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Storybook Ending to Editor's Hunt for Unknown Author

February 12, 1986|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The sentence simply stuck in Barbara Broadhurst's mind:

"Matthew Furman wore the look of a man whose house had been taken over by skunks."

A month after she read those words, the opening line of a story called "The Fugitive," written "by somebody called R. C. Day," Broadhurst knew she had to track down the author.

After all, Broadhurst had only just started her job as an editorial assistant at Doubleday. Reading literary journals like the Kenyon Review, where "The Fugitive" appeared, was all in a day's work.

"What really got me hooked was realizing a month or so later that I still had those characters in my mind," Broadhurst said. "I felt compelled to do something about it."

With minor detective work, Broadhurst tracked down the author. Richard Cortez Day, as he is known more formally, turned out to be a 58-year-old professor of English at California's Humboldt State University. Gingerly, for she had been at her job then for about a month, Broadhurst asked Day if by any chance he had written anything else--like maybe something he would like to see published by Doubleday?

"And lo and behold," Day said by telephone from his home in Arcata, Calif., "I had one."

Just returned from a year's sabbatical in the Mediterranean, Day had penned a collection of "interlocked, interwoven" short stories based on that experience. "When in Florence"--"Barbara thought of the name," Day said proudly--was published last month by Doubleday.


Finding a heretofore unpublished author who is suitable for publication is the kind of dream that fuels every young editorial assistant to continue reading literary journals into the dead of night. For such an author, the idea of being discovered on the basis of a story in a literary journal is the stuff of which major fantasies are fashioned.

"It was amazing," Broadhurst said, "a double dream for both of us.

"In fact, I don't even think I had been here long enough to appreciate how amazing it was."

Over the years, Day had published extensively in such publications as the New England Review, the Kenyon Review, Massachusetts Quarterly, Carolina Quarterly, even, once or twice, in a slick big-circulation magazine like Redbook.

But as for books, Day had never before seen his name emblazoned across a book jacket. True, he did have the novel he keeps in a closet, the one "I'm going to revise someday," and a second "big novel--600 pages" that he is revising under his contract with Doubleday. Suddenly, Day had been discovered.

"Well, it is a writer's fantasy," Day said, "and it's an illustration of how strangely things work in this world."

At Day's first book signing, at North Town Books in Arcata, the store sold more than 200 books, and even had to send for 35 from another bookstore.

"It really is strange," Day said. "I was astonished. Good heavens!"

In fact, he said with a laugh, "I made the best-seller list in Arcata."

Connected Stories

"When in Florence" is a group of short stories, all about Italians or Americans living in Florence. All the stories are connected, Day said, "so that a character from one story will drift to another. Also they're connected by imagery, by patterns of images, and also by words--by words like pigeons, or idiots or rain. "

Though a writer is often his own harshest critic, Day said that just that morning, he had read over three or four of the stories in "When in Florence," and "by God, they're good."

At 58, Day might be a bit on the dark side of America's current crop of Wunderkind writers.

"That's another instance of the strange way things work," Day said. "I had written a lot over a long period of time, but by what you might call a stroke of bad luck, I haven't received any notice. Now, all of a sudden, I have some good luck. And 58 or nothing, it feels great."

But Day, who writes his first drafts at home in longhand and then transfers his stories to a word processor, said his main purpose "has not been to be published and to get recognition. My main purpose has been to get my work done, because it's something I've got to do. I'm compelled, I work from within."

And in a way, Day said, anonymity was a left-handed blessing. "Since nobody knew my work, nobody had any expectations, and so I can write any bloody thing I like."

At Doubleday, Broadhurst described the advance Day received as "five figures, but not a high figure." In the book business, Broadhurst said, "money is always a question of perspective."

Day tentatively has titled his next book "Overtake the Reaper." Broadhurst has met the man she regards as "her" author only once, but she said she was captivated by "one of those kind of crinkly, friendly faces," and by Day's "sparkling eyes." She said she is eager to see the novel, the next installment in what just might prove to be a lengthy literary alliance.

"I feel lucky," Broadhurst said--the same reaction Day had to this happy example of publishing matchmaking.

"Yes," Day said, "I do. I really do."

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