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$150,000 Advance Backs Writer's Choice

January 21, 1989|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

Newspaper feature writer Robert Ferrigno wasn't sure he was making the right decision when he quit his job last July in order to devote full time to finishing his novel.

"I just decided it was getting too hard to do both. I wasn't getting any sleep," said Ferrigno, 41. "By that time I was about half way through. I figured if it worked out, it would be great, and if it didn't I could get another job at another newspaper. But I just had a sense that things were going to happen."

Did they ever.

In November, the Long Beach resident signed with William Morrow & Co./Avon, which is paying him an impressive $150,000 advance for the hard cover and paperback rights for his as-yet unfinished first novel, "The Horse Latitudes," a mainstream thriller set primarily in Newport Beach and Irvine.

The sale of foreign rights to England and Italy will earn Ferrigno another $100,000 in advances. He's also anticipating foreign sales to Germany, France and Japan and there's talk of a movie sale.

While that's enough to inspire struggling novelists everywhere--and send fellow journalists scurrying to their personal computers--Ferrigno learned just how fortunate he is after a reporter friend sent him a survey of authors' incomes: The average annual income of published authors, according to the survey, is only $6,000.

"That kind of put it into perspective," Ferrigno said. "Let's just say I'm a grateful guy."

Looking back on his decision to quit his job with the Orange County Register, Ferrigno said, "If I had known how little most writers make on their first books, I don't think I'd have had the guts to quit. My wife and I had talked about it for a long time. I must say, she kept pushing me to take a shot."

Ferrigno, who continues to teach journalism part time at Cal State Fullerton, is currently ensconced in his Belmont Shores apartment where he is completing the last 50 pages of his novel. He plans to turn in his completed manuscript within a month, and "The Horse Latitudes" is expected to be in bookstores by early 1990.

Ferrigno explained that the novel's title refers to a part of the Atlantic Ocean where the trade winds die down, causing the old sailing ships to be stuck for weeks at a time. In order to lighten the ships, the crews would throw cargo overboard, and when they were really desperate, they would throw over the horses on board.

The title is a metaphor for the novel's main character, Danny DiMedici, who, Ferrigno said, "has to get rid of a lot of emotional baggage to get on with his life."

As Ferrigno explains his main character, DiMedici is in his early 30s, divorced and still in love with his ex-wife, Lauren Smith, a successful Newport Beach industrial psychologist. "His wife gets into trouble and disappears. In his attempt to find and help her, he gets drawn into a really nasty set of circumstances. The line between the good guys and bad guys gets kind of blurred."

The novel, he said, is both a crime story and a love story. "The more (DiMedici) follows his passions, the more enmeshed he gets in murder and mayhem."

Ferrigno had been thinking about the novel on and off for a year but did not begin writing it until shortly after his 2-year-old son, Jake, was born. That meant spending virtually every free hour he had working on the book.

Ferrigno said it made a big difference once he was able to devote all of his time to it. "It wasn't even so much the extra time, it was just that you had nothing else to distract you: The idea that I had nothing to think about but making the rent and finishing the book."

Ferrigno's wife, Jody, is a speech therapist with the Ocean View School District in Huntington Beach. "I was real lucky she had a good job and was willing to take the loss of income, but like I said, she was more gutsy about it than me," he said. "She always had a lot of confidence."

Ferrigno's impressive advances are also an indication of how much confidence both he and his literary agent, Sandra Dijkstra of Del Mar, had in the novel.

Ferrigno met Dijkstra at the Squaw Valley Writers Conference run by UC Irvine's Oakley Hall in August and sent her a copy of his work-in-progress.

"It was," Dijkstra said, "beautifully written, a dynamite read, a book you couldn't put down."

Knowing she had "something valuable," Dijkstra took Ferrigno's two-thirds completed manuscript to New York in late October.

Her first stop was at a top publishing house, where an editor Ferrigno had met at the writers conference already had read a copy of his manuscript. The editor told Dijkstra she was going to give it one more reading and make an offer.

The next day, the publishing house offered a $25,000 advance--for not one, but two books: "The Horse Latitudes" and Ferrigno's next novel.

Dijkstra told them that she wasn't terribly impressed with the offer but that she would talk to Ferrigno. "I spoke to Robert and told him, 'I think we can do much better, but it's a gamble.' He said, 'Let's turn it down.' "

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