The Curious Case of Peter Leroy

THE famed gentleman from Porlock interrupted Coleridge's recollection of the opium- induced images that were "Kubla Khan." Drat! the poet doubtless thought as he got up to answer the door; thus are the legends of literature born. In a similar way, novelist Eric Kraft relates the origins of Peter Leroy, the hero of his on-going serial novel: "It was winter of my sophomore year (at Harvard) and I was working in Lamont Library on my German lesson. It was overheated and I dozed off with my feet up on the table, leaning back on two legs of the chair. Suddenly I was on the floor and people were laughing."

That was nearly 20 years ago. What happened next? Well, the embarrassed Kraft gathered up his books and papers and made his way out with as much dignity as he could muster. But all the time, going through his head was the faint memory of the dream he'd been enjoying, about "a little boy sitting on a dock."

"Peter Leroy is someone Eric has had in his head for 20 years or so," notes Ned Perkins, Applewood vice president, who is one-half of that Cambridge, Massachusetts firm's two-man staff. (President Phil Zuckerman is the other.) They're happy -- and so's Kraft -- about the recent sale of the first four volumes of The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences & Observations of Peter Leroy to Warner Books for a $30,000 advance. And even if everything doesn't go as Warner editor-in-chief Bernard Shir-Cliff plans ("I want to make him a famous writer"), Kraft, willy-nilly, will gain a larger following in the mass market than he's had with the 2,500 printings of the Applewood trade-paper editions.

All of the Peter Leroy books, which are about a small boy (not unlike the young Kraft) and a small town (not unlike the seaside village the author grew up in on Long Island) are fancifully titled. My Mother Takes a Tumble, Do Clams Bite?, Life on the Bolotomy and The Static of the Spheres are the first four, and do not -- each of the parties involved insists that this is true -- need to be read in any particular order.

Kraft, whose work blends gentle nostalgia with a series of experiments in fiction writing, is a committed pack-rat-cum-parodist: "I'm drawn to imitate other forms, like recipes, news clippings and advertisements. And I've had fun along the way with lots of books, like Life on the Mississippi, Moby Dick and The Faerie Queene." Plus, all the Peter Leroy series is "shot through with Proust," as Ned Perkins says. Along with the Warner deal, Eric Kraft has also just signed a contract with Crown for a hardcover "biography" of Peter Leroy's maternal grandparents, to be called Herb 'n' Lorna. Women in the Book Industry

SALLY LODGE, an editor at Publishers Weekly and the newly elected president of the New York chapter of the Women's National Book Association, presided over an evening-long board meeting recently in which the group worked to plan for the coming year. "The consensus was that we need to present essentially career advancement-oriented programs. Traditionally, women have been in editorial jobs, sometimes 20 or 30 years in the business, and they suddenly find themselves overshadowed by 30-year-old men who have marketing titles."

Moreover, the subsidiary rights positions, once an upward road for many women, have lost some of their glamour, with the go-go years of deal-making seemingly over. Increasingly now, there are greater numbers of women in the sales forces, historically a male bastion, while one encounters more men in publicity departments, where turnover among employes of both sexes is high.

Comments Ursula Bender, Pantheon associate publisher, who began her career in subsidiary rights 22 years ago, "I love power and information both, and they come tether in subsidiary rights." And says Sherry Arden, Morrow president, who started as publicity director there 17 years ago and moved through the sub rights department to her current position, "I've always been listened to here." Arden's husband, once told her she wouldn't enjoy the business end of publishing, but he was wrong she now says. "Even when men run the show on the businesss end, the positions of a great many of the women in the industry are strong enough so that their influence is certainly felt."

The WNBA, which has about 800 members and eight active chapters across the country (including a newly revivified one for Washington-Baltimore), represents a spectrum of primarily middle-level publishing staffers, agents, writers, librarians and booksellers.

The high visibility of many women publishing executives -- Phyllis Grann, president and publisher at Putnam; Mildred Marmur, publisher at Scribner's, Kathryn Court, vice president and editor-in-chief at Viking-Penguin; Rena Wolner president at Avon, and numerous others -- still doesn't mean, Lodge believes, that they have the clout (or the salaries) of their male counterparts. According to 1982 Labor Department statistics a little over one half of the work force in the book industry is female. However, on the 17-member board on the Association of American Publishers only one woman, Susan Peterson (publisher of Ballantine), is represented. Side Bets

NAIAD Press, a small feminist house, made a splash this spring with Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence, edited by Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan. Still to come is Immodest Acts in November, a historical study from Oxford University Press of an ostracized lesbian nun in Renaissance Italy. Author Judith Brown came across a reference to her subject accidentally and was intrigued by the harsh language a contemporary commentator used to describe Sister Benedetta Carlini . . . . Fidel Castro is cooperating with longtime Washington-based foreign correspondent Tad Szulc on a biography just announced by Morrow. Entitled Fidel it's scheduled for publication in 1986. It was Szulc, not so incidentally, who, then working for The New York Times, broke the story of the Bay of Pigs invasion. Castro and Szulc first met in '59. Fidel himself is the author of several titles listed in the current Books in Print. Among them: History Will Absolve Me (Lyle Stuart) and The Cuban Revolution, National Liberation & the Soviet Union: Two Speeches (New Outlook).