IDOL TALK: The Bestselling New York Times Author You Never Heard Of

Suppose you had seven New York Times bestselling novels under your belt and still nobody knew your name. Can’t happen, you say?

But it did.

If you’re in the know in Hollywood, then you’ll recognize the name of Tom Straw, a veteran writer of numerous television comedies from “Night Court” to the “Cosby Show.” But I’ll bet you didn’t know about his seven New York Times bestsellers. And it’s not like he was hanging out at the bottom of the list. He actually hit number one.

So, where has Tom been all your literary life?

It just so happens that he wrote under the pseudonym of Richard Castle. Ring a familiar bell? Rick Castle (BTW, a great first name), is the fictitious novelist in the long-running television detective series “Castle.” The show ran for seven seasons and starred Nathan Fillion as Castle and Stana Katic as his romantic interest, New York City Police Detective Kate Becket.

In the series, Castle was a crime novelist seeking his muse. So he wrangled a via New York’s mayor to shadow Beckett while she investigated crimes. While working with her, he created his “Nikki Heat” character for his novel series based on his experiences with Detective Beckett. Of course, this is a television show so there is no real book series.

But then…

Then, the show’s Executive Producer Andrew W. Marlowe approached Straw about actually writing the novels as a tie-in to the television show. He wrote seven novels during seven seasons “Castle” ran on the air and every one of them became a New York Times bestseller. So there you go. Tom Straw, aka Richard Castle, the most successful bestselling author you never heard of—until now.

Lee Child Retires

Probably the most successful thriller writer in the genre, Lee Child, has retired and has passed on his Jack Reacher series to his younger brother, Andrew Grant. Want the details on the transition? Click here for my story in the Big Thrill magazine about the passing of the biggest baton in all of thrillerdom. And if you’d like to know more about Lee Child’s beginnings, click here for a story that will appear as a chapter in my anthology about successful novelists’ beginnings.

My Neighbor Randy Wayne White

Decades ago when the The New Yorker reached Floridian Randy Wayne White to pen a piece on the Everglades, he turned down the offer. The Outside magazine columnist and fishing guide was in a foul mood. It was the height of the fishing season and he had enough work on his plate. Besides, he said at the time, what else can be written about Florida’s endangered swamp land that hasn’t already been written?

He wasn’t trying to play hard to get, but it didn’t seem to hurt at all. White heard from his buddies in New York literary circles that the editor he turned down was telling others chumming for talent that Randy was a big catch. “Randy White’s pretty good, if you can get him,” she told people. When the supply is limited, the demand usually goes up.

Randy went on to write dozens of novels, many NYT bestsellers. His most famous novels are part of his “Doc Ford” series about the adventures of marine biologist Doc Ford. Keep an eye on later this month for my story about Randy. We met at his restaurant, Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grill on Sanibel Island, not far from my Florida condo, and we had a long chat about his beginnings, and book and magazine publishing.

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IDOL TALK: William Styron Stumbling. Lee Child Retiring. Scott Turow Intimidated. Chevy Chase’s Dad Edits.

William Styron was “so wildly drunk, it was embarrassing,” says Scott Turow, the man who created the modern legal thriller. Turow shot to fame (and fortune) after publication of his first legal thriller Presumed Innocent (which became a major motion picture starring Harrison Ford).

Turow’s description of acclaimed novelist Styron followed a New York City luncheon where Scott was awarded a Book of the Month writing fellowship. Styron was on stage handing out the awards that day, or at least attempting to. Turow, at the time, had just graduated from college. He went on to teach writing at Stanford and later attend Harvard Law School. At the time, young Turow found the whole scene intimidating. “New York scared the shit out of me in those days.”

Turow later authored a book about his freshman year at Harvard Law School called One L, Harvard’s computer acronym for first-year law students. He says he doesn’t know what Putnam Editor Ned Chase saw in his book, but he’s glad he chose it. Turow’s been receiving royalty checks ever since. For more than three decades One L has become must reading for law students and those considering law school. Chase, a top book editor in his day, was father of comedian Chevy Chase. Before Turow entered Harvard, his agent told Chase about Turow’s idea for the book. Chase wrote up a contract before Turow even entered Harvard. It was Turow’s first published book.

