Harding Lemay was on vacation in Ireland when a strange woman telephoned his hotel.

Lemay had to tell the woman, who had not been in the States in months, that Walter had died, Lenore would marry Robert, Pat, and John were still married, and that Alice and Steve had been married "but were now separated." The women then "sobbed hopelessly" and asked him for advice on her own marital problems.

As chief writer for the television soap opera "Another World" from 1971 to 1978, Lemay received an endless stream of letters, telegrams, telephone calls and personal messages from some of Walter, Lenore, Robert, Pat, John, Alice and Steve's 10 million loyal fans -- many of whom had a passionate, childlike faith in the fantasies he created. Devotees pleaded for him to save a child, kill a marriage, or change a career. A man "whose wife had collapsed upon the news of Steve's death" once shouted obscenities at Lemay over the telephone. An old woman cried disconsolately when Walter, the make-believe husband of make-believe Lenore, died. Not all of the reaction was so concerned with the characters' well-being. "Kill Bernice!" read one post card.

Non-soap fans love to chuckle at such extraordinary stories and tend to regard soap sudsers as some sort of sick-minded victims. But an estimated 40 million Americans -- from board chairmen to bored housewives -- watch soaps regularly, and anything affecting this many people deserves to be taken seriously.

Thus, Lemay's book is welcome. It joins Dan Wakefield's "All Her Children" (1976) among the small number of books that document the making of all those endlessly magnetic, flickering daytime images.

Lemay first demonstrated his considerable writing and observational skills in his only other book, "Inside, Looking Out" (1971), an account of his rural boyhood and his early career in publishing. This next installment in his autobiography evokes another world -- the unique TV madness of high-powered business lunches, fist-slamming story conferences, fights between producers and actors, unconscionable pressure from sponsors, and bungling, cowardly network executives. Everyone lives up to stereotype: worshiping the ratings, reveling in ego, and mocking the public.

"Eight Years in Another World" also provides inside gossip that will work loyal fans into a lather. Sexual misadventures, career crises and family bickering suddenly make sense. He reveals why Alice left for six weeks, how Pat really got the job, and the reason Iris lost her man. He also admits that his scripts called for some of America's favorite television characters to be manipulated or killed because certain actors angered him. But to anyone other than true believers, all these tidbits will be extraordinarily boring.

As the gossip mounts, however, it slowly becomes clear that Lemay's fictional menagerie is seizing control. Before joining "Another World," he had been a frustrated playwright, so poor that he had to feed Spam to his growing children. Then came the offer to join "Another World," and he soon was rationalizing that "all creative writers, from the masters to the hacks, reveal the lives of ordinary people." He found himself alone at home, churning out plots that defy even his own description: "Gil's son, Tim McGowan, was a young lawyer and Steve brought him into his construction firm, ostensibly as a favor to Ada, but in reality as a decoy to attract Steve's sister Janice away from Robert Delaney, whose affections for Steve's good friend Lenore were being undermined by Janice's daily presence in Robert's professional life." Or, "Iris hired Sykes to install listening devices in her husband's hotel suite, and . . . Sykes not only made tapes for Iris, he made another set to use in blackmailing her. Unknown to Sykes, Iris herself had another set made and turned it over to Rachael, who gave it to Steve as evidence that Alice was carrying on with Eliot." Etc., etc., etc.

Pressured to sustain and satisfy so many fictional people and their nerve-shattering problems, Lemay's own personality began to crack. He lapsed into "deep despair," noticed an "imbalance in himself," and had "secret forebodings of mental collapse." His family life disintegrated, he didn't sleep well, he lost contact with old friends. He began worrying whether he could "exist" if he ever washed out as a soap-writer.

At this point -- just as he began to resemble the distraught woman who had called his hotel -- Lemay starts putting his life back together. In the end, as during his tenure in "Another World," he doesn't always come across as admirable. He is arrogant and at least two generations behind the women's movement. But this is his story as he tells it, and he comes clean.

Walter, Lenore, Alice, et al., would be proud.