BEST SELLERS / BEST FRIENDS
Written by Janina Birtolo for Traditions
Granted, it may seem curious to include two best selling novelists in a roster of comic masters, but, thanks to a friendship that stretches across decades, authors Robert Ludlum and Robin Cook may just be proof of the maxim that mastery in one arena can easily translate into another. One thing’s for certain -- get these two Park Shore neighbors together for a chat about writing, and the wit flies fast and furiously. And amid all the self-deprecating humor, you just may garner a nugget or two of wise advice.
The humor is more than just enjoyable. It’s endearing, revealing and relaxing -- which is fortunate, because sitting in the company of two of the most popular creators of suspense can be rather intimidating. In Cook’s penthouse apartment, the hallway is lined with blow-ups of covers from the numerous best sellers he’s penned. He says, with deserved pride, that they’re what have allowed him his enviable lifestyle. But he’s also quick to add that Ludlum’s the real master of the genre, the one who set the standard. Several floors below, in Ludlum’s condo, the older man of letters brushes aside the compliment with a mix of pleasure and humility. He makes a wisecrack. We all laugh. These literary titans are human after all.
“We went to the same university you know,” Ludlum says. “Of course, I was there about 104 years ahead of him.”
“Don’t let him kid you,” Cook responds. It’s a comment he’ll resurrect a number of times and one that typifies the friendship between the two.
That friendship began in the late 1970s, not long after Cook had made the best seller list with Coma. By that time, Ludlum (who didn’t start writing until his 40s) was already an acknowledged celebrity, both in the world of theater where he’d had his first career and in the world of popular fiction.
“We met at a Literary Guild function -- I think it was their 50th or 75th anniversary,” Cook explains. “I actually had only one best seller at the time. Robert had so many, he was off the list. I thought he’d be a great mentor. But he didn’t know me, and I expected to be rebuffed. Instead, he was so friendly that we’ve been friends from then on.”
Cook gave a full accounting of that first meeting in the introduction to The Robert Ludlum Companion, a volume published in 1993, which catalogues all of Ludlum’s works. In it, Cook recalls that he’d hardly finished announcing his name before Ludlum clapped him on the shoulder and nudged him into a chair. It was, as they say in Casablanca, the start of a beautiful friendship.
Eventually, that friendship brought the two men to the same Park Shore condo, but not without a few bumps along the way. Cook discovered Naples first, moving here in 1981 after visiting friends. Ludlum didn’t make it down until six years later.
“I was at my home in Connecticut, and I wanted to move out for the winter,” Ludlum says. “One day, I was -- and here I’m going to drop names -- I was over at Paul Newman’s place. He said, ‘Did you ever look at Naples? It’s a nice place.’ The next day I was at another party, and someone else asked, ‘Did you ever hear of Naples?’ Then, when I got home, there was a message on the machine from Robin, saying he’d just bought a place in Naples.”
“I have to amend the story,” Cook interrupts. “That’s not quite right. He called me, because I’d told him about Naples a few years previously. I told him, ‘Promise me one thing -- don’t buy anything until you talk to me.’ The next thing I know, he’s bought an apartment, the bookends, everything!”
Neither man still lives in those first purchased places, having moved to the full-floor condos of the Enclave when they became available. But both agree Naples is a great place to be, whether writing or just relaxing. “What I think is nice (about Naples) is that you can or can not take part in the social milieu,” Ludlum notes. “Nobody looks down on you if you don’t. And it’s very conducive to working here.”
Nodding toward the window, Cook adds, “The palm trees here move gently. It reminds me of Hawaii. I lived there for three years. I was the doctor on the set of Jack Lord’s television show.”
“You know Jack?” Ludlum asks in surprise. “He’s a good buddy of mine!”
This is just the latest discovery of commonalities in the lives of the two writers. Ludlum, who is known for traveling to locales he plans to incorporate into his books, once wrote about a house he saw in Boston’s Lewisburg Square. Only later did he find out it was Cook’s house. Both men attended Wesleyan, a small college in Middleton, Connecticut, and both lived for a time (albeit different times) in the same small New Jersey town of Leonia. The parallels are enough to spark thoughts of kismet at work.
“Kismet or not, he’s a nice guy,” Ludlum responds.
Both also turned to writing following successful non-literary careers, Cook as a physician and Ludlum as an actor and producer. “You hear that voice?” Cook asks. “There have been a lot of times I’ve wanted to ask Robert to come and do the message on my answering machine!”
