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Man of mysteries

World experience and a vivid imagination make Stuart Woods (AB '59) one of the country's best-selling authors

by Kelly Simmons

Elaine’s, Monday night.

Stuart Woods walks into the Upper East Side restaurant just after 8 p.m. and nods to a man at the first table, a retired New York City police detective named Wally Millard. He says hello to Patricia Birch, a former Broadway choreographer.

Gianni, one of the two headwaiters, meets him at his usual table, along the right wall near the front of the restaurant, where Elaine seats her regulars.

“Knob Creek, on the rocks,” Woods tells Gianni, ordering his favorite bourbon. He points to the tables across the room, behind the bar.

“That’s where Elaine puts me if she doesn’t like the woman I’m with,” he says. “Back there,” he gestures to the rear of the restaurant, “is where she puts restaurant reviewers. That’s Siberia.

“There’s another room in back, that’s outer Siberia.”

If this were one of his books, Woods now might introduce one of his leading characters. Perhaps Stone Barrington, a New York City detective, who has solved 12 of Woods’ whodunits since he first appeared in New York Dead in 1991. Or the 6-foot-7-inch tall Ed Eagle, a Native American trial attorney from Santa Fe, who stars in Woods’ latest mystery, Short Straw.

The characters are often handsome, powerful and rich with a weakness for top shelf whiskey and women. Woods denies any are autobiographical.

“I have a fevered imagination and a rich fantasy life,” he says, “which helps with the sex scenes.”

At 68, Woods is one of the country’s most prolific novelists, publishing two books a year, the last 19 on the New York Times best-seller list. He also has written two nonfiction books, the first, Blue Water, Green Skipper, a memoir of his solo sail across the Atlantic Ocean in 1976; the other a travel book, A Romantic Guide to the Country Inns of Britain and Ireland.

He has three homes and moves among them as the seasons change, because “I’m constantly in search of 70 degrees Fahrenheit.” He spends spring and fall at his Manhattan apartment; summers he resides in a spacious shingle-style house he had built in 2002 on Somes Sound in Mt. Desert Island, Maine. Winters, he escapes to his house in Key West, a place he is drawn to as much for its ocean breeze as for its ties to Ernest Hemingway.

Married and divorced twice, Woods shares his homes with a yellow Labrador puppy named Fred, the name he has given all of his dogs. He works for just an hour a day, from 11 a.m. until noon, writing a single chapter in a sitting. He personally responds to emails but posts this warning on his Web site: “It is too late to complain about typos in my books. If you write to me about this, I will yell at you.”

An avid sailor in his younger days, Woods now is a partner in an 85-foot antique motor yacht called Enticer. He also owns and pilots a six-passenger, turboprop airplane.

“I’m very contented,” Woods says, relaxing in the living room of his Park Avenue apartment in early October. “Someone once said happiness is a temporary thing; it comes in spurts. Contentment is a better word.”

His storybook existence today is worlds from his modest beginnings in rural Manchester, Ga., about 75 miles southwest of Atlanta.

The small house where he was born still stands just a block from downtown, where his step-grandfather H.W. Denham owned and operated a department store. Woods’ father was a filling-station owner and sometime crook who left Georgia when Stuart was 2 after being implicated in a burglary at the nearby Royal Crown Bottling Company.

It was his mother, Dorothy Callaway Woods, who instilled a love of books in her son and taught him to read before he started school. She was in the middle of Lassie Come-Home, at a critical point in the story, Woods recalls, when she stopped reading and handed it to him. If he wanted to know how the story ended, she said, he would have to finish it.

“I had to work through it syllable by syllable to find out what happened to the dog,” Woods says. “After that I could read anything.”

He went to the then-segregated public schools in Meriwether County where he was “the worst football player in the history of Manchester High School.”

He came to UGA in 1955, a resident of the Reed dormitory.

Years later, as he was cleaning his mother’s house after her death, he found a typewritten letter she had received from the university his freshman year.

“Dear Mr. And Mrs. Woods,” wrote R.L. Brittain, counselor to freshmen men. “The janitor, who serves the floor in which Stuart’s room is located, has reported to this office that the room in which your son lives is one of the cleanest and neatest on that floor.”

Woods framed the letter and hung it in his apartment. “It still makes me laugh,” he says.

It was at UGA where Woods pursued his love of music, playing drums in a jazz band at fraternity parties for $15 a night. He was a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and founded the UGA Jazz Society. He graduated in 1959 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology.

A year later, he headed to New York to pursue a writing career. He got a job by winning a copywriting contest sponsored by an advertising magazine. The company eventually sent him overseas for a stint in its London office. Woods fell in love with the city and stayed there for three years, working in advertising.

