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Even Author Blushed Over This Novel

September 28, 1988|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

They call it simply The Game, and usually they play it with a large jug of wine "and four straws" in the middle of the table.

The players--happily married women who reside in the "better" neighborhoods of Riverside--call it a kind of Monopoly, with famous men instead of important real estate properties. Mel Gibson is the counterpart of Boardwalk, Richard Nixon the equivalent of Baltic. When the mother of one of the regular players joins in, they throw in Glenn Ford. Each player rolls the dice, and when she "lands" on a particular man, she describes, in great detail, what she would like to do with that man.

Living Out Fantasies

One day, remembers Barbara Wood, the game's founder, "One of us, maybe it was me, said 'Gosh, don't you wish there was someplace we could go to act out these fantasies?' And then we decided the line would be a mile long."

And thus was born the idea for "Butterfly," the story of what Publishers Weekly calls "a unique Beverly Hills brothel," where respectable women go to translate their sexual fantasies into reality with costumed male "companions." Villard, the New York publisher, launched the book with a 50,000-copy first-run printing and a $75,000 promotion budget, generous numbers that usually reflect the formula for a best seller. Serial rights went to Cosmopolitan, another frequent ingredient in the recipe for best-sellers in this spicy genre.

"Well," said Peter Gethers, vice president and editorial director of Villard, when asked about best-seller expectations for "Butterfly," "we're hoping."

Villard lists "Butterfly" as the first novel of the pseudonymous Kathryn Harvey. So closely was the identity of "Harvey" guarded that until last week, even most people at Villard and its parent company, Random House, did not know she was really Barbara Wood, a "pleasingly plump" Random House author from Riverside who specializes in epic-length novels that are virtually sexless.

Geared to what her agent, Harvey Klinger, calls a "middle-American" marketplace of "blue-haired ladies," Wood's 11 works of fiction range from mystery romances to historical thrillers. Because Wood, 41, is a former surgical technician, most of the books have medical themes. Several, including "Domina" and "Vital Signs," have been best sellers.

So when Wood, who most recently had finished a saga about a medical missionary in Nairobi titled "Green City in the Sun," found herself cranking out a steamy story of violence, sin and corruption, she felt very odd.

In "Butterfly," Wood said in a telephone interview, "I actually use the word nipple . It made me feel real strange."

Used Pseudonym

Although she finished the book in just 10 weeks, she tried writing it as Barbara Wood and "blushed doing it." Her nom de plume came from a combination of the names of her editor, Kate Medina, and her agent. "After that I just wrote to my heart's content," Wood said.

"The book's too dirty to have my name on it," added Wood, whose husband is chairman of the local Big Brothers organization. She worried that "the sweet little old ladies" who read Barbara Wood's novels "wouldn't like to think I write that kind of novel."

Wood's dual identity might have gone unnoticed had not "USA Today: The Television Show" taken it upon itself to uncover the real author of "Butterfly."

Les Guthman, the producer who assigned the segment on Wood that ran last Tuesday, did not return calls. But a New York private investigator named Abby Hirsch confirmed she and her partner, Jonathan Rubinstein, had been hired by "USA Today" to track down the writer. A source they called Deep Text led them to Wood, Hirsch said.

Wood said her "jaw dropped" when she watched the "USA Today" segment.

Amazed Over Fuss

"I couldn't believe the fuss," she said. "Why did they care? Other steamy novels have been written, and I'm sure some of them are under pen names."

At Villard, Gethers said the "extremely commercial" quality of "Butterfly" made the book attractive regardless of its author's identity, or lack thereof.

"I definitely would have bought this book if it was really by Kathryn Harvey," Gethers said. He said Villard paid "a lot of money, we don't say how much," for the book, and is "looking forward" to publishing the next book by Kathryn Harvey.

Wood, a writer since her childhood in Tarzana, is now at work on a saga set in Australia but promises that "Harvey" will produce a sequel to "Butterfly."

Game Goes On

Meanwhile, the regular parlor game with her buddies continues in her living room, she said. Her husband, George, who is doing graduate work in psychology, "recognizes the release and expression of what we're doing" and "thinks it's wonderful," she said.

And, she added with a hearty laugh, her friends' husbands agree.

"For one thing, they all know where we are."

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