Dan Ross of East Riverside, NB, has written 234 successful novels in 13 years. But then he had a late start
While Saint John, New Brunswick, has had more than one homicidal maniac in the nearly 200 years since the Loyalists landed there with the declared intention of establishing the “most gentlemanlike province on earth.” it has never had a Jack the Ripper or a Boston Strangler who, in obedience to some invisible worm in his brain, practised murder as a true artist practises his art: with absurd persistence, fanaticism and constraint. I mention that fact because, as one who lived there for five years, it has always surprised me a little. Not that Saint John is beset by crimes of violence: until recently its miniature underworld was more reminiscent of Damon Runyon than of Sam Peckinpah. But it’s a place of fog: according to one of those local legends the Saint John airport is fogged in more often than any other airport in the w'orld.
The day 1 went to Saint John to find out from the novelist Dan Ross what it feels like to have written 234 books in 13 years it had been raining for so many days that nobody could give his undivided attention to anything else. The people discussing the weather in the bar of the Admiral Beatty Hotel sounded genuinely angry. The relentless dampness w'as getting on their nerves. It wouldn’t have been difficult to start a fight. Prisoner, why did you stab your wife to death? Because it wouldn't stop raining. Your Honor. Because it had been raining for 14 days, Your Honor, and I couldn't take it any more.
It didn’t surprise me when I learned that no fewer than 150 of Dan Ross’s books w'ere Gothic novels. Of the three that I read in the week prior to my going to Saint John to talk w'ith him. one was entitled Faces In The Fog: “Her journey of love became a screaming voyage into terror.” and another was called Haunting Of Fog Island: “On every side a terrifying tide of evil rose to swallow her up.” It did rather surprise me that I found them soporific instead of even mildly frightening — because few' adults can be as susceptible to horror stories as I am: H. P. Lovecraft disturbs me almost as much now' as when I was 12 and even Night Gallery occasionally scared me.
“There are writers who’ve written more books than I have,” says Dan Ross, aged 61. but looking 15 years younger, a bubbling, bright-eyed man in red slacks, a yellow' shirt and a tartan jacket. I suspect his personality is a bit like that of a Singapore Sling, as strong as a martini but with the strength hidden by a somew hat theatrical mixture of cracked ice. lemons. oranges and cherries. “Georges Simenon has written more than 500 and John Creasey. w'ho’s a friend of mine, has done 400. But nobody has ever written as many books as 1 have in so short a time. That’s where my record lies. I didn't start writing fiction until 1 w'as 49 years old.”
God. 1 think. 234 books in 13 years, not to mention more than 600 short stories! And nowadays the man writes a 90,000word novel every month of his life. “Usually I take 24 hours off between books,” he says, and although he smiles it’s obvious that he isn’t joking. He’s probably the fastest fiction writer w'ho ever lived. By the time he’s through, his output w7ill equal and probably surpass the total / continued on page 60
DAN ROSS from page 30
combined output of all the other Cana-^ dian fiction writers, dead or alive. It may already have done so. The books are there to prove it on every paperback bookrack in North America. Not only those that he refers to simply as “Gothics,” as in “The Gothic that I’m doing now has a Jack-the-Ripper theme,” but nurse romances, detective stories and westerns. He’s not only Dan Ross and W. E. D. Ross but Marilyn Ross and Clarissa Ross, and in the past he has been Dan Roberts, Leslie Ames, Ruth Dorset, Ellen Randolph, Jane Daniels, Rose Dana, Rose Williams, Jane Rossiter, Tex Steele. “My biggest sale for a single title was two million copies,” he says. “They average 750,000. A sale of 400,000 would be considered low.”
I laugh, not so much at myself as at the divine absurdity of life. For I am a poet and my one 50,000-word novel (which it took me four years to write) may, if I’m lucky, sell 5,000 copies. It’s widely believed that writing machines like Dan Ross despise poets like Alden Nowlan and that poets like Alden Nowlan despise writing machines like Dan Ross. In some cases that may be true. But I think it more often happens that they regard each other with a respect plentifully spiced with a rather fond and only slightly condescending amusement.
