Serials: Making a comeback -- Novelists like Peter Cameron and Tom Wolfe are rediscovering the pleasures of writing in installments

For a year, Peter Cameron wrote fiction in the morning and then strolled to the office of 7 Days, a New York weekly, where harried editors took his words, tinkered with them, and funneled them into the magazine. Within the week, anyone in the city could read the latest cliff-hanger in Cameron’s elusive chronicle. At a party someone might ask him,”Hey, is Lillian really going to be inseminated from the sperm bank?” And he would grin smugly: maybe, maybe not. Who knew? Cameron didn’t. He made up Leap Year as he went along.

Writers like Cameron who used to dream only of having their words bound between hardcovers now look forward to writing fiction on the installment plan. Serials are making a comeback. Authors as diverse as Armistead Maupin, Eric Kraft, Tom Wolfe, and Peter Cameron are exploring the modern challenges of the form that made Charles Dickens famous. Their books — Tales of the City, Herb ‘n’ Lorna, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Leap Year— may wind up sewn and bound on bookstore shelves, but first they run serially in a Rolling Stone or a 7 Days or even a homemade newsletter.

Peter Cameron, whose book Leap Year has just been published, doubts whether the novel ever would have been written without the serial that generated it. He had been looking for a way to fuse his introspective writing voice with a more energetic plot, so he convinced his friend Adam Moss, who was starting 7 Days, to let him try a serial. ”I asked Peter to write three chapters,” Moss says. ”And I remember sitting here in the office late at night just before we started publishing. I was reading the chapters, and I just wanted to keep reading.” He gambled that readers would share his desire.

They didn’t at first. ”Peter was brave,” Moss says. ”He did this walking on a tightrope, and he was going to look foolish if he didn’t pull it off.” At one point, the editors thought the plot was dragging and asked Cameron to change it. ”They just kept saying, ‘It needs something big,’ ” Cameron says. ”So I said, ‘Well, I’ll kill someone.’ And I did.” Cameron’s calm saga about couplings and uncouplings in the city suddenly became an art-world murder mystery, complete with voodoo and a trial. There was a kidnapping. There was an artificial insemination. And the readers came aboard. ”If it had started with the locomotion that it ended with, it would’ve gripped everyone,” Moss says.

If serialization is having a renaissance, its master of suspense is Armistead Maupin. In the mid-’70s, he kept San Franciscans on the edge of their seats anticipating installments of his ”Tales of the City” in the San Francisco Chronicle and later in the Examiner. He got them to worry about whether DeDe Halcyon, a debutante lesbian refugee from Jim Jones’ massacre, would rescue her twins (fathered by a Chinese delivery boy) from the clutches of a mysterious stranger who just might be Jones himself. He made them wonder if Prue Giroux, the flighty gossip columnist, would admit she had been traveling (and sleeping) with the kids’ abductor, whom she discovered living in Golden Gate Park under an assumed name. He made them agonize over how aspiring journalist Mary Ann Singleton would explain asking her enigmatic landlady to lock away the anchorwoman who had stumbled onto Mary Ann’s notes about Jones.

Maupin knew from reading Dickens that making readers care enough to wait is the real trick to serialization. His motto (borrowed from Wilkie Collins) is: ”Make ’em cry, make ’em laugh, make ’em wait — exactly in that order.” He wooed an audience infatuated with television. He kept each installment short. He wove soap-operatic plot elements together. He created characters from splinters of himself and his San Francisco friends. And he set them down in a familiar context, replete with popular icons and brand names. Readers picking up the first of his books will find themselves in the mid-’70s, surrounded by mood rings and pet rocks, by discos called Dance Your Ass Off and Tiger sneakers and Mao Tse-tung T-shirts. By the last volume, Sure of You, the characters have entered the ’80s and own Santa Fe-style condos, watch talk shows about freeze-dried pets, and have children who play with Ninja Turtles.

Maupin’s serial, which ran on and off for 14 years, is probably the most successful example of modern-day serialization, but the most celebrated is Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities in Rolling Stone. In 1984, Wolfe was struggling to write a Balzacian tale about New York City when he hit upon a way of making a deadline for himself. He took a 100-page outline to Jann Wenner, editor of Rolling Stone, and made his proposal: to write his panoramic novel in serial form. Wenner paid about $200,000 for the honor of presenting The Bonfire of the Vanities in 25, 6,000-word installments. ”At the onset,” Wolfe says, ”I wondered if my work would be more like Zola, Dostoyevski, or Dickens. After four weeks, I wondered, ‘Will the hole be filled?’ ”

When the serial ended in August 1985, Wolfe began reconstructing it, and 20 months later, he sent his publisher the completed manuscript. ”Where possible, I cut out pages of Rolling Stone rather than retype. There were precious few,” Wolfe says. ”The serial was writing a first draft in public. I have a feeling I never would have written Bonfire without it.”

Eric Kraft knows he never would have written his books without his serial. In the beginning, he couldn’t confine his subject to a mere book, and so he made himself something of an expert on fiction by newsletter. It started one cold winter’s day in 1962 when Kraft was dozing over a German lesson in the Harvard library. He dreamed up Peter Leroy, who was to become the centerpiece of an imagined world. Leroy pestered Kraft, and friends urged Kraft to put him in a novel. He tried, but Peter Leroy’s life wouldn’t fit into any form. Then Kraft got a Xerox machine. He began typing up pieces of the story and sending them to friends and then to friends of friends. Before long, he was mailing a newsletter to 250 readers. ”People felt they had a stake in it,” Kraft says. ”Usually there is a whole corporation behind a book… But if the guy is really licking the envelope and mailing it, the readers feel closer to him.”

In 1981, Kraft had to abandon his hobby to work full-time as a textbook editor. Fortunately, a small publisher in Cambridge, Mass., missed the newsletter and asked him to start a series of novellas to be published quarterly. Kraft began just before Peter Leroy’s birth and let the story of his life unfold slowly in nine books. The series attracted attention in New York, and E. P. Dutton asked Kraft to write a novel. Last year, Herb ‘n’ Lorna, a quirky tale about Peter Leroy’s discovery that his grandparents were makers of animated erotic jewelry, was published, and the reviewers raved. Kraft’s latest novel, Reservations Recommended, will appear in May.

Still, as he writes each book (every morning from 5 until it’s time to start work at 9), he mails it out in serial form to a special audience — his wife, two grown sons, and two old friends. ”Serialization eliminates fat,” Kraft says. ”Each segment must have a payoff-intellectual, emotional, a laugh. You don’t want any episode to fail to deliver on its own. There is a buoyant feeling each time you send some small something out into the world. You want to make sure the reader is going to get a comparable reward.”

That’s what good serializers always remember. They are aware of their readers in a more personal way than other writers. They get letters from them. They may even overhear them talking about their stories on buses. Knowing their readers inspires a certain generosity. Writing becomes more than meeting a deadline. It is a matter of meeting expectations — of thrilling, of baffling, of enticing, and, ultimately, of satisfying.

Maupin has heard from many of his readers since he capped his series this winter with Sure of You, a never-serialized novel that bids farewell to the people San Francisco fell in love with. ”I’ve been talking to hysterical people,” says Maupin, ”people who call up and who’ve read all six of the books, people who are completely consumed, people who are having horrible withdrawal.”

He, too, admits that it’s not easy to relinquish those characters. But he’s determined to move on. ”It’s hard to let go. I keep assuring my partner that it’s over,” Maupin says. ”But as soon as the earthquake hit, I was immediately wondering where Mary Ann Singleton would be.”