For eight years, says Martin Cruz Smith, "I was waiting for only one moment, and now that moment has arrived."
Ten floors above New York's East 79th Street, this season's biggest literary longshot has just collided with success, and is running a damage check on his integrity during a decade that took him from hack-work obscurity to critical raves. And he is finding all systems agreeably intact, despite the anguish of "riding your own ego all that time -- including times when you can only be accurately described as a shlockmeister."
He slaps out the last word with a manic bravado -- and why not? In the $2 billion crapshoot that is American book publishing Smith has just made his point at the big table."Gorky Park," his new novel from Random House, is already No. 5 on the Washington best-seller list and a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection.
It was a daring gamble. Smith demanded -- and got -- $1 million for an intellectually challenging, thematically dense tale of a Soviet detective who solves the mystery of three bodies found mutilated in the Moscow park of the title. Not the kind of Robert Ludlum potboiler that gives publishers the warm glow of mass-market certitude.
But this small, muscular man in rumpled corduroy shirt, black digital runner's watch and scuffed gum-sole gym shoes is wary of plaudits. "I always assume that there are angry gods," he says, "and that if you presume too much, they will take it all away."
Not likely -- the gods have had their chance. After a decade of writing more than 30 novels -- only five of them under his own name -- Smith has bounced his pride time and again off the hard bottom line of the market.Three times he has bought back the contracts on his own books, written them the way he wanted to, and gone on to sell them elsewhere for more money. Yet he won't allow himself the luxury of satisfaction uncut by humor. Sitting between the Navajo rug and the Sony Trinitron, he says, "There's a fine line -- if any at all -- between integrity and pretense."
Of course: Success is just a category, and at 38 Smith is a master eluder of categories. He is a half WASP, half American Indian, baptized both Catholic and Episcopal, who writes with equal facility about gypsies and vampire bats. He is a man who calls New York a "prison," yet sprints through the madding traffic to his squash club with the suicidal elan of a 7th Avenue delivery boy. He is a meticulous and cerebral novelist who writes in the domestic clutter of his bedroom, sometimes with a child on his lap. He is a vivid raconteur with a big, honest, ecumenical laugh -- but he has a vicious wit for remembered wrongs. And he is a man who will begin a book for the money, change his mind, and then fight the publisher for eight years to buy it back and do it the way he wants to.
He's earned the right to lie back as if the whole Upper East Side were his screen porch. But he's sitting straight up in spring-wire attention, arms and legs spread open like a man who is daring you to hit him in the stomach, heading off potential criticisms with self-deprecating relish.
Have the critics praised the awesome authenticity of his Moscow setting? Have they rhapsodized over the depth of his understanding of Soviet society in general, and his detective Arkady Renko in particular?
Well then Smith, who speaks no Russian, will say with earnest glee that he only spent six days in Moscow. And that was eight years ago. And without an interpreter. And the book is set in the snows of April, but he was there in July. He had made up the plot in advance, he says, and the Moscow trip was carefully planned to hit each location on his detective's itinearary.
Is that a risky admission? Are the gods insufficiently provoked? Smith can top it: He got much of his notion of the Soviet mind from a half-dozen Russian emigres he cultivated in New York. And the idea for the book began right here, in this modest two-bedroom apartment where his wife, Emily, 37, glowingly pregnant with their third child, is side-stepping the familial sprawl of doll houses and boxes on the floor to pour coffee.
His passage to Moscow began in 1973, when he read a Newsweek review of a book called "The Face Finder," about the forensic science of recreating lifelike heads of mutilated murder victims. Smith threw the clipping into a folder of "yellowing ideas," but soon returned to the idea of the face-restoration process, which is only practiced in the Soviet Union.
He began plotting a conventional thriller about a partnership between detectives -- only Soviet, one American -- and sold the idea to Putman's for $15,000. "I brought them this outline that was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but one was Russian."
But after the few days in Moscow, he became interested in the challenge of making a dingy, rumpled Soviet cop his hero, and discovered that he had serious thoughts about Soviet and American societies. In the process, he began shaking off the Grub Street mind-set derived from years of writing small successes like "Gypsy in Amber" and fast novels under fictional names.
"I suddenly realized that I had something -- this is the book that can set me free. So I delivered Putman's a manuscript in which the Sundance Kid didn't show up for the first 200 pages. And they said, 'What is this Russian novel your're giving us -- what happened to the outline?'"
