A long, strange trip
Veteran actor finds unlikely success in publishing
Should Stephen King ever need a place to crash in Manhattan, the welcome sign is permanently affixed to Ron McLarty's door. It was, after all, King's out-of-the-blue September 2003 Entertainment Weekly column that alerted the publishing industry to McLarty's big-hearted American road-trip of a novel, The Memory of Running, an audiobook original that the Master of Horror proclaimed the best book you can't read. No sooner had King made his impassioned plea for somebody to print this book, comparing its 279-pound boy-man hero Smithson Smithy Ide to the likes of Yossarian, Holden and Huck, than the thunderstruck McLarty found himself in a bidding war that would ultimately exceed seven figures. He's still pinching himself.
"During the auction for the book, I asked these editors and publishers that I could never get to, who represented this great iron wall that I could never climb over, you're paying me this money because Stephen King liked the book? And they said, no, but we wouldn't have read it if Stephen King hadn't liked it, especially at your age."
OK, so most first novelists usually make their debut well before their 56th birthday. In McLarty's case, the reward has been well worth the wait: he signed a $2 million, two-book deal for The Memory of Running and Art in America, and Warner Bros. paid $1 million for the film rights to Running, for which McLarty also wrote the screenplay.
It's been a windfall of artistic validation for a guy better known for narrating best-selling novels than writing them. A veteran character actor (Judge Wright on "Law and Order," Dr. Jacob Talley on "Sex and the City" and Frank Belson on "Spenser for Hire"), McLarty broke into Recorded Books narration in the 1990s as the favored voice of Danielle Steel. Over the years, he has recorded more than 100 audio titles for such authors as Richard Russo, Elmore Leonard and Scott Turow.
In his off hours—and they are many, even for a successful actor—McLarty would hole up in his "pit of despair" basement office in Montclair, New Jersey, and write plays, 44 to date, of which 10 have been expanded into novels. It is a way for an insomniac to make purposeful use of enforced wakefulness, and for an actor to weather the relentless rejection that comes with his craft.
"In acting, you have to audition; you're looking for them to give you permission to do what you do. But I didn't need that for writing," he says. "I'm sure it would have been great to have a book contract, but I could take this pen and feel its importance in my hand and observe people and always have these themes in my head and not feel pressured to get permission to do it, I could just do it. It's just been sort of a writer's life for me—without anything like income getting in the way."
The Memory of Running, the third of his 10 novels, tells the story of Smithy Ide, a 43-year-old Vietnam vet and supervisor at a Rhode Island toy factory who spends his days doing quality control on combat action figures and his nights consuming huge quantities of pretzels and Narragansett beer. When his parents die in a car crash just as news arrives that his schizophrenic sister Bethany has passed away on the streets of Los Angeles, Smithy saddles up his childhood Raleigh bicycle and embarks on a cross-country quest to claim his sister's body. Next-door neighbor Norma, an embittered paraplegic who has always carried a torch for Smithy, cheers him on with strained, touching long-distance calls.
"I wrote The Memory of Running as a play when my mother and father were actually killed in a car accident up in Maine. My mother lived six weeks and my father lived 10 days after the accident. And in this odd way that I work, I read the play about three months later and I thought, you know, it's too big for a play, it has so much more in it. But because I wrote it as dialogue, I had the voices of Smithy and Norma and Bethany in my head." Smithy's redemption ride is peopled with realistic characters that surprise, baffle, seduce and repel our wanderer-on-wheels at every turn. McLarty says he had to kill all hopes of ever publishing before he found the part of himself that brought Smithy to life.
"The first two novels I wrote to wow everybody; I thought I would get a million dollars and everyone would think I was great. On this third one, I said, you know, nobody's going to publish my stuff; I'm going to write this for myself, to sort of explain the world to myself. I think when you do that, you get out of your own way; you're not telling a story to try to impress anyone, you're just telling a story."
"Bittersweet" doesn't begin to describe McLarty's last two years. In 2002, he lost Diane, his wife of 32 years, to lung cancer; McLarty and his three grown sons spread her ashes in a Colorado stream. On New Year's Day 2004, he married fellow New York stage actor Kate Skinner, sold his Montclair home and moved into her Manhattan apartment.
When we spoke by phone, McLarty was between sessions, recording yet another audiobook. What's a winner of life's biggest lottery still doing punching a clock? "I just did an episode of 'Law and Order' and my friends all asked me why," he says, chuckling. "I said, you know, if I was 26 or 36, I would have already constructed a life as a writer. But my life has been constructed around finding the time to work and getting around in the world through acting. I'm an actor because I love being an actor. I took this summer off and really thought about whether I wanted to be an actor, and I do. I want to be both. I need it. One feeds the other. It isn't really work."
Jay MacDonald once repaired and rented bikes in Key West.