I talked with Scott Turow recently for about what it took to get his first novel, Presumed Innocent, published. What it took was years. Click here to read the story. Presumed Innocent is the novel that sparked my interest in writing thrillers. I remember staying up into the wee hours unable to put it down.

When you become as big as Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher series, strange stuff happens, he says. In his sixth novel, Echo Burning, he included an attempted assassination. He traveled to Denmark on a book tour just as an assassination attempt on a public official came to light. Child, expecting to be interviewed about his latest novel, was instead asked about the assassination attempt as if he were an expert.

He was candid about it saying he was no expert at all. “I just make things up.”

On another occasion, a member of the Australian Federal Parliament cited Child’s Jack Reacher character during a floor debate in the legislature. You know you’ve arrived when your novel’s protagonist is used in political discourse halfway around the world.

Child’s Jack Reacher series, which has spawned 25 books, is the largest selling thriller series in the genre. Child has sold more than 100 million books. But not any more. He is retiring from writing the franchise and turning the reins over to his younger brother Andrew Grant, also a novelist. For the series, Grant will write under the pen name Andrew Child. The Sentinel, written almost entirely by Andrew Child (with Lee Child’s name still larger than anything else on the cover), was launched this week.

Lee Child says retirement includes buying a new couch to lounge on and do what he loves most. Read books. He will also be busy as executive producer of Amazon’s upcoming Jack Reacher streaming series, which is scheduled to debut in the fall of 2021. Prepare to binge.

I talked with the brothers Grant (Lee Child’s real name is Jim Grant) for a story in The Big Thrill magazine. You can read my story in the upcoming November issue. The Big Thrill is the official magazine of the International Thriller Writers.

BONUS: Ever wonder what goes into designing a book cover? Read my story on the many failed attempts for my novel, Naked Ambition. I learned a lot from this experience. Maybe you will too. It gives you an idea of what goes into the process.

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Please excuse any typos. The editor, like the author, is in solitary.


IDOL TALK: After a Bestseller, What Are the Odds of Future Success?

Editors and agents constantly tell writers to include plenty of conflict in their novels.  For some authors, it’s easy. They lived it.

“My career has been one disaster followed by a victory, followed by a disaster. I think that’s true of most writers,” says Gayle Lynds, one of the most popular spy novelists in the world. Gayle fought sexism her entire career as a writer—whether in the newsroom at the Arizona Republic, or with a book editor who told her women don’t write spy novels. And for Gayle, it wasn’t just men putting roadblocks in her path.

But in the end, one woman put Gayle over the top. Her first novel, Masquerade, was published in hardback and did well, but it wasn’t flying off the shelves. Then Phyllis Grann at Berkley Paperbacks read it and loved it. At a marketing meeting she held Masquerade up and waved it before the assemblage proclaiming, “See this book? It’s a great book. We’re going to make it a bestseller.”

And she did.

Masquerade arrived on the New York Times bestseller list at number seventeen and Gayle has made it one of her favorite stops ever since.

Scott Turow, considered the father of the modern legal thriller and famed for his gripping novel Presumed Innocent, struggled for years on a project that went nowhere. Prior to his fame and fortune, he spent four years on a novel about a rent strike in a Chicago filled with fraud and a secret landowner.

“The main problem, I worked on it for too long,” he says. It was 1972 and Richard Nixon had just been elected president. “The message was America was not having more of this hippy shit,” he says. “That’s what my novel was basically about . . . but the public was sick of the rebellion thing.”

Or take Lee Child. Way back when, when he was still Jim Grant, he worked for the BBC as a producer. He was also the union shop steward, which put him in the crosshairs of management. He was eventually fired and needed to make some money fast to feed his family. He’d been thinking for some time about writing a novel, so he sat down with a legal pad and pencils and Jack Reacher was born.

Year’s later after he was rich and famous, he ran into his old BBC boss at a museum opening in London. While Child was gratified to know he had accomplished so much—more than his former boss who had fired him ever would—the Brit kept a stiff upper lip and a smile his face. Who says you can’t get no satisfaction?

The lesson here, Lynds says, is in book publishing there is the “What have you done for me lately?” culture among publishers. It’s a fickle business. Writers must constantly be hammering their keyboards on their next book to make a living because there are no guarantees of future success in book publishing.