He speaks in a richly oratorical voice that seems too large for his 5-foot 7-inch frame, and with each mounting phrase, each energetic gesture, his eyes click one-sixteenth of an inch wider until it looks so bug-eyed painful that you're starting to blink for him. The tension is relieved only when he swoops out of his chair to move an indignant calico cat named Maggie.
"So Putman's and I went into a deadlock: They insisted that I change, I insisted that I wouldn't. I just refused to write it." For four years he waged a "waiting war," constantly trying to buy back the rights to the book, stoking the acrimony with letters claiming that "Gorky" would be a blockbuster. "There is nothing more infuriating to a publisher than a proverty-striken writer who's holding out."
Meanwhile, each quickie contract was "buying myself a couple of months to work on 'Gorky Park.'" By 1978 he had 400 pages finished when it all fell into place: A front-office turnover at Putman's allowed him to buy the book back, and the surprise success of his vampire-bat horror thriller "Nightwing" set me free" financially.
By May of last year, he was finished with "Gorky Park" and sent it to his agent, Knox Burger. The novel was submitted first to Norton, which turned down a $200,000 request. At that point, Smith told Burger to ask for a million dollars in a combined hardcover-paperback sale. Burger -- whose motto is "honest prose, nerves of steel" -- had no qualms: "My only problem was that it was too much of a novel --not junky enough to get into that big popcorn market."
Burger sent the book to Random House, where it met with immediate interest. In July, when the deal got close, Smith says, "we took off for Vermont. We didn't even want to be near the phone, because then we'd just be sitting there like this . . ." -- he pounces out of his chair into a contorted mime of anxiety.
Emily adds, "Bill couldn't do anything -- we just talked about it and thought about it at all times. We kept madly active -- sailing, going to movies, anything."
"One day we came in real late and called Knox," Smith said. "And he says, 'Where the hell have you been! I've been trying to call you all day.' But he told me that we'd make it."
Burger says Smith had "played supercool all day. When I told him the news, he said, "That's fine, that's terrifc.' He has the nerves of a burglar." Novelist Richard Woodley, a good friend of the Smiths, was with them in Vermont when the call came. "He turned around from the phone," Woodley says, "and quite calmly said, 'Shake hands with a guy who just made a million dollars.' Then we sat around the table for a few minutes and went out to play tennis."
Martin Cruz Smith is known as Bill Smith because his name is actually Martin William Smith. He hates "Marty," and added the "Cruz" (the first name of his maternal grandmother, a New Mexico Indian) because there are several other writers named Martin Smith and "we were all listed together in 'Books in Print.'"
He was born in Reading, Pa. His father, of Scottish-episcopalian background, "was a jazz musician and sometime professional photographer, and my mother was a jazz singer." His mother is mostly Indian, and the cultural amalgam was "very different, very strange." Reading, he says, was "a very stodgy German town. And here my father was, a jazz musician, bringing home an Indian girl who was also a Catholic." He says it was "always very romantic to be half-Indian," and was "always a plus with other kids" since "the East romanticizes Indians.Scottsdale, Arizona, might have been a different matter."
As a child, he lived in Pennsylvania and New Mexico, returning to the Philadelphia area in time for high school at Germantown Academy, "I began to think of myself as a very glib wise guy very early on, a view substantiated by everyone else around me." He graduated "the worst student in my class -- with an average of 64," but got admitted to Penn anyway. After an abortive try at sociology, he majored in creative writing, met Emily, and graduated in 1964.
After brief jobs at a local TV station, several newspapers and the Associated Press, in 1968 he heard through a friend of Emily's about a job opening in New York. The position was with Magazine Management Co. -- the now-defunct publisher of Male, Stag and other periodicals, whose staff and writers had included Bruce Jay Friedman, Jimmy Breslin and Mario Puzo. Located next door to Marvel Comics, it was "a very strange place where I felt very at home," Smith says. He soon became editor of For Men Only, and worked his income to a handsome $16,000 a year by assigning himself free-lance stories under fictional names and writing both the letters and answers to a reader-response column. The stories were titled "20 Ways to Turn Your Woman On," and "Miss Oklahoma Wants to Meet a Real Cowboy," but Smith remembers it as the kind of magazine where "you could tear the blouse, but you couldn't take it off." By 1969, the job begun to pall, and he finally was fired after getting in a fight with a circulation consultant.
