February 24, 1992 12:00 PM

MICHAEL MALONE INSISTS HE IS NOT at all defensive about his new job as head writer on the ABC soap One Life to Live. “If Dickens were alive, this is what he’d be doing,” he says. Then, to further emphasize his absolute, total lack of any insecurity whatsoever, he invokes…who else? “Shakespeare was considered low culture in his day,” he says. Then he drags in The Novel. “Novels were low culture in the 18th century,” he says. “Lord knows what the low culture will be in the future!”

The problem is that in the literary and academic world where Michael Malone has spent his life, any conversation about low culture can move rather quickly to soap operas. As a visiting writer-in-residence, first at Yale, then Swarthmore and later at the University of Pennsylvania, Malone taught writing and produced seven novels before plunging into the frenetic world of daytime last July.

The new job pays obscenely well by the parsimonious standards of academia—which was one reason Malone signed on. And since he joined the show, the venerable ABC soap has jumped from No. 11 to No. 4 in the daytime ratings. But there remains the nagging question: What will the neighbors think?

Many of them, it turns out, are thrilled. “I’ve found an astounding range of people in academia who admit they sneak home to watch soaps after teaching,” Malone says.

Still, the high-culture/low-culture rift almost kept him from even finding out about the One Life job. He had met producer Linda Gottlieb in 1980, when she was negotiating to buy the movie rights to one of his novels. When Gottlieb became executive producer of One Life last year, she thought of Malone. “She told the network she needed a novelist, someone who wrote huge-canvas novels,” he says, “and that’s when a mutual friend called my wife and told her.” His wife, Maureen Quilligan, is a professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. “She didn’t even bother to tell me about it,” says Malone. “She laughed and said I’d never be interested. A week later I got the call from Gottlieb, and I started watching the show.”

Malone had just finished writing Foolscap, a comic novel about vicious academic politics. (Published last fall, it won mostly positive reviews.) He had never even watched a soap opera before—and Maureen advised him not to start. “She said, ‘You’re an American novelist. Your duty is to your art,’ ” Malone says. “But then she started watching them too, and we saw all this interlaced structure and an endless chance to tell stories.”

Storytelling has long been Malone’s forte. The son of a physician father and an English-teacher mother, he was born in Durham, N.C., the eldest of six children. “I wrote plays when I was young and forced my brothers and sisters into costumes,” he says. “I’d make them sing ‘Be My Little Baby Bumblebee’ in bee wings.”

He went to Syracuse University and then pursued a Ph.D. in English at Harvard, where he also met Maureen. “She was a real scholar,” he says. “My dissertation was on archetypes of innocence and eroticism in American film. Hers was on the Renaissance.” It was at Harvard too that Malone began writing Painting the Roses Red, a novel about graduate school, published in 1975. “I got $2,000,” he says. “I thought I was rich and I’d go off to Europe and be this artist.” Instead he married Maureen and began to bob along in her academic wake, all the while writing his novels. “Maureen thinks it’s very convenient to marry a novelist because you just move them with you from place to place,” he says. “All they need is a pencil and paper.”

Malone expects to return to writing books eventually, but for now he’s in New York City five days a week, writing in his One Life office about people named Asa and Clint, while Maureen stays with daughter Maggie, 15, in the family’s restored Philadelphia townhouse. Malone works long hours, often until 10 at night. He’s writing soaps, but he still has standards. “Agnes Nixon, the creator of this show, had a very clear vision of what she wanted—class problems, differences between the haves and have-nots,” he says. “I’ve tried to put that back in.”

The show’s actors like his style. Says Erika Slezak, One Life’s Victoria Lord Buchanan: “Michael has created such wonderfully complex situations. I’ve never had much of a relationship with my children on the show—and that is happening now.”

There are, however, special problems with soap writing. “You get actors who come and say they are quitting, and you have to write in their departure, death, disappearance,” Malone says. “And you have to watch death. In soaps you can be dead—or you can be dead, dead, dead. The actors we know won’t come back we make dead, dead, dead.”

He receives plenty of kibitzing from home—from both Maureen and Maggie, a high school sophomore. After school she watches the show on tape and is generous with advice. “I’ll say, ‘Oh, Dad, why are you putting those two together? That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.’ ”

If only Shakespeare and Dickens had had that kind of input, think what they might have accomplished.



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