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VALLEY WEEKEND

Writing for Pleasure Pays Off

Thomas Perry's first book won an Edgar. His second led to work on TV scripts. With his latest on store shelves, the job description reads: successful author, daddy.

May 09, 1996|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thomas Perry is back home in Studio City after a week on the road promoting his latest book, "Dance for the Dead," newly published by Random House.

Perry has two young daughters--Alix, 6, and Isabel, 2--and so his normal routine consists of periods of writing, punctuated by play dates, car-pooling, lost barrettes, coming to terms with the Disney version and the other oddly satisfying things that parents do.

Perry says he and wife Jo don't get out much since the girls were born. "Who do I know?" he jokes. "I know Chip and Dale." Perry doesn't want to sound too much the Mr. Mom, however.

"No matter what we believe about the roles of the sexes, in the middle of the night, they don't say, 'Daddy.' They say, 'Mommy.' If they don't get an answer, they say, 'Daddy.' "

*

The book tour has cast him temporarily in the role not of Daddy, but of author--a person with carry-on luggage and a good raincoat but no reason to pre-board. Promoting the book has taken him to a dozen cities, where he found himself visiting stores the day before or the day after Robert Crais, another Valley writer currently on tour.

As Perry made his rounds, he noticed more and more cappuccino machines among the volumes. "I think there was a law passed in 1990 that you can't sell books without coffee, expensive coffee."

On the road, Perry discovered that a pristine copy of "The Butcher's Boy," which won him the coveted Edgar award from the Mystery Writers of America for best first novel of 1982, now sells for as much as $800. (The hard-to-find book had a modest single printing of 4,000 copies.)

"It hasn't improved a bit since it sold for $13," he jokes of a book that manages to combine the guilty pleasures of a mystery with the literary quality of ambitious mainstream fiction.

By rights, the 48-year-old writer should have ended up in academe. Born in Tonawanda, a rust-belt town near Buffalo, N.Y., he got his bachelor's degree in English from Cornell and a doctorate from the University of Rochester, with a dissertation on "Epistemology in the Novels of William Faulkner." "I always wrote," Perry recalls. "I was a typical English major who considered writing part of one act--the other half was reading."

Perry moved to California in the 1970s, working as a commercial fisherman off Santa Barbara, tending the boat while a colleague dived for abalone. "It sort of cleared my head after being in libraries most of my life," he says.

He was working as an administrator and occasional teacher at UC Santa Barbara when he met Jo Lee, who taught writing there. They were married in 1980 and moved to Studio City, where she had grown up.

Perry says he knew in graduate school that a life of college teaching and academic publishing probably wasn't for him. "I started meeting professors who were 45 and very unhappy," he says. "To the extent you can see your future, it's best to adjust your course slightly."

The Perrys took administrative jobs at USC, and he finished the first novel he had begun in Santa Barbara. He was gratified when it won the Edgar but admits that he had no idea what a big deal the prize was. His second novel led to a successful career writing for TV, with his wife as his writing partner.

As Perry recalls, he got a call from Jim Korris, then an executive at Universal, who liked the dialogue in "Metzger's Dog" and asked Perry if he wanted to try writing for television. The former student of Faulkner was soon writing snappy comebacks for the fraternal snoops of "Simon & Simon." The Perrys even wrote a "Star Trek" episode, "the one called 'Reunion,' where we killed off Whorf's girlfriend."

*

Perry says he thoroughly enjoyed the collaborative craft of writing for TV, which he continues to do from time to time. Writing for TV teaches you what a scene is, he says. It teaches you to think of where the camera is when visualizing a scene in a novel, and it teaches you to use, if not enjoy, criticism.

Perry's new book is full of the look and lore of the western New York in which he grew up. Novelist John Barth once described the region as aglow with "the phosphorescence of decay." But the western New York that Perry evokes is multilayered.

At one level is the current, rather grim reality of a place where you can buy T-shirts that read "Buffalo--city of no illusions." Underneath is the dark, rich, mystical world of the Seneca Indians, who lived there long before the white man and continue to live there today.

Perry's protagonist, Jane Whitefield, is part Seneca, a major factor in how she became what she calls a "guide." As Jane explains: "I show people how to go from places where someone is trying to kill them to other places where nobody is."

Jane, who debuted in "Vanishing Act," is a self-reliant modern woman and a woman with primal, ancient insights and instincts as well.

For Perry, one of the pleasures of writing is perfecting its component arts. He had long wanted to write from the point of view of a woman. "That's something you ought to learn to do well if you're going to be serious as a writer," he says. "You can't ignore 53% of the population."

CNN was another source for the idea of a woman whose profession is making people disappear. Perry's imagination was piqued by a story about a plane crash. Names of the victims were being withheld until their identities could be confirmed, the newscaster said, because so many people on domestic flights fly under false names.

Random House has contracted with Perry for five more Jane Whitefield novels. "Then," Perry promises, "Jane goes over Niagara Falls, clutching Dr. Moriarty to her chest, in case I need her again."

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