Warren Adler

Warren Adler: From man-about-town to the life-and-death obsession to write

By Erin Williams, August 30, 2012
(Article originally published in The Washington Post)

Warren Adler has lived more lives than the most feisty of cats. His storied career began six decades ago when he served as the only Washington correspondent for the Armed Force Press Service, a position that had him covering White House news conferences during the Truman administration.

He went on to become a man about town, creating both his own public-relations firm focused on real estate and politics (he publicized the Watergate when it was new and Richard Nixon’s 1969 presidential campaign) and the now-defunct society magazine Washington Dossier, which meant rubbing elbows with newspaper publishers and presidents alike.

After publishing his first novel at 45, the 84-year-old now has completed 33 books, 12 of which have been optioned for movies, including the 1989 hit film “The War of the Roses.” On Wednesday, Adler, who is also an e-book pioneer, will return to Washington to sign copies of his latest book, “The Serpent’s Bite.” Before he takes his victory lap, he discussed Washington of yesteryear, creating a legacy and why he, quite literally, lives to write.

You lived in Washington for over three decades and spent a dozen of them covering the city’s society world. What stands out to you most about D.C. in the ’70s and ’80s?

It was before everyone became terribly security-conscious. That happened when Reagan’s assassination was attempted. I would accompany [my wife] to all of the White House events that I could get into. We were very close to most of the politicians. I was a little more friendly with Reagan, but we met Carter and Mrs. Carter and Ford and Mrs. Ford — it was really interesting. It was like being in a ringside seat to all of the intrigue. They always seated me next to a woman. That was the way it was — man, woman, man, woman — and they really opened up and gave me lots of real material. I know that side of power, and it was really interesting to be able to gather that kind of information. And as a result, at least 10 of my books — maybe more — deal with Washington.

You didn’t publish your first novel until the age of 45, and now you are on your 33rd novel. Did you think you would be writing for this long?

Yes, I did. I wanted to be a novelist since I was 16! It was a tough, tough fight to get published. The way I got published finally was a guy walked into my office — a really brilliant guy — and he said to me, “Could you promote the books?” I said “Sure!” He said “What would your fee be?” I said, “I’ll tell you what. If your publisher . . . publishes my first novel, there would be no fee.” And that’s the way I got published, after rejection after rejection for 25 years. The kind of novelist I am, I have concluded, at the age of 84, is born. I have to write. It’s necessary for my survival and endurance. So I write feverishly every single day of my life. I’m finally getting really better at it, I think.

Your new book focuses on a father struggling to rebuild a relationship with his family after years of strain. His daughter, Courtney Temple, the main female character, is obsessed with the idea of money and fame. Do you see that in today’s culture, and is that what drove you to create a character like her who exhibits these qualities?

I see it, and I think it’s obsessive and the celebrity culture has finally captured these people and ruined their lives. I don’t think more than .00 percent of people ever reach the goal to be lauded and celebrated, and even that is a very, very brief window. One of the big problems is sustaining your celebrity and enduring for many years. I may have had that fantasy at the beginning of my career, but I’m happy to be a long-distance runner. Even my older books now are beginning to catch on.

You are a big believer in the future of e-readers and even introduced the first one created by Sony. What was it about taking books to a digital level that intrigued you?

My feeling always was that the author will eventually have to become an entrepreneur, and that’s exactly what I did. Luckily, I was able to get back all of my books. At that point, there were 27 published by numerous traditional publishers. I got all this reversed back to me, and I converted them to all the various programs. I made speeches all over the country saying, “This is the future, and where are you guys?” And sure enough, it’s come true. The authors will never be able to depend on the traditional publishers to promote their work. They’re going to have to step up to the plate themselves, like I have done, create their own marketing plans. Otherwise they will be forgotten.

How are you supporting the new generation of readers and writers?

I taught how to write a novel at NYU. I sponsor an NYU visiting novelist in the creative-writing courses — I’m a great believer in works of the imagination. It’s really been fulfilling for me. It’s astonishing to me the number of people that are self-publishing today. Sooner or later, the word “self” will disappear from that, and this is the way people who have this urge to write to have their say. . . . This is the future. It may not happen in the next decade, but it will happen. That’s what I believe anyhow.

You have lived several lives — publisher, reporter, businessman, novelist. What do you want your legacy to be?

At my age, you’re interested in that. I’m hoping that my books have a good career after I’m gone. That’s really what I’m working for. It’s not for money. I mean, who could predict certain things that happen? “The War of the Roses” — I wrote that book 35 years ago in my pajamas in Chevy Chase. Now it’s going to be a musical. It is a play that I wrote. I wrote a sequel called “Children of the Roses,” so it goes on and on and on. But it’s unpredictable. I never knew what would happen. The ecstasy is in the work. That’s the most important thing for a real writer.

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