NEW YORK -- Michael Blake wants to be inspiring. He's asked that his author's tour include meetings with schoolchildren, like this auditorium session with journalism students from three tough city high schools, so they can hear his heartening Hollywood tale. How he lived in a garage for a year. How he washed dishes and drove buses.

The historical novel so little noticed when it was published in 1988 -- maybe it was that odd title, "Dances With Wolves," or maybe the bare-chested-brave cover art ("Conan the Barbarian Visits an Indian Village," says the mortified author) -- has 1.6 million paperbacks in print now. Blake's had to purchase a tuxedo for overdressed awards ceremonies like tomorrow's, where he may win an Oscar for the screenplay he wrote from his novel.

In fact, Blake has little use for coy being-nominated-is-enough demurrals -- he badly wants his name called so he can go up and grab that sucker. Why? So he can be even more inspiring.

"I'm a dreamer," he tells the kids, who are dutifully taking notes. "I'm here today to show you that dreams can come true. And I'm here to tell you, if you have a dream of doing something fine with your life, hold on to it."

Can participants in the Sidney Sheldon Journalism Program (no lie -- the Lord of Lurid do-nated the program's seed money) be much influenced by this kind of pep talk? They both know something about hard knocks -- the minority teens whose school populations have poverty rates exceeding 40 percent and the 45-year-old college-educated roustabout who deliberately took boring jobs so he could concentrate on cracking Hollywood. But they're hardly comparable knocks.

Moreover, Blake's long-delayed success owes much to flukes and friendship, as well as to dreams and dedication. "What made you choose Kevin Costner for this role?" asks one of the student journalists, understandably misperceiving the power relationships between bankable stars and unproduced screenwriters. If his pal Costner, whose famous face now stares out from that best-selling paperback, hadn't acquired "Dances With Wolves" and hired him to write the screen version, Blake might still be scraping paint in Bisbee, Ariz.

But the teachers think it's wonderful that a hotshot screenwriter has come to Park West High School in Hell's Kitchen. And the kids themselves seem excited, pressing around Blake after the talk so he can autograph the paperbacks he brought for them.

Whatever the quirks of Blake's personal saga, he is indisputably a testament to the power of perseverance. "One of my techniques is, never give up, never quit," he tells his young audience. "I haven't yet."

True enough. After "Dances With Wolves" finished filming in South Dakota, Blake encountered an entirely new predicament: He was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, a form of cancer. He's fought back with both modern medical techniques and Indian healing ceremonies, and both kinds of medicine men tell him he's doing well. But the threat of recurrence hangs over him even as he's been tux-shopping. "It's a wild ride," Blake says of his current life and times.

He's lanky, with sandy hair turning gray, an Indian-style bracelet on one wrist beneath the tweed suit jacket, and horses on his tie. He has a thing about animals. In the reverse of the normal publishing chronology, his successfully reissued paperback is being followed by a hardcover version of "Dances With Wolves" from Newmarket Press; he's donating the royalties to the Mountain Lion Preservation Foundation. His next big project is a screenplay about the slaughter of wild horses in Nevada.

Blake himself, reclining in an office chair at Newmarket's offices after his high school appearance, finds it hard to understand where these semi-mystical feelings for plains and mustangs and Native Americans originate. He's a native of North Carolina, but not a country boy. He grew up hearing about a great-grandfather who was a cavalry officer in the Apache wars and traded with Geronimo, but he never knew much about Indians or their history until he was in his twenties and read Dee Brown's poignant "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee."

"Just something about the way they lived struck me as making a lot of sense," Blakes muses. "It was the first time I ever read about people who were proud to live in partnership with nature. And what's the European response to nature? To crush. To tame."

Being tamed is a notion that's never had much appeal. Like a million other kids who came of age denouncing Nixon and protesting Vietnam, Blake had a horror of sliding into some corporate straitjacket; unlike most of them, he's never lost it. It wasn't economic necessity that led him to drive a bus, live in a garage or sponge off friends, Blake acknowledges; he was perfectly capable of being a self-supporting Toyota salesman, bank vice president or English teacher.

"Throughout my life I've been faced with choices," he explains. "Get a job I don't care about and I'm miserable in all the time. Or get a job I do care about and will immerse myself in -- and that precludes writing." Literary anthologies are full of celebrated writers who have held other jobs, Blake further acknowledges. "Wallace Stevens sold insurance. {Actually, the poet was vice president of Hartford Accident and Indemnity for more than 20 years.} I just couldn't."

Blake got lucky early on -- shortly after moving to Los Angeles (the garage belonged to the Porsche of a lawyer he knew), a fledgling producer named Jim Wilson bought his script for a low-budget gambling movie and cast a fledgling actor named Costner in the lead. But after the quite-unremarked-upon "Stacy's Knights," which still shows up on cable TV occasionally, Blake got unlucky for years. Nothing else he wrote found a buyer.

Finally, as he was describing still another film idea to his by-then movie star friend, Costner urged him to take a different approach. "He knew I had suffered a lot in Hollywood," Blake says. "At that point I had probably written 15 screenplays, one of which I'd had produced. I was living in complete obscurity and utter poverty." Forget the screenplay, Costner urged. Write it as a novel.

