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CRITIC AT LARGE

Four Writing Pros Who Serve Their Sentences

June 10, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Once, during a panel discussion, I wrote, "I will never do another panel discussion" 150 times on the yellow legal pad in front of me, while an oversupply of speakers wrestled with an undersupply of purpose.

But an occasional panel cannot be resisted, and last Saturday I sat as moderator with four novelists at the Book Fair that was part of the Music Center's bustling Mercado.

I suspect that everyone who writes at all has typed "Chapter 1" on a page at least once, and then dreamed a little. What emerged may only have been Snoopy's "It was a dark and stormy night," and then a wistful sigh and a crumpling of paper.

But the dream persists, and the lure for the crowd in the Mark Taper Forum was hearing a quartet who, from a wild diversity of starts, have made the dream work.

Jacqueline Briskin, wife and mother of three, wanted not to stay home on the night her husband, Bert, went off to a night extension class at UCLA. In the catalogue she found "The Art of Fiction," taught by the late Robert Kirsch of The Times. She'd expected to have to read, not write, but write she did. Her sixth novel, "Too Much Too Soon," just out in its paperback edition, is fifth on The Times' best-seller list. Her seventh, "Dreams Are Not Enough," is due out in hardcover in January.

Michael Crichton was motivated, he said, by an empty refrigerator while he was at Harvard Medical School. He began taking one course a term he didn't mind flunking and using the time to write for profit if not necessarily for pleasure.

As John Lange, he wrote eight novels between 1966 and 1972; as Jeffrey Hudson he wrote "A Case of Need," which won an Edgar Allan Poe award from the Mystery Writers of America for 1972; in his own name he's written five novels, including "The Andromeda Strain" and "The Terminal Man" and three nonfiction books, including one on the artist Jasper Johns.

He received his MD and worked at the Salk Institute for a year but opted to stay with writing and, now, directing. Unlike the other panelists, he insists he could get along without writing--always assuming that the refrigerator is stocked.

Ib Melchior, the Copenhagen-born son of Heldentenor Lauritz Melchior, began as an actor with an English company which toured Europe and hit Manhattan just as the war in Europe broke out.

Melchior worked as a stage manager at Radio City Music Hall until the United States entered the war. He enlisted and, thanks to his repertoire of European languages, found himself in the OSS and then the Army's Counter Intelligence Corps.

After the war he became an early television director ("The Perry Como Show"). Then his wife, the designer Cleo Baldon, suggested that the war tales he told at the dinner table wanted larger audiences.

For his latest, "V-3," Melchior invented, or so he thought, the idea of a German cargo submarine, which he named the U-1000, that shows up years later, having been listed as missing in wartime.

Doing some fact-checking later, Melchior found that the Germans actually did have 16 cargo subs, one called the U-1000, which was lost in wartime. There fact stopped and Melchior's thriller fiction took over, but he said gratefully, "I sometimes think there's a Higher Power up there that tells us what to write."

Steve Shagan had a career in television publicity and television writing before it struck him, he said at the discussion in the Taper, that an America he remembered, a relatively innocent and optimistic America of the wartime years, just before and just after, had somehow slipped away while he and his contemporaries were busy making a living.

He expressed it as a screenplay, which became the sad and curiously lyrical "Save the Tiger" and won an Academy Award for Jack Lemmon and a Writers Guild award for Shagan. He made the screenplay into a novel, as he did his second screenplay, "City of Angels" (filmed as "Hustle," with Burt Reynolds and Catherine Deneuve).

Shagan speaks of the novels as paying for the bridgework (as against Crichton's need to fill the refrigerator)--the economic motivation to write.

But, like the first two films-into-novels of social observation, Shagan's subsequent thrillers ("The Formula," "The Circle," "The Discovery" and "Vendetta," which is being published in mid-July) seek to transcend the genre by commenting on issues. Oil cartels, Middle East politics, Asian politics, and in "Vendetta" the linked worlds of pornography, cocaine and the Mafia set his characters in motion. It was clear that more than dentist bills keep him at the typewriter.

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