Minute Man 17,000 stories: The 60-Second Novelist has gone from street corner to the party circuit to the on-line world. Fans can't get enough.

January 29, 1996|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

Montclair, N.J. -- Dan Hurley is in his study in his small house in this picture-perfect New York suburb, his fingers flying across his computer keyboard, like a pianist warming up before a performance. It is 11 p.m. on a weekday night, and most of Montclair, including his wife and 5-month-old daughter are in bed or heading there. But Mr. Hurley is just getting to work, waiting in the virtual wings of a virtual auditorium in America Online.

Across the nation, people are filing into the auditorium for this evening's performance -- 45, 55, 80, 150. Before Mr. Hurley goes on, he scopes the competition, discovering that actress Phylicia Rashad has an audience of 160 in her auditorium. "Gonna beat her butt," Mr. Hurley croons. "I hope."

It's showtime, folks. Mr. Hurley types and the words flash on computer screens in dens and living rooms, basement offices and bedrooms, from Maine to California: "It's time for everybody to tell the Naked Truth with Dan Hurley, the 60-Second Novelist," he types.

Ladies and gentlemen, Dan Hurley has entered the auditorium. Remember the name. For when the history of on-line entertainment is written, you might find it in an encyclopedia thusly: Hurley, Dan (1957 -- ): One of the first celebrities to emerge from the on-line services originally intended as information providers.

Or, at the very least, he will exist as a footnote: Hurley, Dan, the world's only known 60-Second Novelist.

*

Fourteen years ago, Dan Hurley, then an editor in Chicago for several American Bar Association publications, had a wonderful idea for a Halloween costume.

He would go as a capital W-writer, but dressed like a cigarette girl. With a typewriter around his neck and his hat on the back of his head, he would circulate through the room, murmuring: "Poems? Short Stories? Novellas?"

He never made the Halloween costume. But on a Saturday afternoon the following April, he set up on a corner with a 39-pound Royal typewriter and a sign, billing himself as the 60-Second Novelist. For $2, he interviewed customers, then wrote their life stories. The stories were short, of course, and shot through with Mr. Hurley's dry, gentle humor.

Karen, for example, was a Buffalo, N.Y., housewife in a bad marriage. Mr. Hurley, who has kept copies of every single one of his 17,000-plus novels, wrote: "One night, she went out for the evening and discovered it was colder than she expected. So she went home to get a sweater, and when she walked into the kitchen, she discovered her husband wearing her best dress and high heels and makeup. And the thing she thought was, 'Why did he have to pick my best dress?' "

People loved it. Old women cried: "I don't know what it is, but I have to have one."

"I did it on weekends, made some money and thought, 'This is pretty cool.' I went on the 'Today' show, and I thought 'This is very cool,' " he recalls, over dinner at a diner near his home. The 60-Second Novelist, who wears a bow tie and porkpie hat, would not look out of place here. But Mr. Hurley is dining as himself, an amiable 38-year-old with thinning brown hair, glasses and plaid shirt.

"I started charging $5 and more people wanted it, because it cost more, so it was suddenly more valuable. I said I'm going to test doing it full-time for a week, see if I get bored. I loved it, and I made $1,000, which was more than I was making at the American Bar Association. So I quit my job."

A New Jersey native, he soon headed for New York (if you can make it there, etc., etc.), and within a week had been featured on three television shows. It was the mid-1980s, a time of lavish parties, and the 60-Second Novelist quickly got on the circuit, earning hundreds of dollars to do what he had started doing for $2 a pop.

Private parties

He entertained at private parties, for people like Ralph Lauren and Katherine Graham. He did a bar mitzvah on the QEII. At a corporate event for Women's Day magazine in a seaside amusement park, he dashed off a story for a dark-haired woman named Alice, predicting she would meet the love of her life near the ocean.

In that case, Mr. Hurley could have billed himself as the 60-Second Psychic. The two were married five years ago.

His wife, now a copy associate for Good Housekeeping, was proud to be married to the 60-Second Novelist, although it meant a lot of Saturday nights alone. Who could argue with a husband who put on a suit, left the house with his typewriter for a few hours, and came home $600 or $700 richer?

But Mr. Hurley, who also enjoyed a successful existence as a free-lance journalist, was beginning to burn out. He asked himself: "Do I want to be a 50-year-old bar mitzvah entertainer?"

Computer-indifferent, he knew little about the booming on-line services, which were making the mysteries of the Internet and the benefits of e-mail accessible to a broader audience. So when an old friend, Trevor Isles, called and asked if he wanted to take the 60-Second Novelist on-line, Mr. Hurley had no idea where to begin.

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