Buy it online
Books by John Saul
- Suffer the Children
- Punish the Sinners
- Cry for the Strangers
- Comes the Blind Fury
- When the Wind Blows
- The God Project
- The Unwanted
- The Unloved
- Second Child
- The Homing
- Black Lightening
- The Presence
- The Right Hand of Evil
The Blackstone Chronicles:
- Part 1: An Eye for an Eye: The Doll
- Part 2: Twist of Fate: The Locket
- Part 3: Ashes to Ashes: The Dragon's Flame
- Part 4: In the Shadow of Evil: The Handkerchief
- Part 5: Day of Reckoning: The Stereoscope
- Part 6: Asylum
"A lot of the fans like it [Suffer the Children] best. I think because it was the most violent thing I ever wrote. I sort of toned down the violence after that.... I thought that if kids that young were going to be reading me I was going to tone down the gore. I didn't really like writing all the gore anyway. So that was probably the most violent thing I've ever done, which I suspect is why [it's sold so well] because the public seems to have this unending thirst for the violence that I was unwilling to keep serving up.
John Saul is camping when I catch up with him. Though, to be honest, camping doesn't quite describe it. More accurately, he's on a book tour, driving around in his own rock-star-appropriate bus, complete with leather furnishings and glass shower enclosure. He's not exactly roughing it. "This," the 57-year-old writer says, indicating the palatial mobile accommodations that surround us, "is as close as you can get to a private rail car these days." I am left with the distinct impression that, if such conveyances were still available, Saul would be near the front of the line to get one.
One shouldn't, from these slightly-snide-sounding-comments of mine, get the impression that Saul is a prima donna. He's not. Or, rather, if he is it's not something that's readily apparent. On conversing with him, however, what is apparent is that John Saul did not take the easy path to literary success. And he scraped and scrapped just enough on the climb that he's enjoying the trappings of his success. Immensely. And cheerfully. And he's got a lot of trappings.
Besides the impressive bus, Saul maintains homes in Maui, Hawaii and Seattle, Washington. And he likes toys. The bus tows a late model luxury Jeep for excursions on location. On the bus itself, it seems that there is some sort of spiffy electronic gadget in every eyeful. The trappings of international bestsellerdom look good on John Saul. And why not? Over two decades into this particular career, Saul has sold several million copies of his 27 books. His first novel, Suffer the Children , was an immediate million-copy bestseller. A string of books since have each outsold the last, ending -- until recently -- with a real winner on the selling stakes: The Blackstone Chronicles , published initially in serial form over six installments to great acclaim and following on the success of Stephen King's The Green Mile, published in the same serial format.
Saul's latest book, The Right Hand of Evil , is in traditional novel form. More of the horror, haunting and psychological terror that has marked Saul's work, this time set in Louisiana around a family with a long, dark history in the fictional town of St. Albans.
Linda Richards: Did you buy the bus for this tour?
John Saul: No, no, no. I bought it because it's a nice way to travel. And I like to travel with my own stuff around me. I don't like hotels anymore. I've had enough of hotels. So, when I travel I prefer being in an RV.
I think it was Walter Satherthwait who, a year or so ago, did a tour in an RV with book art painted on the side. And I guess that's what I expected to see when I came here today.
I won't do that. I will not. A few years ago I was conned into putting a couple of posters up on the stern. It looked totally tacky. And people kept asking if I was the bookmobile. Of course, sitting in little restaurants in small towns and listening to people at the next table saying, "Well, who is that John Saul person. I've never heard of him. He isn't anybody, is he?"
Sounds kind of fun.
Kind of creepy, actually. [Laughs].
Are you a dad?
Because when I was reading the The Right Hand of Evil , it seemed to me that you had a very good understanding of the teenage mind. You rendered the teenaged characters in the book very well.
Well, I was a teenager once myself. Teenagers are teenagers are teenagers and not much changes from one generation to the next. They all think they're unique, but they're not. They think that their problems have never been experienced by anybody else. So basically, all you have to do when you're writing teenagers is go back and become that 15-year-old or 16-year-old or whatever age.
I fortunately have a very good recall of all of that. I remember the first time I went to a high school reunion and some of these people were people I'd gone to kindergarten and all through high school with. And I would talk about something that happened when we were in second grade or third grade and they would say, "You remember the third grade?" It shocked me that I was the only one that did. Most of them said they could barely remember high school. And I can remember where I sat in kindergarten. I can remember what we did. I can remember pretty much everything, I have this total recall. Now, my 20s and 30s are pretty much gone [laughs]. That was in the 60s and there's not a lot of memories of that . But the 50s I'm pretty clear on.
And in the 70s you started writing bestselling books.
That would be 1977. Suffer the Children came out in 1977.
So what were you doing in the 60s that made them be gone?
