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Irving Wallace--A Good Ear for Words

January 27, 1985|MARSHALL BERGES | Times Staff Writer

"Most people do not listen," says novelist Irving Wallace. "Their need to talk about themselves is so powerful, they just wait their turn to talk. I like to talk, but I love to listen.

"I find it especially interesting to listen to anonymous women at a social gathering. Unless a woman is celebrated, everybody addresses the man she's with. But listen to the women and you touch some new discoveries. Many women have never had a chance to talk. They're seldom given points for being whole persons with working lives."

Has Paid Off

Wallace's eagerness to listen has paid off handsomely. Fully blown characters have sprung to life at his typewriter after chance social encounters. Careful listening has more than once sparked the idea for a plot that eventually became a best-selling novel.

The conversations of women at social gatherings in his Brentwood neighborhood stirred in him the notion to write "The Chapman Report," a novel dealing with sex surveys of upper-middle-class suburban women.

Sensational and controversial when it was published 25 years ago, "Chapman" became the turning point in his career. It catapulted him from a frantic existence beset by chronic shortages of money to a comfortable life style characterized by, in his words, "complete financial independence so that I could continue to write books for the rest of my life."

More Blockbusters

Success did not, however, change his practice of paying careful attention to the conversations taking place around him. Listening carefully and letting his imagination race furiously ahead, he followed "Chapman" with one blockbuster after another: "The Prize," a behind-the-scenes suspense thriller dealing with the Nobel Prize; "The Man," the story of a black congressman who accidentally succeeds to the presidency of the United States; "The Plot," a yarn of deception and intrigue surrounding a nuclear disarmament summit conference; "The Seven Minutes," a tale of a bitter censorship trial over an obscene book; "The Word," for which Wallace invented "the greatest archeological discovery of all time--the unearthing of the first and original Gospel," and many more.

Listening on a trip to the religious shrine of Lourdes helped him to develop key characters for his latest novel, "The Miracle," a contemporary story dealing with the legend of Bernadette.

Like some of his fictional heroes, Wallace, 68, is a man of paradox. He awaits anxiously the reaction of book buyers to every new Wallace offering, yet he can be confident of an enormous audience: He has been identified by the Saturday Review as one of the five most popular living authors in the English language. (The others: Barbara Cartland, Louis L'Amour, Harold Robbins, Janet Dailey.)

Wallace refuses to hurry books into completion. He is temperamentally comfortable when dealing with multiple book projects, and in the midst of other writing he has taken as much as 15 years to develop a plot framework for a single novel. But his output is prodigious, and for 25 years now the appearance of a new Wallace book, written alone or in collaboration, has become almost an annual event.

An itemized account of his personal paradoxes might qualify for inclusion in a Wallace book of lists. He is a worrier, yet he tends to be easygoing and quick with laughter. He is outspoken with opinions, but he is always concerned lest he hurt the feelings of others. He is avant-garde, ever willing to lead the parade, but he is also unabashedly sentimental; he writes his books on a rebuilt Underwood typewriter given to him by his parents when he was 13. He has the booming voice of an orator, and he won numerous awards as a high school debater, but he declines all invitations to deliver public speeches, claiming, "I prefer to listen."

Disguised wife

He listens with particular care to his sensitive, creative wife, Sylvia. "Oddly enough," he said in an interview, "Sylvia claims I do not listen to her, but she's wrong. I listen all the time. Sometimes I don't answer her, because I'm thinking about what she says, and filing it away for future use. The irony," he adds with a burst of laughter, "is that I've disguised Sylvia and put her as a character into at least five books, but she doesn't recognize herself."

Sylvia, a veteran magazine editor, has written two popular novels, "The Fountain" and "Empress." In addition to her writing, Sylvia takes charge of the Wallaces' business affairs and she supervises the management of their three houses: a French Provincial spread in Brentwood, with 17 rooms, of which five are used for offices and staffed with researchers and secretaries; a beach place at Malibu and a farmhouse on the island of Minorca, off Barcelona.

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