‘You have more control over fiction than over the news,’ says ex-foreign correspondent Elegant
Best-sellers make authors rich—in his case, $400,000 for paperback and movie rights alone—and secure—he’s cut down from 50 to 15 cigarettes a day. But the success of Dynasty did one more thing for Robert S. (for Sampson) Elegant: it stopped his spastic colon from acting up.
III and out of work a year ago, Elegant (“a nuisance name, but once remembered it’s a helluva good byline”) settled in Ireland to stretch his savings and finish his massive saga about a Eurasian family in Hong Kong. While he wrote 1,500 to 2,000 words a day to a background of Bach, his own family pitched in to help. His Australian wife, Moira, a University of Sydney graduate whose hobby is painting, suggested incidents to flesh out Dynasty’s sprawling plot, advised her husband on his female characters (the central figure is a clever English girl who marries into the wealthy family and gradually takes over its rule), and made cautionary notes on early drafts with a green felt pen. “I had to make it clear to her before I went on,” Elegant says. Daughter Victoria, 19, a medical student in London, drew up a genealogical chart for Dynasty’s three generations that appears inside the cover. Son Simon, 17, proofread and designed the dragon that is used as the family symbol.
Elegant’s 625-page epic grew out of 25 years’ legwork in the Far East. Born in New York, son of a lawyer who helped to found the American Labor party, Elegant whizzed through high school and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Pennsylvania at 18. He spent five years studying Asia in Army intelligence and then at Yale and Columbia before moving to the Far East as a correspondent for the Overseas News Agency at $60 a week and no expenses. “I hitched free plane rides and filed by airmail,” he recalls. “It was damn good discipline.”
Jobs with Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times followed, and Elegant won the Overseas Press Club’s annual award for foreign affairs interpretation three times, in addition to writing six nonfiction books about the Orient. Fluent in both Mandarin and Cantonese, he had much closer contact with the Chinese than most Western journalists. When Richard Nixon visited Hong Kong in 1967, he arranged a brain-picking session with Elegant. “I had to talk for four of the four and a half hours we spent together,” Elegant says. During Vietnam, paradoxically, the author changed from an anti-Diem dove to a “sad, reluctant” supporter of American intervention.
He found then—and still does—that most Americans don’t recognize the Chinese as “individual human beings with human problems which transcend ideology. They aren’t all philosophers or all peasants.” By 1976 his troublesome colon—it had become “almost disabling,” he says—and wrangles with his bosses at the Los Angeles Times made him ready to gamble on his novel-in-progress. Now at 49 he regrets waiting so long. “For all those years,” he says, “I’d been writing other things for want of courage to do fiction.”
He recently bought a six-bedroom house in the Irish coastal village of Greystones, 19 miles from Dublin. A building containing a pool, sauna and Ping-Pong room is being added in the backyard. Nowadays when he travels to research his next novel, about China in the 17th century, he leaves his portable typewriter at home—”that great romantic symbol, without which I used to feel naked.” The indispensable piece of equipment now is a pocket calculator. That, Elegant says, is “the difference between a working correspondent and a best-selling author.”