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Morris West Has One Literary Objective: Hold That Reader

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Two years after his parents separated, Morris Langlo West, an unhappy 14-year-old in Melbourne, Australia, entered a Christian Brothers monastery. He stayed there a decade. “I went through the miseries. I was not made to be a monk.”

He came out knowing a lot about religion “but hardly able to knot a tie.” During World War II he served with the signal corps, and afterward spent 10 years churning out radio serials and dramas. A nervous breakdown followed: “I was paralyzed for three months.”

One day in 1956, faced with an unpaid income tax bill, West sat down and in seven days and nights wrote an adventure novel, Gallows on the Sand, which he sold for $250. At the age of 40, Morris West had found himself.

Since then he has published such enormous best-sellers as Shoes of the Fisherman, The Devil’s Advocate and The Salamander. The 60-year-old author has a new book out this fall, The Navigator, also doing well.

Ostensibly it is about an expedition headed by an anthropology professor from Hawaii who hopes to prove the existence of an uncharted Polynesian island. When their ship is wrecked, the group is marooned with little chance of rescue. “With all the 20th-century baggage removed,” West explains, they must establish a social system in order to survive. “In each of my books it is a question of what would you do if…In The Navigator, it’s how do you elect a leader?”

West is a ruminative man. “I find myself going back more and more to the great religious books,” he says. “I read Ecclesiastes again and again, and the Proverbs, and I think, ‘Oh, God, yes, how right.’ ” West has remained a practicing Catholic, in spite of a 1951 divorce and subsequent remarriage in 1963. “I’ve never felt the need to quit the communion of the church,” he says. “I find myself very much at peace, free in conscience. Arguing dogma is a sterile occupation.”

The Devil’s Advocate in 1959 established West. In the book, a dying priest finds the meaning of God and love while investigating the possible sainthood of a World War II martyr. The novel has sold 15 million copies to date and has been translated into 24 languages. Next spring a $3 million film version, starring Sir John Mills, will be released. West wrote the screenplay and was a frequent visitor to the set.

Home for West and his second wife, Joy, 50, is a comfortable, red brick and beamed house in Surrey, 23 miles outside London. When they entertain, it’s dinner for eight—but not other writers: “What writers generally talk about when they get together is money.” A gardener takes care of the three-acre grounds (and acts as chauffeur; West has never passed his British driving test). For vacations and diversion the author owns a villa on Sardinia and a 78-foot yacht berthed at Antibes. It sleeps six, has a crew of four and is appropriately named the Salamandra d’Oro. The Wests also keep an apartment in New York. They have four children, all still in school: Michael, 12, Melanie, 17, Paul, 19, and Christopher, 22.

West is already plotting his next book about “the apparatus of terror. Mercenaries today are not just soldiers. They are ambassadors, diplomats, politicians.” But while he explores cosmic themes, West never loses sight of the reason for his continuing success. “There is still only one test of a storyteller. Can he hold the reader? All the rest is dispensable.”