Kona's King of the Potboilers
Story by David Thompson
Photo by Jack Wolford
John Saul lives in a bubble and has no muse. And he’s absolutely fine with that. Saul’s thirty-six novels have sold 200 million copies, been translated into twenty-seven languages and landed on The New York Times’ bestsellers list more times than not. He types 93 words per minute, he stands while writing and he can knock out an entire chapter between breakfast and his afternoon tee time. The longest it’s ever taken him to write a book is three months, and that’s because his mother was dying. His record is twenty-eight days. A muse would only get in the way.
“I never set out to write the Great American Novel,” says Saul, sitting at the wheel of a golf cart with a one-legged rubber chicken dangling over the dashboard. “What I wanted to do was write bestsellers, and there’s a big difference.”
Horror fans know Saul as one of the dark lords of the genre, the twisted imagination behind titles like Perfect Nightmare, Faces of Fear and The Right Hand of Evil. He resides in the paperback racks alongside Dean Koontz, Anne Rice and Stephen King. His stories often involve children or teenagers in peril, highly dysfunctional families, taunting schoolmates, unlikely dreams and old mansions with bad pasts. Kids are just as likely to be the villains as the victims, and it’s not always clear whether the bad seeds are evil, mentally ill or possessed.
Saul’s golf cart features a rubber chicken to distinguish it from all the other golf carts inside the Bubble, which is what he calls the Hualalai Resort, a seaside oasis of emerald fairways and infinity pools in a North Kona lava desert. Besides the posh Four Seasons hotel, the Bubble contains a neighborhood of high-end homes owned by figures such as computer mogul Michael Dell, investment pioneer Charles Schwab and—before she put it on the auction block—Cher. Residents drive around in look-alike golf carts, and it helps to have a chicken so that when you come out of the Sports Club & Spa or the Beach Tree Bar, you get in the right one.
Saul’s behind the wheel, giving me a tour of the Bubble. Riding shotgun is Mike Sack, Saul’s inseparable life partner and indispensable professional collaborator. The two live part of the year in their home at Hualalai and part of the year in Seattle or in the nearby San Juan Islands.
You wouldn’t necessarily expect an author who makes dead infants wail in the night and drives blind girls into the sea to have a sunny disposition, but Saul does. He’s a natural-born showman who loves to chat and is prone to telling long, funny anecdotes. He is tall and has gray hair that stands straight up on top in an overthinned buzz cut, like a threadbare fright wig. He can strike a grave master-of-horror pose when needed. But when he’s being himself, the eyes beneath his dark, neatly groomed eyebrows light up with jest, and he often seems to be wrestling with his face to keep his grin from exploding.
On the day Saul shows me around the Bubble, both he and Sack wear wide-brimmed straw hats, sandals and tropical-print golf shirts tucked into their khaki shorts. Sack’s the shorter and rounder of the two. He’s got a full head of white hair, wears thick glasses and has a patient smile.
“John never considers himself an artist,” Sack says. “He considers himself a really good craftsman. He’s very, very good at what he does.” Sack is the silent partner behind the JOHN SAUL name that screams from the covers of his books in type larger than the titles. The two have collaborated on all of Saul’s bestsellers since the first, Suffer the Children, published in 1977. “I’m trained as a clinical psychologist, and I’ve worked in mental institutions,” Sack says. “So I’ve got some sick ideas.”
Every John Saul novel is a team effort. Sack maps out the plot and Saul writes the scenes. Without Sack’s outlines, Saul’s stories would probably read more like plays, which, actually, is what Saul’s heart really wants to write. Plays and murder mystery comedies. “Mike’s good at moving people around and coming up with a good action line,” Saul says. “Left to my own devices, my characters would just stand around talking a lot and not doing much.”
The reason Saul takes all the credit for the books is that publishers abhor writing teams, Sack says. If the team breaks up, the brand that the publisher groomed, publicized and staked its money on disappears. So while the book contracts are in both men’s names, they specify that Saul do the publicity.
“I’m very low profile, and that’s fine because I don’t have a huge ego,” says Sack. “We know our roles.”
Thirty-six novels in thirty-three years sounds like a lot, but Saul has always had lightning speed at the keyboard. In college, which he never completed, he could bang out a fifteen-page term paper the day before it was due. But commercial success as an author came slowly. He spent all of the 1960s and half of the 1970s struggling to get a book published. Among the odd jobs he held along the way were selling real estate sight unseen in a Big Island subdivision that existed only on paper (“When I realized it was basically a scam, I moved on”), typing for a temp agency in San Francisco called Western Girls (“I’d walk into an office and say, ‘Hi, I’m your Western Girl!’”), making up stories for a true-confessions magazine ($25 per piece) and writing salacious stories for the pornography mills of San Fernando Valley (“Easy money, and it taught me to be a really fast writer”).
The unpublished manuscripts piled up along the way, including multiple murder mystery comedies and a semiautobiographical comedy called Tinkerbell Is Alive and Well and Hanging Kelp in San Francisco, about a gay Jewish interior designer partial to nautical motifs.
Saul was ripe for a big break when it finally came at the end of a short chain of events triggered by the advice of an aspiring literary agent. Forget the murder mystery comedies, the agent said, and write to the market. Citizen band radio was all the rage at the time, so Saul started writing a CB trucker thriller. The agent got a half-finished manuscript to an editor at Dell Publishing, but Dell wasn’t interested in truckers. What Dell wanted was an answer to Stephen King, the hot young horror writer that Doubleday had discovered. Could Saul write something scary? Oh, and could he do it in four hundred pages within a month? It was an impossible proposition but Saul couldn’t say no. “When you’re a starving writer,” he says, “you say yes to everything.”
Sack and Saul had been together for a couple of years at that point, and it was Sack who wondered what would happen if there were two girls, one a perfect princess and the other her crazy sister. Well, obviously, Saul realized, the girls’ friends would start dying, and everybody would think the crazy sister was responsible, when in fact … Voilà! Saul’s first psycho-thriller was conceived, and a creative partnership was born. Twenty-eight days after he started typing, his first bestseller had been written.
Once while Saul and Sack were walking along a beach on Maui, where they kept a condo for seventeen years, they started talking about the Maui High Performance Computing Center in Kihei. Why was it that one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers was located in a town better known for Canadian snowbirds and ABC Stores than computational capacity? And how did it relate to the telescopes atop Haleakala? Well, obviously, Team John Saul realized, a master race in another solar system needed the technology to keep tabs on Earth. And thus The Presence, Saul’s twenty-sixth novel and the only one set in Hawai‘i, was conceived.
At the end of our tour, Saul pulls up his driveway and parks the golf cart in a spotless garage, beside an SUV and a small fleet of Segways, those two-wheeled, self-balancing electric vehicles. Sack and Saul have a steady stream of houseguests, and it’s fun to take them tootling around the neighborhood like a band of merry outlaw bikers. “We call ourselves the Hualalai Hogs,” says Sack.
House of Reckoning, Saul’s latest novel, has just come out, and at the moment there are no other books in the works. This is rare downtime for Sack and Saul, who, at age 62 and 67 respectively, are happy to slow down a bit. When I meet them, they are concentrating on rounding up the other bad golfers in the resort for a late afternoon game, lunch, bridge, houseguests, dinner and spa appointments. Which is not to say they aren’t working. Just the day before, a newspaper headline sparked an “aha moment,” and the thirty-seventh John Saul novel may very well have been conceived. What was the headline? They won’t say. They never talk about works in progress. But whatever it was, odds are the book will be a hit.