In 1973, at age 35, he decided to focus on writing a novel and moved to Ireland. But there he discovered sailing, and everything else fell by the wayside.

He indulged his passion, racing dinghies against small children and regularly losing, because, as he says, “It is hard to win when you weigh more than the boat.”

“At this critical juncture of my life my existence was ruled by the compulsion to find a way to make a ten-foot ten-inch plywood boat go faster than that of the thirteen-year-old down the street,” he writes in Blue Water, Green Skipper. “I know this is no way for a grown man to behave, but I couldn’t help it. I was hooked.”

A modest inheritance from his step-grandfather in 1975 allowed him to continue pursuing his passion. He bought a 30-foot cruiser/racer he called Golden Harp and set out to sail across the ocean in the 1976 Observer Single-handed Transatlantic Race, sponsored by a British newspaper.

Golden Harp left Plymouth, England, on June 6, one of the smallest of the 125 boats in the race. He lost electrical power in the first few days and had no cabin, instrument or navigational lights. He nearly fell overboard trying to secure the mast during a storm, but miraculously completed the journey in Newport, Rhode Island, after 45 days at sea. Many sailors were not as fortunate; in fact Woods had lost two good friends before the race was over.

He went home to Manchester where he wrote his first-hand account of the race and then continued work on his first novel. Chiefs was loosely based on people and events in his hometown. Like Woods’ grandfather, one of the main characters was a former cotton farmer turned police chief, who was gunned down in the line of duty.

Chiefs won the Edgar Allen Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America and established Woods as a writer. He began another novel, and then another two years later.

“I had a revelation,” he says. “If I wrote a book every year rather than every other year I’d get paid twice as much—or at least, twice as often. Later I began writing two books a year on the same principle.”

He has a strong fan base across the country, but they are perhaps nowhere as committed as in Manchester.

He still kicks off nearly every book tour there, even though his mother died two years ago at age 93.

Several people are already at the Taylor-Foster Gift Shop when Woods arrives a half hour early on Oct. 9.

It is a warm fall day and Woods peels off the navy blazer he put on before he left New York that morning. He wears a shirt with blue and yellow stripes in a plaid pattern on a white background. His socks, visible above his black loafers when he sits, are lemon yellow, echoing the shirt.

He settles into a comfortable chair next to a stack of books and begins scrawling his illegible signature inside store copies. Jenny Cranford hands him her book to sign and steps back with her camera.

“Daddy, get in the picture,” she directs Frank Cranford. Woods looks up briefly and musters a smile. It is Frank Cranford’s birthday, and he and his daughter are celebrating with a trip from their Hapeville home to see Woods.

“We started reading his books together; it’s just one of the things we do,” Jenny Cranford says. “The last three we’ve gotten autographed.”

Nora Ann Wood made the one-hour drive from Newnan to buy autographed books. “I love Stuart Woods,” she says. “I’ve become kind of an addict.”

Woods’ books are a fast read with short chapters and frequent twists. He draws his story lines from personal experiences, places he’s been and people he has met. He’s known to use friends’ names as characters without telling them in advance.

His creativity is often sparked by movies, television and the news. A friend and fan of Steven Bochco, he watched “Hill Street Blues,” “LA Law” and “NYPD Blue.”

He has seen every episode of “Law and Order” at least once. A Democrat who worked as an advance man for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign, he enjoyed “The West Wing” until the series ended last season, and already is a fan of Aaron Sorkin’s latest TV drama “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” The television shows, like his books, reflect reality, if sometimes heavily embellished.

His serial characters never get older. “It’s the only way I can fight old age,” Woods says.

As he moves through his sixties, he sees no end in sight for his novels, “as long as I can think and move my fingers.”

Elaine’s is quiet that Monday night. Woods finishes his meal with a Baileys Irish Cream, pays the check and leaves with tomorrow’s lunch in hand—more than half of his spaghetti and meatball dinner.

A cab drops him on the quiet street in front of his building and he nods to the doorman on his way to the elevator.

If this were one of his novels, he might be followed on the lift by a rail-thin man cloaked in black, or he might arrive at his apartment to find his door slightly ajar.

But not tonight. Fortunately for his fans, he’s headed to sleep, to let his imagination run wild.

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photos by Dot Paul

Click on image to enlarge

Woods and Fred, his 15-month-old yellow Lab, relax in their Manhattan apartment.

A photograph from the Pandora yearbook shows Woods, second from right, with other officers of the UGA Jazz Society. He was president of the group of jazz enthusiasts who organized concerts on campus.

Woods chuckles as a fan hands him copies of his older novels to autograph during a book signing at the Taylor-Foster Gift Shop in Manchester. He sells more than 200 books from the shop in his childhood hometown.