We are talking in the front room of the Ross house in East Riverside, an area where the soupy fog of Saint John thins to a haze that haloes the treetops, and the golden-green landscape looks the way Ireland must have looked 1,000 years ago when its forests still stood. There are white birches outside the window and a copy of the New York Times on the coffee table. It is the kind of room in which authors greet their guests on the NBC Movie Of The Week. Visiting journalists usually describe East Riverside as a suburb of Saint John, but nobody who lives there would describe it that way. East Riverside is an independent entity despite the fact that it is inhabited mostly by the families of business and professional men who work in Saint John. There are many paintings on the walls of the Ross house, including portraits in oils of Dan Ross and his wife Marilyn — for Marilyn Ross is a real as well as an imaginary person. “I started writing out of desperation,” Dan Ross says. “I ran a film distribution agency, you see. Renting 16-mm films to organizations. Well, of course, when television came along it knocked the bottom out of that. And I suddenly discovered that in our society a middle-aged man is unemployable.” That was in the 1950s. The first year he earned $500. “Then in 1957 I began to be established. I was selling short stories to the New York Daily News. One-thousand-word pieces with trick endings. I liked doing them. I prefer short pieces to novels. But, of course, continued on page 62
DAN ROSS continued there’s no market for that kind of thing any more.” He published his first novel, Summer Season, in 1962, basing it on his experiences in summer stock. “After I graduated from Saint John High School I studied drama at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village,. Then for years I had my own touring theatre company. I was playwright, producer, director, actor. Never made any money, but it was great fun.”
We. talk about the Gothic novel, the plot of which is always essentially the same. A beautiful, chaste young woman, often a member of that elsewhere extinct social class that the Victorians called decayed gentlefolk, is menaced by some supernatural, or seemingly supernatural. evil, not infrequently personified as in Dan Ross’s Beware The Kindly Stranger by an elderly gentleman with a foreign accent and a swarthy skin, and she is finally rescued by a handsome young man who either is rich — or so deucedly clever that he is certain to become rich — and. presumably, they live happily ever after. Dan Ross tells me that it’s estimated that Gothics make up 5% or more of the total paperback sales in the United States, “and. of course, that’s where my market is.” I tell him that one of the things 1 find interesting about the Gothics is that they’re devoid of explicit sex. aud yet permeated by a kind of furtive, violent sensuality. The young man with fine, intelligent features may plant a kiss on the young woman’s porcelain cheek, but not even the elderly man with the swarthy skin will try to get her into bed. although he'll very likely attempt to strangle her. drink her blood or use her body as an altar for the Black Mass. In these books the forces of evil, whether they’re personified by the devil himself, a mass murderer, a warlock. a> werewolf or a vampire, resemble nothing so much as the Wicked Candy Man against whom mothers warn their small children. Remember, dear, you must never, never take candy from strangers.
It isn't hard to understand why such novels were popular in the Victorian era. but who reads them today? “Women.” says Dan Ross, “women from the time when they’re 14 to the time when they're too old to read.” Teen-aged girls, young married women, middle-aged matrons. “And lots and lots of college girls.” Wouldn’t that seem to indicate that in this so-called age of permissiveness there exist hundreds of thousands of women to whom sex remains mysterious, frightening and even evil? Women who are still afraid of the Wicked Candy Man? Dan Ross looks mildly interested, but unconvinced. “It's true that there's no sex in the Gothics.” he says, “although I did write one sex book [he laughs] and it’s also true that there’s an underlying sensuality. That’s part of the whole vampire thing, for in-
stance. In effect Dracula rapes or seduces his victim. But there are all sorts of theories why women read Gothics. Somebody says it’s because the typical Gothic heroine is a woman who is victimized by the fact that she is a woman. Somebody else says it’s because many women still have a Cinderella complex. And somebody else says it’s simply because women have more time to kill than men do. It’s not something that 1 w'orry about. I’ll start worrying when they stop reading them.”
