Calling yourself the author of the year's biggest novel,'' Erich Segal said, "is like calling yourself the world's greatest newspaper. It makes it sound like nobody else will say it for you, so you gotta say it for yourself . . . "
He stopped saying it long enough to work on a large bite of prime sirloin, but as soon as the way was clear, he was explaining himself.
"What I mean, though, man, is that this IS the year's biggest book: the first big book of the 1970s. Third printing. You won't believe this, but they finished shooting on the movie three days before the book was published!"
With only a brief longing look at his steak, Segal "I lucked out, that's what happened," he explained. "My book came out just as the world was turning from cynicism to romance. I came along at the moment to say what everyone wanted to believe in. The book costs $4.95, which is the price of a record album, because I want kids to treat it that way."
The novel is "Love Story," and it is indeed very big. It is the tender yet bittersweet tale of a college student who falls in love with a girl who dies of leukemia at the end of the book, and it seems to be selling to Rod McKuen fans the world over.
Segal was in town to run a race with the customers at Kroch's and Brentano's: The idea was to see if he could autograph copies faster than they were buying them.
The peculiar thing is the rest of the time he's a classics professor at Harvard.
"I've been incredibly busy the last two years," he said. "I've been teaching full-time at Harvard. I've written, during that same time, a musical comedy with Richard Rodgers that has gone through 18 drafts. I wrote 'Yellow Submarine' for the Beatles. I wrote the screenplay for 'The Games,' about the Olympic Games. I wrote 'Love Story,' both the novel and the screenplay. I wrote 'RPM' for Stanley Kramer. Plus I wrote two scholarly books and a 400-page translation from the Latin and I dated June Wilkinson!"
He looked at his steak with horror.
"All this food," he said; "I'm out of shape. I run 10 miles a day, but on this publicity tour, nothing. I'd like to get out there on the lake front for a while, jog, maybe 10 miles, just sort of thinking . . ."
His novel, he said, will reach the young people because it is written for them. "The new novel has got to take McLuhan into account," he explained. "We are bombarded by the electric media. Novels have to have an electric style. In 'Love Story,' I left out everything that wasn't necessary. In 130 pages, there are only three colors mentioned, man! And where I said her eyes were brown, I regret that, now. That's unnecessary. It's overwriting.
"And there's no nudity. I asked myself, who's the best erotic writer of our time, the best writer of rub-a-dub-dub scenes? John Updike! So let him do it! I'll do what I do best!"
The "RPM" screenplay for Stanley Kramer deals with the campus revolution. I asked Segal if he thinks the movie will be any good.
"Any good?" he said. "This is the movie Kramer has always wanted to make! You'll feel the heat from a volcano! Go and see it with an asbestos suit on!"
You sound more like a press agent than a novelist, I jested.
"Yeah, that's what the guy from Newsweek said," Segal admitted. "But it's my style, I can't help it, it's me . . . "
How much money have you made on all your projects?
"Who knows?" He shrugged, looked up at the ceiling, was silent for a moment.
"You know," he said slowly, "sometimes I amaze even myself. I blow the minds of these Harvard freshmen who come to take a Greek tragedy class, and the professor is the same guy who wrote 'Yellow Submarine,' and they turn around and June Wilkinson is sitting in the back row! Wow! What a mind-blower!
"Of course, she's always careful to keep her coat on . . ."