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BOOKS : Leaving His Mark With Fans

October 02, 1994|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A book signing can be a sobering experience, says Donald Westlake, master of the comic mystery who is on a national book tour promoting his latest, "Baby, Would I Lie?"

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"It's very much like drowning. My whole life passes before my eyes. The only difference is I have to sign it."

And sign he has on a trek across the country that brought him to the Los Angeles area last month, signing books and doing whatever else it took to inspire the interest of potential buyers.

On a recent Wednesday morning he was in the North Hollywood studios of Pacifica Radio's KPFK (90.7-FM) where he deftly fielded the questions of Pearl Skotnes, veteran host of "All About Books." Also on Westlake's local schedule: signing books until it hurts at bookstores from West Hollywood to Pasadena.

The book tour, with its interviews and book signings, is a necessary evil, says Westlake, who in 1993 was named a Grand Master, the highest honor of the Mystery Writers of America. Actually, he says, a book tour isn't nearly as ghastly as the other necessary evil in his professional life: taking meetings with movie producers.

Westlake has produced more than 80 titles, if you count those written under at least five pseudonyms ("Nobody has ever asked me to write faster," he noted). But he is also a successful screenwriter.

His script for "The Grifters" was nominated for an Academy Award, and he also wrote "The Stepfather"--screenplays as dark as many of his novels are hilarious.

Westlake says his mentor in the screen trade was William Goldman, who adapted Westlake's comic caper "The Hot Rock" for the 1972 film starring Robert Redford as hard-working criminal John Dortmunder. Instead of simply cringing at every change Goldman made, Westlake listened and learned as Goldman explained what works and what doesn't on screen.

But Westlake was in town to move copies of "Baby, Would I Lie?" (Mysterious Press). "To go on the road to hawk a book is certainly not as bad as not being asked to go on the road to hawk a book," he said.

No one knows exactly what impact book signings have on book sales, although Westlake says he's heard that signed books move twice as fast as unsigned ones. Signings are good for business, especially at specialty bookstores such as Mysterious Bookshop in West Los Angeles, said manager Shelly McArthur.

McArthur's regulars, many of whom would rather skip Christmas than a favorite writer's new novel, line up to exchange a few words with an author and have him or her inscribe a pristine copy of the book. "Many times, we're offering the one thing people can't get by buying the book at discount," McArthur said.

Westlake is very accommodating with his admirers. A fan once showed up at a signing with two shopping bags full of back issues of Playboy magazine, featuring Westlake stories to be signed. Unlike writer John Irving, who now only signs books for friends and overseas admirers, Westlake almost always obliges.

"You get the fans you deserve," said Westlake. His own followers are a fairly sunny lot, he said, although mystery and suspense is a genre with a decidedly dark side--and some fans of other writers reflect that.

According to McArthur, appearances by writer Clive Barker are the ones most likely to bring out the creatures of the night. Barker, who writes horror as well as suspense, is always being asked to sign fans' body parts, McArthur said. One local admirer even slashed his wrist so Barker could autograph his latest book in blood. The fan thoughtfully provided a quill as well.

Appealing to a different crowd, Westlake's new book is set in Branson, Mo., Mecca for some of the nation's most ardent country music fans. A New Yorker to the bone, Westlake spent several weeks soaking up local color in Branson, where no breakfast is served without grits and gravy.

His wife refused to accompany him on the last visit, inquiring: "Why can't you ever think of a story set in Paris or Rome?"

"Baby, Would I Lie?" deals with the murder trial of a country singing star (whose discography includes "If It Ain't Fried, It Ain't Food!") and the media circus that surrounds him. If all this sounds vaguely familiar, Westlake couldn't be happier. He is shamelessly willing to talk to interviewers about the sometimes startling parallels between his fiction and the O.J. Simpson murder case, including the high jinks of the tabloids. "I've found a phrase for what I've been doing," says Westlake, whose book was finished before the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ronald Lyle Goldman. "I'm surfing the Zeitgeist. "

Westlake doesn't sell as many books as Dick Francis or Sue Grafton, but he isn't complaining.

"Without doing it on purpose, I think I've found the perfect middle ground," he said. "I haven't had an honest job since April, 1959. . . . and I've never had the down side of fame."

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