It's tough beat getting to know what makes Harris tick
The day after they spilled their guts about novelist
Thomas Harris, one of his childhood neighbors called me
back: "Do not use our names," she told me. "He cannot know we
talked to you -- especially after what we said."
She said they would sue if I used their names. She
threatened. She pleaded. She explained: Everyone knew that
the hugely successful and very private Harris did not give
interviews and didn't want his friends to talk either.
Since they had, they were afraid, she said.
Afraid of disappointing him by talking to me? I asked,
knowing how protective his Miami, Fla., friends are of
"No," she said. "Afraid he'll shun us -- treat us the way he
was treated when he was a child."
On a quest
Aha! At last I was on to something. For weeks, I had
been trying to get information on Thomas Harris, 58, who
wrote "The Silence of the Lambs" and whose recent novel
"Hannibal" is No. 1 on The New York Times Bestsellers' List.
I had begun the quest for information by writing Harris an
obsequious letter reminding him that I had talked to him at
parties, including one at my house for a friend who had a
new book out. I suggested that even though he didn't give
interviews he might talk to me. He left a response on my
answering machine at home: No, he said, he wouldn't break
his rule of no interviews for me or anyone. He ended with:
"Good luck getting information for your story."
He knew how hard it would be.
For weeks, I listened to Harris' friends in Miami say
the same surface things everybody already knew: Three of
his books, including "Black Sunday" and "Red Dragon," have been
made into movies. After "The Silence of The Lambs" was so
successful as a film, he got a two-book contract for $5.2
million and wrote "Hannibal," which came out in June.
Friends recited what I had already read in dozens of
articles: He lives with his girlfriend, Pace Barnes, in
Miami Beach most of the year. They spend summers in Sag
Harbor, N.Y. He likes to cook, eat, drink. Loves to hang
out and gab with friends. Guards his privacy. Is generous,
thoughtful and well-mannered. A meticulous researcher and
smart-smart, with a quirky sense of humor.
For weeks, I listened to this much-repeated stuff about
Harris and wrung my hands in frustration. But then I called
Rich, Miss., and my luck changed.
Heading down South
Rich, where Thomas Harris grew up, is the kind of dusty,
forgotten Southern town that you'd hear about only if there
were a mass murder there. Like Paducah, Ky., or Jonesboro,
Ark., or Pearl River, Miss., it's the kind of safe,
sedentary place that makes national headlines only if some
lonely, alienated kid picks up a semi-automatic to exact
revenge on those who made him an outcast.
As it is, though, the town has worked its way into the
national news for another reason: It's the place that
spawned Thomas Harris, a once-lonely, alienated kid who got
his revenge in another way: He grew up, got out and became
a hugely successful writer.
"This is fertile ground for some real characters, and
Harris had the good sense to see that and put them in his
books," says Bard Selden, a lawyer in a town near Rich.
"One of the things we love about Tom," says a Rich
resident, "is that he is so gracious we know he has forgiven
Rich is an hour's drive south of Memphis, and a
10-minute drive east of the Mississippi River. It has one
stop sign and no traffic light. It's on the Yazoo Pass
canal, with a population of 500, a number that has barely
fluctuated since Polly Harris moved there with her infant
son, Thomas Jr., in 1940. She went to Rich to be near
family while her husband, Thomas Sr., went to war.
A former neighbor says she remembers how happy Polly was
when her husband returned. But it didn't last, said the
neighbor. They had financial problems.
Harris was a very affable, charming man who, so the
story goes, was not cut out to be a farmer. Polly was very
smart and strong-willed, but Tom Sr. was easygoing and not
as determined. So the Harrises were not as affluent as
"They were never `big' farmers, like most of us," says a
All the kids in the area knew Polly Harris because she
taught biology at the two-story, white brick, K-through-12
school. But they didn't know her husband. He didn't come to
school functions, they say. He got less and less friendly
as the years passed, keeping more to himself.
