Friday, June 15, 2012

An interview with DARK SHADOWS novelist Dan Ross, 1969

Dan Ross: Man Of Many Words

In a basement in Saint John he's turning it out 115 novels and 600 short stories published in 22 countries in 13 languages in the last seven years

By N. R. Dreskin
Weekend Magazine, May 10, 1969

"I try to take a break of 24 hours after I finish a book before starting the next one." says Dan Ross, a 56-year-old actor-turned-writer of Saint John. "Of course, you can't afford to dawdle around when you've promised to deliver another novel before the end of the month."

And before the listener has a chance to grasp the enormity of this statement — after all, writers usually take a year or more to do a book — Ross adds, almost as an afterthought:
"Then there are the short stories to turn out every week. But I'm not complaining. The writing's going well."

Indeed it is. With 115 novels and over 600 short stories published in the past seven years in 22 countries and 13 languages, Dan Ross now ranks among the world's most prolific writers — living or dead. Three years ago, when he was on his 50th novel, the authoritative New York Times Book Review called him "one of the most formidable writing factories in this or any other hemisphere." Obviously Ross has staying power.

But who recalls reading any of his books recently?

"I'm probably Canada's most read unknown writer," he admits in his mild, objective way. "But that's because I use so many pen names. Editors insisted on them for my different types of novels and because I was producing for many publishers.

"As a result I may have eight books on a newsstand — and not one of them with my own name.
"I'm Rose Dana and Rose Williams for the nurse books; Marilyn Ross— that's my wife's name — for the Gothic mysteries involving a heroine and the setting of an old castle or remote ancient mansion; Dan Roberts and Tex Steele for westerns; then for the modern novels, romances and general mysteries I'm Ellen Randolph, Jane Daniels, Jane Rossiter, Clarissa Ross, Ruth Dorset, Leslie Ames, W. E. D. Ross, W. E. Dan Ross and Dan Ross."

Writers are notorious for thinking up reasons for not facing the typewriter. But Ross goes all out to meet his deadlines. On a Monday morning not long ago, Donald MacCampbell, a veteran New York literary agent, phoned him.

"Dan, I've had a call for a., nurse book. They're in a bit of a rush." The agent hesitated only momentarily after this monstrous understatement.

"Do you suppose I can have it by next week?"

"I'll get right onto it," Ross promised.

He laid aside the mystery novel he was currently working at and began to write the nurse novel.

The following Monday, a bundle of some 300 typed pages, the manuscript for a 75,000-word novel, reached MacCampbell's desk in New York. In due time it found its way to drugstore and newsstand racks, circulating libraries and bookstores both on this continent and abroad. At last report it had sold some quarter-million copies. 

This feat is by no means unusual for Dan Ross. He has written a novel in five days.

"I don't like writing under such pressure," he says. "1 prefer to take more time over a book. Two weeks is just fine."

Producers of the highly rated ABCTV Dark Shadows television series picked Ross to write novels based on the show. Those featuring the character Barnabas Collins, a 175-year-old vampire that "America loves to hate", have been especially successful.  Under the Marilyn Ross byline they have sold over 2.5-million copies. According to Hy Steirman, Montreal-born publisher of Paperback Library, one of the largest of its kind in the U.S., "Dan is the foremost writer today of Gothics, a field normally dominated by women authors. Working with him is a delight; he has an old-fashioned respect for an editor's skill, and always delivers on time. He's an editor's dream."

But to earn this label, Ross operates on a nightmarish schedule. He isolates himself in a wood-panelled, soundproofed basement room about nine feet square. Piles of manuscripts, books and magazines take up most of the space. He works seated on a small sofa, typewriter on lap. He doesn't have to crowd himself like that. The tastefully furnished two-story, nine-room home overlooking the Bay of Fundy is occupied only by Dan and Marilyn Ross. And their white-haired West Highland terrier, Jolly. They have no children.

"I like it cosy for writing," Dan explains.

He submerges to the "writing room" soon after breakfast, reads and looks after his correspondence, begins to write by 11 . He takes a short break for lunch, returns to the machine, and works through until 7 when the Rosses dine. There is wine, lively conversation then a short walk with Jolly on the leash.

"Very relaxing," Ross enthuses. "Do you know, a psychiatrist once told me that a three-minute walk with a dog is worth 50 minutes of psychoanalysis? So far it's kept me away from the couch. Every writer should own a dog!"

But after the walk, it's down to business once more in the basement, not to surface again until midnight.And usually, by that time, he has banged out a minimum of 10,000 words. "Much, much more when I have to," he adds, "but my two typing fingers get awfully sore. I write by the clock and don't wait around for inspiration. How else can 1 keep my commitment to editors?" (Expatriate novelist Arthur Hailey has stated his output to be a 'couple of typed pages a day, about 500 words. It took him three years to do Hotel.)

While Ross is hammering it out downstairs, Marilyn is far from idle upstairs. She shields him from phone calls, edits his copy and specializes in checking his nurse books since she is a graduate nurse. She also does research into background material for Dan's novels, saving him the precious hours for actual writing.

"And she keeps my characters' names straight," Dan says, stressing its importance. "I'm always getting their names mixed up. Sybil, the heroine in my current book suddenly becomes Elsie who was the heroine in my lust book. That sort of thing.

