Interview by Bruce C. Steele
The life and career of superstar thriller writer John Saul has had as many surprise twists as one of his books--beginning with his decision to marry a man he'd never met.
Novelist John Stuff snubbed Jaequeline Kennedy Onassis in favor of his husband from Oshkosh.
Not that Saul had actually met the former first lady. But, in the 1980s his publisher, which was then Bantam Books, was eager to introduce him to Onassis, who was working as an editor at Doubleday. Escorting Jackie O. through the salons and gossip pages of New York City, Saul's handlers thought, would catapult him out of his niche as a populist writer of best-selling thrillers. He would quickly become a household name--Stephen King, watch out!
The wrench in that star-making machinery was that Saul lived, quite happily, not in New York but in Seattle--with Michael Sack, his partner since 1975. What did Bantam think Michael would do while John was on Jackie's arm? Well, came the answer, Michael would stay home.
Saul gracefully declined the invitation. "Michael and I, since we met, are together 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he says, sipping coffee in a private garden at the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, where he and Sack are staying while Saul prepares for an appearance on ABC's Politically Incorrect. "Being apart for two nights has happened maybe once in 25 years. It just doesn't happen."
Adds Sack: "What's the point in having a life partner if you don't want to spend every minute with him?"
Saul and Sack do everything together, including creating Saul's pulse-quickening tales of hauntings, creepy experiments, serial killers, and disturbed and disturbing children. If you're not already a fan, you've certainly seen his name, in monster type, shining from the covers of paperbacks with rifles like Creature, The Presence, The Right Hand of Evil, and Nightshade. You've seen his paperbacks in checkout-line displays at "Target and Wal-Mart and all of the other literary hot spots my audience hangs out in," as Saul puts it, with typical self-deprecation. In point of fact, almost all of his books have hit the august New York Times best-seller list, beginning with Saul's first published novel, the phenomenally successful Suffer the Children, in 1977.
"We were on the way home one day," Saul says, turning the clock back to 1976, when an editor suggested he try his hand at "big summer horror fiction." "Suddenly Michael said, `What if there were two little girls and everyone thought one of them was crazy but it was actually the other one who's crazy?' I said, `I like that idea, because that means we can have one little girl killing all of their friends but everyone thinks it's her sister.' And that became Suffer the Children."
Thus a creative partnership was born, and it has continued through Saul's just-published 24th thriller, The Manhattan Hunt Club. The couple brainstorm the basic story idea together, then Sack takes over and creates an outline of dramatic confrontations and plot developments. "Left to my own devices, no one [in my books] would actually do anything. They'd all stay in one room and torture each other, I think," Saul says, laughing (something he does often). "Michael can move them around."
A psychotherapist by training, Sack acknowledges a lifelong propensity for storytelling. "As a child, I'd lie in my bed at night making up stories, of which I was always the hero," he says. "But they always had to have a beginning, a middle, and an end." Once the collaborators have agreed on the outline, Saul writes the book.
The one thing the two men have not done together, until now, is participate in an interview. "Michael takes no part in publicity," Saul says. "The contracts are actually in both of our names [but specify that] I will do all the publicity."
"John Saul," it seems, is a valuable brand name, and his publisher, Ballantine Books, would prefer not to complicate his image. It's not about the gay thing, Saul insists, because he's far from closeted. Indeed, two nights later, with Ballantine's blessing, he's plugging his new book and joking about the "gay agenda" with Bill Maher and some hair-sprayed Stepford wife from the right-wing Concerned Women for America. "I've never been in the closet," Saul says. "I've never made a big issue of it, either way."
Nor does Saul live up to the horror-author stereotype of a dark soul simmering with frightful tales. In person, the foreboding man in the trench coat on the back cover of The Manhattan Hunt Club is a jovial, mischievous elf with a wicked sense of humor and a love of gossip. He relishes describing how Grace Kelly reportedly loved this suite at the Bel-Air for its private garden entrance, through which young men could pass unseen by prying eyes. The door is now chained and blocked by a potted plant, but Saul and Sack won't be needing it anyway. Monogamy becomes them.
"I had made up my mind a year [before we met] that Michael was going to be my lover," Saul recalls. "I had never even spoken to him; I knew him only by reputation-didn't even know what he looked like." It was 1975. Sack lived in Oshkosh, Wis., running the state's drug and alcohol rehabilitation program; Saul, a struggling writer, was in Seattle working for Stonewall, one of the first rehab centers tailored to gay and lesbian clients. Sack was heading to Seattle for a meeting with Saul's boss, "with no clue that I was sitting there like a black widow spider in a web," Saul says with one of his heartiest laughs yet. "I convinced him that we should be lovers within a couple of days. Somehow I managed to pick it out of the atmosphere."
Within six months the two men were married--by an actual priest, but in the middle of the night--at a Catholic church in Oshkosh. They now live in Seattle, with a condo in Maui for frequent escapes.
It's a good life that came unexpectedly to a man who'd spent more than 10 years banging away at book after unpublished book while working jobs like assistant manager at a car rental agency in Los Angeles and office temp for a company called Western Girls. Having delved into the gay scene in Los Angeles and San Francisco in the 1960s and '70s, he even wrote a semiautobiographical gay novel, later published as A Fairy Tale under the pseudonym S. Steinberg. "It was a pre-AIDS epic, set primarily in San Francisco," he says. "Saulie was a Jewish kid from Southern California; he was a decorator--in fact, the book's original title was Tinkerbell Is Alive and Well and Hanging Kelp in San Francisco."
Times have changed, however, and Saul's name now means a particular kind of writing to his thousands of fans--and to Ballantine. "It's specified in my contract that my books will be of the genre for which I am well-known," he notes. "They're not buying just five books that John Saul happens to write."
Not that his work doesn't speak to a lot of gay and lesbian readers, what with his affinity for taunted, ostracized children, diseases created by mad scientists, and people driven insane by their repressed sexuality. In Hunt Club, for example, the chief psychopath is Jagger, a man terrified of his homosexual attractions because, Saul explains, "he wasn't bright enough to overcome the homophobia that kept him in the closet."
Yet save for a veterinarian in Guardian who was quietly lesbian ("She wasn't making any big deal out of it, so why should I?"), Saul's thrillers lack openly gay characters--which, the author is quick to point out, doesn't mean some of his teen and adult heroes might not be gay. Just as he almost never specifies his characters' race, he says, he declines to offer their sexual orientation. "If you specify that a kid's gay," he says, "his being gay has to be totally relevant to the plot. [Otherwise] you're making such an issue of his sexual orientation that the audience isn't going to pay attention to the plot. So unless l want to write some book involving homophobia, and everyone's torturing the kid because he's gay ... it becomes difficult."
Since both Saul and Sack have a strong belief in the natural synchronicity of the universe, it could well be that this first foray into the gay press--and their first "outing" as collaborative couple--will harmonize with their next brainstorming session to create the first "John Saul" novel with just a touch of A Fairy Tale. If so, it would be a perfect brand-name Saul plot twist.
"Someone once said that what I do is take incredibly ordinary people and thrust them into extraordinary circumstances, and that's what makes it so scary--it could be any one of us," says the writer, talking about his characters in a way that seems to apply equally to his own life. "Then, suddenly, Boom! And everything changes. All of our worst fears are the ones we carry around in our own heads."