But by that time he had married Emily, and they moved to Paris, hoping that "the money would go farther." It did, and Smith finished his first novel, "The Indians Won," a revisionist fantasy of American history that was published by a paperback house called Tower Books. A friend sent that novel to Knox Burger, a book editor-turned-agent, with the suggestion that he represent Smith, who by that time had a contract for his second novel, a project about gypsies. Burger says he found Smith's work "wretchedly organized," but saw a growing talent and quick intelligence and said he could sell the book for more money, and in a hurry. Smith recalls saying woefully, "I don't think you can sell it fast enough."
So Smith bought back the rights to "Gypsy in Amber," a thriller about a gypsy antique dealer. It became his first hardcover novel for Putnam in 1971, followed the next year by "Canto for a Gypsy." More contracts kept appearing, and for most of the '70s Smith supported himself by turning out dozens of quickie novels in a torrent of pseudonymity:
As Simon Quinn, six volumes in Dell's "Inquisitor" series, thrillers about a hit-man for the Vatican. Smith's favorite title: "The Last Time I Saw Hell."
As Jake Logan, several "adult westerns" for Playboy Press, including "North to Dakota" and "Ride for Revenge." Smith is particularly proud of the first one, which "started off with the hero strangling a chimpanzee."
Two novelizations of films -- one of "Adventures of the Wilderness Family" and one of the Nick Carter private-eye volumes for Award Books.
Each of the contract took him about six to eight weeks to finish ("I was very fast," Smith says. And ingenious, too: "I once invented a scheme to smuggle heroin into the United States in marzipan") and brought in between $2,000 and $6,000 each.
By 1977, however, Smith says, "everything came to a halt." As the pressures were building within him to do a serious book, so were the financial demands of two daughters and the rent on 79th Street. Desperate for a money-making idea, he turned to the movies pages of The New York Times, flipping through the horror-film ads to see "what they were looking for. And then it struck me -- they hadn't done vampire bats!"
"Nightwing" was aloft. On the strength of an eight-page outline, he got a modest advance from Pocket Books, but by the time he sent the manuscript to Burger, Smith was again lamenting that the project was "really too moronic." Burger encouraged him to embellish the Indian lore, to "deepen it, make it better," and to buy the contract back from Pocket Books. Again, the gamble paid off: "Nightwing" was a considerable success for Norton and Jove. The book Smith wrote "out of despair and purely for the money," made him half a million dollars by the time the movie rights were sold to Columbia.
"Nightwing" gave him not only big money but his first taste of big national exposure -- including the talkshow circuit. He agreed to appear on "Good Morning America" with a cage full of live bats to pitch his book. "I came on as an utter bozo. It was Halloween, and they'd had one author on already."
Smith went into his spiel, "and I'm thinking, 'Well, we're going to mention the book any second now.' As I'm sitting there with the bats in my lap, I am not aware that there is now the identifying panel under me in blue letters which says 'Martin Cruz Smith -- Bat Authority.' Bat Authority! And suddenly Sandy Hill is saying, 'Thank you very much' -- and that's it! No mention of the book. Now, I know when I've been a jerk. I kicked myself all the way across Central Park."
Smith makes the whole incident sound so pathetically demeaning that one has to ask whose idea the caged-bat spectacle was? "Well," Smith admits, looking hard at the floor for a while, "it was partly mine -- so I set myself up."
But if he is willing to promote himself, he is also willing to take the most difficult of risks -- writing about Indians in his next book. It seems an impossible dilemma: He can't escape the pull of his heritage, but feels presumptuous in the face of the subject. (The last time he was in New Mexico, Smith says, one of his uncles came up to him and said, "Say, Bill, when did you become an Indian?")
"I'd like if it I had some reservation background -- a certain patina of authenticity," Smith says. A tough subject, a new provocation for the angry gods? "I'm enormously lucky," he says, sweeping his hand out toward the apartment, which has grown even smaller as his daughters -- Nell, 11, and Louisa, 9 -- have come home from school. "And having been lucky a couple of times, I intend to defend that luck. I can only be lucky, however, if I continue to press on. If I try to do another 'Gorky Park' or another bat book, everything goes."
But can even Smith's impregnable integrity resist the ego-pitfalls and slothful sirens of million-dollar best-sellerdom? The man who once "bounced 37 checks in a row," says that all he wants from the big time is "a house in the country where the girls can have a dog" and a chance to write what he wants.
For the rest, he is honestly indifferent. "I'll tell you what success does for you," Smith says, leaning into another big laugh: Before, I was treated as an idiot. Now, I'm treated as an idiot-savant."