Laura Van Wormer

In 1978, 10 days after graduating from Syracuse University, Laura Van Wormer sat in a reception area to interview for a job at Doubleday. A man strolled through, and though she didn't recognize him, she knew his voice from television's Firing Line: it was William F. Buckley, there to hand in his latest Blackford Oaks CIA novel. Liza Minnelli sat in the same room, batting her eyelashes. Jackie Onassis breezed through en route to her office.

Van Wormer was hooked, and tumbled into a world of high-stakes publishing when Doubleday was putting out 600 books a year. She started as secretary to editor-in-chief Sandy Richardson ("Whenever somebody crazy showed up at Doubleday with a manuscript drawn in crayon, the receptionist would call me"), and in exchange for a cup of black coffee every morning, editor Kate Medina would answer any question at all about the publishing world.

Promoted into editorial roughly two years later, Van Wormer worked under Howard Kuhler on books by Bob Hope, Dinah Shore and Phyllis Diller, and under Lindy Hess and Loretta Barrett at Anchor. "John Gardner, Arthur Hailey, Alex Haley, Leon Uris -- every day it was somebody new," she recalls, tilting her face to the ceiling. "They were such heady days."

An enthusiasm for the insider's view of publishing fuels most of Van Wormer's novels -- in particular her latest, Exposé, out this month from Mira . It is the story of Sally Harrington, a smalltown reporter, who gets offered a big-money assignment profiling television executive Cassy Cochran for a glossy magazine. But Cochran has a secret in her past (no secret to readers of Van Wormer's first novel, Riverside Drive), and Sally realizes she's been hired to expose it by a magazine doyenne with a personal vendetta. Meanwhile, a dead body has surfaced in Sally's home town of Castleford, Conn. and a dangerously sexy literary editor at Bennett, Fitzallen & C has captured Sally's libido -- if not her heart.

Van Wormer insists her publishing-world characters aren't drawn from real-life models, but admits her inspiration for the plot did come from a friend's experience doing a profile for a major magazine. The editor "wanted to take out a lot of the nice stuff about the subject of the profile," she explains. "The more I knew about the editor, the more I began to understand her political place. It was not expedient for her to have these good things said in her own magazine."

Exposé is Van Wormer's eighth novel, but it is the only one to use the first person. It's also the only book with a Connecticut setting, a change from the fashionable worlds of Manhattan, Los Angeles and East Hampton. These new elements reflect an embrace of suburban life. At age 43, after years as a die-hard Manhattanite, she is now devoted to the decaying industrial town of Meriden.

Her farmhouse home is lined with hardcover books. Three big dogs and two friendly felines drool happily on visitors and run free on her prettily mown three acres. After the interview, we tour a historic building she is helping renovate so it can function as a community center, then visit the public library, where she volunteers every week. At her local Italian restaurant, she knows the staff by name, and covertly squeezes a mammoth additional tip into the waitress's hand.

Moving to Meriden two years ago "is the most exciting thing that could happen to any writer from New York," she says. The smalltown life is essential to her growth as a novelist, she feels, because it puts her more in touch with the lives most Americans lead.

Despite characters who are best-selling authors, TV news stars, producers and editors, Van Wormer says her books don't glamorize the sexual and political hijinks of the cultural elite. They communicate a message: "Don't compare your insides with other people's outsides. It'll kill you," she says, leaning forward and narrowing her eyes. Of her childhood as an executive's daughter in the "white ghetto" of Darien, Conn., she recounts, "I grew up comparing myself. My mom died when I was 11.... I'd make up stories -- 'Oh, my mother's in Europe' -- because I just didn't know how to deal. I desperately did not want to be different."

Van Wormer's worlds are slickly appealing, but her characters are often unhappy in those worlds, crumbling under pressure. "I like to think that when people finish one of my novels they have learned something about an aspect of our media or our society that they may not have known that much about before. When audiences look at a TV star and say, 'Wow, what an easy life,' I hope they read Benedict Canyon," she says, referring to her third novel, about the tribulations of celebrity, "and read about the guard dogs, the stalkers, the security systems. As a society, we have made our role models media figures, and it's deadly.

"Formula fiction, to me," she continues, "is a book that essentially you pick up, and you put it down, and you've been entertained. You haven't learned a damn thing. That's fine, you didn't want to. Healthy commercial fiction takes you places, puts you in other people's heads, and you really get a different point of view about a lot of different things."

So while 1995's Any Given Moment, for example, is a romantic mystery about the desecration of a literary agency by an evil talent conglomerate with ulterior motives, it also contains an explanation for lay readers of the workings of the industry and the pressures it puts on writers and agents. Van Wormer's characters are round as well as sleek, black as well as white, and homosexual as well as hetero. Many are in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction. They recur, irregularly, from book to book. A central character from 1989's West End, for example, is Jessica Wright, a gorgeous and alcoholic talk-show host; she's the heroine of 1998's Talk, and shows up briefly in Exposé as one of Sally's interview subjects. Alexandra Waring, a gay but closeted anchorwoman, is central to Riverside Drive (1988) and West End (1989); she likewise appears in the new novel.