Living by the Code
Rich, Miss., is a place where the Code for boys and
girls is still strong: Boys play sports, hunt and fish.
Girls look in the mirror and giggle. Anyone who doesn't fit
the mold is considered odd.
Sometimes as a child, Thomas Harris went to the Yazoo
Pass bridge with his cousins and shot at snakes and turtles
with a .22. Sometimes, he played mumblety-peg with them --
throwing a knife in the ground, hoping it would stand up so
he could win the game. But he wasn't athletic at all, and
even less interested in killing animals, and because of
this, he didn't have friends his age. When sides were
chosen for baseball at school, he was not picked. When it
came to football, he knew not to approach the field.
Mostly, he stayed home and read. In his first novel,
"Black Sunday," Harris describes the Code in the South and
what it was like to be a child who couldn't adhere to it:
"The Code. . . . A man fights when called on. A man is
tough, straightforward, honorable and strong. He can play
football. He loves to hunt and he allows no nasty talk
around the ladies though he discusses them in lewd terms
among his fellows.
"When you are a child without the equipment," Harris
concluded, "the Code can kill you."
Those Rich residents, who forbade me to use their names,
say Harris was describing his own childhood in "Black
Sunday," handing it over to his villain, setting it up as
the motive for revenge and mass murder.
Revenge at last
"But Tom got revenge in another way," says a Rich
resident. "He left and got wealthy and famous."
By high school, things started to look up for Harris. He
left the school in Rich where his mother taught and went 35
miles south to Cleveland, Miss. There, he lived with his
aunt and became best friends with Stanley Gaines, now
president of a large oil company in Mississippi. Gaines
agrees that Harris was different from most boys in northern
Mississippi: "Smarter, more quick-witted, with a larger view
of the world," says Gaines.
The two boys rode around in Gaines' 1954 red Ford
convertible, listening to Elvis sing "That's Alright Mama" on
the radio. Gaines always had a girlfriend; Harris didn't.
But that didn't stop him from going to dances at the Cat
Cave and dating. Mostly, they went to Bob's Drive-In for
burgers and fries. Sometimes, they went swimming in Moon
Lake. In high school in Cleveland, Harris sang in the
chorus and got a part in the school play.
"In high school, Tom blossomed," says Gaines. "Sometimes,
the things that make you an outcast as a kid make you cool
when you get older."
He went to Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and, after
getting a degree in English, stayed on to work for The Waco
Tribune Herald. His editor in the early 1960s, Bob
Sadler, remembers that Harris had the night police beat and
would pound away into the wee hours on an old Royal
Standard typewriter. Sadler also remembers that Harris wore
an odd gray hat that his fellow reporters used to kid him
But, says the retired editor, Harris' true individuality
revealed itself in his writing. He never went for the
obvious. He picked up small details and nuances that made
people come alive.
"He had the kind of quirky eye that either makes someone
a star at a good paper or gets them in trouble at a
mediocre paper," Sadler says.
Off to the big city
After a few years, Harris left Waco for New York, where
he got a job with The Associated Press. Besides leaving the
Waco paper, Harris left his wife, whom he had married in
college, and their young daughter behind in Waco.
"It took guts for a boy from Mississippi to go to the big
city," Sadler says. "You can be talented and be too afraid to
do something with it. Tom wasn't."
At AP, he worked nights as an assistant editor. A former
AP reporter, who asks not to be named, remembers that
Harris spent hours poring over copy, marking it with a pen,
taking more time with each article than any of the other
"He understood precision in language and how to get a
piece to move," says the reporter.
At AP, Harris and two of his colleagues drew up an
intricate outline for the novel "Black Sunday." It was to be
a collaborative effort. But it was Harris who quit his job
and took the time to write it.
Harris sold the book and then the movie and never looked
back. Next, Harris introduced Hannibal Lecter to the world
in the novel "Red Dragon." When "The Silence of The Lambs" came
out, Harris bought a big house on the bay in Miami Beach.