I was a starving writer. I was writing books that no one wanted to publish. And earning my living in the car rental business. I had one wonderful job with Airways Rent-A-Car. Airways had a couple of offices in Los Angeles and one in San Francisco and I think one in Seattle. And there was nobody in the whole company -- including the president -- that had any interest in the car rental business at all. The car rental business was an easy way for people to make a living while they pursued their real careers, which was mostly acting and writing in Los Angeles and writing elsewhere. So, for the actors, everyone's job schedules were completely flexible and if an audition came up, no problem. You just went and did your auditions. For writers, they should feel perfectly free to bring their typewriters to the office. And if there's nothing going on, do not make any attempt to look busy, just sit there and type. That lasted for about 20 years and finally one day the guy that ran it said, "Well, I've had it. I'm gonna get rid of the whole thing." And that was the end of that.
Then I was a temporary typist for a long time. I did that in San Francisco. I was walking down the street one day, starving as usual. I noticed this big sign that said, "Western Office Services: typist needed." So I walked in and said, "I want to apply for work." And she said, "Well, you want Kelly Warehouse Services down on Mission Street." And I said, "No, no. You don't understand. I type very well, but I don't do warehouse work." She looked very puzzled and she said, "Oh, well, I never really thought about hiring a man as an office temp. But you can take the test, I guess."
So I took the test, and I clocked out around 63 words per minute -- which was considered very good in those days. So she said, "All right. I'll tell you what: we'll try it and see what happens but it may be that people won't want you."
So the next Monday she called and sent me out somewhere. And I wandered in and said very brightly, "Hi! I'm John Saul. I'm your Western Girl." And they kind of looked at me but they took me into the back and I worked. At the end of the day they said, "Can you come back tomorrow?" And I said, "As far as I know. Call the office and they'll tell you." So, by the end of the week, the woman who ran the Western Girl office said, "You know, this seems to be working out really well. No one seems to have a problem with a male Western Girl. So, if you want to keep working as a temp, we'll keep you busy."
It turned out that, in the temp business, they have an "A" list, a "B" list and a "C" list. The "A" list gets all the plumb jobs, the "B" list gets what's left over and the "C" list people get work if they're really desperate. They quickly put me on the "A" list, so I could work whenever I wanted. So that worked out really well, because I could work pretty much whenever and however much I wanted.
Then they decided they needed a temp at Western world headquarters. So they sent me down to be the temporary secretary for the treasurer of the company. And that was working out fine. One day a woman came through and she stopped at my desk and she said, "You! I want you!" I was sort of taken aback, but it turned out she was the publicist for the company and she was working on the new Yellow Pages ad and she said, "They told me that you are actually a real Western Girl." And I told her that was true. And she said, "You're going to be in the Yellow Pages." So they hired two professional female models and sent us down to the photographer and for years there was an ad in the Yellow Pages all over the country for Western Temporary Services and I was the only real Western Girl in the ad. I was in the middle of the two women who were supposed to look like Western Girls but were professional models.
So that's how I kept myself going until Suffer the Children came along.
You were working on Suffer the Children while you were temping?
No. I was writing comedy murder mysteries and this and that and all kinds of things. Nobody wanted them. An agent got interested finally. And she couldn't sell anything. Finally, she talked to an editor at Dell who had read some of my work and liked the way I wrote but didn't think the ideas were very marketable. She said, "What I really want is someone to write psychological thrillers. Psychological occult thrillers. Do you think this guy can do that?" Starving writers, of course, will do absolutely anything if they're going to offer you actual money. You won't say no.
So, I came up with the idea for Suffer the Children and they said, "Well this is a nice idea. Do an outline." So I did an outline -- it took about a week. And they said, "This a good outline. Write the book." They said, "The problem is, we really want this book. But we have to have it in time to publish it in June for the summer list. And that means we really need the book by January 1st." And this was November 27th. So I had one month to write the book. [Laughs] But I was a fast typist. I'd been a Western Girl. I was doing 90 words a minute. So I said, "Sure. I can do that." And then sat down and did it. It was basically 30 days writing the book. 28 days, actually.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Yes. Because that book went on to sell over a million copies.
I think currently it's somewhere around three million. It's still in print. All these years later.
It felt like overnight success?
Well, there were the years of apprenticeship. You don't simply sit down and write a bestseller -- boom! You have to write at least 15 really bad novels first. [Laughs]
But still. It was phenomenal. Have you read that book since?
Yes. I finally read it for the first time four or five years ago.
What do you think of it now?
Well, my editor had been asking for a sequel. Over and over and over. And I kept saying, "You know, I really don't want to do a sequel." And finally she was pushing me really hard. She said, "I'm sure if you read that book..." which at that point I never had. All I'd done was write it. I'd sent her in the first draft, which was basically what was published. There was very minor editing. I'd scanned the galleys for grammatical errors. So I'd never read the book. She said, "I'm sure that if you sit down and read the book you'll find that there's lots of room for a sequel."
So I finally read it. And I called her back and I said, "When was the last time you read it?" At that point I'd only had one editor in my entire career. And she said, "Well, I haven't read it since we published it 15 years ago." And I said, "Well, you might want to read it yourself. And after you've reread it, then we'll talk."