“Is it true that you invented Barnabas Collins?” I ask.
“1 was in on it.” he says, w ith obvious pride. “And 1 got 30 novels out of it.” Barnabas Collins was the 175-year-old vampire featured on the ABC daytime television serial Dark Shadows which Ross says was at one time estimated to have 20 million viewers. Dan Ross’s novels based on the series characters sold 10 million copies in 23 languages. There were also two feature films for w'hich Ross wrote the accompanying
novels, and a comic book.
“There was a student in the States who did a paper on my Barnabas Collins books.” Ross says. He goes to fetch a copy. I glance through it. Susan V. Houck of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro has written that Barnabas Collins is “an odd sort of Byronic hero.” She has also compiled a chart summarizing the contents of each of the Dark Shadows novels. There is mention of 100-year-old zombies, throats ripped open, the ghosts of pirates. vampires, werewolves, deadly experiments. a “mysterious feathered flying serpent” and (shades of Turn Of The Screw) of children luring their governess to her death. Surely here the Wicked Candy Man has become high camp, a character represented by a Hallowe’en mask. Perhaps the Cult of the Wicked Candy Man survives not because it any longer inspires fear, but because its members feel that such fear must have been rather fun.
“In writing Gothics the ideas are first in importance.” Dan Ross says. In describing the plots of his two most recent books he laughs in the manner of a man telling a joke of his own creation, one
that he knows to be funny. “The writing is the thing that matters least.” he says, and stops laughing, adding rather shyly but with a firmness amounting almost to mild defianee, "not that 1 think that my writing is all that bad.” He goes on to say that w hile of course his chief objective is to entertain he feels that some of his books have offered something more than entertainment. “For instance, several of my books warn against the use of drugs. I’m dead set against the use of drugs. And I think that’s an important thing to say. I’m also planning to do an anti-religious cult novel, warning against these new religions that turn kids into zombies.
“I think that often my books and books by writers like me start kids reading and later the kids go on to other and I suppose more important books,” Dan Ross says. “Teachers tell me that’s so.”
I tell Ross that 1 greatly respect his professionalism. I’ve always felt more comfortable with journalists and novelists than with most poets, partly because in the nature of things many of the poets are amateurs. Not that an amateur necessarily produces inferior work; the difference between the amateur and the professional lies less in the quality of the w'ork than in the attitude of its creator. The amateur does w'hat he does because he wants to do it; the professional does what he does because he has to do it. Dan Ross would say that he w'rites to stay alive, meaning that he writes for money. 1. too. write to stay alive, meaning that if I weren’t a poet I’d long ago have killed myself in one way or another. That isn’t adolescent swank (I’m 41) but the statement of a fact that still puzzles me and which I utter only rarely and always with embarrassment.
I’ve pleased him by paying tribute to his professionalism. When he speaks again there’s a different tone in his voice, a tone that says, “as you know and ! know.” and I’m glad of that, because I like and respect this Dan Ross and want him to like and respect me. “In a way it’s been slavery.” he says. “Slavery.”
He gets up at nine o’clock, breakfasts and takes care of his mail. From eleven to three o’clock he works. Then after an hour’s break for lunch he w'orks again from four o’clock until seven. He takes an hour and a half break for dinner, and then works from eight-thirty until midnight. After that there isn’t time to do much of anything except perhaps watch television for a w'hile and then go to bed. Ten and one-half hours a day. seven days a week w'ith 24 hours of rest between books. Several times a year he goes to New York, partly to talk with his agents and publishers and partly because he likes the cocktail parties, restaurants and especially the plays. Occasionally he throws a party for his Saint John area friends. “To celebrate the continued on page 64
DAN ROSS continued
publication of my two hundredth book I
put on a party for 200 people.”