"And Marilyn acts as my first reader. I never tell her the outcome of my plots and the story's got to hold her interest all the way through. If it doesn't, then I'll change it. But that applies just to my novels. I've found that those of my short stories she does not like are the ones that go over best with the editors. Go figure it out."

Dan maintains his grueling morning-to-midnight schedule more often than not on a seven-day week basis, although once in a while he'll quit at 9 PM to catch the last show at a local movie. But it's not all work and no play for the Rosses. Every couple of months they take a few days off to visit New York.

To ex-actor Dan Ross, New York is Broadway and the stage. He’s a chronic first-nighter. And, in fact, he credits much of his success as a novelist to his experience in the theatre.

On graduation from Saint John High School, he studied drama at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York's Greenwich Village, played summer stock throughout New England for eight years, then returned home to form his own company. He wrote, directed and acted. During the war he served with ENSA, the entertainment unit, then afterwards ran a film distribution agency. When television made inroads into that career he began to write short stories in 1957.

"I wrote, wrote and wrote. And most of it came back, back, back," he recalls ruefully. "In my first two years 1 grossed about S500." Then he began to click— just as the short fiction field showed signs of waning. Switching his main effort to the novel, he published his first one, Summer Season, based on his experience in summer stock, in 1962. He was then 49, a late starter as novelists go. He has written several novels with a Saint John locale, including The Fog And The Stars, Bridge To Love and Fog Island. Other Maritime locales include Halifax (Satan's Rock) and Cape Breton (CameronCastle). Citadel Of Love and Castle On The Hill are based on the Quebec scene.

But most of his books have a New England background.

"I aim my writing primarily at the U.S. and British reader because that's where the major markets are," he explains. "None of my novels has ever been published in the original by a Canadian house. I am not a product of Canadian publishing."

And yet, Ross claims he would not want to live elsewhere than in Saint John. He comes from Loyalist stock and his family has lived there for generations. "I work well here. I enjoy particularly my close friendships with the local art colony. There is a quieter pace of living. I think we've been able to retain a little more of the graciousness that flavors life. Nice people in nice homes. Does that sound old-fashioned and square? I don't care. I feel strongly about it."

Ross's output is such that he requires two New York agents, as well as representatives in the U.K., Sweden and South Africa. Discussing this flood of wordage, a recent interviewer asked Dan Ross if he objected to the description of a "hack writer". Ross thought carefully about that one before answering.

"I honestly don't think I'm a hack. A true hack is motivated entirely by money and I'm not. Of course I do make a lot of money, as much as a successful business executive, but I've never written anything that was not sincere. I write primarily to express my viewpoint on life, and to entertain.

"As an entertainer, I write escapist fiction. And what's wrong with escapism? You eat a meal to escape hunger. You read a novel of mystery or romance to escape boredom or worry.

"In my serious novels, my message is one of decency, without the sermonizing. So many writers now accentuate violence and sex. They ignore the basically good and decent people, the way they live and their standards of behavior. I think it's important that these people be represented in today's fiction. And always in an interesting, readable way. I avoid the heavy prose and navel-contemplation so many novelists seem to favor today."

Publisher Hy Steirman attributes Ross's success as a novelist to "his ability to transmit a dramatic flair, glamor and excitement to his characters. We get a lot of fan mail from his writings, mostly from women asking for a list of his books." Paperback Library is understandably excited over Ross. Over 2.5 million of the TV show Dark Shadows novels have been sold, and Ross is turning them out with his usual dispatch. It prompted the New York Times Book Review last November to ask: "And who says Gothic romance is dead?"

To would-be writers, Ross has offered this advice:

"First, make sure you have some ability in this direction. And be ready to work harder at developing it than anybody on a 9-to-5 job. And second, don't flounder around but get professional help. I had a couple of correspondence courses and they did save me a lot of time in learning my craft."

Boston University's Mugar Memorial Library has honored Dan Ross by establishing a "Dan Ross Collection". It will eventually include all his published works, manuscripts, correspondence and notebooks.

But he has no illusions about his place in literature.

"I expect I'll be remembered, if at all, as a writer who turned out an unusual quantity of fiction which entertained for a time," he says matter-of-factly. "And I suppose my chief claim to fame is my speed in producing novels." 

To date, at least, his awesome creativity places him well in the forefront of mass producers of popular literature. French writer Georges Simenon, now 65, has written over 500 books, and now does six a year. American novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of the Tarzan stories, completed about 60 books at his death at 74. The late Edgar Wallace produced 150 works, including plays, in 27 years and once dictated a complete novel over a weekend. John Creasey, a 60-year-old English writer, famed for his Commander Gideon Of Scotland Yard series, has published close to 400 books in 36 years; he achieved his peak production in 1940 with 18 novels.

Ross's use of various pen names does cause some confusion from time to time. Recently an American woman tourist in England picked up one of his novels in a bookstore. It bore his name as author. On her return home she bought a paperback at the newsstand one day. It had a different title. And the author's name was Jane Rossiter. But the story was exactly the same.

"A brazen case of literary theft," she wrote angrily to Dan Ross, care of the English publisher. "I hope you take her to court!"

"I thanked her and promised to look into it. And I sent her some books for her trouble," says Dan Ross. "It was much simpler than trying to explain that I couldn't sue myself."

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