Love Story

READING AND WRITING books may be lonely acts, but they can also serve to bring two souls together. That, at least, is what happened to novelist Diana O'Hehir and the man she divorced three decades earlier. "I think," O'Hehir says, "it's a wonderful Valentine's Day story." Radical politics, a blow for good literature, turbulent emotions, a bittersweet ending -- they're all here.

The tale begins in 1947, when O'Hehir and Mel Fiske were married. Both were Washington radicals -- he was the correspondent here for The Daily Worker, and she worked with the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Buffeted by the pressures of the McCarthy era and worried about the fate of their baby if they were arrested, they separated in 1950. "I couldn't give her any assurances, so she just pulled out," says Fiske. "It was a very, very trying period. Drove me nuts for a couple years." Several years later, they were divorced.

Each remarried. She lived in Berkeley, Calif.; he in Los Angeles. In 34 years, they saw each other exactly once. Then, in 1984, O'Hehir's acclaimed first novel, I Wish This War Were Over, was published. Fiske bought a copy.

"It was sheer poetry. Every word was a flower," he says. "And a lot was familiar territory. Many of the scenes were set in areas we had been together." If he hadn't liked it, he says, he'd probably still have written her -- "I'd have given her an 'A' for effort." And he might still have wanted to see her. But since he was overwhelmed by the book, the feeling was overpowering.

A correspondence ensued. Fiske drove up to Berkeley. They had dinner. Both, they discovered, were recently separated from their respective spouses. "It was just as if there had been no break," says Fiske, now 70. "I was very anxious about it, but it's beautifully comfortable." Adds O'Hehir, 65: "It took about half an hour to pick up the relationship. It seems as if I had known him always."

Now they have a house together on the ocean in Bolinas. "It's idyllic -- too much so," she says. "You wonder when you're going to wake up." Next month her second novel, The Bride Who Ran Away, is being published by Atheneum. While the new book -- about a young woman who flees from a disastrous romantic situation -- doesn't directly reflect these developments, O'Hehir says it probably wouldn't exist if Mel Fiske hadn't resurfaced in her life.

Do they feel it was fated that they separate for 3 1/2 decades, or do they regret the time lost? "I think about this a lot. I wonder what our life would be like if we had stayed together," muses Fiske. "As it was, we survived. And we're surviving better now."

A Matter of Conspiracies

ROBERT LUDLUM's plots are sometimes accused of being a tad farfetched, but surely it's even more improbable that the most successful author of spy thrillers should turn out to have no background in the field at all. John le Carre' worked as an intelligence officer, Len Deighton was on the RAF's special investigations team and William F. Buckley Jr. was briefly in the CIA (where his boss was spy novelist E. Howard Hunt).

Not Ludlum. In the early '50s, he was acting in summer stock, television and New York theaters. "Usually," he says, "I was cast as either a lawyer or a homicidal killer. I've decided there is a definite link between the two." From 1957 to 1969, he worked as a producer in Fort Lee and Paramus, N.J., where he gradually got frustrated with audiences' preference for fluff. The low point came with a trilogy of Greek and Renaissance drama. The critics loved it but on opening night, "you could have shot moose in the lobby."

Frustration led to fiddling with the typewriter. The Scarlatti Inheritance was published in 1971, and the rest was, if not exactly literary history, at least a boon to conspiracy theorists. Every one of the 12 novels Ludlum has published under his own name has been a bestseller; perhaps coincidentally, every one has had a three-word title. (Once, he says, he tried to give a novel a two-word title, and everyone at the publishing house got hysterical.)

As for exactly why he ended up writing novels about political intrigue, he claims that "I didn't choose this subject, it chose me. But all theater is in a sense melodrama -- what's going to happen next," and that's certainly an element he's known for in his books. You get whiplash from turning the pages so fast.

He loves his craft. "People say writing is so tough. To me, it's the most marvelous life in the world. I'm my own actor, director, stage manager. What a sense of power! Every time a royalty check comes in, I think: 'I should give this to someone.' " Does he? "I do give a fair amount to charity. But I've got three kids, grandchildren . . ."