Then he got the $5.25 million deal for "Hannibal" and a book
he has yet to write. A New York Times article called the
publishing house competition for rights to "Hannibal" and the
next book "ferocious."
This past June at a conference for homicide cops in
Orlando, which Harris had attended for the past three years
to get information on serial killers for his novels (he was
not there this year), the cops talked about Harris -- how he
had sat in the back of the room observing everything and
scribbling notes in a little notebook like a good homicide
Taking notes on DNA
In his novels, he has used information from The Body
Farm, five acres in eastern Tennessee where dead indigents,
who can't afford burial, are laid out on top of the ground
to rot while forensic experts note what maggots and other
bugs do to them. Harris has also used information from the
conference on how DNA samples are taken, what can be
gleaned about a crime from blood spatter and the fetishes
and habits of serial killers -- like picking victims based
solely upon VPL (visible panty lines). And most of all: how
male-oriented cop culture tends to be.
At the end of past conferences, he signed hardback
copies of "The Silence of The Lambs," a $30 book that
skyrockets in value to $1,000 when Harris signs it, because
he refuses to attend book signings, making autographed
copies a valuable collector's item.
The homicide cops and forensic experts talked about what
they learned about Harris at past conferences:
"He really likes to have a few drinks with us at the end
of the day," said Dave Rivers, retired Miami homicide cop.
"He listened for hours while I told him what a crime
scene says about a serial killer," said Kentucky forensic
profiler Ron Holmes. "I never saw him look happier than
when he was eating a good fish sandwich," said North
Carolina police academy instructor Don Raymond.
The cops described Harris as "humble and polite -- easy to
be around." They say Hannibal Lecter, the antagonist in his
past three books, is based on a composite of serial
killers: Part Ted Bundy (who had a penchant for mutilating
college-aged brunettes), because Bundy was egotistic and
educated -- a college graduate and a law school student. Part
Ed Kemper, who, with an IQ of 140, is an avid reader and a
lover of vintage cars like Hannibal. Kemper devoured the
flesh of his victims after he cut them up. He has been in
prison in California since 1973. And part Issei Sagawa,
Japanese literary scholar and gormande, who wrote a book
about how he killed and cannibalized a German woman in
The real Hannibal
But none of the homicide cops mentioned the cannibal
killer most like Hannibal Lecter, who was famous in Rich,
Miss., when Harris was a boy: William Coyner -- a student of
religion and philosophy -- was also an escape artist like
Lecter. After Coyner escaped from an Indiana prison and
went on a 1934 murdering and cannibalizing spree in
Cleveland, Miss., 35 miles south of Rich, police captured
him and assigned 200 armed police to guard him. After he
went to the gallows, he took on mythical proportions for
being superhuman. When Harris was growing up more than a
decade later, Coyner was the topic of the scary stories
kids told around a campfire to keep each other up all
night, quaking with fear.
"Tom Harris told me a few years ago that he got the idea
for Lecter from Coyner," says Cleveland librarian Ron Wise.
Retired Quantico FBI agent Bob Ressler, well-known for
profiling serial killers, says he spent hours in past years
talking to Harris and sees much of what they discussed in
"Harris didn't say much when we met," says Ressler. "He
just let me drone on and I'd think he wasn't paying
attention. Then I'd see practically everything I'd said in
Many of Ressler's colleagues believe the character Jack
Crawford in "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Hannibal" was based
upon Ressler. And in "Hannibal" the character Il Mostro, the
Tuscan serial killer, was based upon the real Il Mostro,
Pietro Pacciani, whose trial Harris sat through in
Florence, Italy, in 1994. Pacciani was subsequently
released when the prosecutor faked evidence. The shamed
prosecutor was also fictionalized in "Hannibal" as Rinaldo
"You've got to hand it to Harris," says Ressler. "He may
not have a great imagination, but he's a good reporter."
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