Ludlum was prompted to try writing after he decided he needed to do something other than acting -- and after he saw two pictures in a magazine. One was of a man in post-war Germany, pushing a wheelbarrow full of the money he needed to buy bread. The other was of soldiers in crisp new uniforms. “My thought was, ‘How did they get the money for the uniforms?’” he recalls. “And that was when I wrote The Scarlatti Inheritance.”
The book exhibited elements that eventually became Ludlum hallmarks: the rather average guy manipulated into extraordinary situations; the nefarious and nebulous secret organization pulling the strings; the overall sense that there’s a little good (or at least a little rational basis) in every bad and vice versa. It was a political thriller that entertained but also had something larger to say.
Cook segued into writing with a similar mission: to make a statement while telling a good story. As a result, Coma showed how even a noble idea -- finding organs for transplants -- could be skewed when the ends were allowed to justify any means.
“I had this idea that there was a gap between the public’s perception of medicine and the reality,” he explains. “I thought I could write about (the medical world) realistically and touch on ethical issues.”
With full and successful careers preceding their turns as writers, both men are believers in the advisability of would-be writers having tried their hands at something else first, something that can later serve as fodder. And both believe greatly in the value of reading.
“Read every single type of book, to find a voice of your own,” Ludlum says. “And write. I was told years ago by an ad man in Connecticut, that he spent 10 to 15 minutes daily, describing what he saw out the window. Just to keep his senses sharp.”
“In between books,” Cook adds, “you have to get in shape again. Every time I start a new book, I have a crisis of confidence.”
“Well, we all do that,” says Ludlum. “Michener once told me, You’d understand this, Robert, from your days in the theater. I throw up for two days before starting a new book.”
“I have this recurring nightmare,” Cook admits, “that I’m back in residency and find a patient was assigned to me four or five days ago and I haven’t seen him yet.”
“I feel like I haven’t been to French class in weeks and exams are being held,” Ludlum agrees. The only way through those nightmares and fears, they both insist, is just to start.
“The most fun,” Cook says, “is the euphoria of conception. Then you have the agony of execution. If I’m actually working on a book, I write about 12 hours a day. I might take some time out for an hour’s worth of basketball, but that’s about my only release.”
“I’ve never gotten over that,” Ludlum agrees. “I used to get up at 4:30 in the morning and write for about five or six hours. Then I’d do some chores and maybe write a little more. And I’d go to bed about 10.”
The “used to” is in support of Ludlum’s contention that he’s not actively writing anymore. “Robin’s working, but I’m not,” he insists. “I’m too old. I want to play. I’m in three-quarters retirement. I just bought a house in Montana, because I want to play cowboy for a while. We’ll spend about four months a year there.”
“Does that mean (your wife) is going to quit being a dental hygienist?” Cook asks with a teasing glance.
“If she doesn’t, I’m going to burn her at the stake,” Ludlum replies -- before launching into a discourse on how proud he is of her for taking such pride in her work. A few minutes later, there’s cause to wonder just how strong the conviction not to write anymore really is. “I do have an idea for a book,” Ludlum admits. “But I’m trying to keep it away for now. Maybe next year.”
Cook, by contrast, seems something of a writing machine. Chromosome 6 was published in January 1998. Two others are due out soon. “One I outlined quite a while ago,” he says. “It was going to be a mini-series for NBC. They dropped the idea, but my agent had already sold the book. The other is my normal, medical thriller.”
The talk of agents sparks a conversation about breaking into print nowadays versus when the two of them started. Once again, both men are in agreement.
“It harder to publish now,” Ludlum says. “Economics is a ruling force as much as quality. There’s always someone on the financial end, saying, Whats the payback?”
“The chances for a publishing house to make money on a first time author is very slim, “ Cook adds. “The best selling authors actually subsidize a company’s ability to publish first time authors. And the top guys are getting paid better now.”
So what’s their advice for breaking through and making it to the pinnacle? “Taste, tenacity and talent -- not necessarily in that order,” Ludlum responds.
That’s advice that clearly springs from experience. And making it to the top certainly does have its rewards. Both Cook and Ludlum can now afford to do pretty much whatever they want. And what they seem to want most right now is just to enjoy life -- and each other’s company. So it’s off to more stories -- of the time, during construction, when Cook brought the height-phobic Ludlum over to an open window in his penthouse, of the Thanskgivings and Christmases they’ve spent together, of the time Ludlum tripped and split his forehead and Cook administered first aid.
“So now he’s my personal physician for stitches and hangovers,” Ludlum says with a laugh.
“It’s very good for my ego to see my name higher on the list (of residents) here than his,” Cook shoots back.
Abbot and Costello, with a literary twist. All the elements that make best sellers -- and best friends.
© January 1999