Stuart Woods’s sitting room in his Park Avenue pied-à-terre is dark and book lined. He writes there, facing the computer in a corner. “That way there are no distractions,” he says. For sure. Even the blinds are drawn, but mostly because the windows face the brick wall of the Colony Club next door. Sometimes when he’s not writing, he relaxes on the other side of the room, reading, and maybe falling asleep.
At age 76, he has earned the rest. Woods is the really, really prolific author of 30 Stone Barrington mysteries (Paris Match, the 31st is coming in October from Putnam) and 27 other books, including a memoir and a travel book.
As prolific as he may be, his publisher recently asked him to write three Stone Barrington books a year, then upped it to a four-book contract. And if he refused? “Well,” he says in a flash, “I’d make less money! At least so far, I’m still writing my own books. Not like James Patterson who has a coauthor.” At least so far? “Well, when I’m old and doddering, it would be great to keep them coming. I told my wife when I die to make sure she signs somebody to keep writing the Stone Barrington books and she says she will.”
Woods has a lot to thank Stone Barrington for: the Park Avenue apartment is one of Woods’s three residences he shares with his wife, Jeanmarie. The others are in Key West, Florida, where the couple met, and Mt. Desert Island in Maine—in other words, three places where it’s 70 degrees, his preferred temperature, at three different times of the year. By May, with the mercury rising daily, Woods prepares to head north.
The third occupant of the Woods households is Labrador retriever Fred who should rightly be called Fred IV. Woods has owned four Labs named Fred. Two have lived until 12, one 13, and this one is nine years old.
To get from home to home, with Fred in tow, the couple flies their own jet, a Citation M-2. Woods has had his license for years, and this is his second plane. Jeanmarie, 17 years younger, got her license in just 18 months, an unusual feat, and he’s justly proud of her. This year, after summering in Maine, they flew first to Labrador, then across the Atlantic to England and Ireland. Then it was on to a rented apartment in Rome for a month.
As for Stone Barrington, the former NYPD detective turned big time attorney closely aligned with A-list people—as in police commissioner, CIA director, the American president and first lady—interesting clients somehow just keep falling into his lap throughout the series.
Woods’s early life was far simpler than his character’s. He grew up in the small town of Manchester, Georgia, and graduated from the University of Georgia. His first job and subsequent career throughout the sixties was in advertising. “I won a copywriting contest and ended up as a trainee at BBDO,” he says. Working for the legendary Jim Jordan, Woods won a CLIO (the advertising industry’s equivalent of the Oscar) for a Spic & Span commercial. “It was the first commercial they ever did without dialogue. Just music.”
For 10 months during that period, he was in Germany, courtesy of the Air National Guard, where he flew “a two-and-a-half ton truck up and down the autobahn.” No actual planes were flown, however. Woods continued his advertising work in London and in Ireland, where he caught the sailing bug, an ill-timed condition, considering he was working on his first novel. Writing took a back seat as he became an accomplished sailor preparing for the OSTAR, a transatlantic race from Plymouth, England, to Newport, Rhode Island. He finished the race in the middle of the fleet in 45 days.
Back in Georgia, Woods wrote the story of that race, Blue Water, Green Skipper (Norton, 1977), and two years later Norton published his travel book, A Romantic’s Guide to the Country Inns of Britain and Ireland.
His novel was published in 1981 and called Chiefs. The story examines the murder of a teenage stranger in a small Georgia town. It was well reviewed, won the Edgar Award, and was made into a six-hour TV series starring Charlton Heston. Woods, a liberal, and Heston, a conservative, became pals. As for their political differences, “We avoided talking about it, and it was never a problem,” says Woods, who was given a three-minute role in the series. He was not struck by the acting bug, however. “I thought I did well until I saw myself on screen,” he says. By the way, he keeps his Edgar (it’s a cute little thing) in that same dark corner where he works.
And speaking of political differences, Woods mentioned that he has recently started receiving emails from readers on the far right. “They don’t like my Democratic president [his continuing character Will Lee in the Barrington series], and I guess they don’t like the way I refer to Faux News.”
Ask anyone familiar with the Stone Barrington books, and they’ll surely mention Elaine’s, the Upper Eastside restaurant owned for four decades by the late quintessential New Yorker Elaine Kaufman. The place was a second home to writers, actors, singers, and public figures; everyone from Woody Allen to Mick Jagger to former and present Police Commissioner William Bratton, a friend of Woods’s. Stone was a regular, and Woods himself was, too. Woods and Elaine were good friends. “She loved every minute of being a VIP in the books,” he says. Since she died in 2010, he has found there’s really no other place like it. Not that he’s stopped going to restaurants.
What does Wood read on those quiet afternoons in his den? “You should have seen that coffee table this morning. It was piled high with books I shipped off to Maine. There was Simon Winchester’s The Men Who United the States, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit about Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and two jazz books, one about Charlie Parker and the other, Duke Ellington.”
I told Woods I was struck by how smoothly he uses dialogue to get much of his plot moving. “I’m glad you noticed,” he says with a smile. “I think dialogue is how you learn about people. Through conversation, you learn what they’re like.” And he never knows ahead of time what’s going to happen. “Never. I write a scene, a situation. The next day I’ll read it and maybe correct it. I just improvise.”
He also insists he never asks insiders for help in portraying the police, lawyers, or CIA operatives. (He’s not and never has been any of these.) He did mention that after he finished New York Dead (HarperCollins, 1991), his first Stone Barrington mystery, he showed it to a New York cop, who had no complaints.
Since that first book, Stone Barrington’s popularity just keeps on growing. In 1997, Dead in the Water became the first in the series to hit the New York Times bestseller list. And earlier this year, Carnal Curiosity became the first to hit #1 on the New York Times combined e-book and print bestseller list.
What’s up next in Stone’s world? Could it be he’s headed for Rome, where his creator rented an apartment? After all, Stone ended up in Paris for Paris Match after Stuart and Jeanmarie spent some quality time there. We’ll have to wait to find out. Woods is not saying.
Carol Peace Robins is a freelance writer in New York City.