He works in a nine-foot-square soundproof room in the basement, sitting on a sofa with his typewriter on his lap. Somehow the fact that he holds his typewriter on his lap makes it sound even more like slavery, although obviously he must feel comfortable that way. And although the basement room actually is cluttered with the tools and refuse of any writer’s workroom I see it in my mind's eye as being bare except for the typewriter and the sofa. Suddenly I find myself pitying him for expending all of that effort to create a product that, in the final analysis, is nothing more than a time killer, a sedative. a kind of literary Librium. “It’s economic necessity.” he explains. For the first time this afternoon his facial expression is entirely serious, even a little sad. “In our society when you start to make money there’s a constant pressure to make more.” I suppose he’s right; he’s got the monkey on his back: money is at least as addictive as alcohol or heroin. “A man in my position has to live up to a certain standard.” he says. I'm tempted to ask him: Why? But I don’t. Because in general terms I already know' the answer and what I’d really be asking him would be why he. Dan Ross, feels he must live up to the standards of East Riverside and Rothesay, and that’s none of my business. “I think that the invention of the income tax w'as the worst thing that ever happened to this country,” he says. “It took away our privacy and paved the way for totalitarianism.” His facial muscles relax; he begins to smile again. “Then. too. I have to face the fact that I’m of an advancing age. although I seem to be well preserved. One of these days I'm going to have to stop working, or I'm going to wake up some morning and suddenly discover that
there’s no longer any market for what I produce. I simply can’t afford to let up.”
He says that his income is approximately the same as that of a top corporation executive — doubtlessly a satisfying comparison to a man who’s been poor until late middle age in a society in which no role is more prestigious than that of corporation executive. I don’t ask him how much he makes because when anyone asks me how much I make I tell him to go to hell. But if the average sale of one of his books is 750.000 copies at 90 cents each, and he turns out 12 books a year which sell a total of nine million copies, he’s either taking in a minimum of $100.000 a year or being outrageously exploited by his publishers.
We talk about the Maritimes. “You’re the first interviewer who hasn’t asked me why I live here.” he says, laughing. Then he answers the question that I haven’t asked. “I suppose it’s largely a matter of chemistry.”
And we talk about Canada. “It used to be that my publishers wouldn’t accept a Canadian setting for a novel.” he says. “And so I set a lot of Gothics in New England. But that has changed. Now they don't object to Canadian locales. I’ve set recent books in Saint John. St. Andrews. NB. Cape Breton. Halifax and Quebec.” He says that because he'd “like to do something for Canadian writing” he accepted the presidency of the New Brunswick branch of the Canadian Authors Association when it was formed two years ago.
Marilyn insists on driving me back to the Admiral Beatty Hotel. It begins to rain again and she complains that the windshield wipers aren’t working properly. It seems that it has been raining for ever, she says. They are still talking about the rain in the bar of the hotel and in the Riviera Restaurant across the street where 1 have a drink or two and
dinner while waiting for the bus that will take me back to Fredericton. As the drinks gently nudge my mind away from the chill periphery and toward the radiant core of things I decide that Dan Ross impinges on my consciousness as a character in a Gothic novel. Truly. At least for this instant in time.
A girl with “a face of quiet beauty, oval in shape” whose skin is “pale but of a definite perfection” comes to live in a big frame house set among birch trees on the outskirts of a city of fogs. There is one room in that house which she is told that she must never enter. The Bluebeard motif. The book might be entitled The Forbidden R,oom. Inevitably the night comes when she is overpowered by her curiosity and musters the courage to venture down the basement stairs, a night when the thunder roars and the electric power and telephone lines are down. Pressing her ear against the door of the forbidden room she hears a mysterious tapping. Somewhat like the pounding of the dead old man’s TellTale Heart in the story by Poe. Although her common sense urges her to turn and run for her life she is driven on as though by some divine or diabolic power. She flings open the door and there before her on the sofa with his typewriter on his knees sits Dan Ross. His fingers continue to pound the keys even as the young woman screams and turns to “race back along the interminable maze of passages that she had just negotiated.” All the rest of her life that young woman will be haunted by her memory of the weird light in Dan Ross’s eyes as he sits there working on his two thousandth novel.
A little like the man in a story by Hawthorne whose brain was made of gold which he kept scraping away with his fingernails, until one day there was nothing left,