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Checkbooks too scary for horror writer John Saul

John SaulJohn Saul has scared the living daylights out of us for the better part of three decades with modern-day horror novels that pit young innocents against ancient terrors and unspeakable evil.

Forget the high-concept stuff -- give him a couple wayward teens, a house with a dark history and a drowsy small town and stand back as Saul makes all hell break loose. He did it first in "Suffer the Children," his 1977 debut that sold a million copies and became the first paperback in history to scale The New York Times' bestseller list. He does it again in his 31st novel, "Black Creek Crossing," which manages to combine a haunted house tale, the Salem witch trials and a coming-of-age novel in one.

It was either fate or serendipity that launched the Pasadena, Calif., native into the top ranks of terror; for 15 years prior to his breakout, he worked odd jobs and wrote non-horror novels that nobody wanted to publish. Even "Suffer the Children" was plan B after Dell Books said they loved his writing but rejected his thriller based on the CB radio craze of the day ("Roger that, good buddy").

By the time fame and fortune arrived, Saul had acquired the strong work ethic to handle it, turning out his unbroken string of bestsellers at better than a book a year. His success has enabled him to spend winters at his Maui retreat and summers in the Pacific Northwest, where he owns homes in Seattle and the San Juan Islands.

At 62, Saul is branching out with two non-scary stage projects that are dear to his heart: "Empress," an old fashioned Broadway musical set in Gold Rush-era San Francisco, will be produced by the Maui Light Opera Company this spring, and his comedy, "Last Rose of Summer," is being considered by several theater companies.

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Bankrate.com caught up with Saul in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on the eve of a Panama Canal cruise sponsored by the Maui Writers Conference.

Bankrate: Like many writers, you held a series of odd jobs before breaking into publishing, but one of yours was truly odd. Is it true that you broke the gender barrier at Western Temp Services?

John Saul: I know I was the first male Western Girl. I certainly was the only one when I was there. They subsequently took on a lot more. I would walk into these fancy offices and say, "Hello. I'm John Saul. I'm your Western Girl," and they would look at me like I was some loony-tune. Then I would convince them that it wasn't some mistake, and usually at the end of the day they would say, "You did great! Come back again tomorrow!"

Bankrate: Fastest fingers in the West?

John Saul: I used to be able to do 93 words a minute with no errors, which I guess isn't much any more, with modern word processing and really great keyboards that can whip out 120 words per minute, which I think was the world record when I used to type. But that was one those old-fashioned electrics where if you typed too fast, the keys jammed. The manual typewriters have an absolute speed limit, although I did know a kid who was a two-fingered typist and he could type over 110 words a minute on a little Smith-Corona portable. You couldn't even see the keys fly; all you heard was what sounded like machine-gun fire.

Bankrate: How were you able to make ends meet?

John Saul: Well, you lived with a lot of other people, and if you wanted to go out, you found some bar where they were giving away free dinner with a beer or something. I was living mostly in San Francisco and Los Angeles; I went back and forth a couple of times. Fortunately, I was popular enough with Western that they kept me busy wherever I wanted to go. They always had me a job by the next day.

Bankrate: It was a kind rejection by Dell Books that sent you in the direction of horror, right?

John Saul: They didn't reject me; they rejected the book I was working on. It was a weird thriller and they already had one just like it. It was very much of its moment; it was back when CB radios and truckers were all the rage, so I was working on a CB trucker thriller. It's actually a good thing they stopped me halfway through because I had no idea where the book was going.

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-- Posted: July 12, 2004
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