Hear the name Stephen King and the likely images that spring to mind are those of vampires, blood-soaked prom queens, and killer St. Bernards. However, for Ron McLarty, Stephen King was more guardian angel than conjurer of terror. McLarty had been a character actor and struggling writer for countless years before the master of the macabre helped him publish his first novel at the age of 58.
Before the publication of The Memory of Running, McLarty was best known as a familiar face on television, holding down regular roles on Spencer: For Hire and Steven Bochco's short-lived prime-time experiment Cop Rock, as well as making appearances on everything from Sex and the City to Law and Order. He also became a regular fixture on the books-on-tape circuit, recording readings of more than 100 books by his own calculations. Meanwhile, McLarty had aspirations to make his way into the other end of the publishing world, composing an increasingly weighty body of unpublished work.
Still having little luck actually getting any of his work in print, McLarty managed to cajole a small Internet-only company called Recorded Books to release a book-on-tape version of his 1988 novel The Memory of Running. Inspired by the death of McLarty's parents following a car accident, The Memory of Running is a funny, moving, grim yarn about an overweight drunken couch potato named Smithson "Smithy" Ide who becomes reengaged in the world during a cross-country bike ride in the wake of the death of his parents and his emotionally-troubled sister.
As far as McLarty was concerned, that was the end of the line for The Memory of Running. Discouraged after years of rejection, he even visited a Screen Actor's Guild appointed psychiatrist to get help with his writing addiction. Still the muse refused to unhand him, and he continued producing new material in vain.
Some time later, Ron McLarty auditioned for a role in the miniseries Kingdom Hospital, Stephen King's U.S. adaptation of Lars von Trier's Danish cult-classic TV series Riget. According to McLarty in his interview with Meet the Writers, the audition was a disaster. "I did the worst audition in the world at the ABC studios. I mean, an actor knows when he stinks, and I was awful," he recalls. "I was trying to run out of the room, and Stephen King stands up and he says, ‘Are you Ron McLarty the novelist?'" At that point, King was only familiar with McLarty by name, having seen it in a catalog while recovering from his own well-publicized collision with a car in 1999. McLarty expeditiously rectified the situation, though. He raced to Recorded Books, dug up a copy of The Memory of Running, and mailed it off to the famed writer.
Next thing McLarty knew, Stephen King included The Memory of Running in a list of "The Best Books You Cannot Read" in an article in Entertainment Weekly. Then came the flood. A publishers bidding war for the rights to the novel ensued, and McLarty signed with Viking for over two-million dollars. Upon its publication in December of 2005, The Memory of Running has deservedly garnered more than its share of glowing notices. The School Library Journal deemed it "a great first novel" and Publisher's Weeky described it as "funny, poignant..." Now his darkly comic tale of self-discovery is being made into a motion picture by esteemed director Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), McLarty himself having penned the screenplay. He also has a second novel on the way.
In spite of McLarty's recent magnificent success, he still has not lost the cynical edge that gave birth to his gloomy debut novel. Though he remains unfailingly thankful for the opportunity afforded him by King's endorsement in Entertainment Weekly, he still has trouble viewing the glass as half-full. "Although I do believe it took kismet for my work to get any credibility, it's important that I express how hard I labored over this novel. I learned from a myriad of failures. I found my voice, lost it and found it again. Sometimes, frankly, it's discouraging to think that this and subsequent work will be viewed by many as luck, as if I sat down one day, popped a beer and scribbled it down... I still have 37 years of the whipped dog in me."
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According to McLarty, he has scribed a total of 44 plays and 10 novels. All of his work begins with a poem, which he then develops into a more substantial piece.
McLarty's Stephen King connection does not end with King's recommendation in Entertainment Weekly. He was also the voice chosen to read the book-on-tape version of King's Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season.
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In the winter of 2005, Ron McLarty answered a few of our questions.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
I was most influenced as a writer (and as an actor) by the collected poems of Kenneth Patchen. The poems flow from his imagination into your own imagination. A kind of truth as he saw it. I wanted to put my own inventions on paper so they might become real.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
Ten favorite books? It's like a stab at a phantom, but here goes:
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway -- For the clear crisp lines.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy -- My late friend the great actor Roger Bowen and I had a two-man book club, and we'd discuss our selections at acting calls. This was a book I thought I'd hate but couldn't put down. It's got love, passion, bravery... everything.