Van Wormer brings out a stylish PR photograph of herself, looking like a writer of splashy formula fiction. Although the photo is flattering, the image is misleading, she says. Her books speak of serious hardship; they suggest that people go to rehab if they drink too much. They tell people, "'Look, there's all this creeping crud out there from herpes right on through. You don't want to catch it.' Who writes this in their novels? Most people don't. I do."

From Dynasty to Trollope

If the medicine of her message g s down easy, it's because Van Wormer honed her storytelling skills in the world of nighttime soaps. In 1984, Doubleday found itself in a pinch: a Dynasty book was six weeks away from scheduled production, foreign rights had been sold, and no one had written the text. V-p and executive editor Loretta Barrett sent Van Wormer -- whose B.S. in public communications had trained her to write for television -- out to the West Coast. There, she read though old scripts, sorted publicity photos, talked to the show's creators and churned out great Carrington copy in four weeks. Deals to do similar books for Dallas and Knotts' Landing followed, and Van Wormer quit her editorial job.

Around the same time, she stopped drinking. Formerly a "big party girl," she now started writing for the first time since college. The result was an early draft of Riverside Drive, which was soundly denounced by Barrett and Betty Prashker -- both of whom would later become Van Wormer's editors. "They were trusted friends who had worked in the industry for years," she says. "I let them read it and they told me they were terribly sorry, but I really had no future as a novelist. I was just about to kill myself."

Discouraged, she showed the manuscript to longtime friend Ann Douglas, author of The Feminization of American Culture (and more recently, Mongrel Manhattan). "I'll never forget it," says Van Wormer. "She just said to me, 'What makes you think you don't have to practice writing? I read these pages and what do I see? I see a talented writer who hasn't practiced.' "

Douglas also suggested Van Wormer read Anthony Trollope, whose 19th-century interlocking novels would become a major influence. "I was just a Trollopian. I was completely besotted with this man and his characters. They made me laugh, they were romantic, they were nasty and funny. They were the original soaps."

A completely revamped Riverside Drive (1988) -- no longer "all these depressed alcoholic young people sitting around complaining," but a tale of romance, troubled marriages and corporate corruption among the cultural elite -- won Barrett over. And Van Wormer was lucky -- Danielle Steel's new book was a month behind schedule that year, so Riverside Drive was made a main selection of the Doubleday Book Club. "I owe my career to Danielle Steel," she quips.

After West End was published, Barrett left Doubleday to become an agent and Van Wormer became her client. Prashker, now at Crown, bought Benedict Canyon (1992) in a hard/soft deal with Fawcett. Moving away from the glitzy image of the Doubleday book jackets, Crown marketed Canyon as "smart women's fiction," using a subtle, soft-tinted jacket. It "completely threw the Bronxville Ladies Reading Club, the blue-haired set where I had spent the year before," says Van Wormer. The book tour was hindered by the L.A. riots and by floods in Chicago. Nonetheless, Mira -- then a fledgling hardcover division of Harlequin aggressively pursuing authors of commercial women's fiction -- had already pegged her for their list.

Although she was wary that a romance house was not a good match, Van Wormer met with Mira editor Dianne Moggy. She asked Moggy to read the manuscript of Any Given Moment (1995) and the editor came back with a single, perceptive critique: the central character's voice was too old. Van Wormer revised the book accordingly, and said to Barrett, "I don't care where [Moggy] cut her teeth editorially. This woman knows character, plot, story, development. She knows what she's talking about."

Moggy bought Fawcett out on softcover rights for Any Given Moment and did a tandem deal with Crown for Jury Duty (1996). Just for the Summer (1997) became her first Mira hardcover.

"I was lost on [Crown's] list," explains Van Wormer, though she has nothing but praise for Prashker. "She had Edward Rutherford, Judith Krantz, Dominick Dunne, Ruth Rendell. And that was just on a slow day in Betty's office. They were such powerhouses! Crown did their best to break me out... [but at Mira] I was going to be a big fish in a small pond. When I went up to Toronto [where Harlequin is], it was just like the Doubleday that I remember from the late '70s.... Everyone grew up there. They started as secretaries and assistants and everybody knew how to do their job so well. They were all extremely courteous. They didn't jump houses. I fell in love with them."

Mira provides a stable home for Van Wormer that's a rarity in today's publishing climate. And that stability has allowed her to take her books in an unprecedented direction: the new first-person approach and smalltown setting begun with Exposé will continue in the next novel. Her appeal to popular audiences will remain, nonetheless, because she always writes what she likes to read. "I'm the biggest fan of my own books," she says. "The reason is that... there is a part of me that at times is just so lonely. Sometimes there's just despair, just darkness. I think every writer gets it.... Curling up with one of my books, for me, is one of the best cure-alls. I don't feel alone any more, because basically the people in my books feel like I do."

Jenkins is the author of Tongue First: Adventures in Physical Culture (Owl).