Every time a reviewer tackles a Ludlum book, two points are invariably made: his use of stereotypical characters, and his fondness for conspiracies. The second of these the author freely admits to.

"I find there are definite parallels between my plots and the real world. I'm not necessarily terribly happy about saying that, but it seems to me they exist," says Ludlum. "I know I've been called paranoid. If I took myself seriously, I'd go to a shrink. But I think it's a healthy paranoia, if I have it."

Pieces of his paranoia also have a habit of coming true, such as his assertion in 1972's The Osterman Weekend that the CIA was involved in domestic spying. "I'm not clairvoyant," Ludlum says. "Can't even spell it. There are certain things I wrote in The Icarus Agenda {his new novel, debuting in stores any moment now} before Iranscam came up, although I'm sure no one will believe me."

As for the charge of using stereotypes -- a reviewer once accused him of finding his characters on the backs of cereal boxes -- Ludlum denies it. "The people who say that are the same ones who talk about the plots being so intricate and compelling. But the plots are never compelling unless the characters are. You put strawmen in the kind of plots I write, you'd be laughed to the outhouse."

At a minimum, he says, he's striving to produce a readable story. Ludlum, it turns out, is a modest guy. "People have said to me, 'How do you write a bestseller?' I can assure you, if I sat down to write a bestseller, I wouldn't know how to do it. If you do have a formula, you're a cartoon. I may not be a hell of a lot more than that, but I try."

The Power of Leaks

THE SHIP of State," President Kennedy once said, "is the only ship that leaks at the top." Secret disclosures began as soon as the ship was launched: The exposing of a U.S. arms transaction with France in 1778 is regarded as the first major leak in American history. But it's always been an insider's game. Elie Abel, a professor of communications at Stanford University, asserts in his study Leaking: Who Does It? Who Benefits? At What Cost? (Priority Press/Twentieth Century Fund) that the practice is largely misunderstood by the average newspaper reader.

"If you talk to political correspondents in Washington, they will tell you that most leaks are in fact plants," he says. "That is to say, a particular piece of information has been handed to a particular reporter or news organization because the person who handed it out sees something to be gained by exposing it . . . Much of what passes for sensational leaks in Washington is, in my experience, a reflection of a policy struggle in the administration."

Abel was a newspaper and television correspondent here from 1953-69, where he learned firsthand just how confidential information gets parceled out. He sees the escalation in leaks during the Reagan administration as being partially driven by ideology. Young conservatives, worried about the steadfastness of the president on such issues as SDI and weapons for the Afghan guerrillas, make strategic leaks to keep him on course.

Journalists, Abel argues, are generally vain enough to believe that such material has come their way as a sort of natural reward for their hard labor. "Maybe," he suggests, "the journalist ought to ask himself, 'Why am I being favored in having this handed to me? What is at stake? Whose ox is gored?' It helps the reader to have some clue who is doing the leaking or whose interests would be served by releasing this information. Otherwise, the leaker is manipulating the newspaper for his own purpose."

In the Margin

IT'S NOT an unpublished work, nor even an unknown one, but Dashiell Hammett's Woman in the Dark is appearing from Knopf in October. The 15,000-word story, which is a somber mystery without a detective, is considered first-rate Hammett and appears to have been unjustly neglected. It first ran in Liberty magazine in 1933, was made into a 1934 movie, and appeared in a paperback collection of Hammett's works in 1951. The Knopf edition will have an introduction by tough-guy writer Robert B. Parker . . .

In what is probably a record for a first novel about Wittgenstein, Bruce Duffy's The World As I Found It (Ticknor & Fields) has gone back to press for a third time. The Takoma Park resident's 546-page tome received generally enthusiastic notices, which has in turn led to steady demand for the 12,000 copies now in print . . .

Cornell scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. is serving as general editor for The Norton Anthology of Afro-American Literature, which will be published in 1990. "Dozens of Afro-American anthologies have been published before but none of this scope and magnitude," says Gates. "Never again will anyone be able to say that our literature cannot be taught because the proper materials are lacking." Material in the book will range from 1760, date of the first known African writing published in this country, to the present. ::