So Monday morning I called her and I said, "Well, now that you've reread Suffer the Children what do you think?" There was this long silence. Finally she said, "Well John, let's just say that you write a more sophisticated book now than you did then." [Laughs]
Neither one of us was mightily impressed. But it still sells like crazy. It still just keeps chugging along. A lot of the fans like it best. I think because it was the most violent thing I ever wrote. I sort of toned down the violence after that when I discovered something that I remember on the first tour. Someone had asked if I would recommend this book for teenagers and I said, "Absolutely not. It's very violent. It's not a pleasant story at all." Well, it turns out that 8-year-olds and up were buying it and reading it. I thought that if kids that young were going to be reading me I was going to tone down the gore. I didn't really like writing all the gore anyway. So that was probably the most violent thing I've ever done, which I suspect is why [it's sold so well] because the public seems to have this unending thirst for the violence that I was unwilling to keep serving up.
Are all of your books dark?
Dark? The Right Hand of Evil dark? How can you even say such a thing? [Laughs] This is frothy comedy! But, yes. Yes. That's what they pay me to do. They want thrillers of one sort or another. Some of them are psychological thrillers. Some of them are occult thrillers. Some of them are techno-thrillers where strange things happen with modern technology and go wrong and turn people into monsters, one way or another. But, yes. What I write is pretty dark. The name is associated with this kind of fiction.
So all of your books have been, well... you describe the genre.
I write thrillers. I do not regard myself as a horror writer. I'm always lumped in with them by the booksellers. They put me in with Steve [King] and Dean Koontz and all those people. But I don't consider myself a horror writer. I've certainly written a few books that could be shoved into that category very comfortably.
Is The Right Hand of Evil one of them?
Uh, no. I consider this one much more a psychological thriller. You know, something weird is going on but you don't know what. I remember talking to an interviewer in Salt Lake City who had read me for the first time and -- live on the radio -- she said, "I don't understand why they call you a horror writer. This is not horror. This is just a terrific thriller." And I told her that's what I'd been doing all along. And she said, "I've never read any of your work before because I always thought it was horror. I don't like horror. I hate horror. I don't read that kind of book. Folks out there in radioland, this is not horror." [Laughs]
Are you working on something right now? Though I guess you're always working on something.
Yes. I'm working on something called The Scent of the Kill . And I'm not going to tell you anything about it at all. I never talk about what I'm working on. There's a good reason for that. I discovered years ago, when I made the mistake of telling someone what I was working on, it turned out it wasn't such a hot idea. But I felt like since I'd told people that this was what I was working on I had to finish the book. And I didn't have any wiggle room to change anything because I'd already committed myself. So I basically won't talk about a book until it's done.
But don't you think that all stories are potentially great stories. It's in the telling, right?
Nope. There are some really bad stories. I can always tell when I've got a bad story. Some stories look really bad just in the idea. You know right away, it's a boring idea. Some ideas seem really good and they just don't work in the outline. Can't pull it together. Some stories look fine in outline but when you sit down to write them everyone in the story says that they don't want to be in this story. Then you know you're in trouble and you better throw it away and start over.
I think I actually hammered through half a manuscript that way once. No one would do anything. I was halfway through the book and they wouldn't even start the damn story! They're just sittin' there doin' nothin'. So I finally called my editor and I said I was throwing it away.
For the most part, by the time a book gets to the point where I'm writing it, I know it's going to work.
Do you do a great deal of research before you start on a new book?
I do as little as possible. They pay me to tell lies. That's the great thing about fiction: you make it up as you go along. That's one the reasons I always make up the towns too. If you use a real place -- for instance, I did set a book in Seattle, and I did set a book on Maui -- and suddenly you've got to have it right, or people go crazy. With those books I did a lot of research, poking around and so on. But for the most part, I like to make it up as I go along.
Once I actually wrote a book and I thought, "I've never been to this place. Maybe I'd better go out to this area and see what it looks like." And guess what? It didn't look anything like I'd written it. But on the other hand, the coast of Maine looks absolutely nothing like I described it in Suffer the Children . I'd never been in New England when I wrote that book. But it seemed like it was a New England kind of story. So I set it on the beautiful coast of Maine. And finally years later I went to see the coast of Maine and it didn't look anything like I'd pictured it, nothing like I'd written it and no one has ever challenged me on it.
You were always a writer? You always knew you wanted to be a writer?
Yeah. I figured I wanted to be a writer when I was... actually my seventh grade English teacher suggested I be a writer. The first week of seventh grade he handed out the list of spelling words and you were not only supposed to know how to spell them, but know how to use them as vocabulary words. The exercise was you used all of the words in a sentence. So I did. I used all of the words in one sentence. Figuring, I'm not going to write 20 sentences, I'll just dream up a sentence that uses all of the words. So the teacher made me stay after school. He said, "You understood perfectly well what I meant." And I agreed. I'd understood. So he said, "Here's the deal: for the rest of the year, I will try to come up with a list of 20 words that you can not put together in one sentence and we'll see who wins at the end." And at the end of the year he said, "Well John, you won. I never thought that I would seriously say this to a seventh grader but I really think you ought to seriously consider a career as a writer." And that stuck in my head. | August 1999
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.