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Writer Learns Hard Lessons Along the Way

September 28, 1986|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

Irvine author Robert Ray, whose first novel wasn't published until 10 years after he began writing, admits to having made several errors in life.

"One is not taking a writing course," said Ray, 51. "I wanted to do it my way. But writing is a craft, and you've got to apprentice yourself to somebody who knows more than you do: You need a mentor, a coach."

"The other mistake I made is not taking a marketing course," he added, holding up a copy of his new detective novel, "Bloody Murdock," and saying, "This is a product."

And just as he learned with his two previous novels, Ray knows that even though "Bloody Murdock" found a publisher, the book has to stand on its own in the American marketplace.

Only the top dozen books on a publisher's seasonal book list are considered "lead titles" and thus are promoted by the publishing house, the author explained. "Bloody Murdock" is classified as a mid-list book, and mid-list books, Ray observed with a good-natured laugh, "are what I'd call leftovers, afterthoughts."

And so, when it comes to promoting "Bloody Murdock," Ray said, "I just sort of have to depend on luck and my flyers."

Friends Contacted

Over the past several weeks, Ray has been mailing out literally thousands of "Bloody Murdock" flyers to independent bookstores across the country, in addition to the nation's 30-odd mystery specialty bookstores. He has also been contacting hundreds of friends and fellow writers around the country to encourage them to spread the word about "Bloody Murdock" to their local libraries, bookstores and book review editors.

The self-promotion appears to be working. With a satisfied chuckle, Ray reports: " 'Murdock' has gone off into a second printing."

Ray, who years ago rectified his mistake of not taking writing courses, has had two novels published in the past 11 years, a paperback sports thriller about a tennis pro ("The Heart of the Game") and a hardback detective novel ("Cage of Mirrors").

For someone who has been writing 25 years, it's not a particularly prolific output.

But with the appearance in August of "Bloody Murdock" (St. Martin's Press), the first in his series of Matt Murdock detective novels set in Orange County, Ray appears to be hitting his stride. The second installment, "Murdock for Hire," is already completed and will be out in March.

A bespectacled, mild-mannered man with a trim, graying beard, Ray earned a doctorate in English from the University of Texas in Austin and taught English for 13 years at a Wisconsin college. In contrast with his rugged, blue-collar detective, Matt Murdock, the author is, in his words, "overeducated and arty." Seated at his dining room table sipping a cup of morning tea, Ray is also refreshingly candid and unabashedly enthusiastic about writing.

Tennis 'Real Work'

"It's a lot of fun," he said. "There's nothing to beat it. I taught tennis for five years, thinking that would be fun, and it wasn't. It was real work."

Ray, who moved to Orange County from San Diego in 1981, now teaches a fiction-writing class part time at Irvine Valley College and co-owns a small publishing company that specializes in business books. He jokes that his wife, Margot, assistant personnel manager at UC Irvine, "has the real job" in the family.

Mostly Ray writes--at least five hours a day on the word processor in the tiny, cluttered spare room he calls his lair.

He's working on the sixth draft of a movie adaptation of "Bloody Murdock." He's writing the script with Michael Singh, a former writing student of his who went on to major in film at USC. Ray laughs at the irony: The former student, he says, is "teaching the teacher how to write a script."

Ray, however, plans to take time off from Murdock for a while. For his next book, his editor wants him to "tackle something larger in scope," and he's already a couple of chapters and an outline into a political thriller about a preacher who goes into politics.

Like the Murdock series, the novel will be set in Orange County.

'Fresh Territory'

"I just think it's ripe, fresh territory," Ray said, noting that Laguna Beach, where much of the action in "Bloody Murdock" is set, "is too good to be true. It seems so pleasant and so tony and so chic. I don't know, I just thought there had to be a dark side to it."

In setting the detective series locally, Ray said, he was learning from past mistakes. His 1980 detective novel "Cage of Mirrors" was set in Texas and Paris.

But with "Bloody Murdock," he said, "I decided to keep the guy right at home. It really makes a better book, a better read, if you do that. If you're writing a detective story, you've got to keep your guy at home, at least until you know what you're doing (as a writer). If you go to too many locales, the book gets very long. A detective story has got to move right along."

And, he added, by setting the detective series locally "it's easier to look at the places and get a feel for the landscape and local landmarks."

Ray said he has always been a mystery fan. "I love Elmore Leonard and John D. MacDonald and those guys. They're just so good."

Ray, who appears to be enjoying his new-found notice as a local mystery writer, believes that Orange County readers relish reading books set in Orange County.

"It's all part of this identity thing," he said. "You live in a place that doesn't have an identity, and suddenly it does. It (a locally based book) reinforces this blooming identity and sense of place"--he paused--"that's very professorial and philosophical."

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