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It's Life in Bus Lane for Published Novelist at Work on Third Book

May 15, 1987|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

For first-time author Donald Stanwood, it was the best of times in 1978 when his novel, "The Memory of Eva Ryker," was published.

Stanwood, then 28, was earning $4.68 an hour behind the camera counter at J.C. Penney Co. in Newport Beach. He lived frugally in a Santa Ana apartment with Susie, his part-Siamese cat, and rode the bus to work.

Then the money started rolling in: a reward for the eight years it took him to write his historical mystery about a fictional survivor of the Titanic.

In all, he earned more than $300,000 in pre-publication hard-cover, paperback, book club, serial and foreign-rights sales. A deal for a TV-movie starring Natalie Wood brought in another $90,000. "There was one year," he recalled, "when I wrote a check to the IRS for $60,000."

Flush with success, a smiling Stanwood told The Times in 1978: "The novel bought my freedom."

That it did.

In January--after nearly eight years of writing--Stanwood's second novel, "The Seventh Royale," was published by Antheneum.

The second novel came out none too soon because money from the first novel "is just about gone," said Stanwood, who had to go back to work.

No, he hasn't returned to the camera counter at J.C. Penney Co., but close to it: He works six days a week at a Fotomat in Costa Mesa, where he is writing his third novel during the slack time. And he is back to riding the bus.

Not much has really changed in Stanwood's life style. Now 38, he still lives in the same one-bedroom Santa Ana apartment. Susie, the part-Siamese cat, died in 1982 at the ripe old age of 19 and has been replaced by a black-and-white stray named Minnie.

He still owns a $15,000 Peugeot he bought with his book earnings. But it's currently out of commission with fuel line problems, hence the reliance on buses.

The car and some traveling were Stanwood's only extravagances. Mostly, he used his "The Memory of Eva Ryker" windfall to live on while he wrote his second novel.

"It seemed like a lot of money, but spread out over time, it's not a great deal," the author said recently. "I never thought of it as some sort of inexhaustible supply,"

Going back to a regular job is perfectly fine with Stanwood.

"I enjoy cashiering, the work part of it--there's something about ringing up a cash register that is like playing the slots in Las Vegas," he said. "And when it's not busy, I'm able to do some work on the book I'm working on now. It provides a steady income--not a great deal of money--but it makes a difference."

Stanwood may be making ends meet humbly, but he remains highly regarded in Orange County's literary community.

In April, the soft-spoken author was chosen to be featured on the Orange County Public Library's second annual author poster publicizing the library. "I was flattered," admits Stanwood, who posed sitting on the bumper of a Bugatti Royale provided by the Briggs Cunningham Museum in Costa Mesa.

On Sunday, the Friends of the Library Foundation, a nonprofit support organization for all public libraries in Orange County, will honor him at a reception, where he will autograph copies of the poster and his new book.

The plot of the "The Seventh Royale," a mystery thriller spanning four decades and three continents, centers on the high-stakes world of rare antique cars--in particular the Bugatti Type 41 Royale, the so-called "car of kings." Only six of the expensive luxury automobiles were built between 1927 and 1929. The book's title refers to a fictional seventh car, one coveted by a then relatively unknown German "political crank": Adolph Hitler.

Reviews for "The Seventh Royale" have been mixed: "A marvelous book whose action moves lightning fast from old Europe to Salt Lake City to California and back," enthused one reviewer. "A certain oppressive tedium," complained another.

"I don't get deeply upset over reviews--I went through the same thing with 'Eva Ryker,' " said the author, whose prematurely gray hair and round silver-rimmed glasses give him a bookish air despite his casual attire: blue jeans and a Hawaiian aloha shirt.

Stirring a cup of instant coffee in his kitchen on a recent morning, Stanwood observed that when the money for his first novel started coming in, a lot of people suggested that he should buy a condominium. But he comes from a long line of apartment dwellers and is not interested in owning a home. Besides, he said, "I hate yardwork."

Stanwood's apartment is a typical writer's lair, with the living room stuffed with books, photographs of old friends and assorted memorabilia. On a picnic table next to the kitchen rests a portable typewriter. (His personal computer is out of order).

Nowhere to be seen, however, is his Orange County Public Library poster. Instead, an autographed copy of last year's poster featuring his good friend T. Jefferson Parker, author of the best-selling mystery novel "Laguna Heat," is taped to the refrigerator door.

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