

"It was the first audio-only novel I know of," Howard said.

A librarian in Middleburg, Virginia, liked it so much that she invited McLarty to give a reading.

"He told me this was the first time he was perceived as an author," said agent Jeff Kleinman, who first met McLarty at the reading.

When McLarty decided two years ago to renew attempts at publishing, Kleinman decided to send out "The Memory of Running," which had stuck in his mind since listening to it four years earlier. About the same time, McLarty auditioned unsuccessfully for the ABC-TV miniseries "Kingdom Hospital" created by Stephen King, who became a big audiobook fan while recuperating in 1999 after a car hit him near his home in Maine.

"The Memory of Running" begins in Maine. Smithson Ide, a worker in a G.I. Joe toy factory, visits his hospitalized dying parents after a car crash. McLarty began crafting the story while his own parents lay dying in a Maine hospital following an auto accident.

At the audition, King asked an incredulous McLarty whether he was the novelist, Ron McLarty. McLarty rushed immediately to Recorded Books to tell Howard. "'Send him a copy! Tell him I am the Ron McLarty,"' he said.

Howard sent King the recording and a request for an endorsement.

No regrets

While McLarty was driving across the country to Hollywood for television work in the summer of 2003, Howard called and told him to pull off the road. In the trunk of his car was the handwritten manuscript of "The Memory of Running," along with his complete works, which he always took with him, occasionally picking up one or the other to rewrite parts.

Howard began reading him an Entertainment Weekly column that Stephen King planned to publish.

"I heard stunned silence followed by glee," Howard recalled.

"'The Memory of Running' is the best novel you won't read this year," King wrote in the opening sentence. "So why can't you read it? Because -- so far, at least -- no publisher will touch it with a 10-foot pole." King's spokeswoman said the author was not available to talk to The Associated Press about McLarty.

King's Entertainment Weekly column worked like an expertly crafted provocation. The auction picked up immediately after word of the column leaked out. Within two weeks of its publication in mid September 2003, McLarty had his contract.

Looking back at the long road to publishing, McLarty said that writing had always nourished him. He remembers a photograph of his basement in New Jersey, which his three children jokingly called, "the pit of despair."

"I used to stick all of my rejection letters with pins to the ceiling," McLarty says. "There was a sea of them."

But McLarty, who just finished his 10th novel, has no regrets.

"I am not saying that I would not have liked to be successful over the last 30 years, but on the other hand, I like enjoying this now without feeling I deserve it," he says. "Twenty-six-year-olds don't say wow."
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