Scott Peck's Bumpy Road Best--selling author doesn't always travel a smooth, happy highway

September 30, 1990|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,Sun Staff Corespondent

It isn't easy being the national shrink. It isn't easy being M. Scott Peck, psychiatrist, lecturer, best-selling author and the man to whom millions look for inspiration. Dr. Peck pointed this out himself -- although in more general terms -- when he wrote the cautionary and uncompromising sentence that opens "The Road Less Traveled," his 1978 blockbuster book on spiritual growth, love and self-discipline:

"Life," he wrote, "is difficult."

Of course, some days are more difficult than others, not only for the four million devoted readers of "The Road," as the book's fans call it, but for Dr. Peck as well.

Take, for instance, the day he turned in the rough draft of his recently published first novel to his editors at Simon & Schuster, the firm that had published Dr. Peck's three prior books, including "The Road," a book that climbed onto the paperback best-seller list on Oct. 13, 1983, and has remained there ever since.

"You've blown it," they told him after reading the early manuscript of his murder-mystery novel, "A Bed by the Window." "You have totally blown it. You've got this great formula going in non-fiction and now you've blown it. The reviewers will kill you. They'll just kill you."

Dr. Peck, the man who is telling this story, leans back into his hotel room chair and lights up a cigarette. "I didn't believe them, but there's always this nagging fear that maybe they were right," he says of the novel that was eventually published by Bantam Books and is now on the New York Times best-seller list. "So when the first review I saw was that dreadful one in the Los Angeles Times, I thought, 'Well, maybe they were right.' "

In the interest of clarity, suffice it to note that the "dreadful" review in question dismissed the novel by saying: "It's a cruel joke on the author that this thing got published." It's the kind of punch to one's self-esteem that would bring most of us to our knees, crying "Uncle." But we're talking Dr. M. Scott Peck here, the man who's mastered the art of acceptance, of coping with life's difficulties. He won't have to struggle through the normal feelings of rejection, right?


"It was terrible. Terrible. It was like someone stuck a knife in my heart," Dr. Peck says of the offending review. "It was particularly dramatic because I hadn't seen any of the positive reviews that had come out." One such review appeared in the New York Times, which described "The Bed by the Window" as "moving and brave . . . a spiritual mystery novel that is something of a miracle."

He sits silent for a minute or two, sipping a glass of iced orange juice. He's 54, a tall, silver-haired, bespectacled man with pale eyes and translucent, unlined skin. Throughout a long interview, his expression remains inscrutable, a remnant perhaps of the Zen Buddhism he embraced in the early '70s. Dr. Peck, who was born in New York City and raised in a secular home, became a Christian at the age of 43, baptized by a United Methodist minister in an Episcopal convent. He met his wife, Lily, who was born and raised in Singapore, while taking premed courses at Columbia University. They married in 1959 and have three children, ranging in age from 21 to 29.

"You know," he says suddenly, breaking through the silence, "I've got no magic for how to cope with rejection. How do I cope? No better than anybody else would. I just wait out the pain." Another pause. Then: "One of the lectures I do is called 'Growing Up Painfully: The Problem of Consciousness and Pain.' And I talk about how the more people grow up, the more pain they will have. Because the more you grow up, the more involved you get in different things, and the more chances you have of being hurt. But you also will have more joy."

Speaking of joy, the book deal he made with Bantam for the new novel plus a non-fiction book to be written must have brought at least a smile to Dr. Peck's face. The deal was closed for $1 million, says Jonathan Dolger, Dr. Peck's agent. "We sent the manuscript for 'A Bed by the Window' out by messenger to nine publishers asking them for a response within two to three weeks," says Mr. Dolger, who, incidentally, is the former Simon & Schuster editor who originally championed "The Road Less Traveled."

The response to the manuscript for Dr. Peck's first novel was immediate. "The next day Linda Grey at Bantam called me and essentially said she wanted to buy this book." They negotiated for about 2 1/2 days before coming to what Mr. Dolger describes as "a happy conclusion."

The novel, which is a murder mystery set in a Midwestern nursing home, is about to go into its fifth printing. "All the omens are extremely good," says Dr. Peck, whose two non-fiction books written between "The Road" and the current novel were also best-sellers, although not in the same league with the phenomenal "Road."

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