NEW YORK - If it weren't for the fur trappers, we wouldn't have best-selling author John Sandford.
That would be quite a loss because Sandford's riveting Prey series of thrillers alone would go a long way toward filling the yawning shelves in the "library" here at the Trump Soho, where the distinguished author sits restlessly for an interview.
Storm Prey (Putnam, $27.95), published this month, is the 20th page-flipper to feature dynamic Twin Cities cop Lucas Davenport.
And to think, we owe it all to the failed pelt hunters. But let's back this story up a bit.
Back in the '80s, Sandford, under his given name, John Camp, was an accomplished journalist. Then came the crushing disappointment of a Pulitzer Prize that he was awarded in 1986 for his feature writing in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
"You have the feeling that if you get a Pulitzer, you're somehow set for life," he says. "The paper gave me a $50-a-week raise. I went home and figured I could not send my kids to school at the state university on my salary. And as much as I like journalism, I decided I just had to find something that paid a little bit better."
He turned his hand to writing books, laboring intently on a premise he describes as "a futuristic feminist social novel about fur trappers."
"I sent it to my agent. She said, 'The people who like sci-fi are going to hate the fur trappers. The feminists are going to hate the macho mood of the trappers. And the fur people are going to hate the satellite uplink stuff.' She said, 'People are going to hate everything about it. It's going to sell 12 copies.' "
Bloodied but unbowed, he continued typing, eventually turning to a more commercial formula, a thriller about a high-tech con man.
"I sent that to my agent," he recalls. "She said, 'I think I can sell it this week,' and she did. To Henry Holt for $15,000. I said '$15,000 isn't going to do it.' "
The book, The Fool's Run, originally published under his own name, was the first in his computer-centric Kidd series.
"My agent, Esther Newberg, said, 'I think you could make a lot more money if you did this.' And in about 30 seconds, she told me everything I had to do. I simply followed what Esther told me and that was the first Davenport book.
"She called me and said, 'I got you $400,000 for two novels and sold them to Dino DeLaurentis for another four.' I said, 'That sounds fine.' "
To avoid confusion with the Kidd book, The Rules of Prey, introducing Lucas Davenport, was credited to the Sandford pseudonym, his great grandfather's name.
His reportorial skills were still evident. "With most of my books," he says, "I'll actually go out and look at the setting. If you describe things carefully, it kind of makes the scene pop."
Sandford, 66, worked hard at mastering the thriller genre.
"These characters are not spontaneous creations," he says. "They are engineered down to the last nut and bolt. I don't think of Lucas as a friend of mine or an alter ego.
"You want people, especially women, who are the majority of my readers, to like him. So he is tall, good-looking. He has this violent edginess about him, but he's very smart and he's rich."
Davenport developed a computer-gaming company in his spare time and sold it for big bucks.
"I made him rich deliberately because I think women like to read about rich guys."
The books have never been adapted to the big screen ("the basic underlying reason is I just don't care," says Sandford). But he couldn't help doing some casting.
"Pat Riley looks like Davenport," he says of the former NBA coach, now president of the Miami Heat. "He's tall, thin, dark hair. And he wears those plutonium suits that look like they cost $8 million."
Fortunately, Davenport's adventures work pretty well on the page. Combining suspense, surprise, and vivid villains, the 20 Prey novels are harder to put down than an overflowing honey jar.
Sandford does regret that he drained away some of Davenport's dash about five books ago.
"The mistake I made was marrying him off [to feisty surgeon Weather Karkinnen]. There's something about marriage that is not as intensely romantic or interesting as a couple's first meeting," he says.
"The reason I married him off is because the male hero can't just jump some chick and dump her. [His romance] has to be sincere and heartfelt. Now, I'm sort of stuck with that."
Some of Sandford's competitors have found ways to escape the matrimonial trap. Like the venerable James Lee Burke, Edgar Award-winning author of the Dave Robicheaux mysteries.
"I think Robicheaux is on his third wife," says Sandford with a laugh. "The first two were killed. Or maybe one of them died of cancer. That's how Burke solved the problem."
The two prolific writers constitute a mutual admiration society. Says Burke via e-mail: "When people use the term 'man of letters,' they're talking about John Sandford. I think anyone on the book circuit will agree that he's a gentleman of the old school, the kind of writer who sets the standard and who reminds us that a man can enjoy enormous success and still be a humble and genteel man of goodwill."
Actually, on this morning in the Donald's ostentatious new hostelry, Mr. Goodwill has a few burrs under his saddle.
Like finding new modifiers for his Davenport titles (Certain Prey, Secret Prey, Hidden Prey, etc.).
"A critic said this time that Storm Prey was one of the stupidest titles he's seen. I'm proud to say it's not mine. Somebody else comes up with them. My title was Davenport Gets a Gun Again."
Sandford is also bridling at some of the conventions of his métier.
"Most [thrillers] are about supermen, guys who don't get hurt very much, or if they do it's a flesh wound," he says. "The fact is, I'm getting tired of that kind of stuff and I'm getting tired of the superman killer who is virtually invulnerable.
"This book is about a bunch of stupid people. All the people in the book except the cops are stupid people, and they do a lot of damage to themselves and other people. That's my experience of crime, but I'm not really sure fans want to read that."
It's possible the work conditions are simply getting to him.
"I was a newspaper reporter for 20 years - 25 if you count everything," he says. "I like sitting in a room full of people and working. I never had trouble with people screaming and yelling, running around waving stuff in the air and arguing with each other. I could write with that.
"Now, I go off in a room that's literally probably 8 feet by 10 feet and sit there for hours at a time with nothing other than music playing. It's an odd way to spend your life."
That fur-trapper gig is starting to look awful attractive.