The Collected Plays of Tennessee Williams -- He's a prose poet, which is how, ideally, I want to eventually write.
Handling Sin by Michael Malone -- Malone's southern comedy saga made me jealous of his skill.
The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams -- He was a poet in the real world, a doctor of words.
Cakes and Ale by Somerset Maugham -- I love all of Maugham's stories, but this was the most fun. I think a writer can learn from him the necessity of details in your story.
Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner -- All of Stegner, actually. He's a giant.
The Americans by J. C. Furnas -- A social history of the United States that reads like a fantastical novel.
The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens -- The imagination again, only this time it resided in a quiet insurance executive.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I'm not a film buff (unless the Duke is in them) so let me say that, without a doubt, The Searchers is the great American film.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I love rock n' roll or quiet when I write.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
If I had a book club, I'd make everybody sit down with Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
My favorite books to get and give are poetry books (circa 1930-75).
What are you working on now?
I've recently finished a novel and am missing it greatly.
More from McLarty, in an interview with his publisher:
How much did your own life experience influence the creation of your characters and drive the plot of The Memory of Running?
My parents had a car accident while visiting me at a vacation spot in Maine. I stayed at a motel between my mother's trauma center and my father's neurological hospital. Between visits, I wrote The Memory of Running as a play. After their deaths, I expanded it into novel form. Like in all of my work, I try to explain the world and its affect on me. I have always felt that writing is a deeply personal thing and not a road to wealth and happiness. In terms of my characters, although I start from my own experience, I seem to let my characters go from my control. They wrote their own stories from their own points of view.
Although Stephen King calls Smithy Ide "a smokes-too-much, drinks-too-much, eats-too-much heart attack waiting to happen," he also posits that your protagonist "is an American original, worthy of a place on the shelf just below your Hucks, your Holdens, and your Yossarians." What do you think of his impressions?
I appreciate his impressions although I must say that I don't think Smithy Ide is a shelf lower than Yossarian or Caulfield. And who could be on par with Huck Finn, anyway?
How has your acting career shaped your life as a writer? Do you think acting has made writing easier because you have a better understanding of real characters? Now that your writing career has taken off with flying colors, will you continue to act?
Acting has been my entrée into the world. Not just creating roles but the energy that swirls around each varying project starts me up. But it's also a calling that requires permission to do it. If your career is a hill then the mountain next to it is the rejections accrued. Writing was something that I didn't need permission to do. It's why, I think all my work, is different. No rules. Nothing but myself and my imagination and memories.... But writing has never been easy for me. If I work for, say, five or six hours in the morning, I might go through 25 pages, but almost inevitably, I end a session with 5 or 6 I can use. I would prefer to only write, I suppose, but I think it's too late to change at my age. I need even the small order an acting career offers so that I don't flab away the days.
Do you have a specific routine that helps you write? How has having insomnia shaped your writing process?
I write in the early morning, four or five hours. Later, if there's time between auditions, I love the energy of the main reading room at the New York Public Library. To be able to get even a paragraph or a phrase that feels right, down on paper in stolen time, is a joy. I've always had what my mother called "short sleep," so over the years I've learned quasi-meditations to give myself additional rest. I always have a pad and pencil next to me for when I "meditate" upon a character or idea that's been consuming me.
Stephen King acted as a catalyst in getting The Memory of Running published. Will you talk a little bit about this experience? How did it feel to finally get that call saying that it would be published?
I certainly am in Stephen King's debt. How does one say thank you? We've talked, and I'm determined to put my own goodwill out into the world as selflessly as he did for me. I will never forget being thunderstruck by the realization that I will finally have a chance in the writing arena. Yet everything comes with a price tag. I'm not the only writer to put everything he is onto paper and been told there's no room at the inn. After a while, I gave up on sending work out -- too difficult -- although I do believe it took kismet for my work to get any credibility, it's important that I express how hard I labored over this novel. I learned from myriad failures. I found my voice, lost it, and found it again. Sometimes, frankly, it's discouraging to think that this and subsequent work will be viewed by many as luck, as if I sat down one day, popped a beer, and scribbled it down...I still have 37 years of the whipped dog in me.
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