In 1979, when I wrote WHISPERS, I was less well-known than the young Harrison Ford before he appeared in American Graffiti–and a lot less handsome. I was slightly better looking than J. Fred Muggs, a performing chimpanzee on TV at that time, but also less well-known than he was. Although I had been a full-time writer for several years, though I had a file drawer full of good reviews, I had never enjoyed a best-seller and, in fact, had never known enough financial security to guarantee that I would always be able to earn a living at my chosen art and craft. Writing novels was the only work for which I’d ever had a passion. Although I put in sixty- and seventy-hour weeks at the typewriter, I worried that I might eventually have to find new work. Because I had no other talent, skill, or ability,
I would no doubt have turned to a life of crime. Robbing banks, hijacking airliners to hold the passengers for ransom, and knocking over armored cars is undeniably more exciting than sitting at a typewriter all day; however, with associates named Slash and Scarface and Icepick, the office Christmas party each year tends to be deadly.
WHISPERS was the last book I wrote in total obscurity and the last book I wrote on a typewriter. In those days, personal computers were not universally in use, though a few writers had them. (To help you understand this ancient era: Most of the dinosaurs had died off by that time; we had indoor plumbing, electricity, and the internal- combustion engine; abductions by extraterrestrials were not yet an everyday occurrence back then; but most people were naive enough to believe that Elvis Presley was dead–when, as we now know–he had moved to a fabulous mansion on a moon of Jupiter.) My wife, Gerda, had been urging me to trade my typewriter for a computer. When I finished WHISPERS, she informed me that she had tracked our office supplies, and that for every page in the final manuscript, I had used thirty-two pages of typing paper, which meant that I had done thirty-one discarded drafts of every page, typing eight hundred pages of text again and again to polish it. Although I was aware of my obsessive-compulsive rewriting, I hadn’t realized quite how many revisions I usually undertook. With a computer, revision didn’t require retyping an entire page to make half a dozen changes. I bought an IBM Displaywriter (now as extinct as the T-Rex) and never looked back.
During the last few months that I sat at the typewriter, working on this novel, I lost twenty pounds. I was not overweight when I started the project, and I didn’t diet while writing. When I finished the script–which took nearly a year of long hours–I was not only thinner but both physically and emotionally exhausted. For years, I didn’t realize why this project drained me. A decade later, I could look back on the book and understand that I was writing out of painful personal experience, which I couldn’t acknowledge at the time. Virtually all the characters in WHISPERS suffer terrible, violent childhoods. Some overcome those traumas, and some do not; indeed, one of them becomes a serial killer. I, too, had lived through a childhood marked by physical and psychological violence. Although my experience was not like that of Hillary in WHISPERS, and certainly not like that of Bruno, I was nevertheless drawing upon my own life for the emotional content of the novel, while only half realizing what I was doing, which is why the writing of it left me so depleted.
When the book was delivered to the publisher, I was asked to slash the manuscript in half. I was told that the story was too long and that I was “a mid-list suspense writer” who had overreached. The publisher was smart, successful, and perceptive, but I felt that this particular judgment was wrong. Although I desperately needed to be paid for the acceptance of the manuscript, I found only five pages to cut out of eight hundred pages of manuscript, less than one percent, and I declined to delete any more.
For the next four months, as the debate continued and my career seemed doomed, I studied the help-wanted ads with growing panic. I had taught high-school English for a year and a half before becoming a full-time writer; perhaps I could return to the classroom. Perusing the employment opportunities, I saw that exotic dancers earned more than teachers, but to achieve the highest earnings as a stripper, I would need to have a sex-change operation as well as a great deal of body contouring.
At last, the publisher reluctantly accepted the book and issued it without enthusiasm in a small printing of 7,000 hardcovers, which wasn’t enough to put even one copy in every bookstore. Fortunately, I was kept afloat by a motion-picture rights sale, a bookclub sale, and the enthusiasm of a paperback publisher who believed WHISPERS could be a major success. Eventually, when issued in paperback, it rose into the top five of the New York Times’ paperback best-seller list. As I write this foreword, WHISPERS has been published in thirty-three languages and has been continuously in print for nearly two decades.
The lesson for me was one I had already learned well as a child under the thumb of an alcoholic father: In the face of adversity, it’s important to persevere, to be optimistic, and to be true to your personal vision. This insight is, in fact, expressed by the actions of the lead characters–Hillary and Tony–in WHISPERS, and is one of the themes of the novel.
Primarily, however, WHISPERS explores the forces that affect our lives but that we often do not–or refuse to–contemplate. Geography and climate (in this novel, California) deeply influence us in more ways than we generally recognize on a conscious level. The subculture in which we choose to involve ourselves can either inspire us to be great or diminish us. And family history, for better or worse, shapes us more profoundly than anything else.
I still like this novel and feel that it was a milestone for me. I regret only the rigid Freudian nature of the psychology underlying the story. In the years since, I’ve come to believe that Freudianism is pure bunkum and to deplore the culture of victimization that it has generated. John D. MacDonald–the brilliant novelist whose work most influenced mine when I was young–might say, “Kid, don’t worry about it. Freud or no Freud, the yarn is still good.” That is, of course, the right attitude, and I hope that the yarn in WHISPERS is, indeed, still good. Anyway, this is the book that saved me from a life of crime. No banks robbed. No airliners hijacked. No armored cars hit. I’ve had a couple speeding tickets over the past two decades, but in neither case did the authorities consider the offense serious enough to throw me in the slammer. Furthermore, I’ve gained back the twenty pounds–plus a few.