For nine months in 1986, Blake did just that. "I had a central vision of a man who brings a wagon to a distant outpost and there's no one there," he says of "Dances With Wolves." "And he's right in the middle of the Indians' summer hunting ground. But that was all there was." From years of reading about the frontier and Indian life, Blake felt well supplied with background knowledge. But he had no plot and few major characters.

And he had, once again, no place to live. He stayed at Kevin and Cindy Costner's, or with producer Wilson (by then head of Costner's production company); he house-sat. He spent a number of nights in his vast 1970 Chrysler, nicknamed "Das Boot."

A simple Hollywood tale would have Blake's book, published in paperback by Ballantine, turning to gold. Instead the novel, for which he was paid $6,500, was not only a distinctly modest seller but an embarrassment.

"Did you ever see the original cover?" Blake asks, hopping out of his chair to fetch the "Conan" edition. "All that work and they put this cartoon on the cover. I didn't know how I could face my friends."

Depressed and still broke, Blake borrowed a thousand bucks and left L.A., "just traveling around, looking for a place to land. I was a dispossessed person. I dispossessed myself." He alighted in Bisbee, drawn by its diverse population and an impressive bookstore, where he wound up working a couple of afternoons a week. He was also a handyman and then a $3.35-an-hour dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant. The Costners sent him CARE packages. "Salami and nuts. A down jacket. One of those weird camping knives with everything on it. It was very sweet."

Of course, even though Blake had told himself, "I'm going out there like the French Foreign Legion; I'm going to forget all that and start over," he couldn't quite kick the starving-artist habit. Between shifts, he was working on another novel. "I'm a sad case."

Okay, now comes the upbeat ending. Costner calls, says he loves "Dances With Wolves" and he's getting the money to direct and star in it; does Blake want to write the screenplay? Back in L.A., despite financing problems that cause false starts and long lags, Blake churns out six different drafts of a screenplay.

The movie, naturally, differs in some important ways from his novel. Blake wrote about the Comanche. But the moviemakers needed a large buffalo herd and found one in South Dakota, home to a large Sioux population. So Kicking Bird and Stands With a Fist and the rest of the gang became celluloid Sioux or, as the tribe calls itself, Lakota.

Moreover, Blake's cheerful conclusion -- Dances With Wolves and his bride stay with the tribe and presumably live happily ever after -- yielded at Costner's behest to something more cinematic and more sorrowful. "I think Kevin chose the right ending, as the movie goes," Blake says, without distress. "There's something glorious and magnificent and large in that long shot of them leaving, with the great sky and the snow."

Besides, the real happy ending is that "Dances With Wolves," despite occasional critical sniping (Pauline Kael suggested that the hero should have been named Plays With Camera), has grossed roughly $130 million -- and that's without picking up any of the 12 Academy Awards for which it's nominated.

Blake, now living in a house in a Malibu canyon with two horses, two dogs and a cat, is suddenly in demand. He's written the screenplay for "Poodle Springs," the further adventures of Raymond Chandler's private eye Philip Marlowe, for Universal. Universal also hired him, for "an enormous amount of money," to write and produce the film he calls "Mustangs." Blake's second novel is being published next fall, and he's planning another screenplay for Costner.

And he's battling Hodgkin's disease, which causes tumors of the lymph system. In a plot twist any filmmaker would reject, Blake's diagnosis came on a Friday the 13th last spring, when "Dances With Wolves" was in post-production. He underwent surgery last May ("they took a lot of flesh outta there") and began radiation therapy in June. "It's hell to go through," Blake says. "Hell."

But it seems to have worked. The cancer, he says, "has been obliterated. Whether it comes back again, I don't know."

Or maybe it wasn't the radiation that caused the remission. On Christmas Eve a family of Lakota healers from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota did their part to help Blake recover. "At first I was skeptical about the ceremonies, about what I was seeing, thinking things were done with tricks or sleight of hand," Blake says. "By the end, I could only say that I could not explain what was happening."He saw objects fly around the darkened room. He saw healing lights move over his body. When the ceremony ended, Blake says, "I felt incredibly revitalized, spiritually." A few days later, friends began to tell him he was looking better. "I underwent a very complicated and old ceremony and they pronounced me cured," he says. "I'm not inclined to argue."

Or to complain about life as some kind of good news-bad news joke. "I felt, in the weirdest way, that it was a blessing," Blake says. "Because it reminds me that the good comes with the bad and there's no such thing as a high that goes on for years."

But didn't he feel rage?, the less spiritually inclined might demand. Wasn't he entitled to enjoy his happy ending at least until, say, "Dances With Wolves" hit the screen?

"Well, I am enjoying it, every day," is Blake's mild response. "I'm experiencing life to the fullest; that's a dream everyone has."

And, perhaps touched by this recent brush with mortality, he's making his case to schoolchildren, with himself as the chief argument for refusing to surrender to negative thoughts, assorted misfortunes or even simple common sense.

He signs his name in their paperback copies of his novel along with admonitions to keep the faith. "To James, good luck, Michael Blake." "Hi Suzette. Keep Goin'! Michael Blake."

At Park West High School, even the security guard had wanted a copy of "Dances With Wolves." The author obliged. "It's a pleasure, Fernando," Blake had said, handing back the signed book. "Keep it goin', man."