So what does Peter Benchley, whose great white shark spawned a great golden fortune, do for an encore? Son of Jaws? Jaws Redux? Gums?
No, he writes The Deep, a second watery adventure which the publisher assumes will be another treasure chest. Benchley’s advance for Jaws was a mere $7,500. For The Deep he got $35,000 from Doubleday (which is walking-around money, considering how much is still coming in from the shark epic). The new novel, to be published next summer, “is about honeymooners who find sunken treasure and trouble while scuba diving in Bermuda.”
Bantam, which has nine million paperbacks of Jaws in print, will pay nearly $1.5 million for the rights to put The Deep into every drugstore in America. Next month Benchley will start tapping out a film script of the novel for Columbia Pictures, which is worth another $350,000, plus a percentage of the take. If his new novel approaches the success of Jaws, Benchley, 35, could plumb The Deep for as much as $10 million, spread of course over several years to minimize Uncle Sam’s bite.
But the money is not what counts, Benchley claims. The incredible success of Jaws may have expanded his wallet but not his head—or his way of life. “I don’t live high and I don’t want to,” says Benchley. “What it has given me is freedom to work for myself.”
Benchley, his wife, Wendy, and their two children have moved to grander quarters (a $150,000 house) in Princeton, where Benchley writes from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., spending his afternoons on the public tennis courts. He learned discipline from his writer father, Nathaniel. “One summer,” Benchley recalls, “he offered to sponsor me if I would work six days a week, just writing. I wrote a lot of unpublishable short stories, but it was a wonderful learning experience.”
He doesn’t like inaction. “My idea of fun is to go down to Bermuda and dive with Teddy Tucker.” Tucker, a treasure diver he met in 1970 while on a magazine assignment, told him the shipwreck legends that inspired The Deep.
In 1973, when Bantam bid $575,000 for Jaws, Benchley sat on the stairs at home in stunned disbelief. This time he took the near record-breaking sale of The Deep as a vote of confidence. “There is always the problem,” he admits, “of topping yourself.”