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Silence of the author
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Silence of the author

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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

him.

"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

everyone."

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

their neighbors.

"They were never `big' farmers, like most of us," says a

former neighbor.

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

about.

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

editors.

"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

cop.

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

London.

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' novels.

"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

print."

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

Pazzi.

"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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