CORONADO — A warm smile lights up novelist Eric Higgs' face as he sits in sunlight on the rooftop patio of his Coronado home. His friendly demeanor is worlds removed from the ghastly violence and numbing brutality that pound through "Doppelganger," his latest book, set in San Diego, which Publisher's Weekly hailed as the author's "second triumph."
The book was published in hardback in May by St. Martin's Press, and in January a paperback version will hit the stores. It comes on the heels of his highly successful debut suspense chiller, "The Happy Many," which also features a San Diego setting. A reviewer of that effort said, "DeSade himself wrote nothing quite so horrible."
Both works do indeed delve into the dark, macabre underside of life. The emphasis is not on sheer horror itself, but the complex and intriguing psychological forces at play within the characters that compel their actions of terror.
"Writing should be like a prize fight," Higgs says of his intense, jolting style. "John Gardner once said that good writing is not polite and mannered, it's more like looking into a pool of sharks. And that's how I try to write."
The 34-year-old ex-Navy lieutenant is a relative newcomer to fiction writing. A native of Sarasota, Fla., Higgs has lived in the San Diego area since 1977, when he was transferred here during a five-year Navy career. A political science major, he graduated from the University of Georgia and had a brief stint as a reporter for the Aiken (S.C.) Standard before joining the Navy.
"I learned a lot about the mechanics of writing from doing obituaries every day," he said. But that skill wasn't translated to fiction writing until 1981, when he decided to leave active duty and try to become a serious writer.
"I liked the Navy very much," he says, (he still is in the Navy Reserve) "but I knew deep down that I really wanted to be a writer so I decided to go for it."
Higgs was able to make that bold move because his wife, Elaine, worked and the couple didn't yet have their three children. But the decision proved to be a nightmare at first.
"I quickly found out that there's a huge difference between just piddling around with writing and being serious about it and saying, 'Hey, this is it, this is what I'm going to devote my life to,' " Higgs said.
As the budding author sat around the house polishing his craft he felt "this is like getting into an F-16 fighter plane and not knowing what the hell to do. It was a real shocker at first because no matter how hard I tried, my writing was absolute crud. I kept wondering when my stuff was ever going to get halfway decent. Emotionally, I felt like I was bashing my teeth out on a rock, but instead of a rock it was a typewriter."
After a year of intense struggling, Higgs sold a short story to True Romance and was elated at his first glimmer of success. "That was the happiest $195 I ever earned," he said.
But Higgs soon learned that the literary market for novels far exceeds that for short stories, and he focused his efforts on a rollicking adventure book, titled "PT Commander." While that was making the rounds at various New York publishing houses, the San Diegan made what he describes as the most significant discovery in his writing career.
"When I started writing fiction, I thought plot was the big thing to emphasize. But it finally dawned on me that what made great novels was characterization. So I rewrote 'PT Commander' and cranked in that element on top of the action story and redid the main character, adding a personal problem that he had to solve."
After those changes, Zebra Books, a New York publishing house specializing in male action adventure, snapped up the yarn and issued it as a paperback. Representatives from Zebra still want Higgs to follow up with a submarine adventure "because they feel submarines are a hot topic right now with teen-age readers" he said. But the author has declined, feeling it would be "a step backward."
Indeed, Higgs has since created a growing national reputation for himself in the Stephen King-styled horror/terror genre with his two books with San Diego locales.
The key to their success, he feels, is their emphasis on characterization.
"In both these books the characters themselves are the real meat," he said. "I do just enough description to suggest a scene; then I get into what is going on between the characters and in their minds."
Higgs wrote "The Happy Man" while he was a house husband taking care of his first daughter, Alex, when she was a baby and the family lived in Golden Hill.
"I wrote the entire book during her naps," he said. "And I consciously set out to write a shocking book. I really wanted readers to be terrified and to scream with every page."